Monday, July 11, 2011

Those Damned Trust Exercises

We started rehearsal last week!!!  This was a particularly interesting beginning for a (not-Broadway) production—the director (and my collaborator), Harry Waters Jr., arrived not having met two of the eight actors.  Harry teaches at Macalester College  in Minneapolis, so couldn’t be present for all the auditions.  He had to trust me and Ed Decker, the artistic director of New Conservatory Theatre.  The most comforting thing was that both Ed and I thought simultaneously: Harry is great with actors so we just need to feel we’ve got the raw material not the absolutely perfect fit…always totally imaginary anyway.

But I was anxious, despite our confidence in Harry’s exquisite ability with actors…I’d witnessed it many times over the several years we’d been doing readings of W4G and years earlier when we were both doing Off and Off-Broadway theatre together.  And it’s not a given that someone who’s also an actor himself will work well with other actors.  (I recently dropped in on the San Francisco Museum of Performance & Design to see their celebration of the 20th anniversary of the original production of Kushner’s “Angeles in America,” a play Harry had been in!)

But Ed and I had a good sense of Harry and the play, as did Lori, the casting director for the theatre.  She recommended that a friend who’s a drag artist audition; and damn if Lonnie isn’t the one for the job.  He captures every nuance Harry throws at him!  And we’ve only been at it for 5 days!

Then there’s the actor to play Giovanni, the character from Baldwin’s novel, “Giovanni’s Room.”  Harry and I have worked with several actors over the various readings, and each was completely different.  The goal is to capture the ethereal, sensual quality of a fictional character who is also determined and solid.  In the original script Giovanni had no dialogue at all…how unfair to an actor is that!  But when we did a reading in Ohio we had an amazingly intense actor whose presence begged for words. 

Now Giovanni has emotional, surreal scenes with Jimmy and the voices in Jimmy’s head.  But who can play the shadowy yet solid Giovanni.  We had a charming Giovanni when Brian Freeman directed the reading for the Afro Solo Festival a couple years ago; then a fierce, naïve, gamine Giovanni (thanks Nick!) when we did the readings at NCTC last summer and winter.  But his schedule kept him from signing on with the production.

So into the audition studio walks Liam, who so did NOT reflect the Giovanni I’d held in my imagination over the past couple of years.  Physically he’s more a Sam Shepard kind of guy, like a character in his 1964 piece “Cowboys” which I stage managed once.  But there was some quality he conveyed that both Ed & I grasped…naïve, tensile strong, seductive, bewildered, unrelenting.  We looked at each other saying: Hope Harry likes him…he’s it!

And Harry did!

When I started working in theatre in the late 1970s, directors often had the cast do those damned trust exercises.  They were like Violin Spolin run amok!  Guiding each other around a room blindfolded or my least favorite: dropping backward into the arms of someone in the company, trusting they would catch you!  I HATED THAT!  I think of myself as trusting but I always worried (like most women) I was too heavy.

This was the biggest trust exercise I’ve ever done…inviting actors into a space that someone else will take over.  It felt both practical and magical to feel like the actors gave us enough that we could trust they could do it; that we knew Harry’s work well enough to feel he would appreciate our choices and to know he would trust us enough to make that choice possible. 

Any production has to build trust and appreciation among the actors who will live in each other’s lives for the next two or three months.  Sitting around the table together for the first reading of the script I was relieved that Harry, Ed and I had that trust.  Then little by little in the five days I began to see trust peeking out from the actors.  Before they even got to the exercise where that saved each other from crashing to the floor they were listening and thinking together.

Theatre is a lot like real life in that way.  You can tell how things are going sometimes by the way people laugh with AND at each other.