Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Terra Nova Report

Obviously, I have not been blogging much for the last few months.

One major event during this lull in blogging has been directing a local production of a very challenging play.  It was an exhausting and personally costly experience which I will try to summarize briefly.  It's still going to be long, but I hope you'll enjoy these images from the performance.

Ted Tally's play Terra Nova premiered at Yale Repertory at the end of 1970s and had its heyday in the mid-1980s when it made the rounds of regional theatres.  Trinity Rep produced it in 1984, directed by the actor Peter Gerety; I saw it at the impressionable age of 13.  I found the story gripping: the play recounts the story of Robert Falcon Scott's fatal expedition to the South Pole right up to his death in 1912.  Only much later, reading the play as an adult, did I appreciate the personal depth of Tally's play.

(Tally, by the way, left the theatre and went into screenwriting.  He won an Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs.)

Terra Nova is a kind of play I love.  The space does not literally portray a place, but rather a human being's mind.  It becomes an arena for showing, theatrically, a heart in conflict with itself.  Scott is shown writing his final journal entries, dying of exposure and starvation, struggling to understand why he made the choices that brought him and his men to this desperate situation.  A rival explorer, Roald Amundsen, appears to Scott as a hallucinatory sort of Greek chorister, questioning Scott's decisions and his interpretation of events.  On a mostly bare stage, actors inhabit a blizzard in Antarctica, a London garden at springtime, or a French bistro.  The dialogue and a few long monologues present complex questions and themes in powerful language.  It is a great work of dramatic writing, and a high-level challenge to perform successfully.  To keep the audience enthralled, it must be performed at a suitable pace, the actors must be actively engaged with the language, and they must avoid some large pitfalls (e.g. playing it somberly from the beginning to its tragic end).

Moreover, it is a play that depicts a person starting to peel back the layers of his identity, his ideas about himself, his desires, and so on, to get at the big question, what am I

When the theatre that I've been working with in Las Cruces since 2011 offered to produce a play for me to direct this summer, I submitted Terra Nova.  It was the kind of work I wanted to do with actors, and the kind of theatre I wanted to offer this community. They accepted.

After open auditions and a period of direct recruiting, we assembled an ensemble consisting of some of Las Cruces's strongest actors.  Many of them have professional backgrounds or training.  Everyone was quite enthusiastic about tackling this play.

Since we would be telling the story of people in over their heads, figuring out how to accomplish what they had set for themselves, I thought it would helpful for as all to take a plunge.  I had seen or worked with all of these actors before, and so I cast them against their strengths or comfort zones, so they would have to work harder in other areas.  The actor playing Scott, for instance, is a go-to comedic actor around here.  Another actor has a face and voice made for villains and conniving people, so I cast him as a very noble character.

(Actually, the real-life Lawrence Oates was a good deal more complicated and conflicted than the play portrays, but that's another topic.) 

It also worked this way with the design team.  Two people were required to design and build costumes.  The props were also a challenge.  A carpenter up in Bayard had to build the dogsled used by the expedition team, which we then distressed.  Antique navigational equipment was borrowed from two different departments of New Mexico State University.  We had a first-time set designer (who struggled and panicked and finally succeeded to a point where her set design was one of the most highly praised features of the production).  Our lighting designer was obliged to approach his design differently than most of the shows I have seen at the theatre; and he did so with creativity and invention.

We also had a first-time stage manager, trained on the job by my assistant director and me.

So to begin with, everyone was having to work out of the comfort zone to some degree.  I also wanted to emulate the rehearsal processes extolled by Robert Lewis (who was my teacher's teacher) and what I experienced working at Trinity.  This required extensive adaptation, however, because instead of 40-48 hours a week of rehearsal, we had about 13.  In addition, I worked with each actor individually -- except one who refused.  They also had to spend time outside rehearsal working with dialect tapes and studying their lines. 

This made for a stressful process.  From a certain viewpoint, the efficient thing to do would be for me to come in and block everything and sculpt the performances as I felt they should be.  This is, frankly, what more than one actor expected from me.  And I refused to do that.  I was adamant that they discover as much as possible on their own.  I tried to ask questions more often than a director usually would, and allow actors to explore choices I might not have made so long as they didn't conflict with the playwright's intention or obstruct the scene. 

The schedule was very tight and there were technical problems and setbacks along the way.  Some of the actors had difficulty mastering their text, and one actor in particular struggled with his lines right up to opening night.  There were personality conflicts, and varying degrees of frustration with the process and/or me.  One actor became so angry with me (after I told him we would cut or re-assign the lines he hadn't learned) I was prepared to physically defend myself.

Rehearsals would end around 9:00 PM, and then the set designer, stage manager, and I would stay at the theatre well past midnight (even one or two in the morning) working on set, costumes, sound, making repairs, etc. 

From my vantage point, at tech week their performances were actually in good shape, and the rough edges were minor and fixable.  Unfortunately, if the actors don't believe it, this doesn't help them much.  One actor, a longtime community actor, decided I was an idiot early in the process (I suspect he was also struggling with something I had asked him to do regarding the character work) and stopped talking to me altogether.  His performance was fine, but he wasn't invested in it.  He had skill and presence, but he was going through the motions.  He didn't want to be there.

During the worst days, I noticed something interesting.  When I listened to what individual actors were struggling with, I kept noticing parallels to what their characters had to confront in the play.  I even found myself in Scott's position, when the aforementioned actor took me to task for how I was directing the project.  For nearly everyone, once they pushed through whatever the blockage was, their performances flourished.  Pointing this out has to be done very carefully, because it can sound very glib or dismissive: "Oh, you're angry?  Put that into your acting!"  So usually I didn't.  But it was amazing to watch dynamics emerge in the cast that mirrored the dynamics among their characters.

A case in point, and a story I'll probably be telling students for years to come, was an actor who grew extremely frustrated with the process and a couple of actors with whom he had dialogue.  (One partner was the guy who had so much trouble learning his lines.)   On his own, he learned other people's lines so he could be prepared to cover, and he felt understandably put out because (1) this required extra work from him and (2) was not always appreciated, so he felt conspicuous.  For a difficult few days, he seemed to withdraw.  I'd be giving notes and he'd be bent over his phone, sending text messages.  He became terse and uncommunicative, visibly unhappy or impatient at times.  At our individual sessions, he expressed tremendous frustration and some panic about the project's success.  His own scenes were being held back for reasons that were not his fault, and he had every reason to feel unhappy about it.

And then, something very interesting happened. He just put it down.  He swallowed the iron ball and decided he was not going to withdraw, but instead he would invest even more.  His partner who had the most difficulty with lines, as it turned out, had an incredibly difficult home situation that worsened during our rehearsal process.  This actor went to him and fully embodied How can I help?  He did, in fact, exactly the sort of thing his character does in the play:  move through anger and judgment, to just helping, and eventually to a gesture of incomprehensible generosity.  And this actor's performance flowered into one of the richest and truest performances in the play.  Because he went through an arc similar to his character's.

I couldn't praise him enough.

And he wasn't the only one to break through like that.

Instead of exhilarated and excited, tech week (the final week of preparation before opening) found much of the cast stressed out and worried about failure.  Then, as often happens, opening night came, we presented our show in front of an audience, the actors were wonderful, and the audience was spellbound.  We fell in love with Scott's wife, played with such wise humor and maturity by a university student named Claire Koleske.  Scott was no historical caricature, but like someone you might actually meet, a person with good intentions who sometimes misses what is right in front of him, who is sometimes awkward and undecided, but who also exhibits moments of tremendous bravery and compassion.  The Terra Nova men were all individuals, prickly and difficult but tight as comrades, who did not always get along but were also strong, funny, disciplined soldiers who at one time or another made seemingly impossible choices for their mission.  The performances were rich and multi-dimensional.  Spectators felt empathy, many of them weeping at their fate, many of them debating events in the play in the lobby and on the drive home. 

If it surprised anybody, it did not surprise me.  We always want more rehearsal hours, but we had made very good use of the hours we had.  A lot of planning and preparation and hard work went into each and every hour.  The show had a solid foundation and the play told its tale through our actors.

There were mixed feelings in the end.  Although most of the actors walked away proud of their work, there were signs of exhaustion.  A couple of people left liking me a bit less than they once did (this happens to directors), and the one guy refuses to speak to me and reportedly has announced he will not work on anything I'm in.  (Apocalypse!)

Night after night, patrons expressed tremendous excitement and joy over what they saw.  This was high-quality ensemble theatre, the kind of work that provoked conversation and debate.  I saw several faces return to see the show a second and even a third time.  It was the kind of project that can excite people all over again about live theatre in their community, and maybe get them to bring friends.  And that's pretty much what I hoped for: for actors to feel like they worked hard and grew, and for our patrons to experience high-quality live theatre that presented a big question about our lives:  why do you do what you do?  what is making those choices? 

Or to put it more simply, what are you?

Even as I am being asked by some, "What are you going to direct next?", I find myself wanting to spend more time at Deming Zen Center, where there are people who want to practice, who need an older student to show them the ropes and help them strengthen their practice, and who are ready to engage in that same question:  what am I? 

It's not as entertaining as being in a play, I guess, but it's a little more direct. And really, none of us are here for long. 

Meanwhile, I'm rehearsing a play -- not directing, just acting in it.  That opens in August.

After that, don't know.  We'll see. 

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