Mrs. 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.