Play Reading Nights

Did you know if you have 4 of anything, it’s a collection? At least that’s what I was told by a toy collector/dealer friend awhile back.

Well, I’m a collector of plays. Not in any systematic way, just randomly as I find interesting ones in second-hand book stores, and buy them off the play sites.

As you know, plays are meant to be performed, so it’s not surprising to find that reading them alone leaves a bit to be desired. So 4 months ago now, I started having people over for one evening a month to read a play. It has been a gas! We gather at 7 pm, settle with wine and script copies, and get going. I give a bit of a background on the script (if needed), why I picked it…and I hand out roles. At ‘intermission’, we get more wine, and discuss the play so far. Afterwards of course, we discuss the play a bit more. All in all, a delightful evening.

Among the people who come are theatre goers, backstage people, actors, directors and producers. I personally would rather not read, because one of the reasons I love directing is because I see myself as Audience — and so I just want to listen. (But I will read, and do enjoy it.)

So, plays we’ve read so far:

1. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose — I wanted to read this play because I love the movie that was adapted from the original play. And I wanted to discuss how it would be still relevant today.

2. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill — I’d picked up this play on a whim, and reading it on my own, I really enjoyed the opening scene where the main character celebrates with a group of colourful historical women. Reading it live, it was hilarious and fraught, as a good play should be.

3. Dry Streak by Leeann Minogue — This is an amusing modern play, set in a Saskatchewan farming town in the 80s, that a community theatre company in a neighbouring community had done a couple of years ago. I’m still hoping to do it in my community.

4. Almost, Maine by John Cariani — Another play that I”m looking forward to directing. We were vastly amused and warmed by this lovely script.

I will keep you posted on plays we discover through this process — and I would welcome any suggestions anyone out there might have!

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

What kind of theatrical blog would I be if I didn’t talk about this brilliant classic of Oscar Wilde’s?? Well, not only will I talk about it, I will share what I learned in my production of this show.

First of all, context. We all know Oscar Wilde? His brilliant play? (Ohh! Here’s a link to all his works available online.) Good. Let’s move on.

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The shot above is from my show. You’ll see right away some of the decisions we made on this — period costumes being one. An outdoor venue being another. We presented it (in 2010)  as Wilde at the Winery — which always struck me as a good alternative to ‘Bard at the Beach’. (Oscar would have approved!) The backdrop to the stage area was the barrels as you can see — gorgeous!

The Challenges

Of the play itself first:

  • It’s a large cast…and there are points where all or most are on stage at the same time. Always a challenge, to keep the scene interesting and not crowded.
  • Accents or no accents? I shudder when accents are done badly…and I find that actors who are concentrating on their accents are not concentrating on their characters. I chose to have people focus on the lilt of the script itself, allowing them to fall into an upper-crustian kind of accent, rather than trying to bring on an accent if they were not able. And it worked.
  • The farce — oh, I am not that much of a farce fan. I personally do not like the ‘Oh look at me, I’m being funny!’ thing that actors do when they are doing that kind of comedy. I believe that a truly funny script is best served by having the actors be completely sincere in their characters, and let the funny fall where it may.
  • The fame of the play itself contributed a lot of stress. Definitely a play that would have its fans, people who’d seen multiple productions, knew the lines, seen the recent movies, etc.
  • It is a three act play, which can be long for some audiences.

…and of my venue:

  • Outdoors has its own challenges, of course. Sound/projection, set simplicity, weather, lighting, protection of the equipment, seating, and so on and so on. We borrowed a large 20′ x 20′ tent from a local organization to house our equipment and such. And we borrowed chairs from the local Rotary Club who do pancake breakfasts, and thus have their own chairs.
  • At a winery…ah. Well, absolutely no challenges there! 🙂

The Opportunities

One of the greatest opportunities is the fame of the play itself — it does very much makes promoting the play simpler with the name recognition.

Plus, it is a joy (and an added expense) to do the period costumes. Fun to wear, fun (I hear from my costumes people) to make, and beautiful to look at. They add that extra dimension to the show that, for this play in particular, help the audience to be in the moment.

Who am I?

So my joys with this play were many:

  • the richness of Wilde’s language
  • the talent of my actors, who stayed earnest and true to their characters throughout
  • the skill of my costumes mistress
  • the efforts of the production team
  • the generosity of the winery that hosted

 

My Cup Ranneth Over

My Cup Ranneth Over: A Play in One Act by Robert Patrick is a surprisingly funny find — again, by browsing the plays for women, small casts, etc. on the various play sites.

The story, courtesy again of Dramatists Play Services:

Struggling to succeed as a writer, despite little to show for her efforts but rejection slips, Paula ignores the ringing phone, as she has disciplined herself not to interrupt her work before lunch. Instead her still sleeping roommate, Yucca, a happy-go-lucky rock singer, is roused to answer it—and, as it happens, the call is for her, anyway. So are the many others which follow insistently thereafter, plus the TV crew waiting downstairs, and all because Yucca, who filled in for an ailing performer the night before, has suddenly been “discovered.” She couldn’t care less, but Paula, while trying to control her anguish, cares a great deal—with results that are funny, ironic, very human and consistently entertaining.

Strengths:

This is a powerful little play for two young female actors — they need to be believable as college room mates, now out in the real world. The dialogue strongly suggests that the  young women are good friends, with a lot of in jokes and understanding, quick back’n’forths, and opportunities for very real comedy.

It all takes place in one room — a simply furnished living room with a table/desk for ‘Paula’, a comfy chair and a phone. Simplicity itself to stage.

And it all takes place in real time — no scene changes or complex lighting needs.

Considerations:

While the story is essentially timeless, the play can’t really be modernized, as some of the best bits come from the use of a manual typewriter and no answering machine — the phone needs to just keep ringing and ringing. (I picked a nicely annoying classic ring sound effect.) We played it well with a classic rotary dial phone and a long cord — and I had to teach my teen ‘Yucca’ how to actually hold the phone under her chin, move around with the main body of the phone, move the cord out of the way….

I modernized one bit only — I traded out the reference to John Denver for Neil Young, mostly because my young actor needed a connection to music she knew.

We used a bit of Harvest Moon for our transition in and out of a small intermission — we broke this one act play in two when ‘Yucca’ answers the phone to find Neil Young on the line…reprising the play after the blackout with the same line repeated.

A highly recommended play.

Audience: Fiddler on the Roof

I recently had the opportunity to go up to Kamloops to see the Western Canada Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Full musical extravanganza! Lights, fascinating effects, lovely singing, compelling acting, great choreography — I’m never sure at times like this if the show is truly awesome or if I’m just happily suckered in by the professional spectacle…

Oh, it was good. Always a great chewy story, this version was produced faithfully costume-wise, accents were maintained (albeit, sometimes mild accents), and the set was simple but creative — using 3 wheeled trucks with various configurations.

And the songs were as satisfying as you’d hope (yes, the video is from the movie!):

 

It was interesting to see my first professional show since I’ve taken on some directing and production of my own. It was very much like learning some art history and then visiting the Louvre…or studying some basic film theory then seeing the scopophilia everywhere!

Lessons learned? I don’t know enough to direct musical theatre (and actually don’t want to…I’ll happily stick to being audience there). I want want want to use the wheeled set pieces concept in my next show. The power of good lighting design on a powerful board is unmeasurable.

Time and the Art of Self-Defense

These plays are not in chronological order….

The Art of Self-defense by Trish Johnson is a play that I directed a couple of years ago now. My co-producer and I chose it by browsing the available plays on Dramatists Play Services with women-only casts…the plan was to do it a one act as a dinner theatre event for a women’s networking group…and then it also became a fundraiser for a Women’s Centre, performed on a larger stage.

This play had some specific challenges, and some delightful oddities. The story is surprisingly timeless for a play written in 1983 (synopsis courtesy of Dramatists Play Services):

The play unfolds in a series of scenes in and around a health club. Five women, from a variety of widely differing backgrounds, meet in a T’ai Chi class. The male instructor is unseen, a voice from the wings. He introduces them to T’ai Chi, which is a mixture of meditation and self-defense. Over a period of time the women, among them a young mother, a personnel director and a corporate lawyer, discover the strength that friendship among women can provide. But even this knowledge can prevent one of them, a meek but modestly ambitious office worker who is encouraged and supported by her fellows, from a failure of courage at the crucial moment. The play ends dramatically, with a recognition that each woman is responsible for the quality of her own life.

The challenges:

  • For a one-act, there are an enormous number of locations — 4 in total: the workout room, the dressing room, the outdoor cafe across the street and a momentous scene in a restaurant. In original script concept, the expectation was for a larger stage, with physical sections of the larger set for each of the locations…something not many would have a budget (0r space) for in community theatre.
  • You won’t be able to fake the T’ai Chi portions of the play.
  • The characters don’t have much time to develop their rapport with the audience.
  • The title of the play is confusing — it doesn’t stand out as ‘This is a play!’

The opportunities:

  • The 5 characters are lightly but clearly drawn, and are wonderfully realistic and multi-dimensional. They each have their moment(s) to shine, and the actors have a surprising amount of meat to chew on. It is a great opportunity for unconventional female actors.
  • It’s a good opportunity to make a  connection/partnership with a local T’ai Chi  instructor or school. We had a teacher give some the actors some training on the first basic patterns, and interpreted what the warm up and trust exercises would be for the scenes in the class — it added a level of authenticity to what the actors were doing on stage. We had the same person record the off-stage voice of the instructor, for an added layer of authenticity.

We dealt with the scene changes in two ways, for two different performances:

– in the dinner theatre setting, with a very small stage, we had the actors bring in their simple simple set pieces, and that worked quite well.

– in the small theatre setting, we worked it with periactoi available in the theatre, and a few more set pieces. Lockers, trees/street background/calm generic background were our three choices of backdrop on the three sides of the periactoi.

periactoi

This did not work as well, as there were 16 separate scenes, and the changing of the set was just that bit more of a production than was necessary…it should have been more seamless, as it distracted from the flow of the play. It was a change from, for example, bringing a bench on to represent the locker room, to bringing on 2 benches, 2 lockers and changing the background. It definitely distracted from the audience’s appreciation of the characters’ depth.

I also appreciated the opportunity to play with musical choices for transitions between each of the 16 scenes — finding music to bridge the emotional content of each section was a good challenge.

Would I do this play again? Definitely! The opportunity for the actors is surprisingly meaningful for a one-act. I would definitely stick with a less-is-more approach to staging though, and not distract from the show by trying to do too much.

The First Post = The First Play

Three? Four years ago now? A couple of theatre friends offered me up the opportunity to direct a play that they wanted to do…and knowing what I do now, I don’t know if it was insanity on their parts, or brilliance. I definitely learned a lot about myself working with [sic] by Melissa James Gibson, a fascinating but decidedly odd play.

The text is unpunctuated madness, the stage directions non-existent, and the whole thing very avant-garde — but with the three professional-quality actors I had, it was going to be an artistic success. I will say that it was not destined to be a financial success in the small town we live in…and that is probably the one reason that the whole thing went on hold, indefinitely.

The website The Complete Review has a good synopsis and review of the play:

The three main characters in the play are neighbours in a prewar New York City apartment building, Babette, Frank, and Theo. All are in their thirties. Babette is working on an “Outbursts Text” (“a book of / of / Seminal Outbursts you know Outbursts that Went / Somewhere Got Something Done”). Theo, whose wife recently left him, is trying to compose the score for an amusement park ride, Thrill-o-rama. Meanwhile, the homosexual Frank has set his sights on becoming an auctioneer, practicing tongue-twisters and the like.
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The play is dominated by the characters aimlessness and desperation. Money is in short supply and each pins their vague hopes on unattainable goals: Theo can barely compose a note, Frank clearly isn’t auctioneer-material, and Babette’s book sounds quite out of control. Their personal lives — the tepid affair between Theo and Babette (that also seems little more than an outburst), Frank and Theo’s longings for those who aren’t interested in them any longer — also offer no fulfilment.

For a fledgling director, it was definitely a challenge in understanding a text, dramaturgy and staging…I wish I’d had the chance to see it completed.

Available through Dramatists Play Services.