A Season of Exploration, Part IV: From the Other Side of the Table

Well, it’s been a while since my last theatre tale and this one will actually conclude this season of tales.

As I stated in my last entry, I was going to serve as an Assistant to the Director for Lara Marsh for the Playhouse production of Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods.  This was an interesting process from start to finish as Lara actually put me through an orientation of sorts before launching me on the project.

First and foremost, she wanted to know why this particular show because she knows how selective I am about the projects I choose to take on.  I’ve always been particularly attracted to scripts that feature great strength of spirit and this play has that in spades in the form of its two leading characters, Christine and Gabriel.  Since I had also read for the role of Michael Dolan back when the show was a staged reading, I had enough familiarity with the script to decide it would be a good project to learn the ropes of directing.

My first assignment was to do some background research for the show.  As the story centers around helping a young refugee from the Sudanese Civil War, I compiled some research about Sudan, the Sudanese Civil War, Sudanese culture and customs, and Somalia and its culture (due to one of the characters being from that region).

Lara had done a large amount of research as well.  Over the past two years Lara had become a living encyclopedia about the Sudan and the Lost Boys in her efforts to bring this show to life.  She had mastered the extremely difficult Dinka dialect, had watched a number of documentaries, and read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a very hard to read, but eye opening account of the trek of the Lost Boys through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng who lived through it.

I am a big “devil in the details” type of person and Lara is of a similar bent which is why we worked so well together during this process and saw eye to eye on 98% of things.  Some directors prefer actors to have done no prep work before beginning the creative process so they can grow organically.  Others want the actors to have read the script before auditioning.  But Lara wanted her cast to be well grounded in the history behind this play so they would be able to better develop their characters.

Then came the night of auditions where I got to formally meet Jeanne Shelton, a stage manager I had read in front of on numerous occasions.  The auditions were a little less than I hoped for in terms of size.  I had secretly hoped for a slew of actors so we could have an overwhelming selection to pick and choose from.  We had enough people show up to cast the play with just a little overage.  But the lack of quantity was, by and large, made up by the quality shown by the people who did come to audition.

I had once heard it said that a director only needs 15 seconds to determine whether or not he or she is going to cast you.  I agree with that to an extent.  We may need more than 15 seconds to decide to cast you, but it only takes about 15 seconds to decide not to cast you.  And don’t think that means that the audition was bad.  I mentally eliminated a couple of people who had great reads immediately simply because they were not suitable for any of our roles.

Fortunately, we were able to cast most of our cast from the auditions.  A couple of roles didn’t have enough people audition and those that did were not quite right, so Lara had to find people to fill those roles.

Now we had a cast and could begin the creative process.  During the process I learned that directing is a lot more than just handling the artistic side of things.  I’m used to coming early and staying late as an actor, but a director needs to be there much earlier than anyone else and must stay much later.  Countless details need to be considered like sounds, lights, props, etc.

I even learned that directing has its own political side to get the things one needs for a show to be the best that it can be.  One prominent thing I learned is that the season finale in the Playhouse’s smaller theatre is nicknamed the “death slot”.

This isn’t a bad moniker.  But this show takes place at the end of the season so a great deal of money has already been spent by this point and there is still the final musical to be produced on the Playhouse’s Main Stage which is going to need a lot of money as they are usually big, lavish affairs.  It just means that some strategy and negotiation is necessary for the shows in this slot to get what it needs.  Keep in mind that some of the Playhouse’s best shows have taken place in this slot such as Biloxi Blues, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and our little effort which has become a critical darling.

As Assistant to the Director, you may think that my job duties were relegated to getting Lara’s coffee, sharpening her pencils, and being her all around gofer.  The reality was that I was closer to an Assistant Director.  I gave ideas to Lara and took very copious acting notes for the performers.  Lara took me very seriously, often incorporating my ideas into her own notes.

I learned a great deal about directing under Lara’s learning tree.  Like acting, directing is also an art because it’s about a lot more than telling actors how to perform.  It’s about working with all types of learning curves, temperaments, and experience levels.  It’s about knowing where, when, and why to give a note.

As a details guy, I was ready to get into the grit and gristle of things right away.  Lara taught me that you have to let the actors experiment at first.  Early notes are simple as the performers build the frame of the house.  Directors gently guide it so the proper foundation is built.  As that confidence grows, the notes become more detailed and nuanced to refine and shape the story.

I would have to say that my favorite directing moment came when I was working on a scene with our lead actress, Julie Fitzgerald Ryan, and Victoria Luther, who was playing her daughter.  They were having an argument and Julie’s character has a line where she says, “We’re supposed to be living in circles.  Concentric circles.  Circles within circles.”

When I heard that line, I said, “Do I dare?  Yes, I dare.”  Then I asked Victoria to mouth the words along with Julie as I felt her character had heard this speech about a million times.  It’s hit the mark every single time.

One thing I’ve noticed about working in this slot is that the rehearsal period seems to be a bit reduced.  There’s only about 4 weeks of rehearsal as opposed to the 5 or 6 weeks I’m used to.  That means rehearsals almost every day for 4 to 5 hours at a clip to get where we need to be.

So fast forward to preview night.  I hadn’t been so nervous for a show since my first one.  What will the audience think?  Will they love it?  Will they hate it?  Will they ride me out of town on a rail?

I wait with baited breath until the end of the show and the audience rose to its feet for a standing ovation.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  One hurdle crossed.

Now it’s opening night.  The extra real deal, as it were.  The cast came out all guns a blazing and just nailed it to the floor.  Every review (5 of them at this point) has been glowing making Lost Boys Found at Whole Foods one of the most critically well received shows of the season.  And I had helped make it happen.

I rank this event as one of my prouder accomplishments in theatre and something more remarkable happened.  As I helped to guide this cast, my own skills as an actor were reinforced and, for the first time in a long while, I good and truly felt the itch to perform again.  So now I’m looking to tell a story again and found at least one promising show next year.

Well, that wraps up this season of tales.  I will return with a new season that I like to call “A Season of Renewal”.  We’ll see you then.

Advertisements