Sunday, October 24, 2010

Choosing a Play

Producing a play begins a year or more before opening night.

First the committee calls for applications for directors. Six (or for next year, seven) are chosen. These aren’t necessarily the best, it's more like the best except one. They try to pick one first-time director each year to build up their stable of directors. This time round it was me. The directors are allocated slots in the program for the following year.

The next step is to choose a play. Each director picks three plays from different genres and submits them to the play reading committee.

My first choice was Maskerade by Steven Briggs, from the book by Terry Pratchett. This has a lot going for it. It has a big cast, so we are likely to pick up new members, there are many good roles for women, making it easy to cast (we tend to get more women than men auditioning) and it’s very funny.

The downside is that you really have to be fond of DiskWorld to get the best out of it, perhaps not our typical audience member. We might be able to get round that by keeping a brisk pace so they don’t have time to realise they don’t know what’s going on. Nearly everyone knows Phantom of the Opera, and they will see that story going horribly wrong. It’s also technically challenging. There are many, many scenes and the lighting operator will be as busy as a one-armed paper-hanger. The sound operator won’t have time to nick out the back for a quick fag either. It’s a bit ambitious for a first time director.

My second choice was Copenhagen. Talk about contrasts, everything that Maskerade has going for it, Copenhagen hasn’t. Ostensibly it’s about a meeting in 1941 between two of the greatest physicists of the last century. In fact it goes from the early twenties to the early fifties. We’re talking really heavyweight powerful drama here.

The downside is that, basically, it’s three people standing on stage and talking their heads off for two and a half hours. The hard part is to convey to an audience the excitement, the shear thrill of scientific discoveries made by these two men and their colleagues. People think of scientists as cold, logical thinking machines and it’s not like that at all. They forge ahead into the unknown just like the explorers of old, with as much passion, and what they miss in the way of native bearers they make up in the way of students to pass their passion on to. That’s one of the things I would have to bring out from this play. This one is much more than a bit ambitious for a first time director.

The third play I had in mind was The Relapse, a Restoration Comedy by John VanBrugh. (John VanBrugh was the architect who designed Blenheim Palace for the first Duke of Marlborough.) I had heard good things about it, how it was still being performed and still spoke to our times. My copy arrived the day before the meeting between the directors and the play recommendation committee, and I sat down to read it with great anticipation.

It was dreadful.

The only people who would appreciate it are academic experts, and they would get their enjoyment from picking up all the things I got wrong in spite of the voluminous notes at the end. So that one’s out.

This left me with East Lynne, a Victorian melodrama. Anyone not over-acting will be dismissed immediately. No, that’s not quite true. We need one person acting perfectly naturally to point up the ludicrous behaviour of everyone else and to draw the audience into the joke.

This would be great as a cabaret show in the foyer with the audience around three sides of the stage throwing peanuts, but on stage it runs the risk of falling flat.

Getting desperate, Under MilkWood, by Dylan Thomas. This needs, not so much a director, more a conductor. It’s a play for voices, originally broadcast by the BBC in 1954 (with Richard Burton in the lead). I had no real idea how I would stage it until Leone suggested doing it in the foyer. Then it fell into place. Theatre in the round, inverted; with the audience in the middle and the action taking place around them. Sounds weird? Yes, but I think it would work.

But that still left me without a play for the stage. Someone suggested three comedies by Alan Ayckbourne. He’s usually good for bums-on-seats. I read them through. Play one, act one: sixteen-year-old girl in despair prostitutes herself and her first client dies. This is supposed to be funny? They were all the same, unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. I didn’t want to ask an audience to watch these, much less laugh at them.

By this time the play recommendation committee had much of the program pretty well settled. Would I consider a thriller for my slot? Sure.

Witness for the Prosecution. Agatha Christie is usually a winner; we seem to have had one nearly every year recently. It was quite reasonable, but had a couple of downsides. Well, three actually. The large cast was mostly men. Only three female roles, two of them small, one at the beginning, the other very brief at the end. They could double, but the author recommends against it. Second hit, much of time there will be nothing but men standing still and talking. Our audience will have seen enough Rumpole to know that barristers in the Old Bailey don’t go wandering about all over the place like they do in American court dramas. The real kicker was that it really needs two box sets and to switch between them three times in the course of the play. There are ways to do this, but it would be difficult to avoid looking very amateurish.

Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier was mentioned briefly. Apparently there was a play written and produced shortly after the book came out, but I was never able to track it down. Another play was written just a few years ago, but it got dreadful crits, so I didn’t bother trying to find that one.

The play finally decided on was Gaslight. Everyone thought it was written in Victorian times, but that transpired not to be the case. It was written and first produced in 1938. There was a film version in 1940 with Anton Walbrook and in 1944 the one everyone remembers with Ingrid Bergman and Angela Lansbury in her first film role. For some reason its title was changed to Angel Street, which is daft; the play has nothing to do with the street and much to do with gas lights. We will be producing it as Gaslight. (Or perhaps it was the other way round. Perhaps it was Angel Street first, before someone pointed out it was a daft title.)

It’s supposed to be a thriller. The challenge is to make it a thriller for those who think they know the story, to get them on the edge of their seats. I think I can see how to do it. It’s going to take some superb acting, but we have some superb actors, so it’s doable.