Training Theatre Artists to Make a Difference
It had been a while since I had done any professional acting. By which I mean, I had never done any professional acting. Sure, I’d been in a show here and there, I’d done scenes for class, but to be perfectly honest, there is a reason I am studying to get my MFA in playwriting and not acting.
So when I got a call from the man who would be my director, Tim Chamberlain (a CUA MFA directing alum!), saying that he had cast me in his Fringe show Apples and Oranges, I was so shocked that I didn’t accept the part right away – I told him I had to look at my schedule and get back to him. Translation: I needed a moment to stop hyperventilating. Someone cast me in a show! Someone who wasn’t my friend or classmate had sat through my god awful audition and found something in it that he liked and he had cast me! AHHHH! So as soon as I was done freaking out, and as soon as I went and bought a decent calendar book (I was already stage managing a Source play, and working two part time jobs, so scheduling was going to be tight), I called Tim back and very enthusiastically accepted the role.
What followed was probably the bumpiest ride of my theatric career. Just to give you an idea of some of the surprises I encountered along the way: at my first meeting with the director I found out that two of my three fellow cast members were deaf (I don’t know sign language), my romantic opposite (it was a RomCom piece) wasn’t cast until a week after rehearsal began, the director decided a week before opening to add some audience participation to the show, and did I mention that we didn’t have a script? The writer got one to us a week after rehearsal began (three weeks before we opened) and it changed every single day until we started dress rehearsals. Oh, and I was putting myself through all of this, with no guarantee of getting paid. (“It depends on how much profit we make” I was told.)
But despite all that, working on Apples and Oranges was probably one of the most valuable theatre experiences I could have had. Working with deaf actors taught me to communicate in new ways, the importance of being very clear, and the unimportance of mindless chatter. It also gave me a new perspective on deaf culture – between the deaf actors, the deaf writer, the director who was fluent in sign, and my romantic opposite who picked it up very quickly, I was often left out of conversations due to the language barrier and I realized how it must feel to be deaf in a hearing world, or how one would feel living in the US and not knowing English as a first language. It was very humbling.
My romantic opposite’s late casting was fortunate because it forced us to get really comfortable with each other really quick. We didn’t have time for those awkward get-to-know-you rehearsal moments, like when you are trying to feel out if you are allowed to practice the kiss moment or act with someone a certain way. We had to dive in and find our characters, their relationship with eachother, and we did not have time for anything else. It made us focused.
The audience participation… well, I’m not so sure how well that worked out. But it brought me out of my comfort zone. That’s always valuable, right?
Not having the script on the first day turned out to be great because that meant we, as a company, could change it. We could mold and shape it based on our characters and how we felt about them. And we literally had the writer in the room, which gave us wiggle room to say (or sign) “I don’t think my character would say this… Could I say this instead?” We could have those great collaborative discussions that our professors always talk about in class, but which we often skip in real life because “Oh MY GOD the show’s opening in three weeks and we don’t have blocking and we don’t have this or that and I’m the director/writer/producer and I say we shall do it this way…” or whatever.
And that’s the beauty of Fringe. There is so much going on – so many experiments – and it’s not a profit-based endeavor. This means that we as artists were basically given license to try things out and really mess them up. Without the potential consequences of losing jobs or money or funding or grants or all of those other things that sometimes impede real experimentation and honest process in larger theatres. It’s a place for artists with vastly different theatre philosophies and processes and resources to come together and put on a shows and talk with each other and network and, in the end, JUST HAVE FUN – damn the consequences and damn the reviewers (although, that said, the Washington Post did describe my cast as having “strong comedic and dramatic abilities” so maybe don’t totally damn the reviewers). Which is what we all came to the theatre to do right?
That’s why Fringe is invaluable to this theatric community. It’s a chance to experiment and to delve into a process in ways that we might not have before. It’s place to try new things and meet new people. Are there a lot of flops? Sure. But who cares? Cause when the shows are good, they are good. And when they’re not, you learn something new.
Oh. And in the end, I actually did get paid.
– Amanda Zeitler