I’m in a terrible, terrible production of an innocuous play.
I agreed to do a role in a play without asking nearly enough questions. So now I find myself in a community theater production of a light, contemporary American farce that has been directed as if it were an ancient Greek tragedy.
The primary directorial notes throughout the rehearsal process were, “Cheat out more,” by which the director actually meant, “Face the audience directly when speaking,” and, “Enunciate clearly,” by which the director meant, “Many of the theater’s subscribers are very old and don’t hear very well.”
The first 20 minutes of one performance were marred by the high-pitched tone of a hearing aid with a low battery, audible to everyone except its owner and, apparently, the play’s producer, who interrupted the flow of the play to make an announcement about the sound ... about three minutes after it had finally stopped.
My father used to say that community theater was a gathering of people doing a stellar imitation of what they thought acting on stage was supposed to look like. I see it a little differently. I think of community theater as live performances of slaughtered text before dying audiences.
Despite the flaws in the production, the geriatric crowds enjoy the show greatly. I seem to be a big hit with the 79- to 148-year-old female demographic.
While I think it is simple to understand how a modern play about the hilarities of complex familial relationships might be poorly served by actors who stand side by side on stage declaring their lines directly to their elderly audience, I do not feel I have fully expressed the extent to which this directorial choice has led us down a terrible path.
One of the key devices in this play is that one member of the ensemble is aware, from the beginning, of the audience. She takes on the role of narrator, interacting with the people in the house as casually and comfortably as if they were in her living room and not looking at a proscenium-framed version of it.
Naturally, such a device could play hilariously in contrast to naturalistic performances within the stage space as her family and colleagues interact with one another, and only she shows any awareness of the observers beyond that fourth wall.
Now imagine how muddy that contrast becomes when everyone in her life stares awkwardly out at those observers, only occasionally stealing glances at one another in hopes of enjoying a brief moment of human contact that the director might not notice.
If the director notices such a thing, she will most certainly fire off an email. Often they say things like, “Scene 2: Where’s the energy? This sucks.” Or, “You’re embarrassing me. A third of the audience can only see one side of your face.”
Useful notes, all. If we explain our choices she becomes passive-aggressively dismissive of our thoughts, telling us that if we want to ruin her play, that’s up to us. We’re the ones on stage.
The really sad thing is that we’re all relieved when this happens. It’s the closest we ever get in this theater to anything that might be called drama.