Fresh Eyes on EVERYBODY, 3rd Installment
Rehearsals for EVERYBODY are now in the third week, and the focus has shifted from the big picture to the details. Whereas the first couple of weeks are all about putting in the broad strokes of the story -- who's onstage and what are they doing moment to moment -- the third week is about editing, refining, and sharpening. Here are our Fresh Eyes observations on how the work is proceeding.
This week, the company seems to have crossed a threshold, and reached the moment when you realize that you have figured out enough to see how to figure out the rest. The actors have put aside their scripts, have absorbed the choreography, and have gotten comfortable with the play’s idiosyncrasies, with the directors and with each other. The change was almost palpable.
The rehearsal (Wednesday morning) worked first with the challenge of making puppets ‘speak’ in ways that are comfortable and sustainable for actors of different heights and strength. It was fascinating to see how small changes in pacing or smoothness altered the emotional range of movements (especially since at this point the ‘puppets’ were sticks with paper fingers or painted eyes). The remainder of the morning focused on a madly complex scene near the end of the play that involves the full cast and the revelation of where Everybody’s journey ends. As with the puppetry, the ensemble was refining moves within what was to them a now familiar framework. There were lots of small group consultations, checking with actors about what they hoped this move or that would accomplish, trying out different scenarios to emphasize relationships between characters, and comparing what worked or didn’t as different actors take on different roles. The shared knowledge gained by having five actors play in the five main roles really pays off here since everyone has seen five configurations of every role. And that reinforces one of the ways that Jacobs-Jenkins’ interpretation of the EVERYMAN story differs from the original. In the medieval text (and in many reinterpretations), Everyman is a single soul typical of human kind; in EVERYBODY the shifting cast means the journey belongs literally to everyone. In the earlier version, Christian faith did the work of drawing an individual into the play; Jacobs-Jenkins, through the lottery and other immersive effects, pulls everyone, believer or not, into the journey.
Give the Ball to Death
Rehearsal this week had an interesting beginning: it was segmented. While Co-Directors Dámaso Rodríguez and Jessica Wallenfels worked with Sarah Lucht on the opening of the play, Stage Manager Michelle Jazuk called out “quiet rehearsal” for the rest of the ensemble. The immediacy of the cast’s reactions to this was incredible. It was military-like in its precision, showing just how many times each actor had been given this instruction, and just how prepared they are to do their own work in every given extra second.
What emerged in that silent rehearsal was a fantastic lesson in the complications and beauty of mime. Each actor appeared to be a sort of mime, working through lines and gestures, but without the aural component. It might best be described via the ancient Greek pantomimos, which meant: imitator (mimos) of all (panto). Because each of these performers is tasked with being responsible for so many parts in this lottery-driven show, this seems like a more appropriate term. There were so many mouths moving, with gestures connected as well, but so little sound. In fact, the only real thing you could hear was Sarah Lucht’s voice working her way through the complications of the opening. And, partially because of the nature of Lucht’s character(s) for this play, it hung in the air like a sort of doxology for the silent prayers around me, including Ted Rooney’s DEATH repeating every gesture in miniature, preparing for the macro expected of him in the production itself; and Andrea Vernae’s SOMEBODY/EVERYBODY, walking clockwise around the rehearsal table, a mirror of sorts, for all the labyrinthian circles (mental and physical) of the show itself.
Every new rehearsal brings further proof of the possibilities brought about by a repertory company, especially in a play like EVERYBODY. The pieces have to fit together like a dovetail joint, and that responsibility falls on every cast and crew member. The preparation, always, is enlightening, most notably in terms of more comedic pieces in the play. For example: Sarah Lucht will have between a half-dozen and a dozen lines in the play that will feel very improvisational. I’m here to report that they are not. Each beat is worked through; every laugh line whittled down to its sharpest edge. Dámaso Rodríguez, offering advice on how to play a particularly complicated line said “Remember, the audience is smart, they’re already ahead of you.” Use that to your advantage.
More than a perfecting of a specific choice, this interaction seemed to be about sharpening a set of tools Lucht will have to employ while playing such a meta part. I’m always taken back by how much more than words it is (as I wrote about last week), even in a moment that’s primarily dialogue. The body is an instrument, like any brass or woodwind, and where your hands should be, or which way you should face, or in what clockwise or counter-clockwise circle you should move, are all questions that need to be asked and answered a hundred times over. Where is the audience? Where are they focusing right now? What part am I (or this actor, or this one?) in that focus?
One wonderful piece of lingo picked up while exploring this very question of focus was “the ball.” Both Dámaso and Jessica gave a lot of instruction to the ensemble in the form of “take the ball and give it to death.” I’m sure, sans context, this sounds crazy, but it was a fascinating technique to deal with timing, blocking, and focus. During the beginning of the show, our SOMEBODIES work in an almost chorus-like manner, starting and finishing each other’s sentences. How to time this? Where do they look when speaking? How do you give time to DEATH to respond in kind? This hot-potato schoolyard game becomes a formal strategy for dealing with all of these complicated issues. And it works. It works so very well.
I wanted to leave you with my image of the day: in this case, Ted Rooney, taking a 10-minute break, sits quietly and checks stock prices on his phone. He’s wearing a black jacket with a small patch of canvas safety-pinned to the back. It says, simply: death. “A good conversation starter,” he says to me when I comment on it, “or, you know, a good conversation ender.”