A while back I attended the second and last major rehearsal for episode two of The Rump of Folly, an entry in the Flea Theater‘s #serials@TheFlea short play competition, which we covered extensively. The more serials I watched during the course of my coverage, the more I became intrigued by the various similarities between some of the shows, which I chalked up to being byproducts of the unconventional requirements and limitations of the program, which necessitated that an original 10-minute play go from script to stage in a week on a $10 budget.
The biggest similarity, which applied to all the shows this cycle, was genre. There wasn’t a single serial produced that wasn’t a comedy, though there was some variety within the genre. I saw a couple of reasons for this: given the competitive nature of the show a comedy would have the best odds of moving forward, on the theory that a drunk and rowdy crowd at 1am may not be the best group to appreciate nuance and subtlety. Also, comedies—especially broad comedies, of which there were several—mandate a certain looseness in performance and tone. It’s harder to nail complex characters and technical effects in a week than to put on a show where a sea god goes on a date, or ninjas wage war with pirates, or a stoner tells prostitutes he has the power of telekinesis.
The schedule the Rump crew followed was thus: the group would learn if their play had been voted back early Sunday morning—following the previous night’s voting—and if so director Sarah Wansley would get a first draft of the script the following day. She’d return it to playwright Patrick Barrett with notes and details on which actors were available (majors roles could be re-cast without much of an issue, “continuity isn’t a huge deal,” she said) then send the next draft onto the actors, who would try to have as much memorized as possible by their first rehearsal on Wednesday. A second rehearsal—this time with the playwright and in the actual performance space, necessitating some adjustments in blocking the action—would follow on Thursday, and that was largely it until a rushed tech rehearsal before the first show Friday night.
I attended the Thursday rehearsal, curious to see how the creative process was impacted by the abbreviated time-frame. There weren’t any big surprises, really. The pace was more frantic, edges had to be left unsmoothed and hopefully covered by the farcical show’s irreverent tone.
During the first read-through in the actual performance space, Wansley largely let the cast take care of its own blocking, occasionally calling out for people to move around less or position themselves to give the audience a better view. Later on she got more into the fine-tuning, but in general she didn’t have the luxury of enough time to pay full attention to every detail.
The episode’s more technically demanding moments required the most attention. At one point Mrs. Snively (played by Joann Sacco) bounds onto stage, knocking her husband (Maren Langdon) to the floor. This moment had to be rehearsed to get the timing right while insuring Langdon’s safety in the fall.
“I think you’re supposed to fall like this: knees, hips, arm,” Wansley said, rolling on the ground.
“Well that’s all well and good, but in the heat of the moment…”
Each element had to be arranged. In the original staging, Mrs. Snively would hustle in so her chest bounced then turn and knock Mr. Snively over with her buttress.
“I’m going to have a costume malfunction,” Sacco said after the first attempt, adjusting the neckline of her dress.
The bouncing gag was cut, changed instead to her entering backwards and knocking Langdon over as she twirls around. When it proved hard to aim the buttress—the roll at the rear of Victorian-era dresses—it was decided that she would just plow into her from behind.
This whole process took maybe 10 or 15 minutes, a not insignificant amount of the group’s limited rehearsal time. All for five seconds of what would eventually appear on stage. In a standard rehearsal period, it’s plausible there would have been enough time to figure out the swing or adjust the costume. (I met the woman who aids with the costuming for #serials, who stressed “I’m a consultant, not a designer,” noting how nuts it would be to have to create new costumes for about a dozen shows in three weeks.)
That moment was “solved,” but there were others that perhaps couldn’t be salvaged. Take this bit of dialogue: as originally written, the character Fopley claims details about each of the women he’s supposedly bedded, referring to one as a “runt.” Rump protagonist Alistair is horrified, mistaking the word for its notorious partner in rhyme until Fopley says it again, enunciating the “r” sound. The pronunciation of the first “runt” was important, since the joke depended on Alistair (and the audience) plausibly mistaking it. But Rs don’t sound like Cs and during the portion of the rehearsal I viewed no one could demonstrate how to pivot from “she’s a (cough)-unt” to “I said runt!” nimbly enough to make the timing of the joke work.
Preparing to watch the show in its Saturday performance, I was curious how it ended up and was surprised to see they changed the line. Now the cough was gone—the word “runt” clearly audible—and Fopley reacts to Alistair’s motive-less horror by unnecessarily snapping, “I said runt, not cunt.”
The impact of this minor change was rather significant. By not obfuscating the word, the audience doesn’t follow Alistair in his shock or in the catharsis of having that shock immediately deflated. The joke essentially becomes that the word cunt was said. (Update: I’ve been informed that the “I said runt, not cunt” line was actually a one-time flub and not a change made to the script.)
Though I wasn’t there for the moment when the decision to go that way was made, my hunch is that it was a victim of time constraints. This is nothing at all against the group involved; compromises are necessary in creative efforts. (I work for Reuters, a real-time newswire where I have deadlines that are the journalistic equivalent of the #serials schedule. I’ve been in this position many times, shrugging off a goal of more eloquent or original copy in favor of something that’s basic but will get the job done. An editor’s exasperated shout to a colleague once summed it up pretty exactly: “There’s no time for art!”)
Of course this can cut both ways. The limitations faced by Flea groups also resulted in bursts of compensatory creativity. Discussing this, Wansley cited an installment of her group’s previous #serials plays, The Escape (this was the one written by a five year old, you may remember), which took place underwater; actors suggested being inside a submarine by holding open umbrellas. More time and money probably could have created a grander or more impressive prop, but would it have been as charming or memorable? Doubtful. Again, the ubiquity of #serials comedies suggests that most groups were looking to bank on this kind of casualness in one form or another.
“The more I think about what we’re trying to do here,” Wansley said, “the more I keep coming back to that we’re just trying to solve the problems posed by the script in the most professional and entertaining way we can.”