Thursday, September 8, 2011

Directing at the Speed of Life: First Rehearsal

With the success of "Acting at the Speed of Life," and knowing well the eight years that it took me to get the work into production, my commitment to the Directing text that I have had stuck in the back of my head has grown. And, given that I am spending six weeks on a Guest Directing project, I have decided to track my work and my thought processes about the work itself, hoping that it might reveal some necessary stages to the work, and perhaps some ideas that have not been articulated elsewhere... Here is a sample chapter from that process. --Tim

First Rehearsal

     The first rehearsal is the moment in which the director has the opportunity to make the greatest impact. Metaphorically, let's say we are in Chicago, and about to take a 6-week walking tour to New York. This is the moment, more than any other in which we want to make sure that we have all of our instruments, plans and measurements calibrated towards New York. If we were to set out and begin our walking tour by heading towards L.A., then in order to eventually get to New York, all of our steps will likely need to be retraced. If we set off towards St. Louis, we will need to make a serious course correction, somewhere down the line.
     Likewise, the director of a play, of course, is taking the play in a direction. The direction in which the company sets out will determine the direction that the actors are likely to proceed in through the course of the rehearsal and performance period. Theoretically, if some tragedy were to befall, and the director were unable to attend subsequent rehearsals, the company should be able to continue in the direction they are heading and ultimately come to "New York."
The director sets the wheels of the production in motion, beginning the first phases of a momentum which will carry the play along. While course corrections will certainly be necessary along the way, it will take a greater effort to arrest the inertia of that initial momentum and set it off in a new direction.
     The temptation is to dive in and get to work.
     By this point, we may have been discussing and planning this play for nine months already. We have been studying it, envisioning it, dreaming about it, having nightmares about it, measuring the space, plotting the blocking, researching the costumes, questioning the style, making sense of the meaning, the metaphor, the concept and the intent towards the particular audience for whom this play is presented. Moreover, we have just spent two or three days amid auditions, measuring each individual actor against this vision for the presentation of this play, and against each other individual actor. Finally, we get to see some fulfillment of all of this envisioning!
     Hang in there for just one hour more, before cutting loose and heading on down the track. While all of your instruments may be calibrated for "New York," their instruments each have their own settings, and may set them off, individually towards New Jersey, or Miami, or Dallas, or L.A.
     There are things to be discussed first; some of them organizational, some of them aesthetic, some of them personal, and some of them thematic. Here is an example of one first rehearsal: 
     I arrive 30 minutes in advance of rehearsal. One actor is already arriving at that moment, and the stage manager and her assistant are already in the rehearsal space. We engage in casual small talk, set up chairs in a circle, make sure that we have one chair for every actor and production member who we are actually expecting, set out scripts for the actors who haven't gotten theirs yet. I avoid discussion of the play until such time as everyone is in attendance, or at least until the clock strikes 7:00.
     At 7:00, I welcome the actors, officially, and begin a conversation. It is not a lecture. I have topics to cover, and about three pages of notes of things that I want to make sure I discuss, but I want to engage them in contributing to the conversation almost as much as I do. I want to know where their heads are at regarding the play and our plans for it, almost as much as I want them to know what my intentions are. Or, more importantly, they will bring up topics upon which I am ready to expound, and I will use their spontaneous remarks to launch us into a series of already thought-through conversations.
     I begin by opening the floor to introductions. Who are you? Tell us a little something about yourself, and what you are looking forward to about this play. And we go around in the circle. There are no wrong answers. But occasionally an answer may give us the opportunity to chime in with a shared bit of enthusiasm. "Yes, I'm so glad we're taking this play to ACTF! It's an opportunity for some terrific exposure for all of us, and my goal is to take this all the way to the Kennedy Center!"
     Some actors may have intentions around the play that don’t match up with others. Given that we are working on a production of Tartuffe, some bring up the sexual hi-jinx of the play, and the repressiveness of the church which I fear may not be universally shared. I support the actors who bring this up and give further background on why this is important and necessary to the plot, and discuss further the positive impact that Moliere intended this play to have, and the particular impact that connecting what seems to be such a modern issue has when presented in the context of a classical work. And, I watch to see if anyone seems particularly uncomfortable.
The intent, here is to give everyone a voice, and a shared stake in the outcome of the production. The actors, by themselves, bring up just about all of my own feelings about the play, even reminding me of things that I once felt and have since forgotten. Having worked with this play for so long, I get the feeling of what it is like to encounter it for the first time, and I am able to ride the wave of their energies to my own intended conclusions.
Leaving myself for last in the circle, I take my turn, too. As a guest director, they may know nothing about me, or they may have looked me up on-line. At least one notes that she has checked out some of my videos on YouTube. I trace my own career, as quickly as I can, dating back to when I was in the position that they were in: a college student, earning my BA, my MFA, and the many subsequent directions that my career took from that point, and how it led me to where I am now.
My next planned topic was to discuss why we might want to produce Tartuffe, and what my intentions were about the play, but their earlier contributions have already taken me through that conversation, as well as the conversation about our aspirations toward the ACTF competition. And so, with some confidence that our energies are aligned in terms of our intentions, I begin the more challenging conversation: commitment.
There are three areas of effort with which I want to have them aligned: Memorization, Attendance and Physical/emotional commitment.
With regard to Memorization, I give them a brief overview of my chapter on memorization (as discussed in “Acting at the Speed of Life,” reminding them that they are likely to spend a given amount of time working on their lines, regardless of whether they are starting early, in the middle of the process or at the end, and how much easier it will make the process for themselves and everybody around them if they start earlier rather than later. They nod and agree. I have selected a date for them to be off book, a date about two and a half weeks into the future: September 15. It’s the middle of the coming month, and it seems reasonable to everyone in the room. We agree to it as a group.
For attendance, I discuss the importance of having everyone present and on-time on the nights that we are working on their scenes. I remark that if ten people are waiting on a single actor who is 10 minutes late, then that actor has wasted 100 minutes of rehearsal time, and I extrapolate from that a bit. I congratulate them all for having arrived well in advance this particular night, and note that I intend to be present thirty minutes in advance of every rehearsal, to make myself available for any problems or questions, or to make my production book available for anyone who wants to check their blocking.
Most importantly, I discuss the physical and emotional commitment that this play is going to demand. There are scenes of great intimacy and extreme exaggeration. There is great risk involved in performing this play, or even rehearsing this play in front of ones’ peers. It will be very tempting to talk about people, and about the show. It will be very tempting to make jokes at the expense of others. It will be tempting to gossip. We want to keep it all in the room. If there is a problem, let’s share it with the group. Let’s have a policy of openness and transparency amongst ourselves, so that a risk that someone takes in rehearsal does not turn into an issue somewhere else.
As such, I ask not only that they resist the temptation to criticize or comment on people behind peoples’ backs, but to resist the temptation to participate in such conversations. So that when somebody begins to criticize or comment, we immediately pipe up to say, “Why don’t you address that with him (or her)?” We want to make the rehearsal space a “safe” zone.
How am I to work for?
Given that I have been in this business going on thirty-five years, now, I have some sense of what it is that I, myself, bring to the table. And perhaps it is good to let the actors know, up front, what it is that they are going to be facing. I let them know that I know what it is that I want and what it is that I need from them. This manifests itself in my interpretation of the characters and the lines, which may at times seem inflexible. It comes up in my feel for the style that we are going for, and my intent to align the cast with that style. It lives in my efforts to work through the blocking of the play well in advance of our first blocking rehearsal. This is both a blessing and a curse.
It is a curse in that you, as actors, will always know that there is something that you are shooting for, and I will be there to remind you that we are not there yet. You may feel, at times, that you will never get there, and that, perhaps, there is little flexibility in my vision. The blessing is that you will always know that there is a vision.  You will sense yourselves as contributing to a larger whole, and you will get to enjoy being a vital part of something that is bigger than yourself. And while you may struggle with it at times, you will feel the value of the result in front of the audience. [I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to be as a director; your self-assessment may be much different, and lead actors in an opposite direction. I am simply trying to prepare them for the experience of working with me, so that they have some impression of what they have signed on for, and some comfort that there is a payoff coming somewhere down the line.]
Next, I address some of the specific stylistic considerations and expectations of this play… why it is important that it is written in rhymed, iambic pentameter… what that does to the audience’s expectations and attentiveness, and what that demands of the actors attempting to perform it. I float my thesis that “the greatest art is that which is the most selected,” noting that rhymed iambic pentameter is “selected” down to the very syllable, with a kind of a pending “joke” awaiting at every 20th syllable, as the audience is held in a kind of suspense, waiting for the rhyme.
I brush on the history of epic poetry and its live recital, reminding the actors that theatre is a time-based art, and our intent is to keep the ball always in the air, removing pauses from our speeches and filling every moment that we are asking the audience for their attention, and rewarding them for that attention. I embellish this discussion with some of my own stories (also available in “Acting at the Speed of Life”).
Finally, I touch on some of the production elements as they have been developed so far. I discuss the plans for the set, and share with them the ground plan as it has been established so far, noting how the set will influence traffic patterns, and how I have already been drawing out those traffic patterns in the production book. I am a particularly kinetic director, with some kind of movement happening on most of the lines, and this set will particularly facilitate that vision.
We note the nature of the period costumes that are being planned. Given that the costume designer has only this same day gotten notice of the cast, her sketches are preliminary, and will take significant next steps over the next few days.
There is a particular kind of music that I like, going with this particular production, playing through the transitions between acts, and I note the size and emotional sweep that the music of Franz Liszt offers to our production.
More particularly, this presentation is being supplemented with efforts from the Music and the Dance departments. I discuss their involvement with the “Intermezzi” that are being planned, and the manner in which those Intermezzi will fit into the vision of the play… one in which the actors are playing for an imagined “King” established sitting front row, center… a “King” who will be a different person selected out of every audience, to whom many of the asides and speeches will be directed, and in whose honor the Intermezzi will be performed.
I allude briefly about my own past experience with this play, and my intent to take this production a step farther than I have in the past. My experiences with staging a curtain call for the most recent production have given me insight into a level of stylistic presentation that I now know this play will stand up to, and I note the over-the-top level of bravado that that curtain call will ultimately take aim at.
This entire conversation has taken us just over an hour. We take a ten minute break and come back to read the script aloud.
As we read, I make notes. They are reading very well, and have largely aligned themselves with my intent. I am pleasantly surprised that they are sometimes taking the thing too far, and realize that I will actually have to pull them back at some point.
This is not the night for that, though. This is the night for them to hear the words aloud for the first time, to recognize the special challenges that those words will present, and to make mental notes of words that they will have to look up and learn. They absorb the nature of the project that they are facing, all the while enjoying the special humor that emerges the very first time. The next time they have this kind of a discovery moment with the play at large will be the first time that they have an audience seated in front of them, reminding them of the special impact that the play, with its ebbs and flows and climaxes has upon someone hearing the words for the first time.
The notes that I take are mostly about pronunciation. Not about the pronunciation of particular words. We would be here all night if we attempted to capture those, but of the pronunciation habits that they will want to break. There are two, in particular, that I want to emphasize:
First of all, nearly everyone replaces the word “to” with something that sounds like “tuh.” We are so very accustomed to this that we don’t even realize that we are not pronouncing the word accurately.
Next, in this particular region of the United States, the “ehh” sound of the letter “e” is very often replaced with the “ihh” sound, as if it were spelled with an “i". And so words like “fences” have become “finces”. “Men” sounds like “min”. Tempting, timpting, get, git, center, cinter, offend, offind, sentiment, sintimint… and on and on. I don’t point out who has pronounced these words this way. I simply want to begin the process of attuning their ears and voices.
Beyond this, I have become aware of points that I may have failed to cover in my initial discussion… ways of understanding intended pronunciation through the study of a line’s iambic pentameter, so that we know when a line is to be pronounced “blest” or “bless-ed, ” “prolonged” or “prolong-ed”. I explain that “not pausing” does not mean: “speak quickly.” And I encourage them to resist the inclination to add little non-verbal sounds to the lines to support their intent. Everything that the need should be in the words themselves, and adding extra non-verbal syllables actually disrupts the impact of the iambic pentameter.
I realize that some of them are better cold readers than others, and so worrying about particular instances of pronunciation, or misunderstood intent is not worth agonizing over. Addressing this at this point would be counterproductive.

But there is one thing that I have realized in the process of watching rehearsal that I feel the need to address, and the earlier the better. It is not something that can be done with the entire cast present, at least not without embarrassing one of the actors, and so I mention that I’d like to check in with two of the actors before they leave for the night, and I thank the rest of the cast for a terrific first rehearsal.

Before they go, many of the actors have comments, and some have issues. Two actors have rehearsal conflicts to which they need to alert me, and it takes a few minutes for the rehearsal hall to clear.
The actresses[1] who have remained behind at my request are now at the slightly-freaked-out stage, afraid that I am angry at them for some reason, and I reassure them that I am not, in any way angry. That they are doing great work, and that I want to address a mistake that I made.
In holding my callback for the show, I had made the strategic choice to focus on Mariane’s big speech, and the dozen or so actresses who read for the role were considered on their ability to capture Mariane’s big speech. My mistake was that Mariane’s big speech represents a major shift in Mariane’s character, one in which her alter-ego as a strong independent woman emerges at last.
Perhaps you see the problem.
The actress who best captured that alter-ego, was not necessarily the one who was best aligned with Mariane’s ego. That is to say that when it came time to read through the entire play, I realized that this strong, independent actress, was struggling with Mariane’s timid, acquiescent character, fearful of her father, Orgon and unwilling to exhibit anything but the go-along-to-get-along characteristics for which Orgon had always rewarded her.
I explained this to this particular actress in terms of the positive qualities of strength that were so natural to the actress on stage, characteristics which were actually more in alignment with the character of Elmire, Orgon’s wife. Given the hectic nature of the audition process that we had just gone through, seeing about 40 actors reading at least two monologues each in the course of less than four hours, I had never had the opportunity to audition these two actresses next to each other. Both were excellent performers. Each had received 3.5 “stars” in my rating system for the characters of Mariane and Elmire, and assigning them particular roles may have had more to do with their physical impression, matching up against their love interests in the play, Elmire with Orgon and Mariane with Valere. Would they mind if I took them through another brief audition, in which they would both perform a piece of Mariane’s fearful, timid side?
By this time, the actresses were so relieved that I was not upset with them, they were happy to try on this new possibility, and a brief couple of read-throughs revealed what I’d suspected: The actress initially cast as Elmire was a natural for Mariane. And the actress who had been cast as Mariane naturally exhibited the mature traits that I would most want from Elmire. Both were very attractive women, and would generate the romantic feelings that these characters inspired.
Obviously, I could make the initial casting work, and we could keep things the way that they were. Or, we could make a change now, early in the process, before either actress had begun learning her lines, and while there was still an opportunity to make a course correction. We had begun our trip to New York, as it were, heading off in the direction of Philadelphia. An adjustment now would save us a series of course corrections as we proceeded on down the line. Could we pull off the course correction without losing the precious enthusiasm that these women had already built upon the notion that they had been cast in these particular roles? Most importantly, could we make the shift without loss of self-esteem in front of the rest of the cast, who would surely be startled at this change?
Flashback: Thirty years ago, when still in college, my first big directing project was to direct “Motherlove” by August Strindberg, which features four female characters, including a pair of friends, one strong and assertive, one weaker and submissive. At that time I was slower to recognize the qualities that the actresses portraying these characters brought to the table, and it may have been a week or more into the process that I realized that I had cast the show “upside down.” Other unrelated qualities had influenced me: One actress was blonde and the other was a brunette. One actress was a college student and the other was still in high school. (I had a crush on one of them, but not on the other.) I was young, and easily influenced by that sort of thing. Probably, I still am.
When I realized my mistake, I mentioned it in rehearsal, and the actresses were both game to try on the other’s role, but more than a week into the process, they’d each been hard at work learning their own individual lines, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them to start over from scratch. We continued forward, reaching “Philadelphia” rather than New York.
This time could be different.
Would it be a disappointment to them to change roles? Both were terrific parts, and both women would do great work in either role, but they could see my excitement in the possibility that the casting change would really help the play.
They agreed. Excitedly, they then asked if they could keep it secret from the rest of the cast until the next day’s rehearsal. When the time came, they would simply start reading the others’ role, and surprise the others. I loved this idea, and I loved the fact that it made them the instigators of a fun prank on the rest of the cast, rather than the victims of an autocratic director. I noted that I would need to inform the stage manager, the costume designer and the department chair, but that all would keep their secret.
We called it a night.
This is not a choice that I would suggest that anyone make lightly. I’ve been directing for thirty years, and this is the first time that I have actually followed through on this possibility. And, it is an incredibly fortuitous coincidence that these two actresses were so excellently qualified for each others’ role. But I think my lesson, here, has something to do with being willing to admit one’s mistakes, to address them early, and to let the ultimate destination be the deciding factor.

[1] I realize that “actress” as an alternative to “actor” can sometimes have sexist connotations, a derogatory remark initiated when women were only first allowed to perform on stage, but I also realize that the use of the term “actor” in reference to a man is so common that confusion is inevitable. 

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