Dave Sikula contemplates The Mystery.
A couple of weeks ago, I directed a play in the Playwrights’ Center 24-hour festival. It’s one of the damnedest things I’ve ever done. (And it’s an experience I recommend to any writer, actor, or director. There’s nothing like it.)
We assembled as a group – seven writers, seven directors, and about 20 actors – at 7:00 Friday evening. After some introductory remarks, the writers drew lots from a hat: first for the names of their directors, then for the number of characters in their plays, then for the names of the actors who’d act in them. Finally, after all that was settled, someone drew the theme for the plays: “Objects are larger than they appear.”
After a few more minutes of remarks and advice, the groups split up to discuss what the theme and pitch ideas. Our group repaired to a café on Mason St. (which will remain nameless in order to protect the crappy serving staff and mediocre food) for dinner and came up with a number of interesting ideas. As far as I can tell, none of those ideas were actually used in the eventual play, but the ones that were used were just as interesting.
We split up about 9:00 pm. We all went home; the actors and I to sleep, the writer to create gold from our dross.
Have I mentioned before that I’m a night owl? I generally don’t go to bed until 3:00 am, so knowing that I had to get up Saturday morning at 6:00 in order to be at the BART station at 7:00 in order to be at the theatre at 8:00 was daunting. (Frankly, I didn’t even know they still made 6:00 am …) Summoning all my will power, though, I was able to get to sleep early enough to catch a few hours sleep.
The script arrived in my email box at 6:22 am, so I was able to read it on the train, discovering a short tale about a married couple who, riding home on BART from the ballet, encounter the husband’s ex-teaching assistant and former boyfriend. Recriminations fly, apologies and reparations are made, and all three characters are left up in the air with their circumstances vastly altered – quite a lot to accomplish in ten minutes (well, more like 13, but at that point, who was counting?).
The actors arrived around 9:00, and after they’d read the script to themselves a couple of times, we did a read-through, discussed it, read it again, and started blocking.
From here on in, the story is relatively mundane: blocking, tweaking, consulting with the writer, running, and turning the actors loose in order to give them the time they needed to memorize their lines. (Something I could not have done – and have discussed in this space before.) In the late afternoon, the directors met with the stage manager to determine the running order and discuss our technical needs (which were minimal; my set was three chairs and the only prop was a leftover brown paper bag – which I had to rescue from the garbage when it accidentally got thrown away). After that, we did a cue-to-cue which took so long, the planned tech run had to be cancelled.
We were faced with the odd situation of the actors not being allowed backstage during the performance. Since there were strict fire regulations, we had to have each group enter or exit in the interval between plays. It made for an interesting curtain call, too; each cast ran in from the lobby, and paused to bow on stage before running back out to the lobby as the next group took their place.
The show ended up going quite well – surprisingly, in some cases. There were rough spots – how could there not be? But to the untrained eye, it mostly looked as smooth as silk.
My point is not merely to congratulate all concerned for a fine job, but to marvel once again at how – somehow – in spite of all the odds, shows almost invariably pull together. A show can be a train wreck Tuesday, a nightmare Wednesday, limp across the finish line on Thursday, but come opening night Friday, the props are all there, the light and sound cues all go off as planned, and the lines that were so forgettable are suddenly indelibly stamped on the memory. In all the years I’ve been doing this, never once has a show failed to come together, no matter how disastrous it seemed a week before. (And let me hasten to add, they haven’t all come together well; there have been some turkeys, but they were all complete. There were some that just weren’t very good …)
This point was brought home again to me last week when my “real” show opened; that is to say, the one we’ve been rehearsing for six weeks or so – not ten hours. (For the record, it’s Ian Walker’s “The Disappearance of Mary Rosemary,” from Second Wind Productions at the Phoenix.)
Now, I don’t want you to think, dear reader, that “Mary Rosemary” was either a train wreck or in trouble (in point of fact, it’s rather good), but the events of tech week – getting the set finished, assembling the props, working scenes that couldn’t be worked properly until we were in the space and on the set – kept us from doing run-throughs through most of tech week. It wasn’t until Wednesday that we were able to do a complete start-to-finish run – and even that started about 9:00 or 9:30. Thursday, we were even later, and between the run, notes, and some errands I had to run after the show, I didn’t get to bed until 4:00 am – late even for me.
All through the rehearsal period, I’ve had trouble with my lines (yeah, yeah; I know I’ve mentioned this before …). It wasn’t that the lines are bad (they’re also rather good); it’s that I’m just too damn old to learn them with ease. (Now that we’ve had three days off, I’m a little worried about the next weekend of performances. You can bet I’ll be drilling them before the show.) But came opening night and they were all there – well, 95% of them – as well as the rest of the elements: lighting, sound, props, costumes. You’d never have known that it was only our third run-through.
What causes this? Is it knowing we’re up against a deadline? The theatre gods? Fate? Sheer dumb luck? I tend to favor the first explanation; I’ve been doing this so long and it’s happened so consistently, it can’t be anything else. But then why does it happen only on opening night? Is the Friday substantially different from the Wednesday or Thursday? Yeah, it’s one or two extra days, but invariably, something that just doesn’t work or click on those days somehow does 24 hours later. It’s a mystery and a miracle; “a riddle wrapped in an enigma,” to quote Winston Churchill.
Maybe it’s just something to accept, rather than try to examine too deeply. Regardless, I’m grateful that it happens – and always in the nick of time.
I find the theory of the deadline vital to the writing process. I’ve certainly tested it through and through as have many writer-friends. and it’s proven IMHO. I’ll struggle and struggle with something, but tack on a deadline (preferably one I ignore to the las minute) and voilà! It comes together, maybe not perfectly, but in a way that alluded me previously.
Thanks for this piece (and for your kind words about 24-hour fest, as well).