The Play-ing's the Thing

There was none of the fizz of an opening night. The bar was closed, the lobby dim. Not even ticket takers waiting to take money and cards; only a lone attendant at the entrance handing out a two-sided sheet that detailed the afternoon's event. But when the house doors opened, there were about forty of us facing a stage where five music stands had been placed in front of five straight chairs. Soon the dramaturge, the person who oversees the acquisition and development of scripts a theatre may produce, came out to explain the program, called ReACT, in which works in progress are presented to audiences for the first time, so that the playwright can, well, gauge their reaction.

     Then all the usual things happened. The house lights dimmed, the stage lights brightened. An actor walked onstage and stood in front of the music stand that held his script and began to speak, and there we were, in his hands, as he began weaving the illusion that would hold us, or not; that would create a temporary world where characters revealed themselves and the conflict between them that would create the tension that would involve us, or not. It's magic, really, theatre. Take a engaging character, and there was one in this case, Joy, played by Susinn McFarlane, give her something to go for; if we care about her we will be caught up in her progress towards that goal. We will feel for her when she gets slapped down, and feel a gradual unfolding of contentment when she succeeds. If she has a smart mouth and unpredictable behaviour, so much the better, funnier, more dramatic.
     It is magic for the playwright too, to hear/see words he imagined alone at his desk take on life in the person of an actor who is perfect for the part. To follow the smooth or not smooth segues from one scene to the other, to see if he has made everything clear enough that the audience gets it, but not so clear that viewers have nothing to think about later.
     In "Comfort and Joy," by David King, the wild and crazy title character Joy, who was invited to share Christmas dinner with the parents of her son's new girlfriend, gets taken down a peg. Maybe too many pegs, some audience members thought. This response and others will guide the playwright through another draft of this script slated for production next year.
     Non-playwrights, even avid theatre goers may not understand the importance of programs like ReACT at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre. With live theatre attendance in steady decline, the chances of getting a new play produced have gone from slim to spectral. But plays are meant to go "up," onto the boards, onto a stage where people arranged in front or around can see them. "If there's no audience, there just ain't no show," the classic rock group Chilliwack sang.  And so, because play-ing's the thing, there are these opportunities, more opportunities it seems to "workshop" a piece, or participate in a staged reading series like ReACT, than to have the actual production every playwright wants, an opening night where people arrive in their particular version of dress up clothes and the lobby is chattery, the printed program includes photos of the actors and their bio's, and a production history that might include, like the work I saw in NY this past summer, a string of "workshop" performances.  Although many plays run straight through now, the evening might be stretched out with an intermission where folks stand in groups drinking wine from stemmed glasses or plastic cups and talking about the first act. Of course the writer's wishlist assumes critics who will write reviews that are not only positive but thorough, insightful.
     From the moment a playwright picks up a pen or sits down at a computer, everything is unpredictable and that may be part of the drug.  Will the idea work, will a producer see its possibilities?  Will it get as far as a workshop and then a full production? Even with those major hurdles out of the way, it's just the beginning, because one of the enduring wonders of a live performance is that it is different every time, even with the same actors, the same script. Enter the world of theatre, just walk through the doors and you are part of the drama. Anything can happen.