For the second night of the production of my Bosnian war crimes play A PATCH OF EARTH, the whole kit and caboodle packed up and moved to the Noyes Museum, a charming art museum in the woods, near the seashore.
The stage was completely different. The museum is built on three levels, with all sorts of odd angles and such. The stage took over the bottom floor, crammed in among the sculptured pieces of art glass. But the compactness of the surroundings brought the audience right into the action, much more intimate than a proscenium stage.
Oh, there was one other new element to the show: a new actor was playing the lead Drazen Erdemovic tonight. On book. And he was terrific.
It wasn’t until after the show that I heard the whole story from the other actors in the show, all of them hungry to explain what happened. I learned the distracted actor of the night before who couldn’t remember any of his lines was no last minute substitution. He was the actor originally cast in the role. Apparently he never learned his lines. And then he disappeared a week before the show opened. Some speculated it was drugs, some suggested he spent those missing days in jail. But the director gave him another shot.
And the cast was furious. They said they felt particularly betrayed because they had poured heart and soul into telling the tale of a war criminal. And they wanted the author to be proud. After the performance the night before, they wanted me to know they could do better.
The morning of the second show, the director fired the lead actor. The assistant director stepped up to the plate, script in hand, and turned in an AMAZING performance. And the rest of the cast sparkled, thrilled to have the opportunity to create that world and make those characters truly come alive.
That amazing production at Richard Stocker College made me realize something important. It wasn’t about me. And “my” play. I remembered why I wanted to write A PATCH OF EARTH. Because a story I heard at the war crimes tribunal so haunted me, it wouldn’t leave me alone. And just using my skills as a radio journalist, I couldn’t get anyone else to care about this story and the questions his case raised. But I could do that through theatre. I wanted this story to affect and change people’s lives. To make them think about the nature and purpose of punishment. And to ask “what would I do if I were in his shoes?” I wanted the war in Yugoslavia to mean something to kids six thousand miles away.
I realized that the rehearsals, the extra curricular research these kids did on their own, the story itself, grabbed them and made them feel important and made them feel they were making a difference, were part of something important. This play changed their lives. And, judging from the audience Q&A, changed some lives out there as well. The play wasn’t about a Tony or an Ovation or a Helen Hayes award. It was about telling a story that changed lives. And in that sense, that particular production was an amazing success.