The Perils of Multiple Hats

I ascended to the frigid subway platform extremely early yesterday morning; I work a 9 to 5 day on Sundays, and the clocks had gone forward the night before, so I was still in a groggy stupor as I made it to the train.  I was facing a long day as well; after work, I had a zoom presentation of the opening minutes of my newest play taking place over zoom, as part of The Barrow Group’s annual Spring Forward presentation of new material.  There was a 5:30 rehearsal planned, which I’d be directing myself (at least for my piece – there were six in the overall lineup), and then the 7pm performance. As the train left the station, bearing me off to my upcoming marathon, I pulled out my phone to check my email.

And right there was a message, an email not an hour old, from one of my actors.  Due to transportation issues beyond his control, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the reading.

I texted the event producers, who reached out to a few other possible folks, but it’s not like things were two years ago – people aren’t sidelined anymore, waiting for things to start up again.  Things are getting busy, and folks are heavily scheduled.  So there weren’t any last-minute actors to be had.  The most obvious solution, then, was for me to step in and read the part myself.

I had a degree of trepidation about this.  Not that I didn’t think I could handle the role; I wrote it, after all, and knew how it was supposed to sound.  It wasn’t an unreasonable part to cast me in, and if I do say so myself I’m a fairly capable performer.  No, I don’t think the issue is whether a writer can perform they’ve written themselves.  It’s whether or not they should.

When my play Dragon’s Breath was presented at the New York Fringe (back when we still had a New York Fringe), I wound up playing one of the parts myself.  It was a comedic character part, the secondary antagonist of the show.  Contrary to my fears, it wasn’t hard to multitask – or at least it wasn’t terribly overwhelming.  I was familiar enough with the material, after all, and I had an outside director able to provide some objectivity in shaping my performance.  And it was, by most accounts, a successful performance; at the risk of putting too much stock in reviews, those were some of the best reviews I ever received as an actor.

Trouble is, they only focused on me as an actor.  Dragon’s Breath was a script which had A Lot To Say about things like religion and culture and the roots of extremism, and while the reviewers successfully followed the gist of my plot, and spelled my name right, they didn’t really mention what I was trying to say at all.  But they did think my performance was funny.  And while my script may very well have tried to bite off more than it could chew (I swear that’s not a dragon joke of some sort), I think there’s an underlying issue with actors performing in their own work here as well; namely, that audiences assume that your character is a mouthpiece for yourself.  If you’re performing in your own solo show, or are a Harvey Fierstein sort of artist mining your own life, then this assumption works just fine.  But if you’re playing a character part?  Especially one whose lines and actions run counter to your play’s overall message?  It seems to scramble people’s brains.

Of course, that’s an issue for when you’ve got a finished script, and you’ve mounted a production, and being at that stage is a luxury.  Spring Forward was about brand new, in-progress scripts, so we were a long way from having to worry about all that.  So at 5:30, I logged on with the rest of my actors, went over thing we needed to go over, and we performed at 7.  And everything went just fine. At least I think it went fine; it is a bit of a blur.  I had a long day yesterday, after all.

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