Yesterday (meaning November 22nd) ended on a giggly note: I spent the evening with four young staffers of the Centre for South Asian Studies, celebrating my brief stay in Berkeley, during which they hosted a show of my prints. I am not going to identify them in order to spare them undue exposure, but let's just say that three gourmet pizzas, one salad, one Scotch, four cocktails and two bottles of wine flowed. Oh and there were some rather smart snacks to go with the drinks, but I have almost forgotten what they were, because by the time they arrived, we had reached the Competitive Nose-Twitching stage of intimacy.
What IS Competitive Nose-Twitching some of you may ask? Well it's when two or more members of a group are able to control the movements of their nostrils to the extent that they can twitch them in one or more directions SEPARATELY. There are certain inevitable results of such competitions -- one is that other specialty movements of facial features are discovered -- Eye-Brow Raising for instance, and Ear-Lobe Flexing -- and the other is that I begin to giggle uncontrollably. A motor starts up inside me and it becomes progressively difficult for me to turn it off.
Actually, by earlier standards, last night's session was quite sedate. We didn't really go very far beyond the Nostril Competition -- in fact the only other real display was a rather splendid Trefoil Tongue-Fold during which I (a leading exponent) encountered another similarly skilled person for the first time in my life. I was hugely impressed. However I refrained from displaying my piece de resistance (sorry, no French accents -- don't know how to generate them in this window) -- the Tongue To Nose-Tip Flexion. Over the years I have come to realize that it really is rather gross in persons over the age of 10 years -- and I am 52(I realize, I should by now have got over the need to flaunt such talents. Alas, as must be clear, I have not).
I must admit, my interactions with CSAS have far exceeded normal expectations. The Art Show, which was inaugurated just over a week ago, has been a wholly pleasurable experience. From the effort of getting the prints matted in preparation for the show to getting them positioned on the walls of the CSAS office, it has been a smooth, happy and stress-free interaction -- no, I would go further: anyone seeking a break from the dreary routines of their lives, might consider approaching the CSAS to have a show of their artwork. Of course it probably helps if one has some art to show, and if the Powers That Be at the department are adequately happy with the work ... I am very glad that I was able to meet both these criteria. My prints look right at home on the walls of the cheery little office. Anyone wishing to see them or to find out more about the exhibition should stop by at: YES ("YES" being the name of the show). It will remain up through January 2006.
Meanwhile, back at the theatre department, sorrow reigns.
It didn't have to be that way. After all: six shows were sold out; three hundred-odd visitors per show were treated to a two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza of music, dance and comedy; many appear to have been well-satisfied with their exposure to what they believed was Authentic South-Asian Culture.
Normally, this would be enough to satisfy the average drama crew. But apparently it rankles that I, who happen to have written the play, was not properly grateful about the ways in which my work had been altered. The main source of displeasure seems to be that I blogged my opinions in a thoughtless and forthright fashion and that too, on the second night of the six-night run. But blogs are custom-built to be sites for venting steams of every sort! I would have to be a very peculiar person indeed if I said nothing at all about the distortion wrought upon my play -- and what would be the point of saying it AFTER it had ceased to be current? It is even possible that my unfeelingly blunt remarks were a source of publicity for the show. *sigh*
As to the distortions: it seems to me there's a rather odd misunderstanding about what a playwright can expect from a production. It's not true that once a play has been written and published it is automatically "out there" for the world to do with it what it likes -- which seems to be what some of the visitors to this blog believe. So long as the playwright is still alive, it is considered quite normal for him/her to exercise some control over how the work is performed.
If a production doesn't match the playwright's expectations and if his/her script is significantly altered, then he/she has a right to object and to insist that it be done differently. I didn't do that. It's not because I don't know what I want but because I have learnt to recognize the signs of a production that has set off down the wrong path. Once that has happened, short of shutting the production down altogether, one has just got to grit one's teeth and let the thing run. It isn't possible to enjoy the results -- but so far, I have believed that it's kinder to permit the show to go on, because so many people have already invested so much time and effort in it.
It comes down to this: some directors believe in allowing a play to breathe on its own, while others try to force their own breath into it. The first variety is wonderful to work with -- and I have no difficulty accepting the minor cuts and/or additions such directors might request. I've had four pleasant experiences -- the Greek stage production of HARVEST, the UK and Australian readings and the BBC World Service version (on radio). In each of these cases, I did almost nothing to affect the form of the finished version. The directors interpreted my script in a straightforward manner and didn't add any unexpected flourishes to the existing text. The result was cool, austere and true to my intention; a happy place for all concerned to be in.
[a pause here to mention the Swarthmore production: it had a lot going for it, but bad things had happened in the early days of its rehearsal process. The end result was that everyone left the show feeling wrung out and there were noticeable glitches during the performance -- Jeetu's head, for instance, didn't register on the video in the last scene. Of course, the cast and crew for that show were all professionals, so it isn't surprising that their performance was polished]
It is hard therefore, for me to understand the need for me to specify what I want from a production. I already know, from past experience, that some directors succeed in interpreting the script appropriately. It isn't unnatural for me to assume that all directors can succeed to the same extent. So ... why don't they?
I don't know. I believe it's because they don't allow the text to breathe. When they're performing familiar, classic plays, it doesn't matter because the audience already knows what the original is like. The problem arises when they approach new work. In such situations, what they produce can appear to be what the playwright intended. Only the handful of people who have read the script will know that what's happening onstage is not the way it was written and they may not remember the original accurately in any case. The result is deeply embarrassing/unpalatable to anyone who cares about his/her work. It doesn't matter who adores it and how many people appreciate it -- being praised for something you haven't done is the same as not being praised at all.
I feel very sad that the cast bore the brunt of my critique. I genuinely thought the actors were very gifted; it isn't their fault that they were encouraged to over-act recklessly. I realized from the time of the first rehearsal I attended that this interaction was going to end sadly because I knew that sometime or another I was going to have to be honest about my response to the production. I realize the cast cannot at this moment distance itself from its version of the play. I can only hope that sometime in the future, perhaps as soon as early next year, some glimmer will appear of what the performance COULD have been.