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The Artist’s Journey: John Ahlin - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

The Artist’s Journey: John Ahlin

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Each week, The Artist’s Journey will provide an insider look at the creation of a production, from first rehearsal to opening night, through the eyes of one of the show’s key players.

John Ahlin is playing “Angus MacLeod” in the world premiere-comedy A Dram of Drummhicit. Some of his credits include Waiting for Godot, Journey’s End (2007 Tony Award Best Revival), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Voices in the Dark (directed by Christopher Ashley), One Mo’ Time, Whoopee! and Macbeth.

John Ahlin (right) with fellow cast member Ron Choularton at the company breakfast for A Dram of Drummhicit


Part Two: Meet and Greet

Aristotle believed that mosquitoes spawned spontaneously out of the mud. We now know this isn’t quite true but I bring it up for two reasons. First, it’s fun to say “spawned spontaneously,” and second, it’s a perfect allegory for putting on a play. Artists converge from all over the country to collaborate, and with luck and fortitude, a new play will magically emerge. (For those following the plot, the artists are the mud and the play is the mosquito.)

I was just such a muddy actor when my plane touched down in San Diego to work at La Jolla Playhouse for the first time to do a completely new mosquito called A Dram of Drummhicit. Arriving in California is still a wonder. My reactions are always the same: “Wow, a palm tree! What’s that bright orb in the sky? Why is no one honking!?” Winter in New York is harsh, and sunlight is seen only in inter-building patches on one side of the street a few hours a day. To me San Diego is a kind of paradise.

The first day of rehearsal is a festive affair, but it includes, usually later in the day, the single thing I dislike most about theatre. My La Jolla Playhouse experience began with a meet and greet where every employee came out to meet the new actors as we devour a bagel and fruit buffet laid out with care by the Playhouse Partners. A veteran of countless meet and greets, I brought Tupperware to snag the uneaten bagels and fruit (buffet is my favorite food). Everyone was friendly and gracious, and I make a point of learning as many names as possible, but my mnemonic devices are often foiled when the people wear different clothes the next day.

The next event is the cast assembling for presentations by the various designers, describing their concepts for the play with detailed set models and evocative costume renderings. Then the director speaks, and Chris Ashley is an actor-friendly director, creating a warm environment and laying out his vision concisely. The cast was whipped into giddy excitement when the dreaded moment – for me the most terrifying in all theatre – arrived. It is called the “read through.” The cast sits around a big table and reads the play aloud, exactly when an actor feels the most vulnerable, because he’s the least prepared. I find it hard not to scream in my own mind “Everyone thinks I’m awful!” as I read. It is human nature…but the old acting phrase “use it” is helpful. It suggests you make a positive of any negative. Much like Charles Laughton needed to be miserable to plumb his deepest roles, I used the energy of nerves to dive right in, full bore. After the reading, three things were most evident: no one laughed me into humiliating retirement; my fellow cast-mates are superb; and A Dram of Drummhicit is an incredibly rich and funny play. In this blog I’m taking care not to reveal too many specifics of Dram, to let you experience all the surprises for yourself.

A phenomenon happens when a new cast meets. I’ve never worked with any of these actors before but I’ve most likely worked with someone who’s worked with each actor. Every cast of a play probably has some kind of “worked with” connection to every other play…ever. I call this the Sourdough Syndrome. One day, rehearsing a show long ago, I was intrigued when my castmate, playing Lear, said in passing that he’d worked with Orson Welles when Welles played Lear. “I wonder,” I wondered to myself, “Could it be possible…?” Then, visiting libraries in Boston and Chicago and Louisville and Pittsburgh and wherever my career was taking me, I researched over time and managed, by consulting progressively older and older material, to trace my own “I’ve worked with someone who’s worked with someone” lineage all the way back to William Shakespeare. One of the actors in A Dram of Drummhicit even worked directly with Samuel Beckett. And this commonality, this heritage of being a piece of the whole of theatre is the bedrock for 16 strangers suddenly and immediately beginning the very intimate process of working together…creating together. And so we began.