In the film version of The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews is telling the VonTrapp children–who have never heard music–about the scale. She gets a little ahead of herself quickly and starts whizzing up it, but she stops around “la” and realizes that they’re just not ready for that yet. Then the orchestra kicks in and all kinds of alpine fun ensues.
Almost exactly a year ago I announced on this blog that we would be losing our space. In the year that followed, we tried whizzing up the scale a few times only to stop around “so” or even “re,” but no orchestra kicked in to help us along into the next part. It’s been a year of figuring out who we’re going to be in the big picture (mission statement, etc.) and small picture (who is willing to do what?) We’ve had to wonder if it was the space that really kept us together. We’ve all had to deal with our own grief over losing our home, a surprising emotion that took many forms and cropped up in odd places. We’ve had to sort through all the ideas that we’ve all had about where we should go and how we should get there. There have been some misunderstandings, some hard conversations, and some big steps forward.
Last Sunday, we gathered together to make living death masks, to start at the very beginning of a new, completely different adventure.
Cue the orchestra.
At 57 Main Street, audience members could put their feet up on the stage if they were sitting in the front row. There were only a few rows after that, and acting in that space was much more like film acting. We didn’t have to think too much about volume and the nearness of the audience encouraged subtlety.
On the giant lawn in front of the imposing stairs on the West side of Conte Middle School, all of that needs to be forgotten. Lex and Wendy sit on a blanket and say “Louder! Can’t hear you!” They look like dolls or puppets way out there.
I’m in close quarters with Jack; he’s Lysander and I’m Hermia and we are supposed to be in love. The scene is his attempt to seduce me and my hesitant rejection of his advances. He slides over next to me and I yell in his face. He yells back. Or, at least, it feels that way.
We started rehearsal with vocal warm-ups, making all sorts of crazy noises, buzzing our lips, shaking our bodies until we could let them go rubbery and let weird noises spill out of us. I’m not usually shy about these things any more, but even Wendy mentioned she was happy when the teenagers who had been sitting on the stair moved on so we could warm up without embarrassment.
Then Lex started the boot camp. Sprint to the other side of the lawn, give us a line at top volume and sprint back. Jack and I raced back and forth, stopping only to project Shakespeare across the space, over the sound of cars passing by on Church Street and then sprinted back.
In outdoor theatre, volume is what matters. For centuries, actors were prized were their voices because in large, outdoor theatres, that’s what mattered. Read account after account of the finest actors, and what you read about are their voices. Some people in our cast have it naturally. Some people in the cast have vocal training and know how to do the work, as foreign as it feels after years and years on our intimate stage. Some people are starting at zero. And voices are delicate things. You have to project correctly or you’ll lose your voice. The moment I start to feel a little hoarse or a little scratchy, I have a moment of panic. One afternoon can do a lot of damage.
I have to dig back into years ago and find my voice again. But then, there it is, resonating at just the right place in my chest, coming up through my throat with no restrictions. My body remembers how to breathe. It’s called muscle memory. I do remember how, it’s just been so long.
I turn to Jack, look deep into his eyes, and shout at him about how much I love him as I touch his face. No one says they can’t hear me. I take a deep breath out of relief, and ready myself for the next line.
“Mommy? Can you watch me?”
“Not right now. I’m rehearsing.”
A few seconds pass. Lex goes back into discussing Helena. She’s half a sentence in.
“Are you still rehearsing?”
Theatre for us has always been a delicate balance of real life and art, but now, in the absence of a space, we have retreated to our living rooms and backyards to rehearse. It is comfortable in these spaces, so doing table work around a dining room set has a certain level of ease we never got from a makeshift surface at 57 Main. Hypothetically, we can store the kiddos in the next room with all their toys and be in rehearsal while watching them but–
“Mooooommy. Are you done?”
Lex takes a deep breath, pulls at her hair, and looks at her darling four year old. “Go play. Please.”
The backyard is a wonderland of things most four year olds would love–we can see the tops of colorful inflated toys through the window, but this one is not interested. He turns his giant eyes on us, hoping one of us will jump up and volunteer to play with him.
“In a minute,” we all say in our own way.
The theatre had always been a retreat from the domestic. It was a place where we were not afraid to shout or go big. In someone’s kitchen, it seems odd to be yelling lines or throwing oneself on the floor in front of the baby who watches from his high chair, chewing away on a melted Baby Mum-Mum.
“To the Nth degree! Louder!” Lex and Wendy call through the threshold. They’re watching us from the dining room as we flop around in the kitchen.
So we take it up another notch, start using the walls, throw ourselves against a refrigerator and slide down, trying not to worry about knocking magnets off it. The fact that we’re in Lex’s kitchen gradually melts away as much as it can. Wendy grumbles about needing that rehearsal space sooner rather than later. Between the heat and, today, the rain, venturing out into the backyard has proved tricky so far.
“We’re done. Okay?”
He seems pleased. As I pack up my things and head out to the door, the four year old approaches me.
“Why were you being so mean to Mollie?”
He has been overhearing us rehearse the Lovers’ fight scene and I have been calling Mollie a “canker blossom” and a “thief of love” and then loudly threatening to claw her eyes out.
“Well, in the play, Mollie stole my boyfriend.” Trying to explain that it was really fairies and a love flower and mistaken identity seems too complicated somehow. “Anyhow, we’re all friends by the end of the play. There’s just a misunderstanding in the scene we were reading.”
He asks a few more questions and really listens to my answers. The kid understands what rehearsals are, what plays are, and that sometimes grownups are acting crazy because a play tells them to. We all say we don’t want our children to be actors, that we want them to run far, far away from the theatre, but there they are on the edges absorbing. And now we are in their houses, rehearsing around their toys, in their spaces. Well, there are worse things that getting an early start on your Shakespeare.
He accepts my explanation and asks me if I’ll play Lego Star Wars with him.
Maybe he won’t be an actor; maybe he’ll be a Jedi instead.
At 5:30 we took our bows for the last show at 57 Main. At 6:00, they came to take our lights. It was more finality than I was prepared for and an already emotional day was ending on a down note. Instead of one last ecstatic dance party after one last show to a sold out house and a standing ovation, a handful of us ate pizza and then danced halfheartedly in the lobby. On stage people went up ladders and lights came down. Though I knew that it was all for the best and that the people who had come to take the lights were deeply appreciative, the timing was awful. In that moment, I could think of them only as vultures.
In the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet cannot bear to say goodbye–parting is such sweet sorrow. They drag out their goodbyes with promises, one last word, one last glance. As far as they know, the future holds nothing but passion and dreams come true.
One last show. One last dance party. One last look. The time was ticking away to days and I felt a little bit like the lovers saying a thousand tiny goodbyes and not meaning most of them.
Two weeks later, I open up the backdoor of the theatre and find that it smells different. After one weekend of moving our costumes are gone, as are some of our set pieces, and, of course, the lights. Already the musty smell that is unique to 57 Main is altered; every theatre has its own smell. I walk through the half-moved space. It’s in the chaos stage where things seem like they’ll never be better, that we’ll never get it all done. I spend two hours alone in the prop room, moving and sorting and tossing. Huge wolf dummy–keep. Old liquor bottles–toss. Pre-wrapped gifts. I hold them and remember the skit we made them for. Then I toss them. Goodbye, old junk.
One week after that, we all meet up and move for two days straight. We talk about Shakespeare and unscrew the seats from the risers. I watch the strong men we strong armed into helping us get sweatier and sweatier with each flat, platform or furniture piece they carry up from the basement, around the twist in the landing, down the narrow aisle and out into a truck. We watch progress being made. On the second day, near the end, we move the ghost lamp. As we open the doors to the new space, a smell hits our senses. We all think it. The new space smells like our theatre. I put the ghost lamp down and we declare it, metaphorically, a theatre.
Of course, it wasn’t over yet. There were still things left–some couches and a whole lot of junk that didn’t sell at our junk sale. The guy taking over the space offers, mercifully, to help us with the end of the process. Then he asks if I could meet him there and show him how the lights work. It was a theatre for twelve years, I explain, the lights were all plugged into dimmers on the ceiling. We rewired the place; there aren’t any lights on switches. He realizes that I can’t help him solve that problem.
Last night, I ran into Ed while eating dinner at the Hub, the restaurant next door to the old space. Whatever you do, he said, don’t look next door. Of course, I did. Whenever I am downtown, I look in the window and see what they have done. I peer through the posters, cup my hands around my eyes to block out the glare, and see what is gone. The risers, the wall behind the refrigerator, the junk sale remainders. The stage. The booth. Tonight I saw they had knocked down the wall between the stores. He had to have really wanted the space. It was (and will be) a lot of work to undo the theatre, but he’s getting it done. I guess I keep waiting to feel sad or angry when I peek into the window, but maybe the thousand little goodbyes I said along the way worked.
And besides, as far as I can see, the future holds nothing put passion and Midsummer Night’s Dreams.
There are two stories to write at the moment. First, the tale of saying goodbye to the hold space. Second, the story of where we go from here. Ever the optimist, I begin with the future.
“Let’s go rogue! Theatre without walls! Our children will be running around at our feet as we perform. We’ll be like hippies!”
It’s been my refrain for months. I’m sure my friends are fairly sick of this line of thinking. It continues.
“Instead of jumping up and down trying to get people into our theatre, let’s go to where the people are! They can eat sandwiches and lounge around and we’ll do a show for them!”
It’s an old idea: a traveling troupe of players goes out and about, sets up shop, does the show, and moves on to the next.
But we need a show. And the show will be A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When I said we were “going rogue,” my gentle readers probably didn’t think of a fairly overproduced play that’s been around since the late 1500’s.
Wendy and Lex will be directing a small cast in fun, traveling production of a show that is both fun to see and fun to be in. A show that will change with every audience and every new setting.
Where will it show up? Now that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
For the next few weeks, we will be chronicling how the show comes together. Stay tuned.
It is very exciting in these final weeks of rehearsal for The Seagull. At this point in the process I am constantly answering a million questions as director. I have the privileged of working with such awesome designers like Juliana, Vanessa, Jeff, and Mike; so on a daily basis I get to see new exciting set pieces, costume pieces, hear sound, talk about lighting, etc. It really feels like a collaborative process. I have to give a big thank you to my Assistant Director, David Sernick, not only has he worked with actors to pick apart beats and/or scenes in order to big deep and get the juice out of the fruits that Chekhov has laid bare; he showed me some amazing video that we are using for the multi-media affects for The Seagull.
Early on we did a lot of table work, just sitting, reading the play, talking about the play, the world of the play, how it relates to our current time and era. We changed references to take it out of 19th Century Russia and make it 21st Century Berkshire County. Then we pushed really hard to make a sketch of the blocking. Just an outline of where an actor enters and exits, who they are talking to, where they are going and why. Then the real work began. For the last month after the play was “blocked” we worked and re-worked beats, scenes, sections, and eventually acts to find how every actor is relating to one another and reacting to the tension on stage. It is electrifying to watch rehearsals at this point in the process; I get my breathe taken away when certain characters just simply exit or enter because I can see why they are there or why they are leaving and what they are trying to accomplish.
First and foremost, though, The Seagull is a character study of people who cannot see past the tip of their own nose. This character-based comedy is filled with the kind of awkward humor that always strikes home; the same kind of humor that makes TV shows like The Office so popular. Plus the play is infused with beautiful poetry and in-depth analyses of the human condition as only Chekhov can deliver them. Is it a comedy? A tragedy? Does a play written in 1895 Russia taking place in the countryside outside of Moscow relate to 21st century Western Mass? Answers: Yes, yes, and yes.