Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Installment 2)

Our series of posts from behind-the-scenes continues. Here again, is Alex Wiles.  Down at Richmond Shakes, we think you'll soon see why she's won us all over.

Alex Wiles as Thomasina Coverly
Over the course of the last four days, the 1809 cast spent 14 hours together.  When you spend that much time with a group of people, it’s either going to result in disaster or the best 14 hours of your week.
I can’t speak for the rest of the cast, but my opinion falls in line with the latter possibility.
Since Arcadia shuttles between two time periods--1809-1812 and 1993--the rehearsals--and thus the cast--naturally break into two groups.  While the focus of last week’s rehearsals were 1993 (as our own Jonathan Conyers--playing Septimus, my tutor--performed in the opening week of the Firehouse Theater Project’s phenomenal Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), we 1809ers got our own chance to dig into the play over the past few days.
Fourteen out of 96 hours may not seem like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly one gets to know one’s cast mates when the emphasis is on play.  As we develop our characters and relationships even as we flesh out the blocking (where we move and when), you pick up on bits and piece of personalities--even of people you thought you already knew well.
Take Julie Phillips, Richmond Shakespeare’s Education Manager.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with her through my work as an intern and a stage manager over the past couple of years, and my impression of her was that she is one of the sweetest, gentlest people I know.  Then I watch her play Lady Croom (my mother) in rehearsal and get to meet a whole new side of Julie: still sweet, but with an imperiousness, power, and sensuality that is absolutely Lady Croom--but also still very Julie.  It’s an absolute delight.
Then somebody flubs a line, and you can’t help but smile or laugh.  Tom Stoppard has endowed Arcadia with beautiful language, but it’s not all easy to get through in early readings.  For example: someone else (who we won’t name) accidentally says “guinea pig” when the script says “guinea,” as in the piece of currency.  (My claim to fame is running into stationary objects.)  Rehearsal has to be a safe place where it’s okay for actors to make mistakes--because we all do.  A lot!  That’s part of what rehearsal is for - trying things out to see if they work or not.  Sometimes they don’t, but sometimes you try something on the fly and it sticks.
You know the “family ties” of the cast are beginning to take hold when the prop letter that’s being passed to you is covered in doodles of everything from explorations of Fermat’s last theorem (which figures prominently in the first scene) to tic-tac-toe boards to be filled out during the next break, to quick sketches of particularly vivid descriptions in the script--like Mrs. Chater’s drawers (and no, we’re not talking an armoire!), waltzing, geometrical name it, it’s somewhere on those prop pages.  
In a way, it’s quite fitting for this play.  So much of the interplay between the 1993 and 1809 action is the 1993 characters’ discovery and wrestling with letters, drawings, and diagrams written and left behind by the 1809 characters.  As rehearsals shift to focus on the 1993 cast for the next few days, they’ll have more than a few surprises waiting for them in those hundreds of sheets of paper that we spread across the table during rehearsals.
As Septimus so eloquently states in one of his lectures to Thomasina, “we shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind...”
It’s not that rehearsals aren’t productive, or that they don’t involve hard work; they do.  Time constraints increase the pressure to move efficiently, to take direction and “get it right” the first or second time, not the fifth or sixth.  
My accounting professor, Dr. Hoyle, jokingly remarked that he hoped I would say that everything I learned in accounting came in use in working on this production.  I don’t know about everything, but here’s a metaphoric connection: the ideal balance sheet in a financial statement is one that, well, balances--assets, liabilities, and stockholder’s equity, that is.  To me, that’s not so different from a good rehearsal: it’s a balance of task and relational behaviors--between getting through the work at hand and building relationships with your cast members.  (Are you impressed yet, Dr. Hoyle?)
Maybe this is my amateur status showing through, but I’ve always loved rehearsals for this reason.  I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of wonderful people in theater, and I love this incubation period every bit as much as I love performing.  Not only are we creating a wonderful story to share with audiences, we’re in many ways creating a family.  Perhaps that sounds corny, but it’s how I honestly feel.  After all, what else is a group of people with whom you’re comfortable enough to open yourself up to being vulnerable, to spending a lot of time together, to creating something bigger than the sum of its parts?  Sounds like family to me.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia

We spend a lot of time talking about events, performances and reviews.  As an audience member, it may be the final product, the "magic" of the theatre that draws you.  But for the staff at Richmond Shakespeare, and the hard-working actors and crew, the work behind the scenes is "magical" too.  The entire process of creating a production has its rewarding and difficult moments (and sometimes downright terrifying moments) before everything comes together on opening night.

We wanted to invite our audiences to experience a little bit of that process we work on Tom Stoppard's
Arcadia. We've asked actress Alex Wiles to share her experience with you. 

For her first blog, Alex shares her experience leading up to (and at) the very first read through of
Arcadia, our first show of the season, opening October 15th. (with a 1-night preview October 14)   - Sarah Cole

              *                *                *

“We’d like you to play Thomasina for us this fall in Arcadia.”  Those were the words that, for the first time in my life, left me completely and utterly speechless in the best of ways.  Luckily I came to my senses within the next 24 hours and found the one word I needed: “Yes!”
It was the best kind of shock.  Two years ago while volunteering in the Richmond Shakespeare offices, I snuck a peek at the planning board, deciphering the acronyms for the plays that would comprise the next four or five seasons.  “12N” clearly stood for Twelfth Night, “A&C” for Antony and Cleopatra...but what’s this? “ARC.”
Not wanting to appear ignorant about Shakespeare in the Richmond Shakespeare office, I spent a good five minutes contemplating the acronym.  Unable to match it to a play, I gave in and asked Grant.
“Oh, that’s Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.  Have you read it?”
“Not yet.”
“Here’s a copy.  I think you’ll like it.”
As he handed me his copy of the script, Grant had made the understatement of the year.  It was love at first read, particularly with Thomasina Coverly: too intelligent for her own good, witty, at once young in experience and old in wisdom, and she gets to waltz with a gentleman that gives Mr. Darcy a run for his frock coat?  Yes, I think I do like that.
Here I formally apologize to everyone with whom I have spent any time in the past two years for talking their ears off about this marvel of a play.
It wouldn’t leave me alone--I found myself researching things that I never would have touched before.  Deterministic chaos theory?  Thermodynamics?  Iterated algorithms?  Fractals?  I loved it all, even if my understanding was entirely elementary.  I loved the way Stoppard used these concepts and theories to weave the fabric of the play itself.
It’s been said that if we have a contemporary equivalent of Shakespeare, it’s Stoppard.  I am by no means an expert on either of the two writers, but I believe that Arcadia supports that claim.  It may not be in verse, but it’s poetry nonetheless.  The beauty of the speech, the endless puns, a liberal peppering of double-entendres, the comedy, the romance, the existential questions...Arcadia offers so much at every level of enjoyment.  I truly believe it has something for everyone.
Two years of researching, reading, and dreaming were validated in one short moment on June 1 when that offer was made.  I thought things couldn’t possibly get better.  How wrong I was!
After a summer of more research and memorizing those beautiful lines, most of the cast met for a read-through this past Wednesday, August 1.  There were faces both new and familiar to the Richmond Shakespeare scene, all bringing their talent, enthusiasm, and fabulous British accents together, over boxes of Chex Mix, chocolate chip cookies, and homemade Rice Crispy treats from our fabulous stage manager, Brittany Dilliberto.  
After all, we must set our priorities.
As we began our work, something magical happened: it felt as though I was experiencing the play for the first time.  As an actor (or, more to the point, someone who just really enjoys theater), I sometimes find myself hearing the characters’ voices as I read to myself--particularly since Stoppard did such beautiful work in giving each character a truly distinct voice.  Hearing the cast read it aloud brought those voices to life more wonderfully, hilariously, and poignantly than I ever could have imagined--and that was just the first read!
It is a joy and a pleasure to embark on this adventure with such a talented, wonderful group of individuals.  I can’t wait to experience all that the coming weeks have in store, and hope that you’ll join us on our journey to Arcadia.