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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 at the first rehearsal for A Dram of Drummhicit

Part Three: Rehearsals

When Og first thrillingly described hunting a mastodon to the rest of the cave, theatre was born. Then when Og imitated how clumsy Mog was while being chased by a saber tooth, comedy was born. (And when Ugh stepped forward and clubbed Og over the head, criticism was born.) Theatre is ancient because its essence is storytelling. That we still do it today says there is some innate need for it, some primal urge to gather in one big room and debate life through our stories. Theatre describes being human … and for those who wonder about the spelling, a theater is the big room where we do theatre.

Since “I went to the store” and Hamlet are both examples of storytelling, theatre is really just a question of getting the elaboration right. That’s why we have rehearsal. The cast of A Dram of Drummhicit brings a millennium of life experiences and a cacophonous mixture of opinions, styles and techniques (I myself was trained in the Method and in the Catskills). The first goal is to corral the ‘creativity’ and point it all in the same direction: hence the director. Intellectually fearless, wise and perspicacious, Chris Ashley is the best director I’ve ever worked with…but to temper any sycophancy I remind him that in Shakespeare’s golden day there was no such thing as a director. They didn’t need one.

The first days of rehearsal are usually table work: a meticulous going through the play around the table. Up for lively discussion is virtually everything about the play, characters and plot, with no question too dumb: “Why do I say this? What’s a banshee? How do you pronounce Drummhicit?” The idea is to get everyone basically on the same page. Table work can also portend impending disaster. Sometimes you’ll realize a director is conceptually off his rocker when he’ll envision everyone in sparkly leotards, and you are doing Cherry Orchard. Luckily, the first words out of Chris’s mouth were, “We want the characters to be honest and real.” Perfect! The magic of Dram is that extraordinary events are happening to genuine people.

Next is blocking. On our feet with scripts in hand, we stiffly rough out the shape of the scenes with suggested furniture and walls and stairs depicted by tape on the floor. It can start off as a bad acting fiesta. Often the director works in the negative, by removing the bad, like that old joke about carving a statue of Ben Franklin out of marble by chipping away everything that doesn’t look like Ben Franklin. Chris tries to keep actors from their natural instincts of flamboyantly gravitating to center stage facing full out. “Too much like a high school musical,” he’ll remonstrate.

Learning lines is an ongoing challenge. Early on, the crackerjack stage management crew is ‘on book’ to prompt you when you call out “line.” Sometimes, however, during rehearsal your synapses commit mass suicide and you go totally blank, unable to think of your words or actions. Actors have many names for this dreaded event; my favorite is “visiting the white room.” Usually when I “go up” in rehearsal I feebly explain I thought my cue was the big pause. And perfecting the Scottish dialect is like sending your tongue on an obstacle course of fricatives, glottal stops and trilled “r’s,” as if that Zumba exercise infomercial is going on in your mouth. At moments it can all be a frustrating slog, and most actors at some point find a quiet corner to ask themselves, “Why do I do this?”

But repetition of the scenes and adding layers of interpretation, direction and inspiration help the story grow. The mastery is to know how to continue the process when only portions of it are there …to know it is 5% right instead of worrying how wrong it is. If you let logic, clarity and honesty be the referees, your acting choices will lead to your first flash, the “Yeah, that’s it” moment where the actors, characters and truth of the scene all click. That’s when the rehearsal takes flight with the joy and brilliance that A Dram of Drummhicit can and will be, and you say, “Okay, Og was right, this is fun.”