Domenick Scudera has a regular Festival Blog column about his experiences in the performing arts. He is a longtime theater artist and is the chair of the theater and dance department at Ursinus College.
We all hated the play. The cast ridiculed it immediately upon reading it out loud. As the director, I should have squashed this reaction. Instead, I joined them. It was a dog of a script. A small theater had roped us all into working on a reading of a new play by a local playwright. The play was
to be Small Theater’s submission to a new play festival at a more prominent theater, so we all said yes to the work. We were to get paid, too. Twenty dollars each.
The play was a very stuffy, pretentious affair about an old war in some remote region of the world. It contained a convoluted story, dozens of confusing characters and stodgy dialogue. Long. Talky. Boring. It was like one of Shakespeare’s history plays minus the brilliant writing, believable characters
and engaging plot. As the director, I should have done some historical research and found out more about the playwright’s intentions. But the $20 was not enough to excite my interest. I went into rehearsals with no planning or preparation. So much for integrity.
We had precisely two rehearsals, each three hours long.
At the first rehearsal, I put out chairs for the large cast of twenty. I arranged the chairs in two groups, one group to represent each side of the war. Uninspired, yes, but practical. I had the cast sit down, and then had them read the play aloud. The script was so damned long-winded that this took up most of our time. I barely gave any notes and was thankful when the three hours were over.
At the second rehearsal, since I was hired to “stage” the reading, I “directed” a few of the principal actors to rise during some of the longer speeches and then to resume sitting when they were finished pontificating. I figured that if Great King rose when he was to say something significant, it would break up the monotony and, perhaps, the audience might listen to that particular section. The cast felt just as lackluster about this project as I did. We were on a sinking ship, so why bother putting much effort into it?
That weekend, on the day that our reading was scheduled, I entered the nicer Prominent Theater for the first time. I was surprised to find the place alive with activity. The new play festival was a multi-day event with many participants. Another group was on the stage rehearsing for their reading, which was scheduled for the following day. Unlike the play I was “directing,” the play these actors were reading was vibrant, compelling . . . it was good. And the actors were not merely reading their parts. Technically, it was a staged “reading,” but these actors were well-rehearsed and had their lines completely memorized. Scripts dangled in their hands to give the illusion of a reading, but they did not so much as glance at them. And it was all staged. Completely staged. A real director had done some real directing here. Plus, there were multiple, effective lighting and sound cues. In short, it looked like a finished, polished performance. This was light years ahead of my crappy little “staged” reading. What was going on?
I quickly made my way backstage to the dressing rooms to find my actors. They were in a panic. Some of them had gone to see plays that were “read” the previous evening and had encountered the same high-level of execution from other groups. Everyone was keenly aware that this festival was much better than we were. Tickets for our reading were sold out. These actors were about to go in front of a full house and completely embarrass themselves. “What are we going to do?” they kept muttering. Most of the actors were pacing. Great King sat, shell-shocked.
I assessed the situation. We were sandwiched between what were clearly superior productions, productions that had had infinitely more rehearsal time than ours. Our play was pretentious and intellectual, without the immediacy and drama of the others. My “staging” consisted of people sitting in chairs and, occasionally, people standing up. How could I fix this mess in the one hour we had left?
More pacing. More pale faces. I did not know what to do. I joined them.
Spear Carrier #3 tapped me on the shoulder.
“What?!” I said, harshly.
“Um, you know, no one actually knows our play is terrible except us.”
“SO?!” I barked back.
“Can’t we just act like it’s good?” I stared at him blankly. “We’re all good actors. Can’t we just pretend that we like it and that we know what we’re doing?”
The kid was right. This was a competent cast of experienced players. No one else knew that we had had minimal rehearsal time. No one else knew that we all hated the script. The audience assumed our play was just as solid and worthy as the others – they had already purchased tickets for it. This could be our saving grace.
I gathered the actors. “OK. Don’t freak out. We can salvage this. You’re actors. This is the greatest play you have ever worked on.”
“But . . . ” interrupted the Queen.
I cut her off immediately. “I said: this is the Greatest Play You Have Ever Worked On. You love it.”
“Yes, my liege!” piped in Spear Carrier #3.
The rest of the cast looked at us incredulously. “I want a grand entrance for the Greatest Play We Have Ever Worked On. Walk in with an air of superiority, chest out, head held high. You own this space. Act like you are about to read a brilliant script. You love it. You cannot wait to share it with this audience.” I quickly formed two lines and staged an entrance for them. It resembled a wedding processional. I instructed them to stand in front of their chairs until the last person found his place, and then to sit en masse. Then, on cue, they were to all open their scripts together. Very, very formal. Very dignified. Completely pretentious. I encouraged the Great King and Queen to rise and stand for longer periods of time during their scenes, to make up some movement if the mood struck. You know, to act like a director had actually given them some direction. The Spear Carriers could improvise bowing and saluting at appropriate moments.
Sell it. Just sell it. That is all it takes. If the audience expects this play to be good, then why should we allow them to think otherwise?
The actors seemed to calm down. The task of remembering the processional order gave them something to concentrate on.
The stage manager popped her head in, “Five minutes!” I gave the actors after a few more words of encouragement (“Move with authority!” “Act professional!”) and left the dressing room.
I entered the lovely Prominent Theater. I needed to play my part as Important Director of the Greatest Play. I smiled smugly and walked to my place slowly. I took my seat in the stateliest fashion I could pull off. Lights dimmed. The time had come. I took a deep breath. Stage lights up. The cast entered. Or, more accurately, they sauntered. Majestically. As if Laurence Olivier and Uta Hagen had just entered the stage about to give performances of a lifetime. Walking two by two, they glided to their seats. As the last person arrived, they all sat, straight spines, lifted heads. They looked out to the audience as if Hamlet were about to be read for the very first time. Together, perfectly in sync, they opened their scripts.
The audience breathed in expectantly. They had bought it. The actors began reading, and the audience was hanging on every word. Great King and Queen, aware that it was working, were empowered to give actual performances. They rose, they moved, they owned the stage. Just the right amount of pomposity. The play was still terrible, but no one knew it.
When the reading was over, an enthusiastic audience stayed for a question-and-answer period. Much praise for the performance and the play was bandied about. The playwright, thrilled with the entire experience, spoke movingly about the performance. The actors, amazed at this response, kept looking at each other sideways. Was everyone talking about the same play that we hated? Silently, a pact was formed right there and then: we will not let on that this play sucks, we will play your pretentious little game, we will walk out of here with our heads held high. Not one of us is going to let on the truth.
And that is exactly what we all did. None of us ever mentioned that stinker of a play in pejorative tones. The actors proudly placed the credit on their resumes. And we all learned a lesson about confidence. Although it is not a solid substitute for passion or preparation, confidence can go a long way in a pinch.