This past Wednesday evening, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the current Broadway revival of The Color Purple. I went with a friend from work who I often see theatre with, andthese artistic experiences that we have together fuel all sorts of discussions and thinking that we do about current events, cultural trends, and social justice issues. Given our interests and past production choices, The Color Purple seemed like a great choice.
It’s 1:00am on Saturday morning, and I should be in bed. The alarm will go off at about 5:00am, as I’m scheduled to be on a train at 6:45am to Philadelphia, where my brother Kevin will pick me up, and we’ll head to the second half of a 24-hour play festival.
As I type this, five playwrights are up writing as well, frantically piecing together a ten-minute play that must be submitted via email to the producer of the event by 7:00am. This madness is part of a fundraiser for Learning Stages, the theatre company that I co-founded and have worked with for 20 years. I’ve participated in these 24-hour events before in a few different places, but tomorrow will be my first foray into acting in one of these “quickies” and my first time on stage in about two and a half years.
Given that I am writing and directing a project for NYU at the moment, I thought it would make sense to do something “easier” and just act. That sounded like a good idea four months ago when the date was set and I committed to it, but on Friday morning when it registered that I was going to be acting in front of 200 people in about 36 hours, I suddenly had second thoughts. I’m tired from my own process, I’m frustrated with this particular moment where I’m waiting for elements to come together, and I’m weary of the rehearsal process. The last thing I want to do is get up in front of a group of people and have to be funny or vulnerable or whatever the playwright hands me. I started the day in a shite mood about this, wondering how I could get out of the trip altogether.
Later in the day, I had a bit of a revelation while talking with my dear friend and colleague, Judyie Al-bilali. She had stopped into the office to prep for her next class meeting, and we started talking over the photocopier about the show and my frustrations and lots of other things. We got into a discussion about actors and acting and teaching and directing actors in a university setting, and suddenly it dawned on me that going to New Jersey and acting in a short, ten-minute play was exactly what I needed to do in this moment. I needed the humbling experience of remembering what it means to be an actor.
Two weeks out from opening, and this is about the time when the pressure starts to wear on me, and the actors become easy targets for my impatience and discontent with the process in general. They are struggling to retain their lines and remember their blocking on an ever-evolving set that’s different every day that we go into rehearsal. It’s easy to become frustrated, sitting out in the house, my script plopped open and coffee in hand, thinking I know it all, as they flounder around, valiantly I might add, working hard to tell the stories that we’ve spent the last four weeks exploring and creating together. The task before them is overwhelming, and the last thing that any of them need is a director without compassion or empathy.
And so it goes that I’m going to eat some humble pie in a few hours and remember what it means to be an actor, what it means to hold a script in my hand and to have to communicate someone else’s story to an audience of people looking to be entertained or enlightened about the world. Hopefully, the experience will be a positive one for all of us involved in the 24-hour play festival, but however it turns out, I know that the experience will remind me that the actor is the primary communication material that any playwright or director has to work with, and that knowing what it means to be an actor and tell a clear story to an audience will be invaluable to me as I enter the last stages of my own rehearsal process. Without that compassion and empathy for the actor’s experience, I won’t get very far as the director, and neither will my production.