Posted by Evan T. Cummings, Artistic Intern, 17 April 2008
Maybe I’m biased, but it seems to me that the theatre is the only place where a wildly diverse and eclectic grouping of people – all with their own specialties, skills, and singular roles – can come together in service to a common goal, a specific event: that is, a story being told on a stage – presented with affection and fierce commitment to anyone, everyone, who is willing to listen. Especially unique to the theatre is that the first step towards achieving this goal happens in one room, at one time, with all collaborators present – and usually with a mood of anticipation, apprehension, excitement, and possibility in the air.
At least this is how it happens at Signature Theatre.
Case in point, the recent first rehearsal for Edward Albee’s Occupant – the fourth, and final, production of Signature’s 2007-2008 season.
A part of Signature’s Legacy series, this play is an intimate, funny and fascinating portrait of the artist Louise Nevelson, written by a playwright whose own legacy to the form is, now, after a decades-long career, well established – with, hopefully, many more plays to come from his ever-working 80-year-old imagination. I speak of course of Mr. Albee, in attendance at these opening festivities, where he, like the rest of us, got stuck in a strange dance for the half-hour before the work began: To meet, or not to meet. To greet, or not to greet.
As always on first rehearsal days, all Signature staff, members of the production team, designers and their assistants, the cast and any other participants-to-be are asked to gather in the cavernous (…by New York standards) rehearsal room on 43rd street and mix and mingle over frosted pastries and cups of coffee. We were, truly, no better than junior high-schoolers at a chaperoned dance, though. Some, it seemed, (and here I can’t let myself off the hook) were branded to wallflower status, stalled by our “talent-crushes” – the high degree of respect and admiration we had for some members involved in the production. This included Mr. Albee to be sure, but also Larry Bryggman, a long-time veteran of the New York stage and, of course, the incomparable Mercedes Ruehl, a force to be reckoned with any time she graces a stage or screen. For those of us in the room who felt lower on the totem pole it was hard to reconcile these personalities with the true people behind them.
Yet, ironically, when the rehearsal formally began, any fake hierarchies or false divisions seemed to break down. We were all sharing in this process together. When the play’s set and costume designers presented their vision for the look of the play, most of us – intern and actor alike – were seeing and hearing these ideas for the first time. More importantly, for a play with a cast of two who have only each other and the audience to play off of, the rest of us had the distinguished honor of being that very first audience to hear these actors read this play. In the moments where “Louise” talks directly to the audience, we were there – agreeing, or not; laughing, or not; but following every word, the first of many audiences to come.
And amidst all this, with each of us playing our roles, big or small, the playwright himself was there to play his. Looking distinguished, but also weathered from a life of telling challenging stories, he settled in quietly for a time, taking in the remarks presented by the director, designers, actors and Signature’s Artistic Director Jim Houghton. When the floor fell to Edward, though, he gathered himself and stood with a gravitas that hadn’t been apparent previously. He spoke very briefly of his friendship with Louise Nevelson and her influence on the play, then took his seat again. It was clear, in his opinion, his part had been completed when he got the words on the page right. He was now ready to watch the play along with the rest of us, ready to follow along with the process, ready to see what would, what could, happen next.