Season: 2011

The Pen and the Powder Keg

Posted on Oct 4th, 2012 in Artists & Company

December 2, 2011 | Author: John Tufts

SHAG: Richard, this is dangerous.
RICHARD: It’s a play...We’ve been through worse, haven’t we?
(RICHARD leaves. Then)

I’ll go great distances to avoid conflict. Just ask my wife, or my colleagues, or my cats. Conflict is too stressful. So naturally I was scared to open a political play about conflict in a town built by political conflict. You must understand that our play, while quite funny, isn’t very polite. People say words that begin with letters that don’t generally lead to promising conclusions. And then, of course, there’s the torture. And the beheadings. And the five men in the show with egos so big, one wonders why there aren’t more beheadings. And the one woman in the show who’s scarier than all of us. So, there’s impolite conflict in the play, but plays need conflict, and lots of it, otherwise plays would be called phone books and no one would come to them. No, the fact that the play has conflict doesn’t scare me. It’s the kind of conflict in the kind of town: political conflict in a political town.

Let me back track. I know nothing about DC. I’ve been here twice. Once in high school for two days with my boarding school roommate to see a few plays and none of the city, and once in college apparently just to accrue parking tickets on Massachusetts Ave. My knowledge of DC is limited to movies whose production design consists of shadowy parking garages, and books whose titles contain words like “Affair” “Incident” or “Echelon”. My understanding of this town is built on a perception that nothing is what it seems, and everything is a conspiracy. Even the vending machine in our greenroom is really just doorway to a tunnel that leads to the basement of the Pentagon, or Dick Cheney’s home office where we discover a vast stockpile of Playbills dating back to a program for The Boyfriend signed by Julie Andrews’ understudy. In other words, my perception of DC, like my perception of most things, is based in fantasy.

That said, our not-particularly-polite play about conflict, presented in this town that seems always in a state of perpetual political conflict, still made me nervous. What if they’re offended? What if Dick Cheney comes and he doesn’t want our autographs? What if we cause a riot? What if the protestants and catholics start a holy war? What if the supreme court dissolves, Obama abdicates and martial law is declared? As you can see, the stakes were high.

For actors, the litmus test of how a show will go for the remainder of the evening is how strong the first laugh plays. Does everyone laugh, or is it one guy in the back corner of the balcony? Is it thunderous or just obliging? Is there one loud, snorty laugh that inadvertently suppresses all other laughter around it? It’s not a reliable test. A quiet audience can leap to their feet, a raucous audience can exhaust themselves, but we still administer the test every show, listening for that first one. And on Monday, with civil order at stake, we were all ears.

Well the first laugh didn’t just play, it escalated. It started tentatively, like they didn’t know it was coming, and then it grew as the audience discovered that if one came this early, more were on the way. But because the first laugh comes on a threat (notice how I’m not giving it away), the laugh was also on edge, nervous, surprised, looking around to confirm that others were laughing, too. The audience was with us in the truest sense: they weren’t just observing, they were an empathic part of the show. It was glorious.

Turns out DC and this play can relate to each other pretty well. Turns out we avoided martial law and a riot altogether. Dick Cheney never crawled through the vending machine, and unless he was disguised as my mother, he never asked for my autograph. Oh well, there’s always hope.

Check back for more updates, hopefully a couple each week. I’ll introduce you to the rest of our cast in video interviews where they’ll discuss everything from the build of the show to other exciting insights about performing this thrilling play is this thrilling town.