Letters to Holly

Tuesday, November 25

Rehearsal Eleven: The Absolute Nadir

I've been in theatre productions since high school. One could reach back to elementary-school stuff, but let's not. Let's leave that be. Since 1989, I've done 16 plays. I've directed a short play when I was 17. I stage managed a musical when I was 30. Let's combine all those plays into one big pot of rehearsals like the communal pile of french fries when friends order McDonald's meals. That's a lot of practices in the past 20 years. So believe me when I say, unequivocally, sincerely, and unhappily, that last night was the worst rehearsal I've been a part of since I wore a Members Only jacket and a stunning glop of hair mousse.

When we get to the warehouse, we find a set. A judge's bench and a witness stand are screwed to the same flat riser. This is based on British court design, and the witness area has a railing on the front. It's always fun to see a set piece for the first time, and we marveled and walked around it and on it. Then the complaints hit. The bench is too tall of our judge. The witness stand can't be seen from the left-seated audience. These complaints have easy answers. One, the judge can stand or sit on a high stool. Two, the witnesses will stand for their testimony; they can clearly be seen. This did not placate the complainers. Not even when one uses the "I've only been doing this for 36 years" card.

Then we see the wheels attached to what was to be Scrooge's bed, which will carry Marley onstage in Act Two. Now, remember, we have a new Marley. He's bigger than our first. He fits on the bed OK, but also remember that our youthful-lad bailiff is being played by a bent-over senior who walks with a cane. He's supposed to bring the bed onstage. Our actor can't move it. The wheels are taken from office chairs; not the standard theatre casters normally used. You can't drive it in a straight line. It wobbles and fishtails.

I suggest again the Fred Flintstone trick: Cut leg holes in the bed and have Marley walk the bed into place. Make leg shapes under his blanket, and audiences will never know. This idea doesn't fly. The director says we'll get a gurney from the local hospital. Someone suggests the funeral home. Can our bailiff move a loaded gurney? The rehearsal space is now incredibly crowded, and we never measured the new stage to recreate the dimensions. We quickly walk all over each other. We're told the next rehearsal will be on the stage, and that will be the Monday after Thanksgiving. That will give us less than two weeks and only five rehearsals until we have our first audience. The judge tries on his English court wig, and it looks good. The nephew and translator actor tries fake muttonshops, and they look OK.

Those complaining about the stage quickly petition for more rehearsals. Let's have one Tuesday night, they say. I'm not for it. The missus and I have made plans. Half my brain says we should have more rehearsals, but I agree with the director that we should wait until we're on that stage. Using this altered rehearsal space will do more harm than good. A read-through does nothing to help people learn lines, and a sit-down recital removes the physical cues that spark memory. We were told at the beginning of rehearsals that we were to be offbook last Thursday. Then we were told tonight. We had extra time to learn our lines. And tonight, we will not have scripts. The stage manager and director will cue us if we ask for it. And so we start.

The first scene is between the judge and bailiff. It's about two pages, and then the defense attorney and Scrooge take their tables. I carpool with the judge actor, and he said he ran the lines with his wife this afternoon. He takes the stage, and he is lost immediately. It takes a very long time to get through those two pages. The two men have some business with a coal bin and the oven. Offstage mumbling declares we need tongs instead of a shovel, as if that will solve anything with lines. The trial starts with a long opening statement from the attorney, and this is played by Doc, my opponent in last year's courtroom drama. Back then, he used index cards for his lines. Tonight, he has no cards, and he does pretty well for the first time off-script.

I'm the first witness, and I have my lines down. Cold and solid. Doc has trouble once I take the stand, but it's not entirely his fault. The judge and Scrooge interject often -- at least, they're supposed to -- and when they stumble and juggle their lines, it throws off Doc. We backtrack and repeat swatches of dialogue. At one point, the director tells me I messed up a line, and only after we do the scene again does she realize she was reading the wrong part of the page. When Doc calls for lines, there is often no response as the director and stage manager aren't really following along. Once I and Brick are done, the rehearsal goes down the drain. I kept track. No more then three sentences are said by anyone without a call for lines. It's a trainwreck. It's as if we got our scripts last week. The clock is speeding around to our 9 p.m. deadline, and we're clearly not getting to the second act tonight.

The Marley actor doesn't realize what he's supposed to do as a ghost. You say the lines with a spectral affectation. "Bound and double ironed" becomes "BooOOUUnnd AAAAaaand dooOOOUUBBBBBbble iiiIIIIRRRrronnnNNed."He doesn't get this. He's speaking his lines (which he's reading; he is a last-second replacement, after all) in a normal voice and then adding a vocal sound like Elmer Fudd impersonating a goat. We hear "bound and double ironed ... uhuhuhuhuhuhuh." I'd be charitable if he hadn't tossed around the 36 years' experience as a trump card earlier. But you play that card, and you better be sterling. He's playing a ghost. We all know what stage ghosts sound like. Kids can make ghost voices. Yet, this 36-year-veteran can't. And have I mentioned I'm one of only four people actually trying a British accent?

The Ghost of Christmas Past carries an elongated cap onstage, and we quickly see that the actress has her script tucked down into it. She's cheating. She has only seven pages in the first act. The director rewrote two pages of that scene but this ghost doesn't have those new pages. The actors don't have their scripts in hand. Neither the director nor the stage manager have those new pages. The actors stumble through awkwardly. The costume manager is so anxious about the rehearsal that she calls out lines from the script before they are asked for. Scrooge has to shush her. Marley makes one-liners about the other actors' progress. The actress playing the act's last character isn't even here tonight, and someone reads her part onstage.

It's ten til 9, and the director says "you know, I think we should rehearse on Sunday," and we all settle on a timeframe. We'll allegedly move to the actual stage.

The stage manager talks to me about the rolling bed. She wants someone to help the bailiff wheel the bed out in Act two, and she's clearly looking for me to volunteer. She doesn't know that my character is on the witness stand at the time. My character doesn't even want to bed onstage. The only ones not onstage at the time are her and the director. She suggests she could wheel in the bed. OK, I ask, and which character will you be? She gets mad. She thinks I'm trying to stymie her. What I'm trying to say is that we can't have an unidentified person appear onstage. If you have someone appear onstage, they have to be identified. They can't just walk on and walk off. It distracts the audience.

I pass her off to someone else and walk out with the judge back to my car. I feel like I escaped a hanging. This was the Hindenburg hitting the Titanic. We are in total disarray, and we didn't touch Act Two. I frankly ain't sweating anything beyond my lines and scenes. Other people are in charge of decisions and choices, and I'm not going to be a backstage director.

We clearly should have started rehearsals earlier in October or added more nights to our schedule or rehearsed longer each night. We are two weeks before we open, and we are screwed. No, we're passed that. We are so far from Screwed, it would take the light from Screwed billions of years to reach us. I know we picked a good play. I know we have actors who can do this. But they gotta learn those lines. And they have to learn them now-ish.

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