The Seafarer

The Seafarer Director’s Blog #6: the fleeting joys of the performing arts

It’s wrong to call a production like The Seafarer a “fleeting joy” except in the most literal sense, but this week that’s the sense I’m experiencing. Sunday was our last performance.

What makes the performing arts so special, of course, is the very thing that makes their joys ephemeral. They are real at the moment of performance, and they are about the moment of performance. In that moment, the script and the actors’ embodiment of the characters and the place and time created by the set and costumes and the mood created by the lighting coalesce with each other and with the particular energies of the people sitting in the seats, the audience, to make truth, reality, passion…to make theater. (I have played in orchestras and sung in choirs, and have been part of the audience of dance performances, and I know the same can be said of those experiences too, all the performing arts—but here I’m speaking specifically of theater. The others will have to speak for themselves.)

That’s why every performance is different, to a greater or lesser extent, from every other performance. The energies are different; different moments emerge more brightly or resonate more deeply as a consequence. Every performance is itself; after every performance, we say “Wow, that was exciting,” or “Act 2 just flew tonight,” or “I’ve never seen that look in your eyes before,” or “let’s keep that new gesture.” There were people who came to see our production of The Seafarer three or four times, and remarked on the different textures of the various performances.

The production as a whole is ephemeral, too, alas. Whether it’s a term production in a community or repertory theater, or a show that will run for as many performances as there are ticket sales, it will eventually come to an end. The intense world of the play, the passionate collaboration of the actors, will dissolve. The set will come down. The props and costumes will be cleaned, sorted, and stored. There is a kind of post partum depression that hits me at the end of a show. All this focused energy, all this purposeful activity, all this love, become a page that is turned. I step out of the theater and feel as though I’m stepping off an unexpected curb: Oh! Where am I?

Some actors will roll into another production almost immediately (our Mr. Lockhart, Will Jeffries, has already begun to prepare for his upcoming role in Death of a Salesman although it is several months distant); others will move back into their ordinary lives and try to catch up on various domestic or work projects that were put on hold for the duration of the show (I’ll grade some back papers and prepare to administer final exams, and think about trying to clean the house, for example). The family and friends we portrayed, the house they lived in, all vanish.

We held our closing party on the set, in the home of Richard and Sharky Harkin, where the poker games and the family arguments and the moments of despair and redemption had taken place. It felt like home. And then we packed our makeup kits and party leftovers and gifts…and drove off in the directions of our actual homes. There will never be this experience again. But there will be other experiences.

At the end of every production I’ve ever been part of, I think, well, this is one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had. At the end of this one, though, I can say that I am certain this has been one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had—possibly the most wonderful. I’m so grateful to everyone involved, and to Conor McPherson, that this could happen. Could have happened.

I don’t care how many theories are put forward about the “person who REALLY wrote Shakespeare’s plays”: they’re all a bunch of hooey. Only someone for whom the theater was the most intense part of his life could have written those plays. Only someone who knew the joy and pain of the ephemeral, living theater could have written this:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.…

 

 

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The Seafarer. Director’s blog #5: Ensemble

"The Seafarer" at Westport Community Theatre

Cast of "The Seafarer" at Westport Community Theatre

As I noted in my blog on auditions, I always say I cast “to ensemble.” That means I cast to get good combinations onstage, not to get a collection of shiny individual actors. One of the categories in the SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) Awards is “best ensemble,” meaning best cast as a whole, and I think that’s a category that should be included for all awards.

The world of a play is just that: a world. The set is the physical expression of that world; the costumes reveal the time, place, and socioeconomic class of the world; the lights create its day, night, and shifting shadows. The sounds are its sounds, and the actors create its people. Some of those people may be loners or egotists, but the actors mustn’t be. After all, the characters in a play know each other in that world, have relationships, have reactions, have histories separately and together. A good ensemble cast communicates that collective reality to the audience and thereby makes the experience of the play real, credible, substantial.

I do what I can to foster a strong sense of ensemble (French, after all, for “together”) in every cast I work with. We talk together about the play, about the scenes, about the characters, about the relationships, about the emotional and narrative arc. We relax together as ourselves before and after rehearsals when time permits. The more the actors bring to this endeavor, the more interesting the rehearsals are, at least for me, and the more genuine the performance ultimately is.

I have always been fortunate in my casts. Perhaps the fact that I choose serious or otherwise significant plays draws serious and intelligent actors, people who are more interested in the work than in the social life offstage. Not that they’re not “fun” people; but my college theater director, David Brubaker, used to begin the first rehearsal of a play with this: “If you’ve come here to have a good time, please leave now. We won’t have a good time until the second performance. Before that, we work; and if we don’t work, we’ll never have a good time.” This is a good message for college students who aren’t theater majors: don’t horse around. But it’s the truth too, I do believe—except that working hard together on a worthwhile project is its own kind of fun. The process is fun, intellectually, emotionally, artistically, personally. Those are the kinds of actors I get, the ones who value that kind of fun.

I’ve worked with a lot of effective ensembles, but I have to say that the ensemble of The Seafarer is one of the very best. They respect, like, and support one another. They work out ideas together and show them to me. They give my ideas their serious effort. At rehearsals they seem both easy and intense with one another. And they all love this play and its world.

A lot of audience members have spoken with me after the show and specifically mentioned the actors as an ensemble. They’re drawn into the play because the actors so fully inhabit it as the people they embody. They express the characters’ relationships, affections, grudges, dependencies just as fully as they portray them as individuals. They’re alive up there all the time, expressing with subtle glances as well as larger gestures the characters’ inner lives, inner narratives, bonds. I’m crazy about them.

I hope everyone in the world sees this show. I think it’s very good. The script is strong; the story is compelling and real; the craftsmanship in the lighting, set, costumes, props, and backstage management is smooth, and so good it seems to just be.

And the ensemble, superb.

This is theater.

 

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Director’s blog #4: “It’s a Theater Miracle!”

That’s one of my niece’s sayings. For many years in her childhood and early teens she spent a week to ten days with me in the summer, helping to get my summer show up. She learned to sew hems and buttons, to paint textures, to sponge paint on, to take rehearsal notes, to be “on book” for the actors, and to hold my hand when the amount of work remaining seemed impossible to fit into the tiny amount of time remaining. On opening night she’d smile and say, “It’s a theater miracle!”

The community theater “model” depends heavily on the work of volunteers, and thus depends heavily on the existence of a supply of volunteers. In the late ‘forties, ‘fifties, and ‘sixties, when community theater was in its heyday in the U.S., whole families participated in productions, with daddy on the building crew, the kids helping to manage the stage or run the lights, mommy in the cast…or daddy in the cast, mommy working on costumes, the kids doing gofer work…or any other of a large number of variations. Of course the company would also include retired professionals, college grads with extracurricular theater experience, and people new in town wanting to get involved in the life of the community.

Nowadays we’re looking at a different picture. If the kids have time left over from the organized activities designed to get them into a good college, they want a paying job. Mommy and daddy might also need to use their “extra” time to make some extra money, or their employers may expect more than 40 hours’ work a week from them. College grads and youngish adults who enjoy acting may be doing paid work as film extras or trying to break into professional theater. On top of that, there are more community theaters, at least in this part of Connecticut, than there used to be, so the people with time and energy to volunteer are hot commodities, with companies competing for their help.

That’s why so many community theaters find themselves scrambling for personnel, especially backstage personnel, when production time rolls around. Good designers and crews are hard to find.

I was lucky with The Seafarer to have a truly great set designer, Al Kulcsar. He’s done a lot of sets for shows of mine, and they are always genuine places of habitation for the characters in the play, inviting art works for the audience, and good working environments for the actors. He himself also acts (he’s in The Seafarer!) and directs, so he knows what the needs of a cast and a show are. I also was fortunate to have an offer from Jeff Klein to design lights. Jeff is both experienced and in demand, but what I prize most are his artistic eye and collaborative grace. He was inspired by one of the moments in the play to design a special lighting effect that deepens the emotion and effectiveness of the scene in a way that we could not have otherwise accomplished. And I had a wonderful costumer, in the person of Al’s sister, Mary Kulcsar. We’ve done more shows together than I can count, and it’s always a good experience. Rob Pawlikowski, also in the cast, collected and created necessary sound effects, something he is good at and enjoys. My young neighbor Gregory was also helping me at rehearsals, following the script for the actors and helping to deal with props.

Late in the process Joan Lasprogato stepped in to serve as producer for the show. I often work in tandem with my producer, because I like some of the tasks myself, but it’s great to have somebody good to oversee the whole endeavor, support the cast and me, supplement my efforts in the Props department, and sometimes just be there with a cheerful resourcefulness.

But ten days out, there we were. No Stage Manager. No one to execute Sound and Light cues. No one to run props during the show. Needless to say, those people are really important!

Cindy Hartog, who’s on the WCT Board, contacted me to say she could run props for some of the performances and her husband Marc could run lights and sound for those same performances. She also gave me the name of someone who might be able to do lights and sound for the rehearsals and other performances, Kristian Correa. Paul Lenhart came in and loaded the Sound cues and merged them with the Light cues Jeff had written so that everything could be run from one board, by one operator. Ray Stephens came in for some extra help with the board. Cindy also sent me Rachel Rothman Cohen to fill in on Props at the dress/technical rehearsals. And I woke up in the middle of the night just a few days before opening and exclaimed, “Ward Whipple!” Ward has acted in a few shows with me, and I’ve known him for many years. He had asked, when auditions were being held for The Seafarer, if there was anything I needed help with. Aha. I flew down to the computer and sent him an e-mail. He had never done backstage work before, but he said he’d give it a try. As it turns out, he seems to be a natural Props master, and he was able to fill almost all the gaps in the schedule. And then…we got Bethany Schalow. She was another “find” of Cindy’s. She has a solid theater education, good experience managing stage, and a calm and efficient demeanor. Best of all, she was available for most of our performances, plus our tech rehearsals.

So scant days before opening, I had nobody backstage, and now I have a competent and cooperative crew doing as wonderful a job backstage as my actors are doing onstage. The program had to be printed before many of these people materialized, so I wanted to be sure to celebrate them here.

Believe me, it’s a Theater Miracle.

P.S. Opening weekend went smoothly, with three fine performances presented to enthusiastic audiences and me thrilled in the shadows. Seven performances remain. I really think this is a production not to be missed.

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Director’s Post #3: publicity photos

Always before we hold the publicity shoot I feel somewhat resentful that I’m going to be more or less sacrificing a rehearsal for the sake of some photos. But then on the night, I realize that with the right photographer and with proper preparation by all involved, the shoot can actually push the production forward in important ways.

Our set designer, Al Kulcsar, expedited part of the set, and I did a partial set-dressing (a job I love and always grab for myself) so the photos would be in a setting.

Mary Kulcsar had already been working with the actors on costumes, trying on various possibilities, talking about the characters’ personalities and histories with the actors and with me (wearing director’s hat); so we knew everyone would look good.

Our photographer, Michael Stanley, who’s been photographing my shows since back in the days when he was in some of them, has a wonderful eye and a lot of patience. I planned a number of shots and knew he would supplement with ideas of his own.

And on the night, as the actors came down from the dressing room in costume and took positions in the scene moments we had decided on, the characters began to take on body in a more substantial way than we had yet achieved in regular rehearsals. Playing the photo moments, amplifying the brief relevant script passage with ad-libbed conversation, the actors settled comfortably into the roles they are playing, and I could see the whole play take a giant step closer to the moment when it can be offered as reality to an audience.

Today I looked at the photos. What I saw was a world peopled not so much by my actors as by Richard, Sharky, Ivan, Nicky, and Mr. Lockhart. They are real: I have the pictures.

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The Seafarer: Director’s Blog #2, Equity

Directors at community theaters often gripe about Actors Equity Association, the union that represents stage actors and stage managers. We encounter a lot of frustrations in this regard. First of all, some of us have friends who are Equity actors and whom we would love to be able to cast in our non-professional productions. In a number of cases those actors would be interested in performing the roles we’d like to cast them in, too. And some of those very same actors did perform in community theater before they earned their membership in Equity. Furthermore, the profession is so very very competitive, with far more actors than there are roles available at any given moment, that Equity actors may find themselves without work for months on end, and sometimes longer; and an artist who doesn’t practice gets stale. But working with an Equity actor means working under an Equity contract, and that in turn means spending money. Community theaters aren’t set up, generally, to put people on payrolls; and most community theaters don’t pay their actors, partly because community theater began as a volunteer enterprise and even more because community theaters typically work on shoestring budgets.

.   I know of three or four ways around this dilemma, and I know people who have taken advantage of those ways. But I’m glad to say that, although I have found myself on more than one occasion faced with the problem, I have taken the through road, not the detour.

.   My mother was a member of a teachers’ union, as is my brother-in-law now. One of my sisters was a member of a musicians’ union when she was working as a professional musician. And I am a proud member of the American Association of University Professors, a professional organization, and am currently represented at Central Connecticut State University by the Association’s collective-bargaining wing. For two seasons I worked as a local jobber, a non-member union-sanctioned job, in an Equity summer-stock company. So, although I haven’t been a miner or an automotive worker or a meat-packer or any of the other things traditionally associated with unions, I am a union member, in a family with a history of union membership. I’ve also seen how easily people can be taken advantage of when they’re working at something they love: they will take on extra work, or work long hours overtime, or do double duty, or waive compensation to help realize a project they believe in. And I have seen the consequences of that generosity and commitment, too, in the form of burnout or disillusionment on the part of the person and, for the entity that benefited from that generosity, new and increased expectations of future employees based on what the previous person was willing to do. I believe in the value of unions for the protection of employer and employee alike, and for the maintenance of professional standards and mutual dignity. In any dealings with unionized workers, I’m all about solidarity.

.   That said, when I auditioned actors for The Seafarer I was conscious of the possibility that Equity would make or break my cast. People who saw (and loved) the staged reading of The Seafarer I directed saw the work of an excellent cast, and I was hoping to have the chance to use actors from that cast if possible. But one of those actors is Equity. He had done the reading on an Equity waiver (Equity has generally been very helpful to me for my staged-reading projects). A long time ago I used an Equity actor in a full production by way of a waiver, but I expected that regulations would have changed since then. I planned that, if I wound up wanting to offer my actor the Seafarer role, I would take a shot at a waiver request and then see where we could go from there.

.   I had a great turnout at auditions, and I thought I might find someone among them who could fill the role at issue as well as my Equity guy could. But ultimately, although I saw a lot of ability and promise, I did not see a genuine alternative. I offered the role to my best candidate, and contacted Actors Equity Association to see what the possibilities were.

.   My dealings with Equity on this matter couldn’t have been more cordial, personable, and supported. The representative, Tripp Chamberlain, liked the project I described and guided me through the process of applying for a Special Appearance Contract, a waiver being impossible for a full production. He also directed me to a Paymaster service that would handle the salary, withholding, and reporting functions of the contract, since WCT isn’t set up to do any of that. He answered all my questions, including the naïve ones, and moved the paperwork and decision process along quickly.

.   Meanwhile, the WCT Board were wonderful too. They agreed unanimously that the quality of the production was the foremost concern and that our little budget could be managed so that we could meet the financial requirements of the contract.

.   When we got the go-ahead from Equity, we were in fact ready to go ahead, and Damien Langan’s name will have the Equity asterisk in the program.

.   I’m writing about this because I want to encourage other theaters that might find themselves in the same casting dilemma. If your board of directors is willing to make the effort, it is indeed possible to cast the actor of your choice and present a play that mingles professional actors with accomplished nonprofessionals, and to do it in a way that honors the actor, the theater, and the craft we all love.

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