The secret, if there is one, is snacks.
This is one of the earliest lessons I learned in my theatrical career – in my sophomore year of college, to be precise. It was during an undergraduate production of Shaw’s Misalliance, in which our stage manager spent her rehearsal days trying to wrangle nine willful college students as best she could. Midway through the rehearsal process, as we started running full acts, she began putting out candy dishes of M&Ms for us to perform the snacking which Shaw had been kind enough to specify in the script. As soon as those candies made an appearance, our gang of rowdy, willful, headstrong, opinionated college kids became the most docile and obedient cast any beleaguered stage manager could wish for. As long as we had our little fistfuls of sugar at the ready, all was right with the world.
It’s easy in the professional world (well, nothing in the theater world is easy, but be that as it may). If you’re on a contract, you’ve got a salary to compensate you for your job. If that’s an Equity contract, there are rules all parties have to abide by. But the theatrical projects that make it to any sort of an Equity contract represent the tip of the iceberg, the smallest fraction of the amount of theatrical activity that’s out there. Outside of the spotlight, there are developmental workshops and laboratories of all sorts. And beyond even that, there are weekly cold reading series, writers’ circles, private read-thrus in studios and conference rooms and living rooms, where the real development of new works takes place. These are purely labors of love – and if you’re putting one together, you have to figure out how to get a bunch of busy creative professionals to volunteer their time, come together at the same time and place, and hold their own egos in check long enough to focus on whatever piece you’re trying to workshop. Making it work is always a challenge.
And again, the secret to making it work is snacks.
Creative professionals will go to the ends of the earth for you, if they know you’ll make them tasty treats for their trouble. Those treats, after all, mean that notwithstanding your limited time and resources, you do indeed care.
I have a couple of go-to strategies for this. When I’ve put together developmental readings of plays of mine in the past, I usually make a large batch of oatmeal scotchies. (Those would be oatmeal cookies with butterscotch chips. Trust me. They’re good.) And of course, you want to be sure that everybody has sufficient bottled water available to them. This Saturday, however, my play The Tragedie of King John Falstaff was read through my friend Erik Ransom’s Dead Playwright’s Society series. (We rechristened it “Future DPS” for the occasion, for what I hope are obvious reasons.) Given the holiday weekend, I instead threw myself whole-heartedly into an Easter theme. Setting my diet aside for the day, I brought jelly beans and chocolate eggs. I even spent Good Friday hard boiling and dyeing Easter eggs, for anybody needing a protein fix.
The Tragedie of King John Falstaff was an entry in the most recent round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition. It advanced all the way to the final round of the competition, though ultimately it was not selected (you can see the ultimate winners here). I now face the daunting task of shopping the script around to other places, and I must admit to some worries as to whether the piece would stand alone, outside of the context of the competition and the Shakespeare play (Henry IV Part 2) which inspired it. But based on Saturday’s reading, it works terrifically. The parts I worried were too digressive and needed to be cut got great laughs, the plot hums along at a good speed, the character relationships all were solid. There were a few moments, in a script I’ve been living with for close to two years, where the actors we’d assembled – inventive, dedicated pros giving up their Saturday afternoon for lil’ old me – found unexpected things that actually made me cry.
I give all credit to the snacks.