An Evening of One-Act Plays
Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival
July 29-August 2, 2004
Theatre, I find myself saying pretty regularly, invites the audience to believe, or at least to pretend they believe, that in the sacred space under the lights there are no accidents; that everything is deliberate, shaped, formed, purposeful. It's that belief that allows us to attend in the special, intense way we attend to theatre. Every time you let yourself make allowances ("Ah, that couch is the way it is because it's the one they had backstage; remember it from the production before last?" "Oh, yes, that character has his arm in a cast because he broke his wrist in rehearsal." "I see, Siegfried has to walk off stage because the swan boat is broken tonight.") the focus of your intensity blurs and the possibility for the play to surprise and transform you is lessened.
Of course, in amateur theatre (indeed, really, in all theatre) we know better: we know that time and chance happeneth to all things. But if we're actively engaged, we keep trying. We rebuild our model of perfection; we try to make the accidents or contingencies part of the purpose. And a good theatre company does the same thing, too: if there is only one couch, treat it as though it were the one you chose out of the whole world of furniture stores; if the Swan boat's broken, make a point of Siegfried's courageous decision to walk.
In a way, this is a particular challenge for the sort of "workshopped," "in development" play presented by the NotaBle Acts festival: on the one hand, of course, such plays come with the accidental and the ad hoc built in, so as an audience we need to imagine what the potential might be for the play to work perfectly; we need, as far as we can, to imagine that where there's any doubt at all what we're looking at is deliberately chosen by the author, the director, and the actors, and to operate on the hypothesis that it was the best choice.
Both of the winners of the NotaBle Acts competition for one-act plays, Mark Jarman's Paratrooper and Jennifer Roberge-Renaud's Even Cowgirls Get Hitched, demanded (and repaid) that kind of attention as they were produced as part of the Festival. As scripts and as productions, of course, both were unmistakably works in progress, and needed a good deal of imaginative and attentive participation to work.
Paratrooper, for instance, begins with a clever satiric concept: a paratrooper is trapped in his chute, hung from a tree, while the world passes by, alternately ignoring him and his plight, or using him as a springboard for their own ongoing passions and interests. The paratrooper, between episodes of asking for help, meditates on the various ways in which soldiers have, through history, done the things soldiers do. Satirically, this is a nice device, allowing us to contrast, for instance, the paratrooper's world with that of a couple looking for new sexual ideas or another shopping. Dramatically, however, it poses problems that weren't entirely solved. Michael Morrison , who was convincing and engaging as the trapped paratrooper when he was dealing with the other characters or when he was doing a sort of monologue, didn't have much help while he was just hanging from the tree. He had somehow to keep us from noticing that, having asked for help from passersby, he was then oddly silent, hanging in his harness while the others in the play went about their business. As a radio play, or a piece of prose, this wouldn't present a problem, but that a character on stage, so obviously present, has no motivation, but is simply there, left Morrison, shall we say, hanging. The rest of the company, in their passings by, were suitably engaged in their own pursuits (I was particularly impressed with the vibrancy of Lou Poirier and Jeremy Gorman as the couple with the baby carriage looking for novel sexual roles), but finally we were left looking for a way to conclude or shape the play more satisfyingly. This was perhaps made clearest when, for the curtain calls, Morrison simply stayed hung up, and after the audience had stopped applauding and was leaving, had to to be assisted to get down. Was this part of the play's presentation of the stuck paratrooper, or simply a problem that hadn't been solved? One wanted to see it as the former, but it was difficult to do so. We needed a curtain, or a blackout, or a defined convention, to make a clear distinction between the paratrooper caught in the tree and the actor trapped in the set.
Even Cowgirls get Hitched represents almost exactly the opposite extreme from Paratrooper of what theatre might do. Indeed, the pairing of these two plays established a kind of extreme limit of difference: they were as different, in Robert Heinlein's phrase, as chalk and Wednesday. In the case of Cowgirls, instead of a concept driving the play, as with Paratrooper, what we have is an entirely naturalistic situation -- indeed, one you might expect to encounter in a television situation comedy. A half hour before the wedding, the bride's sister and mother, and the belated bridesmaid, contrive to render the day pretty much a nightmare for the reluctant bride, in ways which are, finally, fairly predictable. The sister doesn't want to get dressed up; the mother wants everything to be conventionally perfect; the bridesmaid's a free spirit who isn't so sure she's such a good friend of the bride; the bride really isn't sure about the whole thing to begin with. Held together by a consummately professional performance by Michelle Daigle as the mother of the bride, and a stellar job of last-minute part reading by Marissa Robinson, filling in with script in hand for the suddenly ill Chelsea Seale as the bridesmaid (workshopped plays don't have understudies), the play offered us all the laughs, and all the poignant moments of recognition, we might expect from a fairly intelligent TV comedy.
Both productions challenged our predilection for seeing everything on stage as purposeful. Could we understand the paratrooper's prolonged silences as the enforced silence of the victim? Could we take the fairly tacky veil the bride's mother forces on the bride at the last minute as tacky because the mother's taste was tacky, rather than because it was the easiest way for the company, on a tight schedule and a short budget, to produce a veil? Could we carry off that assumption of perfection and make the productions work better?
Audiences who care about theatre -- and one assumes that that's most of the people who come to the Festival shows -- found lots to attend to, and lots to be puzzled by, and lots to enjoy, in these two one-act workshop productions. Whether it's necessary for the summer festival to go beyond this, and present productions that will attract audiences who don't bring with them that deep commitment to sharing in the community creation that is theatre, is a question which I'll leave open.