Category Archives: Backstage

In the tunnel

Via The Morning News, Kathryn Schulz interviews Ira Glass on being wrong. We all know this, but it’s worth repeating once in a while:

…I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It’s not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process.

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As You Like It: an update: 4

with the fool's dialred socksEvery costume has at least one snazzy feature. My costume for Jaques followed the design concept of “things out of joint” in the early 20th century, the era in which Picasso and Braques were inventing Cubism. Other players’ costumes had bits of the wrong linings attached, or even mismatched pants legs (for Adam), but I had just this really fine vest. Alli added a pair of Mike’s socks (“his youthful hose, well-saved”) for the finishing touch.

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As You Like It: an update: 3

Lessons learned: There’s a reason for the no-chocolate-chip-cookies-in-costume rule. Do not try to clean your vest with your hankie and the water from your water bottle. There are some times when an iron backstage is your best friend.

So far, receptive audiences, especially when Kate and Brian’s classmates are in the house. Saturday last was almost full; the Sunday matinee showed signs of life.

I’ve had my usual share of minor lapses in focus or breathing. Still, it’s unnerving when I think that many in the audience know the big monologue, or at last think they do. Richard in the lobby was kind.

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As You Like It: an update: 2

Co-crew chief Sara called an extra rehearsal this afternoon just to practice scene shifting, and it was worth it. Someone described shuffling the tree units, two triangular units, the double parallelogram, and the 18-foot ramp as playing Tetris. Steven and I are mainly on the tree units, and the one with the big tree maneuvers like a sailboat (even with the newly-added wheels). The confetti-spray of spike marks on the deck looks like a setup for a multi-show one-act festival.

green room doorIn addition to the usual sign-in sheet and other duty sheets that are posted on the green room door, we have two columns’ worth of scene shifting plans.

We resimplified the music for the closing dance, dropping the harmony lines. Too bad.

All that said, we had a good tech run this evening. From my side of the proscenium, I think we are where we need to be for a Friday opening.

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Sighing like furnace

Did you ever have the feeling that a monologue was stalking you?

…poetry is a communication from our home and solitude addressed to all intelligence. It never whispers in a private ear. Knowing this, we may understand those sonnets said to be addressed to particular persons, or “To a Mistress’s Eyebrow.” Let none feel flattered by them.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Friday,” A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
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Beckett decoded

For most of the arcane vocabulary in Murphy, the authority would appear to be C.J. Ackerley, Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy, unfortunately out of print.

(l) High praise is due to White for the pertinacity with which he struggles to lose a piece.

Zweispringerspott: BlackThere are some good reproductions of the chess game with Mr. Endon in section 11. My own photographic contribution, realized with my dusty set, is the representation of the ending position, incorporating this annotation: “(m) At this point Mr. Endon, without so much as “j’adoube”, turned his King and Queen’s Rook upside down, in which position they remained for the rest of the game.” Not something easily rendered with standard notation, English or algebraic.

There’s a lot of Shakespeare lurking in the book, and in particular As You Like It (one of the characters is named Celia), but I would be utterly remiss if I did not check off the following riff in section 8:

“It is the second childhood,” he said. “Hard on the heels of the pantaloons.”

Notice that Murphy “misremembers” the quote, as do many of us, as “childhood” for “childishness.”

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As You Like It: an update: 1

We had our first stumble-through of Act 1 tonight, and it wasn’t bad. It was even good, in spots. Most people are off book, or nearly so, so there is some real acting going on. Alas, I still have a lot of work to do in our scene 12 (Shakespeare’s II.vii). But we have some talented, hard-working cast members playing the young lovers, and Jay’s Touchstone is giving me a lot to work with, so I think it will be an enjoyable show.

We have most of the rolling and sliding set pieces built and available for rehearsal, so Michael has already assigned scene shifting responsibilities, and we worked those into the run.

Michael has set the play neither in Shakespeare’s time nor our own, but rather at an interesting juncture in recent European history. So the forest-dwellers, like Brian (Silvius) and me, are shaggy-haired. So shaggy that I’m counting the days until I can cut my hair in May.

Moreso than “All the world’s a stage,” Michael and I are wrestling with Jaques’ material from earlier in that scene. The passage that begins, “Why, who cries out on pride” is especially vexatious. It’s not that the reasoning is all that subtle: for the most part, it’s just variations on “I can criticize anyone, and if he complains, then I win (because my criticism strikes home), and if he does not, I win (because he’s innocent and I’m just blah-blah-blah).” But the language is a little twisted, and the trick of physicalizing the argument so that the audience can follow it has escaped me so far. The couplet “Doth it not flow as hugely as the sea/Till that the weary very means do ebb?” is a challenge. Footnotes in some of my sources suggest emending wearer’s or watery for weary, but I’m not sure that any reading makes any more sense.

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The Laramie Project epilogue: an update: 5

David Hoffman reports on the Q&A after our reading last week.

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The Laramie Project epilogue: an update: 4

As a postscript, I would like to offer a correction to the name of “Nellie Taylor [sic] Ross,” the path-breaking Wyoming governor that Republican Man refers to in Moment: Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Her name is Nellie Tayloe Ross.

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The Laramie Project epilogue: an update: 3

Our reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later on Monday went off very successfully, albeit with some last minute scrambling. When I walked into the green room at 6 (for a go at 8:30), there were three or so pages of e-mail with minor changes to the version of the script that we’d received the Friday before. Trouble for me was that about half of them affected my text, so I scribbled changes into my book, hoping I’d be able to read them. I groused that, since some of this material was journal entries made by the Tectonics, it was definitely going to look like I was reading my own journal entries.

Shortly after 8:00, the feed from Lincoln Center, projected in-house at RCC’s CenterStage, brought Glenn Close, Judy Shepard, and Moisés Kaufman to Reston in sound and light. Way cool. I am so honored to have been part of this event.

At about half past, we took out the grand drape and began to read for the 200 or so patrons assembled. We had only worked with lights in one prior rehearsal, and with the text changes that entailed characters coming downstage, needing light where there was none before, there were a few moments that recalled the spotlight business in The Actor’s Nightmare. But, as I said, we got through it.

I suspect that my affinity for Matthew Shepard’s story and The Laramie Project is less idealistic than it is for many other actors, designers, and technicians who have worked on various productions. Granted, I deplore what happened to this young man, and I support doing what we can to prevent it from happening to someone else, but I don’t have the visceral feeling that I have to work on the show because of that. Rather—and this is testimony to the fine job of playwriting that Kaufman and crew have done—I am fascinated by, drawn to, all of the personages-characters of Laramie, Wyoming that have been assembled into this text: the guys in the white hats and the guys in the black ones. I was as committed to telling the story of Fred Phelps (a seriously troubled man) as I was to Harry Woods, in my characterization a retiring, gentle man who acquires a measure of dignity. In the new play, I was as interested in pushing some personal boundaries as Jonas Slonaker as I was in the great work that David H. did as Representative Peterson and that Joshua did as Aaron McKinney.

And yet, who knows where this story will lead me next? I now own, by virtue of participation in this project, a copy of Judy Shepard’s The Meaning of Matthew. Once I read the book, I suspect that his meaning for me will have transformed in some way. Is Matthew Shepard my scarab? Perhaps, perhaps. A couple of months ago, I was helping my mother clean out her apartment. Generally, the only old magazines that she squirreled away had something to do with royalty, be it British (the Windsors) or American (the Kennedys). And she had forgotten that I had worked on The Laramie Project a few years back—trust me, I know she doesn’t remember. Yet there I was, crashing through a pile of old papers, and she walks in from the other room with a battered magazine and asks, “Would you be interested in this?” It was the 26 October 1998 issue of Time. Matthew’s fence was the cover image.

As to the text of the Ten Years Later epilogue, I admire the Tectonics for clarifying one of the piece’s themes: the stories we tell ourselves begin to change as soon as we tell them. The change comes from many directions: we don’t remember clearly, the facts are too painful or embarrassing to accept, the plain narrative doesn’t have a clear meaning, the eyewitnesses die or move away. Call it urban myth, call it folklore, call it rumor, but this is what a tragedy’s story becomes in the retelling. And as a result, the simple linear progress that perhaps the playwrights expected to be able to tell has become this murky, twining thing. To me, the core of the play is the moment called “Potluck,” which interleaves an interview with John Dorst, folklorist at the University of Wyoming (and read by yours truly), with an account of some average Joes of Laramie giving their take on what happened. In one draft of the script, Dorst says,

You start with more formed things, the facts of the case or the court proceedings. And the folkloric process is one of winnowing and reduction, the paring away of detail until frequently the actual events—something you might call a story—dissipate.

* * *

This is definitely the issue—maybe the core issue here in Laramie—the desire for control over memory or over history.

Elizabeth Blair’s piece for NPR is quite good, and expresses some of these thoughts more clearly; it excepts an article by JoAnn Wypijewski written shortly after the murder.

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The Laramie Project epilogue: an update: 2

We received the nearly final final draft of the script today, and we so we spent a chunk of this evening’s scheduled rehearsal scrambling to assign people to some of the new bit parts that have been created. Scenes have been sliced and diced and rearranged, to the good, I think. In one of my sections, in particular, the point that my speaker is making is much stronger, more sharply focused. Of course we already miss some of the little moments and characters from the earlier draft that we’ve become attached to.

It’s challenging—our production will be lightly staged (midway between the full productions and the readings from music stands that we’re hearing about), with our cast of fourteen seated in two rows of chairs when at neutral position, standing and coming forward to play the moments—to adapt to the rearranged script. We have only three more meetings scheduled between now and the 12th, and that’s probably the only date when all fourteen of us are in the same room together. But what an opportunity to be part of the evolutionary development of this text, to try to ride this bronco of a script.

A small online community of participants in the project has also sprung up.

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Clean: an update: 1

I almost let it pass without mention that Clean, by Audrey Cefaly, featuring Erika Imhoof and Nello DiBlasio, directed by Leta Hall, assisted by moi, has been selected by Silver Spring Stage to represent the company at the annual Maryland community theater one-act festival in January.

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The Laramie Project epilogue: an update: 1

Saturday we spent a great day with Greg Pierotti of the Tectonic Theater Project. Greg was in town to workshop with the University of Maryland, Reston Community Players, and other groups in preparation for the simul premiere of an epilogue to The Laramie Project (which I performed with RCP in 2004).

We read a draft of the script (one from September 1) in sections, a third of the play at a time, and then Greg offered notes and other information that will color the performances. Since Greg did a lot of the interviewing for the material in this draft, he was invaluable as a resource to find out what this character sounds like or where another is coming from. He made it clear that one of the roles I will be reading on October 12 has the biggest, most emotional arc, and is also his favorite role of the 50-odd. No pressure.

Greg also went into some detail about the company’s process of building up a play from “moments.” Each 1- to 20-page scene starts out as a proposal and presentation by a company member. Once there are sufficient moments, polished to a certain degree, the writers assemble them into a running order, sort of in the way that tesserae are assembled into a mosaic (my image). Once so ordered, the moments begin to interact with one another and may require rearrangement and rewrites. Thus, in this draft we have evidence of the shuffling, as a speaker carries forward from one moment to the following but is reintroduced unnecessarily by a narrator. There’s also an incident that Russell Henderson refers to in this draft, and the draft doesn’t make it clear that it happened after the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard—this will be fixed. At any rate, Greg reminded us that the closing line of each moment is a button, a question to be considered, a thought that tinges the way we watch subsequent moments, a challenge that may be confirmed or contradicted by the next moment.

While the company definitely has a story that they want to tell with this script, Greg says that they are fine-tuning the emotional temperature of the material, lest the enterprise come off like a crusade by the “Gay Avengers.” He gave some specific advice on how to play a specific laugh line (the joke is at his expense, no less): the writers are eager to inject as much lightness into this production as possible, as the last third of the play is rather rough sledding. “Laugh whore,” I think he called himself. More advice from my notes: play against the thoughtful quality of the text. More than once he told me, “X is very clear about what he is saying; avoid rumination and the naturalistic searching for your thoughts.”

He offered several anecdotes to illustrate the deep empathy shown by Fr. Roger Schmit, who echoes Greg’s own charge to find the inherent dignity in each and every one of these people.

Directory Andy and the cast will put this material on its feet with some simple staging, starting with a rehearsal on Friday. Maybe with a new draft of the script?

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Upcoming: 16

Reston Community Players and the Reston Community Center will participate in the mass premiere of The Laramie Project—10 Years Later on October 12. Plans are still being put together (as well as the script!), but the goal is for 100 regional, university, and community theaters to present the piece as a cross-country reading on the eleventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.

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All My Sons: an award

Hooray for us: it has come to my attention that Providence Players of Fairfax’s production of All My Sons has been honored with the 2009 Ruby Griffith Award for All Round Production Excellence.

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