Fresh Eyes on EVERYBODY, 2nd Installment
Fresh Eyes observers Cynthia Herrup and Matthew Minicucci each came in to observe rehearsals this week. The focus of much of this week's work was on choreography and movement -- all of which is made exponentially more complicated by the lottery assignment of roles each performance. Not only do the five actors playing Somebodies have to know multiple roles, they also have to know the choreography from five different positions! Here are their observations.
If Our Hands Had Eyes
Rehearsal this week was interesting because, in many ways, it had nothing to do with text. I admit this is frightening to me, in many ways, as I feel comfortable with texts. Writing texts. Editing texts. Watching people rehearse texts. But today, as Co-Director Jessica Wallenfels paced and blocked and encouraged these performers along, I got to see what a show does when the text falls away and something else comes to occupy its place.
Today was about the danse macbre, and very much about the puppetry techniques being used to create an otherworldly experience in that important part of the play. Sitting back, mid-morning coffee mug in my hands, I watched Ted Rooney, Sarah Lucht, and Alex Blesi put their all into the shifting shapes that will briefly haunt the stage. Some of my scribbled questions that emerged from puppetry practice: how do arms breathe? How slowly does a skeletal head turn? How, in fact, do you open arms?
I realized, in talking about the rehearsal with my partner Elizabeth that night, that one of the hardest (and most interesting) aspects of puppetry is how audience fits in. Audience is a difficult topic when you’re a poet. Who am I writing to? Am I writing for someone, or for myself? How much does this audience need to know, and when? These are constant questions. For this impossibly interesting puppet that connects to the danse macbre, the questions felt both the opposite and the same (somehow): where will the audience be? What angle will this be seen from? Will this be too close? Or not close enough? (to solve this in barebones rehearsal, by the way, paper airplanes were taped to the end of the wooden arms, white and sharp as new notebook sheets; one extended knuckle piercing in its point).
The questions were only about audience. Because, it seems, the puppet has to be operated with a knowledge of what will be there, rather than what’s already there. Or, to put it another way: you move a head or a long, jointed arm in a specific, exaggerated motion not because that’s “realistic” to you from your perspective, but because it creates almost uncanny undulation for a rapt crowd. In this case, the body is an instrument of audience, pushing and pulling these strange staged somethings in a manner which will, for theatergoers, change your perspective and your experience.
I don’t want to give any more away, as I feel the danse macbre will be one of the most unique moments for audiences during this theater-going experience. I’ve never seen, even in its skeletal structure, anything quite like it. But I do want to leave you with a final quote, from our fearless Co-Director Jessica Wallenfels, who, exhausted and sweating along with every other dancing and puppeting cast member, calmly and cheerily said “You all did great with the circle of death.”
Haven’t we all longed to hear such a thing?
How many times a day do you walk and talk without thinking about your movements? Hundreds, if you are anything like me. And as an audience member, how much consideration do you give to how walking and talking on stage comes together? Except in dance sequences, very little, if you are anything like me. This week, I got to observe a movement rehearsal; it brought home to me how everything we see on stage in EVERYBODY is planned, movement leading words as much as the reverse.
The keyword for this one-scene rehearsal was physical. The company began with a strenuous warm-up. Then the choreographer/director, Jessica Wallenfels and the actors performed various emotions bodily, first as individuals and then as a synchronized unit. Although she already had broken the script down and then rebuilt it as a series of movements, JW incorporated several of these new expressions into the mix. Some of the moves obviously tracked the script; some seemed more abstract. The company worked through the material (the final of three choruses in the play) in five parts, demonstrated first by JW, then walked through by each actor, then redone collectively with the narration as backdrop. The company made small changes as they adjusted to the physical demands and then to the emotional resonances sequence by sequence. Every movement got a name; every arrangement was jotted down by the production staff.
Other than the reality of acting as physical labor, I had three take- aways from this week’s rehearsal: First, I came away with a much better sense of the director’s task, how intimately he/she must know where the work is going and the ground game for getting there. Second, I was again struck by the mix of isolation and coordination in the ensemble. The actors sat apart from one another, rehearsed as individuals, rarely even made eye contact. Yet somehow it was also clear that they were working as an ensemble. And last, although one of my favorite things about theater is that no two performances are identical, this rehearsal showed me that somehow this happens within an artifice where nothing is left to chance. Because of this play’s shifting roles and voices, that is especially true of EVERYBODY.