Wednesday, November 4, 2009

whispers in the dark (for the elite)

From Patrick Healy and the If Only This Was Our Problem Department (via the New York Times):

Ticket holders at this week’s first previews of Matthew Broderick’s new Off Broadway play have been privy to a second drama: watching the veteran theater actor try to learn his lines, with help from a prompter sitting in the front row.


While opera companies have long had hidden prompters at the rim of the stage, many theater actors shudder at the idea of needing help with lines during performances. For them, mastery of a script is a benchmark of professionalism. Still, acting fallbacks have a long but largely unnoticed history in the theater. During the national tour of “Legends” in the 1980s, Mary Martin, who was in her 70s at the time, used an earpiece that also picked up taxi signals, according to published accounts.

While the image of Mary Martin randomly shouting out street intersections in the middle of a performance is a tempting one, the bigger issue is watching a production assistant with a script in the front row of a show you've paid hundreds of dollars to see.

There are a couple directions we could go with this:

(1) Righteous indignation: Movie stars aren't up for the rigors of treading the boards and this whole episode (along with Sushi-gate) lays bare just how craven a move it is when Broadway producers to use movie stars, regardless of talent or work ethic, to sell tickets.

(2) Overwrought sentimentality: Picking up cues, even with the aid of a prompter, is a lost art -- an old pro would know a way to get their lines without needing someone sitting in the audience to give them.

or we can just go with

(3) Naked honesty: if I could charge people to come to a show before an actor had their lines down but needed to have someone whispering lines from the house, I absolutely would.

But, see, we're poor; we don't get to fudge our opening night, extend previews, and say just kidding, we're still in process. Now, will that be cash or credit? Every show opens with a closing date. If we could get away with it, believe me, we would.

There's another issue about this, which Healy treats with some delicacy, calling it "the benchmark of professionalism" to be off-book on time. Others have another term: it's called not being a dick.
But now the use of prompts has become a matter of inquiry for the Actors’ Equity union, which is investigating a recent dismissal by the Hartford Stage theater of an actor who peeked at bits of dialogue that he had taped inside his character’s hat for a difficult scene.


In the Hartford Stage incident, the fired actor, Matt Mulhern, 49, was appearing in Horton Foote’s “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” a series of three plays over nine hours. Mr. Mulhern said he never received any warning from Hartford Stage that his job might be in jeopardy; “Orphans” is a co-production with Signature Theater Company in New York, where it is transferring next month.

In an interview, Mr. Mulhern described the prompt in his hat as a “crutch” that he relied on because of script changes during rehearsals. He said he had been “emotionally devastated” by his Sept. 22 dismissal, the first of his 27-year career. He also acknowledged he had “ruffled feathers” among colleagues for a variety of other reasons after rehearsals began in July.

In other words, he admits that he was pretty much being a dick, and by the time he didn't know his lines for performances, no one was ready to help out.

I have nightmares, even when I'm not actively in a production, about going up while on stage. It's terrifying to be there without a net -- and having one would actually make me a worse performer, because it would take away all incentive to mitigate risk and do my homework (cf. Google search: "banks too big to fail").

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