Ask Peter Hill if he’s ever been part of a turkey, and the Copperstate Dinner Theatre director cackles.
“Oh my, yes,” he says, ruefully. “There have been shows I haven’t 'directed’ so much as 'perpetrated.’ ”
For most of us, “turkey” means the bird we’ll feast on tomorrow. But for many theater artists it also conjures memories of shows gone horribly awry. “Or, as we used to put it: big, steaming piles of art,” Hill says. Today, in honor of all things turkey, local directors contemplate their theatrical fowl.
FEEL THE HATE!
“You never mean to do badly,” says Janet Arnold. The artistic director of Arizona Jewish Theatre says no one sets out to make a theatrical Butterball.
“You have the best intentions. Sometimes, you have bad luck. Sometimes, you make the wrong choices.” Like a clueless director. “I was in a production of 'The Skin of Our Teeth,’ where the director didn’t understand the script,” Arnold says. “We would start the shows with audiences of 150, and end with about 12, mostly relatives.”
Wrong choices are especially brutal at the conceptual level.
“I got hired (to direct) a show years ago,” Hill says. “I won’t name the company but it was a comedy about senior citizens discovering the joys of the drug Ecstasy.”
Hill knew the script was terrible, but held out hope the playwright could fix it. “I told him, 'I need a good bonding scene — a tender moment between this young man and his grandmother, to show why they care for each other.
“So, he sent me a new scene, in which the young man recalls leaving Disneyland in the back of his parents’ car. His parents pick up hitchhikers, who kill them with a shotgun. The kid lives because they didn’t know he was in the back seat. He relates this to his grandmother … and that’s the 'tender moment,’ we were waiting for.”
Some turkeys have too many “moments,” as Southwest Shakespeare director Jared Sakren learned when his roommate, Kevin Kline, cast him in a play.
“Kevin was producing it as a favor to his acting coach,” he says. “The play was directed by the coach, and written by the coach’s wife. Turns out, it was about this love triangle in their marriage, with the 'other man’ playing himself.”
While this would make a great “Jerry Springer” episode, “we knew it was a mistake,” Sakren says. “I remember being in the dressing room opening night, knowing we were going to get killed.”
But audiences can surprise you … right?
“No,” Sakren chuckled. “We could feel the hate coming across the footlights.”
bombing by committee
Sometimes a show comes with red flags, like … no actual script. “Years ago, Stagebrush hired me to do a musical called 'American Sampler,’ ” Hill recalls. “First day, I got to the theater. There was no 'book’ for the show. But there was a 'writing committee.’ They handed me a stack of sheet music about 2 feet high and said, 'It’s all in there, you just have to put it together!’ ”
In a perfect world, bad shows would offer greater wisdom, or lessons learned. Any of that here?
“I don’t know.” says Hill. “I guess you do learn from failures. But honestly, who wants to?”
he says with a laugh. “I’d rather have a success and just remain unenlightened.”
“Maybe you listen to your instincts and heed them a little better,” Sakren says.
“I try really hard to forget them,” Arnold laughs. “I’d rather remember our glorious moments. I did learn that you have to have a well-written script. We did a show once — again, I meant well! It was a comedy, about seniors trying Ecstasy —”
With Peter Hill?
“Yes,” she says, wearily. “Did he tell you about the bonding scene?”