December 14, 2009

The Friar Laurence of Stage Management

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:16 am

One of my favorite parts of the process is table work. This is where we sit around and read the play several times, while discussing anything that comes to mind about the text, character development, the meaning of the language, and plot points. It was during this time that I found the one character that truly speaks to me.

About Friar Laurence

One of the things we explored during table work for Romeo and Juliet is the arc of the supporting character of Friar Laurence. He is the confidante of both Romeo and Juliet, and throughout the play spends pretty much all his time trying to untangle the complications that prevent R&J from being able to happily marry, publicly declare their love, call off Juliet’s wedding to the eligible young nobleman to whom she has been betrothed, and end the ancient feud that has been dividing their families and disrupting the entire city of Verona with violence. With skills in spiritual matters, politics, and botany, the friar actually does a remarkable job of getting the young lovers out of some difficult situations.

So why do R&J, and a bunch of other people, end up dead after all?

Well it seems that every time Friar Laurence comes up with a brilliant plan to fix everything, fate intervenes to screw it all up again, usually worse than it was before. It was determined that the subtext of this situation is that every time this happens, Friar Laurence should say, Will Ferrell style, “SON OF A BITCH!!”

Let us examine:

Romeo comes to him with girl problems: he’s in love with Juliet, but their parents are not going to be happy. So the Friar sees this as an opportunity to fix everything by marrying them in secret, at which point they can consummate the marriage and it will be too late for the families to object, and suddenly they will all be in-laws and the feud will be over. Right?

So far, so good. They just need a few hours for the marriage to be consummated. And somehow, on his way home from the secret wedding, Romeo manages to kill Juliet’s cousin, which makes him a less-than-ideal son-in-law for the Capulets, and gets him banished from Verona. Oops. Problem #2. SON OF A BITCH!

No problem, Friar Laurence is on it. He hides Romeo at his cell, and in cahoots with Juliet’s nurse, arranges for Romeo to sneak into Juliet’s bedroom at night to say goodbye until they have time to explain everything and get Romeo’s name cleared.

So they say goodbye, and after Romeo leaves, Juliet is upset. Like really upset. Mom and Dad of course don’t understand why, so they’re like, “Hey, you know what’ll make you feel better? We’ve arranged for you to marry this guy Paris — two days from now!” SON OF A BITCH!!

So now there’s a very short timetable for the Friar to solve this problem, or else Juliet will be married to Paris, which is not only bad cause she doesn’t love him, but also a personal problem for the Friar because Juliet is already secretly married to Romeo, and for the Friar to knowingly marry her to two guys presents a serious religious dilemma. Oh, and on top of that, Juliet is holding a knife to her breast and threatening to kill herself if she has to go through with the second wedding.

But again, the Friar knows just what to do. He’s got a sleeping potion that Juliet can take on the night before the wedding, that will make her appear dead just long enough for her to be interred in her family tomb, after which point Romeo can bust her out and sneak her out of town. It seems like just sneaking her out of town awake would be easier, but I guess he likes the elegance of also convincing everyone that she’s dead so nobody bothers looking for her. The craziest thing about this plan is that it WORKS! Even when the wedding is moved up by a day (mini-son-of-a-bitch!), Juliet has the potion ready to go.

Woohoo! Good job, Friar Laurence! That one was really impressive. He’s covered all his bases here. He sends another Friar with a letter to Romeo explaining the whole plan, so that Romeo doesn’t freak out and think she’s actually dead, and will know to come to the tomb to rescue her. Except that Friar John gets delayed and doesn’t quite grasp the urgency of the letter, so it never gets delivered. And the whole wedding/death thing happens a day earlier than it was supposed to. SON OF A BITCH!!!

But it’s OK, the Friar will just have to get to the tomb in time to wake Juliet up and then they can wait for Romeo and fill him in.

Meanwhile, Romeo’s friend Benvolio thinks he’s doing a big favor by rushing to Mantua with the news that Juliet’s dead. So together they hire some fast horses and go immediately to the tomb so that Romeo can kill himself over Juliet’s not-really-dead body. SON OF A BITCH!!!!

But Juliet herself is still alive, and Friar Laurence tries to help her out to become a nun, until she finds out that Romeo’s dead, at which point she stabs herself. SON OF A BITCH!!!!!!

So as you can see, what we have here are a number of people who are all trying to do the right thing, and all do quite well at compensating for the obstacles in their way, but through a series of misfortunes outside their control, still manage to get totally screwed by fate.

Now About Me

It occurred to me this past week, as I was trying to schedule conference calls, that I am the Friar Laurence of stage management. My whole job is to solve people’s problems. And honestly I think I’ve been doing a nice job of it, but just when some extremely complicated situation has been perfectly arranged, something happens to ruin it all, and now I have a new problem to solve, and usually less time in which to do it. So I have taken some comfort in the shared plight of Friar Laurence, and the knowledge that even if some people can’t make the production meeting, or the rehearsal shoes arrive a day late, at least it’s highly unlikely that all my actors will wind up dead before opening night. And really, there’s a lesson in that for all of us — sometimes no amount of preparation can save you from pure bad luck. And in most cases, no matter how frustrating your day has been, Friar Laurence is having a worse day.

Rehearsal Update

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 12:13 am

I know I haven’t blogged much this week. Believe me, with the Guthrie’s most famous blogger sitting next to me 8 hours a day, I get reminded when I’m slacking.

The Meet & Greet

This week we began with our Meet & Greet. Traditionally this would be done on the first day, but it was postponed to allow for a date when the artistic directors of the Guthrie and The Acting Company — Joe Dowling and Margot Harley — could both be present to speak at the ceremonial beginning of the rehearsal process. They both spoke of the great collaboration between the two companies that was started with last year’s Henry V, and how they were looking forward to keeping up the partnership with this production and others to come. Joe introduced our actors individually, who stood for applause from those Guthrie staff members gathered. They then introduced our director, Penny Metropulos, who introduced the production team (myself, Nick, our choreographer Marcela Lorca, and our voice and text consultants, Andrew Wade and Sara Phillips). Penny gave a basic overview of the concept for the show, the set and costume design, and the period the show is set in (roughly 1912), and why these choices were made. She gave a very moving talk about why the show is important and timeless to audiences.

Week Sort-Of-1 (Staging)

Once these festivities were done, we took a five, and crossed the doorway back into our usual rehearsal room, where we began staging from the top of the show. Now that the week is over, we are staged up to the first part of Act V, Scene 1 (Benvolio comes to tell Romeo that Juliet is “dead”). I think it would be safe to say we are about 4/5ths of the way through the show. We also spent the end of today’s rehearsal doing a stumble-through of Part I (i.e. the part of the show before intermission). We have also run other large chunks of the show, which provides a good perspective on how the whole thing fits together. There is still much that needs to be worked in more detail, so we are far from done, but we have a solid structure after little more than a week. Our cast is off book for a surprising amount of the show, and I think we’re all pretty pleased with how much we’ve accomplished so far.

Outside of Rehearsal Room 2, we have had costume measurements, some costume fittings, and a consultation for facial hair provided by the Guthrie’s hair department. Next week we have more fittings, and we begin sessions with our actors and voice/text consultants, where they will get one-on-one work on the text.

Outside of rehearsal hours, we had two conference calls this week. Navigating the schedules of about 20 people in three time zones, and trying to get all of them in the presence of a telephone at the same time has had my head close to exploding for much of the week, but we managed to get a lot hashed out. We had a small call on Wednesday between our set designer, lighting designer, director, staff director, and stage management team. Our designers (one in New York, one in San Francisco) only had 15 minutes each before they had to go to appointments for other shows they’re doing, so we very quickly went through the most pressing questions — new dimensions for our infamous platform (named Fred), and clarification of how the masking allows traffic on and off stage, and access behind the set. Our real production meeting involved a larger selection of Guthrie and Acting Company staff, where we checked in on a number of issues, and I accomplished my main goal of getting everyone to agree to a schedule for the actors’ call times for tech/preview week.

The Database

In technology news, our stage management database has really come into its own this week. I know I always talk about it and never actually explain it in depth. It’s still very much in development so the idea of stopping to blog in depth about it always seems premature. Features get added to it sometimes in the middle of rehearsal when the need for them is discovered.

With Nick and I on the same network, I open the FileMaker file on my computer, and create a local server. Nick opens FileMaker and loads the file that my computer is serving, so we’re both working on the same copy of the database. As long as we’re not trying to work on the same record simultaneously, we can each make independent changes at the same time, which has proven to be very helpful.

The database has a lot of different parts, but the one we’re using most in the context of blocking rehearsals is what I call “tracking.” It’s a chronological log of basically everything that happens in the show: entrances, exits, prop moves, sound cues, costume changes, etc. Initially, it was just filled with entrances and exits based on what is indicated in the script. As we have been rehearsing, that gets filled out and altered to reflect the actual staging, as well as provided with details like where a character enters from. Nick, like most ASMs, is in charge of props, so he primarily deals with adding props to the tracking sheet, as well as to a related sheet which is more for the purposes of prop shopping — it notes whether we have the prop (a rehearsal version, the final show version, something that might become the show version, or none at all), and if we have it, where it came from (so we know who it belongs to when we’re done with it), as well as any design notes, and the date the prop was added to the show (that part came from my good friend Josh, who likes recording dates, and helped me develop and test this part of the database while working on Inventing Avi Off-Broadway this fall).

So since I’m taking blocking, and Nick is tracking props, a lot of the time I fill in the entries related to entrances and exits, and he fills in the props. But sometimes one of us is busy working on something else, so we cross over a lot. And sometimes we neglect to whisper to each other “I got that,” and then we both create a record for the same thing, or both try to edit the same record. But it’s really cool to see the tracking table get filled out by both of us at once.

My favorite part of the database right now is a new one, that didn’t exist at all during Avi: the daily schedule and rehearsal report. The daily schedule has some fun features that inform you of conflicts for the date in question, does some basic math to stop you from breaking the basic Equity rules, and allows for the construction of a work list for the day that then automatically is added to the rehearsal report. The report is basically a bunch of text boxes, but it tells me with color if I’ve left something blank that can’t be left blank, or if I’ve marked it with my customary “(?)” sign, indicating that I need to come back and review something.

The true beauty of the report is what happens after it’s done: I press one button, labled “email,” and it creates a PDF of the rehearsal report, attached to an email addressed to the distribution list (determined by a checkbox on each person’s contact file). It also includes in the body of the email a plain text version of the report — not an exact copy of what’s in the PDF, but a bunch of code that includes exactly what I want, in the format I want. At the same time it creates a PDF of the daily schedule, and a plain text version, addressed to the cast. Filemaker could send these emails with no interaction if I wanted it to, but I prefer to use this opportunity to proof them before hitting “send.” The new little trick I added a few days ago reminds me to update the company Google calendar with the upcoming day’s schedule. It doesn’t do anything automatically, it just prevents me from forgetting by opening Safari to the calendar address. So far I’ve had that step in the script for two days, and both times I would have otherwise forgotten, so I’m very excited about that feature!

Moving On

The rehearsal process is interesting, but I also can’t wait to get to tech. I find rehearsal far more stressful, especially in this coast-to-coast environment. With the parties all spread out, I have to be the switchboard for everyone else on the production, making sure that everyone is in possession of all the knowledge they should have. That’s true in any production, but it’s easier when everyone is in one building, one city, or one time zone. Once we get to tech, we start to have more of the people we need on the scene in real time. We won’t have everyone in Minneapolis with us at once, but the collaboration becomes more and more in-person, until finally the show is frozen and we, the traveling company, will have everything and everyone we need to make the show happen each night, wherever we go. I am excited for all aspects of the process, but I’m trying not to get too much ahead of myself. First we still have a bit of staging and a couple more weeks of exploration to get through!