Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Lifting Up The Curtain 3: Book Work Begins!

In the Beginning There Was The Book Work, and the great director beheld it and behold, it was alright.

Book work (or table work, depending on who you’re talking to) is how almost everyone begins their rehearsal process. It’s a time when the actors and director sit around a table and read through the script over and over again, talking about what’s going on, hashing out the issues, begin character analysis etc.

Bad habit I’m trying to cure myself of: doing too much too soon. It’s really tempting at this stage (around a table, everyone excited, creative juices flowing etc.) to try to set on some level how the play should sound. When is it loud or soft or nice or nasty or quiet or whatever? What table work really should be used for is building the foundation of a play: The who, what, where and how of the script. You’d be surprised how many plays I’ve seen, or people I’ve talked to where it’s really clear that on some basic fundamental way the company didn’t have a shared understanding of what the hell is going on in the play.

My friend T Ryder Smith demonstrated the importance of the basics when I assistant directed a show of his. He had the cast go around and describe moment to moment in simple sentences what happens in the play (in this case “This Is Our Youth”) as if talking to someone who had never heard of the show. (So, for example, if this was Hamlet, you might say “it is nighttime. Two men are standing watch. A third man arrives. They discuss the strange sighting of a ghost over the past few nights.” And go from there.) When I did this exercise on the first day of rehearsal, I could see the pain and confusion on the actors’ faces. Two scenes of “First You’re Born” got completely left out, and the play happened in the wrong order. I turned to the actors and said “this same feeling of uneasiness is what you’ll feel on stage if we don’t establish the fundamentals first”.

So that’s what we’re doing now. To an outside observer, our rehearsals up to now would probably be extremely boring. We read a chunk of the scene, and then we talk about it. The conversation is pretty much always the same. “Alexa, what does Bimsy want in this scene? Rob, what does Viktor want? How are these things in conflict? Where are the stakes etc.” It’s the same questions repeated over and over, and, to tell you the truth, the play isn’t very funny right now, because the actors are struggling with logic, action, conflict, stakes and all sorts of other building blocks of a scene.

This is where my bad habits come in. I’m struggling in rehearsal with this internal conflict: “the play isn’t funny right now an it’s a comedy! Aaarg! PANIC!” vs. “The actors are going slowly and taking the time to think about what’s going on in the scene, and if you want a truthful performance out of anyone, that’s where you need to start”. Right now the latter half is winning, but every now and then Panic rears its ugly, dictatorial head.

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