Friday, January 06, 2012

On not ripping one's own head off

David Lamberton and Lorenzo Scott do a nice job in this reading of the December play of the month, especially considering that they only read through it once together before I recorded this and because I had them doing a bunch of stuff, like lying on the floor, in David's case, and considering it's a long "10 minute" play.

I normally would have rejected this play, the submitted script was just over eleven pages and usually I'm pretty strict about rejecting anything that is over 10 dialog pages. But most of the plays sent for this contest were quite bad, especially because so many people sent plays from the "Evil Santa" genre. Once I disqualified those plays there was almost nothing left and of that, almost nothing that was bearable. And this isn't just my judgement - I had five actors performing the semi-finalist plays and the response after each reading was at best "meh." This play was the only one that got a better than lukewarm response.

When I sent the author a link to review the recording, he responded with a long critique of the actors' performances. He seems to have forgotten that this is a script-in-hand reading, with no pretensions of being a polished performance. The play is certainly no gem, it needs some serious editing and reorganizing of the material - it's got quite a few redundancies. He admitted that this is basically a first draft - it really shows.

I never bother to give the winning playwright a critique of his or her play, since for the most part they don't want to hear it anyway. In my long experience running NYCPlaywrights I've discovered that most people are virtually incapable of editing their finished script in any meaningful way. Pretty much the first draft is the final draft, with perhaps a few minor negligible tweaks. People just want to hear how great their play is. But if a play is selected for the NYCPlaywrights Play of the Month, it doesn't mean it's been judged as a great play - it just means it beat out the competition and it didn't make me want to rip my own head off.

"Made me want to rip my own head off" is an expression I got from an ex-boyfriend. I have that response often to theatre productions. The first time was the second time I saw a live performance of a Shakespeare play - Rutgers University's production of AS YOU LIKE IT. The said ex-boyfriend was with me as a matter of fact and I couldn't believe what I was seeing on the stage. It was bad enough that instead of Elizabethan or other pre-20th century costumes the cast was dressed by L.L. Bean, but I could have lived with that. But the part that made my hands start reaching to separate my head from my neck was the section where a character called First Lord is describing the death of a deer:
Indeed, my lord,
The melancholy Jaques grieves at that;
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish’d you.
To-day my Lord of Amiens and myself
Did steal behind him as he lay along
Under an oak whose antique root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood;
To the which place a poor sequester’d stag,
That from the hunters’ aim had ta’en a hurt,
Did come to languish; and, indeed, my lord,
The wretched animal heav’d forth such groans
That their discharge did stretch his leathern coat
Almost to bursting, and the big round tears
Cours’d one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase; and thus the hairy fool,
Much marked of the melancholy Jaques,
Stood on the extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears.
You know this is the big moment for the actor stuck playing "First Lord" but instead of letting him be the center of attention they had a young woman in a fawn-colored body stocking doing some kind of impressionistic pantomime to convey the deer's agony. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this. I was nineteen and still pretty new to Shakespeare and I wasn't yet aware of all the many ways that directors have made Shakespeare their bitch. Although even if I saw it today I believe I'd have the same appalled reaction.

I am convinced that Shakespeare is the reason why stage directors take such liberties with the work of living playwrights, on the grounds that if they can do whatever they want to his plays, why should they think twice before screwing with the work of a mere mortal, starting with throwing out all the stage directions.

I'm sure the director thought, well, nowhere in the script does Shakespeare actually SAY "don't have a pantomime of a dying deer during this monologue."

So that was the first time, but I can't count the number of times I've felt the desire to rip my own head off during a performance or reading of a play. I don't know why I respond so viscerally. Maybe I'm just more discerning than most.