Friday, August 21, 2009

Actor's Diary: Off the Page

Bryce Pinkham will be playing the roles of Brother Vaughn, Pete Davenport and Felix Barclay in The Orphans' Home Cycle

“Well that was a cluster$^@&!” quips Michael Wilson, our director, after an initial pass at a particular scene in the first play. So far, we have more questions than answers. The first two of our nine plays have never been given a stage production. As a result we have been spending the majority of rehearsals helping these plays take their first steps off the page. For Michael Wilson and many others in our company, this rehearsal process sadly marks the first time that Horton Foote has not been in the room to lend his insight and clarity to the work. We halt often to interpret and clarify the subtleties in his writing. The majority of this interpretive responsibility lands on our director as well as Horton’s daughter, Hallie. Every few minutes in rehearsal these two huddle to discuss what Horton’s intentions were with a particular scene or storyline. They often consult the book containing Horton’s full-length plays, which we have affectionately begun to refer to as “the Bible,” as well as the Foote family photo albums and scrapbooks that now live in our rehearsal room.

Michael Wilson and Hallie Foote consult the script in rehearsals for Orphans' Home Cycle

As an actor, it is easy to feel intimidated at this point in the process. Respect and reverence for our playwright’s words can easily turn into a fear of “getting it wrong.” It is easy to forget that at this early stage there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and that any choice is better than none at all. I am told that when Horton was in the room he was always encouraged by what each particular actor brought to his plays. “It felt like he was in the trenches with us,” one actress tells me, “and he loved nothing better than watching a group of actors take a scene above and beyond where he ever imagined it in his head.” Originally an actor himself, Horton surely would have enjoyed, as I have, watching the veteran actors in our present company begin to take responsibility for more than just their parts.

In a recent rehearsal, one actor stops a scene to raise a question about a particular line: “Our best friend is dying, why am I talking about the weather?” Twenty minutes later, the entire room is engaged in a heated discussion about the subtext of a particular scene that involves two feuding families. As actors begin to side with their characters, the feuding Thornton and Robedaux families of Roots in a Parched Ground suddenly come to life: “Everything is going to shit for us! We’re talking about a quaint veneer over total chaos and panic!” I am fascinated as actors not even involved in this particular scene begin to chime in as well: “There is nothing more boring than general bullshit- the stakes are so high in these people’s lives!” Soon, the discussion of our trilogy’s first act has given way to an even greater examination of human truths: “How many people get to the end of their lives and are happy with the way things went?” Audible exhales escape from several around me. I think we all realize we’ve tapped into something essential about Horton’s plays- and all from an initial question about the weather.

Upon reflection, I am reminded of the importance of “speaking up.” Too often I think actors, especially of my generation, are afraid of what one of my teachers would call “disturbing the air” in the room. Yes, our playwright’s words are sacred, but as I learned from watching my more experienced peers today, we as a company must take ownership of what we are saying and not be fearful of disagreement. At the end of our lengthy deliberation, Michael Wilson assures us that we have not wasted our precious rehearsal time: “These are the discussions we must have- they make the play get to the center of your soul.” It’s nice to be reminded that we are not just here to say the words, but that our agency as actors is not only real, but in fact necessary.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Photos: In Rehearsal with Orphans' Home Cycle

The Rehearsal Room

Rehearsing three plays at once is no easy feat, so the cast and crew of Orphans' Home Cycle are hard at work in Hartford getting ready for performances at Hartford Stage beginning September 3rd and Signature Theatre beginning November 5th. Below are some pictures of the team at work.

All photos by Gregory Costanzo.

Maggie Lacey (Elizabeth Robedaux, Inez Thornton) and Director Michael Wilson

Bill Heck (Horace Robedaux)

Michael Wilson and Hallie Foote (Mrs. Vaughn, Mrs. Robedaux, Asa Vaughn, Lola Reeves)

Stephen Plunkett (Terrance Robedaux, Will Kidder, Archie Hall, Steve Tyler)

Pamela Payton-Wright (Ruth Amos, Sarah Vaughn, Aunt Inez, Mrs. Coons)

Stage Manager Cole Bonenberger

Devon Abner (John Howard, Pete Davenport, Roger Culpepper, Bobby Pate)

Bill Heck and Stephen Plunkett

Michael Wilson, Hallie Foote and Hartford Stage Dramaturg Chris Baker

Pamela Payton-Wright and Virgina Kull (Corella Robedaux, Claire Ratliff, Bessie Stillman, Minnie Curtis)

Michael Wilson and Bill Heck

Bryce Pinkham (Pete Davenport, Felix Barclay, Brother Vaughn)

Jasmine Harrison (Gertrude)

Maggie Lacey, Bill Heck, Pamela Payton-Wright and Virginia Kull

Stephen Plunkett, Bryce Pinkham, James DeMarse (Saul Gautier, Mr. Vaughn) and Justin Fuller (Albert Thornton, Ed Corday, Dr. Green, Gordon Kirby)

Bill Heck

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dramaturg's Diary: Preparing for the Big Day and Beyond

Kirsten Bowen is Signature Theatre Company's Literary Associate, and the Signature dramaturg for The Orphans' Home Cycle

As Signature’s Literary Associate, one major aspect of my job is functioning as our resident dramaturg. Now a dramaturg can perform a variety of functions in the production and development of a play. We can be sounding boards for playwrights and directors, helping to track how the story is being told and acting as a sort of “in-house audience” during rehearsals. We also facilitate other lines of communication between the production and audience by creating lobby displays, newsletters, or writing program notes and blogs (like the one you’re reading now). Lastly, another large part of a dramaturg’s job is researching the world of the play and disseminating those findings to the playwright, director, actors, and you, the audience. This research will help the actors flesh out and more fully embody their characters, provide factual or inspirational references for the director and playwright as they create this world, as well as context for the audience member watching it.

Researching the world of The Orphans’ Home Cycle is at times overwhelming, but mostly fascinating and even fun. We also have quite a team assembled to get the job done: me, Signature’s Artistic Interns Elizabeth Carlson and Farrell Parker, and Hartford’s Senior Dramaturg, Chris Baker. I mentioned that there are nine plays, right?

Despite the two memoirs and many personal essays Horton left behind, as well as the first-hand stories about his family and childhood he passed on to the friends and family involved in this production, we dramaturgs still have our work cut for us. The Orphans’ Home Cycle spans the years 1902 to 1928. In addition to a detailed glossary of each play citing every obscure reference from the value of $11.50 in 1904 to the history of the Romany population in Texas, we created actor packets that include American history timelines, post-Reconstruction Texas timelines, information on the economics, music, education, political and social trends of the period, and other key topics like Texas’s convict lease system (one play takes place on a plantation that employs convicts as labor, a popular practice in the post-Civil War South), the 1918 Flu Epidemic, and copious sections from Horton’s memoir, Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood. Liz and Farrell also spent two days conducting visual research at The New York Public Library Picture Collection, combing through photographs and advertisements from the 1900s through the 1920s. Many of these images will be plastered to the walls of the rehearsal room in Hartford.

So we’ve done a lot of work to be as prepared as possible on the first day, but questions always come up in rehearsal that you never expect. For example, in the glossary we provided a thorough and rather graphic description of the symptoms of malaria (made all the more so by Chris’ dramatic reading of it during tablework), but director Michael Wilson wanted to know what time of year malaria is most prevalent in East Texas. This was not mere idle curiosity on his part – he needed to know in order to help determine in what season Lily Dale takes place, which is crucial information for costume designer David Woolard. These seemingly minute questions are just one ingredient to telling this story, as Michael, the actors, and designers build this world both in and out of the rehearsal room.

Now, I leave you with a sampling of some of our findings, selected by Liz and Farrell: etiquette tips from the 1905 handbook, Everyday Etiquette: A Practical Manual of Social Uses by Marion Harland and Virginia Van de Water.

“Expressions such as ‘God bless you!’ or ‘I love you,’ or ‘Love to the dear ones,’ are in shockingly bad taste except under cover of an envelope. Postcards are a solecism.”

“It takes very little to set tongues wagging. The married women should exercise extreme care in her relations with other men in public places such as a summer hotel or boarding house, while it may do no harm for a married man to flirt with other men’s wives. Promiscuous intimacies at summer resorts are a great mistake. A woman may be pleasant toward all, and intimate with none.”

“A proper young woman will never be proactive in the courting process. The girl who waits for the young man to ask if he may call her, and who waits for the young man to ask permission to write to her will be considered a prize that was difficult to win, and therefore more worthy of his true love and devotion. The apple that drops, over-ripe, at one’s feet is never quite so tempting as that which hangs just beyond reach.”

“In the home, the proper husband will always offer his wife the easy chair in which he sits when she enters the room, but “knowing that he is weary after a hard day at the office, [she] will not take the chair, but she will appreciate the little attention, and love him better for it.”

Orphans' Home Cycle Marathon Reading Day

Check out these photos from the Marathon reading of all three parts of Horton Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle, which took place at Hartford Stage on July 20, 2009.

The room hums with excitement before the
beginning of the Orphans' Home Cycle reading.

The actors gather around the reading table

Director Michael Wilson says a few words before the design presentations

Set designers Jeff Cowie and David Barber talk about their team effort

Projection designer Jan Hartley explains her role in bringing the set alive

Gathered around the designers

After a short break, back to the plays

Leading man and lady Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey
keeping their spirits up through a long, full day

Monday, August 3, 2009

Actor's Diary: A Marathon Reading...And Yogurt

Bryce Pinkham will be playing the roles of Brother Vaughn, Pete Davenport and Felix Barclay in
The Orphans' Home Cycle

Of all things...yogurt. I can’t help but feel at the center of some cosmic joke as I extract my script from my bag, covered in peaches and cream. Meanwhile, a cadre of theater folk are filing into the room and taking their seats. As I desperately mop the edges of my script, I watch the collective administrative and creative strengths of Signature Theater Company and Hartford Stage file into the room, and my heart suddenly shifts into a new gear. I don’t think anyone in our twenty-two-person cast is ready for what is about to happen. We are gathered to read a preliminary version of Horton Foote’s massive Orphans’ Home Cycle, a three-part behemoth that is nearly airborne after months of preparation, auditions and planning. It was the late playwright’s dream to have his epic cycle fully realized and our director, Michael Wilson, assures everyone in the room that “Horton is with us today as we prepare to hear all nine plays read out loud, in succession, for the first time, ever.” Yes, my nerves are also in attendance.

My name is Bryce Pinkham. I am a fledgling actor recently released into the world of professional theater and thrilled to be a part of this historic production. What you are reading is the first installment of an actor diary, the goal of which will be to provide a unique perspective, to report from the inside the everyday happenings of rehearsal and performance from a young actor’s point of view. I submit these entries as nothing more than my observations. However, my goal will be to use this extended rehearsal and performance process as a backdrop to highlight the creative agency of the actor in our American theater.

Though it is only the first day of rehearsal, it is hard not to feel like we are giving a performance. As I watch my fellow actors read, it becomes clear that everyone has already done his or her fair share of homework. Every three acts we stop to feed and mingle and the discussion begins: “People are really bringing it today!” a fellow actor opines. That does it. I decide today is the day they’re going to find out they made a big mistake casting me. Second-guessing and self-doubt sort of come with the territory I am finding, and I suspect I am not the only actor in the room experiencing some version of this imposter complex.

Miraculously though, as we continue to read, the story itself seems to take over and the feelings of awe and humility that come with speaking the words of a master far eclipse any self-indulgent actor worries. The plays clock in a little over nine hours and after our official release the appropriate number or brow raises take place as we all realize that we have some serious work ahead of us. We are tired, but overall, the mood is positive. I think every actor here feels incredibly lucky to be a part of this project, but that does not preclude anyone from expressing his or her concerns. “How in the HELL are we going to do this?” one actor says to me once we exit the building. “I’m not really sure,” I respond, “but it’s going to be one hell of a ride.”