I had the extreme pleasure of watching my new play (co-written with a team of student writers), Grandparents’ War, at its debut the other night. Once the audience shows up and the lights go down, everything changes, and a writer finally gets to see (and hear) if the words he has written resonate off the page or not.
Yes, the actors have a lot to do with this. A great acting performance can make up for a poorly written script.
When I’m writing comedy, I never really know what will be funny and how funny certain lines actually are until there’s a live audience. I know what is funny to me, and certain lines I write certainly make me chuckle as I visualize in my head how this would play out on the stage. Once the script is written, I can only hope it will translate well and resonate with the actors and audience.
The first indication of whether my writing has succeeded or not is when I give the script to the actors. I finally get, for the first time, an unbiased look at how funny it actually might be. The initial read-through is a discovery for the actors, director and writer, as the actors see how the action and characters unfold and I get to watch their reactions to the lines or antics of the play.
Then when we move on to rehearsals, (especially once the script is memorized) I finally get a solid glimpse as to how the movement, plot and dialogue all work together to create the absurd and unexpected delights which make people laugh. This is where an actor can really create a special connection with a script and bring out comedy that I didn’t even write into the script.
By the time it all is ready for the premiere, I have a general idea if I think it will be successful or not. I was cautiously optimistic about Grandparents’ War.
I love the script of Grandparents’ War. It is, in many ways, politically incorrect as we work through many stereotypes and cross-cultural issues which create havoc in the relationships that the characters have with each other. There are many, I think, very funny lines, which ultimately entertain while carrying a subtle, positive message about family and the importance of ethnic diversity. Ultimately, however, it’s the audience which decides if the script is a success.
On Wednesday, when the crowd began to interact with the performance, I knew we had a hit on our hands. People called it, “laugh-out loud” funny. Someone said they couldn’t stop laughing. The actors had them exactly where they wanted them.
And then it happens, as it always does, the audience laughs at very unexpected moments. Certain actors seize the moment and capture the imagination of the audience, making, it seems, nearly everything he or she does funny.
For our production of Grandparents’ War, it was Raj, the Indian love interest of Cordelia, played brilliantly by the Caucasian American actor, who stole the show. His appearance, his mannerisms, his movements, his facial expressions brought rolling laughter throughout the play.
During one scene towards the end, when Jia Guo and the Colonel are bareing their souls to one another by telling each other where they were when their first child was born, Raj breaks the silence and with a dead-pan voice says the innocuous line, “I was in India.” The crowd roared in laughter. The line worked far better than I ever could have anticipated because of the beautifully timed way the actor said it.
This is what I love about live theater. It’s scripted spontaneity. It structured improv. It’s all about bringing a script to life and letting the writer know if he or she has accomplished his writing objectives.
By the amount of laughter I heard on Wednesday, I cannot be anything but pleased. I can’t wait to see the final two shows on Saturday.