Last Thursday a local theatre did an informal reading of my graduate thesis play. This was the first time I'd had the opportunity to hear the play read aloud by a group of people with performance backgrounds. I had been looking for several months for a venue and actors to assist me with a reading. Knoxville hadn't been the friendliest theatre community and in my opinion tends to have a tendency of eating it's young. I've lived in Knoxville for 15 years and I have had some really great theatre experiences here as well as some really nasty ones. When I first moved here I had a nasty experience at a dinner theatre that no longer exists--thank the deity of your choice. My second venture out went better and gave me a chance to work with a fantastic local director and some fine actors, cliquish , but fine. I worked with that playhouse for many years before working with another local nonprofit theatre that no longer exists. I genuinely miss the director of that group who now directs in Rochester, New York. Since he left I noticed a nasty tendency of the local theatres to do the same plays over and over and use the same actors in every play.
About 10 years ago I quit going to see local plays with rare exceptions. I hoped for something to come along and spark some creativity in the community. I lost hope last year when four local theatres all did productions of the same Tennessee Williams play within a 6 month period. I know it sounds like sour grapes, but I'm also exhausted with the audition process locally. Local theatres audition people for roles that are precast without announcing the role is already cast, which is wrong. Then there's a cult of personality issue here that over rides talent in too many circumstances. Auditioning just became this huge waste of my time.
I decided to forgo doing any theatre while I finished my undergraduate degree in psychology, but two semesters into the program I missed my true love and opted to direct the campus production of "The Vagina Monologues". I realized how deeply theatre is ingrained in me. A semester later I also became aware of how much I disliked psychology. I knew I didn't want a theatre degree from the school I was attending and I also knew that I didn't want to be a therapist. That semester I had signed up for a screenwriting class that would change my life. The professor told me that I was a good writer with a good voice that he thought was feminine yet universally identifiable. Writing was the first thing besides performance that gave me such pleasure, joy, and insight. I wanted to be a better writer. I took as many writing courses as I could while still finishing my psychology degree. I worked to strengthen my writing and with the psychology degree I felt I had an understanding of motivation and character.
I decided to get an MFA in creative writing so I could teach and write. Goddard College had the best program for me. The head of their program is a playwright and their playwright advisers are all amazing. I also looked forward to finishing a full-length work which is part of the requirements for completion of the program. It also felt good to immerse myself in reading plays. I love reading plays and realized that, though I thought I knew plays, I had no clue as to the vast amount of theatre and plays out there in the world. I also knew what sort of plays I liked to read. I love plays with strong women who are not used as plot devices to propel the men through the plot. I had had a hard time finding plays like this. I wanted more plays written for larger female actors. I was tired of the idea of a large actress being a size 10 through 14. That's not large, that's healthy. This size factor was another reason I stopped auditioning for theatre locally. It seemed local theatre lacked the vision to cast larger actors; truly larger actors. I also saw a major lack of roles for mature actors (something that has changed here, thankfully). I wanted a change, but fighting for it seemed pointless.
My thesis play has a large woman, a mature woman, a teenage young woman, and a male. I tried to make the male role as important as the women in my play, but I don't feel I write men well. I just don't find most men interesting. Yes, I know this sounds awful but I just can't want to care about anything a man has to say in a play unless it is profound and many times it's just not that profound. I'm aware it sounds like I hate men, but I don't. I love extraordinary people regardless of gender My problem is that I see where the world resides in the male gaze. I don't identify with the male gaze so why should I care about it? I want theatre based in a female gaze. That is why I write plays. I want a theatre audience to have a chance to participate in the female gaze.
After a couple of Goddard readings and a University of Tennessee reading followed by another rewrite I felt I was ready for a good reading of my play with actors who had instincts and could respond to what I was trying to put on the page. The idea of a local theatre reading it was amazing and frightening because of my history. This was my first venture with this particular theatre group. When the event was arranged all I could do was think about my experience auditioning for roles locally. I would speak with artistic directors about auditioning and ask if I was too heavy to be considered for a role in their production. Each time I was told my size was not an issue and each time I would get to the auditions and come face to face with a confused director with no idea what to do with me or directors who would immediately tune me out the minute I walked in the room. I recall an audition I went to ten years ago where the director, who I suppose thought I was out of the room, said out loud that I was so heavy no one would ever cast me (I feel it important to write that I have been cast in several productions since the above mentioned audition).
I was nervous the night before the reading. The readers where all getting together for one read through before the event with the theatre. One of the actors had to drop out at the last minute and I decided to read the role. This was an odd choice but one I felt confident in doing. I knew if I was reading I wouldn't worry about how awful an experience this might be. I was pleasantly surprised. No one was awful to me. The actors were all good with the scripts except one actor who was bound and determined to read over all the stage directions I wanted kept in the script--actually really needed kept in.
The surprise and blessing for me was the actor who read my male character. He was phenomenal and helped me genuinely like the character I had created. His instincts were dead on and gave me faith in what I had written. He was also very easy to read with and just as giving an actor as he was open to the other actors. I realized the character was good just as he was and he accomplished what I desired him to.
I did leave realizing the young female character needed some tweaking. The best criticism of the night was given by the actor reading the part. She talked about the relationship between fathers and daughters and how young girls want a dad, but often not the dad they have. I had worried the character was sometimes too forgiving and loving with her father. Her comments made me think more on that and I was grateful she participated. I also realized I needed to be a little more specific about the teenage female character's physical appearance. I think the audience thought the character was also on the heavy side like the daughter character I read. The audience commented repeatedly about how the mother character would not only criticize the weight of the daughter I read but she would criticize the weight of the teenage granddaughter. That was not my intent. I tried to make the daughter the odd person out in the family. I wrote that the male character is tall and rugged and that the mother is tall and thin. I assumed that it was implied the granddaughter was also willowy since she is the daughter of the male character. I need to rethink how the character is on the page.
Some local writers had helpful constructive criticism for me after the event via e-mail. They said it had an appropriate arc and that the dialogue was realistic and flowed well. They also found the characters sympathetic and enjoyed the plot. They agreed it didn't need much more work and that I was on a great path. The actors had many opinions that were nice but were more into creative changes and less helpful with technical issues and criticism. I've noticed local actors don't do nuance and subtle as well as they do broad plots and characters. They tend to like to beat audiences over the head with plot and character choices. I know there are plays where that sort of performance is good, but my play is not one of those plays. If I made many of the changes they suggested it would change the subtlety I was going for. They were all about broad character and plot changes that had little to do with propelling the plot along as much as they gave the characters business to do on stage. That night I wanted to remind them that Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire" doesn't have a broad change like the other characters in the play and yet he is one of the best written male characters in American theatre. What makes Stanley so wonderful is the subtle nature of his change. That was the intent I had for my male character. I feel my male character has an appropriate enough change. The writers in the audience agreed.
I feel justified in believing the play is very close to done. I also have a renewed hope in local theatre. Maybe I'll audition for something in the future, but I highly doubt it. What I'd really like to do is direct.
Causes Kali Meister Supports
Sexual Assault Crisis Centers, Amnesty International, West Memphis 3, Doctors Without Borders, GLTB Activism