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.
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.