Saturday, February 12, 2011

Human High School ... the road to production

For about three weeks now I've been rehearsing the cast for my play Human High School. It is set to open at La Grande High School on March 31 and run through April 2. I began writing this script last summer after reading the screenplay of the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I decided to use to idea of aliens walking amongst us as a kind of template for a modern day story set in an American high school. Typically I spent two or three hours most early mornings from late June to early August writing....about two or three pages of dialogue each day. I used a commercial online product called Celtx to write and format the script. It was really easy and fun to work with that kind of support. Celtx offers an online studio where all my work can be archived and is instantly retrievable.

I printed my first working draft on August 6. I remember the anticipation I felt as I pushed to the next stage, printing enough copies and getting them bound so that I could have a reading with some friends at the White House Cafe. Initially I had told myself that if all went well I might actually end up with a script that maybe I could put on stage, but that was just me talking to myself in the privacy of my own head. When I put it in the hands of other people to read aloud I realized that it would soon be put up or shut up time. I told myself that if it sucked I would just step back and put it on the shelf. The reading went well didn't suck, and I got some very useful and insightful feedback that opened up some clear paths to revisions of my script and I got enough encouragement that I became seriously intrigued by the prospect of putting this thing onstage at LHS.

In that middle part of August I must have reprinted the whole script a half dozen times. The guy working at the copy shop downtown began to recognize me and my script. I began looking forward to the fall and to giving the script to the principal to begin the approval process. At this point there were only a handful of people who had read it, another handful who I'd given the pitch/plot summary to orally. I started to talk up the play to students in order to attract interest in auditions in January. The fall was a time during which I entered a little squirrel cage with the script, tweaking things here and there but really not able to get distance and perspective on it.

It wasn't until I cast the show and held the first read through with my actors that got a glimpse of what I had done. It's hard to describe the satisfaction that comes from hearing your words come out of someone else's mouth, land in someone else's ear and produce a laugh or a smile or a pensive look. It's also hard to describe the sense of audacity such an undertaking invokes. As pleased as I was with first impression of the script on the cast, and as thrilled as I was with kids I had to work with, I was also immediately conscious of the fact that the script remained a work in progress. Rehearsals brought to light aspects of my script which were ill conceived, overwritten, or simply impractical.

I began making changes; I combined two characters into one, partly to make better use of a girl I had cast by giving her a larger role. Interestingly, that decision in retrospect appears to be one that was begging to be made regardless of the casting considerations. I also enlarged a different role to take advanatage of yet another actor whose talents I wanted to showcase. I began trimming some of the technical effects involving video and projection screens, bells and whistles that had been so easy to imagine at my laptop in the cafe but which would likely send us dangerously close to the realms of fiasco if they weren't handled flawlessly.

Rehearsals drove home another truth. I love my cast and feel very, very lucky to have them working on this project. I realized that I needed to trust my actors more by taking away some of the verbage and giving them the task of bringing certain realities to stage through means other than simply language. The director in me began to chafe at the writer's propensity for overly detailed stage directions. I began to sympathize with actors who said, "It says to lie down here, but do I have to do that?" We began joking about the writer as if he were absent or dead. In the middle of a scence I'd stop everything and say, "Good lord. Cut that line." Once though one of the actors offered his opinion that a certain line made no sense. "Why don't we just cut it?" he said matter of factly. It was an interesting moment. I remember feeling like my own impromptu revisions made in front of the cast had potentially opened the floodgates. Actors were now responding to lines with red pens rather than with motivation. Impulsively, I came to the defense of the script (and the writer, truth told). I challenged the actor to make it work, to view a problem line as a personal challenge and possibly even a gift. Cutting lines should not be a first resort, not for them.

Nevertheless, I began rewriting scenes and showing up with new pages. Actors began carrying around hybridized scripts containing mutliple incarnations of the play, page numbers didn't always match. I began promising the cast that these changes were very likely the last ones...mostly I meant it when I said it. The main thing for me though was the pleasure of seeing that this thing, while not perfect, was going to work, and that it was going to work ultimately because of the collabration that was unfolding with the group of kids I had assembled.

Layered over this was the other team of kids I was working with, the production team. Lights, sound, props, costumes, projection effects using video, art design...even though I had scaled back my original vision on the technical side, there were still myriad loose ends to bring together. The need to communicate effectively and instantaneously with cast and crew became paramount. The year before with Anne Frank I had used group emails with pretty good success, but this year I quickly discovered that email was largely passe. I turned, not without trepidation, to Facebook. With a cast member's help I set up a Facebook page just for the production. I confess to being a complete novice with Facebook and to not really understanding how using it for this purpose would play out. I think I can say a couple of things about it now. One, it seems to work from the standpoint of facilitating messaging to and from and amongst my Humans (that's what I call them). Word spreads quickly and efficiently which is exactly what I want. Two, I get access to way more information than I want. Most of it is benign, some of it would actually be interesting if I had more time and the inclination to delve, but a lot of it falls under the general category of the minutia and melodrama of high school life, a category that is, for the most par, not my business.

I'm not entirely comfortable therefore on Facebook but it seems to me that if I want to talk to these kids I'm going to have to go where they live. It's an environment that engenders in me some of the same feelings I've attempted to invest in the protagonists in my play - a palpable yet inchoate sense of dis-ease that seems at odds with the smiling but bland superficialities that greet one at every turn. I suspect that some kids feel the same way about the hallways and the classrooms of the school they attend...hence my play.