Some years back, one of my plays was a finalist in an original playwriting competition. All of the scripts were slated for staged readings prior to the judges’ decision being announced. It was, for me, an evening to remember, and not particularly for the reasons you might imagine.
Turns out, the cast for the reading of my play was assembled at breakneck speed at very nearly the last minute. Some had attended a table read a few hours earlier and a few had never laid eyes on the material until they opened their scripts onstage in front of the audience.
Now, I believe that a playwright must have confidence that his/her work is strong enough to withstand all the different interpretations it’s going to encounter in its (hopefully) long life. Because if you are fortunate enough to have your words performed in various places around the world, they are going to be subjected to the whims of many different directors and casts, both skilled and unskilled.
At this particular event, it leant towards the latter. And for the most part, I didn’t fault the performers, many of whom were tossed into the mix as last-minute replacements. Except maybe for one of them…
Midway through the reading, an actor happened across the word surreptitiously in one of her lines. She paused. She lifted her script from the music stand and squinted at it.
“Sur… Sur… Sryrup…. Sur…rup…tie…tee…us…lee,” she sounded out carefully. Then she lifted her face from the page, looked out into the audience, and announced, “I don’t know what this is. Is this even a word? What does it mean?”
The audience shifted uncomfortably. The other actors shifted uncomfortably. I resisted the impulse to crawl under my seat. But clearly, things weren’t going to move forward until somebody answered her question. And who else was that going to be, but the person who had had the nerve to employ it in the first place? I cleared my throat.
“Surreptitiously,” I pronounced for her. “It… It sort of means slyly. Secretively.”
The actor regarded me dubiously. “Okay,” she said at last. “Sur… Syrup… Sur… rup… tie… tee—“
“Surreptitiously,” I interrupted quickly, hoping to get things back on track again.
“Okay,” she said. She returned to the script, this time picking up with whatever word came after the offending one.
So, thankfully, the awkward moment was behind us. Or so I thought. But guess what? I was a pompous- enough writer to have used that word one more time. I didn’t remember it until… yes, you guessed it:
The very same actor had to pronounce that word again fifteen minutes later.
She was delivering a line, hesitated… frowned… picked up the script and held it close to her face… and then, with a sigh of extreme exasperation, got up, walked to the front of the stage and thrust the script at me. I looked at the place on the page where she was pointing.
“Surreptitiously,” I said apologetically. Clearly she wasn’t going to risk pronouncing it again.
She regarded me with thinly veiled contempt before turning and stalking back to her chair. Over her shoulder, she muttered just loud enough for perhaps half of the audience to hear:
“I don’t know why anybody has to use a stupid big word like that, anyway.”
Well, she had a point. Just who was I trying to impress? I promised myself that day, and I promise all of you reading this right now, that I will never, ever use that word in a play again.
Oh, and as a postscript… Miraculously, my play tied for first place. There can be only one of two reasons: The judges didn’t attend that performance. Or they did, and my victory was due to the sympathy vote.