Preview week, to me, is one of the hardest weeks of my process. Not only do I need to be available with fresh coffee for the rehearsals, but I also have to begin figuring out my track for the preview performance. However, I continue to work on my check list (one of my favorite jobs) in order to consistently do my specific tasks required during the performance. The biggest job is preparing and doing the scene changes. There are eight!! I make a lot of beds, refresh the wine and food, and round up the supernumeraries, which are in costume and make scene changes onstage possible. I am so grateful for them! If not for their help the changes would be really boring and slow. Opening week next week is always a relief. It’s nice to run the show with no new changes and to finally get into a routine.
Archive for the ‘2007/08 Season’ Category
Well, here we are in week four of the process of putting together The Lion in Winter. I don’t know why, but even after acting professionally for more than 10 years, I always feel like I am reinventing the wheel whenever I construct a character. The obstacle of the week: no empty space.
One of the magical things about theatre is the capacity to engage in an imaginary world. In the rehearsal process, much energy is expended imagining and creating in our minds the playing space. Rehearsals typically take place in a space separate from and usually not resembling the actual performance space. So it is with us upon arriving at 325 Tudor Court. Coming to terms with the actual props is confusing, reconfiguring our kinesthetic relationships is confounding and seeing just how close the audience is going to be is downright terrifying. Fortunately the work we have done so far as an ensemble is strong, so it is no small comfort to look in the eyes of my partner onstage and know that the other person is my anchor.
Something that I have been thinking alot about with this play is the extent to which expression can be achieved through stillness. I performed in Blue Man Group many years ago as a Blue Man and one of the directors was always urging the Blue Men to simply have the experience of the show and let the audience watch us go through it. Only then can we allow the audience to participate viscerally and imaginatively in the story of the show. Coming back to The Lion in Winter, I feel that the combination of this show, our particular director’s aesthetic and the limitations/blessings of our space require a stillness and focus that I have never experienced before.
I am sitting here on a break in our technical rehearsal anxiously anticipating the family style chinese food that one of the actors ordered for the cast. I will try and stretch before getting into a beautiful costume that is almost a quarter of my body weight. I will then warm up my voice and try and clear my head with a cup of coffee, a breath of fresh air and most likely an inspiring note from our director, Rick Snyder. And so I am living the dream….
I’m reading an article in this week’s New Yorker about Mark Rylance, the celebrated English actor and founding artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. One of his former directors said the following about his work on stage: “He has what all great sportsmen have: he seems to have more time than anyone else.” The gist of this metaphor is that he can take this dense text, move effortlessly through it, and convey so many different ideas at once, without slowing down or confusing the audience. The work in The Lion in Winter requires that kind of layering, if it’s to be shown at it’s best. The character I play, Eleanor, is one that has so much pent-up hurt, regret, and love which the audience absolutely must know is there, but she shows it at her own peril, for it gives away her power, and leaves her even more vulnerable. She must play coolly, with effortless grace and elan, so no one will see how much she desparately needs. Well, that’s the goal. We’ll see if I get there….
It’s always difficult for me to let go of a project – (well….usually it’s difficult!) but this has been an especially hard show to bid it’s fond farewell. In just four short months, I made friendships that I will cherish for life, marvelled at talents that topped the peak of gifts I’ve seen – and I learned such a vast amount about myself as an actor that it will probably be quite some time before I’m able to fully recognize the extent.
For a very long time I harbored a secret sense that contemporary Shakespeare productions were done for the benefit of mostly the artists involved and a thin sliver of intellectual elite audience members who came to see how many lines they could quote in their heads (or aloud!) – but after two incredible seasons on stage with my family at Writers’ Theatre – after journeying through the darkness of one of drama’s most painful tragedies last year and then through the revelations of one of the most complex and uplifting comedies this year, I have seen first-hand that audiences from age 9 – 90 - from the most studied Shakes scholars to the first-time initiates – can be taken away, their thoughts and imaginations lifted to places they’d never imagined before taking their seats. I can’t believe how much I actually missed slathering my face with the clown white make-up last night!
My love and thanks to everyone who gave me such an unforgettable adventure through those crazy woods of Arden!
We are about to start our extension week, which I like to think of as the post-season. It’s like we had a great year and won our division so we get to play a little longer. Of course you can’t push this metaphor too much, like an out-of-shape jogger it strains easily. There is no playoff, we are not going to extend further, come Sunday we are done. That is always a happy and sad day. Happy because we’ve completed something, it’s a job well done, and we suddenly get your evenings back! Sad because the community that was created around this production will dissipate as we all go our own ways.
One of the wonderful parts of being an actor is the companionship that develops during a show. When it really works, when you’re having a good time in an engaging show, it has the same uplifting feeling as being a part of a team in a pennant chase. I personally function best as part of a team. In a show like this one, where everyone is good at what they do and also fun to be around, it lifts up the overall production to a higher level. We all want to do the best job we can and it is a real gift when you find yourself in a show that encourages and celebrates that. We’ve been up and running for awhile now but there’s still an excitement every performance because you know that no one is content with just repeating what we’ve already done, everyone is still exploring and searching and discovering, and that is thrilling.
Of course, like many teams, we’ve had a line-up change mid-season. Robby Lehman had to leave us and so we called in our fearless director, Bill Brown (harkening back to the day of the player/manager). It was very exciting being behind the plate for the first few performances. Each pitcher has a different delivery and there were a few times I was looking for high heat and got a wicked slider instead. Okay, my metaphor is getting a side-stitch… but, seriously, it has been great to have Bill with us again. Besides that the dressing room is suddenly a little more bombastic, it’s just plain fun to find these scenes again with a different partner. I have to compliment Bill on how well he made the transition from Director to Actor. In the hands of a less secure person that could be an awkward situation. We have been very lucky to get not one but two great Touchstones over the course of this run. If you are asking yourself, “Is it worth coming back again to see it one more time?” the answer is YES.
I’d like to wrap this rambling blog up by thanking our wonderful, smiling, laughing audiences that have made our jobs so much fun. I also want to thank all my teammates (both on the field and in the Writer’s Theatre clubhouse) for their hustle, humor, honesty and affability. It has been a pleasure working with such a talented and hard-working group. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished and I have enjoyed the whole process immensely. I’m glad we’ve got a few more games to play.
One of the most difficult and unsung roles in theater is the understudy. Imagine having to learn all the lines, blocking, combat, and songs of several characters and then being responsible for performing them at a moments notice in front of a packed house when you might not have even been able to rehearse the scenes with the other actors. It is TERRIFYING. It is a bit like being dropped at the top of a mountain you’ve never seen before with rented skis and a blindfold. If you stop to think about it there are a million ways you can fail but you really don’t have any choice but to get to the bottom.
We have had three understudies go on so far in our run, including two in the opening weekend. They have all been magnificent. Which brings me to the wonderful part of understudying which is you get to be the pinch-hitter who drives in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. As an understudy you put in all this work for a performance that might never come. So when you get a chance to go on it is a thrilling honor to step up and join the team. And it is great because all the other actors are right there with you, making sure you’re in the right place, supporting you completely, and showering you in positive energy. It’s fun for the other actors too because they get to see scenes that they are accustomed to in a brand new light. It is so much fun to see the unique personalities that the understudies bring to their parts. The understudy’s job is to step into another actor’s role and follow it faithfully, but it is also to inhabit the character and be present, and that will always bring a bit of their own spark to the part.
A great quote that I heard in grad school was that “the role of an understudy is to make an emergency a non-event”. Dick Cheney said that. Yeah, I didn’t think I would be quoting Dick Cheney either but he should understand the understudy role at this point and it’s a good quote. That’s what your job is as an understudy, to make sure the show goes on. Not only have our understudies done that, they’ve also all brought some wonderful fresh moments to the show and done the rest of the team proud. Thanks, you guys!
A wiser man than I once said that Shakespeare is always about sex. Especially when it’s a play with multiple pairs of would-be lovers chasing each other through the forest in the springtime. Now I don’t happen to think that detracts from the artistry or power of the play at all because it is absolutely universal and unparalleled when it comes to creating comedic situations of life-threatening urgency. Another great thing that Bill said as we were finishing rehearsals was that he wanted people to fall in love when they come to the show. He wanted them to get swept up in the spring fever of life and love and joy and to feel that vitality and wonder too. Talk about the kind of mission statement that will put a big-old smile on your face. I feel like we all have been falling in love out there so far, audiences and performers alike. It’s like we all are taking a chance and letting our guards down for a while, risking ridicule and embarrassment, to revel in the spring air of Arden. I feel like I’m living a Walt Whitman poem when I’m out there; Corin sings the body electric. Boy howdy!
During table-work Bill said he doesn’t believe Shakespeare ever got sarcastic. He had a firm grasp of irony and the put-down to say the least, but there’s a level of honesty and openness to Shakespeare’s characters that is intimidating but invigorating. They aren’t holding back. They are all in. And that means that’s what we all have to do, go all in. When we’re in that space there’s no room for half-hearted. We have a chance to soar and rage and seek, why would we settle for less? I sincerely hope everyone who comes to see this show puts all their chips in the pot and lets the action ride.
Given that our show JUST opened and will be running until early April, it seems an odd time to talk about things coming to an end. Not if you’re a designer.
For a typical designer, the majority of interaction with the entire team (Director, actors, stage management, theater management, etc.) is in the relative few days of tech. In Equity theaters tech is tightly controlled, usually moves along quickly, and is over before you know it. When a show goes into previews, the designer is an audience member with the power to make decisions but isn’t actively participating any more. When it opens, the designer is done. Costume designers are occasionally called upon to make decisions regarding upkeep or dressing understudies, but for the most part the design team is usually only contacted if something goes wrong, breaks, needs to be replaced, rethought, or removed.
On the majority of shows, the closure is welcome. It is hard to feel the sense of a “job well done” unless you’re actually done. In rare cases where the process is taxing, it is a great relief to be finished. But there are certain shows that you never really want to open because doing so means you don’t get to play any more. As You Like It was one of those for me.
Part of it is that I was “Music Director” for this production. I have done this a few times in my Chicago career and I have found those shows hardest to let go. When your only responsibility is sound design, you come to rehearsals a few times to get a sense of the show then bring in a bunch of sound effects and transitions over a period of a few days. It is sometimes hard to feel connected. When you’re a Music Director, you are called upon to lead rehearsals, which is a substantial shift in social dynamic. You have to answer questions, provide encouragement and occasional correction, and (if you’re the composer) explain something that sprang intuitively from your mind in words that that are technical and unintuitive. It can do things to your sense of proportion, particularly if what you’re use to is waving at actors from the other side of the room and only interacting with the core design and production teams.
This experience was one I felt (and still feel) deeply invested in. Alas, the time has come for me to pack my giant tech nerd bag and go home.
We’ll always have Arden.
That is some of the best advice I have ever received from a director. We were working on the song at the end of the show and those of us playing instruments were having a hard time getting one of the changes. We are all actors who play instruments more than musicians who act and so it’s easy to get a little self-conscious. We really wanted to nail it, to get it right. Then Bill chimed in with, “Alive is better than perfect”. It sounds so simple but it was (ironically) the perfect thing to say. Suddenly it ceased to be about us as actors trying to play a song perfectly and became about characters who (perhaps unfortunately) have our musical ability, coming together to play music and celebrate. The pressure was off of us as actors to get it right and instead it was on the characters that were much less concerned with perfection and more concerned with playing. If I miss notes then it pulls me out of the song and I get embarrassed, but if my character Corin misses a note he just hits the next one because there’s a party going on, not a performance. I liked that quote so much I kept thinking about it and how it applies to the play. “Perfect” is about performance. It’s about actors acting. It’s about showing. It’s judgment. “Alive” is about being. It’s about characters in situations. It’s about the story. It’s about being present and taking the journey. Which sounds like more fun to you? Sure it’s enjoyable to watch people who are good at something do it well. But it’s a lot more fun to watch a good story. One of the things I love about this show so far is that we are all there to tell the story, not to look good telling it. It’s hard to forget that you’re an actor and there might be a critic or casting director out there whom you want to impress. But that’s not where the story is. That’s not why we’re all coming together for this show, audience or actor or technician. We’re coming together to share a story and revel in Life.
At the very first production meeting we had for As You Like It, Bill Brown stated that we would probably not be doing all the songs in the script, at which point I instantly suggested that we cut “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind”. The look Bill gave me – a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and confusion – told me I had misspoke. I would like to be able to say that I had only misunderstood the beauty and importance of the song but the truth is that the song contained a phrase that stymied me because of my pop culture upbringing. Two little words that conjur singing dwarves: Heigh Ho
“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” begins encouragingly enough with a beautiful observation that the winter wind, however unkind, is more desirable than the ingratitude of one’s fellow man. I like illustrations from the natural world and can throw myself behind that completely. But then you get to “heigh ho” and a string of “olly” words – holly, folly, jolly – and my first response was panic. Now I had two famous cartoon songs in my head, the second being “Holly Jolly Christmas”. I longed for The Tempest’s “Full Fathom Five” with its “bones” and “coral” and “sea change” – evocative words that paint vivid pictures and tie very specifically to the story. Instead, the picture I had was of seven little men with pick axes marching to and from work, or worse a showstopping musical number in Santa’s workshop
For all its light hearted frivolity, As You Like It is not an easy play and no designer on this project was presented with an easy task. Keith Pitts had to design a set that starts inside a palace and ends up in the forest in a theater with no wing space or fly space. Rachel Healy had to help Tracy Arnold transform into a convincing boy – the entire premise of the play depends on it. Charlie Cooper had to take us from outside to inside to outside all by himself for one very critical moment in Act Two. And I was worrying about singing dwarves.
As is usually the case with these things, the answer is to fully embrace what you fear. At some point I realized I was trying to run over the words in the hopes that nobody would notice them or would forgive or forget them. Then I realized that “Heigh Ho” is the most important moment of the song and it made all the difference. Rather than being nonsense words, “Heigh Ho” is an expression that can evoke either hope or sadness or even both at the same time (check the Webster’s definition if you don’t believe me). This realization unlocked the entire song for me. I like to imagine William Shakespeare strolling into the room and saying to me, “Very good. Now, NEVER assume that you know better than I do again.” (If only he did that more…)
“Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” and the melodic motif that makes up “Heigh Ho” have become very important to the production. It is the first musical phrase the audience will hear in the show, it forms the basis of the Miles Davis inspired jazz number that accompanies Rosalind’s first appearance, it anchors the end of our First Act, and it is transformed into the Debussy inspired music that brings the true Rosalind and Celia back to us in the final scene of the play.In terms of my personal artistic growth, I think it’s the best setting of text (i.e. song) I’ve written to date and is certainly my proudest achievement at Writers’ Theatre. I owe an immense debt to Carol Kuykendall and Kevin Asselin for their beautiful and completely personal interpretation of it in the show, W Shakespeare for being the smarter half of the songwriting team of Hansen & Shakespeare, and to Bill Brown for that brief moment of consternation.