This week was the first week of rehearsals for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges. As you can see from the photo above, it's very staged, which makes me insanely happy.
I'm going to start this post with a (seemingly) unrelated story. In college, I asked this girl out to dinner and to see a production of Little Shop of Horrors (Which I had great issues with. They added 3 men that interacted with the 3 women chorus. STUPID!). Anyway, the girl I asked out was pretty cool, so to make the date not seem like a date to help her say "yes," I said that my friend Miriam and I were going to see the show. Okay, here's the important part of the story: I tend to ramble. At dinner, I found myself spouting an unending stream of nervous chatter. My friend Miriam bet me that I couldn't stop talking for fifteen minutes. I took the bet and spoke not a single word for 25 minutes! (However, I did pretend to cut my throat with a butter knife and smear sweet and sour sauce on my neck as blood. BUT I didn't say a word.) At the 25 minute mark, Miriam said, "I suppose the time is almost up." I shouted, "I've been able to talk for 10 minutes!" I won.
What does this have to do with rehearsals? I made the promise to myself, and to Joe, my director, that I would be a silent observer in the rehearsal room. This is not because I didn't want to participate or be a collaborator; I didn't want to be a crutch or the keeper of all the answers. I wanted to actors to puzzle things out, such as the timelines that defined their relationships. When did Dane and Julia meet? Did they date? If so, how long did they date? How long has it been since they've seen each other? What was the last time they saw each other before the play begins? I had the answers, but I wasn't telling. I wanted to leave room for Joe and Erin and Andrew to make their choices, which would define the ways they would play the scene.
Collaboration in a rehearsal room, especially being a playwright is an interesting beast. In a lot of ways my role as collaborator became less active. I wrote the play, the script is "locked" for the readings (no changes!), and now it's Joe and the actors who get to wrestle and wrangle and wriggle their way into the play that I've provided. Collaboration is not about a lot of cooks in the kitchen; it's about everyone having a role, a perspective, and space to add. For example, Erin's portrayal of Julia is based on the script, her aesthetics as an actor, the ways that Nikki and Andrew make their decisions about their characters, and Joe's understanding about Julia that he brings to the table.
I want their ideas to have full reign, which is why I don't give the actors notes or thoughts; if I have an idea, it goes through Joe. I haven't had any thoughts I've had to bring up, but I know that Joe would be open to it. During the rehearsals, the only time I talk to the actors is during breaks or to include a joke with a hashtag. We're starting to have those inside jokes that evolve from a group of theatre people being in the same room for too long. #theatrenerds #octothorpe #hashtagsarefun #IGuessYouHadtoBeThere
I've take lots and lots of notes during rehearsal as I notice tiny moments here and there that I might want to investigate when I return to the play after the process. There are moments to expand or reword or use a scalpel to trim a slight bit of fat, but I'm very happy with the play. I'm happy that after a couple of years of toying with the play in the privacy of my office at home, at a Starbucks, or in the lunchroom of my day job, I get to be in a room with collaborators and my characters. I've heard my characters speak in new ways. I love watching Joe work and his respect and enjoyment of my play. I'm going to miss his long, flowing locks as we move into the next week of rehearsals (he had to get a well-planned haircut for the various weddings of which he is a part). I'm enjoying every single moment in rehearsals. My friend and wonderful photographer Elise Falk of Falktography took some pics at rehearsal this past Friday and in them I look bored and tired, when in fact, I am the complete opposite: energized and riveted. I've bounced and skipped my way through my day job the past week. I'm on vacation this week, so I'll bounce and skip (mostly metaphorically) through the chores and new play work that I've promised to do. A week from today will be the first reading, then another on the 15th. I'm using this momentum and joy to keep myself going through the upcoming play submission season. I want more.
For all my fellow theatre-makers who are currently in rehearsals, enjoy and be excellent to each other.
I’m fortunate to have one of my short plays (A World Without Allergies, A Talk by Dr. Michael Kramer) currently in rehearsals for MadLab Theatre’s 15th Annual Theatre Roulette and am about to begin rehearsals for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges at CATCO. With all the recent discussions on Twitter about directors and their relationship with scripts and texts and interpretations, I haven’t done a lot of thinking about my role as playwright in the rehearsal room.
I love rehearsal rooms. Adore them. I love process. It excites me to see exploration and discovery from the side of the director to the work of the actors. I’m not just talking about rehearsals of my own plays, but rehearsals of any play. There’s electricity in the intimacy of the rehearsal room, and it’s a place that must be protected from judgement and negativity. There has to be openness for vulnerability. Openness leads to vulnerability. Vulnerability leads to discovery. Discovery leads to Theatrical Magic! Whereas, as you well know, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the Dark Side.
What was I talking about? Ah yes. The role of the playwright in rehearsals. What should the role of the playwright be? Should the playwright be at the rehearsals? Should the playwright be silent during rehearsals? Should the playwright speak to the actors? If the playwright is allowed to speak to the actors, when should the playwright speak to the actors? There is not a single answer to what the playwright’s role should be; each production, each collaborative group must make that decision together before rehearsals start. In my day job we call that “setting expectations.” These expectations must all be laid bare and agreed upon by everyone and then must be followed. This should be a no-brainer, but I’m sure we don’t do it enough as collaborators. This is where you end up with fights and sour feelings and toxic environments. I hate that kind of rehearsal room. I don’t like a playwright/director relationship where one person is playing “good cop” and the other is “bad cop.” I’m a pretty easy-going guy. It takes a lot, seriously, A LOT to make me difficult to deal with. I mean, here is what my personal “good cop” and “bad cop” look like:
With two shows in rehearsals, I’ll tell you what my relationship in the rehearsal rooms are, both are different. For MadLab, the director, Andy Batt invited me to attend any rehearsals I wanted to. I went to the second rehearsal and met Andy for the first time in person and also Jason Sudy who will be playing Dr. Kramer in all his quirky glory. The play is very short; I’ve never timed it, but it’s not going to hit 10 minutes long. So, I got to see Jason perform the play in its entirety about 4 times, each time Andy asked me for my thoughts, but only after he gave some notes to Jason first. I did have some ideas, but none of them were preconceived about the play or performance; they were based on discoveries that Jason and Andy were finding on their own. So, here’s what I’m thinking for that process (since Andy and I didn’t really talk about it beyond I’m welcome at any rehearsals I want to attend), I’m going to do something I’ve never done: I’m going to let it ride. I’m going to trust Andy and Jason and not go to another rehearsal until one of the tech rehearsals. The purpose of that production is not to develop the play. It’s to showcase the play along with other short plays by Ohio playwrights. And that’s cool. That’s very, very cool.
The staged reading at CATCO, directed by Joe Bishara is another beast altogether. That staged reading is specifically for the development of the play. I had a great meeting with Joe and our co-director, Sami Cline, yesterday. Side note: The Grandview Grind makes their coffee very strong. It’s good. But very strong. End of side note. One of the things we specifically talked about was what I wanted my role to be in rehearsals. I said that I don’t want to be a “crutch” for the actors. I don’t want them to defer to me in making decisions about character choices. It’s easy to assume that we playwrights “have all the answers,” I know that I don’t. Hell, when I read one of my plays, I often say, “Who wrote that? Did I write that?” Joe as the director of the reading will have final say on blocking and interpretations being made. There has to be trust. I trust that Joe has the play’s best interests at heart. I trust that Joe wants the reading to be kick ass as much as I do. So, here’s what we decided: I’m going to attend all the rehearsals (I’m greedy), but am going to be a silent partner (my choice). I won’t talk to the actors directly; I’ll go through Joe, that way we are of one mind and the actors aren’t hearing one thing from Joe and something different from me. However, we're having a rehearsal, very informal, with the actors just reading the play. There won't be "table work," it will be my first time hearing the play out loud in its entirety. The actors can ask me questions that come up after the reading, but I’m probably not going to answer them. I’m going to write them down and see if ideas float to the surface and if I need to make changes to the script before we begin rehearsals in earnest.
These are the two roles I’m playing over the next couple of months, and I’m damn excited for both experiences. How about you, my fellow theatre-makers? What has been the role of the playwright in your rehearsal experiences? Similar? Different?
Be excellent to each other.
We recently had auditions for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges at CATCO. One of the scenes we had chosen as a side was a scene that included all 3 characters in a climactic argument. Julia, Dane, Betsy all in full force. It seemed like one of the best scenes to get an idea of character dynamics, but then I realized something… During the first run of the scene, I noticed that Julia had no more lines after the first third of the scene! It felt like a mistake at first, but it turned out to be exactly what was needed. It helped us see and not just hear Julia.
Not only were there no lines for Julia, there were no stage directions in the scene. AT ALL. I don’t write too many stage directions in my plays. I want them to be minimal and necessary. I want them to show behavior and not interpretation. I try to allow for collaboration with the actors and director. If I don’t open the play to them, how can it really be a collaboration? I’ve seen a lot of playwrights try to direct the play through their stage directions, putting in every possible thing to make sure their “ original vision” is crystal clear. I used to think that way; I used to write that way. I used to put parentheticals for tons of lines, insisting an interpretation on an actor.
That’s not to say that I don’t use parenthetical descriptions of line intentions, but they have to be necessary. Sometimes it’s not clear if a line is said by the character as a joke or is supposed to be sarcastic (Because it's so hard to tell if someone's being sarcastic in written text). The distinction between something being said seriously or sarcastically can change the meaning of a single line and could alter the course of a play entirely. There is one line in Books & Bridges in particular that I had to make sure the actors and director knew it was said as a joke or else it had the possibility that they and audience could make the wrong assumptions.
Back to the auditions. There were 3 actresses we were considering for the role of Julia and, honestly, we could have cast any of them and had a great Julia. With Julia having no lines and with no stage directions to dictate action, each actor had to make specific choices. What is Julia doing? How is she interacting with each character? Each choice she makes in movement, stage position creates a new interpretation of her relationships with the other characters.
One actress continually stood between Dane and Betsy, trying to get Dane to stop talking. Another stood behind Dane, staring down Betsy. Another removed herself from the situation almost entirely. These were not the sole choices each actress made; all three continually tried new things based on who their Danes or Betsys were and what choices Dane and Betsy made. It proved to me that the actors have such power and can reveal parts of characters that I hadn’t considered. This was the first time I had heard this particular scene out loud, and it continually shifted in meaning each time a different trio stepped onstage. When one actress turned on Dane and put her hand up to shut him up, the wheels in my head started spinning. Is Julia turning on Dane? What does it mean that she’s siding with Betsy in this moment? When the actress stood behind Dane, it shifted the play entirely. When Julia stepped away from the fight and sat on the edge of the stage, completely distant and removed from Dane and Betsy as their fight continued, there was a massive light that switched on. All three felt right. As Sam Mendes said, "There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.”
I was so impressed with all the performances and with all the choices the 3 Julia’s made. I’m glad that I had given them the space to make choices and find new moments each and every time they went through the scene. Now, I have to revisit my new play in progress (Woman Studies) and make sure I’ve given the same space for the actors to inhabit.
How about you? What do your stage directions sound/look like? Do they come from character decisions? Are they necessary? Are they essential? Do they show behavior? Do they give clues or do they solve the mysteries?
As always, have fun, fellow theatre-makers. Be excellent to each other.