A play is only part of the production

| Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010

For many theatergoers, the words play and production are interchangeable.

"We're going to a play Saturday night," they say.

To which I'm sometimes tempted to respond "No, you're going to a production of it."

That sounds like the sort of academic finickiness that leads to fistfights over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or how to pronounce Carnegie or potato.

But there's a big difference between a play and a production, and it can have considerable impact on how we enjoy the event we're watching.

At its core, the difference is quite distinctive:

• A play is the written script that -- give or take the input from a dramaturge, spouse or caring friend -- is the vision of the playwright.

• A production is the collective creation of everyone involved from the actors, director, choreographer and design team to the guy on the follow spot.

The difference is familiar to anyone who has loved a book and hated the movie.

Readers take an author's text and become their own production team, translating the paragraphs and chapters into their own virtual production -- mentally casting and dressing the characters, imagining the nuances of behavior and the details of their surroundings.

But, whether you come away loving or hating the movie depends on the vision and choices made by others even when the story and many of the words remain true to the writer's intention.

That's what leads to those intermission and post-show exchanges that pit people who had a great time because they loved the story (play) and overlooked the leading lady's lack of pitch and those who were so annoyed by her voice (production) that they write the play off as a disaster.

Other times, we come away with that vaguely dissatisfied feeling, knowing that something was lacking, we just can't explain what.

Even seasoned veterans have difficulty discerning how a production came together.

Did the director tell an actor to pace a speech slowly for emphasis, or was the actor's memory faltering• Was that clever comedic bit in the dance number planned by the choreographer, accidentally added by the dancer or suggested by a savvy techie over a post-rehearsal beer?

With plays, especially new ones, there's an added factor. Few of us read the script of a play before we see it. On that first encounter, everything onstage is new and we react accordingly.

We're reacting simultaneously to the story, the words, maybe the music, as well as the feathers in the hat the leading lady is wearing, the pattern in the draperies and the sunset that's taking place outside the upstage window.

That's a lot to take in at one time, and, on our first encounter, it's somewhat overwhelming.

Imagine the shock for someone seeing the conclusion of that first production of "Romeo and Juliet" without all the advance knowledge most of us now have. That's still what happens when you see a new work.

Watching a new and unfamiliar play unfold, there's little time to analyze choices or consider which ones add to or detract from the success of the production.

Mentally processing a new and interesting story may involve us so completely that we pay little attention to its flaws. Or, if we're fortunate, the production may be so supportive, well paced and convincingly acted that we're charmed despite a weak script.

For those intrigued enough to explore the blurry borders between its life on page and stage, the procedure can be rewarding.

Choose a popular new play you've encountered onstage and enjoyed -- or if you're really brave enough to test your tastes -- hated. Make it a point to read the script and attend several productions over time and under different conditions.

It's particularly enlightening if you can follow its journey in part or whole from script to Broadway to national tour to regional theater and then on to community and high-school theaters.

Along with a growing awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the play itself, you'll find intriguing changes in characters, settings, mood and message. Along the way, you'll encounter moments of success and failure in each and every interpretation.

You'll also learn a lot about theater.

The play may be the thing for Hamlet to catch the conscience of the king, but it's only one element of a production.

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