December 16, 2010

Comedy of Errors: Staging Rehearsals

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:15 pm

At the end of each rehearsal we have a little pow-wow lasting about a half hour to 45 minutes (if we’re lucky!) with the rather many people who are in the room, behind the tables each day.

There’s me and Meaghan, Ian our director, our two Jesse’s, both assistant-directorial types, who, in the style of our show, we have taken to referring to as Jesse of New York and Jesse of Los Angeles (and our two Elizabeths as Elizabeth of New York and Elizabeth of Minneapolis). Jesse of New York is our Staff Director, who maintains the show on the road, and Jesse of Los Angeles a former company member and budding director. Andrew Wade, our voice and text consultant, is also there, as well as Allie, the Guthrie’s Literary Intern, who assists our dramaturg and is in the room with us almost all the time.

At this meeting we talk about how the day went, and what we hope to accomplish the following day. We make the next day’s rehearsal schedule, including any costume and wig fittings that have been requested, and go down our respective lists of notes for the report and anything else we need to bring up with each other. Then I send the report, Meaghan and I publish and print our respective schedules (she handles the Guthrie format for the stage door), and we go home.

Tonight after this meeting, as Meaghan and I were walking out the door, Ian mentioned that there was one more thing he had been meaning to discuss with me, namely, “What has happened to your blog?”

Indeed, I haven’t been blogging nearly enough in proportion to the exciting things I should be talking about. Apparently when Ian recently spoke to a class of the Guthrie’s BFA students, it was mentioned by a student as a good source of information about the tour, lending further embarrassment to my lack of posting. The truth is I’ve been gathering material for an epic post about our rehearsal process, and then, well, we had a day off and I got lazy.

So without further ado, here’s what’s been going on, up to Day 9 of rehearsal (you can already read about Day 1.)

The big news is that by tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, we should have staged the play, maybe even run it. This play is a very different experience for me in my time with the company, because it’s short and has relatively few scenes (only 11). It’s estimated to be about 90 minutes with no intermission, so the rehearsal process has felt much more productive because we can focus in on things more at length without worrying about staging three hours’ worth of text. We only do about two scenes a day, which on paper looks slow, but without the pressure of having to cover 30 scenes, we’re able to spend much more time refining what we work on, taking chances, and changing our minds.

The Set

The biggest boost to our productivity is that we have most of our set in the rehearsal room. And now I have pictures.

The basic element of the set is three sets of full-stage silk curtains which are suspended across the stage at varying heights between two towers. Black aircraft cable is strung between the towers and the curtains ride on them basically in the manner of a shower curtain. The engineering of this has been a huge ordeal for months — we can’t assume a theatre has a fly system, so the curtains must be supported from the ground, but then how do you counterweight a 30-foot-long expanse of cable with huge curtains hanging from it, without the towers being pulled over?

The answer: water. We thought we’d be carrying literally tons of counterweights on the truck, much to everyone’s dismay. What we ended up with is six large Pelican cases, which are watertight. When filled with water they weigh about 200 pounds each, and have wheels and handles for easy movement. The truss attached to the offstage side of the towers gets progressively longer the taller the tower is, allowing that 200lb box at the end to balance the load. I’m really glad it’s not my job to figure that kind of stuff out (I wanted to be a director, I thought my career would involve no math), but it works.

This view is offstage looking upstage-right. Because our rehearsal room is not as wide as the stage, the third tower is constructed a little differently. That piece joining the 2nd and 3rd towers is actually the extension of the 3rd tower’s leg that will run straight offstage when there’s more room. As you can see, there’s not a lot of offstage space here, but our cast has very quickly gotten adept at stepping between the bars and under the cables without jostling anything, which bodes very well for backstage life in tech and on the road.

Trying to stage this show without the curtains would have been nearly impossible, so I’m very grateful (as I’m sure the actors and the creative team are also) both to the money people and the technical people who have made it possible for us to have our actual set to play with for our entire rehearsal process. During the final week in the studio, once the scenic load-in begins, obviously the set has to go upstairs, but by then we’ll have had plenty of time to learn how it will be used and can mark it.

The other element we have in the room is the metal contraption shown upstage in the first photo, which in great understatement, is called simply “the ladder.” The platform is eight-and-a-half feet high (incidentally the exact same height as the balcony in R&J, which gives us a handy point of reference for how tall it will feel on stage), made of steel and wood, on locking castors. Much like our platform in R&J, named Fred, the unit has so much inertia and the castors are so solid, that it never needs to be braked, which is a great advantage, though it’s nice to have the option. The platform at the top is large enough for some furniture, and the inner triangle underneath provides an interesting space to duck in and out of. The height of the railings means it can only travel under the yellow curtain, but we haven’t felt the need to cut it down. It’s actually really cool how it can hide behind the yellow or white curtains for different effects. It was very imposing on the first day it arrived, but we have found it to be effective in many scenes, and the actors took to it right away and began experimenting with ways to use it. From a technical perspective, my experience has been that it’s a solid and well-built piece of work, constructed right here by the Guthrie’s prop shop.

So so far, all of our potentially problematic scenery is working great, and here we are on Day 9 using all of it. The only other scenic elements are an upstage wall with double doors at the center, and a painted deck with an apron extension, made to look like a tile floor. As far as props we also have three luggage trunks of varying sizes (built from scratch to be stood on, opened, and rolled by picking up from either end, so they’re very versatile), and a number of chairs, tables and hand props that appear in the room as we find the need to request them. We’ve been very well-supported on this show, and it’s been enormously helpful, since so much of the discovery of the staging and the comedy is born out of interacting with the set and the props. We even have a dimmable lighting instrument in the room to work on a particular scene that heavily relies on shadows made behind the curtains. Consider me a happy stage manager.


As far as everything else going on, we’re done with costume fittings until tech. We have a few wig fittings here and there, and are adding a beard for Ageon, which he just had a consultation for the other day. Nothing gives me stress more than trying to work fittings into a rehearsal schedule, so despite the fact that I wanted to kill myself in New York when trying to schedule fittings for two shows around a rehearsal schedule, I’m glad it’s been very low-key here.

The shoes went to be rubbered today. We don’t have a wardrobe person in Minneapolis, so this has become a stage management problem, which earned a name. Scenic people like to name particularly problematic pieces of scenery (R&J has Fred the platform, and Betsy (a wall), and then there’s Wall 3B, which we call by its proper name, but affixed a photo of fossilized dinosaur dung to, to make our feelings about it known). Anyway, much like this, when a project starts to become disproportionately difficult, I give it an official name. This one has been known as Project Rubber. I received word this morning: “Project: Rubber: Part One: The Reckoning (aka There but for the Grace of God) is complete.” So that’s off my plate.

We’ve rescheduled our weekly grocery runs around our somewhat brutal Christmas schedule. This is always an issue, because we rearrange the days off to give us both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, followed by New Year’s Day. That’s great, but it means we work ten days straight. Also our only days off for two weeks are national holidays, and no one wants to go grocery shopping (or drive us to the grocery store!) on those days, so we have to work the grocery runs into our rehearsal days. This year it’s infinitely easier because we’re doing 6-hour days, starting at 9:30 (to the chagrin of some), so we’re done for the day at 3:30 with time for groceries remaining. But it’s something I always have to work out with the Associate Company Manager, and I’m glad it’s out of the way and less of a pain for all involved than it usually is.

Straight 6’s

I just wanna talk about straight 6’s. For those not down with the lingo, a “straight 6” is a kind of rehearsal day allowed by a vote of a 3/4 majority of an Equity cast wherein you’re called for six hours, and instead of a real lunch break you make one of your breaks 20 minutes. And then you’re done. Unless you’re really far from food and/or have no fridge or microwave available, it’s a pretty awesome way to work. Usually the resistance comes more from directors, who do lose an hour or more of each rehearsal day by doing it that way, depending on the contract. But especially in a case like this where we’re rehearsing a comedy that requires the actors to be inventive and spontaneous, sometimes you get more work out of people in 6 good hours than in keeping them around the building for a 9 or 10-hour day.

A lot of it is just psychological. Here in the dead of winter where it’s dark before 5:00, it feels really good to be done for the day at 3:30. Not to mention that every day kind of feels like a day off in a way, because there’s still so many hours left to do shopping, watch TV or be productive in other ways. I have only very rarely gotten to do shows where the straight 6 was the status quo, and I’m totally in love. I was telling Meaghan the other day, I’ve done about 60 shows, and I think this is the 2nd or 3rd that has done so. It’s not appropriate in many cases (musicals especially), but when it is, it’s wonderful.

In fact, last year after the first preview of R&J at the Guthrie, I was having a drink with Ian when he first started trying to sell me on the 2010-2011 tour. All I remember about what he said was, “and when we’re doing Comedy at the Guthrie I want to do straight sixes.” I don’t think I heard anything after that, because I was penciling in “2010-2011 Acting Company Tour” from September 2010 to April 2011 in my mental calendar. Honestly, that was a huge mark in favor of doing the tour this year, and it has been everything I dreamed it would be. What should be the most stressful month of this job has been really nice — partially because things are truly running more smoothly than they ever have — but in large part because I don’t feel like I spend every useful hour of my day locked up in rehearsal.

I think it’s really important as a stage manager to stay attuned to your own sanity. I have learned that there are certain things that seem minor but greatly contribute to my sanity. The length of my commute is one. Length of the rehearsal day is another — they’re kind of related, they both ultimately determine how much free time I have. And I have learned in touring that the added expense of having my own hotel room is more than made up for in the reduction of stress it provides. These are just things to consider when weighing the pros and cons of a job, and not to be underestimated.

In summary

That’s what’s been going on this week. I think I’ve covered enough that I can show my face in rehearsal tomorrow morning. Next week we start fight rehearsals — this show isn’t as traditionally fight-heavy as R&J but our good friend Felix Ivanoff will be back to lend his insight to the various beatings and physical comedy throughout the play, which I’m sure will be lots of fun.

And as always happens, Christmas will distract us and then all of a sudden OMG we’re loading in, we’re doing designer run-throughs, and the next thing we know we’re on stage. But things seem to be on track and I’m excited to get to the next stage of the process. I can see a clear path ahead to bring this thing upstairs and show it to many thousands of people, and then for our truck and our rockstar buses to show up in the parking lot and take us to Brainerd and onward.