Despite my recent ire vented vis-a-vis the "staged reading" (see 2/27/08) I have had a lot of good opportunities and experiences with staged readings lately. (It's just that man can not live by bread alone, you understand.) NYU's "First Look" acting company has been keeping me busy with involvement in their Steinberg Lab, and tomorrow I perform the second and final reading of Riding a Rocket Ship Into the Sun, by Alex Davidson (sorry Alex--couldn't find a better link) of their graduate play writing group. Last week I did a reading completely separate of NYU, too, for a person I regard as a promising playwright, Josh Sohn. Readings are interesting practice. They have a strange combination of elements from things like straight playing, improvisation, public speaking and occasionally musical chairs. They are short-lived, and the attention is invariably more on the text than on the acting. Which, in a way, makes them a kind of odd perversion of conventional theatre. Conventional theatre, in this context, defined as theatre that says, "Hey everybody; this is really happening and you want to feel it happening as much as possible so we'll all happen to pretend it's really happening okay? okay."
But anyway. All the irksome details aside (bound to a chair or stool, ultra-brief rehearsal time, no money in it), it's the gray areas of a staged reading that can make it really fun for an actor. For example, you don't get terribly specific notes from your director (if, indeed, there is a director; last Thursday's had none) which means one's compulsion toward perfectionism (see 2/29/08) doesn't get tweaked too badly. A staged reading, assuming it adheres to certain standards, can be a wonderfully relaxing experience for an actor. It is what it is, as a former boss of mine is fond of saying. Also, a staged reading has the benefit of being very direct in its relationship to its audience. This is hard to describe; it's as though because no one's expecting to entirely believe in the verity of moments on stage, the actors have more permission to listen to the audience's responses and adjust accordingly. Within reason, of course.
The script I've been reading most in the Steinberg Lab is one in which I play a would-be private detective from upstate. It's great for exercising my deadpan and drawing in little nods to types like Bogart's Spade, and other fast-talking PIs. The writer (who shall remain nameless until she decides to present the work for public consumption) has a good sense of comedy that she's still learning about, which is pretty fascinating to explore in conjunction with her development of this play. The only downside of the whole thing is that -- cripes and jimminy -- it can be freaking tough to spit-fire dialogue one's reading for the first time. The class has suffered through more than a few incidents of stumbled pronunciation or cracked character on my part, which kills me, given the specificity of the style.
Riding a Rocket Ship into the Sun has actually been surprisingly beneficial for me. It reunited me with the director I worked with on my very first project at First Look, Kathryn Long, and who frankly spoiled me for many of my experiences following that. It's also a piece in which I play a "heavy," which I haven't done for years and find challenging. It's generally not what people see when they look at me, so I'm not overly upset by the rarity of that type of role. I do enjoy playing those characters, however I often find it difficult to fill out such roles without a lot of posturing and BS. RRSS has let me explore ways of just being in that capacity and, it appears, with some success. The responses to my reading have been wonderfully positive. I would guess that this ability came about simply from age and experience, save that I felt the discovery in rehearsal. If I hadn't worked on this script, it might have been years before I had another opportunity to figure out how to convincingly play a bad dude.
Working with Josh was the definition of brief. I got an email two Tuesdays back, rehearsed at his apartment Sunday night and performed Thursday. It was part of a play-writing group of which he is a member, so the event was informal and full of comrades. There was no director, and Josh's notes were naturally playwright-erly in nature, so "informal" really sums it up pretty neatly. I participated in two out of three pieces. In one, Errand, I played a jilted husband confronted with his best friend/business partner's return (his BF being the one what run oft wid his wife). In the other, entitled Dry Run (see Josh's link--Josh: this play from a short story of yours?), I played an interesting younger character in an interesting relationship, dealing with his significant other, who was rather freshly returned from a mental hospital. Both pieces took fairly standard scenarios and did some interesting things with them. Errand left room between the lines to show the confusion of a character who was used to forcing his life around, and discovering finally that it doesn't ultimately work. But it was Dry Run that was really interesting to me, and a real challenge. In it, I found a real parallel to follow between a typical male/female conflict of philosophies, and a struggle with mental illness. It was, in other words, not wholly alien to me. Plus there was a great, strong inner conflict for my character. That invariably sparks my enthusiasm as an actor. Not a lot's changed for me in that regard since my college days.
So staged readings: Not all bad. Don't let my cynicism fool you. It's just frustration over not having a show-show at present. Actually, I have another staged reading potentially coming up, this one for the Steinberg play mentioned above. It should lend itself well to the medium.
I only hope they give us chairs with backs for this one.