The Script Nazi

"What's so good about putting words together?"

"What's so good about putting words together?"

I did not set out to earn that moniker when I began my “dramaturgical” (haha) duties with The Real Thing. And to be fair, the actors did not bestow it upon me; in a pre-emptive move, I jokingly gave it to myself, to defuse any possible conflicts about my duties that might arise. Really, guys, I’m not a pretentious asshole, OK? But after last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few members of the cast went around muttering under their breaths that epithet – or worse.

A little background here. My main duties with TRT have revolved around the script: deciphering some of the more obscure Britishisms, providing historical context when I can, and being on-book as the actors go through their lines in rehearsal. At times, I have given line notes afterward, when time has allowed – something was dropped, something was added, something was transposed. At least two of the actors have thanked me for that job; it might be a pain in the ass to have some guy you don’t know telling you what you’re doing wrong, but they want to get the words right. That’s what it’s all about – staying as true to Stoppard’s words as possible. And let me say here, the actors have been great, to a person: mastering the accents; nailing the intricate choreography with drinks, records, and a cricket bat; finding the subtleties of the language and subtext.

"It's traditionally considered advantageous for a writer."

"It's traditionally considered advantageous for a writer."

But last night, the logistics changed, and I threw the cast into a tizzy. The director asked me to sit in the first row of the side seats, so the actors would have a sense of what it would be like to have someone so close, and I could look for any blocking abnormalities. And, of course, continue my note-taking on the lines. And in addition to being right on top of them, instead of behind a table ten feet away, I was wielding a new weapon: a yellow highlighter. My script is getting marked up, and this way I could tell the new mistakes from the old.

All these changes, I learned afterward, were none too appreciated. Evidently I took on the larger-than-life form of a spectral teacher-from-hell, marking up a term paper with abandon, registering every verbal miscue in what seemed like a stone etching. In other words, they could see what I was marking when, and it really threw them off their game. Now, this didn’t come out till the end of the evening. They didn’t want to disrupt the flow and scream, “Will you fucking stop that?” But there was no question a few scenes were a little rougher than everyone would have liked, and my presence played a part.

I felt really bad about it. Actually, I feel pretty apologetic about the whole note-taking-and-giving process. I mean, it’s not my script. And I know that actors sometimes make small changes when memorizing lines that make it easier for them, and that don’t change the intent. But the director had said early on, he wanted to be as exact as possible to the words Stoppard wrote. And it’s a play about – in part – the value and precision of words, the great things you can accomplish when you put the right words in the most powerful order. I know the actors get this. I also know they know how hard it is to be 100 percent accurate. And I know, of course, nobody likes a script Nazi.

I wonder, if Stoppard were here, how he would handle it. Would he be like me, wanting every word to be spoken as written, but allowing for those innocent rephrasings? Or would he be demanding of perfection, at least at this stage of the game, when there is still time to get things as perfect as possible? Once it goes up, if an actor drops a line or transposes a phrase – oh well. But until then, shouldn’t the drill be, get the words as precise as you can? And speaking from my own limited experience, if a word or phrase is repeated, it’s for a reason. The exact placing of the words to create that repetition matters. Other times, I don’t want a word repeated. And many times, what’s down there is all about the rhythm of the words as much as their meaning.  I know the actors know this, but in the pressure to learn so many words (and our leads got a lotta words…), it may not always be practiced.

I write this knowing how important collaboration is to the theatrical process. When I have the chance to work with actors and a director during rehearsals, I relish it, because they bring out things I never knew were there, or make line changes that improve the flow or understanding. But I would bet Stoppard feels he’s past that point with this baby. Say it the way I wrote it. And presumptuously taking on the role of playwright’s surrogate here, that’s what I’m aiming for, allowing for the occasional extra “it’s” or something else small. So guys, bear with me a few more nights. I doubt when we get to tech week the director will have me harping on this small shit. But Tuesday, he does want me to give you both barrels, everything I so carefully recorded in yellow the other night. But after, during the rehearsal, I’ll be in the back of the theatre again. Way back. You won’t see a pen move. Promise.

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~ by mburgan on April 13, 2009.

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