I absolutely HATE watching people read aloud something I’ve written. I wince when someone reads the birthday card I wrote them to the whole gathering while they open their presents. In school, I always wanted to be the one with the best essay or the best answers on their homework, unless there was a chance the teacher would share it with the class. If my boss is editing a grant I wrote and (as often happens) reads it aloud to himself as he makes notes, I cringe in my chair. It brings out all my worst insecurities. I’m so hyper-aware of other people’s reactions . . . “Are they bored? Oh God, they’re bored, this is way too long!” “Uck, that’s the cheesiest line EVER!” “How did I miss that sentence fragment? GOD, I WANT TO DIE, I almost submitted a grant with a SENTENCE FRAGMENT in the OPENING PARAGRAPH!”
(Yes. Clearly I have issues. This is not the point.)
So, one might wonder, why does this girl write plays? Isn’t that an art form 100% based on the author writing plays and other people then reading the words aloud? Isn’t that like saying “I really hate touching raw fish” and then going to work at the seafood counter of your local New Seasons? Yes. It is. I know. I’m not saying it’s LOGICAL. It’s just how I feel.
It goes without saying, therefore, that first read is maybe my least favorite part of the entire rehearsal process. Is it helpful? Yes. Do I get lots of good information out of it for rewrites? Of course. Does it make me throw myself down a well? You bet your bottom dollar.
We had our first read-through for How the Light Gets In last Saturday, and it was definitely an adventure. We have two male roles that aren’t cast yet, and we also had a handful of actors who weren’t able to make it, so two guys had to read like 3 parts each. They were heroic. We’re not in real honest-to-God rehearsal mode yet so it was mostly just for me to hear out loud, and for Mead Hunter, who was there, to listen and give me notes as the 3rd phase of our work together.
And OH MY SWEET BABY JESUS CHRIST was it excruciating.
Now, let me be absolutely clear. This is SO not because of my actors. My actors are fabulous. I cannot believe I’m this lucky. I would be jealous of me if I wasn’t me. I love and adore and want to marry them all. I have three guys I’d never met before but who blew me away at auditions – Jon Farley, Rod Herrel and Brian Burger – plus Eli Eagle, one of my best friends, and favorite actors, from college who played the lead in the play I wrote for my senior thesis (Whitman College represent) – and three of my favorite Portland actors who I kind of secretly cannot believe I’m lucky enough to have in this play – the smashing Kelsey Tyler from PCS, the effing brilliant Jennifer Rowe (“Speech and Debate” at Artists Rep), and perhaps my favorite actor from all my years at Artists Rep – Gilberto Martin Del Campo. And, as if this wasn’t great enough, I’m working with one of my favorite directors – Jessica Nikkel, who directed my play in last year’s Fertile Ground AND a play I wrote at Whitman AND for this year’s JAW. She is the little angel on my shoulder calming me the hell down when I have panic attacks, and I love her. Anyway, that’s my team. They’re super talented, they’re REALLY nice, and they seem like they’re all going to be very patient with me. THANK GOD.
That being said, hearing my play read out loud for the first time still made me want to light my head on fire. Because the first time you hear it said by someone else, you second-guess EVERYTHING. It doesn’t bother me so much in auditions – I think because you know that, even if it’s terrible, the auditioning actors are going to act like it’s Shakespeare if you’re sitting there in the room with them – but as soon we’re in it for real, it’s a nightmare. Let me walk you through a typical Claire Willett thought process from the read-through. I don’t want to use the actors’ real names so let’s call this hypothetical actor, um, let’s say, Bill Cosby. And he is reading a scene with Dolph Lundgren. (P.S. Did I or did I not just accidentally create the greatest 80’s buddy-cop movie never made? I think YES.)
Okay, so Mr. Cosby and Mr. Lundgren are reading a scene together, in which Mr. Cosby cracks a light joke. Or, not even a joke so much as a mildly flippant remark at which Mr. Lundgren smiles. Or at rate that’s what supposed to happen. But Cosby and Lundgren are pretty much looking at this cold. Cosby’s line comes out straight-faced and serious, and it lands kind of heavy, and Lundgren interprets it as serious and the whole tone of the scene now becomes much darker than intended.
WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN: Claire’s brain says, “Hmmm, that doesn’t feel quite right, let’s see what happens when they’re doing it in rehearsal after they’ve been through it a couple of times. Otherwise, Jess will take care of it because she understands this scene.”
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS: “Oh God! Did I write that? Is that really the line? Oh God, it IS the line. God, that’s SO not funny! There’s no way to make that funny. I should probably cut it. But if I cut it, don’t I have to cut the whole piece before and after? Or should the whole scene really have ended like three pages ago? See, and now the joke feels totally out of character. Maybe I like the serious better. Maybe I should cut the joke. But I LIKE the joke. It made ME laugh. But I’m an idiot who thinks everything is funny. Oh God, what if the actors don’t think it’s funny? They’re totally all sitting there silently judging me for my not-funny script. I want to die.”
By the time we got to “BLACKOUT. END OF PLAY” I felt like I’d run a marathon . . . or gotten run over by a steamroller, “Looney Tunes”-style . . . or spent twenty-six hours in labor (as all the women reading this who have actually birthed children roll their eyes at this, all, “Honey you do not even KNOW”). It. Was. EXHAUSTING. My entire body was one giant ball of tension the entire time.
Mead, however, does not suffer from my hair-trigger nervous breakdown syndrome, so he left the reading with lots of helpful, rational, and soothing notes, giving me lots of practical and realistic things to do. Which is why I love him. And after he talked me down off the ledge I had lots and lots of material to work with.
For example, Jess and I have been wrestling with the critical issue of stage directions. To read or not to read? That is the (incredibly complex and annoying) question. My preference is always, always not to. We tweaked a lot of staging in last year’s reading to keep us from having to read stage directions, and gave the actors some fairly simple blocking. We also blocked a couple of the more physical scenes so that they were closer to a fully-staged production (except with scripts and without props) than to a staged or concert reading. And I think there was one scene, or maybe two, where we asked them to briefly go fully off-book so the physical stuff worked. So that’s always my preference.
But this play is a lot more complicated, and I think Jess is leaning more towards an approach where we read only the absolute minimum but we do keep some of them in. As Mead was listening to the reading, he caught tons of places where, without having read the script before, he would be lost if there weren’t stage directions being read. There’s lots of physical stuff, including some prop-heavy moments, some movement that may be too complicated to stage in the tiny space we have – “She goes into the kitchenette to make him a cup of coffee while he sits on the couch” – and a slap (P.S. stage combat was my worst enemy as an actor. I was in a black-box show in college where I had to slap this other actor and I COULD NOT get the fake-slap down. Or, actually, I THOUGHT I had it down, before she came to me like midway through the run and was like, “Um, did you know that you’re actually fully slapping me across the face every time we do that scene and this morning I had a bruise on my cheekbone?” Soooo awkward).
Anyway, the question of stage directions has come up in every conversation I’ve had with Jess so far and we’re trying to figure out how to sort it out, but I think at this point it’s sort of inevitable. If for no other reason than, as Mead pointed out, 6 of the 9 characters in the play are priests or monks, and it’s not unlikely that audience members may get them confused in the first few scenes until they begin to sort themselves out. I guess my issue with it is, how do you do the stage directions without having them pull you out of the moment you’re in with the actors? In the past I’ve done stuff like, have the other actors read the stage directions for scenes they’re not in, and have them remain in character while they do it, so it feels a little more like a narrator and a little less like when you have the stage manager sitting offstage with a script and a music stand with a clip-light on it. Maybe it’s because I’m a 21st-century child with the attention span of a gnat, but I have such a hard time not finding that distracting.
So, hit the polls and tell me what you think. Then come see our show!!!