Opening Night, and the Morning After

I haven’t written much lately – I’ve been a bit more than busy. My schedule has been full getting to another opening night, which occurred a little more than twelve hours ago. Here it is, Saturday morning, and I’m in a daze, unsure what to do with myself. I’ve got the day free, but am still reeling from last night’s performance and am anticipating tonight’s.

This play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, is a big play. There are dozens of characters played by nine actors, using numerous actual sources to tell the story of Wilde’s love and trials. There are a lot of words. And a lot of interjections with little scenes and asides, often in seemingly non-sequiterian ways. Just memorizing lines became a challenge.

Theatre GarageLast night we opened to a huge crowd, who laughed at all the right places (and a few we didn’t know would be funny at all) and got very quiet, just the way the rehearsal room would, when we got to those other, more difficult and tender moments. The challenge of last night was to not let all the extra energy and stimulus in the Theatre Garage—a small, intimate space where almost every audience member can be looked at in the eye by every actor on stage—to not let it throw us off our game, not distract us, not put some new random thought in our head and take us off our the path of our previously discovered objective and strategy.

Add to that challenge that the construct of the play includes that our characters constantly talk to the audience. So it’s like getting a new scene partner after five weeks of rehearsal. Things are bound to get wobbly.

Thankfully, of course, nothing went awry. A few stumbled words here or there by a few people, but nothing really. This was immediately followed by some drinks and snacks and long conversations in the lobby. Somehow, strangely, almost the entire cast ended up back down in the green room with a few guests, chatting along before someone said “Why are we down here?!” (Anyone who has been in the green room of that theater would understand.)

And now here I sit. The morning after opening. It’s a bit like the first day after the semester when all that’s left is finals’ week. There’s a sense of relaxation, a sense of freedom of time, but there’s the continual presence of being ready to go back, muster the concentration and connection, and do it all over again with another new scene partner, made up of another hundred strangers, and see what happens this time around.

In the meantime, perhaps I’ll do some laundry and finish my taxes.

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Back to the Rehearsal Room

I’ve been on a short break, but that’s over. Tonight I jump back in the fray, and it’s about 180° turn from the last project.

A couple weeks ago i wrapped up Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. It sounds like a video game because it’s all about a video game. And zombies. And death. And communication. (Or lack thereof.) And relationships. It was dark, very dark, with some really dark humor. It was a very modern play, unstructured and widely open to interpretation. It was a blank canvas on which we could paint any number of pictures.

Tonight I begin rehearsals for Moises Kauffman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The only thing it has in common with that last play is it’s also about relationships. Just, different kinds.

And this time I’ll have an accent.

Although there is one other thing that will be the same: “I’m just an actor.”

That’s no small task, but I love the cleanliness of working on a production with a single focus. Someone else can worry about….so many other things. I’ll worry about creating my character, building my relationships, and of course, memorizing my lines.

This script is incredible, and I’m thrilled to get started.

Two Nights, Two Plays, Two Worlds

This week I saw two shows by two different companies whose work I admire. They couldn’t have been more different from each other, but both were thoroughly enjoyable. The contrast was striking.

Thursday night after the show, talking to a few of the cast and the producers I expressed how I thoroughly I enjoyed this naturalistic, realistic, down to earth story and people. The whole play took place over a cookout in someone’s back yard. If permits had allowed they’d have been able to actually turn that gas grill on and cook the food. (If permits had allowed and I were directing it that’s what I’d have done.) It was that kind of kitchen-sink realism.

I feel as if I don’t see that kind of stuff often enough. Watching the delicacy and detailed elements of the actors’ work was a real treat. I love nothing more than watching actors enliven their characters so thoroughly. At one point at the beginning of what would be a long story-telling monologue the actress blanked. You only knew because the pause was just a tad … too …. long … to be anything else. But she remained perfectly in character. There was no deer-in-headlights. The beauty was that her husband’s character was sitting right next to her and we knew that he knew the story she was about to tell, so that actor simply prompted her by starting the story himself, and allowed her to take over. They were like a married couple finishing each other’s thoughts, which they were. And it worked.

Later, when the actual climax of the play hit it was real, it wasn’t forced, it was genuine, and it took your breath away for the slightest of moments. Because it was so accessible and so complete. And the play didn’t end completely tidy and neat, wrapped up with answering every question. Like life, you couldn’t be sure about what would happen. And that’s ok. Sometimes neat isn’t interesting.

Twenty four hours later I was finishing up seeing another show, at the other end of the spectrum of realism (if it really is a linear spectrum) and again spoke to a cast member and producer and said how I had no idea what it was that I had just seen, but my mind was reeling. It was an original, company-created completely experimental piece, based on real people: essentially a one time successful writer who has become a shut-in (along with his sister, and they live like hoarders) struggles to continue writing or rather to stop the stories in his head. I’m not sure which. Possibly both.

There was nothing straightforward about this piece, and it’s stuck in my head since I left the theater Friday night. Nothing about this was realistic, even when it contained naturalistic acting styles at moments; it was pure absurdism, or more truly perhaps expressionism.

This was a company I’ve watched and admired several times before. They have a unique process for creating their scripts which are done virtually from scratch as an ensemble. There are pitfalls in this kind of work, the primary one being not able to get the story over to an audience or being able to draw them in emotionally. This time, for me, I was pulled in and fascinated by the people and story and where it was or wasn’t going. I may have left with many questions. And that’s ok.

There were many fascinating things visually, including little details like a dirty line on the wall going up the steps where clearly someone has spent years slowly traversing them with a hand on the wall for stability. With that simple design element I formed an image of someone before the character even appeared at the top of those steps. One of the true elements of expressionism was this group of characters who first appear in one scene and then became at the end of that scene these people who secretly inhabited the house and that the main character had to essentially keep under control, and from whom he had to protect his family or hide from his family.

I’m not sure which or if it matters.

So many things are sticking with me and I can’t even articulate it.

The one thing these two shows had in common was that moment of reality, that wasn’t forced, that seemed truly genuine which took your breath away. In this case it was shedding the layers of absurdity like some fog clearing for just a moment in Don’s mind long enough that he could see and respond to his sister—who may, in fact, be normal after all.

Or perhaps not.

Neat and tidy isn’t very interesting.

One side note: Sandbox is all about experimental, company-created theatre and it’s striking to me that they’ve produced this and previous shows at the Red Eye, a company which many years ago built its national reputation on experimental theatre. It’s as if a torch has been passed. Or, at least, shared.

2009: The Art in My Life

The world is over-run with top lists for the year. This being my own little world I figure I’ll make a list of the top ten things about 2009. Below, with no real sense of order, are highlights of my life in the arts and the art in my life.

Photography is a hobby of mind, and according to iPhoto I imported almost 1,000 pictures this year. I think the money saved in film development has now paid for that digital SLR.

This picture was taken last January from a boat off the coast of Puerto Vallarta. I love it for how it looks like a watercolor or something, but it’s a completely untouched photo. The guide had thrown bread crumbs in the water to attract the fish, and got more than we expected.

Another favorite picture of mine also came from a vacation. This shot was taken from the rooftop at Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, in the old city portion of Montreal. Wings seem to be a theme this year.

When I made my list of highlights I knew I would want to include pictures, so I chose those two, although there are many other photos that excited me this year, including ones below. But it turns out that most of my highlights are theatre related.

Caroline, Or Change was the surprise of the Kushner fest. While all eyes were on his big-new-will-he-ever-finish-it Homo’s Guide, this wonderfully imaginative musical, with singing washing machines and solidly written characters stole people’s hearts, and lingered for days with me. I should probably add that to coincide with the Kushner fest at the Big G I finally got around to seeing HBO’s Angels In America and wondered why it took me so long to see that masterpiece.

Scream Blue Murmur is my absolute favorite Northern Irish performing poet group. Ok, perhaps the only group of poets I’ve seen perform. But let me just say that I love these people. They brought their piece Morning After the Summer of Love to the Fringe Festival this summer, and not surprisingly it was a huge hit. (Lovely piece about 1968 – love, war and civil rights. Powerfully current.) I first learned of them when they were here a couple years ago, and fell in love with their flowing words and images and energy and depth. This summer I fell in love again. I’d go to Ireland just to see them, and I think it would be awesome to be in some little village pub, listening to them and chatting them up over a pint after. Chatted with a couple of them briefly during the Fringe and I was like a Marcia Brady meeting Davey Jones.

The Syringa Tree at the Jungle was the best one-person show I think I have ever seen. No props, and virtually no set. Numerous characters from a single, amazingly talented actress. It was astounding. Kudos to director Joel Sass. As for the actress, well….I had to write Ms. Agnew a fan note.

I saw a production of The Skin of Our Teeth that I described as “…this whole play boils down to hope and optimism and the fight to not lose it or have it destroyed. If that’s not a theme for 2009, I don’t know what is.” I applaud Girl Friday Productions for taking on such a massive and complicated play.

And as for small, independent theatres go, I have to give kudos to Walking Shadow. I saw two of their shows, Squawk, and Some Girl(s) and both shows were incredibly impressive. These people are hard working, dedicated and smart—all of which I find very exciting. If they don’t burn out like so many theatre companies can easily do, they’re on their way to making a big name for themselves.

Earlier this year there was a gathering of actors who did a semi-staged reading of The Seagull. Not only was the reading very well done, and thoroughly enjoyable, but it represented so many of the things about theatre that excite me, and exemplifies the high quality of artists in Minneapolis. I recall saying that we need more of this kind of thing, and I hope we see more next year.

Romeo & Juliet at The Children’s Theatre Company was the first time I’d ever seen a promenade style production, and now I want all my Shakespeare to be staged this way. The audience stood, and moved, throughout the show which took place in a huge black box space, with a few set elements up on accessible platforms around the perimeter. The action moved throughout the crowd, directing audience members out of the way as needed. It was like we were all standing in the town’s center plaza, surrounded and part of the action—even the sword fight. And the performances were all incredibly strong and beautiful.

June of Arc, or more specifically Heather Stone’s performance blew me away with the strength and power of her work. It was a beautiful, riveting performance, and I was inspired by the detailed, focused work she did and how she so fully owned it. Some folks will be able to catch Sandbox’s reprisal of this show in January at the Guthrie, and I hope many people do. If Heather keeps up that kind of work, her life is going to change in 2010.

The William Williams Effect, with Balance Theatre Project, was virtually all of 2009 for me, and has a very prominent place on my theatrical resume. I felt almost arrogant telling some people before it opened that I thought it would be a “highlight of my so-called career” but that’s just what it’s become. The performances, the response—it was all more than I had wished for. I can’t even begin to describe the challenge and excitement and pride I have regarding this project. As a director there’s nothing so satisfying as watching a crowd in a packed theater sitting with rapt attention on a show. 

It was also thrilling to once again join forces with my long-time friend Nancy Ruyle in researching, writing and getting this show up on its feet. The whole thing, from start to finish, was a collaborative process, and much of it was organically created in rehearsals with the cast, too.

While I feel very fortunate to have had such a successful show, I feel even more fortunate to have such a great working relationship and friendship with Nancy, who can challenge me, keep me on track and, frankly, keep me balanced.

The trip didn’t end with closing night back in August, and this script has a new version that will be shared soon. So, thank you 2009 for being good to me.

Here’s to 2010.

Happy New Year.

A Night in the Theatre

Just to follow up on that previous post….that show I went to see, where my expectations were high? It was no where near disappointing.

While I’m not sure it’s my favorite LaBute play, I was intrigued and moved and, yes, slightly uncomfortable at times. There’s nothing like making a lead character some sort of charming guy with a life you could envy, only to have him turn out to be a total douche bag.

And as an acting exercise, how friggin’ much fun would that be? The whole cast was strong, with some great moments. Lots of give and take. Lots of listening and live interacting…all in a tiny, intimate house. Just the way I like my theatre.

Impressive. I was right. I’d like to work with these smart, organized folks some time.