Plays within plays and plays about plays are a well-traveled road. Like much in the dramatic genre, the Greeks did it first and Shakespeare perfected it. The conceit lends itself to comedy, especially for today’s audiences, too savvy to accept artifice at face value. In the category of contemporary fare, and in the farcical vein of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s workman’s play, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (1982) poked fun at the backstage goings on of a small theater troupe (a revival is planned next season at Roundabout Theater). Recently still, the Belgian collective STAN sussed out Diderot’s Paradox of Acting in a clever two hander, Vandeneedevandeschrijvervandekoningendiderot, more akin to Euripides and Aeschylus wrangling over terms in Aristophanes’ The Frogs,
Somewhere between the two falls Anne Washburn’s 10 0ut of 12, a witheringly disabused take on the subject for the 21st century downtown crowd. There are plenty of laughs here, in a show created from notes Washburn took over many hours of rehearsals (and there are even more knowing grins in store for those in the industry who will recognize familiar situations). But Washburn also uses the occasion to sow some bigger ideas about the artistic and human value of the theater act, offering welcome content to what at first presents as an extended insider gag.
Washburn’s title refers to a contractual stipulation regarding the number of hours actors may work in a single day, and her particular contribution to the metatheater genre is to deconstruct one of modern theater’s more maddening institutions: the tech rehearsal. “Tech” is when the entire production team runs through lighting and sound cues with the actors. As technology becomes less a tool and more of a ubiquitous feature of theater, a tech rehearsal can be a complicated and lengthy undertaking. Using the premise of a new play in development at a small downtown theater (for which Soho Rep’s matchbox dimensions are an able stand-in), Washburn takes us through the paces of “Tech” with all its requisite personnel, codes and conventions, as well as its inevitable glitches: a semi-immersive experience that lasts long enough – 2.5 hours with intermission – to give audiences a sense of the drudgery of the exercise. Sound and light cues quickly rack up and before long the cast is at the brink of exhaustion, so much so that when a lighting technician requires immediate medical attention, he stoically insists on seeing the rehearsal through to the end so as to spare the troupe additional delays. Hard-core.
True to the genre in this sense then, 10 out of 12 relies on situational humor to carry it, drawing on the challenges of getting through this longest day in the rehearsal calendar. The “play” in development is an unnamed, time- and reality-bending antebellum drama peopled by risibly ghostly aliens, on a deliberately unfinished set, and is itself a joke on downtown theater’s reputed impenetrability and artsiness. The playwright, we learn, has not even bothered to be present for the marathon run-through, leaving the cast adrift in her text, just days before previews. Contemporary theater starts to look indefensibly gratuitous from this point of view.
The feeling is heightened by Washburn’s genial idea of giving audience members individual headsets, on which we can hear the unguarded chatter between the Stage Manager, her Assistant and various tech people in the wings (a stream-of-consciousness babble via their headsets which the actors and director don’t hear). Topics of discussion range from a lost X-ACTO knife, a good sandwich, the merits of the cast and the general ambiance (tense, to say the least). Moments when on- and off-stage blend can be particularly comical, as when one of the actresses attempts to let off steam by performing a series of yoga postures while, unbeknownst to her, the crew launches into an impromptu musical accompaniment. Washburn uses their wry omniscience on the proceedings to deliver some of her most mordant jabs at the pretentiousness and preciousness of making theater at the heart of the theater world.
Washburn evidently can see the humor in taking theater seriously. The first half of her play devotes considerable time to watching pieces of the set get bolted down, actors struggling to fit hoop skirts through doorways, and the director spout in a pseudo-intellectual, made-up German. After the intermission however (a “take 15” for the nerve-frayed cast of the drama), she turns very serious about the demands of theater as an art form, and her metatheater finally starts to take hold.
Her interwoven plays revolve around one actor, Paul, and his character, Carstairs, both of whom are given imposing form by Thomas Jay Ryan. Paul, we understand from cast and crew, is a living legend of downtown theater, a magnetic artist who could inspire a young actor to give up a lucrative offer in Hollywood for the nobler but financially precarious craft of the stage. He has the starring role in the drama, playing the pragmatic but ambivalent Carstairs, whose mission is to convince the friendless Charles (a likeable Gibson Frazier, also in the role of Ben, the actor) to come to terms with his latent homosexuality.
And so it is Paul who plays the same role of guide for his younger, more career-focused, fellow cast members. Although he is capable of stumbling like a mad Hamlet into the midst of a scene, he is also a kind of moral compass for Washburn’s imagined community of actors. What is the good of all this laborious toil to get the lights just right and the table placed where it most makes sense? When is 10 hours of rehearsing too much for any sane person? Why not chuck it all for a cush cable TV gig and watch the money pour in? Who should care more about theater than one’s personal safety? The answers to these questions are in that tech rehearsal, if the cast isn’t too tired to look for them. However, the message comes a bit late in the game; after so much jocularity at the expense of theater, it seems like a bit of flip-flopping to extoll its praises after all.
Still, its immersive conceit, complex narrative structure and ambition to turn theater inside out (not to mention its deadpan humor) make 10 out of 12 another example of why downtown theater can sometimes feel so daring (even when it’s not). Director Les Waters brings his many years of working with playwrights like Caryl Churchill to the younger Washburn’s text and gives it the benefit of every one of its quirks and risks, from alien invasions to the play’s final communal dance. The cast, both on stage and off, pulls off the mise en abîme so well that there are moments when we aren’t quite sure which play we are in, and the pleasure is all the greater.
Paul’s reason for continuing to pursue the dream of making theater is simple, though the context has changed since he started as a young man. Back then, he remembers nostalgically, “We knew that this was a a splendid, a glorious way to live. […] We believed in what we were doing. We were heroes of art. We were heroes.” 10 out of 12 is a tribute to those heroes of today, who try from deep in the “tech” trenches to give relevancy and mystery to all the plays that intersect with the big one that is life itself. Places, please.