One of my other writing projects distracting me from the raison d’etre of this blog is my play Little Black Boxes. This play is a drama about five strangers who all happen to be in the same place at the wrong time. Outside of a casual reading in my apartment, this play had never been heard out loud in public. As a new member of The Actors Studio Playwright/Director Unit, I am allowed to present the first hour of any play. All I need is to connect with a director interested, and then once given a date by the Unit coordinators, the director will cast and rehearse the show. We presented the play this past Monday, the final session of the Unit before it adjourns for the summer.
I can say that this presentation was, to date, the lowest point of my writing career. Worse than rejections from festivals and competitions. Worse than reading the bad reviews that came in minutes apart for my musical Election Day. The absolute worst. It was a failure.
A reading is an experiment. It’s not about presenting a complete, Broadway-ready show. I have watched readings at The Unit that are in varying stages of completion, from near-polished pieces that are ready to be staged, to half-baked thoughts that have no place being read out loud. That said, since this is my first presentation for The Unit, I wanted it to be the best it could be. I found a director who liked the script, and she and I started meeting about it a few months ago. She put together a cast. We rehearsed. But during the rehearsal process, I had a sinking feeling about the script. I was passionate about the subject matter and the characters, but I didn’t know if it was interesting enough. Also, I know the format of the play, which is all monologues without any character interaction, is polarizing in this group, as some members don’t believe it is a proper form of theater. I disagree, but it’s risky to present something that I already know some people will dislike. But I must remain true to the piece.
The reading began, and it felt slow…because it was slow. All the characters speak in monologues and there is no interaction with other characters, so it’s up to the actors to keep the pace going…and the pace died a slow death. I could hear the audience breathe…and possibly snooze. Also, the only real rule about presenting to The Unit is that the excerpt must come in under an hour. We had timed it out to 61 minutes at our last run through, and that was before I made another round of cuts. We’d be fine.
But we weren’t. The pace died and was quickly buried and forgotten about. 20 minutes into the reading I knew we were going to go long. Stuck in the back, I could barely stay in my seat, squirming all the while. Catia, my special guest in attendance (no outsiders allowed, generally) knew, mouthing “pace” to me. The pace. “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” I feel ya, MacB. Any other comments, while you are here? “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying Nothing.”
Harsh. But not far off the mark.
It was slow. And more boring than I feared. And the kiss of death in theater…predictable. I could throw the director and actors under the bus for their transgressions, but in the end the weight and blame has to land squarely on my shoulders. I blew it. And I knew it. And now I had to sit there and take my licks, as time kept slowly ticking. 6o minutes…65 minutes…70 minutes…mercifully, after 73 of the longest minutes of my life, the stage directions reader said “end of selection” as polite applause accompanied the lights coming up. It was over.
I had failed. It was a bad reading.
The group, about 75 people, broke for coffee outside the theater, and to no doubt pre-discuss the slow train wreck they just witnessed. I didn’t have the heart to go out there, staying in my seat in the theater with a very supportive wife who asked if she could do anything (other than quickly and mercifully strangle me, I couldn’t think of anything). Then as people filtered in, I took the stage with my notepad, and waited to be joined by my director and the moderators.
I was surprised to find that the feedback session was much easier to bear. Sure, it was harsh. One moderator asked me “have you ever written a play before?” A fellow playwright commented that she “didn’t like any of the characters at all.” The crowd debated if this was, in fact, theater. But that aside, it was easier for me to sit on stage and take the punches than it was to sit in the audience and watch my play burst into flames and oh, the humanity, burn out. Because the feedback session was other people talking, some positively, about my work…and their words were their opinions and nothing more. The play itself was all me. The feedback session ran longer than most of them, about 45 minutes, and after it a few unit members came up and congratulated me…on keeping my composure. That in itself is a victory.
Yes, I could make the statement that all failures can lead to victory if harnessed correctly. You could tell me that someday I’ll look back on this and be thankful. Well I’m happy to tell you that almost immediately after the feedback session I was thankful, and if that didn’t perk me up, going home and cracking open a bottle of wine did. But even with a little perspective (and more as each day passes) that doesn’t change the fact that I failed. And it was a mess. And awful to sit through. And I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy.
But I’d do it all over again.