Monday, March 30, 2015

The Hothouse Report

L-R: David Salcido, Gorton Smith, board op Rebekah Riley, Nora Brown, costumer Autumn Gieb, me kneeling, Danny Wade, Mike Cook, Eric Brekke, stage manager Erica Krauel, Julian Alexander. Photo courtesy of David Salcido.

Here you see me with the cast and most of the production team of The Hothouse, as we performed it at the No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces during the month of March. We are on the wonderful set designed by Tiffini Reimann (who also designed the spectacular set for Terra Nova in 2013 -- images and reviews here).

My taste in plays runs rather more dark than that of Ceil Herman, the artistic director of NSTC. Out of a handful of plays I submitted, she opted for The Hothouse by Harold Pinter.

This is the play that languished in obscurity for twenty years, only for the playwright to re-evaluate it and produce it in 1980. The American premiere of this play was at the Trinity Repertory Company in 1982, directed by Adrian Hall and featuring an excellent ensemble that included George Martin, Amy Von Nostrand, Peter Gerety, and Richard Kavanaugh (to whom I had recently been introduced by my fifth grade schoolteacher) in the role of Gibbs. The production went to Broadway and Kavanaugh was nominated for a Tony in the role. The play made an enormous impression on me. Having read more of Pinter's works as an adult, I still rank this as among his best. It was seldom produced but in the 2000s saw some revival, including a very successful run on the West End in 2013 with Simon Russell Beale.

Mike Cook and Nora Brown. Photo by Erica Krauel.

After the harrowing (albeit successful, artistically) experience on Terra Nova, I hoped to add time to the preparations by casting early and, at the very least, providing the actors with scripts and materials to help practice plausible British dialects. Once again, I mostly hand-picked the cast, although I did hold an audition call (for which two people showed up). I was also a bit more careful to screen for personality traits, since interpersonal conflict had roiled the last production. Once the play had been cast, we got together in December for a first read, and the company was eager to begin rehearsals right away, and so we began.

Local filmmaker Julian Alexander, me directing, and Eric Brekke in rehearsal. Photo by Erica Krauel.

And happily, it turned out to be a wonderful ensemble of people who enjoyed the process and each other and who didn't get too pissed off at me. I'm not aware of a single cross word, bruised ego, or disappointment. Even actor Eric Brekke, who was a little more used to directorial blocking, adjusted to my approach (and my insistence that actors discover things for themselves) affably. He was, by the way, a tremendous success in the difficult role of Gibbs, transforming himself into a quietly layered, terrifying bureaucrat with ice cold ambitions.

We knew we would be in the rehearsal room for a very long time, allowing us to burrow into the complex scene work. I exhibited my usual distaste for blocking, preferring to let blocking emerge organically as the actors pursued their (often hidden) objectives. We did some breathing exercises and played a game in which dialogue was physicalized as a knife fight (using pool noodles cut to size). I held private sessions, as I had on Terra Nova. Later in the process, we did some focused line-throughs, the ensemble sitting and hearing the play together again for a sense of the whole. We did this several days a week in December, and through January and February, much longer than most of our local productions (since we cannot pay the actors to rehearse full days).

Nora Brown and Eric Brekke. Photo by Erica Krauel.

The hard work was in place by the time we moved into the theatre at last, near the end of February. The actors were confident enough in their scenes that adapting to the room and the set elements as they fell into place was smooth and confident. Was it really going this well?

Mike Cook and Danny Wade. Photo by Erica Krauel. 

The next task was creating the sounds that play an important part in the script. The setting is a sinister sort of mental institution, where the patients - who are never seen - are getting restless, and the staff members comprising the play's characters keep hearing "something going on." I was adamant that there be no recorded sound effects. Everything would be live, including the P.A. announcements and dialogue over a loudspeaker (performed with different microphones by actors in the booth). I asked the actors to explore the entire building other than the theatre itself - backstage, the lobby, the hallways, the costume storage area, etc., and experiment with various noises that might be heard in the theatre. From these experiments, we assembled a "score" of overlapping noises that the audience testified was surprising and effective. The final "insurrection" when the patients briefly take over the asylum was a minor riot taking place with the stage bare and a bustle of activity taking place unseen all over the building around the audience.

Mike Cook fully owning the role of Roote. Photo by Erica Krauel.

The play opened March 13 and closed on March 29. The one publication in Las Cruces that agreed to review the production was effusive. Patrons were also enthusiastic. Attendance was stronger for this than Terra Nova. Those who came praised the quality of the performances as well as the fascinating set design by Tiffini.

For Terra Nova, Tiffini had plunged the Black Box into an arctic landscape consisting entirely of ingenious, layered painting and a meticulously crafted foam sculpture that captured Peter Herman's lighting perfectly and radiated cold. This show called for a claustrophobic interior space; and, like the previous show, Tiffini and I were again designing a theatrical picture of a human mind, in this case the enclosed universe of a dictator.

We painted a bifurcated floor in layers to resemble aging linoleum, including a tiled pattern for Roote's office that gently suggested the form of a spider web, with the staff lounge clearly delineated to stage right by the different floor and two beat-up chairs. The office walls were bore some water damage, and some furniture tipped slightly as if the floor were buckling. A radiator (borrowed from a junk collector) skulked before a window that opened onto a brick wall, with light that was captured beautifully by window panes made of vellum and chicken wire. The picture was framed by a layer of cinderblock (quite realistic but crafted from foam) and, hanging above the scene, a chain link fence emphasizing the staff members' position inside the imprisoning walls. The soundproof room was indicated with a special light, and a microphone and bare light bulb that lowered into the space as the creepy "interview chair" was rolled in by Gibbs.

Julian Alexander as Lamb. Rehearsal photo, taken by me.

It was so gratifying to revisit a play that made such a large impression on me, and yet produce an entirely unique production with a different visual style and a dedicated ensemble of actors, three of whom had taken acting classes I taught, others I had seen and admired in local productions, with a range of experience. It was the happiest ensemble experience I have had since, oh, directing some Trinity alumni in An Ideal Husband back in Providence in 2000; and the actors themselves were effusively happy about their own time working on the project. It is also wonderful to work with a design team with Tiffini Reimann and Peter Herman; and the costumer, Autumn Gieb, was present for every performance to do any small repairs that needed doing.

Nora Brown, alumna from one of my scene workshops, as Miss Cutts.

It nourished my desire to offer high quality work, both for what it gives our audience (seeing this show for ten bucks or twelve bucks was a bargain) and for people to do some hard work and grow artistically. Maybe the sum of this is people getting excited about live theatre in the community, to see what else might be possible.

There are so many photographs from this production and rehearsal process! I am very grateful to David Salcido and Erica Krauel to share these photos here and on other social media. The theatre company's official set of production photographs - which show off the set and many more views of the actors and their wonderful costumes  - can be seen by clicking this link.  Those photos are by Peter Herman, the theatre's technical director and the production's lighting designer.

For now, we are taking off the director hat, but next season will be busy with two plays to direct.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Artistic Friends, Dharma Friends

Several chapters into Bobby Lewis's memoir, Slings and Arrows, I find myself pondering artistic friendships. In the current chapter, Lewis recalls the origins of the Actors Studio, which arose from the values and the community of the Group Theatre, including a coterie of theatre practitioners who had worked together for a long time: Lewis, Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and others.

One of the unique attributes of live theatre is that the experience is social.

The same appears to be true of artistic growth in theatre. An individual's growth is nourished in social groups: the community of an acting class, an ensemble company, colleagues, etc.

Even seemingly lone visionaries, like Richard Foreman, have had community or at least co-conspirators.

One of the strengths of the acting company at Trinity Rep is that the core company has been working together for decades. Being part of such an ensemble has been the most painful loss of my post-Trinity years (Oskar Eustis "let me go" in 2000, and I returned for one last Christmas Carol in 2005).

There has been some talk lately about the prominence of British actors in contemporary films, leading some to speculate about a "crisis" in American acting. The crisis isn't particularly new and the thesis is not remarkable. Acting is a craft, and a period of intensive training, followed by a commitment to continue to challenge oneself and learn for the rest of one's practice, positions one to develop their skills and master the craft of acting. This commitment to training in the fundamentals is more typical among British actors than American actors, and while there are certainly plenty of American actors who respect the craft, the commitment of time and money required for a good training program in the United States is economically out of many people's reach. The conservatory where I trained, also at Trinity Rep, was absorbed into the theatre program at Brown University. I could never have afforded grad school at Brown. Most people can't.

So what do people do? Some invest in acting classes, casting workshops, and focus on building up their professional tools and getting jobs wherever they can. The danger is that one might end up investing more time and money getting their portfolios in order without learning the craft first. Landing a job is great, and you can land acting jobs even without mastering the craft, but landing a job and artistic accomplishment are different achievements. (I say that with a healthy respect for those who are landing jobs, and with some humility, for as often as I have been praised for my artistry, and even praised for my film and television auditions, I rarely book.)

The social experience is part of the training. Your artistic community, your friends and comrades, see you while you learn and grow, and vice versa. If they are good friends, they can give you constructive feedback without knocking you down and making you lose faith. (Some people like "tough love" and harsh words from their teachers, as a way to weed out the weak, but I've never favored the social Darwinist approach to artistic exploration.) Artistic friends inspire one another, compete a little bit, impress each other, grow old and learn new things together. They need not even be "friends" in other contexts, they are like what we call "dharma friends" in our zen centers - you may never hang out socially and chat, but you when you sit a few silent retreats with someone you get to know them through a deep-rooted human solidarity. That solidarity has nothing to do with liking somebody or "bonding" with them over things like sports or movies or politics, the things we chatter about.

I miss my Trinity friends. During my travels I've made efforts at planting the seeds for such that kind of community. I was part of the Company of Angels in Los Angeles. We weren't angels, but there were some talented people there, but most of the people there had individual goals at the time and we didn't gel as an ensemble, although I found a couple of long-lasting friendships there, including Chris Nelson, who remains a personal friend and artistic friend.

Chris and I tried another venture with Theatre Dojo, with a core of artist-teachers doing workshops in hopes of finding an ensemble. It didn't last long before people went off, again, in individual directions. Lately I've been using the Theatre Dojo imprimatur again but ironically it's currently centered on my own individual projects. My recent collaborations with musician Randy Granger and outreach to other artists is, again, an attempt to forge artistic friendships and collaborations.

Recently there is talk of a new ensemble theatre in Las Cruces, committed to performing Shakespeare, and I was invited by three other people in the community - people who have M.F.A.s and are practicing theatre, some of us also as teachers - to be part of the core group. There have been flickers elsewhere, too, of a cohort of people practicing theatre, a desire to find some way to train and grow, if not for financial reward at least for the enriching experience of artistic growth; and the social benefits to a community where there is live theatre of some quality.

It would be nice to see this develop. Stay tuned.

[Image: Me playing Tybalt, center, in Florence, Italy in 2012. On the left is Elia Cittadini, who played Paris - someone I really enjoyed getting to know, especially for his sharp criticisms of certain restaurants in Florence. Not a customer to piss off. He lives in Berlin lately. The prince, on the right, is played by Stephanie Taylor. Our personalities chafed a bit during that summer but our rough edges wore down and to this day we talk about finding a way to work together again. But she's in New York and I'm in New Mexico. Who knows.]