Running Together

Well, the parts of the process that I don't like as much are over and the part I love is upon us.

I don't much like music rehearsals because (depending on the show) they can be hard work but only vaguely creative. I don't particularly like blocking (i.e., staging) rehearsals because that's the hardest work I have to do during the process, and at that point, I only get a vague idea of whether we're on the right road or not. Blocking rehearsals involve not just figuring out where everybody goes, but also how to create compelling stage pictures, how to use physicality to make things clearer, and with most of our shows, how to use staging and light and the audience's imagination to take the place of concrete set pieces. Especially with a cast this big, traffic control by itself is quite a challenge.

But that part is done and now we just run the show. Tonight we run Act II, tomorrow night we run Act I again to get it back in everyone's brain, and then all that's left is running the whole show every night. This is the fun part for me.

It's always interesting to watch the new folks working with us. We've created our own working process over the years at New Line, in some ways exactly like the Rep's process, but in other ways more like an experimental company. The best of both worlds. Depending on the show, I tend to give the actors a ton of freedom as I block the show. A few things I stage in detail, where to move, on what word, which way their body is facing and which way their head is facing. Other things, I give them a general sense of where they're coming in, what area of the stage they have to work with, and where to exit. I leave it to them to fill in the details, to let the scene "find itself" over time. That terrifies some actors, while others love it.

Some directors (including one here in town, who shall remain nameless), will stage every micro-detail, every gesture, every step, throughout the entire show. Other directors sit behind a table the whole time and barely give the actors anything at all to help them. I'm smack dab in the middle of those two extremes. Sometimes, I think a moment needs precision; other times I think the end product will be infinitely more interesting if the actors on stage find their own way organically. After all, we usually get nine full run-throughs (a huge luxury) before we open, so there is time for that organic process to work.

With some shows (The Wild Party, Evita), almost every moment is staged, almost choreographed. With other shows (Hair, Two Gents), very few things are staged precisely, because that would kill the sense of authenticity shows like these possess. bare lies in the middle. I've staged small moments and solos pretty tightly, but I've left the "rehearsal" scenes and Ivy's party largely unblocked. If we run the show a few times, and those moments I didn't block in detail aren't finding their own way, we'll stop and fix them. But usually they find their way pretty well.

One of the reasons our company is different is that I direct shows from the piano. Which means I can sorta watch what's going on (I've gotten pretty good over the last thirty years at playing and watching at the same time), but I can't watch every second. At first, I thought that was a handicap. Now I know it's part of what works so well for us -- as long as we're working with great actors. It gives the actors more time and freedom than they would otherwise have to play and experiment and find their performances, before I start nitpicking. Some actors don't much like this "unsupervised play time;" they want me telling them if what they're doing is "right" or "wrong." Others thrive on it.

Next week, our accompanist Justin Smolik will join us and take over the piano from me. Then, after a few run-throughs without my meddling, hopefully the actors will have found their collective way, and I can start to edit what they've created, making sure the stage pictures are clear, making sure the characters and relationships are being communicated clearly, and fine-tuning the many tiny little moments that largely go unnoticed but which make the world of the show come to such vivid real life.

So this is my favorite part. We can really start to get a sense of the finished product. We still have three weeks till opening, but the really hardcore creative work starts now. Woo-hoo!

Long Live the Musical!