When You're Feeling Uneasy

Every show has its challenges. And every show also has a key that unlocks it. With some shows, that key is obvious; with others, it takes some exploring to find it.

At first, I Love My Wife seemed like one of the more straight-forward pieces we've worked on, but in many ways it's really not. I've said here before that I think the show's most obvious model is Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, and Hal Prince's 70s masterpiece Company. Both shows use songs that do not grow organically out of the scenes, the way most musical theatre songs do. Instead of the songs being woven into the fabric of the storytelling, they stand outside of that fabric, commenting on the action and characters from outside the scene -- more like iron-on patches, to extend my fabric metaphor...

Figuring out how to stage songs like that has been my own biggest challenge this time. Some of the songs really need stillness, either because they're very introspective and personal, or because they're so chock full of complex lyrics barrelling at us that we have to get rid of any distractions that will keep the audience from listening closely to the words. Some of the songs need some movement, but this isn't the kind of show that needs real dance. As it is with Company (that's the original cast of Company above), any choreography needs to look like these people -- moving guys, the owner of a diner, a PR guy, housewives -- are dancing. Not trained, rehearsed actors. The movement can't be too precise or too clean. For shows like this, we don't ask our awesome choreographer Robin Berger to stage the numbers; instead I stage them with what we now affectionately call "Millerography." The image I've given the actors for the choreographed numbers is that of middle school parents performing in a benefit variety show -- a little rough, but fun, good-humored, self-aware, and doing the best they can.

For the actors, it's a weird acting tightrope to walk. They're still in character, the relationships among them remain intact, but they literally step out of the action to sing in a completely non-naturalistic context directly to the audience. They often tell us directly what they're feeling and thinking in these songs. In some cases, the songs work like Shakespearean soliloquies, as interior monologues. In other cases, these are very Brechtian commentary songs that explore the themes of the show.

But the dialogue scenes -- or "book scenes," as we call them -- also have their challenges. One of those challenges is that, like Company, much of what's actually going on between these characters is underneath the dialogue. When these characters have a conversation, what they're talking about on the surface is often not what they're really talking about -- just like it is sometimes in real life. Like Company, all the most important stuff in the story is subtextual. That can be tough for an actor to play, but it's also really fun for them because it's so meaty and complex.

The other challenge of the book scenes is the style. Just before we started rehearsal I came across this amazing quote (somehow, I always find quotes like this at exactly the moment I need them). This is from a wonderful book on directing called A Sense of Direction by William Ball.
I believe it was George S. Kaufman who maintained that for a comedy to be successful there should be sound – relentless sound – for the entire length of the play. He repeatedly required actors to make all the words butt up tightly one to another. If there were a pause of any kind Kaufman would thrust some noise into the silent space: a door would slam, a phone would ring, a cash register would clang, someone would knock at a door, slap on a table, stamp a foot, crumple a paper, shake a martini, ring a gong, fire a gun, beat a drum; or someone would cry, sigh, scream, sing, mumble, cheer, grunt, gasp, giggle, or groan. Great comedic director that he was, he realized the enormous value of the momentum gained by a relentlessly uninterrupted flow of words. And if the words had to be stopped, some other agency of sound would slap, bang or clatter to keep the comedic rhythm cracking. Then, of course, on those few occasions when he introduced a moment of silence – for a double take or for a slow burn – the effect was like a train wreck.

But I'm here to tell you, that's not as easy as it sounds...! Actors like to act in between the lines, they like to let us see the gears turning in their characters' heads. And with most shows, that can be very cool. But in this style, if a character makes a decision, we have to see that decision happen during the lines leading up to it. Reactions have to happen during lines, not after them. There's an onstage phone call in this show, and the actor can't leave the pauses you would normally expect in a phone call -- the other person's side of the call has to be compacted to almost nothing. The pacing is very similar to the very best sitcoms -- All in the Family, Barney Miller, Cheers, Friends, Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, Seinfeld, Good Times, etc.

But part of what's hard about this is that the delivery of the lines themselves can't be fast. The speed of the talking has to be normal, so that the audience can catch everything, but all pauses have to be cut out, in addition to other vocal fillers, like uh and um, and my own personal pet peeve, the "quick sigh," which a lot of actors use unconsciously to start or finish lines. This isn't farce, where everything moves fast; it's just a comedy with really intense perpetual motion. The result for the audience is the feeling of speed onstage, but they never get left behind. And on those rare occasions when we do use a pause, it will have a huge impact.

So during blocking rehearsals, as our actors run scenes, I find myself continually saying "Slow down!" and at the same time, "No pausing!" It's an unnatural style, so it's hard for them at first. And particularly this early in the process, it doesn't give them time to think about what's next, which can be disconcerting and sometimes frustrating. But I also know that if I let them play it more leisurely, they'll get into that habit and it'll be even harder later on to get the pacing the story requires. There are few things harder for an actor than breaking a habit, so I have to be careful to keep everybody on the right road.

The other challenge in this case will be holding for laughs when we finally get an audience. The actors are going to have to be tuned into our audience more than with any other show, to know when to pause that forward motion, to let the audience have the laugh and not to go on without them -- and without disrupting the flow of the show...

I don't intentionally try to choose difficult shows to produce, but I usually end up choosing them anyway, maybe just because the darker, meatier shows that appeal to my tastes are almost always the more complex, more artful shows. As I always tell the actors, if it were easy, where would the fun be?

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!