Starting an Adventure

Starting rehearsals for a new show is always an exciting time. Working on a play brings people together in a unique way, in an intense work period, for a very short time. The other night the cast and production team gathered in a large room for a read-thru of the play. Up on a white board was written the show’s name, production dates and some other details.

One person pointed out, “Hey! We better get started. We close in exactly two months!”

He was right and I was surprised. Two months is nothing, and it feels like we have all the time in the world. Of course, this play was cast over eight months ago, and there have been a number of production meetings and marketing plans implemented, so it’s just the heart of it that will be a two-month adventure.

And that’s the exciting part. This is a smart, farcical, romantic comedy and I think we’re all excited by the great cast. There were plenty of laughs in that room, and one or two tough-not-to-break moments were already identified. I’m thrilled to be working the volume and levels of talent there too.

I’m sure a few weeks from now I’ll still think it’s hilarious and yet never even laugh. It’s a weird phenomenon that happens the closer you get to material, whether it’s comedy or drama—you can still be moved but not really express it.

What I’m not as clear about yet is what I’m doing for the next 4+ weeks of rehearsal.

For this production I’m the Assistant Director, a position I haven’t officially done in a while and one which can vary from director to director. I’m really there as a second set of eyes and ears, and I’m there to do whatever the director needs doing. I just don’t know what that is yet.

I’ve worked on shows as an actor where the A.D. was highly involved, occasionally working scenes in a room separate from the main rehearsal, and ones where this person was fairly invisible and never seemed to say or do anything. I’ve been the assistant to a few directors in the past where I was having conversations with him or her during rehearsals, acting as a sounding board and offering requested advice, or where I’ve taken notes in rehearsals only to share them afterwards.

We begin full rehearsals this week. I’m not a novice to the environment, but this time I have no idea of what I’m going to do.

Since this is a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, I guess being ready for “an adventure” is right on target.

Wandering the Camino

Tennessee Williams is, as everyone knows, one of America’s greatest playwrights, and I can’t imagine anyone arguing otherwise. One of his lesser known, or at least lesser-produced, plays is Camino Real, an enigmatic, poetic, dreamscape that eludes most elements of plot, place, time and character relationships. Some say this piece is known mostly for its bad productions. (It ran a scant 60 performances on Broadway.)

courtesy Girl Friday Productions

When I first read this play I wondered how it could be staged, how someone could make it work for an audience. It’s a piece that relies on a strong director’s concept. William’s Glass Menagerie is known as a “dream play” but this one….this is a fretful, fever-induced, tossing-and-turning, disturbing dream-filled kind of night. It’s replete with varied and international characters (including several literary and social icons—Kilroy, Don Quixote, Casanova, as well as deathly street sweepers) and with bits of different romance languages and dialects thrown in and multiple sub-plots and themes, all taking place in an unidentified country. (Unidentified for Kilroy especially, who isn’t sure at all where he’s come ashore, and no one will tell him.)

My initial take on the script was that it was a piece which would be extremely difficult to produce and could be extremely risky for a producer. It’s complex. It may not be readily accessible to an audience. It might just be Wiliams’ most challenging play, requiring strong skills to wrangle it into a presentable vision. However, with the richness of the language and the delicious complexity of the people who inhabit this world, with the right talents it could provide a big pay off.

In other words, if you can make it work it could be amazing.

After all, art is hard. (Or at least the song says “art isn’t easy.”) If it were easy it wouldn’t be worth it.

Girl Friday Productions has taken on the daunting task of staging this work. This play is so different from Williams’ other works, and I suspect that the fact that I knew this going in allowed me to be open to simply experiencing the performance. Because I knew that the plot wasn’t linear and the characters were representative, I didn’t spend energy trying to figure out where we were, who was who or what those relationships were. And it’s not that I knew the answers to that so much as I thereby allowed myself to just listen and watch.

I let it roll over me.

I found the whole thing fascinating.

It helped, of course, that the director is a strong visionary, and I think it helped even more that he gathered an extraordinary cast of talented actors. Together they created a world that was intriguing and engaging (and frankly, kind of f***ed up) from beginning to end.

One big take away for me was a desire to learn more about Tennessee Williams’ personal life. Other than its clear theme of being lost, this play has prominent motifs of loneliness, betrayal, desperation and longing. There’s a real sadness that pervades these lives, albeit with brief poignant and touching moments of hope and connection.

It makes me think he wrote it from a sad and lonely place, and that this is (was) the way he felt the world worked when it came to satisfaction, whether that was satisfaction in love or satisfaction with one’s own self or one’s own accomplishments.

I could, of course, be completely off with that. I’ve heard he wrote it while holed up in some small Mexican or Central American town, where he got rather sick. Hence the fever dream quality. Still, it’s what I took away from this experience and whether that’s what Tennessee wanted or not, or even this director or cast, it’s what I got. The beautiful thing about art is in its subjectivity.

This show taught me once again that the power of theatre lies in the truth, earnestness and details of the work put up there by the directors, actors and designers. All done here with a ferocious manner by each member of the cast and team.

And such honesty creates intrigue, and such engagement creates a special night with strangers, in the dark, at a theater. It was a bizarre, fascinating and engaging walk down that road.

This rare opportunity continues through July 27 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.

Community and Friends and Celebration

Arriving at the Ivey Awards, Historic State Theater, Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

New York has its Tony, Chicago has its Jeff. For many years Minneapolis didn’t have such a thing, but for the past seven years we’ve had the Ivey. Unlike most award programs, the Ivey Awards doesn’t have set categories and there are no nominations, although there are two standard categories of Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement. These elements have been a point of criticism since the beginning, but so far it hasn’t kept away the crowds, lessened the excitement or diminished the glory. Of course, with no set categories and no nominations, honorees have no idea they’re going to win, so every statue handed out is a surprise to most of the room.

Two nights ago the Twin Cities theatre professionals, along with numerous fans, gathered at the historic State Theater downtown for this year’s event. It’s colloquially become called “theater prom” by some because in a field where most of the workforce tend to spend rehearsals and pre-show time wearing rather casual (often very casual) clothes, this is an opportunity to dress up big time.

But unlike prom where only certain people are invited, everyone’s welcome to this show, and elbows are rubbed between the newest and most experienced artists, between the smallest shoe-string budget company and the multi-million dollar funded institutions and everywhere in between. The beauty is in the community, coming together for one night to celebrate each other and honor some (though not all) of the standout moments and works of the previous season.

Oh, and then there’s an after party. A HUGE after party, where more elbows are rubbed and ears are bent and deals and promises are made.

I didn’t win anything although I didn’t really think I would. I am, however, awfully proud to have been a part of a show that garnered a lot of attention that night, as two of those little statues went out because of that show, Street Scene. One went to our show’s heroine, Anna Sundberg (who not surprisingly to many was the year’s emerging artist) and one to our show’s director, Craig Johnson, for his direction of the show – an overwhelming task with its 3-acts, 65 characters, 26 actors and a dog on a (relatively) tiny stage. Sitting next to Craig as his name was announced (or rather, the work and the show was announced which prompted a large contingent around him to cheer loud enough he couldn’t actually hear his name) and seeing the stunned look on his face was a real joy. I’ve been fortunate to work on many shows with him, for many years, and I couldn’t have been prouder of my good friend.

Of course, at the after party the cast members in attendance decided we made his direction look good and gave ourselves due credit. But more importantly, we celebrated our friends who won and celebrated our fortunes of working in a community with such widely diverse and strongly talented artists as these Twin Cities have. I’m happy to call it home.

When good shows go away

Last weekend the Street Scene closed. Done. Over. History.

That’s part of the gift of theatre – its impermanence. It’s an event, an experience, not an object to be revered and enjoyed for now and the future, and even when it is enjoyed for long it’s not the same experience every night.

What remains of my last show.

This was a large cast, which gave us plenty of opportunity for drama and in fighting and awkward moments, or even (to steal a word from reality tv) show-mances. Yet none of that happened. This group of actors got along and supported each other like few groups I’ve experienced before. I think part of the reason was we were all keyed up to take on this mammoth of a play, and were excited by the challenge, by the people we were working with and by the opportunity. Or perhaps we were simply caught up in the excitement which was all around us. We all wanted it to be a good production and we were all proud to be part of it.

Every night was a joy to go out and play. To actually work in tandem with other actors, listening, responding and creating this world. It was seriously a group effort, and I was fortunate to be in the mix. Perhaps the best part was that the show was very well received, most importantly by the audiences and the theatre community, less importantly by the reviewers (though they liked it too.)

We each had our routines for the evening of a show. There were the places we’d set up in the green room, or where actors would warm up. One actor jokingly chastised me for not being in the same spot I’d always been in that moment before curtain when he’d show up ready to go on. There were the conversations and games and puzzles to pass the time, the inside jokes and the post-show drinks (which included the unique cocktail created for this particular show by one of the cast members. It was called an Elmer, and it was tasty.) But then, like all good things, it had to end.

Those people who saw it will remember it, likely for years. Some people will remember that they didn’t get to see it. Others will have just missed out. I will have memories for many years, and several new friends to go with them.

Yesterday the 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival opened. If ever there were an event that was the epitome of the fleeting moment of energy and excitement around a theatrical production, it’s the Fringe Fest. The time and energy needed to put together just one of the 169 productions is enormous, and it’s going to be gone in what really feels like the blink of eye. And most of it will never see the light of day again.

Ah, the dog days of summer! I’m grateful most theaters have extra-cold air conditioning.

Backstage art

We’re in the thick of performances with this show. Perhaps more than the thick, in fact, since we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. In some ways it feels like that light is the last day of school and we’re all to be released for the summer. In other ways, it’s the clear ending to a memorable experience.

Today is a beautiful day in Minneapolis, and after the sweltering heat and humidity, and driving storms, that we’ve been experiencing, it’s almost a little disappointing that I’ll spend the entire afternoon inside at a matinee followed by another hour or more of production photos.

But every performance I’m thankful for having an opportunity to do what I love. So I will not complain.

And I do love this show, and this cast. I’m a bit disappointed in myself that I haven’t written more about this experience.

This show is almost a stereotype of “life in the theatre” with its independent theatre company hunger, large cast where most have worked together before, and its high energy and laughter before and after (and during) each performance.

The space itself is, frankly, kind of a dump. The owner of the building isn’t known for his reliability for upkeep. From the patron’s p.o.v. it’s a slightly rundown, but intimate space. From the actor’s and crew’s p.o.v. it’s cluttered, damp, dusty and nearly health-threatening environment. I can only imagine that from a producer’s p.o.v. it’s a nightmare of electrical and plumbing dangers and fears of something truly horrible happening to shut down the whole show. The basement leaks, the AC rattles and stairs creak.

But more than the physical environment it’s the people that make this beautiful and unique stereotype. (I know – oxymoronic descriptor.) This a large cast show (23 actors, 3 children and a dog) with 65 characters (if you count the off-stage voices) which means backstage and downstairs in the green room and dressing rooms is often buzzing with activity. Plus this show has a lot of sound in it— there’s almost always background, city-scape sound playing. (Which means the constant footsteps behind the set probably blend in, right?) And quite a bit of that sound is done live…..things like snoring and banging and gun shots. On stage this is juxtaposed by moments of tableaus, stillness that comes to life or action that reverses and goes to a freeze.

One of my favorite points in the show is during the music-like sounds of the opening of the second act, which take place while the city comes to life. From silence and stillness different things start up at different times on stage, sounds start to sprinkle in and backstage there’s a melange of characters in various dress, milling about, moving quickly or trying to stay out of the way, some making noise while others try to not make noise, surrounded by ladders and platforms and speakers and cables as if in the midst of some fantastical second hand store with things piled on top of each other, and it’s all dimly lit by the back-stage blue lights and spills from the lobby door or from the stage. Each night after I make my exit, after coming to life on stage, I meander through those dozen or more people crammed back there and wonder at the magic of the play-making. This group of actors all working in concert, ready to make an entrance or being the offstage sound, ready to play their part in the creation of this world and doing so in tangent with their cast-mates.

It’s that ensemble, that collaboration, that trust between each person knowing that together we can create this unique and lovely world – that is the thing I will miss most once we exit this tunnel.

Street Scene, by Elmer Rice, produced by Girl Friday Productions plays at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage through July 30.

Actors and Eggshells

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love watching actors act. I love the creative developmental process of watching a character slowly come to life through trial and error and exploration, like some animal breaking its way through an eggshell.

Today is our last rehearsal before preview and opening, and I’ve been fascinated in the past couple weeks by the process I’ve witnessed from several actors in this show. Partly due to the ensemble-ish nature of the play and partly due to the nature of the rehearsal space, much of the off-stage time has been spent watching the scene in progress, a scene which often has anywhere from three to fifteen (or more) people on stage together.

OK. I’ll also admit that while on stage myself I couldn’t help but notice the detailed exploration happening around me.

The other day at rehearsal I was suddenly struck by one actor’s sudden progression in the development of his character. Not that things hadn’t been coming along for Mike, but suddenly something had clicked and fallen in to place, like some puzzle and now instead of floating across the stage he was flying, now instead of being fairly interesting he was fascinating. There was a depth and detail and history to this character that was suddenly clear and present. Or, maybe I’m putting those things on with my own mind, connecting the dots that he’s simply putting out there. Either way, it works.

What’s that line? “Did I leave the iron on?” Sort of like that.

I had watched Mike making different choices, almost like he was working through a maze and wasn’t sure which path was correct, but Mike kept himself focused on finding that path, and suddenly it seemed things clicked. Vocally, physically, emotionally. He was a human being, and suddenly Mike had become the character he had been working towards.

I’ve seen Mike in several shows and have always enjoyed his work and was excited to be in a show working with him. I figured I might learn a thing or two, but his process seems so organic that I’m not sure I could define it. Not, without, at least talking to him explicitly about it. Which I won’t do. Maybe when this show closes, but not before.

The really great thing for the show is that many other actors in the show have also done some amazing and fun stuff to watch—Larry, Shannon and Faye have gone to some great depths of detail in their work. Strong, bold, interesting and supported choices, combined with deep connection to their character’s goals and high stakes.

Of course, the thing I can’t be sure of is how my own work fits in. I can’t be objective about that. I’m continuing to search for details each moment with each run through, and as some props have been added I find new things about my character, the way he deals with his cigar and how he really eats when there’s actual food and not mimed food. (Unfortunately, he chews with his mouth open.) I can only hope my own work can keep up with this great group of actors.


* Actors names have been changed to protect…well, I don’t know what. Perhaps an ego.