Thursday, February 16, 2006


The most gratifying comment about this production came after the fact, when a patron whose opinion I value highly told me that he found the play both briskly paced and highly accessible.

We got a smattering of criticism about a lack of "tragic depth"--ie. not going far enough with the emotions of the piece. I've received this criticism for previous productions also. Personally, I think most people's idea of "tragic depth" stands in direct opposition to the "fast and accessible" approach; when they think of Shakespeare in the grandiloquent RSC style, they imagine slow, leaden productions where actors emote their lines into ponderous oblivion.

I'm sorry, but give me fast and accessible any day of the week. Isn't that a greater accomplishment than "tragic depth": to deliver a Shakespeare play--especially one as complex and as bleak as Lear--in a way that doesn't make the audience feel like they've been through a comparable ordeal? To make them feel like they've understood the story and the themes, and to send them out of the theatre feeling like their time has not been wasted?

I don't mean to pat myself on the back here--at least, not too much--but I think I chose the more sensible, and more fulfilling, road.

OK, now I'm really done. Come visit me at Stage Whispers!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Last Performance Tonight

I'm wrapping this up. I may end up adding one or two final thoughts, if they occur to me; but having made it through most of the run without feeling any serious misgivings, I think I'd rather end this journal on a positive note, instead of labouring to come up with lessons learned, etc.

Thanks, everyone who participated in what has been an amazingly smooth and completely fulfilling process. And thanks as well to those who participated in this electronic experiment; I don't know whether it helped the show or not, but it sure did help to keep me sane. Next time, I hope I can encourage both show participants and curious observers to contribute more to the discussion-- because, as much as I love the sound of my own voice (or the shape of my own pixels), I enjoy your feedback even more.

And, speaking of next time...the Walterdale adventure continues at the end of March, with Alex Hawkins' production of Thornton Wilder's Skin of our Teeth. And the blog adventure continues right next door, where you'll find a sneak peek at Walterdale's next season, and my next directing project. It's all up in the air right now, and very hush-hush, of course, which is why I've chosen to call it Stage Whispers. See you there!

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Little Things

Saw the show again on Wednesday night. It was a strong, solid run; the audience was very quiet at the start, but the cast seemed to know what was needed to light a fire under them, and they were much more animated, laughing and squirming and gasping on cue, in Act Two. Good for them; that's the sort of finessing that many professional casts can't even manage.

Getting to see the show for the first time in a while, as well as seeing it without my director's hat firmly attached to my head, I was able to notice details that had either evolved in my absence, or else which had always been there but I just didn't spot them. I didn't take notes, but here's what I remember:
  • Introducing the love test, just before "Goneril, our eldest born, speak first," Lear's gaze lingers on Regan--and then his index finger points away from his gaze, taking Goneril by surprise. Keepin' the kids off-balance.
  • Kent has a prop ring which he gives to Gargrave during the storm. I knew that Kieran was using this ring to signify his rank, and that he was going to remove it during his soliloquy ("Now, banished Kent..."). This time I also saw Kent fingering it unconsciously in 1.1, while he was summoning up the nerve to confront Lear; and again, once he'd been banished.
  • And then, on his "Now, banished Kent" soliloquy, he put a finger to his lips, as if to beseech the audience not to give his true identity away. That's awesome; audiences love to be complicit in secrets, and there are so many of them in this play, I lose track.
  • Albany kneels to Lear ("My lord, I am ignorant of what hath moved you"), but Lear stalks off without seeming to acknowledge him. Goneril is upstage, rolling her eyes--now, as soon as Lear is off, she slips downstage and hauls Albany up onto his feet. Her embarrassment in having to associate with this "milk-liver'd man" is already palpable.
  • Cornwall's repressed rage at his own wife erupts in slightly different ways each night. Now he's taken to cutting off her lines in 1.6, which probably drives Brittany crazy, but which does the right thing in keeping Regan powerless and unsure.
  • Gloster re-enters after following Lear out into the storm. "The king is in high rage," he says, and then attempts to convince Cornwall and the daughters to relieve him. Up till now, Peter has delivered these lines with the same slightly befuddled consternation that typifies Gloster at this point in the play. This time, the lines had a real edge to them, and I realized that the near-sighted old man was actually starting to clue in; he could see the parallels growing between Edgar, his own allegedly unfaithful son, and these "unnatural hags" who didn't care a whit if their old man got washed away.
  • Out at Dover, Lear enters giggling with a wreath of flowers, berries and ribbons on his head. Tonight, by choice or accident, he came out with the wreath on backwards, so the red ribbons hung in front of his eyes. Gloster is already onstage at this point, with a blood-stained bandage covering his own "bleeding rings." What a lovely visual parallel, intentional or otherwise!
  • At the end, when Lear enters carrying Cordelia, Allan as Albany does some outstanding physical acting (actually, everyone onstage is great, but most of them have been instructed to stay very still). When he sees Lear, he is facing upstage. He bends over, almost double, with the shock of what he sees (which conveniently allows us to see it also). Then he stumbles backwards, averting his eyes and remaning closed off to the audience. He ends up standing stage left, still hunkered over, and he looks for all the world like a blasted tree or an ancient statue worn down by the elements. The other actors, also "men of stone" have similar postures of distress. Lear is surrounded by corpses and broken men--no one has the strength, or the power, to alleviate, or even share, his pain, and so he cries alone.
There's lots of other great bits. And then there are the bits which, I'm told, change every night, like the Knights' shenanigans in 1.3, or Kent's visual illustration of the infamous Lipsbury Pinfold (I'm a bit anxious to see where these improvised bits go on closing night; things could get ugly).

As I've said before, I enjoy seeing new things occur onstage. When I think of being in a four-month-long production run at Stratford (or--god help us--Cats), where nothing is supposed to change, nothing seems more dull, more untheatrical. And Lear, of course, is the sort of play on could do for ages, and constantly discover new things that work.

For better or worse, theatre is ephemeral (although we will be video recording the final show). Our work on this show must stop after 12 performances. But I certainly have lots of tricks and lessons to take with me into the next grand enterprise...about which topic, more anon.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Lunch in France

Sunday the cast had a 2pm matinee. I met them briefly for brunch, then stayed behind at the bistro to meet a couple of potential directors for next season. Half-way through my first coffee meeting, I look up and see a familiar face at the bistro counter, ordering soup. Anna-Maria...Cordelia. I look at my watch. 2:30pm.

Panic, followed by irrational anger. What is she doing here? Was the play cancelled? Did she forget about her call? Is the cast back at the Playhouse, struggling to re-invent the play sans Cordelia? I suppress the urge to stuff her under my arm and race back to the theatre.

Then it dawns on me. 2:30 is a half hour into the show...which means they're on about Act 2, Scene 1...which means that Cordelia is in France. Anna-Maria got banished fifteen minutes ago, and won't be needed onstage again for at least another hour. She's getting soup in France. She smiles and waves, and I wave back, abashed.

I'm glad I'm not in charge of things anymore.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


I wasn't at Thursday's show, and I came late to Friday's, so I only saw the second half (I heard the first half on the sound monitor in the lobby--man, those thunderclaps are loud!). What I saw was great; the energy was high and the audience seemed thoroughly involved. Once again, I marvelled at how easily and honestly they laughed; but I also enjoyed watching them squirm during the blinding, and watching their still silence when Lear carries on Cordelia's body at the end ("O, you are men of stones!")

After the show, Keiran said something that made my heart soar. He observed that the cast had reached the point where they were willing to try new things onstage, making little discoveries about their characters and scenes within the moment, rather than trying to work it all out in advance. This is great, because it means the actors really trusts each other. When you try something different, you are running the risk that it might fail--but they trust that the other people on stage will help them to recover if an experiment goes wrong. Similarly, they trust the rest of the cast to react appropriately and believably to their new tricks.

For example: a couple of nights ago, Gino added something to the top of 4.5, when Edmund has captured Lear and Cordelia. Before he says "Take them away," to the guards, he steps forward and touches Cordelia's chin. We can see, in this moment, Edmund the power-hungry general debating silently with Edmund the lecherous bastard; he is thinking, "I had both of her sisters; what a shame it will be to kill off the third without having her too."

Last night, Gino went to make the same gesture--but this time, Dale stopped him, putting his hand out (quite gently, I thought), and wordlessly informing him that there was no way in hell Edmund was getting anywhere near his beloved daughter. This, of course, made Edmund's decision much easier, and gave his "Take them away" line an extra layer of nastiness, as he now relishes his revenge against Lear the chaperone.

Simple moments, but watching them evolve is precious. Because--and I have no way to prove this, but I know it's true--the audience can sense the difference between a pre-blocked and rehearsed gesture, and something which passes organically between characters for the first time in front of their very eyes. What a privilege! That's the energy that can make theatre infinitely superior to recorded media like film: witnessing something happen for the first time, and sensing that has changed everything forever.

Or, at least, until the next performance.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

First Night

A good opening. Apart from one inexplicably late entrance and an almost imperceptible lighting/sound mixup, everything flowed like clockwork.

The audience reactions were very positive, and wonderfully varied. I heard praise for a number of different cast members, including some who were playing smaller parts. A couple of patrons said they were impressed with the fight direction. Several enthused about the set--but none of this in a way which suggested to me that they were overlooking the play itself.

I think what gratified me most was the laughter. It came early (even before Edmund pulled the knickers out of his coat), and returned often. The scene at Dover between Gloster and Edgar had a wonderfully varied tone; people started laughing at G's early line "Methinks the ground is level," then got serious for Edgar's description of the cliff; they chuckled when Edgar said "Fare you well good sir" as if from a distance; then they sobered up for G's "As flies to wanton boys" speech. The jump itself received a titter--as if people weren't sure whether this was serious or comic--and then, of course, G's line "Away, and let me die" (pulling his blanket back over his head) got a laugh, as did "Alack, I have no eyes."

This gratifies me because it is honest laughter. They're not mocking the characters, or the production; they know that Gloster has been through hell, and so I think they are looking for opportunities to redeem his story through joy. It means that they are one short step ahead of Gloster himself, when he says, "I do remember now. You gentle gods..." and abandons his plans for suicide.

I also remember hearing a wonderfully gratifying gasp when Edgar inadvertantly reveals himself to his father, near the end of the same scene. I wasn't sure if anyone would catch that; but it really strengthens the next moment, which is a veiled reconciliation between father and son. (And then, of course, Oswald enters, humour returns, then seriousness, then really is a roller coaster)

I wish I could see every show of the run, to observe how these reactions change. But the cast needs to know that I'm no longer out there, watching them. They need ownership over what they've created, or what they continue to create, together with their audiences. It really is a magical process: you get a bunch of strangers together in a bare room with a bunch of people speaking words they didn't write, and pretending to be someplace else entirely...and somehow, a thoroughly unique and intimate experience results. As I have often said, the thing I love most about the theatre is that, when it works, the whole is always much, much greater than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Previews #1 and #2

Our two live previews have come and gone. Both went well, I think; I was quite excited by the energy generated by the cast's first encounter with an audience. Monday's crowd was small but supportive (mostly friends and relatives), and Tuesday's was a bit bigger (invitees from Walterdale's "Art in the Lobby" series). It's a nice way to start the run, I think: sort of easing our way up to what will, I think, be a very packed house on opening night.

I know that some of the cast are struggling to maintain their energy through each performance. It is a very demanding play, and Dale in particular is not interested in delivering anything short of a tour de force every night. At this point, it's very important that they remember two things: a) they're not alone out there; they have each other, and when one person's energy (or lines, or cues) might flag, the others will be there to support them; and b) the audience is on their side. They want them to succeed.

It's hard to read an audience during a play like this (are they stunned and awed into silence? Or are they bored to tears?), but based on my surreptitious observations, I think they are following the story, and are invested in the action. So they, too, should be seen as a safety net, not a hazard.

Tomorrow's the big night. Break a leg, everyone!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lessons and Issues

I've been distracted and useless for most of the day, getting pre-premiere butterflies as I often do. As an exercise, I've started sorting through the issues I had to face during this rehearsal process, in an attempt to derive a few personal lessons. I'm not such an old dog that I can't learn a few new tricks.

1. Themes
Early on, I looked at "three themes" in Lear--the familial, the political, and the cosmic. I decided my work with the actors would focus mostly on the first theme, and that I would leave the other two spheres to the designers, or just let Shakespeare take care of them himself. I think I made the right choice. Rather than spend a lot of early rehearsals examining outdated political or philosophical concepts like the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being, I found a familiar hook for both the play's major plots (Lear and his daughters, Gloster and his sons).

The thing I learned here was that, once I'd settled on the family approach, I didn't even need to seek outside analogies. I don't think the cast needed to locate parallels in their own family histories, or correlate stories they'd heard about tremendously dysfunctional families. For the most part, they just used each other, trusting that the faces they saw each night they came to rehearsal would, inevitably, coalesce into a family unit. And that's what happened, and happens with any well-oiled ensemble. What I mean to say is that Dale's interpretation of Lear did not suffer from his own personal lack of daughters...because by the time we were ready to mount the show, Dale had "adopted" Beverly, Brittainy, and Anna-Maria as surrogate daughters.

When you feel close to your cast-mates, you don't need to replace their faces with imaginary or remembered ones. You just use your imagination, play a bit of "what if." "Now that Anna-Maria is like a daughter to me, how would I feel if she rejected me in public?" The game of make-believe becomes almost ridiculously easy from there.

Not every show (or even every Shakespeare play) has family placed so centrally. But in any play, you want relationships to be intense and feelings to run deep. Part of the reason actors have acquired the reputation of being flaky is their professional commitment to the cast of each production; in order to act well, they essentially need to fall in and out of love every time they do a show. It's actually a lot of work.

2. Status and Rank
I obsessed about this quite a bit in the first weeks of rehearsal, but I can now see that, like the family dynamics, issues of status tend to work themselves out naturally on stage. Part of that process happens late in the game, when costumes arrive (and Melissa's costumes say a lot about individual ranks, which is exactly what I asked for).

But mostly, it happens early, and not because of any hierarchy within the cast itself (strong casts tend to be extremely democratic; I don't think I've identified any divas in this group). Near as I can figure, it has to do with blocking. When a character is speaking, they gain in status--usually because they are vying for status through their words. The same is doubly true of movement, if you agree with my axiom that "every movement must mean."

So I think what happened here is, my cast patiently endured all my unnecessary status exercises, waiting for the time when they could see each scene spread out upon the stage. Once it was clear who was standing upstage, who was downstage, and who was moving at what time, their sense of status and rank just settled into place. If I asked Oswald (for example) to move during one of Kent's lines ("That such a slave as this should wear a sword"), the actors onstage understood implicitly that this meant Oswald had a higher status, even though he was not delivering any lines at that moment.

Status isn't unique to Lear, or Shakespeare; it's intrinsically woven into all good drama, and having an instinct for detecting shifts in status is one characteristic of a great actor. Some scripts make it super-duper-easy to see status see-saws going on (Albee's Zoo Story comes to mind). If Lear turned out to be a bit more complex, all that meant was that the actors waited until their blocking was in place, and then played the cards I dealt 'em. Simple as that.

But that brings me to...

3. Blocking
Can a play block itself? Some Shakespeare scholars believe that the King's Men had no rehearsal time whatsoever; they just learned their individual parts and strode out onto the stage, come what may. I thought I could devise a system that would enable the cast to work out their own blocking, using status shifts as a sort of miracle equation. I'd managed to pull off a similar feat, albeit on a much smaller scale, when I directed Othello in 2003.

It didn't work with Lear, mainly because I chickened out and just went ahead and blocked things the old fashioned way. But I can now see, based on what I just observed about status, that I was using the wrong tools. If actors use blocking to determine status, then it's no good asking them to use status to determine blocking. Maybe if I'd done way more table work, or come right out and "assigned" status shifts in each scene...but if I'm going to spend that much time on status, I might as well spend time blocking instead.

In other words, the blocking-status equation turned out to be a chicken-and-egger, and so it's probably a good thing I backed out before I wasted too much time on it. I'm not sure if this means all hope is lost, and a play this big and complicated will simply never block itself...but I'm going to have to go back to the drawing board if I really want to find something that works.

Why am I so desperate to circumvent this stage of the rehearsal process? Partly, I want to buy myself more time for text and character work, because I know there are way more juicy secrets buried in a script like Lear, and I think we barely managed to scratch the surface during this process.

But I also have to rely on my previously stated axiom: "Every movement must mean." Actors need to feel a sense of ownership of their bodies and their blocking. T
hese are the keys to characterization, and on a much more primal level than voices and lines. And yet, what use is my axiom, if I, the dictator/director, tell them where and when to move? Obviously, I try to explain why I want Oswald to move on Kent's line. And I know that good actors are adept at inventing motivations for whatever crazy blocking notions their directors have dropped in their laps. But there will never be the same sense of ownership that comes when an actor moves of their own volition, because their character MUST move, because if they don't move they'll explode.

With small cast shows, there is usually more time to let actors explore their options. And with small cast shows, the repercussions are usually less dire if an actor decides he must alter his/her blocking (ie. there are fewer fellow cast members to confuse). Here, I feel as though I have failed to afford this cast the opportunity to take possession of their physical selves onstage--and that means their world will never be as real, as complete, as self-contained as it deserves to be.

The good news is: the memory of an actor's body is more durable than the memory of an actor's mind. That means they will continue to move as I've directed them long after they have forgotten how each bit of blocking came about. And by the end of the run, no doubt they will feel ownership of ther movements, as they already do of their lines, their characters, and their props (watch Ron fondle his cane, and you'll see what I mean). So, for now, the solution to my self-derived conundrum seems to be: block 'em early, so they can forget that it was you who blocked 'em. Hardly ingenious, but it will have to do for now.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Tech Dress Rehearsal

Friday night, I called Joanne (who was at the theatre, adjusting lights, perfectionist that she is) and asked if we could make one or two adjustments to the lighting for the battle sequence. I knew that to do so would consume a lot of precious time, because that sequence involves a boatload of pre-programmed follow-through cues, all of which would have to be reprogrammed individually. But she cheerfully agreed to soften up the spotlights and lengthen the transitions from snaps to 1 second fades. Very subtle changes to the untrained eye, but she and I both knew that the overall effect would be to "loosen up" the battle, make it look rougher, more haphazard, more chaotic.

And that's what it all comes down to, with a play like this...carefully choreographed chaos. The battle sequence, like the storm in the first half, is meant to occur organically--to deceive the audience into thinking it has erupted unbidden from the underworld (or the heavens) of the play. The last thing you want to do is make the audience break out of the Lear world and think, "Oh my, what a clever battle sequence." But in order to achieve the effect of that spontaneity, you need to exert hours of careful planning and choreography. There's an awful lot of "then" that goes into creating the wow of the "now."

Saturday's tech dress went well, and, although it was a long day, the cast & crew cooperated to make it smooth and enjoyable. Ron and Beverly coordinated a delicious potluck brunch which kept us going all the way till supper--which was pizza supplied by Jaclyn, our production manager. Somewhere in the middle, we ran through the play with absolutely everything in place (except an audience). Melissa fixed Edgar's 4.5 mask at the last minute, so it looks a bit more imposing, and is less likely to fall off during his swordfight. John put a lovely metal "whirlpool" design on the back of Lear's throne. Helen painted the map so that it reads clearly from the audience. Lanterns were lit. Makeup was applied. Sound cues found their final levels. Everything has drifted into place.

The run itself had the same ups and downs as Thursday's (and had almost exactly the same running time). Cues were tight in this scene and loose in that. I can now see that I was extremely remiss in not scheduling at least one Italian run; if I'm going to be this hard-assed about pacing, then I need to provide the opportunities for my cast to improve that aspect of the show. I know it will improve during the run, but likely only gradually; and that's a shame, because nothing tickles critics like a Shakespeare show that just flies by.

I guess I can't really call them "my" cast any more. I'll keep giving them notes after the previews on Monday and Tuesday, but I'm certainly not going to suggest any radical changes; and, indeed, I have already encouraged them to take the play's artistic evolution into their own hands. As I told them, when I come back and see the show later on in the run, I want to see new moments, new discoveries, actors taking risks onstage with the security of a supportive ensemble around them. As an audience member, seeing that energy is by far the most exciting part of theatre. But as a director, it means I'm now officially a fifth wheel.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tech Run

Things are running smoother now. We finished our QxQ on Wednesday night and, although we didn't have enough time to fit in an Italian run, I was pleased with what we accomplished. The actors adapted to the lights and sound very well, particularly in complex sequences like the battle (about which more below).

Tonight we had a tech run--no costumes, but pretty much everything else--and I warned the actors that if they couldn't shave 10 minutes off the first half of the play, I'd have to start cutting scenes. They managed to shorten it--just barely. The first half currently runs 1 hour and 19 minutes, which is still longer than I'd like (1 hour and 10 was my grail, but I'll settle for 1:15). But I'm not cutting anything... except maybe the blood effects in Gloster's blinding. Yeah, who needs blood, anyway.

The cast started to do some tremendous things tonight. Instead of lurching from cue to cue like frightened animals, they really took control of the pace and flow of the play, creating an environment in which their characters could interact. It sounds abstract and philosophical, but it really has to do with energy. The energy of the runs has felt wild and unbridled for a long time now, and it is finally coming under control. The audience will know where to look; they will know which characters love or hate or fear each other; they will know when to lean forward and when to let out their breaths. Too often, actors don't realize that the audience is waiting eagerly for this energy, for these cues; they want to be controlled and manipulated and drawn into the world of the play, however bleak and ugly that world might become. Actors are powerful people, when they know how to wield their power properly.

I'm looking forward to watching that energy grow and tighten. We have only one more run before audiences start to appear, and so whatever we run on Saturday is what we're sticking to. This, therefore, is my final chance to meddle. Luckily, I have very few regrets. If I could go back in time and re-structure something entirely, it would probably have to be the's not the cast's fault, or anyone's really, it's just one of those complex lighting-sound-blocking-heavy moments when the whole ends up being rather less than the sum of its parts. But I really ought not to get pessimistic about anything at this point. Miraculous things have been known to occur in the final days before curtain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Cue to Cue, Day One

If you're not familiar with the term, a "cue to cue" is when you leap haphazardly from one sound or light cue to another, so that the technicians can work out the timing, adjust the levels, and write down the specifics of each cross-fade, spotlight, and thunderclap. Lear is not a tremendously complicated show, tech-wise, although there are rather a lot of thunderclaps. But even with a reasonably simple show, it takes time to bring the various elements together into an aesthetically appealing whole. And, just as actors drop a cue from time to time, sound cues skip, fingers slip on boards, lights burn out, and so on.

This is a frustrating process for the techs, but at least they're in control most of the time. It's twice as taxing for the actors, who find themselves bounced around from cue to cue, often thrown into the middle of a complicated scene with very little context (my favourite example was when they were asked to skip ahead to the line "Ay, my lord." They all just stared out blankly at the darkness in the house). My cast were troopers, though, and cheerfully repeated scenes, and fragments of scenes, over and over while the lights flickered above their heads. (I had a little fun with them at one point by asking Andrew to repeat the line "Most savage and unnatural" for a minute and a half.)

But if it's rough on the techs, and twice as tough on the actors, I have to say that cue to cue is ten times as troubling for a director who's become thoroughly accustomed to calling the shots. Yeah, yeah, I know, poor megalomaniacal me. But just as the actors started their penultimate major adjustment on Monday (inhabiting the set, and the costumes, and starting to build an ensemble both onstage and off), I'm now in the throes of my second-last transformation. The show is not mine anymore, not really; I can still pull rank when I have to, and I did that a few times, cutting sound cues which clearly weren't going to work with the world of the play. But the artistic authority I had even a week ago is seriously tempered, not only by the practical realities of our technical set-up, but also by the artistic visions of my bevy of designers--all of whom have just as much claim to this show as I do.

I keep seeing little opportunities to exert my authority--sneaking in an extra line here or there, or trying to add another quickie blocking bit. Some of those impulses have artistic merit, but I suspect that most of them are merely meddling; and I'm not helping anybody by sticking more stuff into the show, especially if it means a longer running time (don't get me started on the running time...). The actors have more than enough adjustments to make; and the more I tamper with things now, the harder it will be on the technicians. What I need to do is think about retiring gracefully, like Prospero; not throwing tantrums like you-know-who.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dress Rehearsal

A quick note here, although a lot happened this evening. We got onto the set (which is completed and looks fantastic), and we got to see the costumes--mostly complete, and looking splendid as well. Nice to see the ranks and relationships come through clearly thanks to Melissa's careful strategizing. Of course, as with any dress rehearsal, things went wrong--props were forgotten, actors tripped and stumbled, bits of the set got kicked around. But that's what this is for--and by the time audiences see the show (one week and counting!), most of those growing pains will have passed.

After the run, Dale confided his dissatisfaction to me. Nothing feels right, he said. I'm just standing and shouting lines, he said. My first suggestion involved our discussion about "confusion" as the thing which Lear most fears. I said that, usually, when people are confused, the first thing they try to do is convince others that they're not confused. So maybe lines like "This is a dull sight" need to come out with some measure of confidence...

But as I was saying it, I realized that here I was, just slapping more layers onto a characterization that was already bursting at the seams. I'd already coached Dale into playing "rage" and "fear" simultaneously; now he was supposed to add "confusion" and "certainty"? Who the hell can play all that?

So I suggested something else--an out-of-left-field tactic that has occasionally worked in the past. Two years ago, Dale played Harold Ryan in Walterdale's production of Kurt Vonnegut's Happy Birthday, Wanda June. It was one of the first plays I saw him act in, and one of the roles that convinced me that he had the chops for Lear. Ryan is a misogynist, you see; a brash, boastful, egomaniacal, unapologetic asshole to everyone around him, including his wife. He never doubted that he was right, and he didn't care that everyone except himself disagreed with him. He was, in short, a totally unlikable character--which is why audiences liked him.

So I told Dale to go back to Ryan. Put the rage and fear and doubt and madness off to the side for now, I said; you can always recover it later, if this tactic doesn't work. But for now, I told him to approach Lear's authority from a vantage that he already knows he can portray successfully. If it works, it will give us a whole new Lear--which is a big risk, in a lot of ways, but one I think the cast is ready to take.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Multiple Personality Play

The actors had the day off, but tech week has already begun. Yesterday we set light levels, so Joanne was in today making adjustments to the hang. John, Alli and Christiane were painting the set, and Doug came in to "dirty" up a bunch of props (and fix the shaky pikes). Melissa was cutting and sewing, and Andrew was working with Max and Gino on the sword fight (perfectionist). But I saw most of this in passing, since I was officially there to set sound levels with Mark and Matt.

The sound design has ended up being an unusual hodge-podge. We've got traditional storm sounds, and then we've got experimental and expressionistic stuff as well. We've got Shostakovich's 5th and 12th symphonies, but we've also got modern chanting, and music from Peter Gabriel's "Passion." We've got sound cues that represent thunder, and sound cues that represent horses & drums, but kinda sound like thunder. We've got sound cues that represent rain, and a sound cue that can either represent fire or rain--or both.

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what it will all add up to. But since there's nothing that strikes me as being definitively out of period, I think the only thing to do is to let it all play out. After all, my costumes are realistic and period-specific, but my set is abstract and expressionistic; and some of the lights are meant to convey real details, while others are purely for emotional effect. And isn't Shakespeare's script a mix of "real" prose dialogue and heightened poetry (not to mention doggerel rhymes and insane babble)? Is there anything in this play that is just one thing?

Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Tragic Topography

Yesterday I was at the playhouse early, helping Joanne to set light levels on the newly painted set. As she often pointed out, the two of us were frighteningly sympatico, and usually, when I made a lighting suggestion, she'd already made a note to that same effect. We got everything done before noon, apart from some bits of the storm and the last two scenes of the play. She finished the latter bit up during our run-through, and everything looks great. The storm will, unsurprisingly, be the last component to come together.

Because of the lighting work, the actors still had to do their run-through up in the rehearsal hall (it's never a good thing when you get an unexpected blackout in the middle of a swordfight). This was the last out-of-venue run; on Monday, we storm the set (yeah, pun intended). I think we're in excellent shape. Everyone seems very comfortable with their lines and blocking, and that's essential for the transition we're about to make. If you don't know your blocking very well before you move into the space, then it usually mutates beyond recognition by opening night.

My general note for this run was "Go big or go home." Most of the cast took me at my word (and went big, I mean. I wouldn't have let them go home, despite the implied choice). They put a lot of energy and relish into their lines, and I think they were a bit dismayed when, afterwards, I told them, "Very good. Now let's double that level again."

It's not about doing every single line at the top of your lungs, or even at the height of intensity. A good production needs a lot of peaks and valleys, and a harrowing play like this definitely needs moments when the audience can recover their breath. But when we do hit those peaks, then by the gods, they need to soar. This is not a Glastonbury Tor play--this is a Mont Blanc, a Kilimanjaro, an Everest. What I'm trying to do now is set the actors' sights on that sort of elevation; and then, if each one of them can get there once or twice in the course of a performance, they'll create the necessary topography to make the play succeed.

But, having said that...I invited a director friend whose opinion I greatly value to see the run-through, and she told me afterwards that I had everything I needed to make the play fly: a clear story filled with interesting, robust characters and many precious moments. And, of course, she saw the play without set, lights, sound, or costumes. So it's nice to think that, no matter what occurs during the final week of rehearsals, we definitely have a show on our hands.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Poster

The photo is by Tyler Bindon.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

On Your Feet, Soldiers

First run-through tonight. We ran very long, mostly due to dropped cues. But it's nothing that can't be fixed by an Italian or two (or three, or five). I asked the cast to spend this run very actively watching and listening and communicating onstage, and I think they took that to heart: the strongest scenes were certainly the ones where the relationships between characters came immediately to the forefront.

Meanwhile, the set has been erected, and although much of the styrofoam "cliffs" remain whiter than Dover, the parts that have been painted look astounding. The first coat of paint went down on the floor today as well. It looks...well, grey. Hard to know how stage floors will end up looking, though; once they get hit by stage lights, everything changes, and my colour sense is lousy on the best of days.

Most exciting is the slow addition of costume bits. Our dress run is scheduled for Monday night (four days--eep!), and I think it will probably be a real awakening for much of the cast. Once you have costumes, you have a world to inhabit. Of course, you also have the rigours of quick changes and set snags and trying to sort out whose damn sash is whose...but unless you're doing naked Hamlet, that's all inevitable; and I tend to see it as part of the fun.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I went to tonight's rehearsal feeling pessimistic--and more than a little sick. But by the end of the evening, both my spirits and my health had improved. We started with a brief primer on stage makeup, courtesy of Anna-Maria, and then plowed into a stop/start run of Acts 3 and 4. A bit surprisingly, it turned out to run much more smoothly than the first half did. There were one or two momentary scares (such as the pike that tried to decaptitate Igor--man, I knew those pointed sticks were a bad idea!), but people found their entrances and made their journeys clear.

Even 4.5 ran pretty darn well, all things considered. The dead body portage might just work after all. Once the run was through, Dale, Keiran, A.M. and I worked on 4.3, the reconciliation scene. Dale had made the discovery that Lear's awakening was not at all a gentle thing, but rather something confusing and frightening. We tried it with Lear recoiling from Cordelia's face in horror, pressing himself against Kent's legs, trying to escape what he thinks must be a hallucination, or a spirit come to torment him. I told him to scream as he pushed himself away. It's turning out to be a very screamy couple of acts--but if every scream, like every movement, means something to the audience, then it won't seem gratuitous.

Bodies and Blades

Rehearsals are all all-calls from here on in. We're finished with scene work--if I had any intention of doing any more fine-tuning, the boat has sailed. It's up to the actors now, to keep exploring and experimenting as we race towards opening night.

Last night we started by blocking the curtain call. Then I gave a brief outline of the next week and a half, explaining that, once tech begins in earnest (this Friday), the actors will find themselves consigned to lower positions in the theatrical hierarchy ("meat props" was Max's expression) while the designers sort out their technical issues. It's often during this time that tensions run highest, not only because of the proximity of opening night, but because actors (fragile and beautiful things that they are) get nervous when attention isn't focused upon them. I'm hoping that my cast will keep their heads, and make the week a productive one by working through their various challenges and issues on their own time.

Once that was said, we plunged into 4.5. It was slow going. Keiran wasn't available, so we couldn't work the final beat of the scene (between Kent and the Fool). That means, I guess, that it will be a surprise even for me. Brittany was unwell, and Allan tripped on a sword at one point (both he and the sword are still intact, thank goodness).

But even if these had not been the case, it would have been a frustrating night. Ideally, the last scene of this incredible play should be twice as incredible as anything that comes before it; it should be the last, breathtaking blast of heartwrenching beauty and tragedy. What it was last night was a lot of blades strewn across a stage, and a lot of actors struggling to carry other actors here and there. In other words, a very awkward, mechanical scene. Nobody had the energy to act much, and I certainly didn't have the energy to inspire them.

Very frustrating, to be heading into run-throughs with no clear sense of how the play will conclude. I can feel the moments slipping through my fingers. I must have faith that, if I cannot catch them, the actors may be able to recover them without me. Although I joke about their diminishing importance, at this point, it's really more their play than mine.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Lear vs. Storm, Lear vs. Lear

More thoughts about Lear and the storm. One idea which Dale
raised on Saturday involved Lear's privileged relationship to
nature & god, and the final betrayal he felt when he realized that
even god was against him now. I still like the idea, but I wasn't sure
how well it would play to an audience for whom the "divine right of
kings" is a meaningless archaism.

But then I was reading some descriptions of past productions of
Lear (something I do when I start to get desperate), looking for
clues or other approaches. I read this piece of commentary and
something seemed to click.

"The quality of Lear's resistance in this unfair contention--unfair
because he mistakes his antagonist and wastes his force on the
assault of the elements while suffering ambush from within--is
determined by his design in the total action."

It's that middle bit that intrigued me. What if the storm is really a red
herring? Lear seems to have a habit of blaming the wrong party,
especially as a form of self-denial.

Dale has started to find ways to explore the fear and loss of control that
underpins Lear's wrath. Perhaps the key to the storm scene is not the
rage, but the fear of madness. Look at his second passage:

Rumble thy bellyfull! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
(seems like a continuation of the last angry volley. But maybe something is
already changing here...)

Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters.
(a rare moment of dissociative clarity. He knows that he's angry at the wrong

I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription...
(The subtext: "Why, then, am I screaming at you like a bloody lunatic?")

Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.
(I've given everything away; I've lost my mind and my strength; and no one is
coming to save me. I'm going to die out here.)

This also informs your next line: "No, I will be the pattern of all patience. I
will say nothing." The "no" doesn't seem to be responding to anything the Fool
has said (or sung). Maybe he's responding to his own internal rage (not
unlike earlier: "Down, down" and "Patience" etc.). Maybe the fight has shifted
altogether, from Lear vs. Storm to Lear vs. Lear.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

We're Not Barbarians!

Today was the first of this week's many hectic all-call rehearsals. 17 out of 18 actors were on time and ready to go; hurrah! You guys rock. We warmed up, then ran through the fights, and then plunged into a stop/start run of Acts 1 and 2. This is where the actors try their best to concentrate on their lines and blocking while their director is yelling "STOP!" every few seconds, and adding new material to their increasingly full plates.

It went well, although nerves were beginning to fray by the third hour. Most of the adjustments needed to be made in the busy scenes, especially 1.1 and 1.6. I'm trying to make choices that will simplify at this point--repetitive blocking for minor characters, or simply gettin' 'em offstage early. Transitions, which are a big deal with Shakespeare plays, are rough, but I'm not worried about them; in the time we have, I think we can get them flowing smoothly. Ditto with cues.

For the last hour of rehearsal, we worked the blinding. I've asked Anna-Maria to whip up some stage blood for this, but while we wait for that, we tightened up the violence. Andrew G. says we need to think of the entire scene as a fight sequence, with increasing speed and tension, and with the precise attention to detail that fights demand from actors.

One thing that really made a difference today was the addition of sounds. Like the battle we worked the other night, this sequence involves a lot of poking and stabbing and slicing, and usually, when people receive those sorts of wounds, they make noises. So Peter went from his initial cries of outrage (as in, "Hey! Watch the thumbs, buddy! Some of us need our eyes, you know!") to harrowing cries of fear and pain (as in...well, as in, "All dark and comfortless"). Ron, the walking foley artist, had no trouble shouting and grunting and coughing his way through Cornwall's death. Now we just need Kassia (the Servant) to give a cathartic, ear-punishing shriek when she gets disembowled, and we'll have ourselves a peach of a scene.

And yes, it's really as grotesque as it sounds. We have violence warnings on the posters. What did you expect? It's a tragedy.

Andrew G., observing the chair which Gloster sits in when interrogated and tortured: It's very nice of you guys to give the guy you're blinding a nice cushion to sit on.
Ron S.: Hey, we're not barbarians.

This Is Not Lear

Yesterday was another non-day off for me; two hours of monologue work with Dale, and then some read-throughs of scripts which Walterdale is developing for our Evening of One Acts in May. Dale seemed off-kilter with his speeches, and he finally confessed that our recent work on 2.1 ("O reason not the need"), and our earlier work on the storm scenes had left him unsure of a lot of things regarding Lear's characterization. He's certainly got the hang of yelling at his daughters, and I think he understands that it is meant to be uncomfortable...but he didn't know where all that rage was supposed to go once he got into Act 2. "When I'm yelling at the storm," he said, "It just feels like I'm shouting up at the grid. It feels silly."

I pointed out that he still hasn't "met" his partner in this scene (Mark is supposed to bring in the storm sounds this week). But I suggested that part of the problem he was facing was distinguishing "the real Lear" from the character he has now become adept at portraying. Has Lear always been this selfish, this unstable? Regan says "He hath ever but slenderly known himself," but can we take her word for it? As I told Dale, "A character who is unpleasant and out of control right from the beginning doesn't interest me. But somebody who turns into that character is much more intriguing."

In other words, the raging "dragon" isn't the real Lear; it's "Lear's shadow," and even Lear himself must recognize it at some level. He sees himself losing control, he opens his mouth and hears all this venomous bile pour out, and his helplessness is terrifying to him. The challenge for Dale, as I explained it to him, is to find a way to show the audience that the real Lear, the human Lear, is still in there. The actor's challenge is to play both Lears at once--the violent and vituperative dragon and the scared and helpless child.

Amazingly, as early as this afternoon, Dale has started to experiment with this. When he's yelling at Goneril and Regan in 2.1, his voice is still angry, but he chokes himself off more often; and his body language is no longer aggressive, but more restrained, as if his hands are trying to find some sort of purchase as he's swept about inside his own mental storm.

And that's really the key, I think, to making the storm scenes work: the understanding that, for Lear, the storm starts several scenes earlier than it does for anyone else. He has already spent several scenes listening to peals of thunder, and fearing for his health; it's simply that the thunder has been issuing from him.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Bloody, Bloody Battle

"This scene isn't even in the play," was my fight director's comment as we assembled to finalize the choreography for 4.4, "The Battle." He was partly right; there is a scene in Lear that corresponds to it, and the dialogue is pretty much unchanged. Edgar and Gloster come on, and Edgar tells his blind poppa:

Here Father, take the shadow of this Tree
For your good host: pray that the right may thrive:
If ever I return to you again,
I’ll bring you comfort.

Then the battle takes place, after which Edgar re-enters to inform Dad that:

Away old man, give me thy hand, away!
King Lear hath lost, he and’s Daughter taken.
Give me thy hand: Come on.

The only thing I've effectively changed is the nature of the stage direction which comes between these two segments. In the original, it just says "Alarum and retreat within." In other words, the battle occurs off-stage, and is signified only by noises. At the start of last night's rehearsal, I thought this was a cheat--an easy way out that no self-respecting director ought to take.

Three and a half hours later, I was inclined to agree with Shakespeare. Battles are for backstage, not onstage. Which is not to say it did not go well. I gave all the combatants (Edmund, Albany, France, the English Captain, one French soldier and Gargrave, Lear's last knight) sashes to tie around their waists, as a sort of badge of office. I counted off the beats which, in the production, will be indicated by pulsing spotlights, illuminating tableaux and brief skirmishes between various combatants. Andrew swooped in regularly to adjust the fights, while I distributed advice on how to die effectively. By the end of the night, it looked great, and sounded even better: lots of shouts and howls and death rattles, with Ron's Captain chuckling maliciously as he cleaned his blade on Gargrave's tunic. I think it will do all the things I need it to do: punch up the energy as we near the end of the play, and illustrate the horrors of war that Goneril, Regan, and Edmund have brought down on England.

None the less, I couldn't help wondering if the time would have been better spent on scenes that Shakespeare actually had a hand in. All in all, the battle will last about two and a half minutes when performed--that means (I think) that we rehearsed each minute for 1.4 hours last night.

Ah, well. Counting up opportunity cost at this point in the process is a waste of even more time. We're definitely in high gear now, with tech week eight days away. What gets polished, gets polished; whatever doesn't get finalized will be left to the actors. And it's better, in nearly all respects, to let the actors flounder through a speech or two than fumble their way through anything involving swords and pointed sticks.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Tantrum

More multi-tasking at the start of tonight's rehearsal. First, we tested the stocks. The barrel upon which Kent is standing needs to be stabilized, but the manacles seem to work. I also checked in briefly with Andrew, Max and Gino before they launched into their three hour swordfight marathon. Then it was upstairs to work on 2.1, which I originally titled "The Rage" but which I now realize is more accurately called "The Tantrum."

Lear sees that Kent has been stocked. He throws a fit. Regan tries to calm him down, and he starts spouting venom about Goneril. Then Goneril enters, and Lear starts yelling at both daughters. By the end of the scene, he's pretty must just yelling at the sky. He almost cries. He runs off into the storm, leaving a lot of characters standing uncomfortably on stage.

Discomfort is, in fact, the key to the whole scene. Nobody likes to see an old man lose his cool, and it's even more unpleasant when he is (or used to be) your king. Lear knows he's making a fool of himself, but he can't seem to stop it. In fact, as I described it to Dale, he has reached a point where, whenever he opens his mouth, he has no idea what sort of bile is going to pour out. I told Brittany and Beverly that the best way to deal with this sort of tantrum is to give him nothing--no energy, no openings, no excuse to keep going.

The scene was hard to work. First of all, it involves a lot of characters standing around for a long time, and I always feel a bit guilty about making actors give up their evenings to that sort of task. Secondly, the three principals were not totally off-book for this scene, so it was slow going, with a lot of frustrated repetitions of "Line!" I'm just thankful we haven't run into more scenes like that; it's actually rather astounding at how much of the play these guys seem to know. But this scene still needs work, and everybody sensed it.

Oddly enough, though, when you're doing a scene about discomfort, and you end up feeling uncomfortable because you can't recall your lines...well, it's not exactly method acting, but I guess it could be worse.

I could say more about the scene, about its weird spikes and drops of tension, but I'm too tired. Tomorrow we have to get that great big battle sorted out...and then on Sunday, we're running Act 1 and 2...and by next Tuesday, we're into all-calls. I think things are going well, I know things are going well...and yet, I find myself thinking about the Fool's advice to Kent: "Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it."

A Comedy of Terrors

The title for this post came from Peter, who was commenting on the unlikely resurgence of humour which seems to have arisen in Act 4, and particularly 4.1, the "Cliffs of Dover" scene.

Okay, I admit; it's mostly my fault. I knew right from the start that I wanted to be on the lookout for any and all opportunities to lighten the mood in this generally bleak (and sometimes downright nihilistic) play. Having read about the unexpected laughter which issued from audiences at the recent Globe production of Lear (2001), I felt justified in looking at the play as a tragedy with dark comic undertones. And, as the director, I was within my rights to nudge those undertones a little closer to the surface now and then.

Hence my bawdy opening sequence, with Gloster and Kent discovering Edmund in flagrante with a maidservant behind Lear's throne. And hence the soldiers who show up to collect Lear in 4.1 (who developed more than a hint of Three Stooges as we blocked their schtick). Some actors have helped a lot. Dale improvised a delightful little bit for Lear in Act 3, when he awakes and follows an imaginary butterfly off-stage. That isn't even black comedy, although the humour does arise from Lear's insanity, I guess. More importantly, it doesn't feel black, and because of its lightness it almost seems sublime.

However, the character who has been forced to adopt the red nose the most often has been Gloster. Peter has borne my suggestions for comedy like a trooper, acknowledging that, yes, certainly, at the beginning of the play, Gloster comes across as a lech and a gull. But I think Peter hoped that, once Gloster's story took its tragic turn (ie. the blinding), I would keep it in that vein. Making fun of the recently blinded Gloster is dark fun indeed. When I tried to turn the scuffle between Edgar and Oswald (in 4.1) into slapstick by having Gloster wander blindly into the fray, the choreography itself seemed resistant (we found a way to make it work, but I don't know if it's going to get a laugh).

Anyway, last night, we were working on Gloster's suicide attempt. Edgar has deceived the blind man into thinking he is at the top of a cliff, and when Gloster hurls himself forward and meets only the level ground, Edgar then pretends to be a passerby at the foot of the cliff. "Ten masts at each would not make up the distance / Which you have perpendicularly fell," he tells Gloster, concluding that "Your life's a miracle" and encouraging the blind man to accept his lot in life.

While finalizing the blocking for this sequence, I was fighting two contradictory urges. I wanted to make Gloster's character arc clear, and this was obviously a key moment--a 180 degree reversal from suicidal ideation to "my life's a miracle." I think the moment is also thematically crucial, for it is the point at which Edgar is able to share his own personal discoveries about empathy, and the value of perseverence in the face of pain.

But, for all that, I couldn't seem to escape from the absurdity of the whole thing. Gloster thinks he's leaping off a cliff, when really he's dropping from his knees onto his chest--less than three feet. It looked funny. I gave Peter a blanket, asked him to lift it up before the "leap" and then let it settle over him. It gave the "plunge" a bit more gravity (no pun intended). Then I noticed that the blanket seemed to settle over his head--even better, I thought. It looks like a shroud.

Then along comes Edgar. "Sir, what are you, Sir?" He asks, and very naturally, Max pulled the blanket back to expose Peter's head. Gloster's next line is, "Away, and let me die." How do you dramatize this impulse, I wondered? Well, if I were Gloster, I would probably want to shut out Edgar altogether, along with the cold air on my face, and all other signs of life. So I suggested that, on that line, Peter try to tug the blanket back over his head.

I could tell from Peter's reaction that I had gone too far--that a gesture like that would almost certainly solicit laughter, and deflate the moment. But he tried it, and he found a way to make it work for him--playing Gloster's frustration and helplessness rather than sheer denial. But now the whole thing has left me wondering: what is the purpose of humour in a play like this? Are we laughing the characters or with them?

I'd like to think that, whereas the audience laughs mockingly at Gloster in 1.1 while he boasts about his infidelities or gets sucked into Edmund's plots, the audience finds occasion to laugh with Gloster in 4.1--and it has to be a bitter laughter, because they were there when he was blinded, and they know what he's been through. Perhaps you reach a certain point, a nadir, after which there's nothing you can do but laugh. Perhaps the audience can give Gloster the cathartic chuckle that he needs to move through his own pain, and come out the other side.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. With this sort of stuff, there's just no way to know how it will play until there's an audience to play it to. And they will probably react differently from night to night. It's partly why this stage of rehearsals is so frustrating; we know we're not quite ready to face the public yet; but I'm sort of running out of things to fix.

Monday, January 09, 2006

A Knight to Remember

Back into scene work tonight. One of the scenes I most regretted not having blocked before the break was 1.3--"The Knights," I call it, although they only occupy the stage for the first half of it. But their presence is still felt, since Lear and Goneril argue about the Knights' behaviour, and Goneril unilaterally dismisses half of Lear's entourage (can she do that?). Most of the Lear/Goneril stuff got blocked, as did the Lear/Kent/Oswald scrap near the top of the scene...but substantial gaps were still in evidence during yesterday's stumble though, as I watched one or two disoriented knights stand blinking upstage, wondering if Lear was yelling at them? Or was he just yelling...?

As I choreographed the chaos, two things occurred to me. The first was, "man, this show has a lot of blocking." That's what happens, I suppose, when you have so many actors; but it's more than that. Back in August, I set out to create a system whereby the show could block itself--and, more importantly, where the actors could find their blocking organically and naturally by relating their own status to that of other characters onstage. It didn't work--I think I chickened out, to be honest, but the few times I did try it, it usually just ended up being halting and repetitive. If Lear's world is a world out of balance, then it requires a lot of shifting to reflect that. And it can be hectic shifting, it can be chaotic overall, but the individual movements of each actor needs to be precise in order to create the effect of chaos. And that equals blocking. Damn it. I just wish I could be spending all this crucial time on lines and characterization, instead of "Stand here. Move here."

But as I was bossing my knights around, a second discovery occurred, and this one made me feel a bit better. I told the four actors who were playing the knights (some of whom are among the least experienced in the cast) that Lear's knights were more like his buddies than his servants. They could afford to be unrestrained--and, indeed, Goneril describes them as "disorder'd and debosh'd." With that in mind, I let them invent some upstage business of their own, to fill the space between their (meticulously blocked) entrances and exits. Delightfully, they took this idea and ran with it. The freedom to ham it up a bit, to relax and goof off, and to let that goofiness become an organic part of the play, really seemed to energize the scene--in fact, it was the component that added the chaos and disorder that my careful blocking had very nearly eliminated altogether.

So blocking is good, but so is giving the actors some latitude.

Other good things happened, including some great bits between Goneril/Albany and Lear/Fool. And I also checked in to see that the set is coming along much faster now (phew). Even the stocks are almost complete--the manacles that will bind Kent's arms hang menacingly over centre stage, like a sword of Damocles.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

"I Stumbled When I Saw"

If I had to pick the two words most feared by actors, it would be a close race between "off book" and "stumble through." Scariest of all is the fact that the two phrases often arrive at the same time. My cast were asked to be off-book last Monday, when we returned from the holidays. For the most part, they were; but Helen and I were willing to overlook the occasional script in the occasional hand. This afternoon, we had our first stumble through of the entire play, and it was also the day when Helen laid down the law and told the actors to leave their scripts behind.

It went very well. With some shows, it's like kicking baby birds out of the nest before their ready to fly, and it's an agonizing process, sitting helplessly in the house and watching them plummet. But this cast was ready. They called "line" a lot, but not so much that they got frustrated with themselves. The blocking was also fuzzy, mostly in the scenes which we were never able to work adequately before Christmas. But they stumbled along, which is what stumble throughs are all about. The important thing is not getting every bit of blocking; the important part is reaffirming within their frightened little baby-bird souls that they have a show, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; and if they just put a few more weeks' worth of work into it, then it will be something spectacular.

Now for the less heartening news; our production meeting confirmed that set construction is about a week behind schedule. This is will also, by necessity, put painting behind schedule; and then we will have a very, very tight window of time in which to prevent lights, sound, and, ultimately, the actors behind schedule. For me, as director, it all comes down to the actors. I certainly want all the other components of the show to look and sound as good as possible, and they all take time, and it was foolish to expect that everything would end up finished right on schedule.

But there's a domino effect here. If the actors don't have the opportunity to work on the actual stage, with the actual lights, and sounds, and costumes, and props, then in their minds, they aren't really doing the show at all. When you drop a big, complex show onto the set one or two days before opening night, the actors will still be adjusting--and not just physically adjusting, but psychologically adjusting, still convincing themselves that they are really in the Lear World, so that they can turn around and convince the audience of the same thing.

In respect of which, I'm glad that outside circumstances helped to get us into the theatre for today's stumble through. Even though we're going back up to the rehearsal hall for the next week (or two ... or two and a half), they all got a chance to see the (half-completed) space, to move around in it, to create it for a few hours. Hopefully, they'll carry that memory inside them, and it will serve to help them adjust more rapidly when we get to move downstairs again.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

"Day Off"

Not really a day off. Melissa was sewing up a storm all day long, and I was down in the theatre with John, Doug, and several hardy volunteers, working on props and set pieces. I'm hardly handy, so I wasn't able to be of very much assistance (in fact, I managed to staple gun my hand). But it looked as though John was able to make some progress in spite of my ineptitutde, which is great, considering I'm stealing the theatre space from him tomorrow to do a stumble-through.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Gear Change!

Things are happening quickly now. Last night we had a power-combo rehearsal: costume fittings and fight work, with some line runs to fill in the cracks. Melissa's costume horde is shaping up; I particularly like the red coats she's created for Edgar and Edmund, and I'm looking forward to seeing the other bits she's planning to build. She was in need of black fabric for Regan & Goneril's dresses, so I convinced our Technical Director to part with a few of our old black drapes. Very nice fabric.

So that's under way, although M. and I both admit there's a long way to go. Fights are also in fairly good shape. We didn't get a chance to work through all of them, on account of several absent actors. Although some absences have been more than justified, it seems as though there is a strain of truancy at the moment which has forced me to revise our schedule for the next couple of weeks. Maybe my mistake was in starting up so quickly after New Year's.

Well, there's nothing to be done about it now. This is the stage of rehearsals I enjoy the least. In a week or so, we will all be in high gear, and things will be moving quickly and (I hope) efficiently towards our tech and opening. But right now, we're in the gear shift; the machinery is straining to push ahead, and everyone is adjusting differently to the swifter pace and the multi-tasking which this sort of show demands. I expect we will have at least a few more cases of whiplash before the weekend is out.

At least one "good" thing has come out of the chaos. Fixating on an off-hand joke at last night's rehearsal, our fight director has announced his intention to create and produce a musical stage version of Disney's classic CGI anthopomorphic masterpiece, Tron. I expect we'll run for 1 1/2 nights, before the Disney lawyers shut us down. Everyone's invited.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Pointy Sticks and Emendations

Today we revisited 2.7, the "Trial" scene, which is now officially the most (perhaps the only) over-rehearsed scene in the play. When the only note I can think to give is "Act more exhausted," I think I've said my piece.

Then it was on to 3.4, a scene I fabricated in which Kent and Gargrave get "captured" by France's army, and reunited with Cordelia. Short and sweet, with a nice bit of pole arm blocking in the middle. Walterdale has some lovely pikes in props storage, so I figured we might as well use them. They certainly look more menacing than swords (still waiting for swords...).

We briefly visited Lear's monologue at the top of 4.5 ("Come, let's away to prison..."), and found a much nicer way to block it (before we had Lear standing behind Cordelia and pointing over her shoulder towards an invisible "prison" space out in the audience somewhere; now he sits her down on the stage (in front of Edmund and some shocked soldiers) and creates their blissful isolation right there and then. It's got a lovely intimacy--and a heart-breaking poignancy, if you happen to know that this will be their last few minutes on earth.

Then there's 4.3, the "reconciliation" scene, where Lear wakes up ("You do me wrong to take me out of the grave"), recognizes Cordelia ("Thou art a soul in bliss..."), and she forgives him ("No cause, no cause"). This scene was a maudlin masterpiece in the Victorian era; Lear would be carried on in a raised chair, awoken to soft music, and would touch and even taste Cordelia's tears to confirm their corporeality.

Our scene is very much the rough 'n' ready version: Lear is flat out on some blankets on the stage floor (one of them is actually a curtain--very Gone With the Wind), and only has Cordelia's kiss to awaken him. No attendants, aside from Kent and France--and I have them keeping their distance, letting Cordelia do the work. I honestly don't know if it will have the emotional effect it ought to have, but I feel as though I don't have any resources to help improve it. I really do think it ultimately comes down to Dale and Anna-Maria; once they're comfortably off-book, I think it will start to shine.

Before we left, Anna-Maria lobbied to have one half-line reinserted into 1.1:

Good my Lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me;
I return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you--
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say they love you all?
Haply, when I shall wed, that Lord whose hand
Must take my plight, shall carry half my love with him,
Half my care and duty. Sure I shall never
Marry like my sisters.

To the end of this, the Quarto version of Lear adds the half-line, "To love my father all." It's not in the Folio, but nearly all modern versions include it. It certainly does a good job of rounding out the line, since it balances out the earlier repetitions of "half."

My reasons for not including this half-line go all the way back to May. I had Cordelia's psychology all worked out, and then along came Anna-Maria, shrewd and observant and totally self-sufficient. She had Cordelia figured out at a very early stage, and when she happened to be reading through various editions of the play over Christmas, she came upon this extra line which fit much better into her characterization than it did into mine. As she explained it, "To love my father all" is a final jab at the two sisters, but it's also the straw which breaks Lear's back, and provokes his extreme reaction.

She makes a good point. It's certainly less ambiguous, and in a play like Lear, that can never be a bad thing. It just goes to show you that the first ideas are not always the ones you keep.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Lipsbury Pinfoldin'

Mostly worked 1.6 today--the scene where Kent attacks Oswald (which one?) and then gets his own butt Lipsbury Pinfolded into the stocks by Swiss Cheese Brain Man (aka Cornwall). As you can tell, it was a pretty goofy rehearsal, with everyone in good humour (and, again, remarkably off-book. These guys rock).

We were missing a couple of key players tonight, so we couldn't work some of the other scenes I'd hoped to get around to. Unfortunately, the more that happens this week, the less likely it becomes that we're ever going to get a chance to focus on them in isolation. From here on in, it's runs, runs, runs. Luckily, I also expect the cast is going to be pretty good at thinking on their feet. I'd just rather not put them through that.

Had a sound meeting with Mark. Lots of thunderclaps and surreal ominous soundscapes. And I talked a bit with John and Christienne about the set. Sounds like John could use a few knowledgeable helpers this week and next while the set comes together. Handymen (and women), step forward!