Now I know why.
Soon after Rob and I first started talking seriously about Heathers, he presented me with an undeniably cool set design. I quickly approved it. Cool floor plan and a very cool look from the front too.
That is, if there were a front.
So I started blocking the show, and holy shit, is it hard to block on a triangle! It's essentially the same as blocking in-the-round, because unless the actor is pretty far (what we're calling) upstage, they have to play close to 360 degrees around. When they're upstage, it's more like 180.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. Okay, I am complaining, but I wouldn't want Rob to change a thing. Like I said, it's a very cool set.
There were two very difficult things about blocking on this set design. First, there are sometimes sixteen people onstage, and it's hard keeping them out of the audience's sightlines so they can see the focus of the scene. Also, actors instinctively want to play down-center (the front and middle of the stage), and that won't work this time. There really isn't a down-center (even though we've been calling it that) because the stage isn't symmetrical, and if an actor does stand there and play full-front, he will be singing into an aisle. I'm sure I'll be reminding the cast about this up till we open.
Luckily, I have staged shows in the round before, so I have that vocabulary. Before I directed my first in-the-round show, I called Steve Woolf at The Rep, and asked if I could come pick his brain. So I sat in his office and said, "Okay, how the hell do you direct in the round?" He gave me two incredibly helpful tips. First, the actors can rarely stand still for long – that's very different from my usual directing style. Second, Steve told me that as director I should never sit in the same seat twice during rehearsals, because the actors will want to play to the live person in the room, and if the director always sits in the same place in the house, the show will start to aim in that direction.
Both pieces of advice have served me well.
One thing I keep saying to soloists in the show, which I know is driving them crazy, is "You gotta share!" Most theatre people call it "cheating out" when an actor places her body sort of facing the other actor on stage and sort of facing the audience. The idea is for the actor to look like they're in the conversation onstage, but also "presenting" their performance to the audience. I've never understood why that is "cheating," as if there's something wrong with this practical accommodation. I call it "sharing," because that's what it is.
But in this case, with our Heathers set, an actor has to share way more widely than usual, and it feels really unnatural at first. But everyone in the show is getting used to it now.
I know that there will inevitably be certain moments that not everyone in the house will see equally well. That's just the nature of the beast. I can accept that. And from now on, we'll be rehearsing in the theatre, on our actual set, so many of these weirdnesses will be much less weird once we move in. In rehearsal, our "down-center" was in the front and middle of the rehearsal room, so maybe it's not a surprise that actors wanted to play down-center. In the theatre, that faux "down-center" is actually the corner of the room, so I don't think the actors will be as drawn to that spot...
The good news is the show itself is in great shape, and this amazing cast is working their collective ass off. Characters are coming along nicely, the vocals sound beautiful, and there are wonderful moments already of great hilarity, deep emotion, serious creepiness, and some awesome surprises. We're taking the show much more seriously than the off Broadway production did, and the result is that the funny stuff is much funnier, and the emotional stuff is really powerful.
This show deserves our respect and we will deliver on that.
We'll figure out all the various challenges pretty easily I think, both the practical ones and the more conceptual ones. The next step in our process is my favorite. We just run the show now, shape it, polish it, focus it. My favorite thing is when I suggest a tiny change to an actor, and then the next time we get to that moment, the whole rooms busts up laughing. It's often the smallest detail that makes a joke land or not, that makes a moment powerful or not. My job is to fine-tune all those small but important details, while the actors work on the inner lives of these characters.
At last, I'm going to get a look at what we've created so far, I can assess where we're succeeding and where we're not, and we can whip this beautiful, clever, original musical into shape. I can't wait to share Heathers with an audience. As with Bat Boy, we're going to have them laughing out loud one moment, and wiping away a tear the next. I love this writing!
The adventure continues...
Long Live the Musical!