How to start a show
October 16, 2013
'And that's how you start a show!'
- Tarell McCraney (director), after a run through of the first draft of our opening sequence for Anthony and Cleopatra.
In the rehearsal room
I'm poised on the edge of my chair, pencil in hand, ready to scribble or erase as the action demands. I watch Tarell direct bodies in space; I watch the actors listen to his soothing and strong voice and respond through movement and breath.
I realize I'm holding my own breath. I too am a part of the creative transformation occurring in the rehearsal room right now and I'm scared to exhale for fear of breaking the spell.
How does one document this transient, ephemeral experience and accurately record specific number of steps and floor patterns? I have to figure it out fast – Tarell is working quickly to get a rough sketch in place before the break.
What are blocking rehearsals?
Blocking rehearsals are my favorite phase of the production process. These are the rehearsals where the actors get up on their feet and work with the director to figure out the show, the characters, and the text as it is all meant to live and breathe in time and space.
My pencil is always on paper, my fingers are constantly flying across my keyboard, sending emails and texts as new ideas in rehearsal mean new props, costumes, and scenic elements and the shops need the information as quickly as possible.
I work in close proximity to Tarell, anticipating his needs and making sure he and the actors have whatever they might want readily available so that not a moment of rehearsal time is wasted.
It's a demanding time for the actors
While these rehearsals are often the most exciting for me, they can be the most terrifying for the actors. Suddenly they have to figure out what to do with their arms and hands without their script, and words that have only existed on a page, at a table, or over their morning coffee demand intonation, expression and resonation through a large empty space without chairs or walls to physically support them.
They have to pretend a plastic bowl hastily grabbed from the green room contains sacred gold. They're simultaneously figuring out how to say 10 lines of iambic pentameter in an unfamiliar dialect without taking a breath while chasing their scene partner in a circle and working with a long and sweaty rehearsal skirt and constricting corset.
Oh yeah, and they have to make us believe it's all really happening right now, though this story that takes place 200 years ago and was written 500 years ago.
Looking after the company
A critical task I have during this time, outside of the mechanics of recording movement, communicating to shops, and keeping us on schedule, is to help create and cultivate an environment where this work can transpire and the company feels safe and cared for.
I'm there for an actor if they can't call up their next line because they've just made an important emotional discovery in a scene. I'm there for the director when he needs to know what page we're starting on after the break.
In the same way the actors are simultaneously trying to do 18 thousand things at once, my own five senses are simultaneously trained on the director, the page, the actors, and the clock – awaiting and anticipating the transcendence that can only occur in the creative and sacred laboratory that is the rehearsal room.
Meanwhile, back in the rehearsal room
After an hour of watching actors and watching Tarell and recording movement in my book - writing and erasing, drawing arrows and scratching out symbols that look like hieroglyphics to anyone but me, we're ready to run through the entire sequence.
There's only a few minutes before the break and everyone is eager to solidify what they've been laboring at for the last 60 minutes. Tarell gives them the okay to start – and suddenly there is breath, life, song, movement, and music – and then without warning – the opening words of Shakespeare's stunning play to introduce us to the beautiful almost-deity that is Queen Cleopatra.
The actors stop and look anxiously at Tarell. I sit back in my seat and finally exhale. We all erupt into applause over the company's bravery and courage in a stunning first pass at a complex sequence on our first day of blocking.
And it's all down in the book for when we come back to it in a few days.
Tarell looks over at me and I have to take my own deep breath before I speak.
'Tea break, everyone. Back in 15 please.'
Top image: Evangeline's book is getting more full - and her notes are getting longer.
Bottom image: The actors try out ideas for props and costumes even at this early stage of rehearsal.
by Evangeline Whitlock
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