Sarah and the Playwright

Empty Stage

My 14-year-old daughter has a backstage resume like she’s in her 20’s. I don’t know anyone who’s done more shows in the past year. She must love the work: she watched Our Town and The Importance of Being Ernest repeatedly this spring, and never complained they were too long. (I complained, but only when I had to pick her up after my bedtime.)

Sarah wrapped a show on June 15, which was good because she had final exams to study for. “I’ll be at the theater all week,” she announced. The community theater was presenting a summer series of new pieces by local writers (a good thing). What about finals, I asked. “I gave my word to the theater.”

She gave her word. This would be her first show as a lighting designer. She’d operated lights before (among other jobs) but hadn’t yet been responsible for anything start-to-finish. I didn’t hover, and she didn’t ask for my input. She watched the show, hung the next day, asked to borrow my gel box. She took her exams – they came back A-, A-, and A.

I knew the week wasn’t going well. The visiting playwright (who was also the director) hadn’t learned Sarah’s name. He called her “Light Girl,” which might have been charmingly eccentric if she was cool with it. This was the first time I’ve ever heard Sarah call a director a jerk, although she didn’t give me details about what was going on. (The wise stage manager Frank Cavallo told her: “Never take anything personally in theater.” For the most part, she doesn’t.) There was no schedule – the crew was called the night before or the morning of rehearsals, which happened at unusual hours. It was chaotic even by community theater standards.

The show went up Sunday, a week after she’d been asked to work on it. Susan went to the Monday performance (I couldn’t be there), and texted me a few strings I won’t reproduce here. The playwright/director had made a comment to a member of the audience during intermission, something about the “14 year-old lighting person” screwing up. Susan wanted to get Sarah out of the lighting booth and bring her home before the second act. She might have done it – a few years ago in church a visiting priest gave a disgusting sermon against homosexuality, and Susan walked up front to where Sarah was sitting in her altar server’s robe and took her out the door.

The next day, I sent an e-mail to the playwright and copied several members of the theater’s board:

“There is only one acceptable response when a theater technician volunteers to work on your show one week before it opens, with no advance notice of material, rehearsals, etc. Especially if that technician leaves other responsibilities unattended to help with your project. The response must be THANK YOU.” I requested an apology.

A few of those copied replied with personal apologies. Later that afternoon, my phone rang. “Who are you?” a voice demanded. A theater volunteer, lighting designer, and Sarah’s father. “Oh, well that makes PERFECT sense.” It was the playwright, not calling to thank Sarah. “Your daughter wasn’t very friendly to me. In fact, she was quite rude. And she really didn’t know what she was doing. I recommended the theater not use her anymore, and they agreed.”

That’s when I lost my shit.

I confess I was neither polite nor tactful. I said I thought his play was written at a middle school level, so it was perfect he had a middle school lighting designer.

That’s when he lost his shit.

The playwright, it turns out, was quite astonishingly sensitive to criticism about his work. He justified his comments during intermission as a conversation with his MOTHER, which is his RIGHT TO TELL MY MOTHER WHATEVER THE HELL I WANT TO and he didn’t know anybody could overhear what he was saying. And a lot of other stuff about his MFA and famous actors who want to be in his shows etc. And more about how terrible my daughter is, which makes perfect sense because I’m terrible too, and she skipped a rehearsal and he expects anyone working on his shows to be 100% available the week before opening. All this and more plus expletives, but you get it. Then he hung up.

And then he sent me an e-mail reiterating how stupid and shallow I must be to not get what a beautiful play he’d written. And also how if I ever contacted him again he’d consider it harassment and take measures. Then he sent two more e-mails, same themes but longer. And two more overnight, cumulatively the most exhaustive defense I’ve ever seen against a charge of writing like a middle-schooler.

So I read his play again. I’d been too harsh. Although I thought the piece too strongly echoed David Auburn’s Proof, there were a couple of nice structural elements; the dialogue didn’t ring true for me but good actors can add a lot; a gun was introduced in the first act that went off in the first act, but not really – you wait for the other shoe to drop and it never does. Still, I had to admit – it would have taken a pretty talented middle schooler to write this play.

The playwright never said thank you. He didn’t apologize either. (In a reply-all, he said he was sorry he’d been overheard.) Some have said, “You know how some theater people can be.” I do know, but in 25 years I’ve never been criticized in public, during a show. Who tries to blackball a 14 year-old volunteer? Directors are the captains, the managers, the leaders (to use the corporate word for boss). When the curtain goes down, they need to take the heat, and say Thank You.

Sarah has started another show.