Actors Make Me Happy – Part Two

Continuing the discussion of actors from my writing group, I want to share what happened with my script on Tuesday night, and why something that made me very unhappy at the time was ultimately a good thing.

The structure of our workshop is that writers bring in scripts in 12-15 page chunks to see them performed on stage and get feedback from the audience, made up of writers, actors and sometimes managers and producers.  The parts have been cast in advance by our AMAZING coordinator/chairman/leader, and the actors see the pages for the first time that night, often while blocking, with the writer directing her own pages.

We put up two scripts a night, so each writer has half-an-hour on stage and half-an-hour in the hall (with most of the cast) to do all the directing, plus the writer is on stage during the performance reading the action that can’t be played in that venue.  Actors are sometimes cast in both scripts that night, so only get one read-through during blocking to understand the part.  This is cold reading and taking quick, one-shot adjustments.  It’s acting boot camp.

For the past several weeks, we’ve been doing my script, SINGLE SANTAS, a huge ensemble romantic comedy, and the response has been phenomenal.  As rough as the notes were during the last script I put up, that’s how glowing and supportive they’ve been with this one.  It’s fun hearing people laugh out loud while actors are performing scenes you created, and even better when you get awesome feedback that improves the script, and includes adulation about how hysterical/touching/quirky/etc. it was to start with. I was basking in it to my heart’s delight (so you can see where this might be going…)

Due to some scheduling urgency for another writer’s project, we had to finish my script this past Tuesday night, which meant cramming 22 pages in to get to the end, and having 13 actors performing 26 speaking parts.  I planned all of the blocking in advance; we were on stage last, so I got time in the hall for a read-through; I had plenty of time with the actors to make it work; and then we put it up in front of a packed house.

And it was bad.

There were missed cues and flubbed lines.  Some of the funniest bits were completely mangled.  One actor in particular was way, way, way off his game, and I was livid, which was the worst possible response.  Remember, I’m on stage, too.  My getting angry and frustrated rippled through the entire production, and I’m sure the audience saw it happening.

So instead of the glowing adulation I had become accustomed to, I got to hear all the things that weren’t working.  Crap.

Afterwards, we all went out to get a drink and have a bite, and I sought out one of the veteran writers to ask his advice.  This group has been in existence more than a dozen years and I’ve only been a member for eight months, so I figured I wasn’t a unique snowflake having a night like this.

I sat next to him and said, “I have to ask you something.  Tonight, the actors were really off…”

He cut me off right there.

“It’s not about the performance.  We’ve all had it happen.  You are way too concerned with what the audience was seeing and not what you could be learning.  The value in this is that you get to hear it three times – during the reading, during blocking, and when it’s on stage.  You have to pay attention to what you’re seeing, and figure out how to improve it from that.  What the audience sees and tells you about is just gravy.”

That was exactly what I needed to hear.  For the past eight months, I’ve been doing this all wrong, focusing mainly on the audience’s feedback.  If everything had gone perfectly tonight, and the kudos poured in as I was expecting, I would have continued getting far less out of this workshop than I will from now on.

The actor who was the most off his game during the show came over to me and apologized, but I told him he did me a big favor, and explained why.  We then talked about what happened with him, and he realized that he has a real problem looking at the page while performing.  He wants to give his energy to the audience, which is why he tends to miss lines.  He’s even newer to the group than I am, so I guess it was his night to learn the lesson, too – in this one little corner of the writing and acting world, it’s not about the audience.

It makes me happy – truly happy – that things went poorly.  Not only did I learn and grow and come away with a much stronger understanding of how to use this amazing tool to improve my work, but I made someone who thought he’d let me down see that he’d helped me up, and I returned the favor by helping him learn and grow as well.

Between that and the actor who is using Happiness as a Second Language to improve his life, I can’t ask for much more.  What an awesome night!

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