Industry Night, an "off-night" performance that many theatre companies add to accommodate other theatre professionals who may be involved in conflicting productions, can be unnerving for actors. The audience is usually comprised of more peers of the theatrical realm than usual; and the sense of being under the microscope is more, well, magnified. The silencing of the actor's inner-critic, the "How am I doing out here tonight?" part of the ego, can be a bit more daunting of a task than other nights. However, it must be done in order to focus on the job at hand...telling the most effective and compelling story possible. That is, unless the audience attacks.
That Pretty Pretty; or the Rape Play by Sheila Callaghan has proven to be an incredibly challenging production for we proud few that are walking the boards in Exile's wonderful production. (Get your butt to the theatre if you haven't already. We run through December 5th at Christ Church). That Pretty Pretty isn't your typical production. It's episodic pastiche at first that gives way to an all out theatrical orgy, touching on sexual violence, gender politics, male-dominated trends in contemporary media and a healthy dose of Jell-o wrestling as refereed by the iconic Jane Fonda. It took us the entirety of the rehearsal process to map those beats out, understand them externally and ultimately to dive in and relish in them...for we must in order for the play to succeed. It's pretty pretty racy stuff...and, in the end, amazingly rewarding and liberating for a cast. That sense of "How are we doing?" is always there though, every performance, every scene. The audience's role in That Pretty Pretty is therefore more amplified for the actors, and in some respect essential to our flow from moment to moment. Yes, the audience is always the uncredited cast member in performance, but in Sheila's unsettling, raucous and controversial adventure into the bowels of American culture the audience's participation is welcomed (maybe "appreciated"). We need it. It allows us to know where we are and how we stand...every laugh, guilty snicker or gasp. Only Shakespeare has provided me that brand of intimacy before.
Last night was Exile's first Industry Night, and the ensemble overcame those Industry jitters quite early on and fastened it's seat-belts for sex, drugs and rock-n-roll for reals. We were clipping along at a great pace, the play was humming, wild and fun as shit. Christie and Charlotte rocked their early scenes, Jered's head-wound didn't fall off, Amy was as charming, hilarious and elastic as ever. The Jell-o wrestling was a delicious success, and I didn't trip on my dress once! Then...a hiccup. Participation. Two-thirds of the way home, during what we call "the real hotel scene", an audience member decided she had seen enough. She stood, she protested, directly chiding Jered and me onstage, then exited. Apparently unsatisfied with the effect of her mutiny, she would return. More on that anon.
"The real hotel scene" represents a style shift in the play. Up to that point the content (the violence, the raunch, the profanity and ribaldry) is heightened by design, and requires a no-holds-barred execution from the cast. A performance style that Joe, our director, worked on meticulously to perfect and extract from us since day one. Callaghan's theatrical instincts are daring, unapologetic and dead on in this respect, amazing for such a young writer, especially one who so frequently works in television. She is absolutely brilliant in her craft and will take a seat among the luminaries of contemporary American drama. I'm more convinced of it every day...and, PS, I had very little interest in this play until Joe twisted my arm and kicked my ass to audition for it. Sheila pushes this over-the-top style to exhaustion intentionally. She knows perfectly well the audience will tire and seek, if not demand, clarification at some point. These broad styles repeatedly fail the characters, particularly my character, Owen, the meta-theatrical author. That is, until Jane Fonda aerobicizes in and saves the day. Jane stops the play, focuses Owen and consequently the dramatic action along with him. It is at this moment that Callaghan pulls the rug out. The lights change, Jane exits, and the audience quickly finds itself watching a highly naturalistic scene involving Owen and his best friend "The Rod" as Owen attempts to finish his screenplay. The real hotel scene. At the risk of giving away more than I already have, the audience begins to connect some dots from the earlier action. This abrupt shift in style, though much needed, is jarring. All of the prior anarchism is suddenly boiled down to the language of boys being boys behind closed doors (and perhaps the power of the pen in society?). It was this "real" language that our protester took umbrage with.
This show is not for everyone, admittedly. Exile clearly markets that sentiment. Hell, Sheila, blatantly does. It is The Rape Play after all; and as a result we've had one or two patrons walk out consistently since our first preview, a few mumbling, though none clearly as vocal as last night.
"You ought to be ashamed. They are women, not girls. Don't you dare call them girls." I think she said "disgusting" a few times in there too.
Jered and I paused briefly to let her finish her sentence, and to allow ourselves and the rest of the audience a moment to digest what had just happened. In those few seconds, I heard the encouraging words of Jen Childs in my mind "Don't deny. Never deny. Now, go git 'em." Accept it and proceed. No big deal. A hiccup. Theatre's awesome. It actually fired us up, and probably gave the audience new ears momentarily. Again, no big deal. Exciting. Let's get the play back on track and do our nasty, fantastic thing. And we did just that. Until...
The closing of The Rape Play finds Owen fielding questions from the audience on what we can only assume is a junket stop for his wildly successful screenplay (in which he stars, of course). It's a wonderful meta-theatrical, meta-filmic, meta-meta moment that wraps the evening up. (Especially interesting on evenings that Exile hosts an announced talk-back of their own. There's a brief "Which is which?" moment. Love it.) Halfway into the mock-talk-back epilogue, however, I heard a familiar voice from the darkness of the house-right aisle.
"You need to stop."
She had returned for an answer. Again, I took a beat to let her finish, but, no way, would I let her derail the play so near its end. Besides I had a microphone now. I continued.
Unfazed, so did she...a few steps closer to the stage.
"They are women. Not girls. You call them girls. It's disgusting. How could you write that?"
Reality was beginning to blur. Did she know the play wasn't over yet? That I'm just an actor? Now unsure of the argument she was making...or for that matter that the word "girls" could somehow offend someone worse than hacking at Charlotte Ford with a machete...I decided to include it into Owen's ridiculous Q&A. "Why don't we hear from someone else for a second?"
She was at the edge of the stage light now.
"You are little boys up there. They are women. You're just little boys. You should be ashamed. I'm talking to you."
"I hear you."
"How can you do that? How can you say that? They are women. How can you do this play? You smug..."
She had an indescribable visceral reaction to the play. She was upset. Very upset. I didn't want to single her out anymore than she was willing to do so herself by speaking her mind in front of eighty-six other patrons, but the show must...blah blah blah.
Fortunately, Sheila Callaghan ultimately saved me and more importantly her own art. Due to the conceit of the "talk-back" I was able to incorporate the protest as part of the play. "This kind of work is polarizing. Some people just don't want to see the truth..." Verbatim. I charged to the end, god-mike in hand, without issue.
Thank you, Sheila, for a crazy, exhilarating and truly effective work of theatre. Mad props are also due to Exile's fiercely protective audience members who had our backs, and to Greg Campbell, AD of Luna Theater, in particular, for finally stepping in to help discern reality lines before anyone actually crossed the apron. And, perhaps most importantly, thank you, Theatre Exile, for not stopping the show, forcibly removing anyone or losing faith that we could get through That Pretty Pretty alive.