This So Called Disaster, part 1

Posted in Running the theatre, The Seagull on January 12th, 2011 by kellinewby

There’s a documentary of a Sam Shepard production titled This So Called Disaster...that I often show my students to give them a sense of both one of our great living playwrights and how theatre works.  The “disasters” in the case of the production are minor and are mostly related to Sean Penn and Nick Nolte not getting along, and Woody Harrelson not really knowing how to be a theatre actor.

Poor Sam Shepard, I sometimes think, all these famous actors falling over themselves to be in the play he’s both writing and directing that seems to have no budgetary limits.  But then one looks at the plot of the show–Shepard trying yet another way  to deal with the damage caused to his family by an abusive, drunken patriarch.  He promises in an interview that this will be his last play about a drunken, abusive patriarch.  As the interviews continue, we learn that the actors are dealing with various personal tragedies–debilitating sickness, dying family members, dearly loved children that are more than a couple hours away by plane ride.

In the end, despite all the odds that are (or are not) stacked against them, the play comes off to tremendous success.  Perhaps the title means that all human stories and collaborations are a series of small disasters that, when taken as a whole, when shaped by a common goal, can be turned into something great, hence “so called.”

There’s another show I love because of the way it deals with theatre and humanity: Slings and Arrows.  The lead character, Geoffrey Tennant, is a disaster most of the time, but each time it seems that the show cannot go on (and he is incapable of separating the show from his own life, something that his sometimes-girlfriend can’t stand) he declares that the best things happen just as the string is about to snap.  It’s television, so most of the time the magical theatre music kicks in and everything rights itself and becomes transcendent.

So why do I write about this here on this blog?  Well, we’ve been presented with a series of challenges recently that we are turning to our advantage and I keep coming back to these two films.

Four years ago, as I was first getting involved in the company, we got together and read a script that we all loved.  We have spent the past four years trying to find a director for it, to no avail.  Then, after On the Verge, Frank,  a former company member resurfaced and, inspired by OtV, declared that he would like to direct.  We handed him the script we’d been carrying around and…he loved it.  Loved it.  He gathered together a crack team of designers who met in November (the play is scheduled for May) and they all loved it and had design concepts.  We planned a second meeting.  We scheduled auditions.  It was just the sort of energy we needed after the disappointing turn out for On the Verge had disheartened us.  The board loved it; the show is about the effects of Alzheimers, so we were going to try to find a way to raise money and awareness for local organizations.  I proudly announced the show at the first weekend of the Red(and Green)room and bragged about how prepared, how ahead of schedule we were.

Then, one week after I announced the show, Shakespeare and Co. announced their season.  Yep.  They were doing the same show.  Which explained why we had never heard back about the rights.

We went through all the stages of reaction–disbelief (of all the shows in all the world, this one?  This fairly obscure one?), frustration (but we’ve done all this work, waited all this time…why don’t they stick to Shakespeare), denial (what if we just do it anyway….) and finally, acceptance.

So Frank, the artistic committee, and everyone Frank knows sent lists of plays.  In one of his early e-mails he wrote “Why not Miss Julie or The Seagull…something classic?”  It was one of many, many ideas.  I helped him sort through the suggestions.  It was a week of long phone calls, constant e-mails and a lot of wikipedia dramaturgy and then, just when it seemed there was no answer, that we’d never find a play that spoke to him, that worked for our space and our company and was about something that mattered, he called me.

“I have this crazy idea,” Frank said.  “Why not The Seagull?”

We hashed it out–Chekhov is scary/boring/you are not allowed to do it wrong/there are so many places to go wrong/it needs men/so many people have had bad experiences with it….and on and on, but throughout he threw out ideas, and so did I.  We both agreed to re-read the play and see what we thought.

Years ago, we decided to choose between Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.  We all wanted to do the Tempest with masks and movement training and (etc., etc.,), but when we had a community workshop to test the waters, the scenes from R&J just worked.  Magical theatre music worked.  We all left that afternoon, sat down with a Complete Works and a glass of wine and realized it was crazy, but why not Romeo and Juliet–if we did it right.  And we did do it right, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been in.

So why not The Seagull?