There is something magical about sitting in an audience as the house lights dim.

The buzz in the room settles into quiet anticipation as we wait to be transported into someone else's world, someone else's story. But what we see on the stage is just the culmination of weeks, sometimes months of work behind the scenes by artists of all description: actors, directors, designers, wardrobe people, carpenters, painters, sound and light experts and others.

This blog will give you a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into that unknown world, following the rehearsal process.
This will be your guide to the hard work, fun and weirdness of putting together a play
for a professional theatre company.

You'll never watch a play in the same way again!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Larry Isacoff Called Me a Liar

Now blogging: Ellen Peterson, who plays the role of Birdy in the world premiere of Daniel MacIvor's new play, Small Things, running at PTE from October 16 - November 2, 2014.


Larry Isacoff called me a liar

Actors are frequently asked "how do you learn all those lines?" Learning the lines is not really the hard part, though I notice that I am not so fast at it as I was when I was, say, twenty-nine. Castmate Alissa Watson is twenty-nine and she had her lines down stone cold by about the fifth day. We kid her that that's because all her character ever says is "yeah" or "right."

A more appropriate question for an actor might be "how did you learn how to say the line that exact way while carrying a loaded tea tray off a moving revolve and get it right every time?" Or better yet, ask "would you like to lie down?" You can memorize anything. But what we learn in the first two weeks of rehearsal is how to use the lines the playwright wrote to tell the intended story. We never just say a line. The line has to be said with the right intention, the right tone, the right shade of meaning. Every line in the play has to ring true to the characters' circumstances and relationships. Listen for it in your own life: there is a world of difference between how one says "have a good day" to a child on the first day of kindergarten and the way one says it to the cashier at the grocery store. When we are doing it well, it doesn't sound like we're spouting a bunch of stuff we memorized. When we do it well, the audience understands and enjoys the story. You could read the script by yourself at home; our job is to make it way more fun than that.

During rehearsal, we are also concerning ourselves with blocking (the pattern of movement on the stage) so that it, too, supports the story. There is an infinite number of ways to exit a room. One of them is perfect for the given scene. Find that one. The movement must also allow every seat in the house a full view of the action, which is a special challenge on PTE's thrust stage.  We are also busy figuring out what is the best kind of cake to use, if the earrings should be in a box, who should take the wine glass off stage and a million other details. It is meticulous and demanding work.

Speaking of meticulous and demanding work, Stage Managers are unbelievable. Simply fantastic. Friday October 10 was National Stage Managers Day and we felt really bad we didn't know about it until, of course, our Stage Manager told us. We are especially lucky to have with us Karyn Kumhyr and Candace Maxwell, veterans and geniuses both. They are the people that keep us on schedule, on track and (sometimes) on topic. They write down every move we make so that if you are not twenty-nine any more and forget what you did two minutes ago, they can tell you. If you see Small Things and I am on the stage, it is because Candace Maxwell is standing exactly where she needs to be to hand me what I need to wear/carry (thanks Candace).  When the revolve goes around, that's Karyn driving it from the back of the theatre. She knows where to stop it because she is watching the backstage edge of it on an infrared camera. Really! If she drives it too fast, that tea tray and I are toast. There's toast in this show because Candace makes it. Etcetera. You might not ever meet a Stage Manager because they are like some elusive, nocturnal creature. Seldom seen but ever-present. But if you ever do meet one, you can go ahead and ask her if she wants to lie down, but I bet she won't have time.

So after those fourteen or so days in the rehearsal hall, we move to the theatre for what is called "tech." If you meet anyone who works in theatre and they say they are "in tech," it's probably best not to ask questions. Cookies are greatly appreciated. During tech, all of the elements of the production come together. In rehearsal, we practice the play. In tech, we build the production. All the time we've been rehearsing, and for months beforehand, there is another group of artists planning the lights, sets, costumes, sound, props and so on. In tech, you work three twelve hour days in a row if you are an actor, and if you are a Stage Manager or other crew member the days are even longer and there are more of them in a row. It's kind of brutal, but there is a camaraderie that develops and for the actors, it is a chance to become comfortable on the stage and there is something playful and freeing about it. Several successive runs of the play gives us a fresh understanding of the story and a new kind of confidence. Everyone is bone tired, it can get a little hysterical and occasionally tempers are lost. Not all that often, considering. I absolutely LOVE tech. I said that to Lighting Designer Larry Isacoff and he called me a liar. Maybe not everyone loves it, I don't know. 

Now, having said that I love tech week, and having gotten a little sleep since I wrote that part, let me be clear: I am 51 years old and still capable of feeling mildly enraptured by the mere idea of doing theatre. I said in a previous post that I love table work. Clearly a hopeless case. But let me say in the interest of balanced reporting that last Tuesday evening I quit theatre forever.  (See you at Opening.) So I have to be careful about what I'm willing to put up with. Like dating someone who would be perfect if it wasn't for the fact he's a) married  b) a moron or c) both. So when I say I love tech, what I love is all the people bringing the play together. But I am not completely starry-eyed. I know this is actually no way to make art. We have been doing it like this for a long time and it is a work pattern based on traditions and financial constraints. Though none of it is contrary to labour laws, one wonders: is this humane? Driving home Saturday at midnight my blood alcohol level was 0.00 but I still shouldn't have been driving. Strange that people smart enough to put this show together can't think of a way to do it and still get a weekend.

But tech is like a wedding of many partners: the playwright's story, the director's vision of how it will best be told, the artistry of the designers and craftspeople, the crew's precision and the very best efforts of the actors to be present, remember everything and not drop the damn tray. The play is a gift we give to the audience, and tech is when we wrap it. We hope you like it.

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