Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
What a cruel and fundamentally unfair thing is a Cold Reading.
Last night, Fury hosted a preliminary readthrough of this most-currently-final draft of In The Eye of Ivan, in preparation for what should be, if everything goes according to plan1, the July production of the play. Primarily, the readthrough was for the designers, so that they have a better idea of what they are working towards, but secondarily it was to feel out actors for roles we have not yet cast. Not an audition, so much as a scouting session.
The readthrough consisted of giving a handful of actors the scripts and having them jump in without any preparation whatsoever–that is, Cold. And as I just said, this is a cruel and fundamentally unfair thing.
It is unfair to the play, which has not been explored by those who are reading it at this moment. It is unfair to the playwright, who has to sit through what is essentially an unrehearsed performance of a work he or she has placed so much time and heart into. It is unfair to the director and anybody else involved with the casting process, because how can they get a feel for how the actors are tackling parts they have no prior experience with? It is unfair to the actors, who are giving improvised performances of new material, even though improvisation is not a skill they must necessarily be proficient in for the purposes of the work.
Shurtleff explains that the best way for an actor to tackle a cold reading in an audition is to make a strong choice and deliver it with full energy, and this is a good idea for acting in general; but this was not an audition, it was a readthrough of a two-hour play and even when the actors were making strong choices, it took them the length of the piece to come up with the correct choices.
I do not mean to disparage the actors, who were doing as good a job as they could. However, it is one thing for young actors to audition for something like Bogosian’s subUrbia, where many of the characters speak their lingo and are approximately the same ages and social types; and it is entirely another to ask them to leap blindly into a play set in 16th century Russia and with dialogue modeled superficially after Chekhov.
I am not worried about the quality of the final production. Mark is a very good director and I am very excited to note that the capable actors we cast as the two leads for the staged reading last summer are still very enthusiastic about doing an actual performance2. But I have heard this play aloud through three incarnations and have yet to hear a completely satisfactory performance.
I grow weary, specifically, of not having heard or seen an adequate Ivan the Terrible or Prophet Vasily. Although not principal characters, both are designed to hang over the piece ominously, and the few moments they have onstage have to translate the themes of the piece–light and shadow, God and Man, construction and destruction, vision and blindness. If their characterizations fail, they become dull ornaments that eat up stage time, nothing more.
I like all of the characters in this piece, but I am very proud of these two. The Ivan I attempt to present is a tormented, God-fearing sociopath with absolute power over life and death; a man aware of his approaching insanity who wishes with all his heart that he would not become the monster he would one day be, and yet revelling in his monstrosity while he enacts it. The Vasily I’ve written is a Fool for Christ, a painfully underfed amalgamation of prophet and court jester. He preaches and yet his words dance and tease. He defies Ivan the Terrible both because he feels confidence that God is on his side and because he simply doesn’t understand why he should fear this mad boy-king of Moscow.
(I catch myself occasionally writing plays as if anticipating the term papers I want future graduate students to write about them. Or perhaps I only believe that because when I’m truly satisfied with my work, my first response is to examine it as if I were writing the term paper on it3. This is smug and self-important, and not a part of me I am particularly proud of.)
I have not yet heard an actor capture these characters the way I envision them, nor even any way that would at least be interesting. And I cannot expect that to happen at a cold reading, but it is nonetheless a painful, frustrating experience.
I have elected to step back from this production. I am giving the reins to Mark, leaving myself mostly in charge of funds and the script. I do not think I can bear to watch this one in process; it has been in process for me for so long that seeing anything but the final product at this point could threaten to turn me into Surly Overprotective Playwright.
And there are already enough of these in the world. They skulk through theaters that seat 20 and theaters that seat 2000, their unapproving eyes fixed on minute details, their harsh voices hacking at these inferior beasts who deign to translate the divinity of their art. They are legion, and Edward Albee is their king.
Hrm. Okay. Clearly I’m weird and hungry right now.
1 The money is still tied up in bureaucracy; I have been told at this point that I can expect the check in 3-4 weeks, but we may have to put a deposit down on the space before then. Fingers are well and truly crossed.
2 One of these actors is currently understudying John Mahoney at Steppenwolf. I feel very fortunate to have him interested enough to come back.
3 Which is funny, because I used to be convinced, in high school, that whenever my English teachers were pointing out symbolism or other highfalutin literary devices, that they were just making it up. “Surely,” thought I, “Hawthorne didn’t mean anything so obscure when he wrote this scene for Hester and Pearl in The Scarlet Letter.” Now, I wonder if I consciously look for ways to insert symbolism and deeper subtext because that’s simply the natural progression of the maturing writer…or because I was taught that it had to be there by my English teachers.