Thesis: “This Is a Real Play.”
On Friday, my first full-length play got its first public reading, and it was one of the most nerve-wracking, coolest experiences of my life.
I’d been nervous about this reading for a long time. Just the thought of it gave me butterflies in my stomach. A week ago, I was on my last day of spring break, sweating to make my self-set deadline of getting the script out to the cast by morning. I finally sent it out at 1:30 and practically collapsed from relief.
But that was just step one. Starting on Wednesday, I ran three separate rehearsals with various members of my cast of thirteen. Also on Wednesday, just after I had finished the a private rehearsal, I got an e-mail from another cast member, telling me she was at home sick and had to drop out of the show. Thankfully, it was easy to re-cast.
Thursday were the big rehearsals. They were the first time I’d heard my play read out loud in over a year, and I was ridiculously nervous. During the first rehearsal, I couldn’t hold anything; pencils and highlighters kept slipping out of my hands and I couldn’t think straight. The nerves ebbed as I listened to some of my actors read the pages. I was really happy with my choices, though one of them, I was thrilled about: my leading actress. I chose her because even though I’d never seen her act, as a freshman, she has a reputation as a great performer. Also, her voice is what I hear in my head when Mary, my main character, speaks. I was not disappointed; she was absolutely perfect for Mary in every way. She was thankfully able to come to both big rehearsals and read with the other actors, all of whom were willing to ask questions and take direction. I was really happy with the cast I’d assembled. Most of them were my friends, actors all, and it was really awesome to hear voices I knew read words I wrote. My friend and roommate played Peter, a role she’s always wanted to play, and it was so fun to see her come alive in the role. It was also amazing to have those words be taken seriously. People weren’t reading them like they were their friends’ words for a project; they read them like they were cast in this show and were at a rehearsal.
During those rehearsals, and especially the second one, I discovered that while I don’t like directing, I was perfectly comfortable giving my actors notes on how to tweak their performance, or how to keep it exactly how they had done it. Also, amusingly, I found out that I apparently have parts of scenes memorized, because I kept mouthing the words.
The next day was the actual reading. I didn’t know who would be in the audience. My thesis class was required to be there for the first hour, but much of my class was in the reading. I had visions of the three classmates not in the reading, my two professors, and the director in the audience. To my surprise, the audience was sizeable for my apathetic university. The actor playing Hook brought three friends, none of whom I knew, and a bunch of people from the department came, too.
I sat in a desk against the far wall while the reading went on and, as my advisor had suggested, did not have the script in front of me, only a notebook in which to jot things down. This forced me to focus on actually hearing what was being said, not what was written on the page. The cool thing about hearing your words read by actors who know what they’re doing is that you can see how those words will be interpreted should it ever be done again. You see where you might need to put a stage direction in or where the language is stilted. And best of all, when you have an audience, you get to hear their reactions. I was amazed at what I heard. Earlier this year, I talked to my academic advisor (who’s also the head of the theatre department) about this play very briefly. He didn’t say much about it, but labeled it a “historical feminist comedy.” I was surprised to hear this, since I look at the play as a drama, but on Friday, I found out that the play is a lot funnier than I ever thought. Mary is pretty snarky throughout the play, and a lot of people liked that, as well as the slightly awkward proposal scene, and the ever-loving Lost Boy Tootles, among other things. But my favorite reaction of the entire reading was when a teenage Captain Hook kisses Mary and someone in the audience gasped.
After the reading, we had a talkback. For those not ensconced in the world of theatre as I am, a talkback is what happens after the performance of a play when the audience can ask questions of the actors, the director, or, in this case, the playwright. The actors sat with the rest of the audience while my advisor and I sat in front of everyone. Afterward, my roommate said, “When you two were sitting up there, I just thought, ‘He’s like a proud papa bird showing you off, like, “Look what she’s done!”‘ You’re like his protegee.” I would give a few million dollars to be considered my advisor’s protegee, since he’s amazingly awesome. During the reading’s intermission, we were talking about the plans for the talkback with my thesis professor and my advisor said, “We’re not going to let you ask questions of them because if you ask for negativity, you’ll get it. I’m not going to let anyone tear down your play!” His reasoning for this was not necessarily to protect my feelings, but that many of the people in the audience, even if they were actors, don’t know the process of writing a play, so their suggestions might be negative and also, not helpful to a playwright. “They’re not going to write your play for you,” he said.
With that guidance, it was a pretty useful talkback. Any criticism had to be phrased as a question, and those are going to be helpful in examining some things in the play. Overall, though, people really liked the play, and I’m really excited to look at it again with their comments in mind. There’s definitely a lot of work to be done, most of which won’t even be done before the next reading, but I’m excited to get back to work.
When the talkback ended, my thesis professor, my advisor, and my director were all waiting with their pads of paper, but while I love all of them, I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to discuss anything in depth. Apparently, stressing yourself out is pretty draining; I was about to fall over. Thankfully, all three of them said they needed to think things over and would e-mail me. I told my director that there were a few actors from this reading that I would really like in the public reading, but didn’t say who. To my delight, when he e-mailed me later with a proposed cast list, most of the people I loved from my reading were on his list- including my wonderful Mary and my roommate (though sadly, not in the role of Peter, since the director thinks it’s important that Peter be played by a guy. However, he liked her so much that he wanted to cast her somehow.)
As I walked one cast member back to his car, he said to me, “Thank you for letting me be a part of this. This is a real play.” So many of the other cast members were equally as gracious, sending me thank-you texts, even though it was them who had done me the favor.
So now I have two weeks to revise before I give the cast the script. I’ll conference with my professor and advisor this week and probably be completely overwhelmed by everything they tell me. But I’m really happy to have taken this step and that it was a success!