28 April 2010

Caught up in the drama

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” – Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

As I stepped out into the crisp, night air, full moon beaming above me brightly, I had a sense of vengeance and vindication being acted upon me. A seismic shift of my place in the world.

Allow me to explain.

In my former life, I was a theatre director. It was a life I relished and enjoyed with zeal. I was passionate about my art, and adamant in my devotion to the great craft that I shared with countless scores of actors, hopefuls and talentless wonders.

My relentless dedication to detail and professionalism gave rise to more than a few ‘cruel to be kind’ antics that garnered me a reputation that would make ‘Ming the Merciless’ blush! Although admittedly and decidedly Napoleonic, I viewed myself as loving despot, whose goal was to bring the best out of my performers – often in spite of themselves.  

I was firm, but fair; and saw myself as the means by which my artistic wards would reach their desired ends. In other words, if they couldn’t handle me, how on earth would they ever survive the brutal, heartless world of their chosen profession?

I cannot count the number of nights I have spent in darkened auditoria, slowly pacing richly carpeted floors, in a room that has sudden gone airless. A petrified actor stands on an empty stage; white, hot light glaring down upon his/her vacant face. I can almost hear their racing heart, sense the breath that has now stopped, and the trickle of sweat rolling slowly down their spine.

The actor has dried. Forgotten the next bit of text, but dare not call out “Line!” knowing that I will, in my own words: “Fly, from wherever I am in the room, and stop you.”

And so, we wait.

In silence. 

A silence that seems to last a millennium as the wheels of the actor’s mind spin out of control frantically. As the metaphoric hamster in her brain races in its cage.

My actors would never guess that I hated these moments as much as they did. I will not go so far and say: “I suffered in those moments, too.” Because, I didn’t. Yes, it was painful; but it was my job to make them better actors, to make them professionals.

Then, the spark.

As if they have been struck by a thunderbolt issued from a merciful theatre god, the actor springs back into life, the words flow instantly like a raging torrent, never to be forgotten again.

It seems I have spent decades of my life limping in this manner through pages and pages of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Strindberg, Wilde, Genet, and the like. Excruciating times, amazing times.

As a result, I am still staggered by the joint decision the DEB and I made recently to join the Barford Drama Group. I vowed to myself, and anyone who’d listen, that I would never, ever get involved in amateur dramatics. And yet, here I am.

The Drama Group is a bedrock institution in our village, and its formidable director, Betty Corbridge is a legend in her own time. Well into her 90s, Betty has the spark, verve, drive, agility, and dedication that would give any director more than half her age a run for their money!

Truth be told, I joined the Drama Group just to have an opportunity to work with Betty. Betty is remarkable, and had an illustrious career as theatre director in London. Her career spans several decades, and her artistic triumphs include a citation and Honours from Her Majesty, the Queen.

I spent one glorious afternoon with Betty looking through her old production photographs and stunning pictures of her theatre company during off-stage gatherings. 

Each year, the company hosted a gala dinner for the casts and their supporters. These were no small soirees, but rather lavish, glittering, formal balls; and the pictures are filled with incredibly handsome men and glamorous women dressed to the nines in tuxedoes and gorgeous evening gowns. At the centre of the fabulous festivities is beautiful Betty, svelte and blonde, looking just like a 1950s, Hollywood screen siren. 

Age has not withered her, and she still has that same sassy sparkle in her dazzling blue eyes. But don’t let the sweet smile and delicate, graceful manners fool you, Betty is a force to be reckoned with.

“Well, what did you think of that?” – Betty smiled at us, as we awaited her assessment of our first attempt at the play without our scripts in hand.

“I must say,” she declared, “I thought that was ghastly! Ghastly! Positively awful. Wouldn’t you agree?”

And, in case we were in any doubt, she went on: 

“No. That really was quite dismal, girls. It was so painfully slow and laboured, if I had been a member of the audience watching it, I would have left in the first five minutes.”

Then, she demanded: “What can you say for yourselves? Does anyone have anything to say? Anybody?”

We daren’t answer. Or breathe.

Fool that I am, I hazard a weak apology: “…in some of the really slow moments, Betty, I think we were trying to seem contemplative…”

There is a pause. The air in the room disappears. Silence seems to last for millennia.

“Well,” Betty sighs calmly, bright eyes ablaze. “I could certainly see that you were trying, my dear. It was very trying, indeed. Perhaps, when you all get your lines we may have time to try some of those sorts of nuances, fine tuning, and may be even some acting.”

During the coffee break, I made a note for myself: “Don’t Be a Talentless Slug”. I wrote the note on a POST-IT. And stuck it to my forehead.

Our second attempt warranted a better response from Betty: "That was better. You actually managed to make me laugh once or twice. Well, the play is a comedy, after all."

"Was it really better?!" - we replied, eager for more praise, albeit barbed.

"Yes. On the whole better. There were even a few flashes of brilliance, in fact. Though they were very few indeed." Betty concluded.

Suitably chastised, my fellow actors and I left rehearsal with our tails very firmly between our legs. But, as I walked home through my sleepy village, I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of the times when I, too, have skewered an actor to the quick, with such directorial gems as:  “It’s called acting, perhaps you’ve heard of it?”,  or, “That was good. Let’s do it again, and this time, try acting.”

Sometimes, what goes around comes around.


SWC said...

Ah... the joys of community theater! And you acting. Would love to see that. Let me know when your group puts up "Dream on Monkey Mountain" and I will be there.

sarahbear said...

I miss those days in the darkened theatres with you! Those words may come back to haunt you, but know that if they don't kill you, they'll only make you stronger! Living proof on this side of the Atlantic :)