Writing, Directing, and Producing a Stage Play
Last winter I took my writing in a 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 place in a flash fiction contest in “Ascent Aspirations Magazine,” into a half hour stage play. In the spring I entered my play in the Fringe held here in Port Alberni, B.C. This summer I produced and directed my play on stage in front of an audience. In the process, I discovered this is not an easy thing to do.
I needed a male and a female lead actor, and I asked two people who had been in plays in our local theatre before. They agreed and I gave them each a copy of the play. We met and had a run through with us discussing how we each saw the characters. Their interpretation of their character's actions and attitude were sometimes different from mine, but, other than a few places where I felt a certain delivery was needed, I let them decide how to play the part. 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 move, react, and relate.
I also needed actors for a party scene, and I approached people I knew and/or worked with in my quest. Even though I told them that they would only be on stage for less than five minutes, that all they had to do was listen to the male actor brag about how good he was, and that they had no lines, many gave a flat no, explaining that they could never get up on stage in front of an audience. Some agreed, so I gave them the times of our next two rehearsals. Most of them never showed up. I kept asking people: my cats' vet, the owner of a new store in town, the person who donated some props. But I only had the same two people show up for any of the rehearsals, and 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 people who had attended rehearsals, two actors in another play and I made up the attendees of the party. For the Saturday matinee the partiers were: one of my three regulars along with two members of my dragon boat team, the two actors from the other play, a theatre volunteer, and myself.
One thing I did learn was that for something like 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 a story, I had over forty props, some large ones being: fridge, stove, desk, computer, sewing machine, two chairs, table; smaller ones being: duster, broom, envelope, paper, boxes, material, pens, wine bottle and glasses, and many more. The play after me had only two tables, two chairs, a laundry basket and some beer bottles. Another play I watched had some tea cups and teddy bears.
On the first evening there were going to be four separate plays, mine being the first. That was perfect because it gave us time to set up our scene. However, at the end, we had to get our props off stage so that the next play could set theirs up before their showing. Our actors became stage hands and things disappeared in a hurry. The same happened on Saturday afternoon.
The important thing I learned was that while I had written the words, I was at the mercy of the actors to show up for the rehearsals, learn their lines, and speak those words on stage. My female lead was off book (I did get to know some of the lingo) quickly, but the male lead found it harder to remember his lines. He also missed some of the rehearsals.
Putting on a stage play isn't like making a movie. You don't get to 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 character kept forgetting his lines or changing them, which threw the female character off, as well as the lighting guy and Mike who had to operate a smoke machine.
The Saturday afternoon presentation went better. He still missed many of his lines, but the audience laughed when they were supposed to and they understood, and laughed at, the twisted ending. I was elated, and hearing that laughter made the whole process worthwhile. And I do believe I will try another play for next year, but I will keep the props to a minimum and have the actors tell the story instead of show the story.
While there were many mishaps and problems getting my play to the stage, the most memorable is about our wine bottle. We needed a wine bottle for the opening scene, so I rinsed one out and filled it with water. We used it for our first on-stage rehearsal and left it along with our other props for our full dress rehearsal the next evening. When I went to find it for that rehearsal, it was gone. We searched everywhere and couldn’t find it, so we used a beer bottle in its place. We laughed and hoped that the person who made off with it hadn't decided to take it as a hostess gift to some fancy dinner. I found another wine bottle for our opening night. At the end of the evening I discovered our first bottle by the back door, empty. That person must have thought it was the weakest, worst tasting wine ever made.
Joan Donaldson-Yarmey is the author of the science fiction e-book series, Cry of the Guilty-Silence of the Innocent (Book 1: The Criminal Streak and Book 2: Betrayed), mystery novels Gold Fever and The Traveling Detective Series, Canadian young adult historical series that contains West to the Bay and West to Grande Portage, and her new young adult book Crazy Cat Kid.