Digging in with Table Work

Table work. It might just be the best part of rehearsals, and perhaps the most important.

The past few days we’ve sat around a the room reading the play in small chunks and talking about it. Small chunks being no more than a single page, usually much less.

We’re discovering together the what, why, how and not always having an answer. And the best thing is that it’s a process for which there’s no wrong or right answers (yet) and there are no stupid questions. 

My notebook is mostly full of

“How do I react to _____?”

“How do I feel about so-and-so?”

“What does this mean?”

“How important is X?”

“Why…..?”

The whole thing is like some riddle where we’re trying to figure out what the playwright imagined or wanted for every given moment. And in this case the play is based on a novel, so sometimes we wonder – “…is it the playwright or the novelist who meant….?”

I don’t want get up on our feet too soon, either. We’ll know better what to do then once we’ve worked through this table stuff enough to be compelled to get up and move. We could waste a lot of time, and sadly make some poor or weak choices, without this valuable process of really digging in and figuring out these people, these relationships, these goals, desires and struggles. And perhaps most importantly, doing it actively, together.

Discovery and exploration. It’s the perfect way to begin a new production.

 

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My low-key Fringe

The 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival is half over, and so far….I’ve seen only three shows.

This isn’t so much by design or choice, as it is by circumstance. Sometimes life gets in the way of art.

Or, in the way of what could be, should be, oh-I-wish-to-God-it-were, art.

Two of the three that I’ve seen have been fascinating, inventive and fun rides. The third one….not so much. Could’ve been. But wasn’t.

It’s not important which is which.

And I write that not because I don’t want to write a “review” or critique the work or am afraid to criticize. I write that because it’s not important. That’s part of the Fringe experience. People try things, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.

But…nothing has been a waste of time.

I was having a great chat the other day over lunch with a couple of talented Fringe artists that are also just observers this year. We agreed that in performing and writing, either do it well or get the F out of the way.

We were more eloquent than that.

Fringe tests my patience with mediocrity. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m a know-it-all, or a snob. But really….no. I’m just an audience member. One who happens to know a thing or two, but truthfully I’m just audience member this time.

And everyone’s experience of a show is valid.

I want to be charmed. I want to be pulled in to a story. I want to the world to disappear as I travel the road alongside the characters and storytellers and the pictures on stage.

Fringe festivals give us the chance to experience such a wide range of shows and performers. I only wish I could make it more a priority.

Tonight I’m off to see my fourth show, which is highly anticipated.

This may turn out to be the year I see the least, and in some ways that’s disappointing. Which only puts the pressure on to spend those few hours the best way I can.

After all….that’s part of the beauty and magic of live performance. See it when it happens, or never see it all.

How do you memorize all those lines?

Yep, the age old question.

I’m knee-deep in rehearsals for a play and just about off book. We’ve had a few painful rehearsals (painful is my word) where we’ve tried to get off book, and I stumbled and struggled for lines that wouldn’t come.

Generally, for me, and dependent upon the nature of the script, I need a couple working rehearsals to get the actions, motivations—and the words—in to my body, before I can start working on the process of putting down the paper. It’s muscle memory. It’s intention and conflict and challenge. Not rote.

We haven’t quite had that luxury with this production. This is a full-fledged, full-length play, where we’ve had a lot of conflicts meaning we often have someone missing which makes working things a bit more….difficult. Instead we’ve been blessed with lots of discussion time, table work and research. Truthfully, that’s something we often don’t get enough of in a production.

But now we’re at the midway point and we’re trying to get off book. And I talk a lot for a good portion.

I spend a lot of the first act asking questions in a courtroom setting.

I ask things like:

How old is he?” and “How old was he?” and “What is his age?”

or

“You dined….?” and “You had dinner….?” 

And then there are the names of people and titles of books that I mention here and there, that feel very much interchangeable (at the moment.)

Which do I say when? Not quite sure all the time.

Why ask the same thing multiple times with different words? Because that’s how people actually talk, of course, it’s just unfortunate that as actors we need not only honor the work of the playwright and say the right words, we need to give our fellow actors the right cue, or they may not say their words!

And don’t even get me started on knowing my own cues. There are so many non-sequiters in this play you’d swear we were doing five different shows at once.

“How do you memorize all those lines?” In the end the answer will be, “I don’t know…you just do” even though right now the answer is “keep trying.”

Speaking of which, I’ve got to be at rehearsal in an hour. I’m going to read over my lines—and cues—again.

A Room of One’s Own

I learned yesterday that a local coffee shop will be closing at the end of the week, The Coffee Gallery at Open Book. I’m a bit bummed as it one of the few lunch places that I can most easily frequent. It’s in the lobby of an old building which several years ago was remodeled into office space for several book-related organizations, and the casual dining in the open space, with its tall ceilings, large windows and free wi-fi makes it a comfortable getaway.

But I’m mostly bummed because it’s a space where I’ve done quite of bit of writing, and re-writing, over the past few years. I was able to step away from the day-job with my laptop for a while and get some work done, or at least feel as if I’ve had a brief encounter with creative expression. A couple years ago I spent a lot of time, even on weekends, writing a play, and more than a few of the ah-ha and big “what if” moments happened in that space. A lot of work was done there.

It’s hard to get away and just write, or just think, or just ponder an idea. So much of our daily lives are rush rush and go go and there’s little time or environment for reflection. Ironically I meant to be over there now, writing this, but the place was packed and there was no where to sit, so I couldn’t get away today…I had to come back to the day-job and try to hide for a few minutes while I eat my lunch….and write some notes here….

…..and just now, as if to emphasize the fact that there is no room of one’s own, I was interrupted and then discovered I’ve lost my connection to the internet. (I was quick enough to copy/paste elsewhere in order continue writing offline.) Cruel fates…..

Just having a quiet place to lose oneself with one’s own thoughts….I find it calming, refreshing and helpful to the creative process. I’ll need to find that new space.

Virginia was right.

Fun and French, in a Cold Read

I spent the past two nights getting together with large groups of actors and reading aloud a couple plays. It was an informal gathering put together to explore these scripts as possible candidates for production. We were all assigned multiple parts, had some drinks and snacks, sat in a circle and dug in.

The first night’s play included numerous dialects, some singing and some foreign language. (This was a cold read for most of us, so there was some foreign language faking going on.) Last night’s was much tamer in that regard.

The fun of it, of course, was the discovery and the challenge. Other than the title and the authors’ names, I wasn’t familiar with either script, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Cold readings can be difficult – having to make quick choices, on the spot, about intention, attitude, relationships, character, all only based on what’s in front of you at the moment, not knowing where anything’s going.

Some times that’s a good thing. Some times you choose incorrectly.

After the readings we discussed it all – what we liked, what we didn’t, how produce-able it might be, what kind of audience it might garner, whether it’s right for this company and their audience, etc….. Lots and lots of opinions were thrown out, but there was also much agreement, and good discussion within the group. The conversation was cordial, professional and productive. There were no egos, no arguments and nothing personal.

(I’m not surprised by any of that behavior, I’m only reminded that I see it so little elsewhere.)

I learned a couple things through this exercise.

I learned I can’t always think on my feet well enough to sound clear and smart at the same time in group discussions. (I feel I usually can, but these couple night’s challenged that notion.) Life might move too fast for me, and I like to consider and explore materials when reading them. Or perhaps my mind moves too quickly, jumping to ideas, and I inadvertently skim things I shouldn’t. Or maybe I’m not as bright as I think. No…that’s not it.

Also, I learned, or re-learned, that I have a pretty solid skill of doing some accents, and many I can just toss out, on the fly, without thinking about them. While this includes a few British, Irish, Italian, Russian, Chicago, New York, ranges of Southern US and perhaps a few others, it does not include French. I don’t know why, but I can’t just jump into a French accent unless I’m improvising dialogue. On night one I had to read a character with a “slight French accent” and I started trying one, but as soon as I heard it fluctuate to some Eastern European (probably to a country that no longer exists) I gave up. I couldn’t read and accent at the same time.

But mostly I learned that this kind of thing should happen more often. At any given time I probably know several dozen actors who could be available on a Tuesday night to get together to read a script. Even if people aren’t right for the part, it doesn’t matter. Hearing a script out loud is how scripts are supposed to be heard. Hearing actors put some life (even incomplete, or slightly off-the-mark-in-a-cold-reading life) into the playwright’s words is illuminating. And getting together to practice, discuss and enjoy the process isn’t so bad either.

Every time an opportunity like this comes up I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Perhaps it’s time it does.

Early Rehearsals

We’re nearing the end of week two of rehearsal for a production of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene. It’s a monster of a show, mostly due to the variety of the variables: 20+ actors, 3 children, a dog, 60+ characters and over a half dozen dialects.

We open in three weeks.

This undertaking could be a setting for disaster were it not for the wealth of talent involved. The creative team—director and designers—have a track record of great successes, a few particularly noted for making art out of massive productions. The cast is chock full of quick witted, creative, playful and eager actors ready to take on the challenge of creating this world.

And not just creating it, but making it come to life with its broad, sometimes stereotyped characters. Make it come to life with deep roots, accessible people, and relative to an audience 80 years after its debut.

Many of these people (onstage and off) I have had the pleasure of working with in the past, in some form or another and every one of them I looked forward to working with again. And many of the others I’ve wanted to work with because of what I’ve seen from them onstage at other times. Frankly, I’m honored to be in amongst these people.

Much of what was focused on in the first week were dialect choices and blocking. Seriously, it’s like blocking rush hour traffic at times. I’m very well acquainted with the director and his work so I was confident it would all work out. Meticulous is how I would describe it. We spent about an hour blocking approximately three pages. (To be fair, just those three pages needed that.)

I’d never witnessed a blocking rehearsal get a round of applause until then.

Blocking is one thing though. As long as I make the right notes, and can read my writing when we next come to that scene, I should be OK. Dialects aren’t quite the challenge for me that they can be for some actors, and fortunately I’m doing a couple in this show that I’ve done before. Still, it takes reviewing and reminding, and a detailed look at my lines.

Then you have to say it out loud, so there’s that.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I can’t speak with an Irish accent if I’m reading dialogue written phonetically in another dialect. (Thank you Mr. Rice, but I’ve made a character choice, the director supports it and I need to help distinguish my two characters.)
  • I’m once again appreciating some of the classroom acting exercises of a college teacher where I learned not to be distracted by an actor speaking a different accent than me. Thank you Jean.
  • I still haven’t completely lost my Chicago “A” sound and it slips in too easily. I’m becoming paranoid it’s following me.

Next up: Fleshing it all out.

When you least expect it….

I’ve been struggling with getting traction on a new project. Little inspiration. Little energy available for it. I generally feed off of creative inspiration. It gives me a drive. So lately things have felt disappointing and a bit depressive.

This morning as I opened my eyes, the sun was shining and my dog was snuggled up next to me, and suddenly an image came to me of how this project might look on stage (it seems it’s always visual first) and then how a story might be told.

I may have finally found some traction and  the structure for this new project.