April 12, 2013 by Sam Graber
Recently, I had the unfortunate experience of two separate first performances of two separate plays of mine sapped by what I would characterize as lack of artistic obligation.
And it has to do with technology.
It happened like this. One of my new scripts got selected by a one-act festival for performance. It was going to be the first performance for this new script. Sweet.
The festival sent their kudos over email and then assigned a director. The director and I swapped initial greeting emails that were hearty and convivial. Collaborative, even. We launched into possible ideas for staging, and how potential limitations of the festival’s performance space could impact the play. All good stuff.
As it crept up to the date of performance, I sent emails to the director to make sure all was in good order. Given that this was going to be a first performance, I was more than eager to alter the script if it needed adjustment.
The performance happened.
And then the questions came.
The questions from the director were about certain terminology used in the script. What did this mean? Did you expect the audience to laugh when this happened? The actors and I were confused about this acronym, is this something going on today?
So let’s review. A script was selected as ‘winner’ (hate the term) for presentation by a festival artistic committee and then assigned to a director. The director cast the show and then went into rehearsal. Rehearsal led into tech which led into performance. And then after the performance came questions seeking clarification about certain terms in the script.
But here’s what really set me off: it happened twice. Yes. A second director of a second first performance of a second play new of mine asked questions about terms in the script after the performance.
The questions made me sit back and do some questioning myself: where is the artistic obligation here?
Theater is not literature. It is not a completed narrative form for ready consumption. It takes others to usher along and convert from static words into dynamic performance for a live audience.
And those others involved have to be not just invested in the process but invested in the subject.
Anybody who is voluntarily taking on an active leadership role in a dramatic staging, especially an inaugural staging, should undergo researching any topic unfamiliar to them. If you agree to accept a directorial role, then learn about the subject matter. If you accept a technical position, such as lighting director, do not assume your general expertise is enough. Learn the subject matter. Telling a story about particulars means you have to know the particulars.
So I have this to offer: adapt or die.
General society has been radically altered by the rise and spread of information technology. The landscape has changed for accessing and absorbing data. There is no rational argument for a director prodding the playwright for direction. There is no rational argument for having discovery of script occur for the first time in front of a live audience.
Adapt or die.
Entire libraries are now online. Search tools. Archives. Videos. Conversations. If you don’t know how to use a computer then get to a physical library and have someone show you. Find an expert. Learn about the subject matter.
You’re stuck on an acronym in the script? It’s called Google. And it’s a couple pokes of the fingers away.
And this isn’t just limited to active members of the artistic team. Festival people err when assigning to directors certain scripts that put them at an instant disadvantage. Know your people.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, this is my spare time. This isn’t my job. This is my off-hour contribution to industry. Wrong. If you are committing yourself to telling an audience a story, and you are listed as part of an artistic team, then be an artist. Familiarize yourself with the kernel of the matter. The playwright is not responsible for figuring it all out for you. If you feel the content is over your head or you face time limitations or whatever, then acknowledge as such and get out of the way.
I’m not expecting everyone to be great; I’m expecting everyone to try. To hustle. You don’t need to wield some lofty master’s degree to roll up your sleeves and dig at the dirt.
One of my very close friends and mentor in theater had this comment: “By far the biggest problem with the theater is a lack of capable directors. It is a very complex job, and most folks aren’t up to it, even though they may direct (and kill) dozens of plays.”
I’m not talented enough to be a director of theater. But I know when I show up for a rehearsal if a director or actor has not done homework or prepared for the process of getting script dressed and ready.
It reminds me of a time when I was in Nashville, hired onto a big band bandstand show. It was an anvil gig, which means the bandleader shows up just before downbeat and hands you this big anvil case filled with sheet music. They call out a chart number and you pull the chart from the anvil case and just go. I was ripping it, I mean hitting every note without fail and fleecing my chops. Meanwhile, the other guys in the rhythm section were screaming at me to play it right. Turns out I was playing the notes but not the proper style. I never took the time to research the style beforehand. I never got hired by that bandleader again.
Adapt or die.
Perhaps part of the problem with theater today, a problem that is evidenced by a small and shrinking audience, is when there is an obvious lack of dedication to craft. I know a live performance, artistic, athletic or otherwise, where someone is packing it in or hasn’t done enough preparation.
We cannot make things better if we don’t work hard. If we don’t push ourselves then it shows not only in our work but also in the work of those around us. For all the ongoing debate about what is or isn’t professional in theater, the lack of preparation is a prime characteristic of a non-professional.
Adapt or die.
If we are serious about having theater function as a powerful and meaningful mechanism in society, then let’s get serious about our work. There are great plays getting written about all of today’s hot topics, reaching out to us, wanting us.
A playwright putting a story in script does not finish the job. The best thing that can happen to me is finding out from the others on the artistic team (especially actors) that I missed something or messed up something, which means that my job is never done.