Friday, September 26, 2008

Feeling Groovy

There is something about the second week of a run that makes it feel like the show has finally left the starting gate. In the flurry leading up to opening, everyone--actors, crew, designers, and production staff--works furiously to put all the elements in place for the production. This was especially true for Candide. With the large number of props and costume pieces not to mention the mops, chalk, boxes and rigging, I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up. I told the crew numerous times, "We'll find our groove and it will run like clock work." But I didn't believe myself.

Then the show opened (to great reviews by the way), and we had our first five-show weekend (one on Friday night, and two each on Saturday and Sunday). It was as if the grown-ups had left the building and all hell broke loose. In the push to get the production to a performance level some smaller issues had been put on the back burner. And it wasn't until the weekend, when the entire production staff was enjoying a much needed break, that these little problems came to light. Unfortunately, on a production as big as Candide, the little problems add up. So I still felt behind this past weekend as I searched for shoe pads for an actress whose shoes had stretched too much or worked on a wobbly box for an actor who didn't feel safe. In addition, the crew and I had to work out how to do laundry on two show days and what to do about lamps that suddenly weren't working among other things.

And then we had a day off. On Tuesday evening, I arrived at the theater and the crew and I started set-up. We were done, without glitches, in under an hour. The actors arrived fresh from an almost 48 hour break and settled in as if Candide had been open for over a month. The production staff at the Arden, like little elves in the night, had fixed all the little problems that had cropped up over the weekend.

The shows this week have been fantastic. The actors, secure now in the knowledge not only of their characters but in also how the costume changes, props, and box moves work, are discovering new aspects to the myriad of characters they play. There are fumbles of course--a missed line, wrong notes in a song, and little maintenance things--sewing buttons, finding wig pins. But this show that I thought was too big for me to handle (a few times I thought I'd be discovered as a fraud and 'hung from the highest gibbet') has become manageable. It's almost, dare I say it, easy.

I guess it was all a matter of finding the right groove.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Dramaturg

We had a post-show discussion after Sunday's matinee and our dramaturg, Jackie Goldfinger, was there. It reminded me that I wanted to write a bit about dramaturgy since it's a relatively new concept in American theater. I guess I wouldn't say new as much as I would say rarely used. Europeans use dramaturgs on a regular basis while the same is not true for American theater.

I never know where to begin when talking about a dramaturg since the position can encompass so many different aspects. A dramaturg studies the scripts and researches the world of the play and shares this information with the cast and designers so they have a better understanding of the production.

For example, in Candide, there are a lot of historical events and ideas in both the book by Voltaire and the musical itself such as the Lisbon earthquake, Optimism, the Spanish Inquisition, and Jesuit ideology. During Voltaire's time, many readers would instantly understand these references. Today, we are farther removed from these concepts. To assist the actors during the rehearsal process, Jackie created a packet of information explaining many of the events and concepts as well as describing the historical milieu in which Voltaire wrote the book. In addition, she helped with pronunciation of certain words (like videlicet) and translation of some of the foreign words used in the lyrics. Information from her packet was later used by the Education Department to write their Study Guide.

The duties of a dramaturg can range farther than just research on a production. Many double as literary managers and read scripts and recommend plays for the theater to produce. Some are new work dramaturgs that are hired on a project by project basis to work with a playwright to shape a script and ready it for production. A dramaturg friend of mine is also the casting director at the theater she works at. It makes sense when you think about it because she so fully understands the world of the play, she can help in choosing the right type of actor for each role. It doesn't hurt that she has a natural talent for casting. Whatever their role, many dramaturgs spend years studying their specific type of dramaturgy. In recent years, universities have recognized the value of trained dramaturgs and have created Master's Programs in Dramaturgy.

There is also a formal organization dedicated to Literary Managers and Dramaturgs:

The role of the dramaturg fascinates me. I think how much fun it would be to research all day without having to write a paper to turn in for a grade. While some of the research goes into program notes or study guides, the vast majority is shared only with the cast. But this wealth of information and little known facts that a dramaturg brings to a rehearsal process often gives the actors a new depth of understanding that manifests itself in more nuanced performances.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Own Free Will

There is a line in Candide which goes, "His master taught him to exercise his own free will so exercising it, he went for a walk." I like that line because I try to remember the idea of free will when I feel bogged down by the stuff I 'have to do.'

Today, for example, I woke up and realized that I didn't have to be at the theater until 5:30 tonight. I had the entire day to myself. So, once I got the kids on the bus, I exercised my own free will and went back to bed. After a delicious nap, I spent a good hour reading the paper over coffee and then went running. After, I soaked my feet and painted my toe nails while watching a ridiculous sci-fi remake of The Tempest. A perfectly grandiose way to spend a day!

Sure, there were things I could have done, including weeding the garden, another load of laundry, or cleaning out the fridge but all that stuff will be there tomorrow. How often do we give ourselves permission to do what we want to do and not what we "are supposed to do?"

I know that my responsibilities are ones that I have chosen. I chose to live in this house, with my husband, and to take care of our two children. I also chose to stage manage Candide knowing it would take up most of my time. By accepting these responsibilities, I agreed to fufill certain duties such as doing laundry or being at the theater at a certain time. But within the parameters that I have imposed on my life, I do have wiggle room for my own free will. And a bad re-make of The Tempest sure beats weeding the garden any day.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Out of the Box

Yesterday, or was it the day before? Even though we've opened Candide, time is still very fluid. I think it's because I don't get home from an evening show until midnight or 1 am and then I have to get up at 7:30 am to get my kids to school. Yes, I know tons of parents who stay up even later and still have hugely productive days. Not me, I've always been one who needs sleep.

Anyway, yesterday, I think, I wrote about some of the challenges of tech week including mops, chalk, fly cues, light cues, etc. Another challenge that presented itself to us right from the start of rehearsals was boxes. Nestled around the stage in four different nooks are eight boxes--4 cubes and 4 rectangles (or double-wides as we call them) all exactly alike. With these boxes the actors create a classroom, a canoe, a gondola, Venice, a galley ship, an inn and more. From these boxes, the actors pull many of the props and costumes used during the production.

It sounds easy but then you realize that the actors are constantly moving boxes from one part of the stage to another. From the very first rehearsal my assistant, Alec Ferrell, and I had to track the movement of every single box in order to know into which box to place props that might not be used until the end of the act. For example, a box sits at the top of the ramp at the end of act one. Out of that box comes a rag and some clothing. But how did that box get from the floor of the theater to the top of the ramp? We tracked boxes using letters. Every box had a letter and every time it moved onstage, I would draw a picture showing the placement of every box (and what props were in each box). It sounds tedious but it came in handy when we moved to the stage.

A lot can happen when the cast moves onto the set. Blocking (the movement of the actor on the stage, which is recorded by the stage manager in the prompt book) changes frequently and with this show, so did the box movements. Props that were placed in box F say, had to be moved to box D because box F was no longer being used. It became even more complicated as box F was used for some stuff at the top of the show but then box D took over. Confusing? Yeah, tell me about it.

Needless to say, I became obsessed with boxes. As we worked slowly through the show it was easy to place the correct box in the correct position for the upcoming scene. But where did that box come from? Had we tracked its progress so that when we ran the show it would be in the right position?

The actors also had to deal with the boxes since they were the ones moving them. As we would set up for a certain scene, I would inevitably hear, "There's supposed to be a box here that isn't here." And I'd go for my notes tracking which box indeed sat there for that scene. One actor told me he has 14 box moves before his character enters.

We have everything working smoothly now mainly because Alec and I don't let anyone else on the crew touch the boxes as we set up. I just hope the understudies have been tracking box movements as well as character blocking because on Candide, there is no thinking outside of the box. See, I really do need to get more sleep.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What a Long Strange Tech it Was

For the past two weeks, I feel as if I have done nothing but live, eat, and breath Candide. It truly is one of the most grueling productions I have worked on. Terry Nolen, the Artistic Director of the Arden and the director of the production has said that this is the hardest of all possible musicals. And on top of it, we're doing it in the round and with chalk.

Yes, chalk...the actors write all over the set with chalk which means cleaning up the chalk. So the actors also mop up the stage. Much of tech week was spent working out what type of mops we should use and how damp the mops should be. I now know more about mops than I ever thought I wanted to.

But tech week wasn't just about mops, we also had to add in the fly cues, the sound cues, the costumes, the props and the light cues--all 400 of of them. It was a slow and tedious process but it had to be that way to ensure not only artistry but safety as well.

During the week of tech, actors are allowed to rehearse for 10 hours out of 12 on three consecutive days. This is in accordance with Actor's Equity Association (the union for stage actors and stage managers). Those three days spent in the darkened room of the theater can make one a bit loopy. I forgot what day it was and couldn't remember if I lived at the Arden and visited my home or if I was visiting the Arden.

The hours spent paid off though and the production is amazing. The team of designers, directors, orchestra members, cast and crew deserve a standing ovation for the feat they have pulled off while keeping their tempers under control. I don't even have any stories about people losing it and screaming.

At the opening last night, we said good-bye to many of the designers and directors who are off to other projects. We've left them at this station but the rest of us, the cast, orchestra, crew and I are going to chug on toward closing.