I write plays but I can’t act. My acting career ended shortly after an all-boys fourth grade Christmas pageant. I was a shepherd. I had one line that I had to speak to introduce Mary onto the stage. The music teacher had placed a wig on the class bully and handed him a plastic Jesus in swaddling clothes. In real life, the class bully had biceps in fourth grade and Elvis hair. I misspoke my one line. I said, “Come mither hairy!” I returned from recess bloody and a playwright.
Last weekend at an invitation-only reading for artistic directors and producers, my play “Onaje” was read at 300 West 43rd street in New York City. It was read by actors who make a living being actors. I was stunned by the uniqueness of their genius.
I am a recovering lawyer. While I practiced law, I had nine plays produced in little theaters in Baltimore. Although I was proud of them, I made no effort to have them performed professionally. When my play was given a staged reading in New York for the first time I worked with professional actors and was blown away.
The performance was scheduled for Sunday at 3 o’clock in a 30-seat performance space. The actors were sent the script about a week before the Saturday morning rehearsal in an apartment in New York. The rehearsal was, in essence, a read-through where Eric Reid, an accomplished actor and director from San Francisco, gave directorial instructions and the actors discussed their characters. The actors were all obviously capable but I was not ready for what I would see the following day.
There was another read-through which was to a large extent the blocking of the reading. All the actors sat in chairs in the black box theater against the wall until they were on stage, which meant they stood and went to the music stands in front of them and delivered their lines. There was a one hour break between that rehearsal and the performance. At the blocking rehearsal, the actors were still playing with their characters well I had a terrible thought that they had not had time to become fully familiar with the script and their characters.
I went off to a late lunch with Eric and returned to see the actors in their own village doing breathing exercises, sitting quietly or doing yoga. I had no understanding of how good they would be on stage.
The small theater filled the actors took their places and the reading began. I saw a transformation that changed my understanding of the art of theater. Somehow, they knew the people they will play in an intimate and unique way. Somehow, they knew each other and the interaction created a greater whole. The play was very well received and the script has been requested after I have had a chance to do some work on the text.
Afterward, the lights went on and the actors were people again and they merged with the audience. I stood in the back of the theater immersed in surprise by the evolution of the process and the sheer genius of those actors. Actors are unique beasts.
A central aspect of my play concerns the capacity of people to empathize with strangers. I realized as I stood there I had witnessed it by the transformation of actors so easily turning the written word into human beings.