A view from the edge

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

First day of rehearsal today – always a weird combination of excitement and anxiety for me – you’re finally getting started on a play you’ve been thinking about, reading and re-reading, working on in your own time, talking about with friends – and now you’re finally there. It’s great, a huge relief, like a deep breath. At the same time, it’s always an ‘event’ that is a little stressful and a bit like your first day of school. With the designers (set, wardrobe, lighting, sound, etc.) making presentations about their designs, the artistic director and theatre administration present, various marketing and other folks, it’s far from the usual private, intimate rehearsal space. It’s often called a ‘meet and greet’ and can sometimes be fun, but can potentially have the awkwardness of a party where you don’t know anyone. Today was fine, as it turned out.

Gideon Lester made some eloquent and kind opening remarks, talking about my father David’s history with the theatre, and how this play came to be in their season. Having diligently proposed various plays in the past few years, none of which were quite right for the ART seasons – David organized a reading of sections of two plays in November 2005 – Exit the King by Ionesco and No Man’s Land. The key here was that he invited his old friends and ‘war-horses’ Paul Benedict and Max Wright to read – and Gideon said when they (Gideon, Robert Woodruff, and Rob Orchard) heard No Man’s Land read, they knew they had found the right combination of talents in that show for their season.

Rob Orchard also made some introductory remarks, probably not realizing that he made the highest compliment possible when introducing me: he said that I was ‘probably one of the nicest people in the room, but now looked like the scariest.’ Due mostly to the fact that I had shaved my head 3 days previously – more on that later. But thanks Rob!

Costume designer David Reynoso gave a talk on the costumes for the show – we are set in the period it was written, 1975 – and he showed a variety of photos and images he had pulled for each of the characters. J. Michael Griggs described the set, presenting a small scale model of the set design as it will appear once complete inside the Loeb. It’s a large living room of a house in London – but with various abstracted elements, including immense windows and seemingly infinitely tall bookcases.

My father then gave a half-hour talk about the play – I had been slightly nervous about this as well – what would he say, how would he do – but as soon as he started I relaxed, remembering – ‘oh yeah, he’s been directing his whole life – and has been teaching as well – this guy can talk to any crowd!’ And he certainly did, eloquently. Some of it is on this blog, on video.

He spoke about the need to have the ‘two titans’ who can perform this show – ‘actors who have to be…[pause] mature’, which received a chuckle. The script says Hirst and Spooner are in their sixties, and to find actors of that age who can tackle these huge roles is no easy task. Originally it was John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, then on Broadway Christopher Plummer and Jason Robards – and Pinter himself played Hirst in 1993. My father felt he had exactly the right combo with Paul Benedict, whom he’d worked with many times at TCB (Theatre Company of Boston) starting in 1963, and Max Wright, who he’s also worked with over the years, having first directed him as Arturo Ui at the Loeb (!) in 1966. My dad also refers to Max and Paul as his ‘lions’ – which they are. These roles are HUGE and challenging and immense in scope and difficulty! It’s like the rankings on high dives or gymnastics or figure skating jumps – these roles are the highest level of difficulty.

He then talked about the wonder of Pinter’s language – the sometimes terse, sometimes rambling dialogue, always elliptical. And how Pinter never wanted to EXPLAIN his plays, or give introductions to them, or want them to make a STATEMENT. Pinter simply wants to tell a story with these characters. And let the audience make of it what they will. He often starts with a single image, and lets the writing of the play grow from there.

He also spoke about how some critic had described this play as Pinter talking about his own life, his own creativity as an author – with Hirst and Spooner representing two possible sides (or ‘personas’) of Pinter himself – the successful writer and the bohemian artist who never quite made it, both aging. And that this play was Pinter rehearsing his own death, pondering his own death. My dad said he himself felt ‘immortal’ until 10 years ago – but as he has been feeling his own age in recent years, he has become more aware of the end coming, of the limitation of life, of ‘being on the edge.’ He said he felt this play was also his own ‘rehearsal of his own death.’ I was proud of him speaking so openly about this. And moved by it.

We then read through the play – without any dialect/accent for act one, wanting to get a sense of how these words sounded coming from our own voices, without anything layered on top of them or interfering. For act two, we did use accents, to get a sense of the rhythm of the language with a variety of accents, from upper-class to lower, and to allow others to hear these voices and rhythms as well. I’ve talked about Paul and Max – Henry David Clarke is the other actor in the show, playing Foster. He’s in the A.R.T. Institute, graduating this spring, and he’s terrific. I saw him audition for the role, and he has exactly the right charm and energy and flair that Foster requires. It’ll be fun to work with him.

I should also say how lucky and privileged I am to be here – with my father directing a show. We have only done this once before, about 9 years ago (A Perfect Ganesh at the Vineyard Playhouse) but at the time I wasn’t pursuing acting as my career as I am now, and I was playing 17 roles! So it didn’t allow the kind of depth work that we’ll be doing for No Man’s Land. So this is a dream come true for me in many ways – with some caveats as well. Certainly there is nepotism in play here, as my dad is directing and has cast me in the role – and I’m aware of that expectation in others – but I’ve worked incredibly hard to be where I am, and ultimately it’s my ass out there on stage so I have to deliver like anyone else. He opened the door – the rest is up to me. I also bore the luck of scheduling – Briggs was originally going to be played by Will Lebow, with the role of Foster always being reserved for an ART Institute student. But Will was also performing in Oliver Twist, and when Twist went on tour to NY and also Berkeley Rep, he was pulled from the No Man’s Land cast to make that tour, as the schedule would conflict. So there was an Equity (union) role suddenly available. And they were casting only in Boston and not pulling in anyone from NY, so that also helped my chances. But I am just delighted to be here. And I will do my damnedest up there, as I do with any show. Perhaps with a little more pressure on this one. But just focus on the work.

Disclaimer: I’ve never written a blog before, so this is a new and slightly bizarre experience for me. I often do keep a journal when I’m working, so this is a similar experience – except that others are (or MIGHT be) reading this! (If a blog falls in the forest…?) It’s kind of like performing a monologue in a huge theatre with thousands of seats – but you don’t know if anyone’s out there listening or not… Anyhow, I’ll try to be as open as I can about this whole process, while respecting the privacy of others involved and the intimacy of the whole rehearsal experience. I’m also going to write this for the general theatre-goer in mind, explaining certain things that may be of interest – some of which may be redundant and boring. But I’ll try to give a sense of how the rehearsal process – at least this one – works. All directors and actors work differently, so each rehearsal for every show is different.

I also have to say that it’s a little strange to report on or be analytical about the work that we’re doing – I hope that doesn’t spoil any of the ‘magic’ of this experience. It reminds me a little bit of that tale of the frog and the centipede – seeing the centipede walk by with his 100 legs in perfect sync, the amazed frog stopped him and said how cool that looked, it was amazing he could walk so effortlessly with so many legs! The frog asked how did he do it? The centipede happily replied, ‘it’s quite easy, I just move one leg forward, then the next, then the next, and so on’ while showing the frog how this worked, leg by leg. The frog enjoyed the demonstration and thanked the centipede – ‘no problem’ the centipede replied, but when he turned to walk away, he found his legs became tangled and he couldn’t walk at all! In describing his mechanics of walking – he suddenly lost that skill. I’ll remember (or forget perhaps?) to keep my and all of our legs in sync.

-Lewis D. Wheeler

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