So much of the director’s art lies in his or her way of being in the rehearsal room. That cliché about “making the weather” has always seemed to me a really apt description of what a director is tasked with doing. Because in theater, moreso than any other artform I think, collaboration isn’t just a means of making the work, it is, in a real way the work itself. Even the strongest, smartest, most creative, most visionary director cannot muscle a piece of theater into being on their own. Even the most domineering auteur relies on the creative energies of their ensemble and designers to realize their vision.
Creativity and collaboration are finicky beasts. They can only thrive in the proper environment. Defining, creating, nurturing and preserving that environment is the director’s number one job.
That’s also why I find assisting to be such a valuable and fulfilling experience. Since so much of what a director does lies in how he or she does it, there is only so much you can learn about directing by watching a finished product or taking a class or reading an interview or having a conversation. To really understand how another director works, you have to be in the room to see, hear, and most importantly feel the work happening.
The reason all this is on my mind is because of a seemingly small but actually profound thing I witnessed today as director (and Drama League alum) Daniela Varon’s assistant on the first American production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet at Shakespeare & Company.
Red Velvet is a brilliant, gorgeous, powerful play. It tells (a portion of) the story of Ira Aldridge, the great 19th century tragedian who, in 1833 became the first (and only for more than a century) black actor to portray Othello on the professional London stage. It’s a play about race, about pride, about ambition, about prejudice and tribalism and about the way fear of change and small-minded complacency can sometimes be even more corrosive than outright racism. It’s also a love letter to the craft of acting and a tribute to a great actor who was a trailblazer not only because of the color of his skin but also because of the way he infused the formalized presentational acting styles of the 19th century with an unprecedented level of truth, dynamism and immediacy.
And it’s a complete bear to produce. It features a cast of 8, playing 12 different characters, in two languages and 8 dialects, in two distinct historical periods and settings (1833 London and 1867 Poland), several scenes from Othello performed in full 19th century style, and, in our production will feature six choreographed scene transitions, a custom-built set of wireless footlights, several key rigging elements and constant tricks of staging to allow the wide proscenium stage of London’s Covent Garden Theatre to come to life on the deep thrust stage of Shakespeare & Co’s Tina Packer Playhouse.
Getting all of those elements working in concert means coordinating the schedules of 2 movement coaches, 3 dialect and speech coaches, 5 double- or triple-booked designers and 5 actors who are simultaneously performing in Comedy of Errors. Add in the fact that Red Velvet is the last production of Shakespeare & Co’s mainstage season to open (meaning that a whole summer’s worth of scheduling snafus, time overruns, unforeseen production issues and budgetary surprises all trickle down onto us) and you have a sense of the intense pressure to squeeze out maximum value from every second of rehearsal.
That was especially true of today’s rehearsal – one of only a handful of onstage rehearsals we’re able to schedule prior to our nail-bitingly quick two and a half day tech. There was absolutely no time to waste today.
Which made the way Daniela chose to begin today’s rehearsal particularly startling, impressive and inspiring. She began the rehearsal by gathering the entire ensemble (including not just the cast but also the stage management team, a visiting designer, an understudy sitting in to observe and myself) to join her in a circle onstage so that she could welcome us all into the space. She briefly, calmly, smilingly laid out our goals and plans for the day and then invited all of us to take five minutes to explore the stage, to get used to it, to take ownership of the space. She noted that some of us (like lead actor John Douglas Thompson) had performed on the stage countless times, some (the 5 actors repping with Comedy of Errors) had spent the past month working on the stage (on a show whose energy, aesthetic, tone and tempo could not be farther away from Red Velvet), and some of us (including two cast members, myself, and an ASM) were setting foot on the stage of the Packer Playhouse for the first time. She made the time and space for all of us to experience the space with fresh eyes, to absorb its energy, internalize a sense of its sightlines, and soak up the magical intimacy the designers of the playhouse managed to create between the stage and every one of its 400 seats.
Considering all of the pressure we were feeling today, Daniela could easily have decided time was too precious to spend ten minutes on an exercise of this sort. We could have hit the ground running and never looked back, sprinting our way through all six hours. But all that would have done was put the time pressure we were under squarely in front of everyone’s eyes so that we could see nothing but the ticking clock. We might have worked more pages that way, but nowhere near as deeply, nowhere near as effectively.
Instead, the tone established in the room in those first ten minutes carried throughout the day’s rehearsal. All it took was ten minutes to make the weather.