Friday, July 17, 2009

An Evening of Other People's Theatre

I have so many thoughts about this and I know that many of you wanted to hear my opinion, so I thought I'd kill several dozen birds (or hold several dozen conversations) with one blog post. So here are my thoughts.


In the beginning, honestly, I couldn't understand why everyone wanted to do this. I saw what they did last year, and it was no great shakes. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to attach his or her name to this show. But apparently, they did.
I heard a lot of reasons: experience, fun, young, likable directors, it was the only show in town, etc. They courted my prodigy with a ‘role just for you’, and when he asked my opinion, the advice I gave was to consider it CALENDAR IN HAND, rather than with his male actor's ego. He did, I think. He was able to fit it in. But that advice, in hindsight of course, turned out to be two-fold; there was another time-issue question that needed to be asked that maybe wasn't.

I had my doubts about the script. I tend not to enjoy (and certainly don't attempt) shows where some of the characters are animals. I worried about the scant rehearsal calendar. Could it actually be done within the confines of the production schedule that was laid out?

During production, I heard stories of rehearsal: wasted time, missing actors, lines not learned, goofing around. It was worrisome to me. Stressful. Not even my show and it was stressful. This week, I saw them still working late at night when I was finished with "Fiddler" rehearsal. I saw planks of lumber and set pieces outside the theater yesterday morning, and I worried. Will they be ready? Stopping by, I saw the aisles of the theater littered with props and costumes being sewn yet today, opening day. Would they be ready??? Stressful and not even my show.

I had faith when Hudson told me that they'd pulled in enough talent so that no matter what happened, the results would be pretty good. And there was a lot of talent: Hudson himself, Lauren, Carie, Hannah, Michael, for all his foibles, created a GREAT character in the Centipede. Watching him on stage actually made me wish (again) I'd gotten a chance to work with him this past summer.

But what I saw on stage last night was...something between amateur talent night at the county fair and a junior high improv class. After the first five minutes, I literally put my hand over my eyes.

I couldn't hear. I was sitting in the second row and I couldn't hear some of what was said--whether it was the British accent, or talking too fast, or not talking loud enough, or the frequently muttered cover-the-gap lines. They had mics, so I don't know what the problem was there.

The script, the story--I'll go out on a limb here and put of the blame for this on the script. "James and the Giant Peach"—who picked this, and WHY is it considered such a beloved children's story? It's like some child's stream of consciousness dream (or nightmare). Human-sized bugs? Crawling around inside a sticky-icky peach? Shark attack? Falling? And at the end, a ticker-tape parade through NYC. (For what? Spattering the city with thousands of gallons of fermenting peach juice? Ew.) The dialogue—and granted, it was hard to determine what were actually lines from the script as opposed to the abundant filler dialogue the kids threw in when their memories failed them—but we learn about the characters through their dialogue; and the things these oversized insects say to each other were just weird. They were whiny and complaining. A more pessimistic bunch of vermin I never saw. I didn’t like ANY of the characters…the vain centipede and his boot fetish, the gypsy spider, the ladybug who seemed to be of NO value to the story line. And what was with the sailors on the ocean liner? WHAT was the purpose of that mostly ad-libbed scene?

The scope of the production in the time allotted for it-here…I lay 30% of the blame. The play was very short, but the preparation required for it was massive. The special effect that it called for were…more than I would have ever attempted (so I respect the leadership on their courage and ambition), but…they only allowed right around three weeks to put this together. It just wasn’t enough time.


***Now you’re going to get a little insight into how I see myself in the theatre world. I generally walk through this world devaluing what I bring to it, flinching at praise, even stopping my ears at times because praise…is…like a drug…that makes you think you’re more than you are. Sure you can jump off that building…I know you can do it…you’re great!!! Wrong. You’ve got to keep both feet on the ground and keep your head and your wits about you. And then there’s the part of me that believes the hype and KNOWS just who I am and what I DO bring to my corner of the world.***

And so I look at this production from both sides of the glass. I marvel in horrified awe at what these two young people could possibly have been thinking to try and mount this production? In THREE weeks. With the production value requirement and the set required? WHAT were they thinking? From my outside [read: OUTSIDE] view, it seems like a LOT of time was wasted, actors didn’t show up for rehearsals, blah, blah, blah.
But from the OTHER side of the glass, the Smeagol side, I have to look at these two young people from the shadows and whisper to myself, “There for the grace of god go I…” I mean, both of us start with a happy vision: “Here is what we will create! And it will be wonderful! It will be fun! It will be art!” What happens between the origination of the idea and the final product? What IS the difference? What makes one group able to make it happen and another….not? People show up for my rehearsals. People learn their lines when I tell them to. I have a strict rehearsal schedule, set in stone before we start, and it doesn’t change. And…maybe I have a more realistic vision of what is possible to accomplish… I don’t know. There are many variables here.

I think that the final 10% of the blame belongs on the kids themselves. Their natural work ethic and dedication didn’t shine through here. They should have known their lines* and they should not have missed even one rehearsal in that short calendar. That, to me, is unforgivable. That, my children, is the one area where YOU had control. You may not have had control over production issues, bad script, costume delays, set problems, but YOU have control over your attendance and your line memorization.

In watching this week, part of me wanted to go up to the young director and say, “Let me help you….please….I can see you are drowning in this and it has ceased to be fun for you…” But three things held me back. First, I hardly know her. The second was that I am already over my head in my own projects and if I stepped up to help her, I would get lost in her project and lose focus on mine. The third was the groveling, self-effacing side of me feared that she would think that I think I’m ‘all that’, as in, “Here I am, the great Chris Schaefer and I will be the savior of your production.” No, no, no. I don’t think that at all.

The down side of me says stuff isn’t all that great**. I’m just too close to it to really judge whether it’s good or bad. Of course, however, no one does anything unless they think they do it better than anyone else, right? Of course, right. I think that KidsPlay/CrazyLake are the hidden treasures of Greenfield. I know my faults, my areas of weakness….and maybe they aren’t the jewels I think they are Maybe they’re just another kiddie/community theatre. Everyone thinks that what they do is the best, the best, best. And so do I. But how can it ALL be the best? Some of it is not, but which? And who decides?

And then… I get my comeuppance when I’m met by the opinion of people I respect who say, “Wasn’t that great? The kids did a good job, didn’t they?” What??? Are you kidding? You’re not, are you? So….apparently, it doesn’t matter if you work for 12 weeks or 3 weeks on a production, the audience will not know the difference and the response from the will be the same. That’s….disheartening, to say the least….


I couldn’t relax and enjoy it. I’m too close to theatre, too close to the kids in the show to just sit back and let it flow over me. Is there such a thing as vicarious stress? This was a classic example. I couldn’t sit down, couldn’t relax, I paced around like a caged tiger during intermission, actually going back and forth to the Gallery twice….

What was good:

1) The costumes were excellent. Excellent. Hats off to Haberman and Heather for that. I said earlier that I would never attempt a play with animal characters—bravo for your courage.

2) The make-up, particularly the spider and the grasshopper. Loved the pink highlights in Lauren’s hair.

3) The bells and whistles—again, these details are TOTALLY not on my radar screen of experience. In fact, we got all the way to the end of “Howl” before I even thought about the lab experiment scene—and Urban ended up helping us with that. Anyway, the growing peach, the lights and scrim (?) work, faulty as it was, went beyond my scope of experience. The flying bird, the snow (?), the infamous confetti cannons.

4) Given the poor script, the production issues and the limited rehearsal time, the acting, for the most part, was good. Their training sticks. Character communication (that is, how the character communicates itself to the audience) is so important, and you totally pulled that off. I saw the Aunts, James, the Spider, the venerable old Grasshopper, the Centipede, the Lady Bug and, yes, I saw the Earthworm. The ghosts of past characters standing in the wings, yes, but the acting and the current characters were there and strong and steady. Very good, my children. I am proud of you.

5) There was also one other REALLY cool moment when all the insects were standing on top of the peach, and they were backlit so that they were in silhouette. Really cool effect.

The worst moment of the evening, however, was the kids’ faces after the show. And this part made me angry. They knew. They KNOW me and they know what a theatre snob I am. They know what I think. One of the kids said, “Please don’t say, ‘I told you so’.” and my heart went out to him. They looked at me, sad, defeated, apologetic. And that’s when I felt angry. They should NOT have to feel that way about their work, their HARD work. They’re kids…and they signed on to this…and they trust the powers that be to lead them through it. They want to have fun and be PROUD of what they’ve done. That is ONE thing I promise all the KidsPlayers at the very first parents meeting: “We will work hard, and in March or early April, we’ll be tired of rehearsing and sick of each other…but I promise you, when we’re finished, and you’re on that stage taking your bow, you will have been part of something to be proud of. I promise you that.” That promise got broken for these kids last night. And who is going to be held responsible for that….?

**And how would I feel if someone came in and took MY show apart like this? Well, you don’t learn anything from being told how wonderful you are all the time. It’s happened to me, twice. Once, early in my career—someone, I didn’t know who it was—I still don’t—absolutely shredded my program. Ouch. And it happened again this spring after “The Odd Couple”. There were lessons that needed to be learned… You take what you can use, what you can deal with…and leave the rest for another time.

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