26 December 2017

Thoughts On Rehearsals

by Kirk Woodward

[Having started out this month with a contribution to Rick On Theater by my friend Kirk Woodward (“Bob And Ringo,” about rockers Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr  in performance, posted on 1 December), I’m all but closing out the month with a revisit from Kirk.  As the title of this article, “Thoughts On Rehearsals,” indicates, Kirk’s contemplating the theatrical exercise of rehearsing.  But he’s not writing about the techniques and practices of rehearsing, a subject on which he’s more than capable of expounding (see Kirk’s four-part series “Reflections On Directing,” 11, 14, 17, and 20 April 2013, along with several other posts about productions which he directed).  He’s ruminating on why he enjoys the work of rehearsals so much.

[That’s a sentiment with which I suspect most stage actors would agree.  I certainly did, as I told Kirk.  One major aspect of rehearsing—at least for me—that Kirk touches on here, one of the principal reasons I loved rehearsing, is that that’s where the creativity happens.  That’s where the art of acting is exercised—not just the skill or the craft.  By performance, the art work is done and technique largely takes over; but in rehearsal, the actor is called upon to create.  It’s why Aaron Frankel taught a class at HB Studio called How to Do Homework—which I took twice and went on myself to teach because I found it so useful and inspiring.  (See my post “An Actor’s Homework,” 19, 22, 25, and 28 April 2010.)  It’s also the impetus for both Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting and Konstantin Stanislavsky’s whole system.  For me,  performance was the reward for the creative work of rehearsing.

[Along the same lines,  Kirk also discusses the teamwork and the collegiality—the group of artists all coming together to make something, the collaboration.  With only rare exceptions, a theater production can’t happen without all the participants working together, and I found that exhilarating.  (It was also something I stressed when I taught or directed middle and high school students.)]  

Recently I participated in a concert presentation of the musical Candide (Wikipedia calls it an operetta), with music by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) and lyrics by as many as eight contributors, particularly by the poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017). The presentation I took part in was a joint endeavor by the Society of Musical Arts (SOMA) of Maplewood, New Jersey; the State Opera Company (SOC) of New Jersey; and Columbia High School, also in Maplewood.

Dita Delman is the Artistic Director of the SOC; Steve Culbertson is Musical Director and Conductor for SOMA and he conducted the orchestra and singers.  Jamie Bunce, the Director of Choral Activities for Columbia High School, trained the 150 member student chorus. The three shared directorial activities among themselves.

For the Candide I’m describing, there was only one performance, on October 28, 2017, in the Columbia High School auditorium. The lead singers were Jeremy Blossy, Samantha Dango, Halley Gilbert, David Murray, Charles Schneider, and Katy Sumrow.

Candide is perhaps the best known today of the many works of Voltaire (the pen name for François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), the brilliant novelist, dramatist, and satirist. Voltaire wrote in Candide, a picaresque novel, a series of episodes connected mostly by the fact that they all involve or affect the central character, and by not much else – certainly not by a rigorous plot. The episodic structure of the novel makes it difficult to adapt it to dramatic form.

The musical Candide tried, though. It was first performed in New York in 1956, with a book by the playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984). Its score was widely admired, but its book – probably because of the loose structure of the original novel – was not, and the show had only a short run. In 1974 a version directed by Harold Prince (b. 1928), with a new book by Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987), opened on Broadway to considerable success.

The musical has been revived frequently since them, sometimes in full productions, sometimes as a concert piece, for which several different revisions of the libretto have been used. Among the best known revivals of the piece is a partially staged concert version in 2004 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring, among others, Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone, released as a DVD and broadcast on public television.

There are no rules for how concert presentations of operas, operettas, and musicals (as well as other musical forms like cantatas and oratorios) are staged. Typically they use little or no set, and fewer movements by the leading singers (the soloists) than you’d find in a full production – sometimes no movement at all.

In concert productions the orchestra, chorus, and any soloists are both ordinarily on stage, as they would be in a concert of classical music. Since a concert performance may not include all the music written for a theatrical piece, a narration may be used to provide continuity.

At the request of the conductor, Steve Culbertson, I wrote a narration – continuity between songs – tailored to the specific song selections of the concert version I participated in, and what’s more, my efforts were approved by the Bernstein estate. In writing a new narrative I joined a group of writers that would fill a small room – I count at least seven authorized narrations for Candide, and there may be others.

Why do I mention this experience? Because I was able to attend several rehearsals for the project, and – here’s my point ­– I love rehearsals! In the case of Candide, I was actually able to participate in the rehearsals a little, occasionally reading the narration (a fine performer, Dan Landon, did the reading at the concert) and offering the odd suggestion on staging – nothing significant; I just tried to be helpful.

But rehearsals themselves – there’s nothing like them. They are, for me, wonderful experiences. I can think of few places I’d rather be. They don’t have to be my rehearsals – they can be for projects I have nothing to do with. It doesn’t matter. They are always interesting and fun.

Why do I like the rehearsal atmosphere so much? One reason, I believe, is that work itself is always fascinating – any kind of work. Whenever I’ve asked anyone what their everyday job entails, I’ve always found their answers to be illuminating. So much detail, so many things that need to be accomplished in even the simplest task! Steve Martin captures this hilariously in a routine from his standup comedy days:

Ok, I don’t like to gear my material to the audience but I’d like to make an exception because I was told that there is a convention of plumbers in San Francisco this week – I understand about 30 of them came down to the show tonight – so before I came out I worked up a joke especially for the plumbers. Those of you who aren’t plumbers probably won’t get this and won’t think it’s funny, but I think those of you who are plumbers will really enjoy this…

This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ gangly wrench. Just then, this little apprentice leaned over and said, ‘You can’t work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ wrench.’ Well, this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, ‘The Langstrom 7″ wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.’ Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, ‘It says sprocket, not socket!’

The joke within the joke – Martin is very skilled – is that a plumber’s work is interesting, once you get down to the details, and so is any other kind of work. If further proof is needed, try describing a simple action as if to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it. Describe everything. Even for something as simple as, say, putting on a pair of glasses, the steps involved will turn out to becomplex.

How complex, then, are the processes that go into putting on a performance! That’s one reason I find rehearsals so thrilling. So many things are in play.

For examples,rehearsals focus on a task – getting the performance together. That’s the goal. This main task will have multiple subtasks. The stronger the focus on the main task and its offshoots, the more likely a rehearsal will be to accomplish its goals.

This principle of focus has wide application. In my opinion it’s definitely the secret of effective acting. A performer who focuses strongly on the appropriate thing in a play – almost always, on what the performer’s character wants – is going to give a successful performance.

Even if the actor focuses on the wrong thing – if she or he has an idea about a character at odds with the intention of the script – that actor will still hold the audience’s attention, as long as the performer’s focus stays strong.

This principle can be easily verified by attending an elementary school or middle school play or musical. Often you’ll see one child, in the middle of all that confusion, who seems to have been born for the stage. You can’t take your eyes off that one. When that happens, it’s almost certainly a matter of focus – that young performer has been given the gift of concentration on what’s happening in the play. Sometimes that performer’s gift lasts her or him for a lifetime.

Rehearsals, of course, are also an area for creativity – or they should be, unless the director happens to be a tyrant, in which case creativity is likely to happen surreptitiously at best. Usually, though, once one starts to look for creativity in a rehearsal, one usually sees it everywhere.

Even in a relatively structured rehearsal environment like that of our Candide, I could spot the inventive ways that Jamie Bunce, the chorus director, found of getting the sounds she needed from the 150 singers. Steve Culbertson, the conductor, is adept at finding solutions for the largest or most minute musical questions at a moment’s notice. And the soloists helped each other out with suggestions about staging that began with phrases like “What about . . .” or “Maybe we could . . . .”

It strikes me that a rehearsal of an established work is in many ways a re-creation – not an imitation of something that’s already been done, but a new creative process applied to an already existing piece of material. No doubt the same thing happens throughout life – as the old proverb goes, you can’t step in the same river twice; but in rehearsal we see the process in compressed form.

On a less exalted level, another factor that makes rehearsals an interesting and pleasurable experience for me is that performers as a group are wonderful people to be around. Obviously there are glaring exceptions, but I stand behind this statement as a general principle, despite the famous bit of dialogue in the producers:

LEO BLOOM: Actors are not animals! They’re human beings!
MAX BIALYSTOCK: They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

Performers have many qualities as performers that in themselves make them enjoyable as a group. They are as up to date as anybody with what’s going on in the world of art, and sometimes – not always, but frequently – in the world itself.

Eric Bentley, I believe, says someplace (I can’t find it) that at a panel discussion of theater people he attended, the actors were the only ones who talked about theater as an art – everyone else was dealing with issues of success. I’m certain Bentley’s observation (if it’s his) doesn’t apply everywhere, but it does point to the fact that actors really do care, not just about making money in the theater (sometimes they don’t), but about the theater as a place where worthwhile things can happen.

What’s more, performers don’t expect the world or themselves to be perfect, either. That’s why they rehearse – because it takes work to get a project into shape. Performers know that, and it doesn’t throw them . . . .

Well, not always. I remember going through a period where I took every comment a director made as a personal insult – I would seethe at the most innocuous suggestion, to the point where friends noticed it and warned me that I had to cut it out. I did, and as far as I can remember this period of hostility wasn’t long lasting, but it helped me understand that all people don’t behave in one way all the time, and that sometimes it’s not easy to uncover why people behave the way they do.

Still, on the whole, I’ll take a group of actors, to name one kind of performer, over just about any group of people from other professions. If exceptions to this statement come to mind, please let me know. It would be fun to meet a group of equally entertaining people. Even in my Hostile Period, I’m sure my barely suppressed fury (which limited its expression to stares and the occasional snarl) provided entertainment for a few colleagues, at the least. (I hope so.)

One more factor I’ll mention about the charm of rehearsal is actually not so charming – it’s the fact that something is on the line for performers, and that something is the good opinion of a substantial group of people. Where that performance is live (rather than taped or filmed), the audience’s verdict can be immediate – it may or may not laugh in a comedy, it may or may not demand an encore in a concert. Performers run quite an ego risk.

The writer George Plimpton (1927-2003), who as a journalist was famous for writing about his efforts to participate in various sports teams and other organizations, wrote that nothing beat the level of tension he felt among classical musicians, because in performance they could not fail – they had to play perfectly. (Plimpton played the triangle with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and muffed his one note.)

So there is a determination among performers to succeed. Presumably we all want to succeed – but they need to succeed within a certain period of time, in a definite way. This situation adds an edge to rehearsals, and it also adds interest.

On the other hand, a rehearsal, unless it’s by oneself alone in a room, is always a group activity of some sort, so there’s support available. I noticed small but important bits of praise the soloists offered each other, sometimes just a touch, or a muttered “Nice job.” Those things are recognitions that “we’re all in it together, and we’ll all get through it somehow.” Add them all up, and they’re invigorating.

So for me rehearsals are always interesting. I attended three rehearsals of Candide – one in Ms. Delman’s living room, one in a choir room at a church, and one at the high school auditorium where the performance would be held. (Because of a conflict, I wasn’t able to see the performance itself.)

The Candide rehearsals had the extra attraction for me of belonging to a kind of performance – opera – I haven’t had any experience with. The lead performers were singers. I’m not just saying they sing – I’m saying they sing the roof off. Their voices have confidence, range, and power, all vital for opera. To sit within feet of six big, trained voices and have the sound they produce flow over you, is a memorable experience.

They must have warmed up their voices too, but if I heard that happening, it didn’t register. Surely they needed to? Might they have warmed up at home, or in the car on the way?

In a concert production one of the most important decisions is always how much movement to incorporate into the performance. Do the singers just stand there and sing? Do they add more than minimal gestures? Do they move around in relation to each other?

In this concert Candide the performers moved around a fair amount, a situation made more interesting because they weren’t sure how much space would be available on the Columbia High stage once the full orchestra was seated.  The actors were patient and willing to be flexible. I wonder just how opera singers feel about directors. Their major training is in music, yet opera is character-based and these days an opera singer is also expected to act.

Perhaps my curiosity is misplaced. Opera direction is, with a few exceptions, a Twentieth-Century invention. (Stage direction as a whole was in its infancy until the 1900s as well.) Today it is difficult to imagine a major opera production that has no director. So the performers must be used to it. At the same time, learning an opera’s music is a daunting task; how much energy is left for acting?

I didn’t have a chance to pose that question to the soloists I observed, but they seemed eager to receive direction, so I suppose that’s one stereotype about opera shot down. Another stereotype is that opera singers have the reputation for being temperamental, in part because if they don’t take good physical care of themselves, the result will be apparent to an audience of hundreds or thousands of people.

There was some maneuvering among the singers to keep their throats warm (scarves and sweaters), sit away from air flows, and so on, but these six could not have been more cooperative.

Did I learn anything from these rehearsals? Only how much I enjoy them. But that in itself is worth something. We live in a world of confrontation today. By contrast, rehearsals – almost always – involve people working together, allowing themselves and each other to be individuals yet also being a part of something greater.

The jazz composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis makes the same point in his book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life (2009), using jazz improvisation as a model. Actors in the kind of production I’m describing aren’t ordinarily improvising the material they’re performing, but they are improvising, in a sense, their relationships with other performers, from show to show.

Such mutual cooperation, Marsalis says, is a good model for families, for governments, for societies, and I heartily second that.

[I saw the 1974 Hal Prince revival of Candide on Broadway; it was one of the first things I saw after coming to New York City (along with Equus and Raisin, all running when I got here).  I also saw a later revival, using the Hugh Wheeler book again, at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2010 and posted a report on ROT on 13 January 2011.  I enjoyed the ’74 production (I saw it in ’75 apparently) very much, largely for the performances. and Prince’s all-over staging—but I never wrote anything on it.  (I mention some of the same remarks Kirk makes about the book and the play’s structure in my 2011 report.)  I also watched the PBS broadcast of the NYPO concert version with Chenoweth and LuPone in 2005.]

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