Public performance #16 was Press Night. The official opening night of the show. There are a lot of little customs and traditions associated with this very important night. One of those traditions is to give cards and gifts to cast and crew members that you have worked with during the rehearsal and preview period. My personal way forward on this idea is to write out a little card for everyone and give little tokens as well to the folks I’ve worked most closely with. On a Shakespeare play in Central Park this can be a daunting task because of the size of the cast. The last few previews I and my colleagues in the “old man’s dressing room” were silently scribbling away at note cards during our offstage moments. By the time I was done I had inscribed about 30 note cards and wrapped 4 small gifts.
I really love this particular theatre tradition because it speaks to the sense of community and familial connection that is the basis of a really good theatre ensemble. While every cast is a theatre community in itself, they are all part of a larger community of Theatre Folk who all speak the same language, share the same history, practice the same traditions. Opening night is a bonding moment. It’s a public declaration of our pride in the work we have done together, and an invitation to the fraternity of critics to witness our work and offer their opinion to the audience at large. Opening night is our collective shout to the universe, tho all the players who have gone before, and those yet to come that we have come to the stage to tell a story and it’s a damn good one.
Our press night got off to a wonderful start. Artistic Director Oskar Eustis was in attendance. Funny thing, I arrived at the Delacorte early in order to distribute the cards and gifts I had prepared, entered my dressing room and found Oskar Eustis, barefoot and shirtless, pulling on a pair of trousers that matched a jacket draped over a chair nearby. He was getting ready for press night as well. Tonight he would be making an introductory speech on stage just before the show. He greeted me warmly and we chatted about the show, the big night, the possibility of precipitation on the night. He offered some very kind compliments about my work on the show and we both agreed that this was a really great reading of the play. Oscar was finally dressed and about to leave, saying, “Sorry to have hijacked your dressing room.” I responded “No worries Oskar, you can drop trow in this dressing room any time you like!”. We laughed and he bustled off to meet with the wealthy donors who were gathered on the stage right patio sipping Sancerre and munching on grilled chicken.
After Oskar left I took a look at my dressing station and found that some of my co-workers had already been by and dropped off cards and small gifts. Our dressers had chipped in for a bottle of good vodka for the four “old men” in our dressing room. It’s great to see this tradition carried on. I distributed my cards and gifts. One gift was a cork screw for a co-worker who had asked to borrow one from me on our first day at the Delacorte. Another was some mind tea for a co-worker who seemed always to be brewing and sipping fine teas from around the world. A third gift was for a co-worker with whom I got to sing a song in the famous tavern scene. It was a drinking song, so the gift was an ale tankard. The final gift was for a co-worker who I had a lot of business with on stage. The gift was a pair of opera glasses and the card advised him to “look to her, if you have eyes to see”.
By the time the cast had assembled for this big night there were gift cards, bowls of candy, an edible arrangement, gift bottles of wine, booze and champagne arrayed all over the dressing room area. The words “happy opening” were repeated over and over. They became the mantra for the evening. And yet the routine was maintained. 7pm vocal warmups, 7:05 have my microphone placed and checked, 7:15 take out my script and go over my lines a couple of times, 7:25 go to the coffee station and get a hot cup of black no sugar, 7:30 Half Hour. This is time for 15 minutes of conversation, quiet jokes, and observations about the day, the prior night’s performance. 7:45 I don my Act 1 costume and begin mentally running through Act 1, picturing my movements and speeches. 7:55 I join hands with my dressing room mates and stand for a benediction offered by the “Reverend” Peter Jay Fernandez, a devout and highly spiritual man who never fails to pray for a “hedge of protection” around the cast, crew of Othello so that we might complete our work in safety. I love that part of the benediction. For me it says that we are professionals who know how to have success, all we need is a safe place to work. After the benediction I put on my softcap, and head for my first entrance. I like to be at my place before places is called. Hearing places called in the dressing room triggers a sense of mindless excitement in me that is too much about the show rather than the story. From my starting place I could see the great Bill Irwin, seated in the 5th row on the aisle. I remembered sitting in a seat in a Broadway house decades before, waiting for him to hit the stage. I smiled
A few minutes after 8:00 PM, the speeches buy the Public Theatre leadership began and ended, the opening music started and we were on our way. And we were 3/4 of the way through Act 1 when the rain began.
It came down suddenly and in a torrent. The rain delay went on for 40 minutes. In our dressing room we sat, a little sweaty, unsure if the evening would continue. Oskar poked his head in “Don’t let this delay dampen your spirits” He grinned. We laughed in response. “Well this delay will chase away the folks who really shouldn’t be here.” It was true, the people who really wanted to see and hear our Othello would be those who returned should the show continue. And continue it did. Most of the audience returned as the crew attacked the deck with their squeegees and, we returned to the stage to their wild applause. We brought the show down at just past midnight and our opening night party morphed into drinks and snacks on stage under work lights. Another opening, another show. In a career doing theatre, one gets only so many opening nights. I’ve learned to cherish each one more and more.
Our show is open. The work of mounting it is complete. The work of maintaining it continues.
More to come.
And then there were 4 days off. After our June 9th public performance we gave the stage to the organizers of the annual Public Theatre Gala which was slated for June 10. It’s a big event every year but this year was extra special because it involved a performance of the late Liz Swados’ master work RUNAWAYS. A young cast of very talented teens brought Liz’s work back to life with the kind of energy and drive that only the young possess. A second performance was calendared for June 11, and which I attended. A special appearance was made at both performances of Runaways by the drama students from Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. They did a group reading of some previously unperformed material that Liz Swados had developed for a film version of Runaways that never took off. Those kids had a heck of a weekend. They got to town, performed at the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, then appeared for two nights on stage at the Delacorte Theatre. On June 12 and 13 the New York Philharmonic got to use our stage for a couple of open air concerts.
We came back on the afternoon June 13th to do a run thru on stage in prep for our return on 14 June. A rehearsal of this sort is often low key and low stakes not unlike when ballet dancers will mark through a piece without doing the big moves. My high intensity scenes at the top of the show don’t play as well at a low energy level and I muffed some lines. Of course I got a note from the Director on my line flubs and he suggested that I might need to come in early for a line run with stage management. I didn’t protest as I knew it would do no good and by the end of the note session, my mandatory line run session had magically morphed into, “so do you think you need this Miguel or do you want to do it on your own”. I smiled and opted for door number two.
And that is how I discovered a performance prep technique that I had never used before. I decided to do my solo line run full voiced on the streets of New York City as I walked to the theatre from my abode. An hour before warm-ups on stage I hit the boulevard and began my “walk and talk”. Strange that I got very few looks from the citizens I passed on Columbus Avenue while loudly and resonantly speaking my lines in response to silent cue’s. It took real concentration to hear my colleagues lines in my head and respond aloud while checking for cross traffic on street crossings and dodging baby carriages, fellow pedestrians and the occasional mad person conducting their own monologue to imagined hearers. Despite all the potential distractions, I found myself exploring alternate readings and emphases as I strolled and that the gait and pace changed in response to my volume and intensity. I wasn’t just running lines, I was rehearsing.
As one point, during one of the more emotional passages in Act I, I was striding up the shay side of the avenue and overtaking a young, dark haired woman in dark business attire and comfy shoes who was having an equally impassioned conversation on her iPhone. She glanced at me as I passed, covered one ear and continued her dialog, I thought I heard her say something about “some crazy fucker” as I left her behind.
By the time I got to the Delacorte I had been through my lines, aloud, three times, and the third pass was word perfect. The rest of my performance ritual remained the same except for one small change. As I was standing at the ships ladder stage right, waiting for my cue to climb up and engage Iago and Roderigo in a late night shouting match, I closed my eyes and started a yoga exercise called “square breathing”. It’s a way of breathing consciously in order to creat relaxation and mental focus. On that evening I inhaled for a count of 6, held for 6, exhaled for six and held for six more. I just kept up that pattern until I heard my queue, and I was in the scene, telling the story, without hesitation or calculation. I was just there, dealing with a couple of ruffians outside my door making a ruckus. The preview that night was splendid. The whole company was eager to get back on stage and back to the business of telling our story. When we hit the stage, it was as though we had never had a break, we continued our journey in high style and brought the show down to another standing ovation. For myself, it was another word perfect performance. Granted, simply being word perfect is not much of a goal, but it is a way of measuring my level of relaxation, confidence and concentration for the performance. Without complete mastery of the words, it is very, very difficult to have an pure and honest moment on stage. I’ve reasoned that the more word perfect performances I have, the more chances I have of corralling one of those magic moments that keeps players and audiences coming back to the theatre year after year after decade after century.
The 14th to 17th were our last 4 previews before press opening on the 18th. Each of those performances were in cool weather and each evening was pure magic. Each performance was better than the last. It was clear that we were going to peak on press night. And for each of those previews I used my new “walk and talk” performance prep. I’m so sorry I didn’t start doing that sooner. I may be an old puppy, but I’m still young enough to be a student, a child, an apprentice. I refuse to simply “know” something, knowing is nowhere near as fun as finding things out.
more to come
Preview #11: The Beauty—
The beauty. Boxers block and punch and bleed for the beauty. Welders brave molten metal and white hot sparks for the beauty. Musicians play till their flesh is raw for the beauty. And actors accept assignments that end up costing them money …. for the beauty.
I have always characterized myself as a hard working journeyman actor who goes to where the work is and always, always delivers the goods on time and under budget. The money was never the issue, well not for me anyway, but the beauty… the beauty.
The beauty of an actor’s life resides in a child’s smile, an audience’s laugh, the approval of a colleague the feel of a perfect line of prose as it rolls off your tongue, over the air and into the ears, minds and hearts of perfect strangers who will never forget that moment, that curious exchange of energy.
I once had the pleasure of working on a film with the great middleweight boxer Lloyd Weaver. He and his brothers, the Weaver brothers, triplets who had all become professional boxers, have always been in pursuit of the beauty. Lloyd told me a story once of a tough fight he was waging against a Mexican boxer who’s name has escaped me. Lloyd waxed eloquent of how beautiful his opponent was, how his punches stung, how his footwork was a beautiful dance, of the deadliness of his left hook. Lloyd caught one of those left hooks on his right temple. He didn’t see the punch coming. The lights went out for him. There was no thought, no passage of time, only the blackness that the blow engendered. And when the lights reignited he found that he was still fighting. His mind shut down but his body, trained for hours and days and months and years, fought on and did not fall. Lloyd didn’t prevail in that fight. At the end, his opponent’s hand was raised before the crowd, but his performance in the fight was so earnest, so pure, so utterly beautiful that the decision was beside the point. He went on to fight again, and again, and again….for the beauty.
I’m 60 years old. I’ve been a working professional on stage for over 35 years. Many of the players in this company are younger than my son. And in all that time, all those lines, all the audiences and entrances and exits, and flubs and hits and flops, I’ve never lost my appetite for the beauty; the beauty of a well written line, a colleague’s praise, an audience’s gasp, a perfectly crafted moment that rings true again, and again. The beauty of a perfectly crafted prop, a splendid costume, a quick change executed with perfect grace and 10 seconds ahead of the entrance queue.
I will never be rich. I will never be a star, and I will never have a bad day in the theatre. Most of all, I will never, ever cease my pursuit, of the beauty.
More to come.
Preview # 10: Adjustments —
After every preview performance the director will give notes to the players and the department heads intended to hone and polish the show. In general notes are a “no news is good news” situation. I’ve received very few notes since we have begun public performances. Yesterday our director noted that a specific line that I speak wherein I refer to Desdemona as “jewel” was not landing in the way he desired. This note gave me some concern because this was a moment that we looked at very specifically during rehearsal. His note was that the line, as the softest spoken line I say on stage was not being heard and the idea of the line was not entirely clear. This put my mind into overdrive. I had to do some rethinking.
A layperson might hear that note as a suggestion that the line must be spoken louder and that might be true. However, simply speaking louder does not get the job done in terms of communicating the idea behind the line. In order say the line louder or to have it land with more impact, in a truthful way, the idea the line is meant to convey must be stronger, more specific. As notes continued I went over the line in my head and came up with a new idea for the line. One that was more impassioned and urgent than what I had been using and that would make for a sharper locution the line and that beautiful pet name for Desdemona, “jewel”. There was one problem though, speaking that idea, in that way, meant that some punctuation in the line as written had to be ignored. Ignoring punctuation can lead to changes in meaning, and that could skew a scene in a way that no one intended. I needed a second opinion.
After notes had concluded I consulted with our voice and speech expert Julie Congress. She is always present at notes and had heard the note I’d received. I explained my idea for a new reading and we scanned and analyzed it together. I spoke the new reading a few times and Julie agreed that the adjustment fulfilled the note. The period that broke up the line could be safely ignored. With Julie’s seal of approval I felt I was on good ground to make the adjustment. As a professional courtesy I mentioned to Chuk and Heather, who play Othello and Desdemona that the line in question would be coming at them in a substantially different way.
Once the show starts I try to play one scene at a time. I knew an unrehearsed change was coming but I really could not give it any thought until the time came. The scenes leading up to the court scene went well and when we came to the court of the Doge of Venice I was thinking fast and working to stay present, centered and in the moment. I let my breathing go slow and deep and listened carefully to my co-workers as they furthered the story toward the moment when I would have to take my turn. The noted moment came and I delivered the idea just as I hoped I would. It felt great to plan and execute a change like that without stumbling….well…. almost.
As the court scene closes I give one parting line to Othello as I am leaving the stage and then I begin to feel dizzy and stumble into the arms of one of the guards who ushers me off. This bit of business is intended to point to a line in Act V where the character Gratiano, the brother of my character Brabantio, announces that Brabantio has died of a broken heart because of Desdemona’s sudden elopement with Othello. Well I am here to report that, after all of the internal drama of successfully changing a line I managed to stumble while stumbling. Yes I really did that. As I was leaving the stage I began my staged “stumble” and the toe of my boot caught on the weatherproof stage surface just enough to cause me to pitch further forward than I planned and lose my balance and fall to my knees. The guard who was supposed to catch me was there and slowed the impact and my big, luxurious costume cushioned my kneecaps so it was completely alright but was more of a stumble than was intended and will certainly earn me another note from our beloved director.
One might say that I went a long way to achieve an incremental change and that is quite true. The steps I took were necessary to respond to the note without jeopardizing the integrity of the play we have crafted. Changes often have unintended consequences, and we are obliged as storytellers in collaboration, to examine any changes we need to make and head off any issues before they become problems.
More to come
Preview #9: Rituals—
The secret to consistency when performing on stage is to settle into a pattern of behavior that encompasses the hours spent in the theatre putting on the show. Simply stated, an actor must create a performance ritual and stick to it. Some folks start their ritual when they wake up in the morning. Others start when they leave for the theatre. I do a bit of both for this show. For the next show it will likely be different. My ritual for Othello begins at 6:40 AM when my alarm goes off. I spend 20 minutes reading the headlines and then get up at 7:00 AM, brush my teeth and dress for yoga. By 7:15 I’m out the door for the two block stroll to the Yoga studio where I do the 7:30 AM Vinyasa flow class with whatever teacher is leading the class that day. At 8:30 I say Namaste` and hit the showers. Apres shower I drink three glasses of water and head back to the apartment for coffee, breakfast and blog writing. That done I do what chores need doing and then try to get out for a walk or a bike ride or to meet a friend or sometimes, rehearsal. The ritual picks up again at 6:00 PM when I hop on a Citibike head to the theatre. I arrive about 6:15 say hello to the sound crew and the dressers and make my way to the coffee station under the stage. There I pour a cup of lukewarm black and stroll out of the theatre to sit on one of the benches facing the Delacorte and watch people walk by as I drink my tepid brew.
Watching people is something I’ve done all my life. I’m fascinated by the way they move, the things they say. Once while I was in Toronto on a TV job I was wandering through Chinatown on my way to the Kensington Market when I was treated to some prime people watching. Ahead of me a metal door set in a nondescript building burst open and two women stumbled out. One was tall, brunette and loud, with long hair that seemed sweaty and a well between combings. The other was short, dark and and equally loud, with tightly curly hair that was sitting strangely on her head as though it was an ill fitting wig. They were laughing and stumbling and seemed either high or drunk or both. It was the middle of the afternoon but these two had to look and manner of a couple of after hours clubbers who had finally closed the last place on their list. A third person came out the door behind them and stood at the threshold, a skinny, stooped, balding man in greasy jeans, a t-shirt and a leather vest. His arms were heavily tattooed and his fair skinned face was blotchy and florid. The taller, louder woman, unsteady on her platform heels, wheeled around and pointed at the man, “You’re the best Joey, you’re the f__cking best”. She had an accent. I had a frenchly glide to it. “I want to suck your c__k” she continued, smiling slyly and licking her veal colored lips, “Only yours Joey, only yours….and one other guy”. I could not make out what Joey said in reply. The two women, laughed some more, took hold of each other and stumbled down the street together. It was one of those moments that would have taken days to stage for a film and yet it happened with perfect timing and unselfconscious humor. I watch people before a park show to remind myself of who I am doing this for. It’s not me. An actor who plays for self satisfaction is really just masturbating. When I step on a stage it is because I want to convey an idea to a group of fellow humans. The act of Theatre is a ritual in itself that has been played out since the Greeks. It’s about people.
After my people watching I head back into the theatre, put on my show underwear, trousers and boots and then hit the stage at 7:00 PM for vocal and physical warm up. Vocals are led by our voice coach Julie Congress, and the physical, for me consists of 10 very deep and very slow pushups.
One very lovely part of my show ritual is the prayer led by my colleague Peter Jay Fernandez. He is a self professed “saved Christian man” and every evening at the 5 minute call he invites whomever is present to join hands and join him in a prayer. I’m a pagan, and have been for years, but that does not mean I’m opposed to prayer, especially this prayer which is offered in a spirit of joy, and is an enchanting moment of reflection that puts me into a mood of gratitude. My colleague Peter never fails to ask for blessings on the crew, the ushers, the box office personnel, the engineers, and everyone else involved in making our show great. It’s a minute or two to reflect on how lucky we are. It’s a part of Peter’s show ritual… and now it’s a part of mine.
Last night we played well. Running time has remained consistent and yet I feel like I have so much more time out there. Even though we are still in previews, this show is running, and quite well indeed.
More to come.
Preview #8 – In the Groove —
Last night during preview #8 I suddenly realized that we are in the groove. Different folks describe it differently, some actors will say that they have “taken full ownership” of the material, or others will say that they are “wearing it like a suit”. Still others will announce that they are in a “very good place in the process”. For me, what it all comes down to is that it is no longer a stressful exercise to get through a performance. I no longer have to use all my mental energy to get from curtain up to final blackout. I have some brain power to spare that I can use in the moment on stage to find more nuance, more emotional notes to play, more colors for the palate of gesture, movement, behavior. Now is when things get really interesting.
Civilians often ask the question “how do you remember all those lines?” We in the profession often joke about that because learning lines, for the most part, is easy. What is hard is saying those same lines hundreds and hundreds of times and making each time sound like the first. That requires mental acuity, toughness and agility. It demands the ability to let go of last night’s performance and put all of one’s focus on what is happening right now. And by right now I do not mean, “this performance” or even “during this scene”, I mean right this very moment in my part of the universe as I am living it; the meta now. It’s a tough mental exercise and is easy to avoid. If an actor is tired or a bit hung over, or overfed, underfed, ill or even constipated. It is very easy to just hit the cruise control and skate through a performance…too easy. The mindfulness required to be in this very moment on a stage, is something akin to the practice of Yoga or meditation. As a former athlete I can say that playing on a stage with a company of actors, has some of the same mental challenges as competing in a team sport. Mindfulness of the moment and sensitivity to the movements of and proximity to one’s co-workers are key to good storytelling and winning teamwork.
So we are in the groove, but the work does not stop. We continue to ask questions of ourselves, to test the material to explore different emphases and other facets of the ideas behind the language and the language itself. When we are in the groove we have had ample time to gauge audience reactions and incorporate those laughs, or ooooohs or gasps into the timing of our performance. But we can never count on those reactions to happen because every audience is different. We have to play the percentages and be hypersensitive to the sounds coming from the audience by actually paying attention to them. In effect, an actor on a stage is occupying three realities at once. The reality of the story being played, the reality of the people and mechanisms behind the story being played and the reality of the audience who it witnessing the whole thing. Multitasking is a proven impossibility, so what we rely on is not actually being, mentally, in three places at once, but rather in understanding the patterns that comprise three different narratives. If one pattern in one of the narratives changes then the other two must change as well. When I hurt my leg the other night the show narrative took the first hit. I was on stage saying my lines, but at the same time I was trying to determine whether I could even do the blocking I had been assigned for the scene. The story narrative was affected because my character seemed more distracted and less passionate due to the tentative way I was moving. This affected the audience narrative in that their one time seeing and hearing this story would include a Brabantio who was behaving substantially differently than the one the prior night’s audience had witnessed. Once off stage I was able to better assess my physical situation and make adjustments to bring the three narratives back into balance. Believe me, if learning lines was the only challenge in the profession, I would have already left it for the priesthood.
Last night everything was clicking. The crew has coalesced into a single powerful entity that plays the Delacorte like a musical instrument. The cast is tuned to each other and to the story in a deep and intimate way. On stage we are listening and responding as people, off stage the listening continues as we offer encouragement, compliments and jokes and stories and tenderness.
Tonight we arrive at the theatre with full hearts, healthy bodies and willingness to tell this story again with wit, passion, humor and love. Everything else is yet to be discovered. Or as Iago says “There are many
events in the womb of time which will be delivered.”
More to come.
Previews #6 and #7—
Preview #6 was just as wet and wild as we thought it might be. It had been raining of and on all day and the stage crew had been squeegeeing like made to get the stage to as dry a state as possible before curtain. They made a great effort and the stage was dry when we arrived for warm-ups. Even though we all knew what the weather report said, we carried on without discussing or allowing for potential precipitation. There is enough to ponder and consider in the high level telling of a Shakespeare story without paying attention to the weather. An actor on the Delacorte stage keeps playing no matter what the weather until the story is told or until the PSM says “take cover”.
We got off to a good start and then hit a slight bump in the road when one of the veteran players “went up” on his lines. For you civilians, “going up” on lines means that an actor has forgotten what to say next. It can happen anytime to any actor regardless of experience. An actor can be in the middle of the thousandth performance of a play that they know perfectly and suddenly the lines are gone from memory. There is a big difference between not knowing lines and going up up on lines. Not knowing is a humiliating and career bending proof of an actor’s work ethic, life choices, and commitment to a particular project or the profession in general. It doesn’t happen often and the only exception to such a gaffe is when an actor of advanced years is on stage. Our senior actors, just as with any other person in the golden time of life, need our help and understanding when it comes to remembering. But for an actor in their prime of life and health to go through a rehearsal and preview period without fully learning their lines is inexcusable.
I really don’t know the origin of the term. In the back of my mind I’ve always thought it related to the term, “up the river without a paddle”, a term that suggests being caught in the grip of forces beyond your control. Another school of thought is that when an actor forgets a line the tendency is to look up, as though looking for the words. I doubt this possible origin though because it’s been my experience that an actor who is up in their lines will stare at their scene partner with laser beam intensity, looking for some clue as to what happens next.
However the brief moment of line-silence that landed on my colleague Sunday night was what happens to all of us from time to time. It caught my attention immediately because the line he was supposed to say was a cue line for me. My job in that moment was to hit center stage as he finished that line and get him to change course and engage me. I heard the silence and knew immediately that he he had “gone up”, and in a millisecond decided to continue my entrance and hit the spot on stage that I was meant to, knowing that my arrival would take his mind to the next line and the scene would continue. My assessment was correct, I hit my spot, and I saw my colleague’s gaze shift from his mind’s eye to me and the next line came, and the story continued. The whole thing lasted about 4 seconds.
After that the story went on beautifully until Act V Scene I just after Iago stabs Roderigo to death. At that moment the skies opened and we got the call to take cover. The rain was quite heavy and when it finally stopped 30 minutes later, most of our audience had called it a night. When we took the stage once again we were performing for about 350 die hard Delacorte fans who were in rain slickers and rubber boots. They screamed and cheered and encouraged us through the last act of the story. They made mad dogs and Englishmen look pretty tame. It was a pleasure to play for them.
After the show some of us retired to a local pub to drink beer and discuss our first week of previews. By 3:00 AM I was seeing double and made my way home. I arrived, shed my clothes, lay down and was dead asleep in an instant.
Preview #7 last night came after a day of rest. On a rest day an actor does banking, laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying and any other chores that have been put off during the week. It’s always a short day. I ended my rest day by retiring early. Tuesday, show day, started early with Yoga at 7:30 line study, a nap, a good long walk and then reporting to the theatre for a 2:30PM rehearsal. We received notes from our director and then we rehearsed a couple of moments that needed sharpening. We were done by 4:00PM and the company went their separate ways for dinner. I had packed a brown bag dinner which I ate in my dressing room. Then I took another walk before returning to the theatre for an hour’s nap on the Equity cot. For my civilian readers, our union, Actors Equity, has put a rule into most contracts that a cot must be available in the dressing area for an actor to lie down on. When I was a young buck I never used it. Now that I’m an actor of a certain age, I use it well and often. One of my dressing room mates wondered at my ability to nap on the cot. “Man, you were out cold, you had that towel over your eyes and you were dead asleep calling hogs!”
The show went beautifully. The weather was cool and we were comfortable in our heavy costumes. The audience was attentive and engaged. It was our best show yet. Tonight is preview #8.
More to come.
Preview #5 – Rain, Rain, Rain —
It rains in New York in the summertime, heavily and often. There is no rhyme or reason, no warning, nothing to do about it but prepare to get wet… even on stage at the Delacorte. There is no roof on the Delacorte theatre, only sky. Since the Delacorte opened in 1962, the companies who have played it have developed a deep well of institutional knowledge on how to cope with a rainy evening in New York City.
Preview #5 started energetically and well in the cool of the early evening. As the sun set the skylight morphed from amber to azure as Othello and Brabantio fought a war of words over the heart of Desdemona. Desdemona made her own case though and Brabantio had no answer save to offer his parting shot to Othello and retire from the stage.
At that point in the story, my work as Brabantio is complete. I only two more appearances on stage in the performance, as a drunken Cypriot soldier singing in a tavern and as that same soldier arriving at the scene of the killing of Roderigo. So while waiting for those appearances I sit with my colleagues in our shared dressing room and swap stories, read, write and relax, all the while keeping track of the progress of the story onstage piped in on speakers throughout the backstage area.
We had just kicked off the second half of Othello and the Moor was confronting Desdemona about the handkerchief he believed she had given away, when there was a pause and then a roar and applause from the audience. I thought it might have been because of another raccoon sighting, but that seemed unlikely as the scene being played was very dramatic. Moments later we heard our production stage manager announcing a rain hold and asking the actors on stage to take cover from the precipitation. Our policy on rain delays is that we will make every effort to complete the show, even going so far as to perform in light rain or drizzle. However a heavy rain will stop the show. Our stage management team knows to the minute how long it takes to tell our story. A rain delay will last only as long as it would take to finish the show by midnight. The midnight deadline is mandated by the city of New York, the Central Park Conservancy and the NYPD, it is not negotiable. So if there is twenty minutes of show left to play, then a rain delay can last up to 11:40PM before the show will be cancelled. The delay lasted about 15 minutes, much of it used by the stage crew to squeegee rainwater off the stage. Our PSM announced that the show would continue and a grateful audience cheered and returned to their seats. We started part 2 again and when we reached to moment where Othello asked for the fateful handkerchief the skies opened up again and our PSM stopped the show.
Now we were looking at the real possibility of a cancelled performance. We had barely enough time to reset and complete part 2 before midnight. If we managed to get going again, a third cloudburst would guarantee a cancellation. The rain persisted and we were all watching the clock. The optimists among us stayed in costume, the pessimists began quietly preparing for an early evening. Company Manger Liza Witmer, in a wet rain slicker, came smiling through the dressing rooms, congratulating us on our first rain delay. The decision to keep going ultimately rests with James Latus, our production stage manager. He consults closely with Liza Witmer our company manager and the production management team. As they were deliberating the rain abated and the stage crew came out with their squeegees. They were working fast and hard. We were just about out of time. James got on the public address and announced that we were going to continue, and then announced to the cast that we were going to start at the very line where we had stopped. I looked up at the clock, continuing now meant we would finish at 7 minutes after midnight. We had to hurry but we could not rush. The 600 or so audience members who stayed through the second delay deserved the best show possible.
We continued. We played with our hearts. The audience members who stayed locked back into the story and we played the hell out of it for them. At the curtain call we bowed to the standing ovation offered by our rain soaked audience and then we applauded them in return. It was five minutes past midnight.
James, and Liza wanted to continue and felt that going past the deadline by 5 to 10 minutes was not too heinous a sin, however they could not make that call, they lacked the authority. So Liza got on the phone to our artistic director Oskar Eustis and explained the situation. Oskar gave his blessing and allowed us to finish past midnight. I can only assume that he had to make some phone calls of his own after making that decision but that is another story.
Preview #6 tonight, will be the last show of our first week of public performances. Then we take a day off. As you can see, there drama aplenty onstage and off when doing Shakespeare in Central Park.
More to come!
Preview #4 —
We are starting to find our groove. We are beginning to carve out a path. There comes a time in the process of theatrical storytelling when a company will find an assured path from beginning to end. This is a wonderful and dangerous time. The wonder of it is in the confidence and assuredness that comes to the storytelling. The danger lies in the potential for the story becoming a rote and repetitive exercise.
Preview #4 was proof that we possess a solid understanding of the story and that we are not afraid to tell that story passionately. How do we know this? The measure we use is playing time. As we have been previewing the show the time it takes to tell the story has been consistently decreasing. This is not a matter of telling the story faster. Rather, it means we are telling the story efficiently, with less silence between lines. With less lingering on the line, with a forward leaning approach to every scene, every line, every word.
If playing time decreases as previews continue that is a sign that we are on a good development track. If the time increases, that often indicates that the actors are unsure, or unconvinced about how the story is being told. We are telling this story well and we all know it. This is an exciting moment in the development of our show. We are taking ownership of the moments on stage. We are telling the story on the line, in the moment and without hesitation. This is the ideal.
More to come!
3rd Preview —
Got a morning text from our Company Manager. She wants me to see Taaj right away instead of waiting for Friday. I agree and the appointment is made for 6:05 in the evening. It’s raining in the morning and I broke fast on hard boiled eggs and cottage cheese after opting to skip yoga. My leg is still sore and I am really afraid of doing more injury.
Today the company gathers at the Theatre at 1:45 so we can rehearse and refine some scenes. The rain subsided and the crew went at the deck with big squeegees with a vigor that got the stage into a playable state in a matter of minutes. Our director gave us some notes on the 2nd preview and exhorted us to trust him, the story and Shakespeare himself. The next step he is rallying us to take it the biggest step, and that is to play with our hearts, to stop thinking and start reacting to stimuli both real and imagined, to passionately convey our ideas. I know what he wants. We all know. He is asking us to cross into the realm of Shakespeare on stage that one might describe as “the zone”. Golfers go into the zone, so to do basketball players, singers, ballet dancers, the list goes on. In all these cases the performer is striving to take thought out of the process and just “do it”! In the world of hi performance fighter jets it is an article of faith that an aviator in combat will not “rise to the occasion” but will instead default to the level of their training.
I can’t speak for any of my colleagues. For myself, going into the zone, or playing from the heart or whatever else you want to call it, starts with being absolutely stone cold solid with my lines. A fraction of a second of doubt about lines is all it takes to break the spell. Next I must be completely clear about what I’m trying to say, about the ideas I want to express with the words I know so well. Words spoken without strong ideas attached are just recitation. Third, I need to feel comfortable in the space and in my clothes. An unfamiliar space or an ill fitting costume are like someone farting during the sermon in church. When all of these pieces of the puzzle are in place then the circumstance is right for that magical transcendance. Whether or not it actually happens is another matter altogether. With lines, ideas and physical setting in place a good performance will always take place. Sometimes that magical transcendent performance in the zone happens and it’s happening before you realize it. To have one of those performances a week is a great blessing. I’ve been studying my lines religiously, I know what I want to say, and my Toni Leslie James costume fits me like a second skin. If my leg holds up I’m in a good place to have some magic happen to me.
The consult with Taaj went really well. Turns out I just pulled my calf muscle and did not tear it or damage it is a gross way. No tendons are involved and ice, heat, ibuprofen and mindfulness in movement would be enough to get me back to 100% in a week. The peace of mind her assessment and subsequent massage provided me made me feel much better. I immediately texted Liza Witmer with the news and strolled over to the Theatre in time for vocal warm ups.
Knowing my leg was not badly injured really put my mind in a good place. My voice felt strong and resonant during warm ups, and afterwards I tested my leg on the set, and on the ladder I must climb up and down. There were no problems. I did some pushups on stage and retired to my dressing room to get dressed. Wardrobe team had everything in place for me and I dressed in two stages. First the underwear and trousers, then I went over to the sound team to have my body mic taped on. Mic in place I finished dressing and sat down to review my lines. At this point it is a mental process that involves closing my eyes and imagining the actions and words that I go through in my scenes. I effectively play out my role in my minds eye. There is a dual benefit in that the process is very meditative.
When my cue came for my first entrance my leg felt tight but did not hurt. My scene partners were energetic and passionate, I matched and exceeded their energy and excitement and the scene built to a crescendo. I came down the ladder and the dresser was there, I didn’t even look back as I put my arms out and felt the sleeves of my costume being pulled over them. I was seeing the scene about to be played in my head for a moment and listening for my cue, when it came I hurried onto the stage with the news that my daughter had disappeared from the house. I was panicked, upset, confused. It was inconceivable to me that Desdemona would leave me and go to the arms of the Moor Othello. I gathered my kinsmen and servants together to confront him at his lodgings in the Sagittary. We found him there and I shouted my accusations and charges at him, but there was a delegation there from the Doge of Venice. Othello had been summoned to appear before the Doge and the council and it was certain that I was called for as well. I decided to take my case directly there. At the council I demanded that the Doge and my fellow senators address my complaint about the abduction of my daughter by the Moor Othello.
I present my case to the Council. Othello makes a persuasive rebuttal. Finally Desdemona arrives and settles the question by explaining that she loves Othello and went to him willingly and eagerly. I’m heartbroken. I retroactively consent to the match and then retire to my seat in the senate. Talk turns to the business of state and the Doge dismisses us. As I leave I warn Othello that Desdemona’s betrayal of her father may be a harbinger of a future betrayal…of him.
I leave the stage and by the time I get to my dressing room I realize that I really played those scenes from the heart; that I was very firmly “in the zone”. It was like finding treasure, or hitting the lotto, or falling in love. It was a blissful and fleeting feeling. To get a magic performance like that on the 3rd preview is a good sign indeed.
More to come.