Monday, April 15, 2019

The Graduate

About four months ago, I began shopping around an idea I had for a theater production that would be guaranteed to put a lot butts in the seats of whatever venue deigned to support me. Most theaters plan their seasons out about a year in advance, so I didn't expect immediate progress. However, the rinky dink little theater that I had walked out on in a huff over three years ago had heard about the project and enthusiastically called me in with an offer: They'd take up production of my proposed show if I would agree to help them get their current show, which had been mired in production hell for months, off the ground. How hard could it be? It was essentially project management. I didn't even need to act in the play. I'd just need to round the cast up, organize rehearsals, motivate the director and get enough people to buy tickets so that the theater could turn enough of a profit to finance my show. Easy, right? Wrong.

When I started calling the cast back to start rehearsals, I discovered that most of them had moved on to other projects and couldn't or wouldn't re-commit to the show. While I had most of the smaller roles covered, the actors who played Benjamin, Elaine, Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Braddock had bailed. So, I started making calls. The director had suggested dropping the Mrs. Braddock role from the show, but the character adds such a unique comedic element that I felt it should be kept if possible. I rang a supporting actress whom I worked with before and sweet talked her into accepting the role. Elaine was a bit easier to cast, as I just rang the first actress I thought of and she readily accepted. Casting Benjamin was a bit tougher, but I solicited some suggestions from other actors and found someone who perfectly embodied the awkward shyness I was looking for. This just left Mrs. Robinson and I kept coming up empty.

The role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, while not the lead per se, is the most iconic role in the show. The line "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" is arguably more famous than "No, Luke. I am your father!". Simon and Garfunkel even wrote a song about her.  I knew that I needed somebody who oozed sexuality on the surface that hid a degree of damage just below it. I was able to get some actresses to audition but couldn't find someone who had the right mix. I was about to go with a conventionally attractive actress until I found myself sitting down with one of my closest female friends describing the situation. She took a drag from her cigarette, shook her head as she exhaled the smoke and then popped off a sarcastic remark. And that's when it hit me. She'd be perfect. Sure, she had never acted before, and her life situation was crazy, but we could work through that. At first, she didn't want to do it. I told her that acting helps provide focus to one's life and that the role of Mrs. Robinson would be a catharsis for her. She'd also be a role model to those who were in her same situation who sought to find some way to rise above it. Then I told her that I was desperate and that she owed me. We had our Mrs. Robinson.

After a week of read-throughs, the actor playing Mr. Robinson dropped out. Rather than hit the pavement looking for another actor, I decided to step in. It would allow me to shore up any acting issues with Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson more directly. And then there was my own catharsis with the role. A week later, the actor playing Mr. Braddock dropped out. I hesitated to push the director into playing the role, as he was already burned out on the entire thing. However, we couldn't afford to delay any longer, so I convinced him to take yet another hit for the team.

Rehearsals weren't without issues. The director wasn't doing much actual directing. He offered very little in the way of motivation and Benjamin was coming off as way too nervous. And both Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin were having issues remembering their lines. In the scene where Mr. Robinson confronts Benjamin, I had to go from playing a lawyer-like interrogation and turn it into a loud barrage of accusations in order to pull Benjamin through the scene. I couldn't offer much help to Mrs. Robinson since we were not in many scenes together. The best I could do was try to help her memorize her lines as much as possible during our downtime. It was during one of these off-hours pizza and soda punctuated line-running sessions that I advised her: "Ignore what you've seen in the movie. Don't play Anne Bancroft playing Mrs. Robsinson. Play yourself playing Mrs. Robinson. Act how you would act as that character in that situation". Me giving acting advice to someone? High school me would want to have a very serious talk with adult me and possibly arrange an ass kicking.

Just before we all took the stage for the first time in front of a paying audience, Mrs. Robinson was stricken with the worst case of stage fear that I had ever seen. But, group hugs and words of encouragement got her through it. There's something very satisfying in watching someone who hasn't acted before come out and totally own a role. It's even more satisfying when it's one of your closest friends. And, as for me, I'm just glad that I was able to wield an actual axe during the climax and not cause an accident with it. The wedding scene in The Graduate is crowded and clunky and with Benjamin dropping lines all over the place, I decided that acting overly-aggressive and chewing the scenery would be a good distraction. It played really well and got a great audience reaction.

In the end, we pulled off a great show and even had a few sold-out nights. And that's how I saved the production and am the greatest. Now I can do my vanity project....as if my ego wasn't already big enough.

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