Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Bright Room Called Day --- Week 4 Rehearsals

A week off in the middle of a rehearsal process is not easy for a director to cope with. We have been building momentum on the show over the past few weeks and now (suddenly) everything will halt for a week before we pick up and start again. Sunday was a run-through of Act II (transitions and all). Thankfully, the cast pulled together and performed a relatively smooth run. Seeing Act II on its feet was definitely a reassuring sight leading up to this week's Spring Break and time away from the show for everyone.

Seeing Act II in a single piece demonstrated that we are definitely heading in the right direction. While Act I moves along at a brisk clip supported by Kushner's wit and an air of mystery and playfulness, Act II is poignant and harsh as each of the characters responds to the burning of the Reichstag and Hitler's appointment to chancellorship of Germany. I am extremely eager to see it all put together. The actors are also ready to play their arcs from Act I to Act II. Because of the play's "interruptions" the actors are provided with the additional challenge of maintaining momentum and energy in their performances while periodically stepping "out of character" to address the audience or sit as spectators to the action.

We are also at the point in the process where other outside elements are coming into the production. I've been busily choosing music, finding appropriate historical images for the slide shows, and working with the designers to create a cohesive vision for Kushner's world. These details can help to enhance the audience's experience and response to the production. I have pinned down what I want the final moment of the piece to look and feel like . . . always a good sign.

Along the same lines, we have been working on promoting the show more aggressively in the past week. I have been fortunate enough to (once again) be working with Nathan Langner for Bright Room's poster design. We wanted to create a striking image that blended together the historical and human drama of the production. Nathan is great to collaborate with and I feel that he has put together something artistically compelling that supports the production's vision.

And so with a week to catch our collective breath we will meet again on Sunday for our first full run-through of the show!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Bright Room Called Day --- Week 3 Rehearsals

Having started this week's rehearsals with a run of Act I provided a stark contrast with the mood and trajectory of Act II. The run was an effective demonstration of how far we've come in a couple of weeks . . . and a reminder of how far we still have to go. Pictured on the left Husz and Agnes (Dan Mueller and Victoria Hamilton) have become isolated from each other through circumstance and Agnes' choices.

One of the challenges in producing a piece of "Epic Theatre" is the use of short scenes punctuated by (as Kushner describes) "interruptions." It is tempting to get lost in the story's emotional content. The human drama is extremely compelling, however, we must strike balance between the play's emotion and its intellect in order to keep the production from becoming a cathartic experience rather than an impetus for social change. In Brechtian fashion, Kushner seems to be asking for application of the play's lessons so we are not utterly doomed to repeat history. While we can do our best to iron out these complicated transitions in early rehearsals, the fact is we're not really going to know if things work until adding the show's technical elements. At this point, I find the uncertainty a bit scary . . . and a bit thrilling. This is one of those wonderful leaps of faith one must make in the act of play-making. In terms of the play's emotional arc, Act I is all about establishing the relationships and the subtext between the characters so that we earn the poignancy in Act II. So . . . with that in mind we tackle Act II.

The tone is completely different as the relationships change and become fractured by the growing political tensions surrounding the characters. In working the scenes in fragments this week, we made some nice discoveries about the characters and found some intriguing questions to pursue in the coming weeks.

First of all, in working the Agnes/Die Alte scenes, we discovered some interesting connections between Agnes and the Her Swetts character. In Act I, Agnes tells Baz, "I feel no connection, no kinship with most of the people I see." This foreshadows Herr Swett's assertion of "irreconcilable separation from Joy." This disconnect with humanity and ultimate focus on the self draws together Swetts, Agnes, and Die Alte in a way that they are separate from the other characters in the story.

With that in mind, blocking Act II became about drawing the other characters together as Agnes pushes them away. Baz, Paulinka, Husz, Gotchling, and even Malek all reach out to Agnes and give her the opportunity to exercise her humanity to grab a hold of the "twig" that may save her. With each opportunity, however, Agnes withdraws further into herself, fearful of losing the familiar, the comfort, and the life she has grown accustomed to. Pictured on the left, Baz says good-bye to an unresponsive Agnes (Matt Holland and Victoria Hamilton).

Act II also presents the cast with the challenge of allowing their characters to be impacted by their circumstances. They all (except Agnes) change. Agnes, as we are discovering, doesn't change so much as she allows her fear and shortcomings as a human being to be exposed. Baz and Paulinka undergo the greatest changes in Act II. Baz, after a severe existential crisis, allows himself to care more deeply, to reach out significantly to his friends, to value his own humanity rather than to treat everything as a game of intellect and witty repartee. Although it is difficult for Paulinka, she realizes the value of her own soul. She is who she is: ambitious and tough. But she does also have the capacity for empathy and courage (as much as she hates to admit to it). Act II also reveals more humanity within Gotchling and Husz. For Gotchling, it's admitting to her own vulnerability and accepting the fact that she cannot save Agnes. Husz is in a similar situation of being forced to let go and act selfishly.

Another interesting point we discovered this week is that during the course of Act II, Baz, Husz, Gotchling, and Paulinka all pull together and become more "real" with each other on a deeper level while Agnes becomes an increasingly isolated figure. Pictured on the left Husz and Paulinka (Dan Mueller and Arianne Jacques) toast Paulinka's triumphant act of bravery. While in Act I, Husz seems frustrated with Paulinka's hardened ambition, here they are much warmer with each other after having been drawn together through a shared experience.

Tonight we will see Act II together in order before working these moments of parting in more depth through out the week.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Bright Room Called Day --- Week 2 Rehearsals

As is common in the theatre, rehearsal space comes at a premium. We are usually lucky enough to be able to rehearse in the space where we will eventually perform the play- however, this week, due to scheduling conflicts we had to find an alternative room. So . . . banished to the basement Green Room (in the bowels of Withycombe Hall). . . we set out to work Act I.

For me, play-making is a process of putting the piece together, tearing it apart, breaking it down, working it, making discoveries, asking questions, putting it back together again, and doing the process over and over until clarity of communication is (hopefully) achieved. All good plays offer a group of collaborators puzzles, challenges, and little mysteries to solve- and Kushner's text is blessedly full of these delightful enigmas. One thing that makes theatre so exciting for me is that put in the hands of a different director, group of designers, and performers the production of any given script will be vastly different because the human variables involved in textual interpretation. Making these discoveries together with an inquisitive cast and crew is always a rewarding part of the process for me.

This week was all about making discoveries about the characters and their relationships with each other in Act I. Agnes is a particularly difficult character because she is so very frustratingly human in her humor, her fears, her befuddlement with the events happening in her world, and her maddening complacency. For this play to work and communicate Kushner's ideas effectively, the audience must identify with Agnes and finds themselves in her. This is Agnes' story. This is emphasized in the play's meta-narrative by Baz in the "Prologue" scene. He suggests as a way to start the New Year properly, that the friends compose a story together. Characteristically, Paulinka attempts to take the spotlight first, but Baz stops her, "Please! This is Agnes' party. Agnes' apartment. Agnes should begin. Begin, Agnes." Pictured on the left, Baz listens as Gotchling tells her thread of the narrative.

Here, Kushner, through Baz, gives Agnes the opportunity to speak up for herself and establishes Agnes as the center of the events. We discovered this week, however, that although Agnes is the center of the group of friends, she does very little and changes very little through the narrative. We set out to figure out why, to define some of the intricacies of Agnes' relationships with her friends, and to build a group of friends that the audience likes and can relate to. I would love during the intermission for the audience to feel like, What a great group of friends or That reminds me of my friends.

We had a chance this week to build upon the romantic relationship between Agnes and Husz- who really seem like a rather odd couple. I kept asking myself (and Dan and Victoria)- What's the attraction there? Other questions that came up this week revolved around finding ways to foreshadow where the relationships go to in Act II without being heavy-handed. Each person that interacts with Agnes serves a different function in her life, and she seems to be a different person with each of them. Agnes molds herself to suit the personalities of her friends: she is idealistic for Gotchling, gossipy and competitive with Paulinka, comforting and sensitive to Baz, and witty and flirtatious with Husz. In the end, it seems, we are left with a rather inactive protagonist with very little sense of self. She sees what's happening in the world, she enjoys small pleasures of her life, but she lacks the capacity to risk. She confesses to Baz, "I'm overwhelmed. I feel no connection, no kinship with most of the people I see." And so she eventually draws into herself.

Kushner has given us in his script the gift of very complicated and very human characters with nuanced relationships. They are likable and, I believe, a group of friends an audience can and should relate to. The more time I spend with this witty group of intellectuals, the more I like them. Which, I hope, will eventually make the events in Act II all the more powerful. One of the most interesting historical questions about the Holocaust that has always intrigued me is: How could this have happened? What went wrong with these modern, educated, and artistic German people to allow a man like Hitler to seize power and control and to enact the horrors of war and genocide? Kushner, it seems, suggests an answer: Just like this. And these people were just like you and me. As Husz says so eloquently:

"This Age wanted heroes.
It got us instead:
carefully constructed, but
to take up
the burden of the times.
It happens.
A whole generation of washouts.
History says stand up,
and we totter and collapse,
weeping, moved, but not

Other fun discoveries and challenges for the week included learning the tune to "Internationale" (thanks so much, Billy Bragg). On the left Gotchling (McKenzie Miller) sings her devolted Communist heart out while Husz (Dan Mueller) and Agnes (Victoria Hamilton) look on, vodka in hand.

And so we press on! Two more sections to work before we move on to the run. Looking forward to seeing Act I worked and on its feet on Tuesday and being back in the Lab Theatre.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Bright Room Called Day --- Week 1 Rehearsals

After a brief respite from our first read-through in January, we gathered together again as a cast on Monday, February 22 for our second read-through (complete with snacks). Hearing the voices of the actors is extremely helpful to me as a director. Before casting, I must visualize the play on the page in order to develop a concept and make choices about characters completely based upon the text. After the casting decisions are made, however, hearing actors breathe life into the words helps me further shape the show and draw out the nuance because their voices inspire new and clearer choices. A couple of times during the first read-through I thought, "Ah-ha! That's what that character means" or "that's something I didn't realize about the character before." This is one of the most exciting parts about being involved in a collaborative process.

Ideally, I like to have space between the first and second read-throughs. During this time, things can marinate in my brain as I approach blocking rehearsals. I had that delightful luxury this time around. I made more discoveries during this reading and hearing the actors helped me solidify some of my directorial choices. One of the challenges of this play is striking the right balance between the "theatrical" or "Brechtian" elements that privilege social thesis and action above character and narrative and presenting a compelling story. Kushner writes what he calls "interruptions" into his text in order to break up the narrative. In many ways, Kushner's style and plays pay homage to the work of Bertolt Brecht. Within this context, the interruptions can remind the audience that the narrative is just a fictional story, but the issues it presents are real and require action. Brecht does not want his audience to respond emotionally, but intellectually to his work; for him theatre is about inspiring action, not enabling catharsis.

r this first week, Act I was blocked. The cast has been wonderfully focused on the work. This first photo is from the "Prologue" scene where the group of friends celebrates New Years' Eve in Agnes' apartment. Pictured left to right are Matt Holland (Baz), McKenzie Miller (Gotchling), Dan Mueller (Husz), and Arianne Jacques (Paulinka) around the kitchen table. A couple of things we discovered immediately in these rehearsals was how much this group of friends drinks together- in nearly every scene where they discuss politics, they have wine and/or vodka at their sides.

In "Scene 2" Agnes and Paulinka discuss Pauli
nka's therapy sessions with Dr. Bloom and Agnes' recent and growing interest in the Communist Party. Agnes exclaims: "Paulinka, these are the most exciting days of my life." Here, pictured left to right, are Arianne Jacques (Paulinka) and Victoria Hamilton (Agnes). I usually block and work plays one act at a time. Right now we are only focused on Act I and establishing the friendships and characters. It's crucial that the audience really like and identify with the characters in Act I, so that we earn the pay-off in Act II. Upwards and onwards!!!