Last night, Roo and I went to a one-act festival in our neighborhood, put on by a local theatre company that had chosen my play "Bonnie and Clementine, on Their Way to the Grand Canyon, Explore the Limits of the Dramatic Form" as part of the presentation. I went in with low expectations; I've seen a lot of one-act play festivals in my time, and they're usually pretty dreadful. I could do a whole 'nother posting on my disdain for the freakish obsession with new one-acts that seems to have overtaken the smaller theatre company play circuit sometime in the last 15 years, but I won't digress right now. (You can look forward to that post upcoming!). Let me be clear -- the festivals aren't dreadful because they are not professionally done. I often point out that one of the best productions I've seen of my work was at Circle Players, a small theatre in New Jersey, where no one involved makes their living soley (or even majorly) from theatre. I submitted to this festival because I thought it would be great to meet other local theatre artists.
My expectations were also low because this play is now my most-frequently produced work (I think this is the 6th or 7th production of it) and also one of the most complex I've written. As Roo pointed out last night, it's a full play in 10 minutes, and it probably has as many tech cues as a play that is 90 minutes long. It is not easy to do, and I've seen it done very badly at least twice before. I didn't see a couple of the other productions, and Circle (above) did a great job with it (so it is TOTALLY DO-ABLE). You migth be wondering, "How badly done before?" Well, the character list for this play reads "Bonnie: A woman. Clementine: A woman. The Stage Manager: Not a woman." And the first production I saw of it cast a woman as the Stage Manager. It did not improve from there.
Well, last night's performance was not quite that bad, but it was so severely misguided as to leave me angry and baffled. I don't know who was making the decisions, but the people involved chose to change lines (Roo felt that they had not memorized them well enough), change stage directions, change both the opening and closing, ignore explicit character and staging instructions in the play and otherwise just treat the whole thing as a sort of melodic line to riff upon. The play, which makes a frequent point of being only 10 minutes long, stretched to 20 minutes. There were pointless props and -- God help us -- "business" added in by the actors (in other words, the actors, not knowing what to do added in jokey stuff in hopes of getting laughs. This never works because it does not make sense). They didn't even play the songs I requested, none of which are obscure. They played OTHER SONGS. Gaaaah.
This baffles me and makes me mad. It baffles me because I was invited to come and see this production. I do not understand the thought process there. Why would I want to see you mess up my darling little play (which, see above, I know can work)? It also baffles me because it was pretty clear that the people involved did not understand the play (it's an extended metaphor for dying) and I wonder why they didn't ask me about it. I was email-able, for sure, and also located in their neighborhood. I'm hardly Arthur Miller. (This also begs the question as to why they wanted to do a play they didn't understand, but I have to assume they thought they did.)
It makes me mad, because my name was on the program, and I sat there and watched the audience not get it. I was being given "credit" (or demerit) for their re-imagining of my play, which didn't work. Lines that are genuinely funny didn't get laughs because people couldn't hear them, or they were confused, or the actor didn't land the line. The emotional heft of the play -- which was written in memory of someone I loved and lost -- was absent. It looked like a bad play, and it is not a bad play. That is incredibly maddening.
But what is even more maddening is the lack of respect given to me as an artist. I am completely and totally open to new ideas, which I believe any of the directors I've worked with would agree with, should they happen to read this. Sometimes I stick to my guns because I think things will work out on stage, but if an idea if better or even just worth trying, I usually say yes. Here, no one asked me. This is completely disrespectful to intellectual and creative property and just a terribly poor practice. I guess it comes down to -- I may not be in the room writing the play when you're reading, rehearsing and performing it, but I DID write the play. I worked hard on it. It is an artistic statement I wanted to make. If you want to make an artistic statement that is pretty radically different from what I wrote, then you need to write your own play.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Onwards! There are great actors and directors out there!