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The British love to say they’re sorry. There is an extended gag in one scene of The 39 Steps where three British men stuck in a train compartment together cheerily apologize to one another anytime one of them attempts to enter or exit their claustrophobic confines. Does this longing for contrition on the part of the British stem from the fact that so many of them are crowded onto a relatively tiny land mass together and must find a polite way to muddle through? Or is it due to a repressive emotional culture that causes apology (almost mechanically) whenever one kicks up against the boundaries of social acceptability? Or perhaps it is a culture-wide subconscious need to atone for the sad legacy of centuries of colonization around the world? Whatever the case the Brits are world-class apologizers. Or apologisers. You say vapour, I say vapor.
Reginald Risdale attempted to make an act out of apology. Reggie grew up in a poor home in Islington in the early years of the twentieth century, and at a tender age discovered a talent for whistling, singing, and animal impersonations. In his younger years he would often perform informally for pocket money, frequently enlisting the begrudging aid of his siblings and the family dog. After playing the lead in a pantomime performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in his teens, Reggie became bit by the acting bug that had successfully eluded the Risdale family line going all the way back to the Norman Conquest. Being small, blond, and graced with delicate bone structure, Reggie frequently found himself in drag roles in British pantomime, including the lead in Cinderella. He struggled against what he perceived as the limitations of the genre, always longing for the day he might play in more “serious” drama. A compelling need to infuse his caricatures with naturalistic aspects led to the befuddlement of producers, critics, and most audiences, but also to a very small and twee circle of admirers. One of those admirers, the agent Bill Lashwood, took Reggie in hand and developed his first music hall act, Mary Quite Contrary about a toothless Liverpudlian housewife who finds hilarious ways of playing devil’s advocate to anything her charmless neighbors say or think. The second act they created, Delighting in Contriting involved a Lancashire bumbler whose accident-prone behaviour would lead to extended visual and physical gags for the audience, and a flood of “So so sorries” from Reggie’s character each time his ineptitude struck, the number of “so”s repeated in the sentence generally indicating the degree of the particular ineptitude on display. He had limited success with the act, never appearing higher than third billing, and spent many years eyeing what he considered the more “legitimate” career of acting in the classics. Finally he got his wish in the momentous year 1926, when he was honored to appear at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre right after it had received its Royal charter. He was to play Yorick in a flashback scene in a production of Hamlet, and though he had no lines to speak he was delighted to be doing what he considered serious work at last. Sadly, this was the same year that the Shakespeare Theatre mysteriously burned down and the season was scrapped before Reggie made even one appearance. What is not generally known is that Reggie himself was responsible for the tragic accident due to an ill-timed flick of his cigarette into a pile of hay backstage (one can only imagine the number of “so”s involved in that particular apology, or how and why hay was being used in a production of the melancholic Dane). Reggie went back to the provinces and continued an undistinguished career in the British theatre well into mid-century.
What on earth does Reginald Risdale have to do with The 39 Steps, you may ask? It should be said first of all that while certain events in the above biography actually took place (and certain similarities to people who actually lived occur), Reggie and his story is completely fictional. The back story for this production of The 39 Steps centers on what remains of a down-on-its-luck provincial British theatre company in the 1930s attempting to put on a performance of John Buchan’s book (or is it Alfred Hitchcock’s movie?) with only four of its actors and with limited props, sets, and costumes (as well as a somewhat undisciplined and unseen stage manager). There is the leading man and lady of the company who take on the principal roles, and two vaudevillians who cover all the remaining character parts. Reginald is the alter-ego of actor Scott Parkinson in the production, one of the vaudevillians who takes on a number of roles in the course of our madcap lark.
Thinking up personal histories for their characters and how those biographies might have bearing on what happens in the play is typical of the sort of mind-centered work that many actors do when they create a role, but it is the idea of “accident” that obsesses us here and to which we return, because it is in accident where much of the glory of creativity (and comedy in particular) is found. More spiritually evolved people than I have described true creativity as something that happens when the thinking brain is not involved, but rather when a connection to “Being” is fully engaged instead, and when that higher consciousness is allowed to work its magic through the particular filter which is you. I think of those moments in rehearsal when an impulse strikes you that isn’t something you rehearsed at home or occurred to you while studying the scene at hand. For instance, there was the day we rehearsed the train sequence and came to the moment where fellow actor Eric Hissom and I do the constantly-changing hat ballet as we juggle five different characters between us, and Eric went to put on the wrong hat at a moment when I had a line indicating which character he should be doing instead. Or there was the moment when we rehearsed the London Palladium scene and I came to the line “It was supposed to be a cast of four” and held up four fingers, realizing that the character I was playing at that particular moment was supposedly not in possession of one of the fingers I had held up. If you’ve seen the show then you know how these happy accidents have found a place in the evening you witnessed, and these are only two examples (and only two of my own) of the many wonderful and happy accidents that occurred for all of us in this process. In a show like this one, “accidents” are welcome, so long as no one gets hurt and the theatre doesn’t burn down. It’s a question of mindfulness.
Which leads me to what I hope is an effective wrap-up. Actors can be notoriously hard on themselves, as well as insidiously reflective. Just think of poor Reggie Risdale. In a show like this one it is best if the actor never looks back. I myself am a meticulous perfectionist, and learning the careful choreography of The 39 Steps was often a confounding challenge for me. But once the steps were learned and I allowed for more accident, more carelessness, to creep into the very great care we all must take with this piece every time we do it, an interesting alchemy occurs. One of the great pleasures of doing the show becomes the instant forgiveness it requires, of oneself and of others, should anything go wrong; there is no time to dwell in a mistake because the play is relentlessly hurtling forward with or without you, and if you stop to think about where something went amiss then you will likely mess up the next thing that requires your strict attention. Zen Buddhists describe the art of staying in “the Now”, and doing this show can feel a little like that at times, much like riding a bicycle through downtown Manhattan – think about anything non-essential to the task at hand and you might die. Or at least miss an entrance. But stay involved totally in what you are doing, and an unlooked-for but potentially grand misadventure might occur.
And for that there is no need to apologize. Or apologise.
– Scott Parkinson]]>
In order to share some of the painstaking processes that go on behind the scenes of every show, La Jolla Playhouse’s Associate Properties Master, Kelly Corrigan, recounts below the ideas and trials that led to the “dirtying and cleaning” technique used on the David:
Challenge: Develop a “dirtying” treatment that can be easily applied and removed from the various David sculpture pieces each show.
Okay… well, we’ve done temporary dirtying of props before…usually on metal or plastic… and usually not to be removed and reapplied nightly.
In the case of the David sculpture, we would be applying the treatment to a sealed styrofoam surface, painted to look like marble.
This brings up concerns of staining…
We want to reveal a contrasting, clean surface of “marble” under the “layer of dirt.” Any treatment that would leave even the slightest bit of staining, when compounded over the course of many shows, would diminish the intended appearance of the original paint treatment.
(We came up with plenty of those types of treatment!)
We decided our starting point would be a pigment with little or no binder (what keeps paint stuck to a surface).
We first tried tempra paint. After all, it’s what we give our children to finger paint with, so it’s made to come off walls. The catch: it’s made to come off a wall with the aid of cleaning products. We needed something that would come off without having to use harsh cleaning agents; we wouldn’t want to end up taking the finished paint treatment off along with the “dirt.”
So, on to the next idea.
Tempra does have a bit of a binder to it, so the next logical step is to eliminate binder altogether. We normally use liquid tint to add to a binder when we mix up paints. This time we’d skip that step and just add water to dilute the concentrated tint.
This seems to work well at first:
It looks good.
It dries in about 15 minutes.
It wipes off easily with a damp rag.
It doesn’t stain.
It can be applied using a small aeresol sprayer.
…until the following morning.
After the tint had been on the surface for over 14 hours, it didn’t come off as easily as it had the day before. The tint had stained the surface of the sculpture piece.
Well, we did get a bit closer to a solution… What we needed was a type of agent to add to the tint that would keep the tint from seeping into the surface treatment. Something that could be reactivated with water after it had dried.
I knew it was a stretch, but…I decided to try hair gel.
I also decided to keep this oddball idea to myself until I gave it a try.
I added just a few drops of tint into the hair gel, dabbed it on and waited for it to dry.
10 minutes to dry! Okay, that’s a go.
Wipes off with a damp cloth! Check!
Reapplies to the clean spot evenly and easily! Awesome!
Now to wait overnight.
I came in the following morning with my fingers crossed…
AND >>> SUCCESS!!]]>
Anytime you produce a world premiere, it’s complicated. In addition to the typical work of getting a play ready for audiences (figuring out the actors’ blocking; line memorization; implementing the lighting, costume, scenic and sound designs to create a cohesive whole), there’s the extra wrinkle of the play being a work-in-progress; of having a playwright see what’s working and what isn’t during the day, and writing new pages at night.
In Restoration, just for an added degree of difficulty, our playwright, Claudia Shear, is also performing the central role of Giulia. Wearing two hats in a single production is hardly uncommon (just last year, Charlayne Woodard wrote and starred in her solo show, The Night Watcher, and later this season, Doug Wright will direct his own adaptation of Creditors), but nevertheless, amazing amounts of stamina are required.
To help Claudia compartmentalize her different roles, our director, Christopher Ashley, has dedicated a “playwright’s chair” next to his own behind his rehearsal table. It sits empty most of the time, except for when he summons Claudia the Actor to morph into Claudia the Playwright to discuss a textual question. Still, when inspiration strikes, it isn’t always on a schedule, so Claudia will occasionally break character during a scene in order to ask me to remind her to change a word or a line. (Just today, she called over to me, “Page 94 – ‘restoration’ or ‘birthday’?” “What does that mean,” I asked. “Just remind me later,” she replied. “I’ll know.”) It helps immensely, of course, when you have incredibly game actors and a crack stage management team to track all the changes.
In another week and a half, we move to the theatre for technical rehearsals, and the script changes, by and large, will be restricted to minor tweaks here and there. And then, soon after, we’ll share it all with you.]]>
The Restoration company began its first rehearsal on the same day as the Unusual Acts began its third week, and we had a huge company breakfast to welcome all the actors, directors, designers for both shows, as well as our Resident Theatre companies – Mo’olelo and Moxie Theatre Companies. It was the largest breakfast ever at the Playhouse and we mixed, mingled and noshed to our heart’s content on bagels and cream cheese supplied by our amazing volunteers, the Playhouse Partners. A remarkable beginning for the Playhouse’s 26th season!
Last Thursday, the company entered technical rehearsals on a magnificent set created by world-renowned set designer Santo Loquasto. He and Ben Stanton (lighting designer), John Gromada (sound designer) and Jeff Goldstein (costume designer) were all at their stations in the Weiss theatre ready to begin the process of creating a night on a NYC rooftop on the Weiss stage.
Our director and ringmaster of the tech process, Trip Cullman, moved the actors around the stage as Ben shed his evocative lights to suit the dramatic moment in time. Costumes were changed – a shirt here, a dress there, Harriet’s hair was dyed and, through it all, Terrence continued to rewrite. John filled the night air with the sounds of the city, and he and Ben synched the sound and searchlights of a helicopter as it traversed the stage looking for a mysterious stranger on the rooftops of New York.
In the first pass of technical rehearsals in just 2-1/2 days, Unusual Acts of Devotion was ready for its first audience. Congratulations to a company that demonstrated its own form of devotion – to the play, the playwright and to the theatre at large. Now it’s ready for our audiences to help shape its journey to opening night. Bravo to all!]]>
It’s a week later and Doris Roberts arrived today. Finally, we are a full company!
We had a meet and greet with bagels (yes, New York bagels) and coffee. Michael Rosenberg, our new Managing Director, visited today and stayed for the first read-through.
It was amazing to listen to Doris read the part of Mrs. Darnell, the acerbic elderly tenant at 218 West 10th St. who joins Leo and Nadine’s rooftop anniversary celebration. She is spot on as Mrs. Darnell and a total delight, both on character and as herself.
During the past few days of rehearsal, we’ve been blocking how the characters’ move about the rooftop during the course of the play. Today, we are back at the table so that we can all read the play together with Doris. Table work always yields a host of interesting questions and interpretations after each scene is read. Maria Dizzia, who plays Nadine, asks how premeditated she is supposed to be when Nadine leads Josie (Harriet Harris) to talk about Josie’s affair with Leo.
Terrence, who sits at the table at a computer working away on rewrites while the actors read, never appears to be listening but when a question comes up he always knows exactly where the actors’ are and provides them with an enlightening answer.
Evan Powell, our man on the watch tower, has no lines in the play (but he’s an active participant throughout, observing the rooftop celebrants as he lurks above them on the watch tower. He is a mysterious presence who appears, disappears and reappears throughout the play. For the first time today, Evan came alive as he inhabited his character and became a silent participant in scenes with Harriet and Doris.
Tomorrow there will be more rewrites from Terrence and the actors will be on their feet in rehearsal, continuing the magical process in bringing Unusual Acts of Devotion to physical and emotional life.
Shirley Fishman, Dramaturg]]>
The day began with costume designer Jess Goldstein (Jersey Boys) taking the actors’ measurements for their costumes. The director, Trip Cullman, took the company on a tour of the set (designed by the illustrious Santo Loquasto). It’s a tenement rooftop surrounded by NY’s cityscape on a hot summer night. It’s going to look wonderful on the stage of the Mandell Weiss theatre!
Cullman tells us that there will lots of music (a major characteristic of many McNally’s plays, such as Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata, to name two). He asks the actors to bring their favorites to rehearsal since they will be dancing to music on the rooftop. Cullman also says that the sounds of the city will also play a large part in the the show — while the characters are on the rooftop, the life of city will be going on all around them.
We read through the play several times. The actors ask many questions about their characters and begin to make sense of their needs, desires, motivations. It is here where they start building the world their characters inhabit. Richard says, “The play is not abut who sleeps with whom — it’s about relationships, and this night is the night they try to recapture something that has been lost.”
Through it all, McNally listens to the sound of the actors’ voices and to their questions, and watches the chemistry between the characters begin to emerge. Soon there are changes to certain lines. Later, one or two passages are rewritten and the play begins to take on another dimension, delving even deeper into their relationships. The actors repeatedly rehearse scenes, making different choices each time — saying a line, moving across the space or engaging with their fellow actors in a new way — and another surprising new layer of meaning emerges. The actors are flush with excitement and Terrence is pleased.
And I am privileged to be a witness to this dynamic creative process. More soon.
Shirley Fishman, Dramaturg]]>