Timothy Mason, playwright, walked into the rehearsal, took a place at the conference table and started working on a crossword puzzle. His head down, he somehow managed to stay silent for 10, maybe 15 minutes of discussion about why he was having the characters in his new play at South Coast Repertory do what they were doing and not do what some of the actors at the table thought they should be doing.
Conversation circled around him: What were Alex and Louise like before the play started? How long had they been married? Did they see each other when Alex was still married to his first wife? Just what were they doing on that out-of-the-way, politically flammable Caribbean island anyway?
Mason, however, could have been at his desk in New York, given all the attention he seemed to be paying to their questions. Never mind that the assorted actors and crew members kept looking over at him, trying to affect casualness. He wasn't filling in very many of the boxes down or across, but he wasn't looking up either.
The playwright, it seems, was waiting his turn. His new play, "Before I Got My Eye Put Out," has its world premiere Tuesday at South Coast, and who better than he to explain why his people do what they do. The actors can theorize, director David Emmes can postulate, but Mason knows .
After all, Mason had been carrying Louise, Alex and the others around in his head for a good four years before South Coast came along and handed him $6,000 to turn his characters and plot into a play. Now he was plunked down here for most of the last six weeks, and the 35-year-old writer says his silence was "sort of a self-conscious attempt on my part to establish protocol. As the playwright, I'm not going to step in and dogmatically give everyone the answers."
But he does know some of the answers, and that's why he was here. "Our primary goal at this theater is to bring the production as close to the playwright's vision as possible," says John Glore, the dramaturge who has been working most closely with Mason. "So it's really important to get his input and have him let us know if we get way off the track. Particularly since this is the play's first production."
And the down side? "It's a fine line you walk in terms of the playwright's knowledge of his characters," Glore says. "While you want to know what he had in mind, you want to leave room for the other collaborators to bring in their own ideas, experiences and emotions."
So Mason learned the very first day of rehearsals. Just after an uneventful, brisk reading of his play about the dark side of literary stardom, several of the actors surrounded the slight, intense-looking playwright in the hallway.
Actress Jessica Drake, who plays the novelist's daughter, wanted to know if the character of Hector, a Caribbean youth who lived with her character's family when she was growing up, was written to be her brother. "Up until yesterday he was," Mason explained, looking uncomfortable. "But then I did a bit of genetic engineering and now he's your spiritual brother."
Drake seemed satisfied, but neither James Olson, who plays the father, nor Rick Najera, who plays Hector, felt the discussion was over. Mason, who had for some reason decided to stop smoking during the play's rehearsal period, first listened patiently as the two actors gave their reasons for wanting a blood relationship rather than spiritual one. But, when Olson started repeating his position, Mason first looked heavenward, then called out, "Who has a cigarette?"
Mason was off cigarettes again the next day as, over coffee in the non-smoking area of a nearby croissant shop, he told a visitor how Olson and Najera had pursued their point well into dinner.
"I told them to back off," Mason said. "I could hear what they were saying, but I didn't want to be talked into anything.
"Actors' observations of a play are most valuable when they have to do with a moment-by-moment examination of their own characters. That's because they crawl into the particular skin of a character to the exclusion of all else. But I sometimes find their observations less valuable when they are commenting on the whole from their perspective."
Mason has had plenty of experience looking at the big picture. "Eye Out" is his 24th produced play--17 were produced at the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, where he also began as an actor 20 years ago--and he has often been present in the delivery room. "It used to be that the first reading was pretty rough, and I was wildly impatient for everything to be exactly right immediately," Mason says. "Now I know better."