Monday, November 28, 2011

The other side of the footlights

Just finished a two-week run at the wonderful Millibo Art Theatre (formerly the Manitou Art Theatre) in Colorado Springs. Only this time I wasn't a playwright, I was an actor.

Yep, you read that right. I -- Mr. Introvert, Mr. Can't-Act-His-Way-Out-of-a-Paper-Bag -- took a rare turn on the proverbial boards.

It wasn't my plan, but when a prominent local director drafted me to appear in a play, who was I to question her judgment?

The play was "Out the Window", a hilarious 15-minute comedy written by the criminally talented Colorado Springs actor Jordan Mathews for FourPlay, a 44-hour theatre project. (That's my equally talented co-star Carolyn Sinon grasping me for dear life above.)

I was only on stage for about two minutes, but what I learned will feed my writing for a lifetime.

The thing that most surprised me about performing was how monotonous it was playing the role every night. And that was for just six performances! Carolyn and I had to change it up every night just to keep ourselves sane.

And that was the saving grace of the whole experience. Not only did it make performing more fun, it helped us come up with bits that squeezed every drop of laughter from the audience.

In our scene, we played two office workers taking a coffee break outside. Early on, we came up with the idea of me reading a newspaper as a veritable between my cocoon and the deluge of vernage spewing from her mouth.

We played with the newspaper a bunch of different way. Some of them worked, some of them didn't. But we didn't come up with the real payoff until the final night of the show.

That night, instead of holding a full section of the paper, I held only a single sheet. This meant that when she grabbed my newspaper, instead of it coming free in her hands, it ripped right down the middle in two long strips.

And I continued to read one of the strips, impervious to her rant, to the delight of the audience.

So what's the takeaway for me as a playwright?

Simply this. Trust your actors.

The script is merely a blueprint for the play. Lay the groundwork for the story, of course. But then step back and let the actors do what they do best: play.

The actors will be happier. The audience will be happier.

And your play will truly come to life.