4/17/2005

Final thoughts...

This weekend is tech rehearsal. This is the theatrical version of General Motors. The various parts of the play have been assembled separately and in different locations over the past several weeks. While we've been rehearsing, the set and costumes were being constructed; the lighting design created, the props were being either created, purchased, or just plain hunted down. This weekend is when all these elements get fused together into one production.

Many actors in the theatre dislike tech: it can be long, boring, and tedious beyond all description. It can literally take hours for the first cues to be written and executed, causing one to run outside, rend ones garments and cry to the heavens "why have you forsaken us?!" In some theatres, you are called for two 10-out-of-12 days, when you work 10 out of the 12 hours called. The 2 hours in the middle are for actors to eat, sleep etc. Usually, the designers, director and production staff just stay and work through the break. In this production we had one 10-out-of-12. This has been a dream tech. Superbly managed. A big thank you to all who made that happen.

I, however, like tech. Not all of them. I have rent many a garment over the years. But tech gives the actor a chance to do some scenes over and over, allowing you an opportunity to get the play deeper with each rep. I also enjoy watching the pieces of the production come together. It helps me understand the whole play. The scenery, sounds, the smells, and various textures all help tell the story.

The next event is the arrival of the audience. Many times in a production, right before you open, the director will say, "you just need an audience". So true. Not only to laugh, if it's a comedy, but to breathe with you, to listen, to bear witness to the events that these characters live through. And every audience has its own personality. The Wednesday night crowd can be hugely different from, say, Friday night. Sitting in the audience on a Wednesday, you are aware you have work or school the next day. It just sits there quietly on your shoulder. You may love the show, but you know tomorrow that alarm clock will go off. Early. Friday, for most folks, the expectation of the next day is lifted. You can sleep just a bit longer. Saturday is yours. You feel generous, and want to share your good fortune. That can be delivered in the form of big time laughs. This is of course is something of a generalization. But not by much.

So we are getting ready for you. This play is so full of life, of frustrated love, and searing pain. We are eager to tell you this very human story.

There has been a little confusion about this blog in some much appreciated articles on this production. First of all, even though I am its author, it's not mine. I was asked by the folks in marketing at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center here at the University of Maryland to keep this. It would be a chance for me to offer my... "unique perspective to the process, in his simultaneous roles as actor, Woolly Mammoth company member, and UM Department of Theatre faculty member." I have enjoyed writing this and sharing this process with you. If you see the show, drop by after and say hi. Let's continue the conversation.

So, this is my last blog entry. A big thank you to my wife, Celeste, and her eagle editor's eye.

Thank you.

~MH

4/11/2005

It's the end of an amazing fourth week...

It's the end of an amazing fourth week. Now I think it's time you hear from some of the students involved in the production. After all, this production was conceived as a way to give them an enhanced experience. I asked a few of them to write about what it's been like so far. I hope to have entries from some of the other students involved in the production in the next weeks. Maybe even Dan De Raey.

So, here they are, in their own words.

Malinda Ellerman/"Emma"
There comes a time in every rehearsal process for me during which I start to notice qualities of the character I am playing creeping into my everyday life. Recently, that has started to happen to me more and more. It is hard to explain. The best way I can describe it would be to say that every once and a while I feel “haunted” by Emma. This is not necessarily a bad thing…in fact, I take it as a sign that I am starting to understand my character more…she is really starting to live in my body- even when I don’t necessarily mean for it to happen. A scary thing about this, however, is Emma’s rage. Now, I do not think of myself as an angry person. And I think that most people who know me would agree. This is not to say that I don’t get angry…I just don’t holler about it nearly as much as Emma does. I imagine that most people don’t. But after a run of Act II this past week (an act in which Emma leaves the stage without the chance to scream out her aggression), I met with some peers of mine to rehearse a directing scene for class…and my CD player wouldn’t work. Frustrated, and to my friends’ surprise, I let out a blood curdling Emma-esque scream. I suddenly felt better, but my buddies were pretty startled! I apologized, explained that I think the play is “getting to me,” and came to the conclusion that, from now on, if we ever run Act II by itself again, I should excuse myself, go in a separate area and scream the anger out. And maybe I should do that the next time I get enraged in my real life. This is a lesson I’m learning from Emma: it’s better to let your emotions out all in one scream then to let them fester within. So next time you’re really angry, just yell. It’s therapeutic, I swear. :-)

Sean Hoagland/"Wesley"
I have finally started to feel Wesley in my body. The first couple weeks, with the script in hand and all the other distractions that come with every show, I was discovering who Wesely was and learning more and more about him every day. How he walks, talks, and does anything in his life. Like putting a puzzle together. Before it was as though I had all the pieces and I couldn't fit them all together. This past week, however, was the first time that I felt that the pieces were starting to just flow into place and I really felt Wesley - his intelligence, courage, persistence, etc. living in me. I had had a bad night early in the week , that nobody else might have seen or even known, but I left feeling horrible about how things went and feeling just lost. And I came back the next night and we did a run through of the show and at the end of the night I felt great because things clicked for me and I left having such a greater understanding of Wesley and who he was in me. It wasn't a perfect run by any means but very fulfilling for me and my work. I look forward to these next two weeks before opening because I can now just play and continue to discover more and more about Wesley Tate... all the way up to closing night!

Mike Grew/Assistant to the Director
I'm primarily an actor, so it's been great having the chance to stand above the whole rehearsal process and help oversee it all. Having the professionals involved has created a great new dynamic. I have to admit, while I hugely admire them for the fantastic work they've been doing, I'm a lot more thankful to see them encounter difficulties; it's comforting to see that they struggle with the same frustrations as I do sometimes. Of course, there's nothing quite like working alongside Dan De Raey; he creates one of the safest and most comfortable environments for everyone to work in, and has that special ability to direct an actor just enough so that they come upon the answer themselves. I can only hope that the directors I work with in the future are at least half as enjoyable (and a quarter as interesting).

Jennie Cole/Assistant to the Director
Last fall, when I asked to Assistant Direct a show, I never thought that I would be working on this show. I feel very privileged to be a part of this process. I am very interested in one day directing and I have learned so very much just from observing rehearsal. I have gotten the chance to see what Daniel De Raey takes notes on when he directs a scene. While I still don’t always notice what he does during a run, which I assume is something that one learns over time and practice, I have recently realized, during my own directing scene rehearsals, that I have begun to take note of some of the same types of things and I got that just by osmosis during these weeks of rehearsals.

Maribeth Chaprnka/Stage Manager
As a stage manager (and a student), the experience of working with a cast and production team of both students and professionals has been rewarding for me on a couple of levels. Working with the cast has been a pleasure. Both the students and the professional actors have really put a lot into the show, and made rehearsals enjoyable. I have worked with student, faculty, and guest directors in my time at Maryland, and I learn a lot about the different ways each individual works. As a stage manager, it's important to me that I understand how everyone works best, which helps me to communicate with them. I also find out what doesn't work for them- and it's different every time. Lisa Vivo, the production stage manager, was one of the first stage managers I ever assisted at Maryland; on You Can't Take It With You. She taught me a lot of the basics of stage management then. This show presents different issues, such as Equity rehearsal guidelines and live animals onstage, and we're working together to figure out the right course of action for each situation. The opportunity to work with such an amazing group is one that all students here should experience before they graduate.

Lisa Vivo/Production Stage Manager
It has been almost six years since I graduated from the University of Maryland's Theater Department. Since then I have worked with many theater professionals in many theaters around town and I have become a manager in the Education Department at Arena Stage. Out of all of my experiences, however, I have been most honored from being asked twice in the past two years to return to the University as a guest artist. I have returned as a professional working side by side with the professors who gave me so much when I was a student and who taught me the meaning of excellence in theater and in all that I do. Now it has been my turn to return the favor with the amazing opportunity to pass on what I have learned to students who are where I was not so long ago. Two years ago, Maribeth Chaprnka was my assistant stage manager for You Can't Take It With You and Sean Hoagland was in the cast. This time around I am thrilled to be working with them both again and to see how much they have grown as artists, Sean developing his own approach as an actor and Maribeth using many of the same stage management techniques that I passed on the last time we had worked together. Being a part of the department's success not only when I was a student but also now as a professional is more of a compliment than any I could have asked for... it doesn't get much better than this.

See you next week.

~MH

4/03/2005

"You want an artichoke?"


Director Dan De Raey with actor Ian Le Valley
More on that later.

We finished staging the play this week, and had the designer run.

Staging is where we discover how the characters live in the space. How and why they sit, stand, exit, enter, eat, drink and so on. This is all done, most of the time, with the actors still carrying their script. Everyone learns lines at a different pace and in different ways. I learn mine when I understand the physical story somewhat and connect the inner dots. So at this point the play has a sketched in feel to it. We're painting with big brushes now. Once the basic physical world is somewhat defined, we will start to paint with much finer brushes. That's when the real fun begins.

With the lines memorized, we get to play with all the various ways our characters interact. Keep in mind, that dialogue is only one way that we communicate. And with all due respect to playwrights, it's the least interesting. To me. I am fascinated by the ways that we talk with our bodies; the ways we choose to occupy a space. Whenever two or more human beings are in a space together there is communication. Even if one or both choose not to verbally interact, there is still communication. Now that we are slowly putting down the script, it allows us to do the most important work of the actor: listening. By "listening," I mean taking in the whole person with whom you are communicating. To me, listening is reading the other person, hearing their words, and then deciding what to say in response to what you see and feel.


Actor Caren Anton with Director Dan DeRaey
For example, say you run into an old friend you haven't seen for months. The two of have always been very competitive, both keeping about even, with one or the other edging ahead, only to be caught and passed. Today it's your turn in the lead. The friend knows this too. As you approach, all seems to be warmth and smiles. But as the friend gets closer (switch to The Matrix slow motion here), you see the huge smile is just a little too big, the skin a tad tight; the eyes, instead of gleaming with the liquid of recognition of joyous and deeply felt friendship, are steely and tightly focused, right on you. Your breathing gets a just a little shallow; you start to recalibrate your greeting. You were ready to let loose with a hearty "Hey! Goooooood to see you bro!" But now, in a heartbeat you switch to a tentative; "Hey! How you doin' man"! This gives them the opportunity to offer up some small tidbit of inner life, allowing you the chance to figure out just what is going on. This is just one example of listening.


Actor Sean Hoagland with Director Dan DeRaey
We also had the designer run-through this week. Ok, cards on the table time. Over the years, I have gotten better at being relaxed for this part of the process. But I fundamentally disagree with the need for it. I'd prefer to see the designers come at various times during rehearsals. Justin Thomas, our lighting designer, has been in several times during rehearsals. At the time the designer run is held, we are still script-in-hand, and only have a general idea of the play. It feels awkward and exposed to share your work at this point. This is just my response; some actors are fine with it. But as I said, I'm getting better with it.

At the end of week three, the power of this play is just starting to be realized in our work. You can feel the undercurrent of the text coming to life. It makes me eager to be back at rehearsal, but not enough to skip a needed day off.

The title of this entry is, "You want an artichoke?" It's a line in the play. Dan De Raey says it's one his favorite lines. I'm growing fond of it, too. See the production. You'll know why.

~MH

3/27/2005

Spring Break. We're rehearsing. Eat your hearts out.

Actually, this is a good time for us. No classes. No meetings, just the play.

Here's what I know so far. Sam Shepard's plays, many of them, deal with sons and their relationship to their father. Shepard had a difficult relationship with his dad. I won't go into it in detail here; suffice to say that the father son theme dominates his work. Look at Fool for Love, Buried Child, The Late Henry Moss, True West, to name a few, and there it is: DAD. A dominating, sometimes terrifying presence. Reading or seeing this play, one might think-geez what a jerk this father is. But the actor must surrender judgment of the character and embrace his humanity, so that is my challenge.

I do this by trying to find the child in the characters I play. All of us, I think, still have the kid in us that was loved/not loved, was attractive/was geeky, was strong/was weak, was nurtured/was abused; the kid who played games with all their heart and soul, as if the outcome was truly life altering. Life does things to that child. Once I get a sense of that the kid's life, what his dreams were when he was, say, 12, then I work my way forward to where he is today. And I figure out how he got here.

My gut feeling on Weston, and it's supported by the text, is that he's still possessed by the ghosts of a traumatic childhood. His adult life has been consumed by the need to feel successful, a winner. He can't give of himself to his family because he needs to be out there figuring it out, chasing his demons, pursuing the dream. Do I agree with this way of living? Hell, no! But I am playing the guy so I have to see it from his point of view, otherwise I judge him. Whether he is good or bad or shades in between is up to the audience to decide. I mentioned in last week's entry that he is depressed and violent. That remains true, but only up to a point. The thing I learned this week is that no matter how badly he falters, how much money he owes, he still thinks that success is right around the corner. He sums it up this way, "It couldn't get worse, so I figured it'd just get better." His violence is more like an old dog that wants, just once in its life, to bite instead of bark. He talks to focus himself, to steel himself against his failures, which are many.

One more thing came home to me this week. Something I know but I get reminded of in every new role I undertake: I am slow. Yup, I'm a real plodder in early rehearsal. It's one thing to read a play and get it, but another thing entirely to get on your feet and pry all the creative pathways open. At this stage, I feel like Young Frankenstein's monster; I can walk, sort of talk, but I just can't sing Puttin' on the Ritz. Yet. This is why I appreciate Dan De Raey so much. He trusts us. He's brave enough to let us be confused, let us be just plain bad, because he knows that the most important thing is for us to gain ownership of these characters. I've been in rehearsals where, after completing a scene, the director would spring from his chair and say "…well, you can't do it like that." For some directors watching an actor struggle is painful for them, they perceive a "wrongness" in the performance, and every fiber of their being must correct that. Putting a play together is messy and awkward at times. Progress comes in fits and starts. Actors need to be allowed to make as many discoveries as possible. After watching me bumble around a few times Dan sat me down, asked a few questions, pointed out something in the text, and the light bulb went off in my head. By letting me be on my own for a while, he could see where the play was in my body, and where it wasn't.

And I have to say that Sean and Malinda, who are playing my son, Wesley and daughter, Emma, are just wonderful. They are so assured, so self-possessed. I know they have fears like all of us, but they don't show it. I admire them.

Some more people to introduce; our Stage Manager, Maribeth Chaprnka and Production Stage Manager Lisa Vivo (Lisa is a member of Actor's Equity association and an alumni) Dave Buckler is the Assistant Stage Manager. They are charged with many, many responsibilities. But none more challenging, more daunting, than keeping Daniel De Raey on schedule. It's like herding cats. Believe me. Our production team is also lucky to have two fine Assistants to the Director: Jennie Cole and Mike Grew. I think they have a similar job description to the above. There will be more on their contributions once we get into the theatre.

See you next week.

~MH

3/20/2005

Week 1: First Read Through & Table Work.


Actors Ian LeValley and Karen Anton look at costume sketches for Curse of the Starving Class.
Tonight is the first read-through. This encompasses the first read-through of the play; the director’s concept discussion; the showing of the designs; and the meeting of all the different members of the production team: designers, cast, director, assistant director's, stage managers, assistant stage managers, and understudies. All are gathered in the same room for the first time. The play has been cast for months at this point, and the set and costume designs have been finalized.

It's an exciting time, and there is just a whiff of anxiety in the air. As actor's, we are cast knowing very little, if anything, about the director’s idea, or concept of the play. It's at the first read-through where all is revealed. True story: several years ago while working at a major theatre in the area, it was at the first read- through where we learned that many of us would wear plastic wrap and tin foil... in the summer. I think the cast didn’t breath for a good five minutes when this idea was revealed. Design equals environment to the actor. So it's at the first read through where we literally learn where we will live for the next eight weeks.

My personal response to seeing the designs for Curse of the Starving Class at first read was "thrilled". The design accomplishes everything one would hope; inform location in an exciting, vital, theatrical way, define space, and support the story. The designers are Justin Thomas/lights, Kristina Lucka/costumes, Tanna Peters/set, and Roni Lancaster/sound. They're all part of our accomplished MFA in design program.


Mitch Hebert gets into character during the first rehearsal read-through of "Curse"
After looking at the designs and hearing each designer discuss their process in achieving it, it's time to read the play. The first read-through of the play is strange ritual in the theatre. By this time, the cast has had these roles in their hands for several months now. Lots of gestation has occurred, but much, much more needs to happen. The urge is to just let go and play. But the very script you are holding limits how much you can connect with anyone else. You don't own these words yet. Your character's life is a vague idea at this point. In CSC we will spend the first week just sitting around the table reading, asking questions, and connecting the textual dots. Once this is week is over, we will have a better sense of the givens of the text. It's like building a foundation one idea, one image at a time.

On the second evening, Dan De Raey urged us to take small bites of the play and let the words of the playwright come through as opposed to feeling an obligation to perform, which can be a byproduct of the first read-through of the play. This is one of the things I love about working with Dan. He empowers you to be brave enough to let the work be simple, to give the text a chance to breathe.


Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz talks about Curse set with set designer Tanna Peters.
As I write this, it's the end of the first week for me and I'm done for the day. Some of the cast are back at rehearsal, "getting on their feet" or staging the first scene. Earlier today we read the play again. The contrast to the read of Monday night was huge. There was now some depth, a deeper sense of each character's journey. I am slowly coming to understand Weston. He's a man who has lost is way in pursuit of the American Dream. He's severely depressed and sometimes violent. Playing him will definitely cause me some discomfort. We all have our demons, and most of us go years, maybe decades never disturbing them. As an actor, I have to poke them with a stick all too often. I continue to work to make these inner devils my friends. I have to use them in service of the characters I play, so there is no sense hating their existence. Weston also has a very up, bright side that is in play in Act III. So I get to explore with that side of myself as well. He's a very compelling, complex man. I am privileged to be able to explore what makes him tick.

My conclusion at the end of the week...what a play!

~MH

3/09/2005

Welcome to the Curse of the Starving Class blog!

In this first entry, I’ll bring you up to date on how we arrived at this idea of a blended production. In future entries I hope to share some of the discoveries and insights of the production process.

For several years the Department of Theatre at the University of Maryland has been looking for a way to work with an established professional theatre. We are sure that our students, designers, actors, and stage managers, would all benefit from direct contact with working professionals. So why not just hire some professional actors? We have done that on a limited basis. For instance, in our 2000-01 production of The Glass Menagerie Helen-Jean Arthur was hired to play Amanda. We felt it would enrich the experience for our students to work opposite a professional actor who was the age of the character; also this was a role that no undergrad could pull off successfully. In university theatre there are times when undergraduates do play middle aged characters, usually when many of the characters are of the same age approximately. This was in case in our recent production of Zooman and Sign.

However, working with an individual guest artist, while rewarding, is not the same as working with a professional theater, such as Woolly Mammoth, our partner on Curse of the Starving Class. In Woolly we are connecting with not only a 25 year old professional company, but one that has a very distinctive, edgy approach to the work. We committed to doing two shows with them.

There were several challenges in picking a play for this "blended" slot. One challenge that we always face at MD is balance of roles. The fact is, more roles are written for men than women, but there are more actresses than actors. So, we looked for a play that had several strong roles for women. Curse of the Starving Class has only two, so in that regard we didn't fare well. However one of those roles, the daughter Emma, is really the main character along with her brother Wesley. So it was a trade off. We went for the great play that had two astonishing roles for students. There are many other criteria to consider in picking plays for university theatre but I'll move on to the big challenge that faced us with Woolly: "But is it a Woolly play?" If I had a dollar for every time that question was asked... Many plays that we at the U liked had to pass the Woolly litmus test. And that was, ummm, tricky. Finally we settled on Curse of the Starving Class as one that met all our needs. Two leading roles for students and several fun supporting roles, with four more roles for "senior" actors. And it had that Woolly essential of terrific writing featuring characters pushed to edge.

Picking the director was next. CSC is a gritty, dark comedy. Here is how it is described in the blurb from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland web site: Curse of the Starving Class is a powerfully stark, funny and exhilarating trip into the dark side of the American dream. The Tate family struggles for identity in a world without any real spiritual hope, but yet haunted by sacred images. Striking ironies abound--a valuable farm (where starving is a given spiritual condition) exists in a classless society (in which class is about the only means of self-definition). There was only one director that we considered: Daniel De Raey. I've worked with Daniel on four productions. And Dan Wagner, our department chair, has also worked with him several times. Daniel we knew to be a master at getting unvarnished, straight from the gut performances from actors. Exactly what is needed for Curse of the Starving Class. I am thrilled to be able give our students the chance to work with someone of his depth and integrity.

So, the play is picked and cast. Oh, right, the cast. Our Woolly cast members are; Caren Anton as "Ella". (This will be the second time Caren and I were "married". We were stage spouses in Passing the Love of Women at Theatre J last spring, which was directed by... Daniel De Raey. Small world, eh?) Doug Brown, also a Woolly company member, will play "Taylor", Ian LeValley will appear as Ellis, and I will play "Weston". The student cast is Sean Hoagland as "Wesley", Malinda Ellerman as "Emma", Adam Bedzow as "Slater", Brad Wilkins as "Malcom", and Chris Wilson as "Emerson".

I'm looking forward to the challenges of this terrific play and this role, especially to the three page monologue with a live sheep. (Yep, you read that right. Some might say it's the sheep that has the real the challenge;)

I also am excited about acting with my students. I know that I said we do this for them as a teaching experience, but the truth is I also do it because I get a chance to learn from them. As we go along I'll be sure to address that, as I know it will be a big part of this process.

I have the best job in the world. To be able to do this play, with these people, in this glorious building. As they say, "It's all good".

~MH