Monday, March 12, 2012

Painting Churches (NYC)

Sorry it’s taken me so long to write this, it’s been a crazy week. So, last Sat I saw Keen’s production of Painting Churches. First off, let me just say, I have seen several things that Keen has done, I have enjoyed most of them.

I’m not going to say I hated Painting Churches, but I will say that they have definitely produced better work.

So I started to wonder why – and realized that, at least in this case, the answer was quit simple.

But first, story time: as many directors, I started in theatre as an actress. It’s true. No one really remembers it now, but I was an actress for most of my life before I started directing 10 years ago. I started college as an actress. And I learned many of the most valuable theatre lessons I could possible learn as an actress. One of the clearest that I learned in college is this (and yes, this is pretty close to a direct quote from my teacher) “You will be smarter than most of your character’s – and that’s ok. In fact, that is the hardest lesson for most young actors to learn. Characters are not smart. The earlier you can learn that, the easier it is to play them. So, stop being smart.”

And now we are to the heart of my problem with Painting Churches. Not only are most characters not as smart as you, but also, most characters are not as nice as you. (Or at least not as smart/nice as you think you are. I am not getting into an ego debate right now). It’s also totally ok that your character isn’t very nice, or isn’t accepting, or is super judgmental, or… Because here is a truth, it isn’t you. Also, the show itself, the script, should help you figure out if you are a “nice” person. And not just by what you say, but what is said around you and about you as well. Also, not all relationships are good ones. In fact, I would be willing to go as far as to say that a majority of interesting theatrical relationships are not good ones – but rather two people who care about each other not able to communicate effectively with the other.

The biggest problem with this show in general was that I felt like the two female characters were played as much nicer than the words they said and the words that are said about them would give them indication of.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone must play a character a certain way, or that there is no room for a personal take on characters – mostly because I think that is patently un true, however, the playwright has written some common traits that should be obeyed. Among other things, they make the details of the show make sense.

For instance, Painting Churches is a show about the adult daughter of a wealthy Boston society family that comes home to help her parents pack up to take permanent residence in their vacation home. And in the first scene, there is lots of excitement of the daughter coming home. And everyone is happy to see each other. But as the show progresses, the words would seem to indicate that, perhaps, the mother and daughter don’t get along so well. And, perhaps, the mother and daughter are slightly judgmental. In fact, I would go so far as saying that the two characters have the typical mother/daughter love/hate relationship. The problem is that without it, something didn’t make sense. For instance, the mother and father drank a lot, in just about every scene. And in every scene the daughter said no to the drinks. I kept waiting for a “reveal” of why she wasn’t drinking – she was preggers, was recovering from addiction, etc. But then it didn’t , I mean, there was no reveal. Because she did have a drink. She had a drink with her mother in a scene in which, in order to get her mother’s approval, she has gone off on the same kind of judgmental rant that her mother has gone off on several times. In essence, if all the other times she had said no was a “screw you” to her mother, than the time she did say yes becomes a “bonding” moment with her. However, it didn’t read as either of those, because the characters were so nice to each other, so nice in general.

To be honest, I felt like the actual climax lost impact too. The climax when you realize that Mom is actually a good person, and is human, and has been dealing with more that the daughter can even begin to understand. But when everyone is so nice… I didn’t care. It wasn’t a reveal that Mom was human, because she had been human the whole time. It didn’t force me to look at my own judgmental nature or connect to people who I have felt that for. No, instead it was just a moment, like most others in the play – nothing that really drew me in.

And that, I think, is what I felt the most. In not servicing the characters of the story, I kept waiting for the moment that would tell me why I should be watching the show. But it never came. The moments were the same as any other.

So I’ve said what I think already, I think. Don’t be afraid to make character in your story what they are. Not everyone is smart, not everyone is nice, not everyone is any other positive quality we associate with ourselves as people. Play to the character as written. For several reasons. Fighting against that character fights against the story itself. Sometimes, that is useful, but mostly, it just leaves details muddled in ways that don’t make sense (and not in a good way not make sense – like you should learn something from it, like really, just don’t make sense). And then you haven’t told the story. Tell the playwright’s story. That, I think, is the job of the theatre. The story doesn’t have to be exactly the one written (remember my Othello as a photo negative cast – that wasn’t the show that Shakes wrote, but it was the story he told), but the story must be told. If you haven’t done that…


  1. "Play to the character as written." - So simple in theory, so challenging in practice!

    Great read, keep it up!

  2. Truer words were never written Norma. But that is the challenge that drives us, I think, the desire to deal with that dissonance.

    I just think it is also important to have the discussion of not being afraid to not be those good things. :)