The Problem with Play as Performance (Part 2)

Tickets, please!  Quiet, please!  We are now resuming the performance already in progress.

As you will remember, we had just arrived at the crux of the matter:

When a play has never been performed, a playwright has only an educated idea of what will work and what won’t.  Lines that seemed to trip off the tongue in reality fall down and break their necks.  Actions that made sense, scenery that seemed essential, lighting effects that defined reality, in practice may be all just so much Russian dressing.

Reuben: Say it ain’t so!

It’s so.

Of course, this is why Broadway productions have trial runs in Chicago or Toronto or Florida (of all places), so that they can work the kinks out and retool the whole machine before setting it on stage in New York to, most likely, watch it whirl away to its own destruction, a mass of glittering metal now simply a heap of scrap.

To be honest, I’d be proud to have such a heap of scrap.  As it is, I’m proud to be a part of Theater 42 and watch my much smaller ambitions whirl away in a cloud of toothpick splinters.

But the point is—

[There’s a point? –ed.]

Let me show you.

[Ow!  Okay, okay, I give! –ed.]

Thank you.  But the point is that there are two elements that are important to the translation of my scripts from paper to performance.

1. The process of revision through performance.

This is what I was talking about at the beginning (see above).  As the script begins to come to life through the actors’ choices, I start to see the play in a new light.  What before was purely a matter of dialogue reacting to dialogue now erupts into a whirlwind of motives.  The subtext is revealed through the actors’ bodies.  Decisions that made sense before – in terms of what is said, how characters act, what scene goes where – are revealed as false, determinations of the playwright’s force of will rather than a necessary result of the plot.

This is why the Samuel French version of a play is different from what you might read in a play given to you directly from the playwright.  The latter is still a record of the imagination while the former is a record of the production.  The details given in terms of props, set, staging, lighting, etc. are there because they were there when the play was produced professionally for the first time.

2. The fact that I write plays for specific spaces.

The genesis of this whole messay is my play “Tuned to a Dead Channel”, Theater 42’s next production (Coming in July to a theater in Houston near you!).

But first, the localizing effect:

When I wrote plays in high school, I was doing so for a proscenium stage, because that’s what York High had.  It was a gigantic stage (or it seemed so at the time), serving multiple duties as an intimate performance space for school plays (the annual such for competition, the one-act festival, and student-led productions like my own and Dean Browell’s plays), a giant venue for the annual musical spectacular, and a general auditorium for assemblies and award ceremonies.  It was my model for many of my early plays because it was, really, my only model for a stage: giant, open, and closed off from the audience.

When I wrote plays in college, I was doing so for either the school’s black box (a real black box where nothing was set in place except the light booth, a rickety structure whose column took over one small corner of the theater) or the performing arts hall in the Residence Hall That Shall Not Be Named (until Courtney reminds me what the name of it is).  The performing arts stage was another proscenium, though it was mighty small and intimate nonetheless, with the stage raised several feet from the floor and stairs on either side that connected the floor to the stage.  The first play I remember seeing (well, I was involved with its sister production, ‘Dentity Crisis) was Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, and in that play George walks straight out of the audience and up the stairs to the stage.   Since I often wrote hoping to have the play performed in the black box, my plays tended to be blasé about audience and facing – especially since I wanted an intimate setting and was fascinated with theater in the round.

Since then, when I’ve written plays they’ve been for spaces that only exist in my memory.  Often, that means the play is proscenium based, though much of the time that’s a result of my wanting a curtain rather than desiring a sense of separation between the audience and the actors.  If I have a specific space, or a specific objective in mind, then the play will be aimed towards it.  “The Usher” involves people trying to make their way past an usher to get into a play, and so a proscenium set-up makes sense – the back of the stage serving as the entrance to the theater.  In contrast, I knew that our recent production of “Oedipus and the Sphinx” was going to be performed for the Houston Fringe Festival and so I deliberately wrote it so that it could be performed in any type of space, since we had no way of knowing what space we would end up with, from a parking lot, to a gallery, to the patio of a bar.

And all of this is just a long-winded way to get to “Tuned to a Dead Channel” and the fact that when I wrote the play I was imagining a proscenium stage in a traditional theatrical space.  The play deals with the separation between the imaginary and the actual, and part of how that line is blurred is through having no intermission in a space where an intermission is expected.
However, due to budget and space constraints, we may end up having to have an intermission, and what that means is that I’ll have to rewrite a key portion of the play.  Which is disappointing in one sense, but it is also the essence of what is exciting about producing plays: I can rewrite this scene to fit the play into a specific space, but the original version of the play still exists, and will always exist, and can be included when the play is produced again.

So, what I’m saying is, look for me on Broadway.

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