Fresh Eyes on MAGELLANICA, 3rd Installment
This was Magellanica's third week of rehearsal. In this short time, they have staged nearly the entire play — which is no mean feat, given that the script is 298 pages long! Actors are working to get off book (learning their lines so they don’t have to carry the script all the time) and the set design is evolving as everyone discovers how it really works. Fresh Eyes participant Elizabeth Tavares joined us on Wednesday, and shares her observations here.
ELIZABETH E. TAVARES
Four Bear Stories on an Island
No man is an iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine…any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde
— John Donne’s “Meditation 17”
Magellanica is a tale for winter, but, I realized this week, not the kind where the bears pursue. During blocking rehearsals on this chilly midwinter afternoon, we made our way through four different bear stories wherein I was reminded “a sad tale’s best for winter.”
Massaging a knot in a tense shoulder blade. The cast were working through the series of sequences called the Midwinter Follies: the characters combine their talents to, as Captain Burrell (Vin Shambry) frames it, “give ourselves a show” on this “the greatest darkness” and “the longest night.” Coincidentally, midwinter solstice happens to be today. Burrell can’t seem to pin down for whom or what is the gift of their shared performance. He teases out and finally decides on the formulation “to give ourselves,” which is echoed later: “slept with is a euphemism”; “get/got dead”; “I am wanting to go to Petrel Island, with the penguins.” They are all examples of the present imperfect, a tense we don’t really have in English: a current yet repeating state of things.
Chatting with the playwright about your character’s motivation. Rehearsal itself is an exercise in the present imperfect. Actors recreate a moment that will be considered the present in the course of a live performance—over and over again. In the many moments where director Dámaso Rodríguez and playwright E. M. Lewis were strategizing transitions, groups of two and three actors peeled off to mutter and negotiate among themselves what to do with these poker chips, how to arrange that pillow, who will collect those mugs. My own research concerns just these kinds of moments of collective decision-making, where groups negotiate what will work best without the need for a loud leader. It is part of the reward of working in repertory: different plays let you rearrange familiar actors into new scenarios, like variations on a theme, combining the piquancy of surprise with the comfort of a re-remembered face.
Giggling refilling another’s coffee. These little moments of negotiation between factions of the larger ensemble reminded me of what we would most hope for when connected (or trapped) with a group of like-minded folks—whether it be colleagues or kin. I found myself remembering their recent Artists Rep performances: Michael Mendelson as a red-faced playwright in An Octoroon; John San Nicolas as a Jewish soldier and a horse in A Civil War Christmas; and Sara Hennessy as a sympathetically monstrous stepmother in Feathers and Teeth. Like an echo, those previous roles are haunting my memory even as I watch them made anew. Perhaps a trick of the too-brief light?
Hushed chuckles of kindred spirits. Travelling to see family for the holidays can feel for some of us like wintering over in Antarctica, occupying confided and cozy spaces with people whom you share everything big and nothing daily. A few weeks ago, a new study out of University College London showed that when at a theatre performance, audiences’ heartbeats synchronize, speeding up and slowing down in unison following the emotional arc of the plot or soundtrack. Heartbeats sound like echoes to me, and it seems to be true across different languages’ attempts to create an onomatopoeia of it: in English,ba bump; in India, dhak dhak; in Italian, tu tump. Working through part four, searching for ways to create a rhythm with a rubber ball off a wall, the shuffle of cards and poker chips, the heavy breathing of push-ups, Lewis’ vision of Antarctica is starting to come together, perhaps more in the unscripted chatter than in the observance of blocking tape on tile. Its present, imperfect shadow gives me hope in the necessity of the uncertain small talk as we part ways to hibernate for these holy days.