Monday, May 18, 2009

Picasso...the prequel

We opened Saturday night to a packed house of about 400 people. Here's the plot went beautifully....I lost my camera, but the play went beautifully, and people laughed a lot. But I feel a need to widen the frame a little and chronicle our process leading up to opening night in greater length, so before I tell you about the actual show, let me tell you about the preceding 72 hours.

Wednesday, May 13
A tiny window in the McKenzie Theatre schedule allows us one day to hang and focus lights and install our set for Saturday's production. Everything we do has to be stored out of sight until then. Fortunately, the McKenzie is well furnished with an ample fly space and lots of bars from which to hang things. The set design I've settled on calls for seven large picture frames to be suspended over the stage, flanking a rather large L shaped bar unit. A grey, ten foot square theater scrim made of Chameleon is hung about seven feet behind the bar. The scrim is framed by a traveler curtain. A few feet in front of the back wall hangs an enormous white cyc. On the floor, against the wall sits a digital projector. A twenty five foot cable runs from that projector to a laptop computer in the winds stage right. All of these elements can either be flown up into the fly space overhead and kept out of sight until they need to be flown in for the production or they can be packed up and stored in a closet. The L shaped twelve by six foot bar unit can be carried back stage and stored in two pieces, along with three cafe tables, and six chairs. Props and costumes will arrive in the evening and be squirreled away in boxes and on portable racks.

No school for me this day. I'm taking my last personal day. I arrive at the McKenzie at 7:30 a.m., my VW Westfalia camper bus, loaded with picture frames, tables, the scrim, materials, tools, and some donuts and bagels. My light designer, Sam Jacobson, arrives shortly afterwards. Sam who works in construction and is recently unemployed is a former colleague at LHS. He has a degree in lighting and a can-do attitude. We are joined by Doug Kaigler, a professor of Art, who is similarly endowed. He along with fellow artist and colleague Peter Johnson have constructed the bar unit. We carry the two piece unit into position onstage, just to see what it will look like. It will anchor the set and be the locus of most of what happens in the play.

We have until seven that evening to get the space ready for the cast who will have their one and only rehearsal in this space and on the set before opening day. Up to this point they've been doing the show in a small room in a place we call the White House because that's what it is. When they walk out into this large proscenium space, it'll be different to say the least.

The one unknown, the mystery variable, upon which I have, perhaps unwisely, staked the integrity of the entire set design, is the projection scheme for throwing the images of paintings on the scrim behind the bar. Elaine Green, an artist living in Corvallis, Oregon, has donated a painting which she's created to the specifications of the show...sheep, meadow, fog. She has done so in the full knowledge that her work of art will be the subject of intermittent derision and ridicule by characters in the show. She's created a impressionistic piece that seems perfectly calculated to trigger Picasso's anitpathy. The only question is, will the audience be able to see it projected digitally on the scrim when the stage is lit? Near the end of the play, a different image, that of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, will magically replace Elaine's painting and serve as a window into the mind of a young Picasso on the verge of making his creative breakthrough. The scrim needs to work. That doesn't mean it will of course.

I unfold the gauzy fabric and spread it on the stage floor. Up close it looks like its made of industrial strength spider webs. We slide a couple of ten foot pipes into the sleeves on the top and the bottom; we run a cable through the top pipe and hang the scrim. Gibb Pollard, the university audio visual specialist shows up with the projector and laptop. After fiddling with it for awhile we finally throw Elaine's painting up there. My initial reaction is almost panic. I can't see it, but I'm standing only five feet away. As I back up it comes into focus. By the time I reach the seats in the audience, my fears have abated. If Sam can cut down on the bounce of light into the scrim from the playing area, we'll be okay. Then Gibb brings up the slide of the Picasso. Sam dims the house lights. It's breathtaking. We all just sort of stand there with our mouths agape. "Cool."
Sam nods. Now that we know it will work, we can get busy.
It's ten o'clock in the morning.

During the day the occasional theater student wanders in to lend a hand. My job is to hang the scrim and the picture frames while Sam repositions and recircuits lights. The frames are what remain of large mirrors that I found at WalMart for about twenty dollars apiece. There's roughly one hundred and forty years of bad luck waiting to go up into the fly. The idea behind the frames, aside from their portability, is to evoke the presence of art or more precisely, the potentiality of art, seeing as how they are empty frames.

At about two in the afternoon we sit down at one of the cafe tables and eat sandwiches. The frames are almost all up. Sam has gotten a handle on what instruments he can use and where. He's mapped out areas on the stage. We have the rest of the afternoon to put the lighting plot together. Working with Sam is like a tonic. His competence puts my mind at rest. I can feel us taking concrete steps in the right direction.

Sam and I are aiming lights on one of the electrics over the stage when the cast begins to wander in. It's about six in the evening, some of them are carrying, others wearing their costumes. The look in their eyes as they encounter the set is a bit like Christmas morning. One of the things that I realize, as I watch them feel their way around the bar unit, stepping in and out of pools of light that appear and vanish withhout warning, standing on the edge of the stage looking out into that dim and empty space where the audience will sit, is that we cannot go back to the White House anymore. I decide to inquire into the possibility of finding a couple of hours in McKenzie on an empty stage. The house manager informs me that nothing is going on from 3:30 -5:30 the next day.

At seven o'clock we start rehearsal. It's our first chance to view the set, the actors in costume, and the lights all together. Visually, it's definitely encouraging. Sam and I sit and watch and listen. I already know that this will be painful. The kids are not used to filling up a space larger than a living room. Actors are inaudible; they don't articulate; they leave words and phrases unfinished, they turn upstage and become invisible. The pace is too often intolerably slow. There are still physical bits that need work. Even worse still, some of the cast are still struggling with lines. Actors are fiddling with props like they are new toys, which in a sense they are. Einstein can't seem to stop straightening his wig. Mental note to self...the wig has got to go. Elvis' fly is open, his trousers have a broken zipper. On the other hand, the costumes generally look fabulous, we've gotten through the entire thing from beginning to end without stopping and the blocking scheme seems to have held up in the larger space.

I ask myself at the end, what tone do I strike with the cast? How do I want to leave them? I look at them and I can see that many of them already know that what they've done so far isn't nearly enough. They've been rehearsing this show since the end of January. Time, which once seemed to stretch infinitely far off towards a performance date that often seemed more hypothetical than real, has suddenly clamped down on us and caught us wondering how it is possible to have arrived here at this point and still not be ready. And always niggling at our thoughts...people are coming.

I don't want them to panic, but I do want them to worry. Worry enough to try something different. But I also want to show them that there's a very real path to getting to where we want to go. So I give it to them straight, just the way it appears to me. I finish by telling them that we will not run the play onstage again until Saturday morning. Instead we will do a speed through Thursday and Friday with a simple objective, push cues and finish words and phrases. If the pace doesn't sizzle, the audience will go to sleep; if they can't hear hear or understand the actors, the audience will go to sleep. The cast in general seem keen on the idea, partly because they know they can zip through this play in about an hour if they really push cues. When I tell them that tomorrow's rehearsal will be in the McKenzie they are visibly encouraged. It's clear to me that they just want a chance to figure the space out; they know they can do better.

I leave them with an anecdote. I collected this while in Stratford-on-Avon, England, while participating in a summer NEH seminar on Shakespeare. A group of us, all teachers, attended a workshop there given by a very famous voice coach (whose name I've forgotten alas), an elderly and diminutive, grey haired woman with hawkish eyes and a sharp wit. During a question and answer period, one teacher asked the woman, "What are the most important words for an actor speaking Shakespeare...are they the verbs, the nouns...?"

The woman eyed her questioner in silence for a few seconds. Then she seemed to magnify herself as she drew in a breath. It seemed to me that she might have been about to sigh, but instead she said in a voice as clear as a cold mountain spring, "Every fucking one of them."

I paused for effect. My cast smiled when they heard this. We enjoyed our illicit moment together. Then I urged them to take the story to heart.

"You have the words the playwright's given you. Speak them. Speak only them. Speak them all. Don't piss them away."

I got home around ten o'clock that night. Pretty good day, all in all.


Blogger Erin said...

Congratulations, Dad, and everyone else involved! Tim said it was fantastic. I wish I could've been there, but I'm glad you had a sold out crowd. We've always known that you guys would rise to the occasion! Bravo~ Love, ♥Erin

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all the challenges you outlined, the production went very well. The kids performed well under the pressure of not being familiar with the surroundings, the empty frames and minimal set worked well, the scrim and projections were great. Some of the actors did their parts so naturally I could see them slipping right into a film or stage production. A couple others seemed to struggle with their personae but were quite watchable and charming anyway. I would have been tempted to tell Pablo "More incipient surly Spanish bastard and less very young Alain Delon French lover," but he wouldn't have known what/who the heck I was talking about. I'm sure many actors get their next part because somebody sees them doing what they are doing when they are supposed to be doing something else--projecting charisma when they're just supposed to be the 12th thug on the left. They all did themselves and you proud.

The forum was interesting, but a little like playing tug-a-war with yourself. You can flop the rope about all you want, but not much ground is gained, lost or explored. The issues flared and disappeared but they're still there, simmering beneath the surface. I am going to assume in good faith that Sunday was not a good day for a forum to defend the values that led the principals players to take this road, but I haven't heard of any other offers to continue this discussion in a civil setting now that the production has been viewed and the matter can be discussed in its proper setting, as a dramatic production. Good job everybody.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw the play again Monday night and brought along a couple of local people who don't usually go to theatre productions. They enjoyed themselves thoroughly and asked to be invited to more local productions. They weren't real familiar with the transfer of the play to EUO from LGHS and commented a couple of times, Are you sure they're all high school kids? They're so good.

I think/hope all your efforts to defend your art, your integrity and your autonomy will encourage more people to trust the process and attend more regularly. Use it or lose it! Tell everybody thanks. And tell the actors we're all sorry for stepping on their lines so often--that must be rough for young actors--but we were laughing!!


7:30 AM  

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