Catherine the Great, Community Theater, child pornography, and the Congo

Full disclosure: this post has very little to do with anything listed in the title. I was going to call this post “Learning while Observing” but that title makes me want to yawn. That said, I’m not outright lying to you. The elements in the title are all here.

I was fortunate to spend last week as an audience member, nearly full time. I saw two readings and two full productions. I am going to go against instinct, which would be to critique each show, but rather I will discuss what I learned from each piece specifically and how it will help me in my writing. There is far too much critique out there, anyway, and most of those doing the critiquing are more qualified to do so than I am. Plus, since the two readings are in progress, a critique is extremely premature. It’s like calling a baby fat because the expectant mother is showing more weight than normal in her second trimester.

Monday night: The Actors Studio West’s weekly reading series. As a member of the playwright/director unit I attend weekly readings and critique session. Playwrights are allowed to present an hour of their script, then after a break for coffee, water and occasionally cookies, we reconvene for the critique. They are generally rowdy events, with people not holding back on their opinions. This particular night the play was difficult to digest. Basically, a number of historical figures convene at the end of the world to discuss the decline of civilization. Moses, Joan of Arc and Catherine the Great (I told you I wasn’t lying about incorporating the title) among others gather at the behest of some unknown host (other than his name Jes, we know nothing about him) and talk, talk, talk.

Catherine has a lot to say

Catherine has a lot to say

The conversations are heady. The post-reading discussion debated if this is even a play. Whether it is or is not is irrelevant to me, but the lesson is very important. LESSON LEARNED: Film, plays, TV all revolve around conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. Also, always have cookies.

Wednesday night: I attended a table read of a friend’s new web series. She and her writing partners are proven funny people, and they had written the entire series, ten episodes ranging from 4 to 7 minutes long. This was a laid back event in a beautiful house in Sherman Oaks overlooking the Valley, and there was plenty of wine and food which make any reading better. The scripts were about a community theater gearing up for a new production, and had a good story, good characters, and was very funny. This was a private table read, so it was all about assistance in improving the script, which will remain private. They have work to do, but the ideas are all there and they are off to a great start. LESSON LEARNED: when dealing with comedy, details are extremely important. Jokes that are general will not land as well. Also, when you don’t have cookies, wine will do nicely.

Thursday night: My friend John and I went to The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City and saw the excellent play The Nether by Jennifer Haley. A biting look at a near future where everyone spends most of their time in a virtual world.

Adam Haas Hunter (as Woodnut) and Brighid Fleming (as Iris) are wonderfully creepy in Jennifer Haley's play.

Adam Haas Hunter (as Woodnut) and Brighid Fleming (as Iris) are wonderfully creepy.

The idea is not shocking or new (the idea wasn’t new when we all took the red pill in The Matrix) but what captivated me was the condensed world we were viewing. Focusing on just a few people allowed us to view the world as a whole without getting caught up in an epic story. Just a few people, their lives, and some dabbling in child pornography. LESSON LEARNED: Okay, when dealing with everything, details are important. Also, never forget visual imagery.   The way a young girl gently and briefly caressed the arm of her older companion was shocking, disturbing and only lasted a split second. But truly moving. Also, don’t eat too heavily before watching a play about child pornography.

Saturday night: Catia and I returned to Culver City (a theatrical mecca in L.A.?) for Heart of Darkness, a one-man interpretation of the famed Joseph Conrad story, at The Actors’ Gang. For much of the 90 minutes I was fidgety and impatient. The actor was certainly capable, and there was great source material and a great story. The audience was into it. But by the time Marlow goes up the Congo I was already checking my watch. So what went wrong for me? It took a few days to figure it out, but it was the nature of the show itself. While it may have remained true to the book, I wasn’t fully engaged. The actor played a number of characters capably, but his protagonist was a nearly passive observer. LESSON LEARNED: Character growth is as important as story development.

It was a pleasure to get out of my head and away from my own story, and witness visual storytelling. Seeing the end result as an audience member allows me to add an outside prospective to my own work. How will an audience view this? Will they be engaged? And if not, will there be cookies or wine?