Archive for May, 2006

staging and more staging

May 31, 2006

Lots of fun staging tonight. It's staying light later; we're starting rehearsals in beautiful warm horizontal sunlight. By 9, the sun is down and San Pedro is chilly again, and we're working under lights pulled out from the scene shop. Everyone has learned to bring both sunscreen and sweatshirts.

LaertesAfter an early publicity photo shoot with just Hamlet and Ophelia in their costumes, we started with another fight rehearsal, blocking the second chunk of the fencing match. The fight director's idea was that the formal match involves three different challenges. The first point is fought with just rapiers — Laertes is overconfident, and Hamlet scores a hit. They put on a heavy gauntlet for the second round, using it to parry — at one point they grab each other's swords, and Hamlet playfully doesn't let go when Laertes thinks he will. The third round is the rapier and dagger that Osric talks about, and it's here that the formal match becomes a real fight. The actor playing Laertes has a strong stage combat and swordplay background (he's performed in stunt shows and so forth), so the fight director has been standing in for Hamlet to work out some of the moves, plugging Hamlet in once the beat has a shape. But Hamlet's getting in there as well, and having all sorts of ideas. It's going to be a fun fight with a lot of storytelling and acting opportunities.

Next we staged the scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bring Hamlet before the King to reveal the hiding place of Polonius' body. I've stolen an idea from the Campbell Scott Hamlet — Ophelia overhears Hamlet's joking about her father's death. I have Ophelia downstage right, partially blocked from Hamlet's view by Osric. She listens to all the talk of worms and heaven, and then Osric is the one sent off to recover the body. Hamlet is upstage when he says, "He will stay till you come" to Osric, and Osric moves past Hamlet to his exit — revealing Ophelia. Hamlet realizes how the preceding conversation must have sounded to her, and she turns and leaves. The King then tells Hamlet that he's to go to England, and Hamlet readily agrees. It's a hot little moment, driving home Hamlet's responsibility for Ophelia's subsequent madness.

We staged a couple more scenes, including the opening of the show — which in this cut of the play is the "too too solid flesh" soliloquy followed by the first big court scene. As of now, this is the most stylized bit of staging I have in the show, and much as I love the way it looks I know I'm going to need to find a way to pay it off later on. I have the full cast entering from every direction and moving towards their positions for the court scene; everyone slows and freezes at the same time except for Hamlet, who keeps moving (walking around and through the frozen pattern of people across the stage as if he has stopped time) as he begins the soliloquy. Twice during this, the rest of the cast begins moving again, moves a couple more steps, and stops — providing punctuation to the speech. Hamlet refers to the King and Queen when he talks about them, and addresses the audience directly. The Ghost is alone on a tall platform upstage throughout this, not seen by Hamlet or anyone else. At the end of the soliloquy, everyone unfreezes and finishes moving into positions as Hamlet says, "But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue" and moves into position himself. It's a nice piece of staging, very dynamic, and it will start the play off with a bang. But it risks being too stagey, too flashy and show-offy, especially if it never connects with anything else later on.

More staging tomorrow, then our first stumble-thru on Thursday.


Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet

May 30, 2006

This is a good one; Jacobi knows what he's doing. It's a stage production remounted for television cameras by the BBC — no audience, no hint of how the scene changes actually worked in live performance. A book I've been reading called Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies by Mary Maher talks about some changes that the BBC asked to be made, making for a more traditional take on the play.

It's certainly a straightforward Hamlet. There are a few clever interpretations of certain moments — a small cut that allows Hamlet to use "absent thee from felicity a while" and that whole speech to stop Horatio from drinking the poison, rather than physically tearing the cup from his hand, for example. Otherwise, it's traditional maybe to the point of being stodgy. Patrick Stewart is very strong (and curly-headed) as the King; Claire Bloom is a fairly weak Gertrude. Ophelia is played weak and submissive, a choice that fits the text but that I find hard to stomach. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are forgettable and interchangeable.

It's all about Jacobi, though, of course. He's amazing with the language, crisp and bright and maybe the smartest of all the movie Hamlets I've seen so far. He does have a tendency to disconnect from the other actors (as do many of the other movie Hamlets), and sometimes the soliloquies sound like he's narrating rather than pursuing an action. Still, you see why Branagh adores and clearly emulates him; I'm trying to find Branagh's Hamlet on DVD and I'm looking forward to seeing Jacobi again as the King. He speaks the speech trippingly on the tongue.

Chain of Command

May 30, 2006

As I've mentioned before, the set for this production is shared with the in-rep production of Comedy of Errors — all the same platforms and stairs in a completely different configuration. Every few days, we switch the set back and forth. It's a lot of ratcheting and wrenching bolts in and out, flipping platforms over to replace the legs, and moving stair units from place to place. The design is very clever; both sets are gorgeous, they're completely different, all the pieces fit in a truck, and the switch between them is in theory relatively simple.

But I asked for a complicated design — platforms on angles and lots of different levels. Getting each platform into the right position relative to the other platforms is difficult. It will get easier as the actors and stage managers get used to it, but Sunday we had a hard time.

I'm bringing this up here because this was an example of a type of situation that directors face all the time: something's not working, we're going past the allotted time, and there's no clear course of action for getting things back on track. You see this kind of situation a lot in tech rehearsals; in a way we were lucky to deal with this early.

During the changeover, the platforms were being placed in positions that didn't match the groundplan we had. We were eyeballing the positions instead of making exact measurements. No one could figure out how to make it all work. Eventually we realized we were using an old draft of the groundplan, which showed a couple of 4×6 platforms instead of the 4×8 platforms we were moving around. The stage managers had a great plan for dividing up the tasks between groups of actors, but before the various tasks could be accomplished we needed to solve some problems.

Here's how I fucked up: instead of going quietly to the stage manager, explaining the situation and its importance in light of upcoming fight rehearsals and so forth, and asking how she wanted to proceed, I just started telling people to stop and rejigger everything, trying to get everything back on track in as timely a manner as I could. In doing so, I risked undermining the stage manager's authority. In my mind, I was trying to be helpful and save time — but in reality, on some level at least, I was sending a message that the buck stops with me and not with her.

This is always tricky; there's a fine line that has to be walked. On the one hand, it's important that things get done quickly and correctly, and getting the set into the right configuration is a safety issue. On the other hand, it's vital that everyone be on the same page, working together, making contributions, and feeling valued and respected. Furthermore, the decision-making process needs to be clear and consistent — actors should never get mixed messages from directors and stage management.

There was a sense of frustration that I think everybody felt, especially in the thick of the realization that there was no simple answer. Ultimately, though, we worked everything out — we got the updated groundplan, the set designer was able to come in to clarify a few things, some of the actors volunteered to work through their dinner break and to stay past their call time, and we were able to adjust the schedule in order to get done almost everything we had planned. And afterwards, the stage manager and I talked it out; she's great at articulating what's going on for her while staying focused on finding positive ways forward. I stepped on her toes a little bit on Sunday; fortunately, I think the long-term damage was minimal.


May 28, 2006

I came across this quote from Peter Brook the other day; I'm having my acting students read The Empty Space. This captures something essential about being a director. You're constantly putting yourself out there in rehearsal; you're at your most vulnerable when you're doing your most creative work. It's terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

"Of course, all work involves thinking: this means comparing, brooding, making mistakes, going back, hesitating, starting again. The painter naturally does this, so does the writer, but in secret. The theatre director has to expose his uncertainties to the cast, but in reward he has a medium which evolves as it responds: a sculptor says that the choice of material continually amends his creation: the living material of actors is talking, feeling and exploring all the time — rehearsing is a visible thinking-aloud."

-Peter Brook, The Empty Space

Progress Report

May 26, 2006

Yesterday was a big, complicated day — we're in the thick of it now, and keeping up on everything requires a lot of focus and attention.  Here are some of the things that happened yesterday:

We had a production meeting before the rehearsal.  During rehearsals over the past week, the stage manager has been keeping track of design issues that have come up.  After the designers reported on how their processes are going, we went through the stage manager's list, and a similar list from the other show.  Mostly this was about new or more specific prop and costume needs — which costumes need pockets, whether a locket is a prop or costume responsibility, that kind of thing. 

Also, we talked with the set designer about finding more ways to stabilize the wooden platforms that make up the set.  Some of them have been shaking when the actors move too quickly or violently.  There's a balance that needs to be struck here — no set can be 100% sturdy, and the actors need to be able to control themselves to an extent.  But the set designer had some ideas for additional bracing.

As the production meeting was winding down, the actors were busy changing the set over from Hamlet to Comedy of Errors.  It will change back again in a few days.  This involves lots of work with wrenches, unbolting platforms and stairways from each other,  moving them around, swapping out some legs, and putting it all back together. Eventually, everyone will be assigned a specific task and it should go fairly quickly.  The stage manager and I taped out a map of our set on the ground so we could continue our work — all rehearsals are happening in the parking lot of the Little Fish Theater in San Pedro.

Also during this, the costume designer was having fittings.  She's built the first few costumes — just a couple for each show so that we can have an initial publicity photo shoot.  For Hamlet, that means Hamlet and Ophelia.  I'm flabbergasted by the quality of the costume designer's work so far; I'll post photos sometime soon.

We have hired a fight choreographer, and he came in yesterday and began working on the Hamlet/Laertes duel.  He brought some rapiers that we'll borrow for the show, and we had a great time talking through the story of the fight and figuring out the exact intentions of each character throughout (Laertes thinks he'll beat Hamlet easily because he doesn't know Hamlet has "been in continual practice," Hamlet specifically tries to get his hands on Laertes' sword after Laertes nicks him because Hamlet puts two and two together, the first moves are formal, sporting fencing on a line before all hell breaks loose and the fight becomes real and moves all over the stage, that kind of thing).  He choreographed the first sequence of moves, and will be back next week to continue.

We blocked more scenes, including the Players' arrival and the very end of the show.  It's tougher to stage scenes on a flat surface, even with tape marking the area of the platforms, but this is how it usually works anyway and we were very lucky to have started out on the set.  All the actors now have the experience of the set itself.  As I should have probably talked about in my long post the other day about staging, this organic way of blocking depends on having strong actors who can make good choices on their own, leaving the director free to observe and adjust.  With young student actors, this process can take more time because the actors are more hesitant, and tend not to move without being pushed to by the director.  With this cast, everyone is throwing themselves into it, knowing when to take focus and when to give it, and allowing their impulses to move them around the stage.

After rehearsal, the stage manager and I sat down with the stage manager and director of Comedy and planned next week's schedule.  Just scheduling around each other is a difficult task, as most actors (including five of the six leads in Comedy) are in both shows.  Add to this the inevitable conflicts (weddings, classes, etc) that make certain actors unavailable on certain days, and you have a clusterfuck of massive proportions.   Without amazing stage management, it would be more or less impossible.

Despite all the scheduling challenges, we're making good progress.  We'll be able to do a stumble-through of the full show on Thursday night, and then have another two full weeks of rehearsal to go back over everything and do at least a couple of run-thrus before we lose a week for Comedy of Errors tech and opening.  We open a week after that.  So far, so good.

Stopping Stoppard

May 25, 2006

More staging tonight. Hamlet was late — defending his MFA Thesis (he passed). We were scheduled to block the first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scene (which in this cut of the script is their first scene with Hamlet), so I ended up using the extra time to talk through their backstory a little more. Having a woman as Rosencrantz, and playing them as a young couple, seems to work with no problems. I think if we were doing it to make some kind of point it would be weird. So long as we don't ever make a big deal out of it I don't think it takes anything away from the text.

The actor playing Guildenstern is a big Stoppard fan and agrees with me that a primary challenge is getting Stoppard's take on these characters out of our heads. In Shakespeare's play, and especially in our production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not totally clueless — they don't know the contents of the King's letter, but they definitely remember their lifelong friendship with Hamlet and their main goal in the play is to help their increasingly insane friend. I told him the key to getting away from Stoppard is to get as specific as we can with our circumstances, and having a woman as Rosencrantz helps with this. We've decided they're rich kids, bohemians, used to travelling around Europe and attending fashionable theaters and nightclubs.

Also took a crack at the get thee to a nunnery scene; that's one that I suspect will change as the actors' understanding of it deepens. We staged the play-within-the-play, took a quick pass at the opening, and did some Hamlet and Horatio from the bit between the funeral and the fencing match.


May 24, 2006

(I'm giving up on including "rehearsal report" in the title of each post — it's almost all rehearsal reports now).

We started staging tonight; the series of platforms that make up the set has been built. Every few days, we'll switch around some of the platforms to transform the set between Hamlet and Comedy of Errors — we're taking turns (on off nights we'll tape out the set on the floor). It's a real treat to have the set in place this early in the process, especially with a design as full of interesting angles and levels as this.

I'm not a director that does a lot of pre-blocking. I don't come in with a prompt book already full of blocking notation, ready to hand down to the actors. One director whose work I greatly admire spends much more time than I do working out a plan for his staging, and I'm extremely jealous of his ability to express the ideas of the play in physical space. His work tends to be much more visually stylized than mine.

This isn't to say that I don't prepare for staging. For me, there are two key pieces of planning that I need to do in advance to ensure good staging. First, I need to have done my analysis and made solid choices about the action and themes of the play. I need to know what the play is about, how each scene works, the function of each character, and how the story is told — everything I've been posting about on this site for the last couple of months. And I need to know it, to have internalized it to the point that I don't have to refer to my notes. I can still have open questions, but I need to know what those questions are and have some ideas on how I will address them. The second thing is having a groundplan that provides opportunities for the kind of staging this particular play requires. What that means depends on the play — a fully realized living room with a couch, a coffee table, and a chair arranged in just such a way that all kinds of interesting angles and relationships become possible, or a totally empty raised platform surrounded by all kinds of junk and debris that the actors can bring onstage with them, or six rolling, reversible flats that reconfigure their positions for every scene, or whatever. For this production, the groundplan I asked the set designer for was a series of several interconnected platforms of different heights on interesting angles. There is no furniture, but the actors can sit on the edges of platforms or on the stairs that connect the platforms or lead offstage. The set doesn't change from scene to scene, but it can be used in so many different ways that each scene can still feel unique.

I've talked a bit in a previous post about how the analysis leads to staging choices. Having a strong idea about the central action of the play leads to having strong ideas about which moments are important and which are not, and about which lines need to be put in focus. Internalizing this analysis — and having a good groundplan — means being able to come up with good staging on the fly.

One of the first scenes we blocked was Laertes' farewells to Ophelia and Polonius. We started with a bit of talk about the circumstances, just reminding ourselves of everything we covered in tabletalk last week. Then I told the actors that Laertes and Ophelia would be entering up the up-left stairs, and Polonius from the down-right stairs, that Laertes would leave down-left, and that Polonius and Ophelia would leave together down-right at the end. It's necessary to work out entrances and exits beforehand, because we're working out of chronological order and I want to be sure no one is entering for the next scene on the same stairs that someone is using to exit from the previous scene. The actors asked if I wanted Laertes or Ophelia to enter first, and I told them that they could do it however they liked. They entered together, and ended up taking initial positions with Laertes standing just below Ophelia on a slightly lower platform — a nice tableau that I would never have thought of sitting at home with my set model.

That's how it goes. The actors follow their impulses, knowing the circumstances and trying out their takes on their characters. We went through the whole scene once without any additional input from me. I watched that first time through carefully, looking for the how the actors' initial natural impulses do or do not fit into the ideas behind the scene. Usually they come up with all sorts of great behaviors that can only be found in this kind of organic process. My job is to encourage this, and then shape those behaviors in a way that bring out the actors' best work while also revealing or expressing the action and theme and ideas behind each scene.

So the second pass is where things get interesting. I told Laertes to repeat a cross he made on a certain line, but to go a couple of steps further so that Ophelia could counter around to his other side more smoothly. I asked Ophelia to do one of her moves on a different line — so that a line I wanted to stand out would get more emphasis. Sometimes I'll ask the actors to change something major right at the beginning of the scene, and we'll start from scratch. Other times, I'll keep most of their ideas intact.

The second pass usually stops and starts a lot more, with me offering new ideas or asking the actors to repeat something in a slightly different way — go this way instead of that way, follow that impulse all the way across the stage, try it on one of these lines instead of that line. I'll sometimes find myself jumping up onto the stage to demonstrate what I'm talking about. If we've done solid tabletalk, everyone will be on more or less the same page in terms of what's going on between the characters — but all kinds of discoveries happen at this point as well. By the third or fourth pass, the staging is settling into a solid shape, and my notes become more specific and nitpicky.

Time is always short, so we usually manage only to get that basic shape set before we have to move on. Which is for the best, because we'll revisit each scene in a week or so with the lines memorized and scripts out of the actors' hands, which will allow us to make much more specific choices anyway.

Staging this way is fun — in many ways, it is the center of what it is to direct a play. Creating the moment-to-moment reality of the performance. It requires a tremendous amount of attention, thought, and energy. You end up feeling totally engaged for the entire time, using every part of your brain at once, getting flashes of inspiration and making cold analytical choices at the same time. It's glorious.

Rehearsal Report 5/22/06 – recasting Rosencrantz

May 23, 2006

As I've noted before, it's hard to blog about casting issues — especially as they're happening. So many possibilities for creating confusion or hurt feelings. But something came up last week that I'd like to write about, and it has now all been resolved.

We had to replace our Guildenstern. The reasons aren't important here. Having to replace an actor at the last minute is a very common thing to happen (I like to think this happens less often as people are getting paid more, but so far as I can tell it happens to everyone).

At the auditions, it quickly became clear that we had far more women in the casting pool than men (another common occurrence). Hamlet has just two roles for women (three if you count the Player Queen), so I knew it would help the big casting picture if I could cast a woman in a role written for a man. The most likely candidates were always Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Horatio, but I really wanted two of those three to be male. My initial casting had men as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (doubled with the Priest and Fortinbras), and a woman as Horatio (playing Horatio as a tomboyish female with a bit of an unspoken crush on Hamlet; it works out great).

So when Guildenstern left the production my response was to replace him with another man. But taking a role in a summer show for not a lot of money is a lot to ask at the last minute, and the other men from the auditions that would have worked in the role had all made other commitments. I searched elsewhere — talked to a friend of one of the actors in the cast, for example — and still couldn't find anyone with a schedule that would work.

Tonight was our last night of tabletalk in groups; I knew I needed to have the role filled by tonight if it wasn't going to affect the schedule. I could have kept looking for a guy, but the process of getting in touch, having him read a bit, and confirming the schedule takes so long that I knew if I didn't find someone and have everything confirmed by Saturday I would go with Plan B. And that's what happened.

Fortunately, Plan B is pretty great. Because we had so many great women audition, I was able to cast a hugely talented actress in the small role of the Player Queen. Another great actress was cast in Comedy of Errors and not in Hamlet — she's now playing the Player Queen, and the original Player Queen is now Rosencrantz (I moved the man originally playing Rosencrantz to Guildenstern, because somehow if one of them is female the lines just make more sense that way). That guy is also playing both the Priest and Fortinbras. Before making any of these offers, I was careful to consult with the costume designer on whether she still had time to change plans and come up with a skirt for Rosencrantz.

So now, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a couple. All my prep work on them still holds true. The scenes all play the same way, with an interesting added texture. It's important to me — on this show — that the cross-gender casting not feel like a big deal. We tabletalked all of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's scenes tonight, and everything works just fine.  And it's an added bonus that we're still working with the same group of actors; we're not trying to bring a new person up to speed on the entire project and into the ensemble.  Sometimes, things work out.

Rehearsal Report 5/21/06 – eight hour days

May 21, 2006

God, I love eight-hour rehearsals.

I can't wait until I'm a fully professional director, working eight-hour days all the time. It's so rare in this business, especially early in a career, to be able to spend a whole day just doing your work. When everyone has a day job, a typical rehearsal is limited to 3 or 4 hours in the evening — and the rest of the day is spent earning a living doing something else plus sending out resumes to try to land the next gig. With a full day of rehearsal, you can get into a rhythm. It's tremendously fulfilling. A full day doing what you love.

And you get a lot done. We tabletalked in small groups again. Lots of stuff with the King and Gertrude, and those two plus the Ghost talking about the history of those relationships. Our King will be very much the politician, calculating his moves, knowing he did something wrong but also knowing he would do it again. Gertrude has married Claudius more out of a desire to hold on to the past than out of affection — she's doing her best to recreate the harmony she enjoyed while Old Hamlet lived, floating along on the surface and accepting the younger brother as a substitute for the old, until Hamlet finally breaks through and forces her to face this self-deception.

The actor playing Osric came in with a wonderful fully thought-out backstory — "young Osric" grew up at court (the son of a presumed Old Osric), friends with Laertes but of a lower social status, has a crush on Ophelia, is a spy for Fortinbras. I love it when an actor playing a small part really goes for this type of preparation, thinking it through and creating a full world for themselves.

Lots of work with Hamlet and Horatio; the scenes with Marcellus, the scene with the Gravedigger. Some work with Hamlet alone. We missed working Ophelia's mad scene because of a freeway shooting on the 110 that shut down all lanes and prevented Laertes from getting to San Pedro. That's LA theatre for you.

We ended with Ophelia and Hamlet again. The nunnery scene is bottomless — we keep digging and digging, and there's always more to find. More possible interpretations. So many levels to every line it's impossible for the actors to play all of it at once. I'll have to do a full post just on that sometime soon.

Comment Starter

May 20, 2006

This blog is getting plenty of hits, but not a lot of comments.  So I'm calling you out.  People from the Directors Lab.  Actors in the show.  Friends across the country.  Essay-needing Google-Searchers.  Other members of the Internet Theatrosphere.  Mom.  Everybody: take a second and post a comment.  If this works, I'll do it again every now and then with a different topic.

What's your favorite experience with Shakespeare?

It could be just your favorite play.  Or your favorite production, whether you were in the audience or a part of it.  If you want to take an extra minute to write about what makes this your favorite experience, so much the better.

(My favorite experience is probably seeing the RSC production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford several years ago, though helping a young actor have a big breakthrough with the language and verse is also way up there.)