We did the staged reading of Polka Dotted Platypus yesterday. This had been the sum total of all my writing efforts for the month of October, because I rewrote something like 60 percent of it in three weeks. I didn’t have time to show it to anyone, it was rewrite as fast as you can, keep going, keep going, no, it’s not good enough, not good enough, hurry up, we’ve already locked in the date for the reading. HURRY UP, your actors need at least a week to look over the script.
Any writer will tell you that when it’s just them and a computer and the voices in their heads, it’s never a good thing. The chorus of naysayers rise and fall, and sometimes seem to be kept only at bay by the alcoholic beverage of your choice. But since I was rewriting, I had to stay sober. Write drunk, rewrite sober. That’s the rule. At least, for me. ☺
So it was a bunch of Mountain Dew and Red Bull propelling me day after day after day for a whole month. The Saturday before I was supposed to email the script off to the actors, I actually had to stretch out on the bed and wait for the jitters and shudders of a caffeine seizure to die down. And then crawl back to the chair to keep going.
I was looking at this staged reading as a way to practice not freaking out. It was surely a stressful situation, my Friday night found me scouring the 99 cent stores and Target for sock puppet making materials, sending out reminder emails, grabbing food and booze for the reception, trying not to crawl through the computer and kill people as I kept getting email after email from this, that, and the other person saying they weren’t going make it on Sunday.
I decided to look up in my journals to the last staged reading I did, back in 2004, of the project we’ll call, um, er, ZigZagged Ostrich? Yes. ZigZagged Ostrich.
It was February of 2004, I had a cast of 14 (ohmyGOD, what was I THINKING?), and a bunch of things were going wrong. An actor had dropped out at the last minute, the theater was locked, the replacement actors were late because their cat got sick, another actress was battling laryngitis, miscommunications meant I had to run the Q&A session afterward by myself, and man the video camera, and my computer adapter had died, blah blah blah.
From the 2/21/04 entry:
I don't believe the day went well. Despite all the compliments, and it's not that I don't value them, because of course I do, but despite what everyone's saying, I don't have a great feeling about the play. (…) So it seems that if everyone thinks it's great, but I think it sucks, then it's probably just okay, but if I can ever get it to a point where I think it's great, then it probably is great. And I don't think (it’s) great. (…) I do feel just as confused now that’s everything's over as I did going in, and it's completely disheartening to me that all the work I put into it didn't pay off in more cohesive results.
ZigZagged Ostrich, with minor tweaking (I cut the cast down by 2), went on to be a big hit for the two theater companies that co-produced it. It got LA Weekly’s pick of the week award, it won a Goldstar Audience Award. Every now and then, somebody will mention how much fun that show was, and it was. It really really was.
Now we’re here, four years later, with Polka Dotted Platypus, and I think it sucks. Does anyone sense a pattern?
I think most insecurities stem from two sources:
1. YOU’RE A HACK. You’re in over your head, you’re a poseur, a fake, you may have a few people fooled, but the clock is ticking on your not terribly artful deception, and the curtain is about to drop, you, the emperor, are buck ass naked, and everyone has been talking behind your back about how you think you’re so great but we all know you’re a dunder headed moron, and we talk about you all the time, laugh at you and smile to your face and say you’re great.
2. YOU DON’T MATTER. You’re easy to ignore. You’re instantly forgettable, I’m sorry, what was your name again? You’ve kinda faded into the wood paneling there. I totally forgot to return your call, your email, your text, I got so BUSY with life, work, other people more interesting than you that I forgot all about you. I’m your mom, no, you can’t have a pony, a Barbie, a car, you can’t run and play in traffic, you can’t stay out late at night, I’m being a good parent, but it’s coming across like I don’t care what you want, because what you want doesn’t matter because you don’t matter, what I want matters more.
And 48 hours before the reading, trying desperately to create a Bear, Rabbit and Duck puppet from some cheap socks, foam board, and a needle and thread (glue doesn’t work on fabric), as yet another email, another text comes through from another person saying they can’t make my reading, I’m really struggling not to take these scissors and slit my wrists (which wouldn’t have worked anyway, they were kid proof scissors.)
But then, Saturday happened. Saturday I had whatever actors I could gather together at whatever times they could come over to my house to rehearse. My knowledge of directing consists of one thing Never tell an actor “Say the line like this.” So I’m babbling about how this actor should channel Betty White in Golden Girls, this other actor should remember what it’s like when your best friend is dating someone awful, but you have to lie when they ask you what you think of them, and you know how when a kid runs away from their mom in the mall and when they’re finally back together she wants to kill him, but can’t, and oh by the way, let me know if this isn’t making sense to you.
The actors are sitting on my couch in the living room, nodding their heads. They think you’re a hack. But then they open the scripts and start rehearsing.
And they’re great. They’re better than great, they’re drop dead hilarious. They’re cracking each other up, it’s a struggle for them to stay in character, it’s a struggle for me not to keep laughing because everything they’re doing is hilarious.
And I start to think, hey, maybe this script doesn’t suck after all.
On Sunday, I have the whole cast together two hours before we’re supposed to do the actual reading. I haven’t yet rehearsed with three of them. Three out of the 10 have never worked with the others before. I’ve never worked with one of the 10 before, and he’s the one that has to work with my misbegotten sock puppets (the Bear puppet has no ears, I ran out of time. He looks like a snake after a vicious mud wrestling round.)
We run through as many scenes as we can, and it’s still great. It’s awesome, everyone clicks, regardless of whether they’ve worked together before. The actor with the puppets is not just fine, he’s HILARIOUS. Doesn’t bat an eye when I show him the sock puppets, knows exactly how you’re supposed to work a sock puppet, even busts out with three different dialects for the three puppets, which has us all dying and laughing at the same time. My face is starting to hurt from laughing so much, and we haven’t even started the show.
Finally we have to get this thing going, so I shoo them all backstage, and we open the lobby doors.
And it’s a full house. A pretty full house. For every person who said they weren’t coming, for every person who never bothered to respond, there’s someone from all the different walks of my life who IS there. People I haven’t seen in days, months, YEARS. I’m overwhelmed, it’s a theater full of people who care. Who think I DO matter. Fuck everyone else who didn’t show. You missed a great day.
Because the reading KILLED. It’s very rare that you’re in a theater and you can feel a palpable energy, a tidal wave of goodwill, coming from a cast who bounce off each other, force each other to up their game, and have it swirl around the room, catching the audience up in the playful insanity of the story, and reflect it back to the cast in the form of belly laughs, cheers, even a few audible not sarcastic “awwwwwws” when the story turned sweetly sentimental. (there’s a dog in the story. Everyone loves dogs.)
I didn’t have the video camera to tape the performance (Cue the anguish wails from my parents in Alabama) because I honestly couldn’t handle one more thing, and I am about 99 percent sure that if the camera had been running, it wouldn’t have been as great as it was. All I have is a picture of me and the cast that we took two seconds before we opened the lobby doors, and the program, in which I thank most every single dog I’ve ever met.
After the show, we do a Q&A session, and I get helpful comments, stupid comments, all of which I was prepared for. And so many people told me how much fun it was, and this time I believe them. I BELIEVE THEM. This show IS fun. This script IS fun. It’s not perfect, no, no, there’s still rewriting and tweaking to do. But this reading today, with this cast, and this audience, was an absolute blast.
I am NOT a hack. I DO matter.
And when everyone went home, when I packed up the thousands bottled waters that nobody drank, and my little sock puppets that everyone thought were cute, even though the actor mangled the Rabbit Puppet and hilariously called it a “wardrobe malfunction.” When I drove home, parked the car, and got out, I saw the sky. It was cloudy and lit from the lights of the city. And I stared at the clouds, closed my eyes, and muttered over and over again with every breath I took:
It was a great day. A truly truly great day.