The Dark Night of the Soul/The Depths of Despair

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Good evening, Intrepid Readers. You’ve seen this chart before in an earlier post. It’s by the artist/author Austin Kleon (follow him on his website here) and it is as true for me today as it was when I first posted it.

Tonight was the first tech rehearsal for Request Concert and it went very well. The tech process is really quite smooth for a play with one character, one set, and one change of costume. After the run was finished, my senior colleague gave me and our other colleague, who is the performer, some of the most concise, helpful feedback I have ever received about a show in process.

For the past week or so, I have been in the Dark Night Of The Soul dot on the above chart. Not because I didn’t believe in the production, or didn’t think it was good–I do and it is. Rather, the darkness was because I couldn’t see the show anymore. I have seen it so much that I couldn’t see it. It’s like that thing when you say a word over and over and over so much that it starts to lose its meaning and even its place as a part of your language. I knew that was happening, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I knew the answer was bring in another set of eyes, but whose? I didn’t have an Assistant Director on this production, and our rehearsals have been during the daytime, when folks are working/in class/teaching class, etc.

Lesson learned. The Dark Night Of The Soul is for real, and you have to ask for help when you’re in it. Ask someone. Ask anyone.

The feedback that my senior colleague gave me was that the ending of the play is too much of a surprise. We don’t see enough of the depths of her despair. We don’t see enough chinks in her armor. And those chinks add up to a person on the brink. A person whose stakes are as high as they can be. A person who could make any decision. Go any direction.

And that feedback was exactly what I needed to move myself out of my Dark Night. I see the way forward. I have a purpose for myself and a thing to specifically be looking for and working on in our remaining rehearsals.

That’s a good feeling to head to sleep with, Intrepid Readers. Good night and good luck.

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In Praise of Daytime Rehearsals

Good evening, Intrepid Readers! I’m able to say good evening to you in this moment, because I am home this evening, not at rehearsal, because rehearsal was earlier today. When I got home around 5pm with Lil Discoball, with all the requisite evening chores–dinner, clean up, prep for tomorrow, wrangling cat and kid–staring me down, the exhalation of breath I was able to take knowing that I didn’t have to cram all that into just one hour before it was time to leave for rehearsal was so very very nice.

Request Concert has been a unique experience because my performer and stage manager and I have been able to find the time to rehearse for the past three weeks exclusively during the day.  This freedom to breathe and be fully present at work, at rehearsal, and at home with LD is such a blessing. Daytime rehearsals, like coming in off book, are such a game-changer for me and my process, I’m going to try (and, let’s be honest, probably fail) to incorporate as much daytime rehearsing as possible when possible.

This is a short post, but I feel like we don’t hear enough how awesome daytime rehearsals are, and so I’m here to say:

DAYTIME REHEARSALS, YOU ARE AWESOME!

More as we close in on tech, Intrepid Readers.

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Square Peg vs Round Hole

Hello from week three of rehearsal, Intrepid Readers! This week’s discovery is that you can’t stuff the Square Peg of an experimental/non-traditional script into the Round Hole of a text-based rehearsal model.

So, we learn in Directing class that one way to structure a rehearsal calendar is to start with staging, then once you’ve staged the show in its entirety, you move on to cleaning and working on your staging, then after you’ve got it where you want it, you run your show in large pieces and then as a whole, which takes you to tech week.

Not being familiar with the working process of a play without spoken text, I made my best attempt at a rehearsal schedule. I organized the staging into 10 minute segments, then working/cleaning 20 minute segments, then running halves, and then we’re in tech. A four week rehearsal schedule that, on the surface, made sense. Stage/Clean/Run/ Tech/Performance. Bam.

Except that this rehearsal schedule doesn’t actually work for us. I have a very experienced performer in my faculty colleague, and the play only runs about 50 minutes. The staging was set quickly. Besides tweaking small moments of the staging, what do you clean? There’s no dialogue to finesse or clarify. There’s no character dynamics to strengthen via spatial relationship, kinesthetic response, or floor pattern. Conflict is entirely within the single character. She isn’t conflict with her space or her belongings. The theme can only be distilled so much before we’re just preaching to the audience. So, what do we spend our time on? How do we make the best use of our time as a production team?

I actually stopped rehearsal on Monday and we had a conversation about this. We shouldn’t be rehearsing just because we “should” or because “that’s what the calendar says.” We should be rehearsing with clear goals in mind for each session. The consensus was that what we really needed was as complete a space, with props and furniture as we could get. Well, Intrepid Readers, what with working a full time job and being a mom to Lil Discoball, prop shopping was something I was going to have to squeeze in. But, if we needed props more than we needed rehearsal, then that’s what we’d do. We canceled today’s rehearsal, I went prop shopping, the Costume Designer and performer went costume shopping, and we move the show forward in the process through our verisimilitude.

I am certain that over the next two weeks (we open two weeks from tomorrow) we will continue to adjust our schedule so that it is as efficient as possible for everyone. Our goal is to spent the best amount of time on our best effort. And with this kind of show, we have a freedom within our limitation that is…well…freeing.

More soon. Go be flexible and questioning, Intrepid Readers!

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The Universality of Silence

Happy Sunday Funday, Intrepid Readers! Don’t worry, there is an inflatable pool and a beer with my name on it waiting for me to finish blogging, so my Sunday will be a Funday.

But, before I pool and beer, I must share an observation I made this morning while I was making breakfast for me and Lil’ Discoball. Here I am, a regular Big Discoball, just going about my morning, listening to NPR and making breakfast like you do, and there’s a story about a new children’s book happening. The reporter and critic (could have also been the author–I wasn’t paying super close attention at the start of the story) were discussing the fact that this book, for little ones, has no text, only illustrations. One of the folks related that their own child, a 3 year old, had picked up the book at home and “read” it out loud, which led to a discussion that this book was universal. That a reader could read into the illustrations any number of possible stories. That its lack of text made it art that anyone could access.

By then, of course, I was fully engaged with this story and was only nominally making breakfast–I didn’t burn anything, it was fine–because it got me thinking about Request Concert. Is it possible, I wondered, that rather than the lack of text distancing the audience from the story being told onstage, it is possible that that very lack of text brings all audience members–regardless of age, life experience, etc–closer to the story? Could this be a story that anyone can access because of its form and content serving as a vehicle for universality? Is silence universal?

We can look to the work of John Cage, Marina Abramovic, Merce Cunningham, and Samuel Beckett (and lots of others, I’m sure–these are the just folks who came immediately to mind) to give us examples of art that fully engages in silence, and through that silence, puts their art in the history books. The silence in their work provokes, it flips over, it rearranges–and it leaves us arguing through the decades about what it means.

Has Kroetz actually given us on the production team a gift? And we just didn’t realize it at the start? Could it be that this play isn’t a challenge to overcome, but a gift to unwrap? Would we even care about this play if it was a spoken text from the point of view of a woman in 1970’s West Berlin? Would spoken text have dated this play so greatly that it became an instant museum piece in 1991? Does the play’s silence make this play universal? Let’s find out, Intrepid Readers.

And now, to the pool! And the beer!

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Staging The Unspeakable

Hello, Intrepid Readers! Coming to you today from a completed first week of rehearsals for Request Concert, and here’s what I can report:

Staging a play without spoken lines shares some comfortable things in common with plays with spoken lines. The staging has to flow, it has to make sense for the character, and it has to help tell the story. There has to be a reason for the character to move, and that reason is motivated by character need.

It’s different, because we sometimes have to give the character a reason to move, so that she isn’t just sitting on her couch for 20 minutes, but must move through the space. In our play, this means that her smart home remote is across the room when she wants to change the level of the lights inside her apartment, so she has to stand up from the couch and go get it. There has to be some kind of changes, otherwise we head into deadly boring territory.

It’s similar, because the character has a backstory–she is coming from someplace particular–but, surprisingly to me, we aren’t spending rehearsal time building a super elaborate backstory. I did have the realization today during staging that when she enters her apartment after finishing her work day, is that she can’t have just had a regular day. None of her actions, literally, are interesting or motivated, if that’s the case. She has to come in from a kinda stressful–but not the worst day ever–work day to give her actions drive and purpose.

Staging has gone more smoothly than I expected. I didn’t really have expectations for how staging would go, but I am pleased at the ease at which we are working. For our staging rehearsals, I set up the calendar so that we would stage 10 minutes of action per rehearsal, and our rehearsals are two hours long. I did it this way out of sheer “I guess this could work”–ness, and so far, it seems to be working. Staging in 10 minute segments gives us the chance to talk through the exact sequence of movement, the action/need behind the movement, and then run that sequence. Now that we are halfway through the show, we are running all the segments together at the end of each rehearsal to start locking in the movements.

Generally, when I set up a rehearsal calendar, I do a stumble through after the show is staged, and the rehearsal after the stumble through is reserved to work major problems that pop up. I realized this morning during my workout that we won’t really have “problems” to work–we’re addressing them all in the moment, so we canceled our staging rehearsal tomorrow and moved it to next week, eliminating the “Work Problems” rehearsal entirely.

Looking forward to next week, and I’ll be back with a report on how the staging finished up and how the stumble through went. Thanks for being my Intrepid Readers!

 

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*insert shuddery shiver of anticipation here*

Shudder with me, Intrepid Readers! Because I’ve got a doozy of a show to work on right now. A kind of play I’ve never done before. A play that, when I first read it, was only okay, but when it re-entered my attention this summer, suddenly was everything I wanted to pursue. A play that is a challenge I’ve never faced before as a director.

…BUT WHAT IS IT?

Shiver in anticipation with me, Intrepid Readers.

It is Request Concert by the German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz.

It’s a who now?

Request Concert (1971) is a one woman play without spoken lines. That’s right. The only character on stage doesn’t speak the entire time. Not because she can’t. She just doesn’t.

My next challenge, a challenge I have never faced, a challenge wherein I am totally adrift, is a play with NO SPOKEN LINES.

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That’s right, Intrepid Readers. NO SPOKEN LINES. And I couldn’t be more excited. Everything I know about directing, every process and technique I use, everything I teach is based on plays with spoken text. What do you do when you don’t have that basic foundation? What does that rehearsal calendar look like? What do rehearsals look like? How do you work with an actor on actions, tactics, obstacles, and stakes? How do you make a play with no spoken lines that lasts approximately an hour not deadly boring for the audience?

I am finding out the answers to all these questions as I go along–rehearsals started yesterday–and it is AWESOME. I have to question everything I know and I love this feeling. I have no idea what is going to happen by the end of this process and that is so invigorating. Nothing can be taken for granted. Every experience is new.

It’s so easy to get into a pattern, a rhythm, a rut. And then you just churn out work. Churn churn churn. I’ve been wondering what the antidote to that rut, that churn, could possibly be, and I think I’ve stumbled across one potential answer. Challenge yourself. Really stretch. Not just pretend stretch. Not just a little. A lot. Embrace that challenge and accept the possibility of total failure and then go be free in your work.

I’ll keep reporting back in with how its going. We’re just under a month until we open.

I’m going to let Thor have the last word:

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The Moana Concept

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Hello, Intrepid Readers! I’ve been thinking recently about how an artist sustains themselves and their creative spark in a season of constant artistic activity. How does an artist continue to hold on to the love and joy that brought them to their art when outside quantitative concerns worm their way in?

On one hand, being in demand enough to be working constantly is a good problem to have. This means your work has reached critical mass and that you are good at what you do. On the other hand, does being so in demand mean that you just churn out work without being able to give it the time it deserves? What does this workload mean for the artist at a mental health/balance level? What does it mean for the artist’s relationships within their community–whether that’s a family, a studio, or a tribe, or any combination thereof?

If a season of constant artistic activity is the immutable reality, how does the artist face it with love and joy and gratitude, and keep the spirit of Christmas in their heart all year round, if you will?

An answer to this question has eluded me until very recently, and it came to me in the form of a Disney Princess. Stay with me, Intrepid Readers.

Last week, at the gym, I was doing one of my new favorite cardio workouts, 30 minutes on the rowing machine. The rowing machine is a throwback, I know, but it is a whole body workout–legs, arms, back, abs–and it makes me feel like a badass. (You row full out for 30 minutes, and then get back to me, after you can stand up, to verify this workout’s badassery.) Because it’s a pretty tough workout, I put my Angry Run playlist on and then get to work, using the music to keep me mad enough to keep going until my time is up. Except for one rowing session last week, where it was just my regular Run playlist, on accident, and I didn’t realize it until “I Am Moana” from the Disney cartoon movie Moana, came on. I was so surprised that the lyrics really sunk in to my head.

Remember this song? It’s towards the end of the movie–Moana’s dead grandmother appears to her and gives her the strength to go on.

I know a girl from an island
She stands apart from the crowd
She loves the sea and her people
She makes her whole family proud
Sometimes the world seems against you
The journey may leave a scar
But scars can heal and reveal just
Where you are
The people you love will change you
The things you have learned will guide you
And nothing on earth can silence
The quiet voice still inside you
And when that voice starts to whisper
Moana, you’ve come so far
Moana, listen
Do you know who you are?
Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!
Moana’s creativity was never outside of her, it was and is always inside of her. Finding a way to reconnect with that internal light, especially when the world seems dark, is the challenge. How do you not let yourself wallow in self-pity? How do you find a moment to re-spark? Music, food, friends, yoga, rowing machines–I think all are valid answers. The key is being secure in the knowledge that your creativity is inside you, and will be there for you, when you need it. The key is having a technique and a process that you know works, that you know serves you, and that you can rely on to pull you through a moment that is maybe more creatively dim than others. The key is in simply being present and doing the work.
I’ll end with one of my new favorite quotes from the late author Danielle Steele: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.”
Go be endlessly creative, Intrepid Readers.
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Broken Record

Hello, Intrepid Readers! I am no longer in my Intermission period! I am now about a week and a half from opening night of The Trojan Women, playing Hecuba, the Queen of the Trojans (or, as I said last night, “I’M THE QUEEN OF THE FUCKING TROJANS!”)

Interestingly, while I was memorizing lines, I would come across some that would make me tear up as a I said them. This isn’t totally unusual for me–it also happened during Going Dark, especially in 2.4. Also usual for me, while I may tear up during memorization, I don’t onstage. I haven’t ever cried–like, legit cried–onstage. Ever. Even when my character is supposed to–what’s up, Veronica in God of Carnage! I see you, girl!–I couldn’t. Why? Fear.

Fear of being truly vulnerable. Fear of being truly seen. Fear of being seen as weak. That fear was the thing that held me back from being truly free on stage and from being my very best as an actor.

…well, y’all. It’s a new fucking day. And time for me to buy some waterproof mascara.

Why this play was the thing to break my record–it held strong for a good 25 years–isn’t entirely clear to me. I think part of it is being a mother, although I’ve played parts since being a mother; but, it’s not just that I am a mother. It’s that I am a mother with a particular set of given circumstances. Hecuba has witnessed the deaths of her husband and some of her children first hand. Her city has fallen. She will be a slave and/or sex slave. (In mythology, she is turned into a dog.) There is no hope. There is nothing left. She starts from a place of loss and just keeps. on. losing.

Another part of it is that somehow I’m not really afraid anymore. I’m not afraid of being vulnerable, or of being seen, or of being seen as weak. Why I don’t know exactly…age maybe? Like being in my early 40s means that I’ve started to run out of fucks to give about what other people think about me–especially when I’m onstage. It’s okay if I’m not “pretty” while I’m in character–and that used to be a concern of mine. Always looking pretty, even if things got dramatic.

I like to be in control and I like to win. This character is neither of those things. She is not in control and she does not win. Not even a little bit.

The given circumstances of motherhood and loss really hit me in different ways each night, but especially when Andromache describes being pregnant with, and giving birth to, her baby son. Andromache’s birth story is my story. My labor was so painful, I’m pretty sure it broke Geneva Convention rules about torture; but, when Little Discoball was placed in my arms, her dad and I both laughed and laughed with joy. So here I am hearing my story, looking at this little doomed baby doll, and I just…cry.

The other thing I’m really tapping into with this character are Details. You might know this as personalizing the part, but I think of it as Detail (shout out to Aaron Glover, for showing me the way of the Detail.) When Hecuba talks about her city, before everything went to shit, I picture my hometown of Houston–downtown, farmers markets, my friends there, the fountains, the parks, and those sunny days when the sky is so blue it’s like you can see into outer space–and I cry. When Hecuba talks about forgetting what her dead family member’s faces look like, I think of my father’s face…and I cry.

I’m also in this play with students and alumni, and if I don’t bring it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME–if I’m not training like I fight and fighting like I train–then what kind of teacher am I? So, tears. (subsequently, those moments when I really fuck up make me super mad at myself, but that’s also part of the process, so I’m learning to let it go and give myself some grace.)

What I didn’t think was going to be a particularly challenging part–I feel like I’ve got the Bad Bitch character down–has turned out to be one of my major breakthrough roles.

The record’s been broken, Intrepid Readers. Time to set a new one.

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Intermission

Hello, Intrepid Readers! It has been a hot minute, I know. Since July, I have opened a show, closed a show, reopened a show (Twelfth Night was revived in mid-September once the university was back in session), and reclosed a show.

And since July, I have headed up a new playreading series that focuses on new plays by playwrights I love (How to Transcend a Happy Marriage by Sarah Ruhl, hey girl), plays that are very timely (Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan), or plays that would be difficult to produce full out at a public university in the state of Alabama (including but not limited to Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel), a state so conservative that it still “celebrates” “Confederate Memorial Day” (whatever the fuck that means) and the birthday of Robert E. Lee (which happens around the same time as Martin Luther King Day. Srsly.) But this isn’t a post about dragging Alabama for its shortcomings–I mean, at least we’re not Mississippi, amirite?!

This is a post about what happens in between gigs–the Intermission. I’ll be back in rehearsal by mid-January, playing Hecuba in the UAH production of Trojan Women. Until then, what is a theatre artist to do? During an Intermission, you as audience get to take a break. Potty, snack, check in on your kids. In short: rest. In the same way, this personal Intermission is a time I get to enjoy not being in rehearsal. Do other things, like read not-theatre, exercise, see friends. And then again, theatre is also my job, so I’m still reading and engaging with the theatre world; but, the balance is nice.

I’m going to posit that being able to balance theatre and not-theatre, and enjoy both, is a sign of maturity and wisdom. To have a life outside a dark space that is enjoyable is a valuable thing and makes me a better artist. You cannot serve from an empty vessel. So I binge watch stuff (House of Card Season 6 is next Friday! Outlander Season 4 is next Sunday!) like The Office, and 30 Rock, and I drink wine in fuzzy pjs with my cat, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I love my work. I love my life. I love having balance.

Yay for Intermissions!

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Echoes of Viola

Hello from Tech Rehearsal, Intrepid Readers!

So let me introduce you to my maternal grandmother. This is a picture of her at 19, when she was a sophomore at Greensboro College, in the mid 1940’s.

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I know, right?!?!

When she was a student at Greensboro, she played Viola in a college production of Twelfth Night in 1945 or. The picture was sent to me by a theatre professor there, after I contacted them to find out if any archival information about the production still existed. Sadly, none did, but they did find this picture of her.

As I go through the rehearsal process with Twelfth Night, I think of her as Viola. I think of what that production looked like and sounded like (probably very much like a Laurence Olivier production from the same time period would look and sound like.) I picture my grandmother, the same age as some of the actors in the production I’m currently directing, and imagine her energy and joy at being able to participate in theatre, and more than that, to be participating in a Shakespeare production. She was by all accounts a gifted performer and singer; but, stopped performing once she married my grandfather.

Up until fairly recently, I had always wondered where my theatrical skills came from–I am one of two theatre people in both sides of my very large extended family. But to hear that this grandmother performed, and to know that my other grandmother was the valedictorian of her high school class, I know that my talent, smarts, and independence comes from these two women, and all the women who have come before me in my family.

I always wear my paternal grandmother’s wedding band as a reminder to stay humble and grateful, but during this rehearsal process I have the presence of Shirley all around me always and I am so thankful.

*breath*

Back to technical rehearsal, Intrepid Readers. Stay awesome.

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