Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Impertinence of Blogging Earnest: Week 1 of rehearsals – blocking.

The cast, Brian Carless, Cameron Johnston and I wrapped up our first week of rehearsal on Thursday, February 26. Most Civic rehearsal schedules run Sunday through Thursday. I saw no reason not to continue that, but I moved Sunday rehearsals to early afternoon. What can I say? I like having my weekend evenings free as much as possible.

The first week was devoted entirely to blocking – the movements made by actors during the show. There’s a lot directors take into consideration when blocking a scene: script requirements (does an actor enter or exit during the scene?), stage dressing (are there obstacles around which an actor must maneuver?), focus (how will the audience know which actor to watch?), composition and imagery (are the positions and the movements attractive?), characterization (how would a character physically react to the action in the scene?) and more.

The entire first act was blocked on Sunday. Some directors divide acts into “French scenes,” which are created whenever a character enters or exits a scene. This is usually a very good practice, but there are so many entrances and exits in The Importance of Being Earnest that French scenes would have muddied up the rehearsal process. Plus, I prefer actors to understand the entire flow of an act as soon as possible.

Cameron gave the actors their blocking for the first act, and Brian wrote the directions in his prompt book for reference. Immediately, the actors went to stage – an outline of Civic’s performance area created from masking tape – to run the act from beginning to end, twice in a row. The actors shared their thoughts about the blocking, if anything seemed unnecessary, overly complicated or just not timely. Cameron, Brian and I also got to see how the blocking looked in three dimensions. Some changes were made after those first two run-throughs but for the most part the blocked seemed solid. We ran the act a final time, this time stopping and starting whenever Brian, Cameron or I wanted to give notes to actors about their movements or characterizations.

Monday night, we did the stop-and-start process for the first act again. If this seems repetitious, then you see exactly how I operate as a director. By repeating acts over and over (Act I was done at least five times during the first two days of rehearsal), actors can use their muscle memory to remember the precise timing of their blocking so that it’s second nature to carry it off. They also are exposed to their lines several times, which aids in memorization. And the better the actors have their lines memorized, the better the rehearsals become when actors cannot use their scripts on stage.

Tuesday night, we started the entire process again for Act II. The actors wrote their blocking, as did Brian. After running through it, we did a stop-and-start working of the act. Wednesday was entirely working the act, which is longer than Act I by about seven minutes. On Thursday, the actors performed Act I and Act II, immediately back-to-back.

Are there things that need to be worked on? Yes, oh yes. Act I is static – I gave the actors far too much blocking that keeps them in the same positions for far too long. My fault 100 percent, and it will be addressed. Timing will also have to be polished; I personally detest when a stage is left entirely bare (perhaps it’s the Improv performer in me) so actors have to understand the timing of entrances and exits together so there’s a minimum of bare stage. Additionally, there are some pieces of blocking that require the actors to say one thing, carry out an entirely different action and react to something completely different. There's a moment with tea, sugar and cake in Act II that is far more difficult to pull off than it seems because of this layering.

However, it’s clear that the actors are starting off on the right foot. Zack Nantz and Jake Ott, who play the servants, already have a nice “proper” demeanor to their characters – and they also play against propriety nicely. Bryce Robinson (Algernon) and Jessica Hoffmann (Cecily) are beginning to physically and vocally contrast their worry-free, frivolous characters with those being developed by Kevin Barlow (Jack), Margaret Duvall (Gwendolen) and Madeleine Bien (Lady Bracknell). Additionally, Christine Furtner (Miss Prism) and Nate Denson (Reverend Chasuble) are beginning to see how their characters feel toward one another, and how it differs from their feelings for other characters in the play. All the actors completed homework about their characters, and we've had conversations about what their characters want, how to physically and verbally relate that to the audience, and what relationships are being developed with other characters.

This upcoming week includes blocking Act III on Sunday, then working the act on Monday. Each act will be worked in their entirety on Tuesday (Act I), Wednesday (Act II) and Thursday (Act III) in the stop-and-go method. These will be some of the final times the actors will have their scripts in hand during rehearsals. Everyone will have to work hard to be able to make the leap from having a 60-something page safety net to flying through the air without anything but their own skills to keep them on the right path.

Unsung Hero of the Week: Brian. Not only did Brian fill in for actors who were unable to participate in rehearsal by reading their lines and walking their blocking, but he also taped down the outline of the performance space immediately before the actors started rehearsing Act I on Sunday. Stage managers do not receive nearly the credit they deserve for all the work they do and the detailed way they do it.

Funniest Bit of the Week: To encourage Bryce to be a little more frivolous and carefree with his characterization of Algernon, I asked if he could pull off a personation of yours truly. After assuring him that I would not be offended by whatever he did, the rest of the cast was almost beside themselves when he played the final scene of Act II with Kevin Barlow. He got me good.

Most Gratifying Moment of the Week: With just two little notes, Bryce and Kevin managed to hit the right tone for the final scene of Act II. All the actors in this cast are quite talented and committed to creating an excellent performance. I couldn't have been more pleased with them especially with that instance.

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