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Over the years I’ve had approximately twenty scripts produced at small theaters in and around Hollywood and Orange County. None of these plays were celebrated or spectacular, mind you, just some offbeat comedies (in what might be called the “minimalist” tradition) that were fortunate enough to attract modest audiences willing to pay $25.
Live theater, particularly when you’re doing original scripts, is a fascinating process. You start by submitting a script to the artistic director of a theater. If they agree to produce it, you hold auditions, cast the roles, conduct rehearsals (usually four to six weeks), have your “tech week” (where the cast dresses in their costumes, and all the technical stuff—lights, musical cues, and special effects—are integrated into the performance), followed by opening night. Which is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Original plays are also challenging in ways that established plays are not. The difference between an actor doing material by a dead playwright like Arthur Miller or Agatha Christie, and doing material by a famous but living playwright like Christopher Durang or Beth Henley, is that the actor is never going to suggest to the director that the script be changed. Not in his or her wildest dreams would they suggest such a thing. (“Can’t we shorten that speech by Hamlet?” Make it lighter?”)
But it’s different when they’re working off a script that has not made it to Broadway or has not and never will be memorialized. And it’s especially different when the playwright himself is not only sitting in the room, but is apparently willing to listen to ways of making the play “better.” Let me make clear that this is not a complaint, because it largely derives from one of my own suggestions.
At the traditional “read-through”—where the principals meet for the first time, introduce themselves, and then proceed to read the script aloud from cover to cover—I make a point of telling everyone, in that spirit of camaraderie and hearty fellowship that has defined “theater people” for centuries, that I am open to suggestions. Please feel free.
Alas, some of those suggestions, while offered earnestly and sincerely, have annoyed me. Here are two examples.
One of my previous scripts had a scene in it where an obnoxious and offensive medical doctor belittles a patient by screaming insults at him. “You dumb son of a bitch,” she shouts at him, “I’m telling you there’s something wrong with your medulla oblongata!”
I’m not suggesting that her line was so funny it would have the audience rolling in the aisles, but—don’t ask me why—I’ve always considered the term “medulla oblongata” to be intrinsically humorous. Hearing that term has always made me smile.
But one of our actors politely took me aside and informed me that, given the man’s symptoms (as I recall, something to do with motor skills), the proper reference point would be the “cerebral cortex” and not the medulla oblongata.
It was clear he was sincerely interested in improving the play, and had come to me in the belief that being “anatomically correct” would help us. Not wanting him to feel I was blowing him off, I agreed to change it. Dumb move. The term “cerebral cortex” was greeted with dead silence. It didn’t get so much as a courtesy chuckle.
The other suggestion spoke of political correctness. The play in question was set 100 years in the future, a literary device that writers love to fiddle with as it gives them free license to make up all kinds of sociological and philosophical stuff that indirectly serves as an indictment of our contemporary values.
The protagonist is a “regular guy,” a file clerk diagnosed with a terminal disease in 2017, who has himself cryogenically frozen and thawed out a century later, in the hope that science now has a cure for what ails him. To the extent that terminal cancer can be made funny, this was a comedy.
One of the things this “Everyman” learns, to his shock, about the world one-hundred years in the future is that cosmetic surgery is now very much in vogue. One instance of a new trend is the huge increase in the number of penis transplants.
The way it works is that a wealthy, youngish but undersized Japanese businessman swaps his penis with an elderly, “well-hung” Norwegian lumberjack. The Japanese businessman is surgically outfitted with a much larger penis, and the Norwegian gentleman receives a smaller but perfectly functional unit, plus a very generous pile of cash.
Without going into details, toward the end of the play our protagonist becomes upset at hearing some terrible news. He freaks. In a fit of despair, he shouts in agony to a group of doctors, “I would’ve been better off selling my pecker to some little Jap!!” To be absolutely clear, using this pejorative language is exactly how this coarse and ignorant man would speak.
The director called me at home and told me the cast was uncomfortable with the term “little Jap.” They viewed it as “racist.” Up to this point in rehearsals, they were doing a magnificent job. I was in awe of their talent. So it stunned (and annoyed) me that at this late stage of the game they would suddenly cite objections to the script.
It turns out that it wasn’t “sudden.” They’d been uncomfortable with the terminology all along, but didn’t speak up until now. The director also said that the cast—both men and women—found the phrase “well-hung” to be offensive.
The way I saw it, I had only three choices. I could meet with the cast and try to make the case for leaving the language in, by asking them to consider the source and context. I could tell them to behave as professionals, and just play the goddamn part the way it was written. Or I could omit the whole penis transplant segment, and move on. I chose the third option.
To confess, once I got over the sting of being “scolded,” I admired their sentiments. These were men and women in their late twenties and thirties, and I was old enough to be their father. They honestly didn’t enjoy trafficking in the glib ethnic stereotypes common to my generation, not for a cheap joke. And for that they had my respect.
That said, I’m still nursing a grudge for having, in a weak moment, agreed to remove “medulla oblongata.” It will take me years to get over it.