General 2-19-2007

Letters from a Writer: In Which I Become an Actress

Jean Sramek has fun learning someone else's lines.

Jean Sramek

I recently performed in a play. A normal play, on a stage, written, directed and produced by someone other than Jean Sramek. It’s what most people think of when they think of “being in theatre” but it’s a weird, weird world to me. Me, who has eschewed all things normal in the theatre arts and only agreed to actually perform on a stage when coerced, bribed, or unduly flattered. There’s really only one word that describes how I feel about being in a normal play, and that word is AIYEEEEEEEEEEEE.

But I was coerced, bribed, and unduly flattered by my friend Pat, who directed this particular community theatre production of The Underpants, Steve Martin’s mischievous adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s 1910 Die Hosen, a satire of the German bourgeoisie. It’s the story of a young Dusseldorf couple; Theo is a proper civil servant, Louise is a bored housewife whose bloomers accidentally fall to her ankles while she is viewing a public parade for the king. Theo is mortified, but area men are captivated by Louise and scheme to be in the presence of the notorious underpants. It’s a marvelous script, naughty and sophisticated, cheeky and poetic, and wide open to interpretation by both director and actors. I played the role of Louise’s nosy spinster neighbor Gertrude, who lives vicariously through Louise’s would-be affairs.

Against my better judgment, I had an absolute blast doing this show. For one thing, I got to spend time with Pat, a director whom I admire and a friend whom I rarely see. For another, it was one of those rare casts who all liked each other. However, my background as an intermittent playwright and producer of original material has given me an odd perspective on doing a normal play. That, combined with the usual stress of nightly rehearsals and the injustice of having to wear a corset and mascara, brought out the worst in me. I am a Line Nazi. I know that’s a particularly odious word to use in the context of a play that is set (however gently) in pre-WWI Deutschland, but it’s a semi-official genre term, and I’m sticking to it.

The interpretation of the lines is naturally up to the whims and desires of the director and actors, but the lines—the words themselves—are sacred. I’ve written words for the stage, then listened to actors get them wrong, and few sensations are more painful. If the playwright had meant for you to make shit up, he or she would have written “ad lib” in the stage directions, or would have become a performance artist instead of a playwright. To me, getting the lines almost right, or pretty much right, or close to what’s written in the script, is like the players in a symphony orchestra getting the notes close to what the composer intended. What part of allegro con molto or B-flat don’t you understand? This makes me a Line Nazi, and proud of it.

My fundamentalism stems from the fact that this normal theatre stuff is Easy Street compared to creating an original or adapted work, workshopping it, and premiering it. Doing a play that’s already written is like a fricking vacation. No ninth drafts of Act II, no edits, no 8,000 trips to the printers to re-do pages of the script. No listening to the cast and crew whine because they can’t find the latest version of page 43B-5 that you gave them three times already. No waking up at 4:00 a.m. crying, “Eureka! I now know that I must change the ending … again!” No explaining your untested work to the press and the world. None of that. Because it’s already done. Someone has gone to the trouble of writing a play, a play that was good enough to be published and made available for distribution. They endured the creative process, and when it was done, someone printed all the words into a nice little bound volume, just for you. And all you have to do is read the words, do what the director says, and memorize the lines as written. It’s the least you can do. It’s a sign of respect.

Intimidated by my fellow cast members, several of whom were half my age (with supple brains able to memorize things quickly) and all of whom had more acting experience than me, I got off-book as quickly as possible, so as to keep up with the herd. As good as these actors were, some of them were slow to get off-book, and when off-book, would allow the lines to morph into a version of what Steve Martin had intended (I know what Steve Martin intended, because, damn it, this play is already written). It came as a surprise to me, but watching the actors get Martin’s words wrong was nearly as frustrating as watching actors get my own words wrong.

One night at rehearsal I beseeched my fellow actors to learn their lines. “What if Steve Martin comes to the play?” I whined. “He won’t,” they scoffed. “Yeah, but what if he does? It could happen.” I explained that I’d been a fan since before The Jerk, since before some of them were born, since before Steve stopped dyeing his hair, so for the love of Christ, don’t say “the end of the week” if the script says “at week’s end,” because you’re going to embarrass me in front of Steve Martin.

Opening night came and went and our audiences laughed. Nice job. I’m glad I was coerced. Backstage during the third performance, one of my fellow actors asked what we would do if we ran into the playwright. Would we mention having been in The Underpants? Naturally I said yes. Not only would I mention it, I would introduce myself by saying Gertrude’s lines. Exactly as written.