Lifting Up The Curtain: Trashing the Joint
(For previous "Lifting Up The Curtain"s, click:
here, here, here, here, or here.)
This one is rather long, but I think it’s entertaining. This one’s actually an anecdote, instead of one of my “let me explain this process to you like you’re an idiot” stories.
So now that I’m staging the play, I’m re-reading Hauser and Reich’s Notes on Directing, which has some great tips on blocking (Learn to Love Traingles. Imbalance Adds Interest. Choose a facing Angle etc.). Anyway, according to them, playwright Romulus Linney (father of Laura Linney) once wrote: “Everything on the set should be used up, burned up, blown up, destroyed, or otherwise completely chemically altered over the course of the story or else it didn’t belong there to begin with”. In other words, learn to create a world with nothing extraneous, but chock full of variety and interest in what is there on stage.
Unfortunately, at Sunday’s rehearsal, we might have took Mr. Linney’s suggestion a tad bit too literally.
It’s Sunday, a beautiful Sunday, the first really perfect day of weather we’ve gotten in New York in way too long. There’s a cool breeze, a high in the low sixties and, to quote First You’re Born, “The sun is shining and everything is peaceful and serene”. We have booked a rehearsal at the Danish Seaman’s Church (or as I’ve redubbed it: “The Danish Seaman’s Church NO LAUGHING!”). You may recall that First You’re Born is the US premier of a hit play from Denmark, and thus we rely occasionally on Danish resources within the United States to get the play done.
Anyway, the church is in Brooklyn Heights, nearby where the Cosby Show B-unit footage was shot- a gorgeous area full of town houses, tree-lined streets, laughing (not screaming) children, and rainbows and lollipops and maybe a Lorax or two. We are together, the full cast and I, to rehearse one of three full-cast scenes in the play, the second to last one, called “Knife Drama”. In “Knife Drama” Axel realizes that his ex-girlfriend (Bimsy) has moved on to another man (Viktor) and sets out to kill him (hence the Knife). Meanwhile Axel’s roommate (Tearman) has set the two of them up with the agoraphobic twins living next door (Lis and Pis). For those of you for whom this sounds cutesy, precious, and nauseating, well… it works when you read or see it, trust me.
Anyway, the scene is where the play totally embraces the genre of farce. There’s chasing, door slamming, screaming, a knife wound (Axel cuts himself in a rage), a chase around a park bench—really, this scene has it all. And we’re supposed to rehearse it today. For the first time. In a basement. At a Danish church. The Danes being, of course, some of the nicest and most polite people on Earth. We’re going to go into their church, and yell curse words and try to kill each other all in the name of a three week run of this little play from their home country.
The pastor’s wife greets me at the door, and shows me the three possible rooms we could rehearse in. There’s a TV lounge, rather like one in a dorm room, a little living room and the aforementioned basement, which we end up using. The basement has two long tables covered in boxes, binders and paper. I ask her if we can move the stuff, promising to put everything back as we’d found it. She agrees, and Brooks (one of my assistants) and I set to work, setting up the scene.
Setting up the scene (which begins in Viktor’s apartment and expands to include multiple other locations) means moving all the stuff off of one table and using it as a stand in for a bed. All the other set pieces are made up of stacks of what look like knock-off Arne Jacobsen Ant Chairs painted red and blue. Meanwhile, the actors arrive, covering the other table in bags and jackets and crap before I can tell them to try to keep things orderly.
So we begin staging the scene, which is laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s just making me more and more grateful that we have such a comically talented cast. I’ve pretty much let them run loose for this first round of blocking, giving them only the slightest bit of structure and right now it’s paying off. So far, everything’s going right. For some reason, Rob has this odd habit of falling down at random moments (socks on linoleum floor I suppose) but it’s just helping fuel the energy of the scene. Finally, we get to the combat section of the scene. It goes something like this:
(0) Axel storms on in a rage, confronting Viktor and Bimsy
(0) Axel threatens Viktor with a knife
(0) Bimsy, Viktor and Axel all start arguing with each other
(0) Axel chases Viktor around the bench,
(0) Axel trips and cuts himself
(0) Axel sits down with Viktor
(0) Axel tries to strangle Viktor
(0) Bimsy threatens Axel with the knife
(0) Bimsy kicks Axel and Viktor out of her life
Anyway, Geoffrey (Axel) and Rob (Viktor) are really going at it with gusto. When Axel chases Viktor, Rob runs around the bench like a Muppet on fire. When Axel cuts himself, Geoffrey does this hilarious little-boy-running-around-in-circles bit. Everything’s going great. And then the strangling happens.
Geoffrey runs over and puts Rob in a headlock. He shouts his line “BIMSY IS STANDING IN THE SUNSET AND YOU CAN’T SEE HER FACE” and suddenly there is a cracking, splitting sound coming from Rob’s chair. Slowly, every so slowly, in slow motion even, Rob begins to fall backwards. He falls so slowly it’s like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. He has this wide eyed, unbelieving expression on his face as the back of the chair is no longer at a 90 degree angle from the seat but now in a straight line with it and Rob catches himself. He turns to us, and says “hey, I’m okay. Really I’m alright”. This is the eighth time he’s fallen today, it feels like, and we can’t help but burst out laughing for a good five minutes.
We finish blocking the scene about an hour later, and run it through and I let everyone go home. And then, the party’s over. It’s time to put the room back together. Neither Brooks nor I can remember, six hours later, exactly where anything is supposed to be. All of the papers and boxes and binders are piled in a big mess. One of the chairs is broken.
No matter how much I try to escape it, I am the rude American. I took my privileged ass over to someone’s house (in a church, no less!) wrecked the furniture, shouted curse words, and am now feebly trying to put everything back together. We slowly make it look orderly, at least, a kind of half-hearted gesture and I turn to Brooks and say, “shit, we trashed this place, didn’t we?” he pauses, unsure whether to make me feel better or tell me the truth and says, “yeah, kinda”. I mean, it’s not like we put a TV through a window but still, I’m not in college anymore, and this kind of shit isn’t cool to pull these days.
I sheepishly climb upstairs with Brooks and the pastor’s wife, Marit, is standing there.
“How did it go?”
“Um, great. Really great. We had a great time. Thank you so much for opening up your home to us. Listen… uh… we tried to make it look like it did when we came in, but I’m not sure if it’s really in order or not. Can I stick around and maybe make sure with you that it’s alright down there?”
“Please, we had a meeting in there last night. It’s a mess, don’t worry about it, really.”
“Are you sure? Um. There’s one other thing… well… we, you know, we were using the chairs and-“
“One of them broke?” She asks it and my face lights up, hope!
“Well, yes. Listen, can I write you a check to replace it?”
“Those chairs are thirty years old. The church bought them then, used at that, and they cost I think $5 a piece.”
“Well, I have a fiver on me”
“Don’t be silly”.
So I’m not as terrible as I thought! And I gallantly offered to pay! Even when I heard it was only five bucks! Not bad, Herr Director, not bad at all. I talk to her about Denmark a little bit (my trip there was like, a magical experience) and I give her a postcard. She welcomes us to come back and rehearse anytime we want. I thank her, and I walk home, talking to Brooks and thinking about how the Danes might just be (for all their melancholy) the nicest people in the world.
PS: Thanks to the wonderful Playwright's Horizons, we are now rehearsing at their rehearsal studios for the entire run of rehearsals! So the "Space Wars" are solved and we'll no longer be fucking up churches!