Wednesday, March 26, 2014


We are our stories.
Memory is a protein.
Who are you?
Familial. Genetic. Early Onset. Alzheimer’s.

“What phrases stuck out for you tonight?” asked Jenni Werner, Geva’s Dramaturg and facilitator of the onstage Talkback discussion. A couple dozen audience members stayed behind after a performance of “Informed Consent” to chat with the Production Team. I have watched the show twice now, and as a Geva Cohort, I have attended rehearsals once a week and seen the show take shape. Above are the phrases which stuck out for me, after Sunday’s show. They are different from the phrases that came to mind other times throughout the process. Early on, these phrases resonated strongly:
We are from the Canyon.
The Genetic Scientist.
Not “strictly”. 
Not if you don’t have permission.
 It’s a Princess Party...

 But, when I watched the Sunday matinee, the morning after Opening night, I sat front row center in the balcony to see the full, final run of the play, as it is set to run for the next few weeks. All changes are made, the kinks worked out, the unnecessary script lines cut, the intermission put in and taken out, the pacing and light cues settled on, all the fine-tuning done. I watched the matinee and felt as if I had not seen the play in that way before.

The pieces came together and struck me in a new way. Jack Warner conceded in his recent review that, despite the overuse of the term, this play truly is “thought-provoking”. It is a play about an awful lot of things. Native rights. Scientific research. Genetics. Identity. Alzheimer’s. Family stories. Cultural History.
I walked out of the theatre this time moved by Deb Laufer’s words, and Jessie Wortman’s portrayal of Gillian in particular, and the issues about identity and memory in people affected by dementia.  The chorus echoes the question “Who are you?” and I could not shake those voices. My mother developed Lewy’s Bodies Dementia in her late seventies. Its symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s, but include Parkinson-like tremors and shuffling, and a much faster rate of progression than Alzheimer’s. My mother died three years after her diagnosis. Any individual or family member afflicted with dementia knows all too well the quandary of “who are you?” As dementia progresses, this question is answered in many different ways. A person’s identity becomes smaller, perhaps simpler. As a family member, I asked myself corollary questions like “Who do you think I am?” or “who am I to you?” This play touches on the idea that identity is interrelated to connection, and complicated just like belief and truth are.

My mother would have loved this play. She loved provocative theatre and stark sets. Sure, she loved musicals too, and remembered the Broadway songs well up to the end, but for drama, she preferred shows that wrestled with big issues and pushed you a little out of your comfort zone. When I was in high school, she took me to see Equus and acted in The Lottery. She’d have liked this set of brown corrugated walls and alternating colored light boxes. She loved the Southwest too and took several trips to learn about Navajo and Hopi cultures.  And the humor she would have appreciated; it’s not good drama if you can’t laugh along the way, and she loved to laugh heartily.
Another cohort wrote about her own personal connections to this play, regarding the issues of genetic testing. She also observed that it sometimes takes time for connections to rise to the surface. As I mull over various scenes of “Informed Consent,” I have no doubt that I will be struck by some other phrases, some other connection. There is an awful lot in this play.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Not good enough

Informed Consent is not written or performed in a typical linear fashion. The plot is not what propels the play from beginning to end, but rather it is a couple of themes, the sense of searching for answers, and a troupe of voices suggesting stories which carry the audience through the hour and a half experience. There is a plot, and in fact there are a couple interwoven storylines that reveal themselves, but watching this play is much more of an immersion experience.
To pull it off, the production team responsible for lights, set, props, costumes and sound have had  requests from the director that are perhaps more esoteric than usual. There is a lot of mood setting and suggestions of things rather than representational or literal effects. At one tech rehearsal I went to as a cohort, the production team and cast spent almost 30 minutes working out lights and staging for a brief monologue by the character Gillian. First time through, it wasn't right. I agreed. I was not really focused on her statements, even though none of the other actors were speaking or moving. She looked emotionally involved but it didn't really feel like a very emotional moment. Even so, I was surprised that it needed to be fixed. I figured it was good enough. But no, settling for good enough is not what this theatre is about.
What did the Director ask the Lighting Designer for? "Make her feel small and alone."
How did the Lighting guy respond? "Right, right! Give me a minute."
Thank goodness a professional knew what to do with that!
Ten minutes later, they ran the scene again. Background lights dimmed, colors changed and softened around Gillian, the other actors were now in shadows. I was transported to a lonely place watching Gillian stand alone on a lecture stage, groping for words and understanding. Mission Accomplished.
It has been a full, fruitful and fascinating tech week for this play. Tonight I will watch the last Preview performance. Just yesterday they decided to do away with the intermission!  I feel nervous, so I can only imagine how everyone working in it feels. No changes after this. Opening night is this Saturday night. Break a leg!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Layers and voices

Today, cohorts of Geva's upcoming show Informed Consent had the opportunity to participate in a recording session in advance of the tech rehearsals this weekend. Despite blizzard warnings, the actors and production staff made it in and a few intrepid cohorts. The first assignment was to record individual family stories, which will be edited and excerpted and layered over one another to create a short, short audio clip of sentence fragments. The recorded stories ranged from one sentence "I don't know my family history" to an engaging retelling of a shoot-out in Uraguay; lots of European immigrant stories, with some Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and long-time American farmers thrown in. The sounds of the voices alone were inspiring, with male and female, British, Texan, Arabic, and Spanish accents included. Each speaker was also asked to say the word "and" and the phrase "Who are you?" My head is swirling with wonder at how this will be put to use. I do have a sense that the fragments will make a strong whole, the bits of stories will make a narrative about family and identity. And all this work for what will probably end up being 20 seconds of the show, in the background.
      We also got to sing! I have not had a chance to see this scene in the rehearsal, although I have read other Cohorts' posts about it. We recorded the chanting for the blood ritual, where he Havasupi reclaim what is theirs and honor their origin. Today we were led by the fine voice of Tina Fabrique and the spontaneous, helpful conducting of Jessica Wortham Newman. We spent 90 minutes overall to make the recordings, including just waiting a few minutes while the large snowplow outside finished rumbling around the parking lot.
I drove home, as the snow and wind increased, thinking about how much energy and thought goes into the tiny pieces. The playwright Deb Laufer has paid so much attention to each word and strand of each story and character. The director Sean Daniels works out snippets at a time of blocking or intonation or gestures with the actors. Now the sound features take center stage. By the end of the week, set pieces, prop placements and lighting will be the focus. And each tiny part of this production carries its own weight and purpose in creating a whole experience for the audience, who largely come in from their Rochester lives unaware of how much care and intention has been given to what they are about to see.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Can you see Bob?

A few of us don’t give up easily, and we have taken Sean Daniels up on his offer to cohorts to sit in on some technical rehearsals of the new Nextstage play, Bob. It was an opportunity to compare something different with The Book Club Play.

What I’ve found is lots of similarities, and complications. I probably could have foreseen the similarities. Both scripts are relatively new, and at a point in their creation that the playwright is still involved and viewing the Rochester performances as a final phase of development before heading out into to the wide world of Theatredom. Both plays are also comedies with poignant messages about people and connections and purpose. Both plays have a cast that has worked together beforehand, which creates a synergy between them that naturally enhances their collective performances.

In the case of Bob, the cast has just come from Atlanta where they performed Bob for several weeks there. They arrived here last weekend and went right to teching the play for the Nextstage space. The Directors did the Atlanta show with this stage in mind, but the current production team has to make the transition work. Geva’s stage manager for the show spent four days in Atlanta watching the show several times, taking copious notes and photographs to help her recreate it here. On Day One, the actors were gushing at how wonderful it was to have the set transported here and every last prop put in place just how it was there. One actor remarked, “Even the pockets of my apron have all the right stuff in them!” The props in this play are numerous, so kudos to the team for getting it all straight.

The Lighting Director had banks of lights rehung here to better approximate the design used in Atlanta. The square footage is much smaller in the Nextstage and herein lie some of the complications. I listened to a discussion of how the smaller stage meant the actors were closer together, and at first I thought that sounded like The Book Club Play. Those actors are onstage most of the show and confined to the living room space. There it was a relatively easy solution, with the lights simply up most of the time, so the audience watches all the interactions at once, simulating the three cameras that are taking in the book club meetings. The more I watched Bob in rehearsal, though, I began to see a huge difference.

This play requires actors to be on the stage most of the show, but the focal point changes frequently. Two characters may have a short scene, while the other actors sit in view on the sidelines or lounge in the funky letter holes, shadows of Bob’s world, visible but not active in the scene. The rearranging of people and positions, the rapid back and forth of the action adds to the chaotic feel inherent in Bob’s life. But it’s all in a very small space, so lights are used to constantly highlight or darken various parts of the stage, back and forth, with different contrast and attention, all to help the audience focus on the pertinent parts and not watch the whole stage all the time. It’s a pretty frenetic set, with distractions everywhere, like a child’s heavily-played in, seldom picked up bedroom. It is helpful to have guidance as to where to look. Easier said than done. The lights themselves are intentionally frenetic – and I can’t even describe the various options of lighting. Here’s one take:

Today was Day 3 of the tech process, with lots of skipping around and refining small bits. (I am now adding incredible patience and yes, again, amazing memories, to the list of necessary skills for actors. And Tech people are by definition detail oriented!) The show goes for Preview tonight, which frankly after a full tech day, impresses me that everyone can get themselves energized and engaged, performance-ready for tonight.  Then one more tech rehearsal and preview performance tomorrow, and it’s a wrap. Showtime.  I look forward to being in the audience Saturday. Judging from the sneak peak I’ve had, I anticipate dynamic surprises with every aspect of the show.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Shifting Gears

There’s a little feeling of disappointment after a show has opened. The rehearsal period was so full, and so full of changes that made working vibrant. The week of Previews had that “smell of the greasepaint, roar of the crowd” excitement, capped off by the hoopla of Opening Night. Did you know GEVA has a champagne toast onstage before every Opening Night? The actors were there, half ready for the show, in curlers, double-fisted with coffee and champagne, feted by the staff and patrons of the theatre. Fun, fun, fun. And then, Opening Night is over. The show is a success. The play works, but everything shifts into a different gear.

It feels a little reminiscent of returning home from a big vacation. Gone are the weeks of planning that had immersed you for so long, looking at different options, talking about preferences and possibilities, packing and repacking, and then the vacation arrived! It was fun and fabulous, you had a great time, and boom, it’s over. You are back home. Done. It does feel good to sleep in your own bed and you do have the photos to share…
I have been thinking about how it is for the actors. The show is set in stone. It is now all about doing it again, each performance, the way that works, the way that has been set. The upcoming weeks of actual performances will be different from the rehearsal weeks. The focus of the actors is less on creating and playing with their craft, and more on authenticity and connection. One of the actors spoke about developing “muscle memory,” where the script lines and blocking become second nature requiring less conscious thought, so the actor can concentrate on qualities like emotional build and flow.

Comedy in particular relies on the build and flow. The rehearsal period established a pace that works – done like this, the preview audiences laughed. This is how it will be performed. There is however an element of unpredictability – the audience. The director foresees a tricky balancing act now that the show is “real” and in performance mode.  There is a need to read the audience each time and shift a little, but also a caution to not let the audience rattle the actors. It’s important to not overreach or work too hard with the funny parts which, on any given night, may not receive such big laughs. The mantra is “do what has worked,” tried and true, and hope the audience catches up or catches on. That’s the advice for the audiences that aren’t laughing quite as much or quite as soon. I think, with this show, the more pertinent issue is how and whether to shift for the audiences that laugh a lot, or laugh unexpectedly at times that were not funny before, or that laugh in smaller chuckles throughout. The actors on stage are the constant in this equation; the audiences are the variable each night.

The Book Club Play’s characters each have their own personal growth trajectory through the play. There are many aha moments and parts that can strike a familiar and funny bone. The audience member brings to the show their own background, and when they hear something familiar in a character, that realization can express itself in innumerable and not predictable ways. On the Thursday evening preview, many book clubs came to the show and they really identified with quite a bit of the show. This was their world, at least in parts. The audience was really alive. Once even the title of a book got a big guffaw – only with a book club audience! The character of Alex, wild card that he is, invites a range of reaction; he’s as likely to be seen as profound, crazy, sweet, literally insane, or in the throes of a life crisis, any one of which will touch someone out in the seats. On Saturday, Will’s revelations got some big big chuckles on the right side of the audience, again and again.  Someone was very closely identifying there. It was infectious and the following scene with Will’s song and dance entrance touched off the whole audience.
There are the dependable audience reactions, and the characters of Jen and Rob may be the ones who receive these throughout the run. As these characters grow in self-confidence, the audience is right there with them. They are the kind of characters that you cheer for. However, I have seen variation in terms of when folks start to warm up. Jen is initially a lot of hijinks, lost keys and blurted-out thoughts, but at some point, the audience starts to see her strengths. And then, they stop laughing at/with her and shift to a silent nodding and “hmmmm”ing of recognition. I’ve seen this shift occur in a couple different places. Because she is SO funny, I wonder if it’s better when that connection comes later, or earlier because her character is pivotal. Rob, on the other hand, is played more like a slow burn, but his facial expressions and the largesse of his movements seem deliberately attuned to how the audience is reacting. For instance, in the last hidden scene, he sometimes comes off as tender and sometimes as silly. Both work, and Rob plays either equally well, sealing the audience’s love for his character’s humanity.
The characters of Lily and Ana seem more volatile under audience scrutiny. Who will identify with them? Who has a friend like them? Who “gets” Lily’s vulnerability and hipness? Who “gets” Ana’s best self and then loss of control? And most importantly, if you do get them, how are you going to react in public? Lily is far younger, and hipper, than most of GEVA’s patrons (sorry but it’s true), but her role focuses on the universal need for friendship. She has a great scene of recognizable, even if a tad exaggerated, social embarrassment. All audiences will “get” this and will allow the sophomoric character to embellish and heighten what we fear, without losing credibility. Some audiences, however, may roar and others just titter. Through much of my Cohort time, I have felt that Ana’s character gets the most laughs, but she is by far the most serious one on stage. She herself rarely laughs, but I do. Early on, the laughs are at her because she is played as an uptight caricature, and then later, the laughter comes as a release because of the tension she is creating, and then finally, the laughter embraces her because she’s so like our inner child needing acceptance, skipping over to join the group.
The actors become these characters for the 1 hour, 48 minutes runtime. Then, they eat, sleep, talk, sing, dance, call their families, hang out with one another, and eat and sleep some more. They read a script for their next play and check audition listings. They get to the theatre on time and give the show 100% effort. As a cohort, I have found them each to be remarkably friendly and genuinely funny without scripts. They are lovely human beings. Each performance they will get back up on that stage, and do what they’ve practiced and what they have trained to do. And, they will throw it all into the hands of the audience.

Who is that audience? You. Me. That guy who was a little cranky on Friday night? Someone loose with Saturday night drinks? Out on a Date Night without the kids? Fidgeting with the FM loop? Sitting with a best friend, or an acquaintance who offered to come at the last minute? Season subscriber or a new-to-town theatre wannabe? A book aficionado or a sports fan dragged along? This is the audience variable. This is who will shape the show, again and again at each performance.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


The first Preview Performance of The Book Club Play was a success.  The laughs came, and came. The build was there. The audience got the premise of a documentary in the making, and laughed at the gorilla. Most of all, the audience connection with the six characters was palpable in the laughter, the shocked reactions, the in-held breath at a pivotal moment, and the standing ovation. I have seen so much of what goes into getting this play to this point, but after watching the show last night, the best explanation I have for its success is that it was magic. I have no better explanation than that. Magic.

I met up with the crew at a pizza party after the show. The actors felt the night was a success too, and were visibly relieved. Several of them mentioned their nervousness beforehand. It’s sweet to know that even professional actors have pre-performance jitters , like actors everywhere  from kids in high school  musicals to long-time community theatre bards. Performance is performance, and anxiety over doing it well is universal. Although a play is the product of so many people, it is the actors who are in the forefront, delivering the show to us. It is their faces we will remember, and their skill that’s talked about as the audience leaves the theatre. The party was a celebration but the actors were quick to remind me that this was “just the Preview.”

I did not completely understand the significance of Preview Performances. I had thought of Previews essentially as Dress Rehearsals with an audience paying for cheaper seats, but that is only partially true. Changes are actually made throughout this week. Depending on how the show is received and what the director sees, the cast will add, discard and finetune parts of the play during the afternoon rehearsals before each Preview performance.  In this play, they are still tweaking the opening scene. They are changing some of Alex’s action when he first arrives, to give greater depth to his character. These tweakings are especially significant because the playwright is in town this week and participating in the work. A rare treat for the actors and director. A rare treat for the playwright as well.

“As playwright, I am the architect and the director is the contractor. I provide the drawings and he picks the materials and labor. A different contractor would do my script differently.” Karen Zacarias spoke at Prologue before the show last night and offered up this insightful metaphor of the genre. I know of no other type of writer who would say, or would want to say this about their writing. In my experience, writers are possessive and somewhat insecure about their work. Some more so, some less, and editors far prefer dealing with the ones who can loosen their grip or take suggestion. In Karen’s view, the playwright, by the very nature of the genre, has to anticipate and open herself up to others participating in the creation of the work if it is to be fully realized.  The script is Karen’s words, but the play is more than Karen’s words. I know she is particular about what she has put on paper, working and reworking this script over the past 5 years with regional theatres across the country. She does have a clear vision of what the play is, but she also sees her script as a beginning, as an invitation to collaborate. The “construction team,” from director to designers to actors, are expected to add their talents to fully form the show and make it ready for the stage.

I have been fortunate to observe this theatrical collaborative, and I’m sure there are other plays with other directors, playwrights, designers, actors and at other theatres where there is more hierarchy, more conflict, more control, and more certainty throughout the rehearsal process.  And a good play is likely to be produced in the end, and the audience who sees it is likely to enjoy it. But this version of collaboration that I have been privy to watch, this play with this director, playwright, designers and actors at this theatre, has been remarkably embracing of creativity and risk-taking, respect and playfulness. The result is something greater than its parts, something magical.

The playwright’s ideas and words constructed the frame, and then with authentic and comedic sounds, sights, gestures, stares, pratfalls and hugs, a three-dimensional world is delivered to us. We are immersed in the virtual reality of Ana and Rob’s living room, and thrown headlong into the histories and futures of these six people. We quickly forget we are watching a production. We don’t notice things like lights or the sound effects or the costumes or the rehearsed lines. We forget we are watching, and we simply go on the ride. We laugh, and we care. At the end, we feel as gleeful as Jen.
Can I join Book Club?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Theatre is more than words

I think in words. I create in words. I love words, and so do a lot of the people in my life. We belong to book clubs, we play Taboo and Words with Friends, and we talk and talk and talk. We are readers and writers, with shelves and apps for dictionaries and other references. We share our words and newly-found vocabulary games with one other. When you spend a lot of time with people like you, it's inevitable to fall into the misbelief that the whole world operates this way. And that there is no better way to experience and explain the world.

Theatre, however, lives only partially in the world of words, and I was introduced to this other side at the first Tech Rehearsal for The Book Club Play. In addition to the now-familiar actors, director and stage manager, who had moved down into the Mainstage for final rehearsals, there were now a dozen folks led by the Technical Directors, casting their magic on this show. Words are not the medium of these folks. They create in light, colors and shadows. They see sounds. They count beats and feel the world musically. As the actors spoke their lines on stage, the tech crew were like honey bees, buzzing to one another, moving here and there, creating a whole new level of experience to this play. Stage lights went on and off, costume pieces were buttoned and shed, and props were moved to and fro. The action of the play was almost excruciatingly slow, stopping and starting as tech required, but there was so much synergy surrounding it all.

The lighting director and the sound director sat at a long table propped up over the center seats.  The costume designer and props head circled the stage, adjusting as needed. Requests were spoken into headsets and received in the lightbooth above. Assistants flitted in and out. The crew had been at this work for several hours before I arrived. The directors' table held laptops, scripts, Red Bulls, bags of chips and stryrofoam cups. This tech rehearsal would run from 11am to 11pm, with a break for dinner. The show goes up for Preview in 2 days!

Some of what I saw I expected. The fine-tuning of the action on the real set in real time. The masking-taped oval on the rehearsal room floor is actually an 8" step off the wooden living room floor of the set. Quick exits are taking a little bit longer. Handling props reveal some new needs. An actor realizes he doesn't have time to open the Pepto-Bismal bottle in his 5-seconds offstage, so will need to grab an opened bottle from props. Two bottles go on the prop list, one closed and one opened. I also watch the handling of the pundits, who each have a special location and spotlight for their monologues. As the actor moves to it, they put on the appropriate costume accessories in the dark, and today the lighting cues are nailed down. The lighting director asks, "what's your last movement when getting ready?" The actor responds, "Oh, I put my glasses on. I'll put on my glasses last." Done. The scene is practiced, it works, and it will now be done exactly the same way every time.

However, I am witnessing more than what I expected, because the sound and lights folks have been imagining new stuff for this play. The script does not have any notations about special effects or music, but GEVA is all about creating and shaping a production to its fullest potential. An original score has been written to enhance the mood of each scene, complementing each book club title. There's Moby Dick, Age of Innocence, and Twilight, uniquely captured and introduced to us instrumentally. And, as I said, these guys think in sounds and lights. Numerous unique special effects are being created, including a few totally on the fly that will require extra work over dinner and overnight to perfect. They add to the comedy, to the madcap nature of the plot, and to the arc of the play. I'm impressed at one point that a colored spot, a taped sound from an amusement park, and a gesture by an actress can convey much, much more than words.  How do these guys think of these things?? Genius.

The set itself has been designed with just as much intention. Early on, the senior set designer and the director talked over the desired feel for the play. It's not simply that it's a contemporary piece with moderately affluent characters. The set also needed to reflect the sense of being watched and controlled. Sean Daniels, the director, said one question that was particularly pertinent was "to door or not to door?" The set would be more realistic with doors and walls of a room, but the reality tv aspects of being in a documentary also had to be communicated. A decision was made to not have the documentary maker's cameras physically present, and this led to the idea that the audience could surround the set instead. Tickets are being sold for the stage right and stage left seats. The set designer decided to put the living room furniture up on an oval platform, which implies both the limits of the room and the sense of the book club as an island. The colors of the room are warm, while the lines are crisp and modern, creating a representation of Ana's style and intentionality. The set also needed to take into consideration the fact that the 6 actors move and sit and circle through this space, with all of them onstage for practically the whole show. This translated into a need for floor space, furniture one can dive over, pieces like floor pillows which can be moved out of the way easily, and also the creation of a sense of closeness as well as tightness for the book club.

I ended my Tech Day with a tour through the basement and catwalks of GEVA, marveling again at the wide variety of people and skills used to put on a professional theatre production. People who do not think only in words, but people who see the world in a multitude of creative ways. All for the purpose of having people like me sit in the audience and immerse myself in their worlds of drama and stage production, benefitting from the ways that theatre can transport me outside of myself.