The Actor’s Perspective – An Interesting Paradox – By Jonathon Pernisek

 As a student going for a degree in Acting, you expect a certain amount of opportunities to come your way. There are the classes, of course, along with many chances to perform both in main season and student productions. I could never have anticipated the amazing break given to me this past summer, however, when one of my professors asked me to try my hand at writing a script for the university’s season. This experiment had never been attempted in the history of this theatre department, and so I would be the first to bring an original, undergraduate work to their stage. With this task came many challenges and questions, just some of which I’ll discuss today.

To start, the script I was challenged to write was an adaptation of what is widely considered to be a classic farce, namely The Government Inspector. Written by Nikolai Gogol, it is a tale of government corruption set in the outskirts of Russia. Gogol wrote the piece to point out the rampant political immoralities of his time, and thus it was considered very controversial by its audiences. It is still held in high regard, but when it came time for my professor to direct a full production, he felt no English translations of the script would work for a 21st century society. Therefore he came up with the idea of setting the same story in the Wild West, which then became my mission.

Though the original idea was to simply update the language and add some Western elements into the mix, the first draft of my adaptation went far beyond these expectations. To be honest, I found Gogol’s script to be incredibly dry, containing what was potentially a highly amusing plot but ultimately surrounded by musty characters and bland dialogue. No modern audience would find this material funny if they were to simply read it off the page, so I set to work expanding all of the source ideas to allow for more comedic potential. What resulted was a script decidedly different from Gogol’s, rife with subplots about irritable Indians, daring war battles, and whatnot. Then, over the course of the next few drafts, my professor and I worked to polish my piece so that it was more in keeping with Gogol’s vision.

Time passed, and soon the production was in full gear. As an acting student I was required to audition for all three shows to be performed that semester, and when the chips fell I found myself acting in my own show. An interesting coincidence, to put it mildly, and this decision resulted in quite an eye-opening experience. What I found was that it was not, in fact, easy to perform dialogue simply because I had written it myself. Frankly it was more of a challenge, since my original instincts as an actor had to be consistently modified to fit with those of everyone around me as well as the director’s preference. Oh, what was my character, you may ask? Why, an extremely gay postman, of course. Every Wild West story needs one of those, as I’m sure you all know.

In the end, what I anticipated the most was not necessarily performing in the show (even though it was obviously an exciting honor), but how audiences would react to my script and how it was performed. It was fascinating to see what jokes and scenes worked on a night-by-night basis, which needed to be tweaked just so in order to earn a laugh, and the ones that just didn’t work no matter what. It really helped me as a playwright to see just how people react to different situations onstage, and since the production’s closing I have gone back and made even more changes to my script. My goal now is to see it one day copyrighted and published, which would be an accomplishment I never would have dreamed of just a few years ago. It was a fantastic ride, to say the least, and I’m thankful for the support of my professors, fellow students, and friends. They never once made me doubt my abilities, and so I was able to cross the finish line with more than enough confidence.