Marco Ramirez’s The Royale takes place in 1900’s America. Jay Jackson, the Negro Heavyweight Champion, wants to win the World Heavyweight crown from its current holder, a white guy named Bernard Bixby. Since it’s 1900’s America, he faces some significant obstacles, the greatest being his skin color. Once he succeeds in getting Bixby to fight him, the bout becomes less about his personal desire to win and more about what his victory would mean for the entire black community.
If you’re a history buff or a Ken Burns fan, this probably sounds familiar. It’s the story of legendary boxer Jack Johnson. But The Royale is not a docudrama. Marco takes some artistic liberties with the story - more than just changing a few names - and in his prefatory notes to the play, he encourages directors to take liberties with the staging:
“During the ‘fight’ sequences, both boxers should face the audience, not each other, and there is no need to swing. You’ll see.”
So I found it surprising that on our second day of rehearsal for The Royale at The Old Globe, director (and DP alum) Rachel Chavkin brought in a boxing consultant to show the cast some moves. She assured everyone she had no intention of choreographing bouts with actual physical contact, like director Alex Timbers did in Rocky. She just wanted us all to learn enough of the movement vocabulary of boxing to reference it as we staged the play. And who knows what we might discover?
For two straight hours all five cast members - even the ones who didn’t play boxers in the play - strapped on boxing gloves and sweated through their gym clothes. They learned the proper footwork. They practiced their jabs and hooks. They got to spar with the trainer. And when they weren’t getting a one-on-one tutorial, the trainer was ordering them to do wall sits, planks, and pushups. Rehearsal transformed into a mini bootcamp.
We’re now two weeks into the rehearsal process. Honestly we haven’t used a lot of what we learned from this training session. And I think that’s okay. Because something else happened on that second day of rehearsal. The five cast members sweated together in that room. They took on the physical challenges the trainer gave them. And that created a bond which they never would’ve developed just by sitting around a table and talking about the play.
This particular "extracurricular" activity made sense, considering the show’s content. Spending two hours on a boxing tutorial during rehearsals for Hedda Gabler would be silly. (Or total genius, if you really think about it.) But it made me ask myself how I might do something similar in the first week of my rehearsals. Is there some sort of physical challenge I can give my cast early on? Something that gets everyone up from the table, using their bodies, and accomplishing a task together?
When I cast a show, I’m not just finding individuals to bring life to individual roles. I’m trying to create an ensemble of creative collaborators who will offer up ideas to support my vision and who will support each other at all times. If I have to take on the role of fitness coach or personal trainer to achieve this kind of ensemble, then so be it. I will gladly accept the responsibility.