Another essay: From Page to Stage, Part One

eugeneMrs. KFC and I have always loved live theatre — there is a bin in the library where if you dig deep enough you will find a program from the original London production of Hair (and a few hundred other programs — Gielgud, Olivier and Dench are all well-represented, along with a host of Western Canadians that are probably unknown to most visitors to this blog).

One of the byproducts of that interest is that we both have been involved as board members of local theatre companies and it is that involvement which gives rise to this post.  Forewarned is forearmed — it will be a long one and it is only part one of two.

It was 11 years ago during my second year on the Alberta Theatre Projects board of directors that I told the artistic director that I wanted to observe the production of a new play, from start to finish.  ATP has a new play festival, PlayRites, which is one of Canada’s best and I wanted to see how a script moved from page to stage.  It turned out to be one of the most interesting — and educational — experiences of my life.  I am sure for those who live and work in that world, what I saw was only “normal” but for me it was life-changing.  The artistic director put me on to A Guide to Mourning, a new play by ATP’s playwright-in-residence, Eugene Stickland, directed by the company’s new play guru (and Eugene’s frequent collaborator) Bob White.  I’m pretty sure the artistic director said to these two “don’t worry, Kevin’s just a boring corporate director, he’ll go to a couple of rehearsals, decide this is a silly project and then he’ll disappear.”  Ha.  Ha.  Ha.  Kevin went to just about every rehearsal, did see every preview and was so entranced with the process that he also went to almost every performance.  His 50th birthday happened during the run and was celebrated with a “tombstone” cake at the local actor’s, post show bar.  Eugene and Bob are now two of my closest friends.  This post is an attempt to explain why that move from page to stage so impressed me.  (The cover picture for this post is a volume including both A Guide to Mourning and Sitting on Paradise, another Eugene Stickland play which features a sofa.  Copies are hard to come by but here is a link to the publisher, Red Deer Press.)

Euge says that by the time one of his new plays reaches the rehearsal hall it is usually about draft five.  He discusses his concepts before draft one;  Bob and some selected readers (yes, that is sometimes me) see it at that stage.  Draft two is usually done before the play is workshopped with professional actors and the real work starts.  They read through the draft around a table, with playwright, director and stage manager present — and then supply feedback.

In Eugene’s writing practice, the biggest changes probably occur in drafts three through five, with Bob’s active involvement.  Characters are eliminated, added or changed dramatically.  The play that will eventually be produced starts to acquire its final shape.  It must also be said of playwright Stickland that he likes his gags — a lot of the “editing” in that part of the process consists of Bob saying “let’s save that gag for another play” and out it goes.  Not at all unlike the process that Stella Duffy described in her recent interview on dovegreyreader’s site.

So that was where I met A Guide to Mourning in the ATP rehearsal hall.  The company has a tradition of asking all its staff (and board for that matter) to the first readthrough of the plays that it is producing — I love the experience.  The playwright and director each spend about two minutes discussing their concept; the set designer introduces his idea of the set and the costume designer outlines her concepts.

And then the actors read the script, to an “audience” of about 40 — fund-raisers, press people, dressers, you name it.  One of the reasons that I love first readthroughs is that actors are totally incapable of “reading” — not surprisingly, given their trade, they “act”.  Strung out along a table, scripts in hand, it takes only a few minutes until you can see characters begin to develop and relationships between characters (even from actors who only met each other that morning) start to germinate.  I have seen first readthroughs where a good part of the cast of professional actors was in tears by the time they finished.

My first “Aha” moment with A Guide to Mourning came at the first rehearsal the next day.  Let me back up a bit to give a quick outline of the play.  Like much of Euge’s work, it does feature a somewhat dysfunctional, but ultimately likeable, family.  The patriarch has died, mother has started the grieving process (which features a box of tissues for each family member), the eldest son (pretty much a street person) shows up looking for boots, another son and young daughter soon arrive.  The “mourning” has begun; the play is about how it unfolds.  There are a number of wonderful scenes:  Euge particularly likes the closet scene where the sons consider their father’s favorite shoes.

What stunned me at the first rehearsal is second nature to anyone in the theatre community and virtually unknown to anyone outside it.  It is a concept of  “beats” and has changed the way I have read every book ever since.  The cast and crew are again around a table, reading the work — and periodically (sometimes every sentence, sometimes after a page or so) one or more shout “beat”.  “Beat” is when the nature of a conversation changes — when someone wants to introduce a new topic, or new emotion, or just avoid what has gone on before.  Next time you read a novel, watch for the “beats” as it progresses — live actors have to convey this but good novelists are doing it all the time.  My trade was in writing but I must admit this obvious approach has changed the way I have listened to every conversation — or read every book — since.

The other thing that I learned on that first day was that the playwright no longer “owned” the play.  In one sense, he never had since he had been working with the director from the start.  But once the crew moves into the rehearsal hall, the director and stage manager (his Chief Operating Officer, for those who know the corporate world) start to “own” the production.  With a new play, like A Guide to Mourning, Euge would go home each night and show up the next morning with “revisions to the text” on anywhere from a couple to a dozen pages.  By the time the play was into the third week of rehearsals (which took place every other day — so after about 10 days in the rehearsal hall), his work was pretty much done and he disengaged from the process until previews and opening night.  And unlike film or television, where the director “owns” the production through to the final copy, in live theatre he leaves the process on opening night — and the stage manager, crew and cast “own”  the production.

My other mind-blowing experience in this process came at about the same point that the playwright stopped showing up (okay, he was out doing promotional interviews).  By now, I knew the text pretty much as well as the actors did; the play had been “blocked”  (actors located on the set) and I figured I understood it quite well.  Then I learned why great directors are great directors.

One morning, Bob got ready for a runthrough and his instructions to the cast were “I want you to experience how much love you feel for the other members of this family.”  The result was very interesting — it was quite a bit different from the runthroughs I had seen before.  Still scratching my head, I listened that afternoon as Bob began another runthrough with “I want you to go to the darkest side of your character that you can.”  It was exactly the same words, all of the same actions, as the morning runthrough — and it was a totally different play.  Turns out there is more to theatre than I had thought.

The next morning, the instructions were “today I want A Guide to Mourning avec fromage — be as cheesy as you can”.  Again, same words, same action, totally different play.  As an audience of one (there was no one else in the room) I had just witnessed three entirely different plays, all featuring the same script and action.

I only realized how important this was when the play went into preview.  The first preview night, the house was “papered” with freebies from the theatre community (hardly unusual); they knew most of the cast and crew and were out for a good time.  They laughed way too much — half way through Act One, I was worried that “my play” (I was identifying with it by that point) was going to be a disaster.  With no direction from anyone, the cast went to that “dark-side” rehearsal and, suddenly, things weren’t that funny anymore.  The audience was back in line by the end of Act One, ready for Act Two.

The experience the next night was the exact opposite — it was a corporate sponsor’s recognition night, Calgary is an oil town and oil men and their wives don’t laugh at death.  Even the best of Eugene’s jokes were not producing a giggle.  So the cast, again with no instruction, went to “fromage” — it took a while, but giggles started to come, followed by genuine laughter.  The audience was ready for Act Two.

I know the corporate world talks about Scenario Planning and periodically spends an hour or two looking at options.  I’d never seen a group of people — from playwright, to director, to stage manager, to cast (not to mention set designers, dressers and light people) invest so much time so wisely in getting ready for all options.

I remember A Guide to Mourning as though the experience happened yesterday.  And as the title to this post notes, this is only Part One of From Page to Stage — stay tuned for Part Two, a look at Eugene’s latest play, Queen Lear, in which Joyce Doolittle, an icon in Calgary theatre who is in her eighties, performed for the first time in the Joyce Doolittle Theatre (so in her own way, she ranks up there with Olivier and Gielgud).  It centres on her rehearsing for the role of King Lear in an all-female production of the Shakespeare play. Queen Lear is a truly amazing piece of work.

I know that not a lot of people actually read drama (it is hard to even buy it, once you get beyond the obvious names) and even I find it tough.  However, I can’t tell you how much the way that I read all books has changed as a result of this experience.  If you ever, ever get the chance to be in a rehearsal all (ideally for more than one session) don’t turn it down.

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16 Responses to “Another essay: From Page to Stage, Part One”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    Excellent post, Kevin. I have a lot of experience of drama from my school days long ago, to brief stints in amateur dramatics, and now with my youngest being an absolute slave to the stage. It’s tedious in the extreme at times, but always worth it in the end.

  2. Eugenius Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    It was very interesting for me to read your essay about the time we spent getting A Guide to Mourning birthed and into the world. I can hardly wait to read how it all turned out! Take care!

    Eugene

  3. Trevor Says:

    I have never been in a play, and I’ve only attended rehearsals for college plays, just not as involved as what you’ve described above, and I feel I’m missing something excellent. Thanks for filling a bit of the void and showing me a side of drama I did not imagine. If I get the chance, I’ll do just what you recommend and become more involved.

  4. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, this is fascinating, I really had no idea about all this.Looking forward to part two, Queen Lear now that sounds amazing!

  5. Isabel Says:

    I’ve never been an actor, because I just can’t memorize so much dialogue, but I admire them for being able to do so.

    In high school, I sold tickets to the school productions.

    When I lived in Dallas, I was in charge of getting food for everyone during the final dress rehearsal at the Dallas Theater Center. I now understand why everyone was really so grateful for the food and the ability to take a short break and not have to go hunt for food. They must have been exhausted at that point of the production.

    Love your post. You really gave me an experience.

  6. Rob Says:

    Thanks for this fascinating read, Kevin. I’d be very interested to know more about the system of “beats”—it’s something one hears about every now and then, but it sounds like there’s more to it than I thought.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: You raise an interesting point — food and the rehearsal hall could be an entire post, from my experience. Stage actors are very aware of the need to maintain health (obviously, especially in the vast majority of productions where there are no understudies). The literature has lots of examples of those who choose alcohol as their support system, but I was intrigued by the much healthier examples I saw in the room. While rehearsing can be tedious, it also uses a lot of energy — and I was intrigued at how every break involved eating to build that back up again. I’d say most of the actors in A Guide to Mourning spent at least an hour packing their food before coming to work. And when the play was workshopped in New York, I learned more about soup than I thought it was possible to know — from my limited experience, New York actors are more or less continuously eating some lentil-like soup to keep themselves going.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rob: I think the ultimate “beat” writer is Marcel Proust. Take a look at one of his longer sentences (they aren’t hard to find) — he back-end loads the sentence by introducing a number of possible “beats” and only as the sentence comes to a conclusion does he actually introduce a subject and verb to confirm the chosen beat.

    While most “beats” in a play are obvious, the discussions that I found most interesting were when actors wondered whether a moment was a “beat” or not — e.g. is this a continuation of dialogue? or are we about to move onto new turf?

    If you want another example of how I find it works in fiction, check out the post that Max put up today — http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/ — on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He rightly devotes a lot of attention to the framing device of the monolgue, which some readers find distracting. I found it to be quite different — the narrator uses “beats”, sometimes quite artificial, to supply layers of complexity and nuance to the story. It is that effect that I think my play-watching experience taught me, becoming aware of how an author uses the technique almost the same way that a painter builds layers of paint to create a full picture.

  9. Margaret ED Says:

    How long will we have to wait for part two? Your blog is fascinating and I look forward to each new posting.

    I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Queen Lear and I have decided that it is my new favourte stage production. I hope to see much more of KevinfromCanada and Eugene Stickland.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Very cheeky of you, Margaret. Part Two is awaiting the delivery of suitable graphics and will be up within a week I promise. Queen Lear is an excellent play and I can’t wait to describe it, but I do want good pictures to go with it (to offset my boring writing).

  11. Eugenius Says:

    Hi again Kevin,

    It’s a funny sense of proprietorship, or even ownership, I suppose, because when you write about the fact I no longer owned the play I flinched a little. You’re right, of course, that’s the nature of a collaborative art form like theatre and if I felt a real need for ownership I suppose I should have been a novelist. But I never felt I didn’t own the play. Part of the process is to give it over to the director and cast, and as we were blessed with a great director and cast that wasn’t hard to do. But it was always mine, if you know what I mean. (Still is, for that matter.)

    The final stage that I think might be of interest to the very interesting people who have commented on your essay is that the playwright gives it over yet again to the critics and commentators. I think more so even than novelists, playwrights have had an especially antagonistic relationship with the critics. Who was it who said critics are like eunuchs in a harem? They see how it’s done, night after night, but they can’t do it themselves. (The Irish playwright Brendan Behan — what did we do before Google?!)

    Maybe because we do have to give over to the talents of others, we feel especially vulnerable. And yet, it’s all part of the process. It can be unpleasant, as in the case of a bad review. And then again, it can be very nice, as is the case of your essay, where I have the opportunity to see you share your memories of our time together on the play with others. And then read their responses. Fascinating world this blog world. Thanks for introducing me to it.

    I’m rambling. It’s late. I guess I’m just saying thanks, and letting you know that I’m very curious about how your readers are responding to your essay, and of course, about what comes next.

    No pressure, mind you.

    Thanks, Kevin.

    Eugene

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for commenting and clarifying, Eugene. Of course, you still “own” the play. I think what I should have said (as the title of the essay actually does say, now that I think about it) was that the written play and performed production are two quite different thiings. I was fascinated to see what was involved in transforming one into the other.

  13. William Rycroft Says:

    Great stuff Kevin. You probably knew I’d be commenting on this one. First of all I love the idea of applying the word ‘normal’ to anything related to theatre! I know what you mean of course and you’re right, what you experienced was normal but there are different ways of developing and rehearsing a new play as well of course.

    You observations of the read-through are really interesting. I’ve been at some where actors make a great performance of ‘not’ acting, some where as you say there are tears before bedtime and I’ve certainly seen some actors produce their best work in a read-through. At that early stage you’re relying on your instincts and for some actors that’s their best; the rehearsal, the tinkering and all that acting end up getting in the way.

    Also interesting was your experience of ‘same words, different play’. It’s what separates live theatre from the recorded arts, the reason why you can still find something new in Shakespeare after more than 400 years and what makes acting so much fun to do. It is so weird to be able to do so much with the same words and to fell how an audience’s reaction can warp and alter the performance of the play from night to night. That feedback is why I think I will always prefer theatre to filming.

    Right, enough waffle, I’m off to read part two…

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I was counting on a comment from you William and you certainly have not disappointed.

    Thanks for expanding on my comments about the readthrough — I have been to enough that I do appreciate how different they can be. At one end of the spectrum (to be bitchy) you sometimes see egos already coming into play and, as an outsider, can only have sympathetic thoughts for the director. At the other end (as happened with this play) you can immediately see a cast that wants to make things work — and starts the process immediately. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that my limited experience covered all the possibilities.

    I do hope every person who visits this blog reads your second last para more than once — it captures why, for me, live theatre is my favorite entertainment. As a novel reader, I most prefer books where I find the author has engaged me, literally as another character in the book. As a theatre-goer, on a good night, I find that playwright, director, cast and crew do exactly the same thing — I become a part of the experience of “same words, different play”. And have enormous respect for all of the people who are involved in making that happen.

    Thanks for the comment — I am sure you can understand from both Parts One and Two why I find live theatre to be so interesting.

  15. Dennis Fitzgerald Says:

    Hey Kevin! I have fond memories of you in the rehearsal process. You were like a sponge! All of us actors were so used to the process and you brought an innocence and joy that kept everything fresh. We didn’t let on, but we were all chuffed at your interest and always wanted to impress you.
    You were( and I assume still are) such a generous soul during that time.
    REX coveted your sweaters! Ahh.. those sweaters!
    Thanks for the memories, Kevin. Wonderful essay. Stay well and happy!
    Cheers!
    Dennis ( REX )

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    For those who haven’t figured out the obvious, Dennis was one of the cast in A Guide for Mourning — and I am delighted to read that the actors found my interest more than just amusing. I still remember it with fondness.

    Thanks for commenting, Dennis. I hope all is well with you.

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