The director and the 'A' word

Alistair calls it the "A word."

"I don't use it," he says.

It stands - I can say it without shame - for "Amateur."

There is something of the bull terrier about this stocky, shaved-headed Scottish theater director, this professional-among-amateurs. I haven't seen him in action before, being new to the Players, but he has successfully directed a number of the club's plays.

His appearance is misleading. He is basically kind. He is, above all, fastidious. When something works, his enthusiasm is overt. He never ridicules actors. He can be very funny. Perhaps, as with bull terriers, a stubby exterior belies a basic domesticity. In terms of his current production, "The Odd Couple (Female Version)," he is more like the meticulous Florence Unger than the slobby Olive Madison. Or so he says.

I soon found that Alistair doesn't like the "P word" either. P for Prompt. (Or Prompter, as some people call it.)

At my first rehearsal I arrived, book in hand, bent on helpfulness. Alistair studiously disregarded my presence. Never spoke to me. Never glanced my way.

I felt like wallpaper.

I prompted where necessary, and as the cast abandoned their books to splash around in the seas of half-memorized text, my new (unpaid) career started to take on considerable purpose. I was becoming quite voluble, for wallpaper.

But still the director pretended I was merely a figment of my own imagination.

Then, one evening, he did speak to me. Well, snarled, really. And it wasn't to me. More at me. Sideways.

In self-defense, I should say that I have never been a prompt before. So it has been what some people will call a learning curve. On this occasion, we had come to the end of a scene in which, for the final half page, the actors had creatively rewritten Neil Simon. Intending jocularity, I remarked: "That last part was rather approximate!" The actors smiled. But....

"That," growled the bull terrier in the next seat, "is uncalled-for during a run."

Something about his tone suggested bared teeth.

I delivered a stiff apology. "I thought we were at the end of a scene," I added. My apology was ignored. It was a case of "kill the messenger who brings bad news."

It was some weeks later when I fully realized that Alistair equated the P word with the A word. We were in the last days before the dress rehearsal, and the first-act run-through that evening had reached an all-time low. I had been overworked. At the start, they had had to restart. Later, half a page had been completely missed. Numerous good laugh-lines skipped. And the entire cast seemed uncharacteristically sluggish.

By now I had relegated myself to stage right, in a corner, well away from the director. Safer - but also closer to my actual position-to-be in the theater the next week. Over in his seat, Alistair looked stoically glum. "Ten-minute break," he grunted. He marched out past me like a one-man platoon.

"This sort of thing often happens...." I suggested.

"Not in my productions...." His voice was all gravel.

After the break, Alistair made a speech. "I am the first," he said, "to know and admit that this is just a hobby. In the comparatively few hours of rehearsal you've had, you have performed miracles. Professionals rehearse all day, every day for weeks. So. But you should not need a prompt. Professionals don't use one. However - it is a hobby. I know that."

He paused for effect. Actors know how to do this.

"Having said that," he resumed, "it is worthwhile considering that people will actually pay to come and see you. That asks for respect."

He grinned - human after all - but as if his lower jaw was a burden somehow.

"That's my lecture," he said. "Now...."

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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