Soda Pop and Ritalin

Some actors find New Line's process disorienting, or even scary, when they join us for the first time. We're kind of a hybrid of traditional regional theatres (like the Rep), ensemble-driven theatres (like The Actors' Gang and The Acting Company), and the experimental theatres in New York in the 1960s (like Caffe Cino, Cafe LaMaMa, and others).

The real genesis of our process is Affton High School, where Judy Rethwisch gave me my first real theatre experiences. New Line's rehearsal schedule is really just an evolution of Judy's rehearsal schedule. But over the last twenty-five years, as I've talked to people, watched interviews, read books, etc., I've taken what I like from other companies and incorporated those things into our process.

At the same time, I'm always looking for ways to make our process less stressful, and I think I've done really well at that...

There are a few Big Ideas that have always guided me. The first came from actor Larry Luckinbill, who once wrote to me in a letter, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it."

Powerful, isn't it? And sort of subversive. That became the guiding principle behind New Line.

I once read in an interview that James Lapine likes to end each week of rehearsal with a full run-through, no matter where they are in the process, no matter how much of the show they've blocked, just to see where they are. I love that. I love setting the actors off on a journey of discovery that I'm not controlling much. Lapine says that often during those run-throughs they discover wonderful things that just kinda happen naturally...

Nothing's better in the theatre than happy accidents.

Another Big Idea came from an interview I saw with Hal Prince, back around the time of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He said that he thought the job of a director was first to set everybody on the right path and keep them on that path, then to let the actors do their work and create their performances, and then at the end, the director is there to edit, to make sure it's all the same fabric, to see that the storytelling is clear.

As soon as I heard this, I knew instinctually that was exactly right – and it was put in such clear, plain terms. I always keep that in my head while we work. After all, our shows are not my work; they are our work. And our work would be a whole lot less interesting if I blocked and dictated every micro-second of the show.

But that middle part, both freedom and responsibility, scares the shit out of some actors.

Some directors think directing means just staging, and the actors are left to fend for themselves when it comes to character, relationships, motivations, themes, subtext, etc. Other directors work very slowly and meticulously through every moment, working on both staging and all the interior stuff together, working it over and over, discussing it, dissecting it, repeating a scene (or even just a couple pages) till it's exactly what they want.

I fall right in the middle between these two.

I give the actors a skeleton of the show and I expect them to bring it to life. I expect them to contribute as much or more than I do. If I tell each person on stage what to do at any given moment, I will create an interesting stage picture. But if I tell everyone on stage to create their own moment, that stage picture will be twice as interesting, because it comes from the truth of all these different life experiences. The actors are not my tools and they are not my employees. They are my collaborators. We create these beautiful works of art together.

The process I've created gives me a lot of wonderful luxuries. Usually I am able to let a show percolate for months in my head before I actually have to stage it. When I'm able to do that, I end up with a better end product.

I almost always work out all the staging in advance (usually while I'm high as a kite), even though I'll discard some of it later, and our blocking rehearsals are about me showing the actors the physicality of the show, where they walk, where they stand, where the energy of the scene is directed, whether they're sharing with the audience or not, that kind of stuff. And at the same time, I give them very broad brushstrokes about acting choices, often in terms of the bigger arcs of the story, hoping to set them on the right road without handcuffing them too much.

Then we run what we've blocked a couple times. My only agenda at this point is to make sure the actors understand my staging and the big arcs of the show. While we're running these scenes, if I see an actor going down a wildly wrong road, I'll rein them in and re-direct them, but I try not to judge too many of the acting choices.

Once we've blocked the whole show, we start running the whole thing at each rehearsal. Now the actors get to do their most difficult and most rewarding work, discovering and revealing the reality of their characters and this world, making choices about how their character live in this world. And after two or three run-throughs, my co-director Mike Dowdy and I set about editing and polishing their work.

The work we do during this phase mostly falls into two categories. One part of the work is fine-tuning the physicality, particularly after we move into the theatre (we have the incredible luxury of getting two and a half weeks on our set plus one preview before we open). Sometimes, pieces of my staging really just don't work, so I come up with different solutions. Sometimes, they work but need to be subtly altered to be most effective. Sometimes, the focus of a scene can be dramatically changed by having all but one or two actors take a step upstage... Stuff like that...

For longtime readers of my blog, you've heard this before... I think the creation of comic book art is a good metaphor for the way I think about my directing work. When we're putting a show together, my first job is to do the pencil sketch. Then the actors and I ink those lines in together. The actors fill in all the color and the speech bubbles, and I do a final edit. They bring it to life. I just give them a pencil sketch...

It's when we get to the final phase of the process – where we are right now with American Idiot -- whee I start to get to see the destination I aimed us at all those weeks ago. It's the time when Dowdy and I get to help these deeply talented, smart, fearless actors give the strongest, most truthful performances they can. There are many ways we can help them do that. One benefit of having so many long-standing New Liners is that we've learned what those actors need and don't need, what will help them and what will get in their way. And that just makes the journey a little easier.

But American Idiot is really unlike any other show. I guess, in all fairness, that could be said of many New Line shows – they are all like each other in being unlike each other. Sorry about that. I'm stoned.

This is one of those shows that operates under its own rules. I think the closest we've come to a show like this before is probably Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, a genuine contemporary masterpiece in my opinion. Both shows are highly stylized, characters often existing inside and outside the story at the same time, both participating in and narrating at once. But it's also, by definition, a hybrid of rock concert and theatre; while I think the original veered more toward rock concert, we'll veer more toward theatre.

So for actors who haven't worked with us before, or who haven't done complex concept musicals with us before, some of this is a little scary. I don't want most of this show to look too polished. I don't want all the staging to be "frozen" (i.e., exactly the same every night). I don't want much of the staging to be too precise, lines too straight, unison moves too perfect. Of course, for punctuation, there are moments that should be very sharp and theatrical, but that's not the overall style of this show. We're doing our best to translate the punk rock aesthetic into musical theatre terms – without any of the limiting constraints of commercial concerns.

This show owes a lot to Hair, with its rough, ragged, intentionally amateurish vibe, but also in the use of expressionistic movement, not dance moves or steps, but movement that expresses emotion in a more visceral, abstract way. In our production, pounding on the floor expresses frustration, stomping expresses rage, a punch expresses rebellion, running expresses aimlessness, standing on chairs expresses defiance. But only, as I repeatedly remind the actors, if the intention behind those moves -- the acting -- is strong and fearless.

This is not movement primarily for the eyes; it's movement that speaks to the primal heart.

I guess my favorite thing during this part of the process is discovery. When my staging and the actor's interior work come together and reveal something about the character and the scene that we hadn't fully understood before. It's those moments when I think to myself, Goddamn, this writing is good.

So here we are. We've had three full run-throughs so far. One in the rehearsal hall, just to review the material, then the first one on stage to adjust to the space, get used to the platforms, etc. It was the third rehearsal when the show came to life. We'd given them some notes, but the actors really found the show's inner life, and we could see lights coming on all over the place.

Now the most interesting work happens. We have several run-throughs just to explore and solve problems. My favorite response to an actor who's worried about something is "We've got time." I could still say that this past week, but next week we'll be coming down the home stretch.

This is a show about finding The Real. If you saw Passing Strange, you'll know that The Real is your road, your path through life. Everybody's Real is different and you won't get to your Real if you try to take someone else's road. Our three heroes in American Idiot have to find their Real. As the story opens, all they know is that this – mainstream American culture – isn't it. But all of them get trapped on other people's roads, leading to other people's Real.

Ultimately, these guys have to grow the hell up and take control of their own journeys.

The beauty and joy of this piece of theatre is that is requires the Real from all of us. It's a piece of very authentic, heartfelt storytelling, coming from a punk tradition that values authenticity above all; and to get at its considerable truth, we all have to bring our individual Real to this story. The show is written for a cast of individuals, not "leads" and a "chorus." We realized in rehearsal there's really only one solo in the whole show. Like Rent, it's about community, but it's also about individual journeys within that community.

And it's about America. Johnny, Tunny, and Will all need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives and their choices; but I think Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer are arguing the same thing about America as a country and as a culture.

Ideas about how to tell this story clearly keep popping into my head, so I keep fine-tuning. I've already blogged about my struggle in figuring out how to stage the drug trip that is "Extra­ordinary Girl." I finally realized I wanted this scene in our production to be a freaky mashup of sexual fantasy and violent nightmare. After we had staged it with the cast, and I was pretty sure it was a good choice, it kept percolating in my head. There was still something about it that didn't totally click. It was the girl of the title. What does she show us about Tunny's mind? I remembered reading some analysis of the original Green Day album, where people speculated that the "Extra­ordinary Girl" is really America, and when you read the lyric that way, it is pretty intense. So I decided to turn the girl in his hallucination into America itself. There amidst the violence and all the freaky lighting and everything, this lyric is going to take on some powerful resonance – now it's America that "gets so sick of crying."

I'm anxious to see what our audiences think...

If history is any guide, the show will be in amazing shape by the time we open (we're in pretty great shape right now!), and we'll get a giant boost of energy when our kick-ass seven-piece rock band joins us for the last several rehearsals before we share it all with you...

The adventure continues... And so does the countdown...

Long Live the Musical!