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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.

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…

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

–Orson Welles

Anne Bogart speaks

Reposted from SITI Co.’s own blog: http://siti.collectivex.com/blog/

“I am writing on election morning in Hyde Park, Chicago, Barack Obama’s very own neighborhood.  We are in tech today, Election Day, for Radio Macbeth at the beautiful Court Theatre on the campus of the University of Chicago.  I am full of thoughts and feelings about the world we inhabit and where we are headed.  How will we function productively in the future, this very particular future we are headed into?  The disorienting sensation of these past weeks is oddly familiar. In the wake of shattering worldwide economic and political events we find a certain silence emerging from what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls “the real.”  Our ship has slammed up against the shores of “the real.” The real is what lies behind our daily busyness, our symbols and our imaginative flights.  Markets dive, jobs are cut, consumers stop consuming and the assumptions that we carved out to describe our futures are in jeopardy. Silence arrives because familiar words, sentences and paragraphs are suddenly not sufficient to quell our anxieties.

The market culture and its manufactured desires and materialistic promises have failed miserably.  The unregulated markets resulted in a ravaged landscape of unpaid for despair. In this uncertain and cataclysmic climate, the creative impulse and the art experience is essential. In art we find a direction. The capacity to see, to perceive the world through another’s eyes, to empathize, is a vital sign of a civilized culture. To touch upon the unsaid and find articulate shapes for our present anxieties is the goal of our work together. The myth of economic progress as the answer to our baseline problems is simply not true.  What else can there be?

I have come to understand that the creative act is ultimately action against natural human tendencies.  Left to natural devices, human energy and endeavor moves towards entropy and disintegration. Our lives lead inevitably to decay and death. In the morning we are weighted down by the burden of sleep, requiring a supreme effort to arise and join the world.  The end of a gesture, when not treated with an artistic attack of acceleration, tends to die out. The artistic impulse, in contrast to the entropic direction of a life cycle, rises above the tendency towards death and negation.  The artist searches for lightness and for exactitude in the face of rot and decay.  Fueled by curiosity, energy and hope, we enter the darkness.  We accept the darkness and in that acceptance sometimes we discover a thin vein of light.”

-Anne Bogart

The Caroline set is being struck.  Kushner & Tesori are back in NYC (their presence at the second-to-last performance, which you may have seen on Chris Jones’s blog here, was a complete surprise to the cast and staff–everyone but Charlie, who was sworn to secrecy).  The cast is moving on to other shows, middle school, or childbirth.

And here in the office we are getting ready to welcome SITI Company back to Chicago.

The last time SITI was here was exactly two years ago, when they brought Hotel Cassiopeia, a gentle and moving exploration of the effects of deceleration, quiet, stillness, and non-narrative emotional storytelling disguised as a biographical play about Joseph Cornell.  Not every audience found a way in to the piece, which opened with Barney O’Hanlon softly reciting a list of sugary foods while a Satie Gymnopedie unfolded underneath his voice.  I saw Hotel, I think, seven times.  Something about being asked to slow myself down, to contemplate images instead of following events, and watching SITI’s peculiar performance style (characterized by the performers’ extraordinary physical control and spatial awareness) was an aesthetic palette cleanser for me.  I was engaged, yet calm, and my mind was given plenty of room to wander around the space while I watched.  It reminded me that “Twice as fast, twice as loud: twice as good!” is not actually an immutable rule of theater (though it is an immensely useful note under some circumstances).  Every time I saw Hotel I left refreshed, like I’d meditated or taken a bath.

Radio Macbeth isn’t going to be like Hotel Cassiopeia.

For one thing, instead of the curious, wandering, everyday poetry of Charles Mee, the text is entirely Shakespeare’s.  What SITI brings to the text (beyond the de rigeur and aforementioned physical control and awareness derived from their unique training method), and what makes it “Radio” is a new staging that emphasizes not only the play’s spooky horror elements but also its history as theater.  Because unlike, for instance, Orson Welles’s “voodoo” Macbeth or any number of other high concept productions that layer the trappings of a particular world onto the play, Radio Macbeth works by appearing to strip the play down, removing the theatricality, and showing you a group of actors, in street clothes, in a theater.  Except not really–there’s still a set, and a costume design, and the world isn’t our own, nor is it Shakespeare’s.  It’s a world where all productions cohabitate, where the thousand versions of Banquo’s ghost sit on top of each other and watch the play, comparing notes.  What’s it like for an actor to step into four-hundred-year-old blood-sogged shoes, aware of every Mackers before him, but unable to change the story’s course for all his knowledge?

Because most of us have seen it before, many times.  Why bother pretending it’s all happening for the first time right now, like we don’t all know exactly how it ends?  Do we need another Macbeth like that, even if the soldiers are carrying guns or their uniforms are vaguely Nazi or the witches are made up like (scary nurses/prostitutes/schoolmarms/fill-in-the-blank)?  By acknowledging the play’s history, SITI Co. are actually asking a bigger question, one with more immediate implications than “Can Macbeth murder his way to the throne?” or even “To what lengths will unchecked ambition drive a man?” or whatever other dramatic question you want to make the spine of your production.  They’re asking “Why have we been watching this for all these years?  What is it in this brutal, insane play that we want to see so badly?  What is it in us that wants to see it?”

See what Caroline can do

Caroline, Or Change is going strong! While reviews and audience comments have been pretty focused on the spectacular voices and engaging performances by the cast and band, I think it’s worth taking a second look at the visual components of the show–the designs and staging–and how they contribute to its extraordinary effect. (All photos by Michael Brosilow)

JFK

JFK

Above we’ve got the “JFK” sequence, when Stuart’s parents come to the house to announce the President’s death. Upstage is the Moon, harbinger of chaos and change, in a pool of blue light that spills out onto the stairs. Notice that Charlie has separated Grandpa and Grandma Gellman on either side of the basement square, even though they arrived together and are ostensibly in the same room. Abstracting the space this way allows for heightened moments like Dottie delivering her lines to Grandpa Gellman, as you can see here, even though there is no diagetic reason for the two of them to be interacting.

Introducing the Washing Machine

Introducing the Washing Machine

This shot is from the beginning of the show, when we first see the Washing Machine doing her work. The text on her dress is ad copy from 60s washers–the dryer has similar text on his costume. The references to early-century work clothes are contrasted with the color choice–a 60s-ish pale green.

Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole

And here we have the first moment of really heavy theatrical lighting–you’ve probably seen this picture on ads or in e-blasts. The dryer is doing his thing–a gesture with a much bigger footprint than the relatively compact movements of the Washing Machine. The Dryer’s ability to take over the environment of the basement with heat and humidity is his major feature in the text.

Why you like me?  I ain't never nice to you.

Why you like me? I ain't never nice to you.

Caroline and Noah can’t help thinking about one another–in this scene they share an imagined conversation, each of them in his or her own house, late at night.

Have you seen the show yet? What did you think?

What’s it like under water?

Brittany A. Little, Production Dramaturg:

Let me tell you, this has been a fantastic experience for me–hectic and a little intimidating, but fantastic. Being a third-year History major at the University of Chicago and an artist, the chance to really dig deep into a work like Kushner’s, with a cast and production team as wonderful as this one (Charles Newell and E. Faye Butler…what more can you ask for in life?) has allowed me to bring my academic and artistic lives together.

I’ve been working with Court for a while now. I started as an intern in the Development office (hey guys!), went on to work as the Assistant Director of last season’s The First Breeze of Summer with Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson (One of my favorite people) and then I found myself trusted with this position, one usually handled by someone older and with a lot more experience than I. But that’s why I love Court–they give younger people like me, the opportunity to learn new things and grow under their guidance.

So, it was either sink or swim and I was determined to swim because I could not let Court down. I must admit, it was daunting at first. I had to balance a fellowship with a theater across town, make time to wrap my head around all of the complex themes that are featured in Caroline, and present them in the most informative and beneficial way possible.

Complexity is a feature of Tony Kushner’s work and Caroline is no exception. This musical touches on so many topics that are rarely seen in theater that my job was difficult (rarely, for instance, do we see African-American women at the heart of a full-scale show). With Caroline, I found myself elbow deep in books, microfilm and documentaries trying to find images and written accounts of these silently suffering Southern maids who seldom got to tell their stories. Add that to other themes like the Civil Rights Movement, racism, segregation, poverty, JFK, Jewish/Black relations, music of the 1960s, the Jewish American, Louisiana and domestic appliances and you end up with stacks and stacks of some of the most interesting material that a Dramaturg could ask for.

To work on such a huge show with a cast and crew this experienced made me nervous, and I rarely doubt my abilities. How much is too much and how much is too little? These worries plagued me until I sat down with Charlie and realized that he liked his research short but informative. Answer his inquires, send out anything that I find interesting to the team and give the actors a 20-page packet with lots of great pictures. Charlie gave me freedom to explore and share my findings and I really began to fall in love with the material.

By the time rehearsal came along, I was so excited that I was ready to share everything with the cast (whether they were interested or not). So, I put up a table full of books and historical research in the rehearsal room but honestly thought that the cast wouldn’t even glance at. I was wrong–they actually checked items out and wanted further information! That is what is so great about having an extraordinarily talented and intelligent cast. They really worked at their characters so that they could present the best show possible. They asked such fascinating questions that I was excited to find the answers for them. The cast and the entire production process motivated me, as a student and an artist.

There is nothing like watching the indescribably fabulous E. Faye Butler and Music Director Doug Peck work through a song note by note, Kate Fry find the subtlety in a phrase, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp flow effortlessly between characters, Iris Lieberman execute perfect comedic timing or the child actors scramble through their hilarious first act number. Being able to add to that experience in my small, complicated way feels amazing. As I sit and watch the final product, I can see a little Martha and the Vandellas in the Radio, know the significance of the oil that fries the latkes, and understand the desperation in Caroline. It makes me realize how much insight Caroline, Or Change has to offer to the audience.