Two days ago auditions were held for my new play, Hometown. This in and of itself is not a hugely monumental occurrence; auditions for various plays happen every day. But for me, it’s still something crazily surreal. It’s not the first time I’ve had a show performed and as such not the first time there have been auditions. But it IS the first time I’ve had an outlet to talk about the weird mix of feelings that something so mundane can create.
The first time this happened was almost three years ago, when I was at work while auditions happened for the first stage version of Windmills. It was the first time anything I had written had been performed and I was totally ready for it all to go wrong at any second. I took whatever excuse I could to step out the back and call the increasingly exasperated director, asking her who was playing who, how they had gone, if the cast liked the script, etc, etc. I can be very neurotic with this kind of thing. After all, it’s still scary to see something that I created in my own time, something so singularly mine get thrown out there into the world. I mean, it’s terrifying enough when I get an email from someone telling me their thoughts on the book Windmills, but a play is a very different proposition altogether. A play requires a group of actors to take a script, engage with it, find something in there that they can develop and make their own, before presenting it to an audience, usually made up of people who aren’t really sure what to expect. I tend not to hear from people who don’t like my book, because they can easily put it down and read something better if they want. But when people go see a play I’ve written, it’s a totally different scenario. They spend money, sit in the audience and unless they REALLY hate it they’ll usually stay to the end. If I am in the audience myself, this is usually the point at which I will run outside as quickly as possible so as not to hear any negative feedback. It’s not that I’m adverse to hearing bad things about my stuff, more that I already feel so vulnerable sitting there with no control over what I’m seeing performed in front of me, that I can’t take knowing that people hated it. The thing is, my script, no matter how much it means to me, is just a backbone around which the actors and director form something entirely their own. If I disagree with what I’m seeing, well, tough luck. And believe me; so much jumps out at you. Lines that seemed good on the page are just clunky, people interpret the characters wrong, and so on. It all feels like my fault and usually by the end I am a shivering wreck.
The worst scenario I ever had, and one that was quite unique, was in the aforementioned first stage version of Windmills when, due to casting issues, I had to come in and play the character of Ed at the last minute. This was all very well and good; Ed is probably the best character I’ve ever written and a lot of fun to play, but in all my life I have never felt so panicked. See, if I was just an actor I could blame the script and director for anything in the show people didn’t like. If I was just a writer then I could blame the whole crew and go on a big, self-indulgent rant about how they butchered my work. But as a writer AND an actor? Well that implies a pretty big level of responsibility and involvement. There’s no distancing yourself from that. Being an actor in the show meant that on some level I had to approve of what the director was doing. If the play flopped, I had no-one to blame but myself. Now, I’ve done plays for years and while I still get nervous, stage fright isn’t something that really bothers me. But on Windmills I was pretty damn certain that I would not be able to go on. I was so thoroughly terrified, it’s a miracle I got through the show at all. And it was rough; if the audience laughed at moments that were meant to be serious, I took that extremely personally. But I also learnt harsh lessons about scriptwriting; about the moments that worked on the page but not on stage. Overall though, I was happy with that show.
Contrast this, however, with the second version of Windmills, at La Mama Theatre in Carlton. This was just after the book had been published and I planned on selling copies after the show. I had updated the script to something I was very happy with, and there seemed to be a pretty good cast in place. I wasn’t involved at all this time and I invited a whole lot of friends to come with me to opening night. I could not wait. This, by the way, was the second time anything of mine had been performed and the first time I knew nothing about the rehearsal process. My first experience of it would be the finished product. Plus, being performed at a well-known theatre in the city promised greater exposure than I had ever had before. I was very, very excited. So needless to say, it was hard not to feel stung when the play sucked. It was just bad; the whole thing felt unrehearsed, the lead actor didn’t seem to care, and I had the impression that the cast only barely knew their lines. Dialogue that was meant to feel fast and snappy was slow and, consequently, was really stilted. Add to this the fact that only two members of the cast seemed to have even the vaguest understanding of their characters. I walked out feeling embarrassed and very angry. I left as quickly as I could, avoiding talking to the cast where I could. My friends wordlessly accompanied me to the pub, waiting to hear my reaction. And when I told them how much I hated it, they were relieved; not one of them thought it was good.
Then again, it’s so rewarding when you see it done well. The performance of Life Without Me that went on last year was so damn good that I didn’t even care if people didn’t like it, because I knew that they’d got it right, so I was happy to take the rap for it. I saw on stage not only the show I had envisioned while writing, but something better. Characters I had not thought much of came to life in ways I never expected, in the hands of an assured director and good actors. I walked out totally satisfied with what I had seen.
So now it’s going to happen all over again with Hometown. I was present at the read-through a couple of weeks ago, which prompted me to re-write a lot of the script, but I’m glad I had the chance. Hearing the dialogue read aloud illustrated a lot of issues for me, but at least I learnt what they were before the play actually goes on. But really, the beginning of the process for me is the auditions. A cast will be chosen, people will become the characters I wrote and in a few months’ time I will walk into a theatre, absolutely terrified, to see what happens. But having experienced it a few different ways now, I can be a lot better prepared for it. Still, none of that makes the whole thing any less daunting than it was the first time.
Just some thoughts.