24 July 2007

New Hampshire Log: Day One—God & Country

The actor’s life is filled with trials and tribulations (to quote the Bible, by way of Andrew Lloyd Weber). He or she is often put in a situation in which his or her schedule, personal freedom and overall individuality is somehow removed, or at least de-prioritized, by the process of creating a show. Actors are whisked away to remote locations, deprived of sufficient sleep and a million little things they are accustomed to having choices about, and all for the sake of a show that may or may not have significant resonance in their careers and memories. It could be over when it’s over, simply a drop in the bucket of New York theatre and their own resumes.

That’s why, when at all possible, such sacrifices for art should be made in country as beautiful as the bulk of New England is.

On Saturday I climbed into a rental car bearing New Hampshire plates with three of my fellow performers and drove the lot of us up to Lyme, New Hampshire, so we could begin our rehearsals for the New York Fringe Festival the next Sunday. It was gorgeous day and, apart from not being able to get my iTrip to work with the rental car (dang you, antiquated peripheral device), it was a simple, direct drive up. Upon depositing actors to various houses (everyone is being put up by volunteers from around the area) Faith Catlin, Kelly van Zile and I reclined for just a moment with drinks before I walked two doors over to my digs. It was nice. Faith and Kelly were my introduction to Vermont/New Hampshire some four years ago, when Faith cast me in her production of Summertree.

We’re rehearsing in Signal & Noise Productions’ acquired space—a barn off of Loche Lyme. Smells of guano permeate the area, but it’s an impressive amount of space with fascinating levels, and when we step outside we’re a hop and skip (minus the jump) away from the lake. This means swimming and sunning during lunch, which means bring on the bat poop! The barn is part of a property that also doubles as a cabined vacation getaway, and they have food service and wireless internet. So we’re pretty well-off, all things considered. (Which is really good, since the other show in my life—Prohibitive Standards—is in full development swing and needs as much internet attention as I can spare.)

This phase of rehearsals for As Far As We Know began with a table reading of the new script by faithful resident playwright Christina Gorman. The new script has acts and arcs and everything, so this is very exciting. It also has whole unwritten scenes (which we the actors will be first devising/improvising, upon which Christina will write more), unconnected older scenes that may not function anymore (the which will either be cut or moved or transmogrified) and clocks in at 120 pages. So we have our work cut out for us. As Laurie Sales, our esteemed director said, “We are basically trying to squeeze three weeks’ worth of rehearsal into one.” That consideration having been made, I was worried about our pace as of the end of Sunday’s rehearsal. After the read-through, we managed to stage about seven pages of material. This with a staged-reading presentation for the residents of Lyme on Friday night, and a single tech rehearsal in New York two days after those rehearsals begin and four before our opening there.

But to hell with that worry! A) It’s not my job, and B) the work was so good. We began with Laurie’s new co-director, Tracey (I’m gonna get her last name I swear), taking us through some very helpful movement exercises, akin to what Zuppa del Giorno does in training its actors. She’s planning to have us practice movement as three distinct types we may all be portraying in the course of the play: principal character, soldier and townsperson. Sunday was for our principals, and all of it works toward ensemble building. We began by “walking the space,” wherein the group tries to always be moving but keep the stage balanced, without clumps of people forming. Then she had us find our common step, without looking, so that our steps were falling altogether simultaneously. From there we moved to paces, that which we already established being level 1, and moving up to 4 (as fast as possible), remaining apace. Zero was a freeze, then -1 through -4 below a normal pace. It was very challenging to keep together, especially when it came to changing paces on a clap, making an unspoken group decision as to what pace we’d switch to, and doing so without pausing.

Then it got really interesting. Basing it off this work, we found character physicality from 1 to 10 (so Zuppa, that). I discovered some helpful character notions very fluidly from this, pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to just be an actor for that time. I hope it’s a trend that keeps up during this process. What I found was that Jake’s training lived in his torso, between his shoulders where the contraction is for standing at attention (chest out and, coincidentally, where my chronic soreness is from preparatory push-ups), but his character is in his arms. He’s a mechanic, an athlete, and his arms bring him everything he values. He is unselfconscious about them, but they swing with some weight at his sides. In finding this, and most likely as a result of allowing my chest to open up, I felt rather suddenly emotional, near tears. It’s not uncommon to feel that kind of release in this work, but its reasonable quality doesn’t make it any less valuable, so I’m keeping that feeling in mind.

What was most exciting (possibly more to me as a teacher than as an actor) were the final exercises, in which we tried many variations on connecting with our fellow actors. Tracey variously asked us to keep one, then two and three actors in our peripheral vision at all times, then imagine a string we had to keep taut between our character’s physical center and another’s, then practice at keeping an equilateral triangle between ourselves and two other characters. This produced fascinating movement and shapes, real, direct connections between us on stage and provided great illustration of how connected we could all be, as actors and characters, with one another in each scene or tableau.

There scenes we worked thereafter were very much in keeping with the Joint Stock Theatre Alliance/UnCommon Cause style. (Incidentally, Friend Patrick got me Simon Callow’s On Being an Actor for my birthday, and I’m just reading about his interactions with the original Joint Stock in England.) We were given assignments to modify scenes; specifically to encapsulate Major Ainsley’s phone call within a movement piece inspired by a church service, and to interrupt a memory scene of Jake with phone messages from friends and neighbors concerned for the family after hearing of his disappearance. These went well, but what was most encouraging was the sense, as Laurie shaped them, of making choices that would survive, on the whole, into a performance.

Last night after we adjourned I went to Laurie’s digs to watch what footage she had of Matt Maupin’s first video, the one the insurgents sent back to prove he was in their captivity. She only had short, silent clips included in the local news coverage of the vigil his hometown held, but they were powerful. After the viewing a great many of us adjourned to conversation on the porch, but my mind stayed with the imagination of that situation. We may film a kind of re-enactment of that tape, with me in Matt’s stead, and we may not even use it if we do. Still, the weight of that responsibility is a unique consideration in my work in this show.


Nat said...

I wanna be there. (pouty face)

Jeff Wills said...

I'm sorry you weren't, Nat. Nobody was playing Frisbee or making lewd jokes nor nuthin'!