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The power of silence

February 23rd, 2012 donnahoke

As a playwright, when I go to readings—whether they’re mine or somebody else’s—I’m always paying attention to the audience as much as the performers on stage. How they’re behaving can tell me a lot about what’s working well in the play and what isn’t.

I just got back from NYC (wasn’t that the subject of my last post?) where my play, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, had a reading as part of the The Hive Theatre’s Exposed series, the mission of which is to expose new and underexposed works. While there, I saw three shows: SEMINAR, OTHER DESERT CITIES, and VENUS IN FUR (which I had been dying to see for months!). Due to a combination of a GPS on the dash apparently being illegal, a missed train, a late train, traffic, and the Golden Theatre breaking what I thought was the Golden Rule of theater (starting five minutes after the designated time), I missed the first fifteen minutes of SEMINAR, so I don’t feel entirely comfortable making an broad statements about it or the audience I ultimately was able to sit down with (other than Alan Rickman does mumble a bit, and I think Jeff Goldblum is tailor-made for the role).

OTHER DESERT CITIES seems to be a play people either find delightful or wish they could get a refund for—not much middle ground. Stockard Channing’s acting and Justin Kirk’s adorability notwithstanding, I fall into the latter category. If I hadn’t known this was a new play, I would have thought it was forty years old; everything about it just felt too familiar, including the part, on cue in Act II, when Stacy Keach bellows (yes, bellows) that he “CAN’T LIVE WITH SECRETS ANYMORE!” The acquiescent nod from his character’s wife is followed by the inevitable REVEAL. What the REVEAL was isn’t important (in more ways than one). What is important was the audience’s response to it—or lack of response. I have never heard so much noise in a theater during what should have been a critical moment. Rustling, coughing, program flapping, ANYTHING but paying rapt attention to the moment on stage that should have been what we were all waiting for. Nobody cared. I mentioned this to my sister-in-law, a recreational theatergoer, after the show. Not being accustomed to listening for a response, she hadn’t noticed.

Next day: VENUS IN FUR. An hour and forty-five minutes that felt half as long as OTHER DESERT CITIES. There are so many good things to say about this show, but I just want to talk about one: There is point in the show where Thomas takes a full minute performing an onstage task (I don’t want to ruin it for you!) and there was not a sound to be heard. Not a cough. Not a peep. (Okay, perhaps maybe a moan.) I made a mental note to mention this to my sister-in-law after the show, by means of comparison. I didn’t have to: She brought it up first. “I don’t even think they were breathing!” she said. Not only was I proud that she noticed, but she was absolutely right. And I thought, “Man, that’s how I want to write, so that people are quiet.”

The next night was my reading. I had a crackerjack team—actors Glenn QuentinSarah Raimondi, Alan Winner, and Meghan Grace O’Leary, director Shaun Peknic, Artistic Director Matthew Gregory and wife Shira who read stage directions, and producers Glenn, Samuel Gaines,  Fernando Gambaroni. All of them were so welcoming to me as a playwright, and the experience and process were wonderful. We had an audience of about forty, and those actors made them laugh heartily but, when it mattered, they also held them silent—completely silent. And I thought, “What great actors. What a great audience.” And I also thought, “It’s a start.” 

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