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Lately I’ve been thinking about what goes into making a show happen. There are certainly many components that comprise this “finished” product (I would argue that a successful show is always growing and changing, and is therefore never finished—but that’s for another article), like producers, directors, designers, stage managers, actors, rehearsals, studio space, theater space, money, front-of-house, run crew, and audience, to name a few. I would hope that anyone dedicating a night to see a production would know that it takes more than bright lights and jazz hands to make theatre happen—at least, nobody interested enough to read this post.
But far before the designers, actors, directors or producers even fathom putting together a production, there is one crucial step that must be taken care of: the play has to be written. Of course, the writers’ names are forever associated with the work they put out, but it is easy to forget how much was put into the creation of the text, which serves as the foundation of any production.
I have often overlooked this detail in the past; most all of the theatre I’ve done in my young life has already endured many incarnations, and it has been easy for me to think of the text as an established object instead of a living, breathing document. By that standard and in that respect, the idea had never occurred to me that rehearsing a new work would be much different than rehearsing and older work: the company is given a script, perhaps a score, and work ensues from there. In my defense, it’s not like I could have expected the late Frank Loesser to pop into rehearsals for my productions of How to Succeed… and Guys and Dolls, or to have Stephen Sondheim in the studio to explain the below-the-surface themes of Into the Woods. These fantasies were simply not in the realm of possibility.
An exercise I did in an acting class earlier this week changed this for me. We had to create movement pieces depicting crucial elements of our lives and mentalities, teach the piece to a partner, watch them perform it for the class, and vice versa. I can only speak to my personal experience, but I felt a great amount of responsibility when preparing to perform my partner’s piece, and incredibly anxious when seeing my piece performed. I was watching as some of my most intimate thoughts and emotions were displayed for the world, and then taking it upon myself to accurately portray my partner’s life. There was a lot at stake, especially due to the extraordinarily personal and vulnerable nature of the work.
The same principle translates to writers. I’m a firm believer that one can only write of his own experiences—that good writing draws from the author’s life in some way. So every time a playwright puts forth a play, he/she is offering a piece of his/her self for any and all to experience. They are the creators of the worlds of their stories, and what come out of those worlds are their creations. Just like in the acting exercise, the creators bestow the responsibility of their creations unto the actors. The actors are challenged to represent the lives of the play’s characters, which are often influenced by characters from the writers’ lives; the characters that actors portray are usually real people, only fictionalized.
The point of all this is that a show is not only made possible by money or producers or directors or actors, but perhaps most importantly by a significant moment in the life of a writer. And if that writer is brave enough to bare all and let family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike into that intensely personal place, that merits my applause. So this week I am standing for the playwrights and composers who make this art possible, because behind the lights and even the jazz hands, there is a story that we cannot do without.