Several years ago,
I won a New Play contest.
As part of the prize, my nascent, newly hatched play was going to be the premiere production at a weekend long theater festival in the Midwest. For me, this meant a free flight, free hotel, and since the town was close to where my parents lived, they’d get to see my play. Win/win.
The night before the production, I joined the other playwrights on stage for a "Meet the Writers" Q & A session. We were asked to give a brief synopsis of our play. The first scribe said his play was "a searing drama about a closeted gay man, struggling with sexual identity issues in today's troubled world.” The next guy's play was a “searing drama about a Muslim immigrant struggling with racial and economic issues in today's troubled world.” The third? A “searing drama about a mixed race, transgender crack addict, struggling with sexual, racial, economic and substance abuse issues in today's troubled world.”
And then there was my play: a light comedy about white people and fine art.
After the panel, three men from the audience, each beaming with excitement, approached me and announced, “We’re in your show! Guess what parts we play!” They appeared to be, respectively, ages fourteen, eighty and forty-ish - the latter with crossed eyes. The median age of the characters in my play was thirty eight (and none with crossed eyes), so I demurred; “Gee, I just couldn't say!" When they told me their roles, my heart sank. Then Cross Eyes (who was cast as the romantic lead) said “Y’know, I almost didn’t do your play because of the Director.”
“Oh? What's wrong with the Director?”
“Bi-polar, probably. Rehearsals were sort of crazy, but I think we’ve got it. Pretty much.”
Back in my hotel room, I panicked and called my parents, begging them not to come. They countered that I always said things were going to suck and then they always worked out.
“No, not this time! This time, it’s really going to suck! DON'T come!”
But they were undeterred.
Opening night. I was ushered to my Reserved seat - a very public seat, up front and center. The theater sat five hundred and it was filled to capacity. I was used to audiences clocking in at around - oh - seventeen, so this was a BIG leap. And the theater was nice - no broken chairs, no wires protruding from the ceiling, no cock and balls scribbled on the wall. The Artistic Director gave an enthusiastic speech to kick off the Festival weekend, there was a general air of anticipation and good will floating about, and as the curtain rose, I relaxed, thinking “Maybe this will work out after all..."
And then the actors began to speak.
The play was a farce, and in a farce, timing is EVERYTHING. Unfortunately, no one told the leading actress she'd been cast in a comedy. Instead of the breezy Carol Lombard-ish essence the part called for, our leading lady grimly clomped around stage like a Clydesdale and added dramatic pauses to every one of her lines (“I’d like some…. coffee.”) While she may have been in her thirties, she appeared quite matronly. This posed a problem because, in the role of her lover, they'd cast the fourteen year old boy, thus painting a pedophilic patina over all their interactions and causing the audience to visibly cringe each time they kissed.
The Cross Eyed romantic leading man turned out to be a decent actor but, in the role of "Richard," the leading man's late thirties, quick witted best friend, we had the eighty year old who ruined each joke as he couldn't master the rapid fire timing. Actually, "Richard" couldn't master the dialogue at any speed - he knew maybe one tenth of his lines.
As "Richard" stumbled through yet another speech, he'd hold up his hand as if to say "Hang on, I'll get it" and the other actors would stop dead in their tracks, actually waiting for him to recall the line. By the second act, "Richard" had given up entirely. He'd utter the first few words of a line, then trail off and roll his hand in the air like “You fill in the rest.” Sadly, none of the other actors DID fill in the rest, so much of the dialogue was a senseless series of
non-sequiturs, culminating in Richard's frantic "melt down" monologue that, in the hands this actor, played like an off putting, surrealistic pantomime.
While the set was visually quite nice, the carpet had an uneven edge that caused the actors to trip upon entering and exiting and, despite the large playing area, the actors tended to huddle together in one small section of the stage. (Afterwards, I learned that a leak had sprung from the rafters and they didn't want to get wet.) But at least there wasn't a disco ball.
(In a subsequent production at another venue, the idiot director decided it would be really fun to add bizarre sound cues to what is, admittedly, a rather traditional farce. So, when their "Richard" (who knew his lines) mentioned "the Iditarod" - CRACK! Out of nowhere, we heard a deafening "whip" sound effect. Later, a comment about Tibet inspired a random GONG! and so forth. This, however, paled in comparison to the bit when a character said "We’d better hustle!” (as in "We'd better leave this room!" As in "We'd better leave this room and the instant we do, someone else will come in! And then they'll leave and we'll come back! And we'll slam doors! Because that is what happens in a traditional fucking FARCE!") Alas, no. After "hustle!" was uttered, the lights dimmed, music swelled, and a God damned DISCO BALL descended from the ceiling. The actors trooped on stage and did the Hustle. For an eternity. Or at least sixty seconds. Then the music stopped as abruptly as it began, the ball ascended, and the actors picked up where they'd left off as if nothing had happened. A reviewer later slammed the production for its "unbelievable" aspects and "interactions between the characters [that] occasionally leave the audience puzzled." YA THINK?!)
So, while there was no disco ball at this Festival, the production was enough of a disaster that I sank low, low, low in my seat. As the playwright, I like to be incognito but the Artistic Director had pointed me out during his opening remarks so my cover was blown. This meant that many audience members were watching me watch the play, so I couldn't burst into tears or slit my wrists with my Holiday Inn key card.
While I was descending down a very familiar spiral of shame and self loathing, I did notice that people were laughing. Not one or two, but most of the audience was laughing at most of the jokes (except, of course, "Richard's" because he wasn't delivering them.) Despite all the glitches, the audience was enjoying the show. Nevertheless, as the curtain fell, I prepared for a quick getaway but was caught up short by the announcement that "Adjudication will now begin."
I dimly recalled reading something about an adjudication process but I wasn't really sure what that meant, so I'd promptly forgotten about it. Here's what that meant: I was to come up on stage and sit dead center. I was flanked, on my left, by the (smiling!) cast and crew. I was flanked, on my right, by five (not smiling!) "Theater Professionals." These professionals would, apparently, judge my play. In front of five hundred people.
The first to speak, one David R. Frinkle (named changed to protect the pretentious. For those with inquiring minds, erase the Rs ), a theater critic from New York, opened with this:
"Comedy is a personal thing and, personally, I find this comedy not funny."
Thus came the sound of five hundred people collectively sucking in their breath, as if punched in the gut.
Not only was this a fairly shitty way to start off the Adjudication process, but Frinkle had basically bitch slapped the entire audience, an audience that had been laughing for the better part of ninety minutes (so apparently THEY found it funny) but were now being told by a professional that they were, in fact, wrong.
Frinkle went on to talk about - well, himself mostly - while I pretended to take copious notes. Basically, I wrote "NOT FUNNY" and, as he droned on and on, ("I saw Laurette Taylor in Menagerie and I was transformed”), I added "STILL NOT FUNNY" and then underlined it about a dozen times.
The critiques from the other Professionals were considerably more positive (and much more helpful) but such a pall had been cast by Frinkle, I could barely take them in, so greatly did I want to run screaming from the stage, from the theater, from the Earth.
But No. I could NOT leave because this Festival was for the entire weekend and I had another forty eight hours to spend with my fellow writers and Theater Professionals. As Murphy's Law would have it, I found myself sat next to Frinkle at more than one dinner/cocktail reception/awkward van ride to the airport. To his credit, he did try to engage me in conversation. To my credit, I did not gouge out his eyes.
Because I was given that very same, very visible up front and center seat for the rest of the plays, I couldn't hide in the back of the House, licking my wounds and cursing humanity. Instead, I was forced to interact with the public and, ironically, this turned out to be the best balm ever as I became something of a cause célèbrea among the Festival patrons.
“I may not be a New York intellectual, but I loved your piece!”
“Your play made me laugh and I could use a laugh. What’s so bad about that?!”
“You know, my husband and I fly to Manhattan every year and we’ve seen several Broadway shows and that man is an idiot.”
People bought me drinks, asked me to dinner. One woman made me cookies, another a brought me her quilt because I "looked cold." When it came time for Frinkle to pass judgment on another play (I noted they no longer let him speak first), a couple men sitting in my section would literally walk out of the theater, "No way am I listening to that jerk!" and return when he was done. The overwhelming kindness of the audience greatly ameliorated the sting of Frinkle's pummeling and I left feeling oddly victorious.
After all, I'd written a play that people liked. Was it a searing drama? No. Was it going to shake up the Theatrical landscape? No. But it did bring some folks joy and that's why I wrote it (and extensively re-wrote it and eventually won some awards for it and saw it published.)
I didn't write it to please the critics, nor to impress the Theater Professionals, nor to join the ranks of searing young dramatists struggling with their issues in today's troubled world. I wrote it because I was depressed and needed a laugh. I wrote it because sometimes we need a dose of levity, a bit of escapism, a vehicle for laughter - and, in that light (much like comedy, Mr. Frinkle, success is also a personal thing) - I personally deemed the play a success.