Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tha Theata

[warning ... this is a long post. Pictures, such as they are, are at the bottom ...]

So, a while back I promised some musings on my experience as an actor in a murder mystery play. Having never been in a theatrical production in the past, I found the whole experience fascinating, and somewhat unnerving. It was a real test of my ability to adapt to a completely foreign culture ... a test that I only partially passed, I'm afraid.

You see, I've worked in the business world for many, many years. For the past twenty or so years, my work has been as a programmer, glorified programmer, team leader, etc. on large business system/software projects. In that world, you live and die by collaboration. Nobody can possibly know everything. The work is divided up among various individuals based mostly on their expertise. Even then, you will without fail come up against a question you cannot answer. And that's when you turn to your colleagues for advice, brainstorming, and sometimes outright handouts of programming code that will solve your problem. Regardless of rank, everyone is a resource and everyone needs help from time to time. When you do find yourself inventing something that you think might be useful to others, you offer it. They can take it or leave it, but you put it out there in hopes it might save someone else reinventing the wheel.

Now, our little theater troupe was pulled together from volunteers, with varying degrees of experience in community theater productions. Three of our cast members had done community theater. Two had done only college or high school plays. Yours truly was truly green. Nothing, nada, since grade school.

Naturally, the three with experience were our guides. One of them was given a chance to try her hand at directing our little group. And here's where things started to get interesting.

Did you know the director is god of her universe? Apparently, whatever the director says, goes. Any suggestions or comments must be made respectfully --- nay, reverently! --- and preferably in private. Did you know that actors belonging to the Actors Equity union can be fined if they make a suggestion to another actor?

It was, to me, an incomprehensibly arcane way of working. In my little programmer's universe, which I have inhabited for decades, everybody is eager and grateful for suggestions. Suggestions make our little world go 'round. Suggestions make our product better. In tha theata, suggestions are occasionally tolerated and often punished. Even though our director did her best to recognize where we non-professionals are coming from (and to be honest, I had more trouble with shutting up than the other two did), it was really, really difficult for her to let this be a collaborative effort. Understand, she had been in many, many situations where the director was in fact the dictator, so she was experiencing a culture clash of her own. So when she did accept a suggestion from me, it was always with some statement about how "in the real world" this sort of thing wasn't acceptable.

Argh. I hate being lectured. And obviously, I made the suggestion in a spirit of helping, improving our product. Argh.

It's actually amazing how much of what goes into a production doesn't appear anywhere on the script. If you read a script, it might have some directions regarding what the actor is doing at the time s/he is saying the line, but in most cases it does not. There's this whole dimension of the production that involves the use of three-dimensional space. Where am I standing? Where do I move to? What is my body doing during the line ... leaning in, out, waving, bobbing? Where is everyone else and what are they doing? How do we arrange things so that I naturally end up where I need to be when I have a physical interaction with another actor?

Likewise, the script does not often give guidance re: why the person is saying what s/he is saying. Am I surprised or disgusted when I shout "No!"? How am I reacting to the lines I'm hearing? Why did he say that, and do I care or am I just bored and waiting for him to finish so I can move the conversation along to where I want it to go?

And then there's the general ambience of the production. Is it going to be silly? Portentous? Clever? Goofy? Over the top? Subtle?

All these things are the purview of the director. The director has a vision for what she's trying to achieve, and the actors are just there to make the vision a reality. If you have a problem with the vision ... tough. Unless you're Meryl Streep, you don't have a say.

Actually, I didn't have a problem with the vision. Thank goodness! It was in the details that I wanted to ask questions, understand, react, think about what's going on. I have never been able to do anything halfway, which probably accounts for why I often end up being in charge of whatever I'm involved in. So, as you can see, not only was this a culture clash for me, it was also a temperament clash. And folks, while I didn't entirely succeed at turning myself into someone else, I also didn't entirely fail. I spent many rehearsals standing around waiting for direction when I could have just done something that made sense to me. I bit my tongue. I did what I was told. And, occasionally, when I forgot myself, I made a suggestion. Or asked a question that had a suggestion in it. Sigh.

So, that was the most difficult part of the whole experience. Now let me tell you about how much fun it was! So fun, that the director had to tell me to quit smiling so much. So fun, that we all cracked up when Ilsa the German nurse spoke her lines. It was a challenge to learn my lines (I had LOTS of them!) but way fun when I could get through a rehearsal nearly perfect. It was fun to learn so much about how a production comes together. It was fun to hang out with friend R and fun to get to know the others in the troupe, one of whom I had never even met before. Even when we were rehearsing nearly every night for the two weeks before, and I found myself not wanting to drag myself to the rehearsal, even then it was fun to be there and all my reluctance was forgotten.

But, people, most fun of all was being in front of the audience.

We had a dress rehearsal the night before. Everybody did very well ... except me. I froze on two of my longer monologues (does 4 consecutive lines constitute a monologue?). Absolutely could not remember the lines. Heart pounding, realizing it's the dadgum DRESS REHEARSAL and I am BLOWING MY LINES! Everyone was very kind, reassuring me that a bad dress rehearsal means a good play. I wish I were the type of person to be comforted by stuff like that, but I am not. I went home just feeling sick, wondering if I was going to ruin this play for everyone. Remember, I have no experience of success, no clue how I'm going to feel when there are 80 people looking at me.

I totally vented with The Huz. He tried once to say, "You'll be fine," and my response was "You can't know that." After that, he just listened as I whined. I didn't WANT a big part, I just wanted to have a small part! I have more lines than anyone else! And I have to say them with a British accent! And I have to be a different gender than my own! And on top of that, I'm responsible for the food, too! For goodness sakes, it's too much for a new actor!! What if I ruin the whole thing??

I was exhausted at the end of all that whining, which was a good thing. Against all odds, I slept like a baby. Woke up refreshed. Calm.

The play was structured so that my character makes an entrance after the others have already been rolling along for a couple of minutes. That night, as I waited, I paced and breathed and thought over my lines. I had one or two moments when I could sense my heart speeding up a bit, but I just took a breath to calm myself, and I waited.

The play was done in a community center, no stage. We had set up the tables in a circle around the "stage", like the spokes of a wheel. I was to enter through the kitchen's swinging doors. The kitchen was dark, and the house was quiet but for the play, so I could readily see through the window in the door and hear the lines. When it came time for me to enter, I was ready. Calm.

"Oh, Doctor! P'haps you should hold up there a moment!" in my best British accent. All eyes swung toward me. And, folks, I don't mind telling you, I completely loved it! And I was off & running. I only flubbed one line, saying ".. sounds familiar" instead of ".. rings a bell", which caused an awkward moment for the person who was supposed to follow with "It rings a bell for me, too!" but we recovered, thanks to M. Not only that, we discovered a critical prop was not where it should have been, but was actually downstairs! Friend R realized it, ad-libbed, and ran downstairs to grab it. And I was inspired with a tiny monologue, walking around the circle and diverting attention till she could return! And even managed to cover someone else's forgotten line at another point. Completely amazing!

Friends tell me they prayed for me. Based on my performance the night before, I readily believe I had lots of supernatural help that night. Thank you, friends, and thank you, God!

I have found my inner ham.

So, here, are some pics, such as they are. As I mentioned, I'm not featured in them at all, but you get a glimpse of the getup from the last one; that's me in the bowler & trench coat.

Next time, the photographer will have explicit instructions to get shots of all of us during the play! And hopefully we'll be able to videotape it, too.


Betsy/Ilsa said...

brava! I love it! and I love the photos, I had to laugh!

You did a great job in the show Pat! Sometimes on performance night, the old adrenaline kicks in and you forget to be nervous. I find that once i get over that first line, my nerves start to smooth out.

I hope we all get a chance to work together again. I had a blast! lol

Ya, ya, ya!

Barbara (Biscuit Girl) said...

Sounds like you had a blast! I was recently in a Murder-Mystery program at the library. My Assistant Manager at work writes and produces them and in a word, they are FUN!

I finally got to have my acting debut in March for "New Orleans Murder Mystery" which was set in pre-Katrina N.O.

Like you I was nervous and flubbed up a little in rehearsal but once it was show time I was ready. I played a jazz diva so I really got to ham it up.

I'll look for your name on the oscar ballot right there with mine. hehe

Paz said...

Glad you had a great time. At least we get to see a glimpse of you. ;-) Will there be anymore performances? Hope so.


PatL said...

Ilsa, ya, ya, here's hopin' we have some more streusel muesli noodlehead times! Wait, wait, is that ... gasp ... an olive??

Barbara, amazing! If your AM shares scripts, I'd love to see a couple!

Paz, faithful pal. I've been MIA so long, I wouldn't have been surprised if you'd given up on me. Hope all is well in upper Manhattan. Things must be a-bloomin', eh? :o)

Barbara (Biscuit Girl) said...

Pat, Yes....the murder mystery programs are available here:
THey are sooooo much fun.