Once More With Feeling

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter (DLP).

Our production of This Random World The Myth of Serendipity was invited to perform at Region 7 of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival!

Months had passed since any of us had laid eyes on the set or thought about the script. People had moved on to other projects. Students graduated and in a myriad of other ways life has gone on. Last week we completed remounting This Random World to share it 1200 peers at the annual festival. Part of the remount included a benefit performance to celebrate and finance the trip.

Immediate challenges were identifying returning company members, rehearsal space, and scheduling rehearsals. The next two shows in the university season by this time were cast and in production. Those shows included members from This Random World. Seven people were unable to return. The bulk were from the technical side; two were performers.

To fill the gaps, one understudy moved from a worldbuilder to speaking role. A member of the artistic staff became a worldbuilder and another worldbuilder was recruited into the company as were the needed technicians.

Then the question of rehearsal space: the Forge Theatre, an 80-seat black box configured in the round, where the show was originally staged was unavailable. Also, the hall at KCACTF is a 350-seat theatre with a thrust stage. Ideally, we preferred to work in a similar hall. The best choice was the Hartung Theatre, the 400-seat university mainstage, but it also had a show in rehearsal.

In the end, we cobbled together five rehearsals in three different locations. Two days were spent running concurrent rehearsals in the 30-seat studio and a classroom space—much the way the original rehearsals were run—and three days at Hartung. The set diagrams on the floors for the alternate spaces were at ¾ scale and ½ scale respectively. Hartung would have the actual set pushed downstage at a slight angle. It would also be the location for the benefit.

Logistics sorted, we went to work. Due to the rehearsal process which included an understudy performance, the understudy arrived already off-book and familiar with her blocking. She was one of two actors who traveled over 7 hours to rejoin the company.

Remounting a show, there is a desire to present the original production but prevent it from ossifying. Blocking would change as we adjusted to a thrust stage. And new company members would alter the energy.

I was curious how the venue hopping would effect the work. Some of the spaces were so small it seemed a waste of time to even meet there. Co-director David Lee-Painter disagreed and wanted any opportunity to get the company back moving through the show and feeling it again.

Expanding and contracting the performance area was a benefit. We were unable to keep tightly to our staging and were forced to tell the story with the conditions presented. In the end, it strengthened the storytelling. Instead of just fudging the blocking to fill the stage space, the movement changes were motivationally driven.

For example, in a scene where Tim is trying to prove to Rhonda that he is not dead, They’d kept together in a tight stand-off to accentuate the tension. During the remounting, Rhonda moved away from Tim. He caught her arm and brought her around, reversing their places. The action of the scene demonstrated the emotions Rhonda was feeling at finally meeting a deceased person. It also fed Tim’s desperation to correct the mess he’d made by faking in his own death and suddenly having to prove–somehow–that he was alive. It also transformed the encounter from stand-off to tug of war.

In the above images, is the opening scene set in Tim’s apartment. The left hand photo was as it was seen in the Forge. Center, the actors working in the studio on the 3/4 scale stage, and on the right on the mainstage.

The remounting process provided us with an unusual opportunity to leave a production and return several months later with some of the same but a few different company members. It gave another layer of the experience of shifting connections that are so vital to Dietz’s show. We’re looking forward to sharing it with our peers as the festival.

Rehearsals

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter (DLP).

Three things at the heart of our production process: Mindfulness, World Building, Shadow Work

Mindfulness

In retrospect, I think I was the only one who said the word “mindfulness” aloud. But it was consciously attended to. Leading up to rehearsals, I had wondered, what would be the best way to discuss mindfulness with the company? And, how to present it in such a manner that it would be useful to their work? Several of the actors used meditation in their personal life so it was not an unfamiliar idea. Did we need to have a discussion on it? There was an instructor on campus who taught meditation. Perhaps she would come in for a session? Or we should integrate mediation into the rehearsal warm-ups?

DLP and I had talked about mindfulness and its place in the play. The first night with the company, he emphasized the need for “…an intimate, interdependent vitality …. Actors jump up and help their cast mates” (First Night Notes). There was an emphasis on the ensemble and an awareness of each other.

Being mindful not only assisted the process but fed the story that Dietz was telling. Beth and her brother Tim illustrated how little they knew about what was happening in each other’s lives. At one point, Beth challenged her brother: “…do you have any actual evidence that you are, in fact, living and breathing and connected in some way to the known world?!” Dietz also set the play in locations that press in on the characters: a funeral parlor, a hospital, a Shinto shrine, even a wilderness in Nepal. These are places that arguably are personalities themselves in the story that the characters cannot be unaware of.

Co-director, Daniel L. Haley led the company through team building exercises that developed not only trust but cognizance and group reliance. It is anticipated that a company develops some form of bond through the course of any project. For the script work that DLP had in mind for this production, a strong sense of collaboration would strengthen the overall process. Also, they needed a foundational cohesiveness from the beginning. The bulk of This Random World is two-person scenes. We would be several weeks into rehearsals before the entire company worked together again.

World Building

The Forge is the university’s black box theater, and for this production, it was configured in the round with four alley entrances. Entering the theater, the audience was greeted to Jared Sorenson’s beautifully understated set, ringed by river rock with a serene cloud floating above.

In This Random World’s script notes, Dietz writes: “A few simple and permanent units should suffice for everything. Transformations between them should be quick and easy.” We latched onto scene changes being “transformations” (another of many transformations within the play) and saw them as opportunities for storytelling. DLP chose to have worldbuilders who would move the audience from one mood and location to the next.

For our production, the entire company was an ensemble. Members without lines were worldbuilders. They also understudied a role with lines. The ensemble with speaking parts understudied a worldbuilder. During tech week an understudy performance was given.

The worldbuilders interacting with and creating the world of the play. Image by David Harlan Photography.

During the transformations, the worldbuilders not only complete a set change but interact with the scenic elements and properties as the people you would find in the spaces the story was shifting into. Coming out of the diner scene, the ensemble wore aprons as waitstaff and set the table and chairs. Moving from Tim’s apartment into a park, they were walkers, lovers, and even the characters Gary & Claire passed through. Into the airport, they were travelers making connections. Gary was there again to help Scottie with her walker off stage.

Production photo. A composite image of the transformation leading into the scene set at the Shimogamo Shrine and a moment during the scene. The worldbuilders ring the stage. Image by David Harlan Photography.

All the transformations were a flurry of choreographed movement. I felt the effect was akin to a wave hitting the stage and when it retreated only the performers for the scene remained. The largest transformation was from preshow into the show when the worldbuilders created Tim’s cluttered apartment in a matter of seconds.

Shadow Work

The most fascinating part of the production for me was the method DLP used in the early part of rehearsal as the actors were getting off book. I’d never seen it before. We referred to it as “shadow work.” The actors always had another person at their elbow with a script.

University of Idaho students rehearsing.

The script holder whispered the lines to the actor. When describing the method, DLP explained that shadow work required authentic listening and connection from the first rehearsal. Actors were not hampered by carrying a script which allowed blocking and more in-depth character work to start sooner (“First Rehearsal”).

University of Idaho students rehearing.

After a rehearsal period was concluded, the ensemble members traded places and the script holder became the actor. Initially, the performers expressed uneasiness with this new process and wondered if their beloved co-director had lost his mind but rapidly they became comfortable with it and found the technique lent itself to swifter line memorization.

With two actors sharing a role, they worked independently, together, and with the company telling the character’s story and the story of This Random World. This process increased the learning opportunities and the potential teachers in the rehearsal hall at any given moment. Peers exchanged knowledge, becoming both “lead” and “understudy.” It also offered a different way to experience both sides of the acting coin in one process and be fully engaged. It created a synergic dance that the stage management team was challenged to track and record as it changed from night to night.

During rehearsals, I was reading an article by Cope & Augustijnen which spoke of “’bardo’– the Buddhist idea of an in-between moment of heightened consciousness, a moment of choice and of transition between the past and the future, between confusion and wisdom.” This idea of confusion and wisdom resonated with me as the actors took on shadow work and brought it into their more familiar routines of preparation. It also layered into This Random World’s themes. The characters all seemed to be somewhere in that liminal space themselves.

It was exciting for me to be involved in this process and see how it echoed into the play itself with its themes on transformation, transition, and awareness.

Cope & Augustijnen, “Going ‘Au-delà’: A Journey into the Unknown,” from New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, p. 168.
Dietz, Steven. This Random World.
Lee-Painter, David. “First Rehearsal Remarks.”
Lee-Painter, David. “Opening Night Remarks.”

Connections

Photo by Daniel Haley

A Rumination from my dramaturgy of Steven Dietz’s This Random World directed by David Lee-Painter (DLP).

While the company was hard at work, I had to leave for two weeks. And waiting in the Phoenix airport to return home some connections occured to me…

The University of Idaho is fortunate to have a unique and long-lived relationship with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Through the Rex Rabold Fellowship, a UI theatre graduate is selected to work with the talented and dedicated people at the Festival.

Shortly after I graduated, the Fellowship was established (I initially thought I was still an undergrad but I just hadn’t left town yet). This feat was accomplished largely in part to the efforts of acting faculty member Forrest Sears.

Mr. Sears has graciously agreed to come out of retirement and join the company of This Random World–that group I had left behind to go on vacation–only I don’t know how to go on vacation so I was driving around researching a play, conducting interviews for my oral history project, and going to museums. Which led to me sitting in an airport nine days later, thinking about my time as a theatre undergrad, Mr. Sears, This Random World, and connections.

I scribbled down my thoughts and with DLP’s permission–he is often indulgent with my whims–I read it to the company before our final run-thru.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Sears had a promising student named Rex Rabold.

Rex went on to do many things but most notably he became a beloved actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Not long after Rex’s death, I walked into the U-Hut—which was my Shoup Hall—to discover it was buzzing.

An important person was there.

People were fussing over my classmate, actor Mike Behrens.

Something important was happening.

If you’ve tried to get two big things together to do something—even if it is a beneficial thing—you will know it is hard.

Theatre was trying to get the University and Oregon Shake to work together.

It was hard. But it happened.

Mr. Sears was instrumental in making it happen.

And the result was that Mike Behrens was to be the first Rex Rabold Fellow.

Daniel Haley was the 15th.

Whitney Holland will be the 27th.

Last week I was in the desert with Bruce Brockman, a former theatre chair and he reminded me that Mr. Sears had done this.

Mr. Sears taught Rex, taught me, mentored DLP, and created the Rex Rabold Fellowship.

DLP taught Haley and all of you. Haley went to the Shake and is back, sharing what he has learned.

Another UI theatre classmate told me that several years ago when she was directing in Wyoming, a faculty member approached her and said, “You talk about theatre the way I talk about theatre. Where are you from?”

And when she told him, he asked: “Do you know DLP?”

I wanted to mention these connections to you because before now I never felt grounded in UI theatre’s past and that I think it’s important to have a heritage, to be connected.

Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance

Discovered this book recently. Very nicely laid out but I think the chapters devoted to a book does a disservice to the plays within. Most informative.

I didn’t post the cover because…well, it’s not all that interesting. The good stuff is inside.

Off the Questia page:

 ….each is written by an expert contributor. Each chapter includes a discussion of the biographical context of the work or group of works; a survey of the bibliographic history; a summary of major critical approaches, which looks at themes, characters, symbols, and plots; a consideration of the major critical problems posed by the work; a review of chief productions and film and television versions; a concluding overview; and a bibliography of secondary sources.

https://www.questia.com/library/3549431/tennessee-williams-a-guide-to-research-and-performance