I had been hired to direct a play by a small avant garde theater. Hired is a strong word. I had be cajoled and otherwise coaxed into taking the job by some good friends of mine with an interest in the project. Honestly, I needed a break from working more commercial venues. Intimacy and artistry sounded like just the medicine I needed.
My friends were excited about the play they had chosen to produce, written by another friend, and I could understand their enthusiasm. The story had existential overtones without being overly absurd, a little more Shepard than Ionesco, with shades of both, heavy with sharp, witty well-crafted dialogue. Almost Shakespearean at times, without the pentameter. With my first reading, I was already doing rewrites in my head, a reaction that I always take as a good sign. The author and I would cross swords over it, but that's the way a good play is molded, forged in the smithy of souls at odds.
The plot, boiled down to basics, was a standard romance, with hero, heroine and anti-hero working through their respective issues. I spent almost a month reading and re-reading the play until my vision of the characters was solid. By the time auditions started, I had a pretty-good idea of exactly what I was looking for. Of course, finding actors who fit the roles, had enough artistic sense and ability to capture the roles and who were willing to work for sub-standard wages would prove to be a challenge. Nothing ever comes easily at the theater.
In selecting Chris, Paul and Alyssa for the leads, I constructed the perfect balance of personality and presence. Paul captured the soft strength of an elegant romantic hero, a sweet man with too much good in his nature for his own good. Alyssa is a headstrong and demanding woman, someone who is readily loved but who is forever reluctant to surrender her love, who even in love would never let go of her individuality. Chris is, well, Chris. He is dark, enigmatic and brutal. In fact, I find it difficult to say anything truly kind about him, unless it is to praise his work. Everything he lacks in personability he makes up for in artistry.
Add water, makes its own sauce. Collecting these three actors together and providing them with characters that fit their personalities so well would seem ordained by the divine powers to produce the exact effect I was seeking. For the first four weeks of rehearsal, my vision was on-track. The acting was a bit wooden, but that was to be expected in the early stages. Every read-through allowed the story to seep into their souls until slowly and surely the characters began to emerge from the people. Chris became Trent. Paul became Stephen.
Alyssa, however, did not seem to be becoming Anna. So alike in so many ways, actress and heroine, they were also diametrically opposed. Anna is the sort of woman who will not and cannot do what she is told. Alyssa is exactly the same way, but in being so, she also refused to be told to become Anna. The more I pushed, the more she opposed me. The more I insisted, the more she refused. I grew frustrated. There were times when I decided to replace Alyssa with her understudy, a less powerful actress who didn't capture the essence of Anna so well, and who therefore would allow me to mold her into Anna. I contemplated the compromise but I hate to compromise. Alyssa was my Anna and I would make her be so.
In all acting, as it is in psychotherapy, there was a dynamic relationship between the characters on stage that was reflected in the evolving relationship of the actors. By the second week, Paul was in love with Alyssa. He followed her, fawned on her, praised her and protected her. He played the hero better off-stage than he did on-stage. Chris was a dick. His ability to be rude, thoughtless and mean was unchecked. I hoped, in ways, that he was simply an excellent method actor who was channeling Trent into his every day life, but I also knew that was wishful thinking. Chris was more insufferable than Trent. The play was performing itself. All I had to do was stand back and watch the drama unfold.
Except for Alyssa. When you cut through the dramatic flow of the play, Anna is drawn to Trent until she is repelled by him and likes Paul until she loves Paul. C'est l'amour. Alyssa, however, did not like Paul. She was cordial with Paul. She talked with Paul about ordinary matters. She tolerated his love for her. Deep down, however, she detested Paul. He was weak in his gentleness, pathetic in his kindness. When Anna kissed Stephen, her heart should have flowed into his being. When Alyssa kissed Paul, it was with a tinge of revulsion. This posed a problem and not the kind of problem I could yell them out of.
And of course, Alyssa seemed to adore Chris. Damnedest thing I have ever seen. The more verbally abusive Chris was, the more Alyssa seemed to fawn on him. I know that part of her attraction was to his artistry, for despite his obnoxious nature, he was one hell of an actor. But talent, in my mind, is no substitute for simple human kindness. No amount of genius made up for the disrespect that seeped from his pores. I'm no saint, myself, given to some measure of abuse measured out to those around me, particularly when I'm working, but Chris offended me. If he hadn't portrayed Trent so well, I would have given him a heave-ho, just for being a prick.
So I'm directing a scene with a doting hero and a nasty anti-hero, while my heroine is in love with the anti-hero and cold to the hero. Needless to say, the scene did not come off as intended. Everything seemed sarcastic at times when sincerity was called for. Of course I yelled at them to cut it out and fly right, but there was no way to scream away the underlying emotions that fed the performances.
When my frustrations began to reach dangerous levels, I decided to take action. After a long day of dull rehearsals, I sent everyone home except for an exhausted Alyssa and Chris. I forced them to do their big scene over and over and over and over. We skipped dinner, which made them downright unpleasant. I mocked them. I threatened them. I accused them of not caring enough. I told them that they were trying too hard. Chris stormed off stage. Alyssa cried. I made them run through the scene again. Each performance grew more stilted, more empty, more dry. The more they rehearsed, the worse they played their parts.
Just before midnight, I let them go, insisting that they be back on stage at eight in the morning, six hours before anyone else would be there because we were going to play the scene until we got it right.
It was about eight-forty-five when they arrived back at the theater. Despite the early start, I went easy on them. We talked for a while, ran through a long list of notes and analyzed some of the better passages. I gave them some rewrites I had done.
They wore the same clothes they had worn the night before. They looked a bit disheveled and tired. By all appearances, they seemed broken down, yet they smiled. Backstage, when they thought I was in the office, I saw Alyssa lean over and give Chris a kiss. When I called them back on stage, they walked three steps while holding hands.
We ran through the scene again and as bad as they were during the long haul of late night rehearsal, they were a thousand times worse. Absolutely none of the emotions assigned to the characters came through my actors. Where they were supposed to be angry, they were happy. Where they were supposed to be tense, they were relaxed. Where they were supposed to be fiery, they were conciliatory. Every step calculated to bring us forward had been a severe retreat back. I could pull amateurs from the street and get a better performance.
I was intensely pleased with myself.
When Paul arrived at two, things got worse. He, at once, recognized what had happened. My strong, gentle hero was reduced to a blubbering fool. Every move he made toward Alyssa was rebuffed. Every act of kindness he gave was mocked. I caught him wiping tears from his eyes as he sat huddled curled up on a broken throne backstage. I thought he was going to sit on the ground and talk about fallen kings. Paul was completely useless.
This fiasco went on for three days. I soldiered through the pathetic rehearsals, encouraging them despite their complete lack of ability to capture the emotions I wanted portrayed. It was two o'clock on the third day when the cast returned to the theater for another day's work.
"Who was she?" I heard Alyssa scream.
"No one," replied Chris.
"Look, it's none of your business."
"Like hell it is."
Rehearsal that day went beautifully. As bad as the last week had been, their work was that good. Trent schemed and manipulated. Anna wrestled between attraction and revulsion. Paul took the cue and Stephen stepped in to provide his heroine strength. The drama erupted from the stage. The producers were amazed. The audience was enthusiastic. The critics raved.
I took my bow. I am a director. It is the part I was born to play.