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Archive for August, 2008

Rob Lindley, actor playing Stuart Gellman:

“My father is a clarinet” says Noah about my character Stuart Gellman, based on Tony Kushner’s own father, Bill, who was a concert clarinetist. Stuart is often in a practice room playing the clarinet and brings his clarinet with him to the family Channukah party. The clarinet is one of the ways my character expresses himself.

I wish you could all be in the rehearsal hall right now. All of the actors are on a 20-minute break and musical director Doug Peck and our clarinet player Adam DeGroot are going through the music for the big Channukah Party in CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. The music is just thrilling!

I played the saxophone all through school, so when I was cast as a woodwind player I thought, “perfect – maybe I can play some of Stuart’s clarinet licks.” I soon discovered that it wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as I thought! But I have been meeting with Adam (for my clarinet lessons) so that we can perform the long clarinet solos (every thing from traditional Jewish Klezmer music to a Mozart concerto) as a unit. I am planning on videotaping Adam playing so that I can do my best to replicate the fingering of the solos and know when Adam is going to take a breath so that we can truly be in sync. Think of Glenn Close lip syncing to Kiri Te Kanawa in “Meeting Venus” – or something like that.

This is definitely one of those special shows that makes me feel like I’m sitting on a big secret that I can’t wait for other people to see. The rehearsals are breathtaking. I can hardly wait to see what the actual performances will be like.

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Doug Peck
August 23, 2008

Hello from Doug Peck, music director of Caroline, or Change.  This is my seventh show at Court (James Joyce’s The Dead revival, Guys and Dolls, The Importance of Being Earnest, Man of La Mancha, Raisin, Carousel), and it gets better and richer and more fulfilling every time.  Collaborating with Charlie and the amazing casts we always manage to assemble is the highlight of my year.

We’re just about to finish the second week of rehearsal, and it’s going very well.  Because of the difficulty of the music, we have really taken our time learning the score.  For those readers that don’t do musical theatre for a living (that means you, Jack Tamburri), you usually get less than a full day to learn the music and then off you go into staging.  However, in assembling Caroline, we spent a full day just reading the lyrics out loud, two full days discussing all of composer Jeanine Tesori’s musical markings, and then three full days actually learning the twelve complex scenes.  Now, as we stage each scene (we finish scene six tomorrow), we review music at the start of each day.  I’m so proud of the cast as they are patient with themselves.  I started several rehearsals saying “No one here is dumb, no one here is untalented” just so no one felt defeated by the high level of musical difficulty.

I’m thrilled we were able to take this time (many theaters have much shorter rehearsal processes than Court), because it means we are not only going to perform the score accurately, but we are taking the time to figure out WHY Tesori and Tony Kushner made these compositional choices.  For example, if the score says we should get softer and faster, we’re not just executing it, we’re discovering the character and story-telling reasons to do so.  I’m proud of Charlie on his journey in directing musicals, because his eyes and ears have become very sensitive to these kinds of things and it’s wonderful how he reflects them in the staging and character work.

It goes without saying that being back in the room with E Faye Butler is a thrill.  We’ve done two Court galas together, as well as Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Seussical.  One of the things I love about Chicago theatre is the diversity of roles our actors get to tackle.  I don’t think you’d ever see Tonya Pinkins as the Cat in the Hat or Cathy Rigby as Caroline Thibodeaux!  The great thing about tackling a score this intricate with an actor this wonderful is that you really feel like you are working together, discovering each nuance and dynamic.  As E Faye memorizes the material and gets the pages out of her hands, she is amazing to watch.  Her Caroline is already fascinating and deep (and amazingly sung).

One musical highlight is the quartet in scene eight between Melanie Brezill (Caroline’s daughter Emmie), Rob Lindley (young Noah’s widower father Stuart), Harriet Nzinga Plumpp (the omniscient moon), and Kate Fry (Stuart’s new wife).  It is a perfect blend of pop and Jewish and classical styles of music, and the four singers work so well together.  Dennis Kelly, our Mister Stopnick, commented that it’s refreshing to hear young singers sing in the center of the pitch.  I would add that, beyond the perfect singing, they’re all working together so beautifully, following every dynamic in Tesori’s music and every twist in Kushner’s words.

Tomorrow we finish staging scene six, working with our terrific young performers Malcolm, Jack, Donavan, Micah, and Greg as well as Harriet, Melanie, and E Faye.  We’re working toward a work through of Act One on Sunday, which will be very exciting.

Thanks to Jack and everyone at the Court for setting up this blog, so those of us involved with the production can share our excitement about this production.

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Charlie Newell, addressing the cast of Caroline, Or Change at First Rehearsal:

‘Welcome, everyone!  The start of the season is always a peculiarly exciting time, and this year is my 15th at Court Theatre.  It feels to me like it really took us 15 years to get to this room with this cast doing this show.  Everything happens in its time.  I can’t imagine a more appropriate show to open our season.

Caroline, Or Change is the largest single production that Court Theatre has ever attempted.  We tried to do it in the past, we tried to figure out when and how, and only now have the stars aligned to make it possible.  Don’t do Hamlet unless you know who’s gonna play Hamlet.  With Miss E. Faye Butler we have our Caroline.  The first time I ever worked with E. Faye I put her on roller skates and threw ping-pong balls at her.  (E. Faye: “I thought you were insane.  But I did it.”)  When E. Faye and I worked together on Little Foxes we found that her character turned out to be the heart and soul of that entire production.

‘When we knew we were ready to do Caroline, we got an email from Tony Kushner, saying, essentially, “I’m so glad it’s finally happening in Chicago and I’m especially glad it’s gonna be at Court Theatre.  Can I do anything to help?”  Now, I mostly deal with dead playwrights.  And we talk all the time, but not like this.  I called Tony and he gave me incredibly helpful advice, insights, thoughts about how the piece developed, what’s happened to it—it’s been all over the world.  He’s seen many other productions besides the original Broadway that George Wolfe directed.  I have not seen any productions of this piece.  Actors and musicians will hear from Tony throughout rehearsal, as I took detailed notes during that conversation.  For today’s chat I want to share the following:  Tony wrote this story out with no caps, no punctuation, single spaced; 12 scenes with an epilogue, and he handed it to Jeanine Tesori.  She went away and she composed the first draft.  Tony characterized his relationship with Jeanine as “psychotic admiration.”  She took his autobiographical story, this incredible text that he wrote out, and she created this completely sung-through story with music.  Doug and I are only beginning to understand the level and depth of the leitmotifs–there are phrases/ideas/themes/melodies/gestures/words that are established and then return in different ways by multiple people throughout the piece–variations on variations, and the density and complexity, as Tony said, is like Wagner.  It’s the complexity of opera.

‘In a letter he wrote for the London production, Tony says, “I never like to say what a play of mine means or what it’s about.  I certainly don’t write plays to make this or that point.  I began Caroline guided by a sense of loss, both personal and political.”

‘He doesn’t want to talk about what it means, but I’m gonna take a stab at it.

‘So, change.  One of the ways we define ourselves as human beings is through an understanding that change is constant.  We are constantly in a place of change.  Kushner, through his own sense of loss, his own politics, grapples with a very complicated idea about how we humans handle/manage//respond to change.  Most difficult is change you can’t control yourself.  I’m a director, so I’m a control freak.  So I often say, “I love change!  Let’s try something different!  We already did that, we’re gonna do something new!”  But then I encounter change I can’t control; change I have to manage in all my ridiculous stupid humble doubt.  And this piece taps into that in so many complicated ways.  Don’t make any mistake—it ain’t just about Caroline’s managing of change.  It’s about all of the people in this world.  Everybody is dealing with change in profound ways.  Everybody is dealing with profound loss.  Loss is the kind of change you can’t control.  Clearly Kushner & Tesori were interested in creating a musical which, at the eleventh hour everybody doesn’t end happy.  It doesn’t end like a fairy tale.  It’s a very mature, human story that carries you all the way to the end through music.  And we’re taking a risk because people want musicals to do something else.

‘I’m a visual guy, so I look at the score—and it’s dense.  On any given page there’s four things going on at once, just in the vocal lines.  And that density is what excites me.

‘I want to be clear, even as much of this story is catalyzed out of loss, just listen to the music.  It’s an incredible affirmation of human capacity–a celebration (I use that word carefully) of life as we deal with these complicated issues.  That spirit infuses the piece from the top, a celebration of life even as these human beings are managing change.

‘We have a lot of work to do.  We’re gonna have a hell of a good time.  We have an open rehearsal policy, so there will be people around, observing.  And if you come to watch, I’m gonna ask your opinion.  Because we’re always pushing to the next place, making it better, clearer, and more complicated.’

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Tuesday, August 12th, 11:40am

I’m late, as usual.

The parents of the child actors performing in Caroline, Or Change are having a meeting right now, and they’ve all got questions about their kids’ contracts—questions to which I, ostensibly, have answers.

I make it to the rehearsal hall about ten minutes into the meeting—parking was bad, but not as bad as I expected—and Ellen, the Stage Manager, is visibly relieved to see me.  I distribute some contracts and fake my way through explaining some tax paperwork.  I need a work permit that says “Court Theatre”, not your child’s agent—no, not a photocopy, the canary original.  Etc.

In the kitchen, at the same time, the first production meeting is wrapping up.  There are more new faces here than I’ve seen at one of these in a long time, alongside the old standards (Josh Horvath, Doug Peck, Ray our TD).  The ASM, Wendy, is new to Court, and when I arrive the room is in the middle of an involved discussion about scheduling.  I hate this part of the meeting—it always feels like the full compliment of the production team will never be in the same room again (and they’re not this time—John Culbert, scenic designer, is absent).  Wrangling calendars is thankless and brutal, and I tune out the voices.  I slip a paycheck to Sean Blake, actor in Raisin and Carousel who is serving as Movement Consultant (too bad about that title, but his duties fall somewhere between Choreographer and Movement Director, so it’s the most appropriate we could come up with) on this show.  He’s thrilled to get the envelopes, but he’s also visibly nervous—he says he’s been waking up in the middle of the night to make notes about the Radio girls.  After the meeting, he runs out to perform The Producers in Indiana.  I’m glad Sean’s on this show.  I think it’s a great step forward for him, and for his relationship with Charlie and Doug.  As far as I’m concerned, Court Theatre is producing the best musicals in Chicago–any artist with an interest in the form should want to work here.  But then, I hate musicals—I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Carousel premiere.  And yeah, it was the best Carousel I’m ever going to see in my life, but it’s still, y’know, Carousel.

Caroline, Or Change is different, though.  I’ve been playing this CD nonstop in my car and office for two months.  I’ll publish Charlie’s whole first-day schpiel a little later, which describes the importance of the show far more eloquently than I can, but suffice to say that it’s the most interesting and complex musical theater score I’ve ever encountered (yeah, I haven’t heard much Sondheim, yell at me in the comments), and that’s not even considering the characters, the relationships, and the plot, all of which can stand proudly next to the best straight plays in comparisons of depth, novelty, and resonance.

The cast has arrived now—the Equity contingent replaced the parents and kids in the main hall for their super-secret meeting about Deputies and Pensions and God knows what else.  Harriet Plumpp catches my eye as she’s coming out of the bathroom—she’s glad to see a familiar face.  I realize that this show is scary as hell to be in.  But I have absolute faith in Charlie—there isn’t a doubt in my mind that he can handle this show and the massive cast it entails.  That’s why I’m his assistant.  I’ve gotten into fights with good friends, people I trust who have informed opinions, about whether Charlie Newell is hands-down the best director in Chicago (mostly at the bar, after performances of Titus).  To me it seems self-evident.  Maybe I need to leave Hyde Park more often…

Charlie grew a goatee, apparently at his sons’ behest, over the vacation.  Everyone’s responding to it—it’s fun to watch him get treated slightly differently, and how he reacts to the responses to his new face.  He promised a week ago that he was going to lose the new hair soon, but he hasn’t yet.  It’s clear he likes it more than he wants to.  E. Faye Butler likes it too, so my bet is it stays through tech.

I’ve been a little nervous about our student dramaturg—throwing students, even research-friendly U of C students, into the Production Dramaturg role is historically a bad move—but Brittany is on the ball.  The actor packet isn’t printed yet, but I’ve seen a draft and it’s just right—19 pages, each item no longer than 2 paragraphs, tons of pictures.  I think about the one I made for The Glass Menagerie—something like 40-odd pages of interminable text about pleurosis, and demographic information about St. Louis in the 30s.  I remember the day we (the real dramaturg and I, her research assistant) presented the packet.  I could hear the actors’ brains clicking off as they hefted the bound tome with Tennessee Williams’s face and dates staring morbidly from the cover.  Brittany’s gonna be just fine.  She’s asking the Stage Management Intern, another U of C student, to deliver the section of her report about Channukah and Judaism.

It’s 12:47, and this is more people than I’ve ever seen in this room.  We’ve got the cast of 19 (oh my god), rehearsal staff, production staff, admin staff, Board members, donors and guests, and a young director, new to the city, who emailed me out of the blue about watching some rehearsal.  We have an open rehearsal policy at Court Theatre, if you didn’t know that.  If you contact me in advance and you can sit quiet and respectful, you can spend hours out of your day watching professional artists suck all the magic out of a moment of drama, checking every gesture, taking time to ask all the questions that exist, perfecting with the implicit understanding that spontaneity, that crackling energy without which theater is dead and deadly, will return later.  The rehearsal room is my favorite place to be, out of pretty much anywhere.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves.  It takes a while.  Charlie, Doug, Harriet, Jacqueline, Rob, Kate, E. Faye, Byron, Peter, Dennis, Iris, Melanie, Micah, Gregory, Donavan, Jack, Malcolm, Starr, Donika, Ellen, Jon, Wendy, Sara, Marc, Ray, Adam, Jacqueline, Erica, Greta, Hyde Park Bank, Elaine…

Doug is going to be conducting every performance.  He’s got a band of 8, and someone donated a brand new Hammond organ to the theater for Caroline.  It’s Charlie’s 15th season at Court.  This show is like opera.  Designers pitch their wares, then we get down to the reading…

Hi, I’m Jack Tamburri, and this is the first installment of the Court Theatre blog.  It’s also the first in a series of posts about the First Rehearsal of Caroline, Or Change.  Up next is a transcript of Charlie’s introductory speech, then we’ll introduce you to the show’s design elements and take you through the first read-through.  In future weeks, you’ll hear from Music Director/Orchestrator Doug Peck, Director of Production/Theater Curmudgeon Marc Stubblefield, designers, actors, and plenty of me.

I started working at Court Theatre when I was 20, assisting Charlie on his production of Travesties while I was still a student at U of C.  After I graduated I did some time in the box office, hung around Glass Menagerie rehearsals, then moved over to admin where I am now the assistant to both Charlie and Dawn, as well as the front desk, intern coordinator, University liaison, Artistic Associate, sometimes dramaturg, and proto-General Manager.  It’s a fun job.  And now I’m a blogger.

So, we’re going to be posting regularly in this space, sometimes long reports or essays, sometimes just a quote, or a photo set, or a provocative question.  The thing is, we need you to make this work.  If this blog is going to really fly, if it’s going to become a part of the Court Theatre-going experience, we need your comments, your responses, your arguments.  Disagree with something I’ve said?  Tell me why!  I’ll go back and forth with you all day, I promise!  Want to tell the world how much you loved or hated what you just saw at our theater?  Do it here!  The art of theater cannot happen without your presence and active participation, and neither can the art of blogging (do you see what I did there?).

More to come.  What do you think?

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