Theatre Diaries – Pt. 1: The Play’s the Thing

Barbara Roden dishes on behind the scenes on the set of WRAPS' latest play, Switching Principals.

“Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” It’s a phrase that has inspired many, many movies over the years – Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did particularly well with the format – but I don’t know how often it’s heard in real life. Every now and then, however, someone in the Winding Rivers Arts and Performance Society says it; and the result is that a huge group of dedicated volunteers come together to make magic.

It’s happened again, and in March WRAPS will be unveiling its production of Switching Principals, a fast-paced farce about mistaken identity and con artists on the run. Before opening night rolls around, however, a lot of work needs to be done; and this occasional series will follow the progress of a theatre production, from the moment someone decides we need to put on a show to the final curtain call on closing night.

Jan. 14: It’s audition day, and close to two dozen would-be thespians have turned out. According to a friend who’s a professional actor, auditions deserve their own circle of hell: between the competition, the pressure, and the nerves they’re a form of torture. Here, though, it’s all very low-key. No one has to stand up and present a monologue, or explain why he or she is perfect for a certain part. Instead we’re all handed scripts and take turns reading sections of the play, each time as a different character.

It’s an odd experience: since no one has read the play, we don’t know who any of the characters are, how they relate to each other, or where the plot is headed. Still, we give it our best, and it’s fun to listen to five different people read the same lines, each one giving a different interpretation. The only person who appears to be a lock on a role is Leith McLean, one of the youngest people present; everyone seems in agreement that he’ll be perfect as Dutton, a student who takes a rather free and easy approach to the school’s science equipment. Leith is one of several students auditioning, and it’s great to see so many young people here.

There is also some discussion as to which roles can be gender-swapped if need be. It’s finally decided that Jake, the dim-witted but well-meaning security guard, could become Jackie. We all depart, waiting to hear from director Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan if we’ve been cast, and which part we’ve got.

Jan. 15: The e-mail arrives: you have a part! In my case it’s Constance, an overbearing, long-winded, nitpicky School Board member. This throws me into a panic for a moment: how on earth will I find out what School Board members are like? I’ll have to see if I know anyone who can fill me in. And overbearing, long-winded, and nitpicky? Well, it’s always fun to play someone very different to your real self. I can have some fun with this.

Jan. 17: There’s a meeting of the production crew: the “behind the scenes” people who will make sure there are lights, sound, props, costumes, scenery, make-up, and everything else that goes into making a stage production real. I can’t help thinking that this is a wonderful way to be involved in all the fun of the theatre, without having to act. I have no problem making a fool of myself on stage, but for anyone who’d rather not stand in the spotlight, a backstage role is ideal.

After this meeting there’s the first read-through of the script, with most of the cast members present. There are a number of familiar faces, and a few newcomers, and we all introduce ourselves. Leith McLean has indeed been cast as Dutton, and yes, Jake has become Jackie, with Nancy Duchaine cast as the clueless guard. We all settle in to read the play aloud, not worried about characterization, or doing much in the way of acting; it’s more a chance to read the script through together and start to feel how everything will hang together. There are ripples of laughter as the plot unfolds, and at the end we give ourselves a spontaneous round of applause.

There’s not much time for self-congratulation, though. Beginning next week things will start to get intense; Mavourneen reminds us that “It’s never too soon to have all your lines memorized.” We have eight weeks to go from nervous newbies to accomplished pros. Can we do it? Watch and see. . . .

Barbara Roden