Letters to Holly

Tuesday, December 2

Rehearsal Thirteen: Stagecraft

It's our first night at the theatre's new stage location: a leased American legion hall. It's old and needs massive renovation, but for this small show it will do fine. The set pieces are already in place, and the stage looks small. It's maybe 15 feet deep, but it's 30ish feet wide. Seen from the audiences, it looks huge. Onstage feels crowded. But we do have a large judge bench taking up a quarter of the stage.

We're told immediately that we won't be able to have our usual Tuesday rehearsal here because the crew will wax the floors. A vote is taken to keep the Tuesday date, but outside schedules force us to make it another line-through. Whatever progress we make tonight with props and stage movement will be lost tomorrow as we again stare at each other and yank lines from our brains. The consensus says we need as much rehearsal time as possible. Maybe we'll meet Friday as well. Schedule debates leads to frustration and grousing among the cast members who showed up. We have no bailiff or Marley tonight.

The stage is a catalyst. You will either grow meek or expand to fill the space. Cratchit's demeanor changes a bit, and I project the lines for the back row. Now it feels like we're acting, like we're in a real show. It's fun again. I think of Judi Dench's accent when I speak my lines. I like her lilt. Mrs. Cratchit can't get her lines out on two tries. Her THREE lines. Because we don't have the bailiff or Marley, I offer to read them aloud, and I discover another line hiccup: There's a huge amount of paraphrasing. That might rattle folks relying on specific cues.

So I go up to read Marley, the best character in the play, the best character in the original story. I love Marley. He has the most memorable lines ("Business?! Mankind was my business!"), and there is no chance of overdoing the part. You have carte blanche, and I went for it. I shouted the lines and gave it bass and went from anger to exhaustion and misery to regret in five pages. And above all, he gets to be scary. He is harbinger, the spooky-ass Obi Wan, the damned version of Hamlet's dad. Even in a comedy, he is not there to delight. He does not visit Scrooge. He haunts him.

Just look at this. Here's the definitive screen Marley from the George C. Scott version of Christmas Carol. I'm a Dickens. I can make such pronouncements. This is THE Marley:

You can find this DVD dirt cheap, and it's a sterling adaptation. Great cast. I watch it every year since I was in high school.

Anyway, I'm halfway through the scene when I hear people whispering on the wings that I'm doing a good job. We have people who don't whisper subtly, so you hear everything they try to say in confidence. I finish and walk to the other sitting actors. The director pulls me aside and says she wishes I could do that part too. I got to do it once. I'm happy with that.

As the first act ends, I stroll the audience space to check the acoustics, and they are right nice. The dialogue is clear even along the back wall. The stage movement does help with line cues. It at least seems like a smoother rehearsal, but we still have major line problems. MAJOR line problems. The judge asks for a copy of the script during the play, and he can have one. No one can see his desktop, and he could cue folks who have line trouble. We tried this in the last courtroom play, and I have no problem with this. Heck, I might blank onstage.

At the end of the play, the question of publicity posters comes up. As in, we don't have any. There's concern that we won't get the word out about the play in time for people to make room in their holiday plans. If I'm one of the actors with mucho lines, I want to ensure the largest number of possible folks see my effort.

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