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Archive for December, 2008

Today’s rehearsal just ended–the cast was staging and then working through Act V, the play’s manic, creepy, hilarious climax.  The actors, to my eye, seem a bit desperate, a bit terrified of the whirlpool Ibsen’s created; they’re holding on for dear life.  The staging moved very quickly–Charlie has a a clearer and more complete list of specific images he wants to see than I’ve ever known him to bring into initial blocking.  This is actually not that comforting to actors in the process of creating behavior for characters in extreme emotional distress.  Today, the cast mostly expressed a desire to slow down and work through the logic, and sometimes they got pretty frustrated.

From what Charlie’s told me about his intentions for this process, that’s precisely where he wants them.  As ever, he’s reluctant to hand out moment-by-moment logic, always preferring to help the cast to find it themselves.  This usually leads to satisfyingly surprising individual stories.  But on this one he’s taken that notion quite far, attempting to zoom past knots of confusing cause-and-effect, leaping from picture to picture, trusting that there will be future rehearsal hours to clarify and redefine the moments.

This goes back to something he said at First Rehearsal, past the point where my last entry ended.  I intended to give you another semi-verbatim chunk of his remarks, but after observing today’s rehearsal, I think it’s more useful to contextualize it in today’s work instead.  What he told the cast was, “Unlike [for instance] Titus Andronicus, where the process was about figuring out what the hell that story is and how best to tell it, I know exactly what The Wild Duck is.  I’ve worked on it, I’ve seen it done exquisitely.  So for me, unlike any other rehearsal process I’ve directed, I’m going to be starting with very clear ideas.  And I need you to push me to take it to the next place.  The last thing I want is to just do a warmed-over version of Lucian’s production.  This is ours, and we need to be rigorous about challenging the first idea.”

So what he’s doing now, I think, is laying out that first draft, putting all his favorite Lucian images and his already-congealed understanding of the story on the table, for the cast and himself to then take up, shake, break open, rebuild, discard, replace.

This play is difficult.  The laughable absurdity of the situation is horribly tinged with the pathetic, human scrambling of the characters.  Empathy and revulsion form a wholly new sort of audience-actor relation as their notes are plucked together.  Today, it was exhausting to watch, even for half an hour, the actors running around holding up lines and stories and props and jackknife emotional transitions like plates on sticks.  I suspect that when it’s up, it’ll still be exhausting to watch, but for much more satisfying reasons.

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It’s First Rehearsal again.  This one, The Wild Duck, is the show I’ve been waiting for since last February.  The cast is outrageous — they’ve all worked at Court before, in some of our best shows (Hamlet, The Glass Menagerie, Carousel, Titus Andronicus).  Jay Whittaker is back in town!  It’s a smaller group than the Caroline cast (11 instead of 18), which was the last of these big rehearsal-room gatherings we had.  The table feels sort of empty by comparison.  We’re missing two actors today, so I’ll be reading the part of Old Werle (for John Rieger, oh my god) — two angry scenes opposite Jay, whose work as Tom in Menagerie was basically mind-blowing to my fresh-out-of-college aesthetic.  I’m pretty nervous.

Charlie’s introduction, paraphrased (I had to take longhand notes on the back of my script instead of the usual furious typing):

“My journey with The Wild Duck began when I moved to Washington, DC after college, to apprentice at Arena Stage.  This was 1984.  They were bringing in Lucian Pintilie, a Romanian director, to remount his famous Paris production of this play with an American cast, and I was asked to assist him.  This was a major formative experience — it changed my DNA as a director, partly because of Ibsen’s play, but mostly because of Lucian.  The doors he opened for me in two areas of the director’s craft were essential to all the work I’ve done since, and I’m still exploring them.  The first revelation was of a director’s clear, powerful, dangerous vision for a play.  Lucian’s images were profound and provocative, and his confidence in them was unshakeable.  His approach to the text was rigorous and extremely intelligent — he took nothing for granted.  The version we used was his own adaptation, which pointed up the ridiculousness, the outrageous comic potential of these characters, as well as his own strong political point of view.  The second of Lucian’s revelations was of actor process; the size of passion and gesture that actors are capable of while still maintaining the rigor of craft and storytelling.  All of you have worked with me before, and you don’t know it but whenever I speak about acting, or the process of creating a role, I’m quoting Lucian.

“Three years after that Arena production, which was a legendary moment for those who saw it, I was assisting the late, great Garland Wright at the Guthrie.  And because I had worked on the DC production, I worked on Garland, who was wary of big personalities like Lucian — perhaps because his own left little room for another! — to bring The Wild Duck to the Guthrie.  So I got to assist Lucian again, to bring this profound production to another audience, and again the people who saw that show still talk about the effect it had on them.

“Like the film Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano which transformed how I understand Chekhov, Lucian’s Wild Duck made me see Ibsen in a completely new way.  Ibsen is alive and present for me, his judgments and insights inform my world because the heights of Lucian’s staging and his direction of the actors were unforgettable.  I wrote down every word he said through those two rehearsal processes, and for years I thought, I can’t do The Wild Duck because I’ll only want to do what Lucian did.  But now it’s 23 years later and I came back to the text and thought, now’s the time.  I’m ready now — but I’ve gotta get the A-team to do this with me.

“This process is going to be different from the others we’ve done together.  In part that’s because I know this play better — I know exactly what it is, inside and out.  And so I need to push myself, and you need to push me, to move past the answers I’ve already got.  It’s not like Titus, where the point was that I had to discover the mechanics of that play along with you.  I want to start from answers and push past them to new questions, harder questions.  I’m not going to be thinking about “Does Kevin like me today?” or how to keep you feeling safe and comfortable — we need to live at a place of discomfort, so that we don’t just rely on knowing where we’re headed.  If that makes you nervous, that’s good.  I’m scared.  This one needs to be scary.  The piece demands that we be more than we are right now.”

More to come…

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