We start by deciding to produce the scripts written by the students in the novice play writing class. Now of course, some of those scripts may not suck; heck, it’s entirely possible that some of them might be halfway decent, so we need some insurance, some way to inject additional sucking potential. We therefore assign directors from the directing class, i.e., people who are still learning how to direct a play. While these two steps might be enough to assure suckiness in the vast majority of productions, we’re not satisfied at this point that we’ve done enough to prevent a glint of quality from shining through. So we certainly don’t go out and hire professional actors. No, we cast the show from a pool of mostly novice actors. And just to make sure the available talent is spread out as thinly as possible, we perform a dozen or so of these new plays all on the same day on the same stage, after giving everyone less than 2 weeks to cast their plays and rehearse them. Ah yes, and a budget of precisely $0 to cover sets, props, and costumes. There, that ought to do it! All the elements are now in place for a long, long day of sucky plays.
Those are the basics, but of course, each individual production is free to add their own refinements to the process. It may even take extra rehearsals and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking to make your play extra-specially sucky. Hey, Rome didn’t suck in a day!
Our play was titled Shades of Guilt. I don’t recall the name of its author, but I can tell you that it was strongly based on her own family history, principally her grandfather, who came to America from Europe as a poor immigrant in the early 20th century.
[Time out for a brief sidebar: Dr. Arthur J. Beer, long-time theater professor, accomplished actor, and all-around Man of the Theater, has not only written quite a few plays, but has also taught play writing classes. He once told me that, in his opinion, every playwright’s first play is about themselves. He feels that part of his job as a teacher is to get them to write that play so they can get it out of their system and move on creatively.]
Back to Shades of Guilt, and some of our production’s ‘outside-the-box’ thinking: Since this was a deeply personal project, our playwright loaned us several ancient, fragile family heirlooms to use as props in the show, though we were told repeatedly that we had to be extremely careful with them since they were, after all, treasured family heirlooms. Just what we want to be thinking about when we’re supposed to be acting.
I was all of 19 years old at the time, one of those novice actors to whom I referred earlier, and I played the role of family patriarch Joseph Garth. Well, at first anyway. We’ll get to my character’s evolution in a minute. We had, I believe, exactly 7 days from receiving our scripts to performing the show, and I had far more lines than I’d ever had to memorize before, so it was an intense, borderline insane week for me. Just in case there might have been some chance of me giving a decent performance, our director and playwright came up with some innovations to eliminate that possibility.
At our last full rehearsal, there was an announcement. The playwright and the director had put their heads together and decided that the play needed a key stylistic change in order to bring out the story. Our new orders were to perform the show with Slavic or Eastern European accents. My character, Joseph Garth, was now to pronounce his name “Yosef Gart.” The ripples this new style sent through all of us as actors only made it more difficult for us to remember our lines or do any actual acting, but we soldiered on.
Early on the day of our performance, at our final brief rehearsal, there was yet another announcement. The director didn’t think this Slavic accent thing was working at all, so we had a new concept handed to us: We were to speak as if we were from the deep south of the United States. My character’s name was now Joe Garth. Mind you, all the other characters’ names had gone through similar changes, but mine is the only name that has stuck in my memory. Once again, this change rippled through every line in sometimes unexpected ways, particularly since the play was not rewritten to reflect any of these stylistic choices.
The performance itself could charitably be called a disaster. Lines were dropped and paraphrased left and right. A few entire pages were left mostly unperformed because we were scraping to remember what the heck we were supposed to do or say next. There was, of course, no one in the wings to throw us lines; that would have reflected a lack of faith in our mental and performing skills, I suppose. The woman who played the female lead in the show was absolutely outraged that I had forgotten a few lines in a couple of my scenes with her. In fact, she would not speak a single word to me after the show and turned away dramatically when I tried to speak to her afterward.
So we had suckiness a-plenty. The production sucked, the directing sucked, I sucked, attitudes sucked. The only thing I can’t lay the term ‘sucky’ on is the script. I’m not saying it was good; I’m saying I’ve never known whether it was any good. The fact is, it never had a chance to rise to the surface and show itself as a piece of theater. I hope our playwright kept at it and found out the answer to that question. Then again, I could hardly have blamed her if she’d have given up writing altogether after that experience.
A similar wish goes out to all connected to that production. I hope our director and actors have moved on from that ghastly moment in theatrical history and have taken what lessons they could from it. I know I’ve come a long way as a performer and as an artist from that crazy week, and I hope all of us have done the same.