Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Postscript)

My assignment was to write on the rehearsal process. Three weeks ago, rehearsals ended and we opened the show.
But that doesn’t mean the production has stopped evolving. Circumstance comes into play--perhaps even more so than in rehearsal--during the performance. A charcoal stick that’s rolled just out of reach offers the opportunity to actually let Thomasina become truly exasperated with the day’s lesson. A glance that, for whatever reason, is held a little longer makes a realization of the end of an education that much more poignant. An audience member viscerally and audibly reacts to the challenge to a duel heightening the seriousness of the otherwise quite comic scene.
And when Thomasina stumbles a little more in the final waltz than even the actor herself is accustomed to, she finds that Septimus is there to steady her.
There is a joy in realizing that this cast in particular truly embodies that spirit - we steady each other, make each other laugh, attempt to teach each other to play cribbage (long story), warm up together, walk to our cars together. Maybe it sounds a little too Brady Bunch, but there is a sense of play, and a sense of family that perhaps is the truest treasure of this production--especially since I think it really shows in the performance. Even on the nights when one or another of us feels that we’ve had a bumpy performance, I don’t think there’s been a moment when any of us hasn’t wanted to be there. How can it feel like work when you get to spend a few hours with people about whom you care so much?
As we close Arcadia tonight, that joy is mingled with an impending sense of loss. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with myself next Thursday night when I don’t need to drive down to the theater, get my hot rollers plugged in, and play with this wonderful group of people who now seem more like family than anything else.
It is a testament to this cast that this sense of family even exists. We spent most of the rehearsal period segregated from one time period’s cast or the other. Maybe it’s just that this is a really incredible group of individuals. Maybe it’s the magic of this play--that “everything is mixing together, irreversibly...”
I’m inclined to think that it’s both. That thought is the only thing keeping me from being an absolute mess right now. Even though everything must tend toward chaos--in 12 hours, it may be that this group is never fully assembled ever again--but that there is at least one bond that can’t be broken, and it’s built on the six weeks we’ve spent together.
Perhaps I am showing an extreme lack of professionalism by confessing all of this, but it’s all true--and I’ve always been accused of being a terrible liar. I hope that you’ll join us tonight or tomorrow before “the heat goes into the mix,” irretrievable and irreversible. The audience is often said to be the last member of the cast in any production, but here I hope you’ll find that you’re actually the last member of a talented, hilarious, giving, wonderful family. I know I have.
With love and gratitude,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Whatever Experience You Bring to Arcadia, It Illuminates

We are all Thomasina Coverly, in our own way.    

In her innocence and youth, she embodies the persistence of curiosity, the puzzled determination in finding answers, and the explosive excitement of wanting to be the first to have ever thought a specific thought.  Arcadia’s budding intellectual, played so delightfully by apprentice Alex Wiles, (whose blogs on the process of creating her character have been in this space over the last month) brings wonder to all that unfolds in front of her. Though we may be older than 13, we remember Thomasina and carry her with us.  

Thomasina’s tutor, Septimus Hodge inspires plenty of laughs, and in his eyes one easily sees the ebbing of youth: he is challenged and provoked by his younger pupil.  We laugh because we experience ourselves, as parents or teachers or older siblings, within him.  

The rigorous and independent scholar in Arcadia, (Hannah Jarvis), strongly played by Jennie Meharg, evades introspection and delightfully misses her primary subject: herself.  The splashy rock-star scholar, brought to life by Adrian Rieder, makes glaring errors in his research that we find funny----his gut-reactions blind him to the facts.  

And on and on.  We find parts of ourselves in each of the characters.  

Director Foster Solomon and his company of actors, crew, and designers have created a beautifully haunting, delicious romp between two time periods.  Becky Cairns is designing in her favorite period, and it shows.  The costumes reflect her brilliance and excitement.  Brian Barker (Sound of Music, others) has crafted an elegant set---designing each piece to fit through a barely-six-foot-wide door into the Gottwald.  Some are as high as 16’ and complete an arc across that expanse, but in sections. No mean feat. Gregg Hillmar’s lights include sunrises and sunsets, echoes of fireworks, chandeliers and wall lamps that flicker so believably you’d swear they were gas.  Our volunteers gave time, effort, and (sometimes back-breaking) work.  I want to say thank you to all of them.  I have been (and am) thrilled with the work of every single artist on Arcadia, and proud to be associated with them.

Light, love, life and energy flow out of all their work, (and Stoppard’s) in which
“…the unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.  It’s how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm.”
…And human beings.  “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”

It’s for this reason that Richmond Shakespeare is performing Arcadia. It’s why I selected the play, and why our artists, staff, board and volunteers struggled to bring it to you---to our audiences.  It’s the closest to Shakespeare we’re likely to find for many years to come.   Daniel Hannan from the London Telegraph gives his thoughts on Shakespeare and Stoppard:
“I’ve made this observation before about the greatest writer of them all – whom Stoppard rather sweetly refers to as “The Champ”. Not many authors in the intervening 400 years achieve the same effect – which is perhaps the highest compliment I can offer our chief living playwright.”
 Hannan describes:
“I recalled, in particular, staggering out of a performance of Arcadia 15 years ago, convinced that it was the supreme theatrical work of our era. Whatever experience you bring to it, it illuminates your experience more than your experience illuminates it.” [emphasis mine]
Watching Arcadia, we see how elements combine, how time periods intertwine, how people and aspects of human nature interact.  Sometimes they are quiet and clear, sometimes producing tension or explosions.  This play is music and gunfire.  It contains Byron’s poetry, Newton’s science, sex, travel, nature, and religion.  These are not what this play is about, but merely elements used to demonstrate Stoppard’s reaching out to teach the Thomasina in each of us.
“When we have found all the mysteries, and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”
Come see this play.  Bring your experiences.  Find yourself surrounded in childlike wonder at finding the meaning within.  

Grant Mudge
October 27, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dear Appeal from Grant

Dear Friends,

I’d like to take a moment to encourage you to see Arcadia.  Bring your spouse, your love, your partner, a date. Grab a friend.  Join us.

Beyond my usual enthusiasm for RS’ work, this is a play so lovely, inspiring, funny, and important that I just want to share it with as many of our devoted audiences as possible.  Arcadia is about the very core of who we are, the stuff of which we’re made.  It’s a rare chance to hear Stoppard’s brilliant language, laugh at his comedy, and realize more of the world.  It absolutely will affect your perspective. 

If you’ve already seen it, come back.  There is so much to ponder, uncover and enjoy that the play is even more enjoyable on subsequent viewings.  The actors's, designerr's and crew team's work is really outstanding.  It's our best set-and-lights work ever.  Becky's costumes are fantastic. (As of Sunday, she's a two-time critics' circle award winner)

There are outstanding seats still available; at every performance the front two rows are just $18+$2.   The best seats are $36+$2 and still-fabulous-seats (it's only 135 seats, after all) for $24+$2.  Students pay just $15.  If you haven’t yet seen our beautiful new Gottwald Playhouse, you owe it to yourself to come on out, and participate in the conversation.

Why the “+$2?”   I want our audiences to understand some of the expense of operating: $1 of that fee goes directly toward operating CenterStage.  Not part of that fee, but out of each ticket, RS also pays rent, security, housekeeping and front of house staff.  The other $1 goes to the Community Development Authority (CDA), which has been responsible for street, sidewalk and parking improvements in the neighborhood.  At the theatre door, you pay no other fees.  Online or on the phone, there’s a small convenience fee, and that way on a sold-out night you know your tickets are already set. (And that advance fee is much less than last year.)  Of course, our subscribers never pay any fees at all.

You only have a few chances before all the energy of Arcadia is dispersed back into the ether---its final performance takes the stage OCTOBER 30.  So please, pick up a ticket at the company’s website, or phone us at 804-232-4000.  You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t miss this show.  Here's the link for tickets.

Yours truly,
-Grant Mudge
Artistic Director
Richmond Shakespeare

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Installment 4)

Well, we've reached opening night of Arcadia! and thus the final installment in Alex Wiles blog of glimpses behind-the-scenes.  Now, you must come to see the performance, which runs only through October 30. Alex is a marvel, and the entire cast is truly outstanding.  I hope you will join us.  Grab tickets here. -GM

I guess you could say acting is a way of taking a walk in someone else’s shoes, only they more than likely don’t exist in reality, and if you’re doing it right, they’re kind of your shoes, too.
A few weeks ago as we began to have final costume fittings, Liz Blake White (playing Chloe) told me how excited she was to get her shoes for the show and start wearing them in rehearsal: “They just add something special to getting into character!”
She’s quite right--and it’s not just the shoes, either.  While the clothes don’t make the man (or woman), they certainly help you craft your character’s movement vocabulary, particularly in a period play.  Grant teased me one day in rehearsal that I moved as though I live in jeans.
Well, I do.
For the past four days or so, I’ve been living in long, airy Regency-period dresses with big pouffy sleeves in lovely, feminine fabrics.
While corsets weren’t typical of the period (the Regency empire waist freed ladies up for era from full-torso corsets for a little over a decade), a little foundational structure helps remind me of the extent to which my movement is constrained, but not so much that I can’t aim for the physicality of a 13-year-old girl.
After a few hours of wearing dresses that fit rather closely to the upper body, I get to change into my nightgown, which is equally lovely, though far more billowy.  It’s dreamy and ethereal, and ridiculously comfortable.  (Also, it is what my four-year-old self would have termed “a good twirler.”  This is particularly important, and if you see the show, you’ll know why.)
Everyone’s costumes are incredible.  Rebecca Cairns and Annie Hoskins have outdone themselves again!  Their work is beautiful, functional, and informs so much of the work we do as actors.

The funny thing is that this applies to the 1993 cast as well!  As a child of the early 90s, I didn’t pay much attention to fashion in the first place.  Little Mermaid shoes went with everything, even a white and black polka-dotted ruffle dress with matching bolero jacket trimmed with yellow ric-rac. (Oh yes, it was quite a sight, especially when topped off with that 90s classic, the bowl cut.)
I suppose it never really occurred to me that there was a style in the 90s.  
Oh, but there was.
Turtlenecks.  Big sweaters.  Pants that come up to your ribcage.  Pleats--everywhere.  “The Rachel” was becoming a singular trend in ladies’ hairstyling. It’s all here! 
It’s so wonderful to be working in, on, and around the gorgeous set (designed by Brian Barker) in these delightful costumes, juggling so many fabulous props against a backdrop of music and light.  If you pause and look around in the quiet of backstage, you think, “hey, this looks like a show.”
I am so pleased and honored to be a part of a production that is coming together so brilliantly.  
With that, I believe it’s time to review some dialect notes and go to bed.  We preview tomorrow and open on Friday!  Please join us--and stick around afterward to say hello!  For now, enjoy a teaser of the phenomenal hair design--here’s the first trial of Thomasina’s Hair, Look #2 of 3.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Installment 3)

Alex Wiles as Thomasina Coverly 
When your rehearsal schedule says “one-on-one,” that’s both exhilarating and a little intimidating.  It means you’re going to sit down with the director, who’s going to ask you to bare the deep dark secrets of your character’s soul (okay, not always dark)--things that you may not have explicitly told anyone yet.  
Luckily, we actors tend to be a pretty extroverted bunch and sharing is a big part of what we do.
When your rehearsal schedule says “two-on-one,” somehow it seems twice as exhilarating (and almost twice as intimidating).  You’re sharing with the director, yes, but you’re also sharing with one of your primary scene partners - in this case, Jonathan Conyers as Septimus.  It somehow feels like the stakes are higher--the implications of your character decisions on those of the other actor are thrown in to starker relief.  It’s almost like a first date: do your ideas and decision jive with those of the other person?  --and in this case, two other people?  
Now, it’s not that everyone has to agree--in fact, some of the most interesting moments we’ve found were instances in which the characters are on two entirely different wavelengths.
Septimus and Thomasina have a pretty significant relationship arc throughout the course of the play (I won’t ruin it for those who don’t know it), so that was a major topic of conversation.  I’d expected that.  How long has Septimus been Thomasina’s tutor?  What does Thomasina think of Septimus intellectually and as a person--and what does he think of her?  All of these were exciting questions I’d anticipated going into this meeting.
Then Foster (Solomon) turns to me and asks me to explain the arc of Thomasina’s mathematic and scientific interests throughout the course of the play.
Cue the chirping cricket, please.
Now, I’d done my research about the concepts Thomasina explores--an effort very much bolstered by the work of our dramaturg, Twyla Kitts.  Deterministic chaos theory?  Yup.  The second law of thermodynamics?  Got it.  Fractals?  Sure thing.
But how on earth does it all fit together?
We batted the question around a bit, looking at both Thomasina’s and Septimus’ lines for clues, noting the way she responds to Septimus’ teaching about the accepted knowledge of the time, trying to draw from that some through-line from one theory to the next.  We decided that it was her own effort to develop the Grand Unified Theory (which gets hung up on the issue of gravity, if memory serves), but somehow it didn’t quite feel satisfying.  I couldn’t figure out why.
Rehearsal continued with the first unification of the 1993 and the 1809 casts in the last scene of the play, full of waltzing, dress-up, and as Chloe (played by the talented and effervescent Liz Blake White) says “a lot of sexual energy!”  Needless to say my mind was directed away from math and science for awhile.
The epiphany, if you will, occurred the next morning in the shower, which was probably the least convenient time or place for such a realization to occur.  I had no pencil, no paper, nothing to write down all that hit me in a matter about 60 seconds.
Fortunately it stuck with me long enough to get to that pencil and paper, and 20 minutes later I had my diagram.
It’s a mess, but it works.
The problem with our initial approach, it seemed, was that we were trying to cram all of these concepts under one umbrella, while it seems now that they’re connected like links of a chain.  With that, I humbly submit “The Diagram.” (You can click on the image for a better view.)
For all I know, these scribblings are as convoluted to everyone else as the mysterious hermit character’s tens of thousands of “cabalistic proofs.”  The important thing in the grand scheme of this production is that they help make sense of a critical aspect of one character’s arc throughout the production.  
The idea is not that this is all explicitly stated in performance.  The idea is not that the audience has to understand the fine points of complex equations or theories of physics.  The idea is that if we as artists and performers are doing our job well, and turn this thought process into something actable, you as the audience member will be able to come along on--and enjoy--the journey.
After all, while it’s great fun as an actor--or just someone with a wide variety of interests--to gambol through this play and discover all the brilliant little Easter eggs that Tom Stoppard has dropped for us along the way, I don’t think that’s what attracts people to Arcadia.  Every character in this play cares passionately about something; they take something incredibly intellectual and infuse it with an energy that somehow makes it deeply emotional--and makes us feel something about it, not just think something about it.  In expressing that passion, these characters bare some deep, dark part of their souls to us--exposing the vulnerabilities and desires that they all--that we all--often try so hard to hide.
It’s exhilarating to stand at the brink of knowledge looking out into a vast field of feeling.  That’s where Stoppard leaves us: teetering on the edge, leaving us to decide how to balance the two.  
As Valentine (played by Andrew P. Ballard) tells Hannah (played by Jen Meharg) with almost breathless excitement: 
“it’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew was wrong.” 
Also, the jokes are just plain fun.  More soon!