1. Serve alcohol.
2. Keep it casual– allow the audience and actors to mingle before the show and during the intermission (if you have one). They all love it.
3. Give them something to bond over– like the noises from the cafe venue or the heat in the tiny theater with a tinier air conditioner.
4. Sell water (see #1 and #3).
5. (and most importantly) Cast exceptional actors and then let them do what they know how to do.
Last night’s reading of “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play”, during TNE’s FREE PRIZE INSIDE SHOWCASE WEEKENDS, was a stunning success. We greeted twice the number of patrons as we expected and they all endured the hot little black box theater and cramped seating (it’s part of the charm of the Broken Leg Stage– that feeling that you’re all in this together!), and the feedback was tremendous.
Of course, Sarah Ruhl’s beautiful words and exceptional story had much to do with it. It is simply an exquisite play. And because it is an exquisite play I did what I could to bring on board some of the finest talent the area has to offer– including Gabriela Lawson, Brooke Aiello, and Jaguar Bennett (regular players with Woodward Shakespeare Festival), Eric Orum and Kristin Lyn Crase (both having leads in successful shows at Good Company Players this year) and various members of the TNE troupe.
And why is that so important? After all, if the play is so exceptional, couldn’t it speak on its own?
Of course it could! Don’t be a dolt. But eventually the thing will need to be spoken by actual human beings, hopefully by smart ones.
So I gathered these actors for a simple, one-time table read of the play earlier in the week. Explained that it would be a straightforward sit-and-read, and instructed them to review the script another time before coming to the theater on Friday. End of story. (Talented actors are also busy actors and a quick prep for a reading helps keep them available for readings.).
But something extraordinary happened at the top of Friday evening during set up. We got into the space, began to set up the chairs for a typical static reading of this lovely play, and everyone seemed to realize that it just wasn’t going to work. It would have been fine– funny and intelligent– that way. But perhaps a little cerebral. And after some discussion and a little brainstorming, I did something a director usually hates to do.
I stepped out.
I had to, actually. Being a small company, I was also handling box office set up and it had been neglected. So, I had to turn it over to this group of seven actors to figure out. When I came back in, the few props I had brought for set decoration were set up for practical use. The chairs were divided into two rooms. A chair was set aside for a piano bench. The actors were mingling with guests, calm as could be.
Then, we started the reading. And these talented actors improvised the entire staging of this reading off the top of their heads. They agreed on the parameters; they watched each other’s movement to make quick and decisive choices on their own. And by standing up and sitting down and crossing when they felt they needed to, they were more open and more affected by the words Sarah Ruhl had written.
That’s not to say that there weren’t clusters along the way, but -truth be told- the audience seemed to like watching them work it out as they went along. They improvised a staged reading on the spot, like pros. And many of the reading performances that came out of those actors were worthy of the script and showed exactly what talented actors can do when they HAVE to do it and there isn’t anything standing in their way.
Like a director. DirWRECKting.
I felt proud and redundant simultaneously. It just reinforced my idea that directors are first and foremost facilitators: midwives. We can get all conceptual with designers, and we often need to shape the story and work with actors on certain ways of telling it. But ultimately, if you believe you have the best cast you can get for that play at that time, and you’ve prepared them as well as you possibly can with the time you have, there comes a point where you need to get out of the way and let them do what they know how to do.
Thus, #5. (And the reason that I love actors).
Artistic Director, TNE