Monday, February 11, 2019

My First Time: Stephen Evans

The First Time I Heard the Audience Laugh

I had heard audiences laugh before, of course. Most of my time in the theater was spent as a performer: a singer by choice, an actor (though not much of one) by necessity. But this was different.

In the early 1980s, I was playing Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to small bewildered houses in a theater outside Washington, DC. The play is a marvelous take on Hamlet as seen through the eyes of two minor characters, Hamlet’s two old pals.

During the run, I got an idea to write a play, a comedy about a playwright inspired by Shakespeare to write a play. I had never written a play before, but I didn’t know enough then to let that stop me. I managed over the next year or so to write the first act. But the second act stopped me and I did not finish the play.

About seven years later, I joined two of my oldest pals (also veterans of local theater) in starting a theater company. Our first show would be a fund-raiser, a musical review. Our second show would be my play—for which I now had to find a second act.

Production schedules wait for no man, or playwright. With lots of encouragement from my two friends and Shakespeare, I finally managed a second act to my play, now entitled The Ghost Writer. As opening night approached, it occurred to me that this was no longer just a personal intellectual challenge: could I write a play? An audience was actually going to answer that question for me.

I think of myself as a playwright who writes books. And I feel differently about publishing and producing. Publishing usually has a wider audience, and someone somewhere may let you know what they think. But it is distributed in time, and for me that lessens the impact. With a play, at least the first production, you are for better or worse usually right there sitting the audience. Everything is magnified, and very direct.

The lights went down on the audience of about 30 people, many of them friends. The curtain didn’t go up; it went sideways, which was suddenly how I expected the play to go. Then the lights came up onstage.

Sitting in the dark in the back row of the small theater, I was inundated with emotion. But more than anything—more than excited, more than terrified—I felt exposed. My thoughts, my words, my imagination were all going to be on display.

On opening night, the actress went about her opening business. No one got up and left. So far so good. Then the next actor entered. They exchanged a few lines. And then a miracle occurred.

Someone laughed.

Then more people started to laugh. They started to laugh together (this phenomenon of an audience coalescing to react in unison never ceases to fascinate me).

There were different kinds of laughter coming from that one small audience. I began to study them. There were the explosive laughs that erupted and subsided quickly, the wave laughs that started small and grew, the quantum laughs that jumped around the audience unpredictably, the lonely laughs from the one person (other than me) who thought it was funny, and the delayed exposure laugh, where it took a couple of beats for the audience to catch up before the laugh.

The audience, that blessed audience, continued laughing throughout the play. Not at the play. At the lines. The ones I had written.

I was hooked. From that moment on I knew that writing funny lines was what I wanted to do. Thoughtful funny lines. Funny lines laden with deep philosophic meaning that would change people’s lives.

Or just make them laugh.

That would be more than enough.

Stephen Evans is a playwright and the author of several books, including The Marriage of True Minds, A Transcendental Journey, Painting Sunsets, and The Island of Always. He lives in Maryland. Click here to visit his website.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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