Monday, May 10, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: Stage Fever

The Maycomb, Alabama dust settled quickly after the actors and audience left St Paul's Cathedral chancel last night, closing the third and final performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, a production described as ‘chamber theater’ in which some of the actors read from scripts rather than memorizing the lines of the play which had been adapted from Harper Lee’s famous novel.

As of last Monday night’s rehearsal, just two nights before the play would open, a couple of us wondered why in the name of sense we had got ourselves into this horrible mess. Nothing seemed to work right. Even ‘on book’ characters were not picking up lines on time, movement on stage was oafish and inept, and the characters who had purposely memorized their lines were forgetting them, dropping cues, and making the whole thing into chaos. Tuesday night’s rehearsal went a bit better, but it was with some trepidation that we took our places for the opening of the Wednesday performance.

There were glitches that night as well, but by now the cast had learned better how to cover each other’s mistakes and omissions, picking up cues for themselves and carrying the play along. I thought it was miraculous what happened that night after what had been such a mess only two nights before, and in some ways the energy of that particular performance was never equaled in the subsequent two performances.

One difficulty that we overcame was the space itself. The chancel of the cathedral had been denuded of everything but the organ, allowing quite a large area. But the audience would be sitting in that space as well which meant that we would perform the play on the communion rail edge of the chancel in about four or five feet of floor space. Tables for the court scene as well as the judge’s bench had to be placed here and worked around. And it did work. Even with a full house of over a hundred in the audience on Friday night, we managed to make the play credible and viable.

At least, I think we did. The congratulatory remarks from the departing audience were solidly positive, and apart from a few people mentioning that they couldn’t hear all of the speeches by the children and Miss Maudie, they left satisfied that they hadn’t wasted their money. We gladly accepted their kudos with the underlying reality that we are a set of rank amateurs putting on plays under difficult set conditions, that we are engaged in ‘chamber theater’ as opposed to ‘real theater’, and that what we do is, I suppose, as much for our own enjoyment as for theirs.

That leads me to speculate as to why we want to participate in such productions in the first place. I can only speak for myself here. I was asked, and I said yes, probably with what I viewed as the success of the Albert Schweitzer gig I did a few months ago. I wanted to help out, and if my voice and general appearance type-cast me as a judge, so be it. I was willing to go along. I have to confess that during the early readings and blocking rehearsals, I began to regret my decision. I didn’t see that things were working well, and I began to have the feeling that this whole thing would be an embarrassing flop. I was wrong, as it turned out, but the constant mistakes on stage during rehearsals grated on my nerves, and I gained a whole new admiration for the director’s patience.

It would be easy to write a review of the performances in which each and every character’s portrayer might come up for scrutiny, but I’m never sure that such reports are either edifying or necessary once the play closes down. If they would serve to improve future performances, something I doubt they ever do anyway, that might be another matter. But if I have one criticism, it might be that the actors could have benefited from more fine tuned direction as to the import and meaning of various speeches and lines. Sometimes the nuances of the author’s ideas were lost in the concern for merely delivering the lines and memorizing the speeches. We could have used more direction here.

Merely because we are only amateurs does not mean that we shouldn’t strive for excellence, and our study of dramatic works ought to lead us to the fullest comprehension of the author’s intentions. We owe that much to the writer, to the audience, and as Atticus Finch says, to our own integrity. Let’s see what happens next year.

-Robert Heylmun

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