Lights! Action! (No Camera)
There are few writer-centric events in the film world, so, naturally, I gravitated to ACT UP, a monthly series of table reads at the National Black Theatre in Harlem.
What makes ACT UP special is the opportunity to work directly with actors—hence the name of the event. (No relation to the Aids protest organization.) Actors on stage is a huge difference from the program I organize for the Oaxaca Film Festival where writers read each other’s work around a table.
With no experience directing, I have a lot to learn about actors, and more importantly, from them. Like what kind of character background is useful. And how much they crave direction—even when they don’t explicitly ask for it.
Another key difference is the audience. It’s fantastic to feel the immediate response, to sense what’s working and what’s not. But playing to an audience also changes the dynamics of the table read, too.
Bringing the drama!
For all table reads, it’s best to limit screen direction. Too much and it feels like everyone is itching for the real drama to start. (Anything slowing the pace will also be noticed by industry readers when they get the script, too.) When working with actors, the read becomes a mini play. There’s no fancy camera work or editing tricks. Conflict is king. Intense dialogue raises everyone’s pulse on stage and off.
ACT UP kicks off with actors and writers meeting for an informal casting session—sort of like a pickup game—until each role is assigned in the evening’s half dozen or so scripts. Then comes rehearsal, aided by a glass or two of vino. Actors can be in any number of readings and hop from team to team rehearsing. One evening, Myles Wright who played an elf in Toyz On Demand! was also a hairdresser and gang banger. And great as all of them.
Test and learn
At the first event in December, my goal was to test out my character, Mad Ass Evah, a rap mogul, to see how credible he was to black actors and audiences. The character’s suave braggadocio didn’t come immediately to Allen Holloway but we rehearsed his pacing, tone and emphasis.
On stage, Allen nailed it. Mad Ass’s credibility was never an issue. But the lesson I learned was soliloquies aren’t the best fodder for table reads, especially when you have four other actors standing behind mics doing not very much.
Context is crucial
In a plot-driven vehicle like Toyz On Demand!, that careens wildly from one twist to the next, it’s important for the audience to know where they are. Mad Ass’s scene was a big reveal, the climax of the story. However, even with a flashback, the audience was in the dark about the setup, too much had happened earlier to follow along. For future reads, I decided to include tight “story so far” lead-ins to paint the picture and to select scenes closer to the beginning.
This worked spectacularly for the second ACT UP in January, with a scene where Santa is told to fire the elves by Toyz On Demand! executives—rich with conflict and terse dialogue. It’s great when actors just get it—like Erinn Anova—playing the company’s COO who made Santa, (Princeton Carty) swallow his “ho, ho hoes”.
The most satisfying moment came when Chris Paul Morales got the biggest laugh as the second in command to the CEO, played by Carlos Arce Jr. Chris and I worked hard to get there, slowing down his delivery and teasing out the comedy.
I’d be remiss not to mention Danielle Mills, who as a very drunk Mrs. Claus, only had one line, but stole the show with it.
Sometimes it gets intense
Just as well February’s read was rescheduled from Valentine’s day to the following Thursday, as I selected a series of arguments between Santa and Mrs. Claus from early in the script, This time Mrs. Claus was played by Erika Moore and boy was she fierce! You could feel the Clauses’ hundred-year marriage buckle under the strain.“That was intense,” Qualah, the series’ MC, shook her head as we began the Q & A.
So much so, at first I thought the audience might have mistaken my script as a tragedy! To my relief, while shocked motionless in their seats, they were laughing on the inside. It was great to have so many people tell me at the end of the night how funny they found the scene.
Play it again, Sam…
CR Capers, the powerhouse behind the Hip Hop Film Festival, suggested I do the same scene next time, but try it a different way.
Maybe we can switch up the comic timing. And play with the casting. That’s the purpose of the event, giving writers a chance to test things out. “It’s your place to experiment,” CR told me. Music to a writer’s ear.
Next Wednesday is the fourth ACT UP and I’m gonna do just that.