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.


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