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.

Monday, February 11, 2013

That's funny?

Humor is an elusive animal. It can be hard to find the right delivery or the right punchline. You can kill it if you think too hard about what's funny or if you have to explain too much to get the laugh. And conversely, laughter can multiply to the point of hysteria if the jokes and humor get going at just the right pace.

My sense of humor is pretty firmly rooted in the second grade classroom. Sorry, I spent many years amongst 7 and 8 year old for whom humor is their favorite language. The simplicity of their jokes and logic are unparalleled, pottymouth aside. The sheer pleasure kids get from being funny and making others laugh has a lesson for us. They are unself-conscious and just keep things rolling. In my classroom, the kids knew if a chuckle quickened into giggles, they could throw out something classic and my sides would heave with the best of the best of them. It still works.
     What goes Ha-Ha-Plop?
     Someone laughing their head off.

     Where did George Washington hid his armies?
     Up his sleevies.

And yet, if you anticipate a laugh too much, it can be extinguished. The simple joke falls flat. The sophisticate thinks you sound stupid for uttering it. But, if you manage to pull off some surprise, a good lilt of the voice and rise of the eyebrow,  the prize will come to you.

The Book Club Play is a comedy, and the lines run quickly and depend on the delivery to rile the audience.  It is not a play of jokes and smart retorts, and yet I find it extremely funny. I laughed outloud when I read the script at home, and I continue to chuckle throughout this process. At rehearsal, I have been watching how the actors play with intonation, speed, pauses, choreography, and small shifts of movement in order to get the right audience reaction to their hijinx and human foibles. The tarzan yell has been played silly, robust, sexual, playful and all of the above at once, each time with different effect. Physical humor like falling off a couch and throwing pillows occurs several times, by different characters in different ways: a  big gesture or small roll, wicked fast throw or playful flip. Some lines come fast and funny, spoken right through the intended laughter. At other points, actors hold and let the guffaws rise and fall.

But there is no audience! I find it amazing that they can rehearse a comedy with no one laughing in the room. It's like my second grader running through his jokes alone. That's not fun. We are at the halfway mark of the rehearsal period. Twelve down and 12 to go before an audience arrives. The first full run-through occurred this Sunday. I watched from the sidelines and couldn't help chuckling, although I felt almost embarrassed to be doing so. The rehearsal room is intentionally quiet except for the actors. But you are supposed to laugh during this play!

I found myself laughing most often as the character Ana spoke. This surprised me. She's not at all the "funny" character in the show. She's quite serious, unbelievably neurotic about her Book Club and her friends, and more and more high-strung as the play goes on. In fact, by Act II, my laughter at her lines felt far more  uncomfortable than humor should. How can I be laughing?  The tension builds in the book club meetings, emotions between friends run high, and then, boom, some little thing gets said. It's ha-ha-plop. A laugh rushes out of me, involuntarily almost. I have to release the emotion. I am so tied to the characters.  I hate spoilers so I'm not going to give examples, but it's fabulous how closely entwined deep emotion and humor are. It's also fabulous how these actors can be super serious and then whip out a doozy.

There are certainly lighter, humorous scenes. For instance, the pundits who appear in between scenes are charicatures of experts used by the documentary maker, and they are played by the cast members doubling their roles. It is great fun to see how the actors do a far different character - reserved, intellectual Will one moment, and Secret Service agent full of bravado the next, and unfocused, carefree Jen moves to the edge of the stage and with scarf and big eyeglasses becomes a smug, middle-aged literary agent. Very comedic performances, and again, I hate spoilers so I won't say more.
Opening night and the following weeks of performances will undoubtedly bring the humor to a new level. For one, there will be an audience!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A blizzard, a business, a blouse and a Barbie

The show must go on, despite the fact that Blizzard Nemo has just dropped over a foot of snow on the city and our urban streets look like furniture in storage, draped in white. While the Rochesterians that I know romp, shovel, sled and huddle by fireplaces playing Uno, the cast and crew at Geva continue on. The brick building on Woodbury Blvd. is misleading in its size; there’s a ton of stuff going on in there. Two plays are currently in performance, which means Tues through Sun, 8 performances a week, the staff and crew are up and running. Theatre people better not be morning people, as the action is definitely in the PM hours for them. The Book Club Play, which I affectionately refer to as “my” play, is in rehearsal on the second floor. And that’s not all. I happen to know that the Comedy Improv folks are gearing up for a performance, and there’s an upcoming staged Play Reading in the works too. People are busy here!

I have become curious as to who is Geva Theatre Center, because the more I learn about it, the more I see its multiple functions. On the one hand, it is basically just like any company, made up of people, who work in several departments. Most of them work behind the scenes or behind computers, like in any company. The Geva website breaks down the business into six departments: Administrative, Finance, Marketing, Development, Artistic, and Production, not to mention the Board of Trustees with over 30 members. The first four departments sound like pretty basic business. Except at closer inspection, some unique job titles appear.

There is a House Services team, which handles the Front of House. For us simpletons, that means the ushers, lobby, and whatnot. Hmmm, I just might have to find out what Front of House encompasses, because it occurs to me that when I go to Geva, I spend my Front of House time in the Café with wine that I even get to bring to my seat. That is a bit more than making sure you have enough ushers for the evening. The Marketing Team, which also sounds pretty standard, includes a Box Office staff of seven. That number surprises me, so I’m guessing they do more than field my call exchanging a Subscriber ticket when my kid falls sick.  The staff listings from there get more artsy-fartsy. The Artistic Staff is broken down into Education, Literary and Associate Artists. Still somewhat familiar territory for me, as a person with a background in teaching kids, book publishing, and the serious work of play. Then I see listed the Comedy Improv Team, set off from the other artists. Why they must be like their own microbrewery. Wouldn’t their meetings be a hoot?!

Finally, the Production Staff. This is “theatre” as we think about it. These are the people most intimately involved in the production of “my” play, but in the case of Geva Theatre Center, they are involved in  each play Geva puts on, simultaneously, for this season as well as next season. The production staff roster reads like film credits. One can only guess what they might actually be responsible for, but the job titles alone are so cool, it’d be fun to have the job just to have the title! Head Draper, First Hand, Swing Electrician, Props Artisan, Scenic Carpenter. Bring it on! On the website, Production is divided into the Managers, Costumes, Lighting & Sound, Properties, Scenery, Scenic Art, and Stage Management. I revert totally into my easily-impressed persona. This is so cool! I never knew you could BE any of these things, and just imagine – these folks all live right here in Rochester. They aren’t the itinerant actors or contracted talent for a particular show. They are professionals in our midst. I spoke with the Costume Shop Manager Amanda Doherty and she confirmed it for me. “Yup, I have a full time job, with 4 weeks vacation and health benefits, a home with a yard and dogs, and every day I do what I love.” And we were all told that theatre geeks would never amount to anything!

I spent part of an afternoon in the Costume Shop, so please indulge me with more “OMG” moments. I had no idea this was just down the hall from the rehearsal room! It is a sewing room, fabric store, and artist studio all rolled into one. It’s a huge room, although I bet they wish they had more space as every inch of it is used. There are mock-up models hanging from the ceiling and projects spread out everywhere. I’m in awe; no one’s mother is going to tell them to clean up this mess. In fact, it’s remarkably not messy. It looks so organized. Being artistic and anal myself, I’m in heaven!

A dressmaker’s dummy is up on a table with a dark fabric pinned around the bust.  A seamstress is sewing on a machine at the front of the room. A shiny, orange animal skin (not fur, but skin! oh, and not real) is being cut into unitards for a fantastical character. A discussion ensues about which material to use for a set of wings. Wait, I think to myself, the show they are working on isn’t until May. What about “my” play? Then, I see a rack of street clothes. Instead of S, M and L, the rack is divided into character sets – Ana, Rob, Jen, Lily, Alex, Will.  I found it! And I pause. In this amazing space, this rack is out of place. It looks like it belongs in a store at Eastview Mall.

Next to all the other creative work going on in this room, I think to myself sadly, “my” play must be the boring play to work on. The characters wear contemporary pants and shirts, with maybe a scarf or a hat. A few costume changes during the play, but the characters hardly leave the stage so there isn’t time or need to do full changes really. Big whoop to collect middle-class, contemporary outfits for a cast of hip 30-something year olds. The actors can probably just pull stuff from their own closets. Bummer. Then, I hear what the Shop Manager is saying to me. I snap out of my disappointment. “The transformations that happen for the actors don’t all happen on the outside, and during the fittings, I talk with the actors about who will have style changes that mirror their personal growth and whose clothing tastes will stay fairly consistent.” Wow! She’s into this show. She shows me some examples and I get it. I’m nodding my head like a naïve schoolgirl.

I learn a few other scintillating facts. Contractually, if a garment touches the skin, there must be two identical pieces available so that on a 2-performance day, the actor never has to wear a sweaty shirt. Result: Amanda has to buy duplicates of every final selection. And she does shop at Eastview, among other places. Another fact: There is a totally separate crew called Wardrobe that run the costumes during performances, assisting the actors, getting laundry done, and making repairs. And, I understand why. Amanda has been working on this show for quite awhile, balancing it with costumes for Next To Normal and Steve Jobs which went up recently, and the rest of the season which is upcoming. This includes Midsummer Night’s Dream, the huge costume show they are already sewing for. She has also been asked to budget out a variety of shows for next season, and some of them won’t even be produced once they tally the costs and various arrangements. She totally needs to hand off costumes to Wardrobe.

We talked for awhile about the whole costuming cycle. In brief (and hopefully fairly accurately although I know each show has its own quirks), the process begins once a director and costume designer have been selected for a show. They talk over their vision and impressions of the characters and time period of the play. Then the designer presents sketches and collages of images, refining the vision further. In a contemporary play as this one, I imagine it being a conversation of are we going Old Navy or Lord & Taylor? Low brow or high brow? Sneakers or Florsheims? Then the designer and shop manager talk. It’s the vision-into-reality conversation. For instance, how do you show individuality amongst a group of similarly successful professionals? Specific clothing pieces are described, and issues like time allotted for a wardrobe change are factored in. As Amanda and her shop take over, they stick to the vision and continue to consider all the issues. What looks good on the actual actor? Can the jeans in Act I be used in Act II? What other suit coat could stylish Will wear as his character relaxes yet remains fashion conscious? Can Ana squirm around the floor in her rage scene wearing that blouse?

Amanda attempts to meld everyone’s ideas into something coherent and tangible. What the character looks like is a function of many people’s ideas: the designer’s, the director’s and the actor’s themselves. For instance, an actress has her own sense of a character and it’s important she wears clothing that matches the way she has developed that persona. The trick is that since rehearsal began a couple weeks ago, an actress learns more about their character and evolves in how she plays it.  Especially in this play, each character’s persona has been shifting. Damn human tendency toward personal growth and revelation! Hmmm, trying on the hat of Amanda, I think about Lily’s clothing. Maybe she wouldn’t wear the sexier shirt so early in the play, and maybe she and Alex could have a slightly matching look as they morph into a couple. Of course, if I were Amanda and the actress and director concurred with these ideas, I would now have to run to the store again. Return what isn’t working, look for a different color button-down, 2 of them in the right size, and also go back to using the silk scarf.  It must make a costume shop crazy! Remember they are also cutting animal skins and projecting budgets. Who wants to run to Eastview to pick up a blouse? Well, in the case of the Geva costume shop, I think all this just makes them energetically engaged, full of good humor, and on their feet. Who said contemporary shows make for a boring costume project? Oh, that was me.

I learned that not all theaters have the luxury of a full costume shop with shop manager ready and able to work with the costume designer. I also learned that Amanda in fact designs a couple shows a year too. She told me she has a triple undergrad degree and then a graduate degree in costume design. That must be why she spoke so knowledgeably about classical Greek vs Elizabethan vs peasant styles for Shakespearean plays. I keep meeting multi-talented people in this theatre. I couldn’t hide my awe so I asked her, “How did you know you wanted to become a costume designer?? I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

“Barbies,” she replied. “It all started with Barbies, and my grandmother. She sewed any dress I could draw, and I drew a lot in those days. She’d go down to the basement and sew up my creations. In high school I convinced them to let me make the costumes instead of the parents. I was hooked.”

Yes!! Playing with toys. In my profession as museum educator at the National Museum of Play, that’s something I know about. Woo-hoo! Once again, playing inspires learning and becomes vocation. My work here is done for the day.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

End of Week One

It's the end of week one for me as a cohort. Except I'm learning that theatre folks have different weeks than us regular folks. They work weekends and the theatre is black on Monday. Not sure I have that lingo correct but suffice it to say that on this Saturday morning, the actors are all in the rehearsal room working, while I sip my coffee, still in sweats and slippers, Pandora belting out songs in the background and my kids playing legos and Sims. (This is a true snapshot of my home at this moment but don't be lulled into thinking it's idyllic. I digress. That's another blog.)

I feel that I am being shaped into a Cohort persona known as "Easily Impressed." I have yet to see anything in rehearsal or hear anything in my conversations with the actors that has resulted in anything other than an outburst  of "oh that's so cool!" I feel 15 again. I do confess that usually it is not actually an outburst, but rather an inburst because at 50 years old I don't think it's in my best interest to make those kinds of comments out loud. At least not frequently in one conversation...

On Thursday I walked into a blocking rehearsal, which means the actors are all up on their feet, with scripts, and the basics of the set are in place on the mock stage set up in the Rehearsal Room. They were on p. 36 of the script, blocking and reblocking a kissing scene. Holy cow, it was so cool! Like I said I'm apparently easily impressed. The director liked the kiss just fine, but the moments just before and after needed thinking through. Where would your hand be? How close together are you? Ok, start from the top. Try it standing up now. Ok, again from the top. Try moving center stage and then breaking away when she comes in. Yeah, yeah, that's good, but you have to be stage right to begin, so start from the top.

Hour after hour. They rehearse these scenes so they look natural.

Everyone knows actors have to memorize lines and I see in rehearsal that those who do so quickly and easily move much farther and faster with their character development. It made me recollect working with a student teacher who had a terrible memory for names, although was an otherwise promising teacher in the classroom. I really worried about her success and wasn't sure she'd ever make it, because if you keep forgetting a 6 year old's name, you will get nowhere, fast. If you're an actor and your memory isn't so good, you should also probably hang it up. And actors have lots more than lines to remember. They need a well-rounded memory, for things like their movements, their props, cues, blocking, emotional build, hand placement, impetus for an action, moment of eye contact, beats between lines, on and on. And really no time to jot these things down for future recollection. It's gotta get to the level of muscle memory I guess.

I totally rely on notes, lists, jottings here and there, index cards, and reminder apps to get through my day. As a teacher, I am "on" for most of my working hours, but not like actors. They are "on" as somebody else, their character. They take direction for hours at a time, and it's really important to everyone else's work that the flow keep going. They are all so reliant on everyone else being focused and doing good work. Only as good as the weakest link I suppose.

That's what makes this little ensemble! They work so well together. They look like they are really having fun with each other. I got to spend some time with them outside of rehearsal, and they seem to genuinely like one another. At our coffeeshop social hour, they came together in one van, and were going to a party later together too. GEVA puts them up in apartments near one another for the run of the show. They live, work, and play together. Face it, who else do they know in this town? They just got here from places far away. I'd say it's a good thing they do like one another. This cast also happens to be approximately the same age and place in life, so that must help. Some are married, some not. Learning more as we go. I loved learning that one of the biggest goofs just finished a run of Macbeth in which he was McDuff. Get out!

So I am looking forward to next week. There are a few things that I know are coming up. The scenes will each be worked through in greater detail. The  pundit characters will work with accessories instead of full costumes to see what works. Actors will be off-script more and more. They will see if they can eat lox dip, drink wine and act at the same time; the director mentioned "it might just be a terrific mess, but let's try it out."

I am especially interested in something mentioned in the Rehearsal Notes. After each rehearsal, the entire team is sent by email a Rehearsal Note, which recaps which part of the play was worked on that day and includes specific notes to each part of the production team including costumes, props, electrics, sets, sound, stage ops, and administration. One such note has me on the edge of my seat. It was directed to props and stage ops, and I quote:
"This is a heads up note that we can expect mayhem and/or a mess after Ana freaks out on p. 84. We can deal with this more specifically when we know what we have on stage (food, props, etc) at that point."
OMG This is so cool! I hope I'm there the day they rehearse that!!!