Sunday, July 13, 2014

Writng, Directing, and Producing a Stage Play by Joan Donaldson-Yarmey

Last winter I took my writing in a totally new direction. I attended a two day, play writing course. By the end of it I had adapted a short story of mine, which had won first prize in a flash fiction writing contest in Ascent Aspirations Magazine, into a half hour stage play. Last spring, I entered my play in the Port Alberni Fringe. This summer I produced and directed my play on stage in front of a audience. During those months, I discovered this whole process is not easy.

I needed a male and a female lead actor and I asked two people who had been in plays in our local theatre. They both agreed and I sent them copies of the play. We met for a first run through with each of us discussing how we saw the characters. Their interpretations of their characters attitude and actions were sometimes different from mine but other than a few places where I thought a certain delivery was needed, I let them play the part as they wanted. Through our many rehearsals with the props, which my husband, Mike was in charge of, the characters evolved and took shape as we discovered better ways for them to move, react, and relate.

I also needed actors for a party scene and I approached friends and co-workers. Even though I told them that they would only be on stage a few minutes, that all they had to do was listen to the main male character beak off about what a great writer he was, and that they had no lines, most of them declined saying there was no way they would ever get up on stage in front of an audience. Some agreed so I gave them the times of our next two rehearsals; most never showed up. I kept asking people: my cats' vet, the owner of a new store in town, the man who donated some of the props with no success. We ended up with two who came regularly and one who showed up once. It looked like Mike and I would be making our acting debut. I was beginning to worry. Maybe I would have to drag up some of the audience members.

On the evening of the first presentation, two of the three who had attended the rehearsals, two actors from another play, and I made up the party attendees. For the Saturday matinee, one of the three, two actors from another play, two members of my dragon boat team, a theatre volunteer, and myself were the partiers.

One thing I did learn was that for the Fringe, where plays are being presented one after the other, having a lot of props is not a good idea. Because I was showing a story instead of telling it, we had over forty props, some large ones being a fridge, stove, desk, computer, sewing machine, two chairs and table, and smaller ones being duster, broom, envelope, pen, paper, material, boxes, wine bottle and glasses, and many more. The play after mine had only two chairs, two tables  a desk, a laundry basket and some beer bottles. Another play I watched had tea cups and teddy bears.

The first evening there were four plays, mine being the first. That was perfect because it gave us time to set up the scene. However, at the end we had get our props off the stage so that the next play could get their props on for their showing. Our actors became stage hands and everything disappeared backstage quickly. The same thing happened on Saturday afternoon.

One thing I did learn was that while I had written the words, I was at the mercy of the actors to show up for rehearsals, learn the lines and deliver those lines on stage. My female lead was off book (I got to know some of the terms) quickly but my male lead had trouble remembering his lines and missed some rehearsals.

Putting on a stage play is not like making a movie, you can't go back and redo a scene. When asked, the way I put it is 'opening night did not go as rehearsed'. To be honest, it wasn't even close. The male actor kept forgetting his lines or changing them which threw off the female actor, as well as, the lighting guy and Mike, who had to operate a smoke machine.

The Saturday afternoon presentation was much better. He still missed many of his lines but the audience laughed where they were supposed to and understood, and laughed and clapped at, the twisted ending. I was elated and hearing that laughter made the whole process worthwhile. I would like to write another play for next year, however, I will keep the props to a minimum and have the actors tell the story rather than show the story.

While there were problems and mishaps on getting my play to the stage the most memorable one is about the wine bottle. We needed a wine bottle for our opening scene so I rinsed one out and filled it with water. We used it for our first on stage rehearsal and then put it with the rest of the props. For our dress rehearsal the next evening, it was not where I had left it. I looked everywhere and then had to substitute a beer bottle. We joked that hopefully the person who took it wasn't using it as a hostess gift at a fancy dinner. I found another bottle for opening night. At the end of the evening, I discovered the first bottle by a door, empty. If that person drank it he must have thought it was the weakest, worst tasting wine ever made.
Joan Donaldson-Yarmey

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