Cohort Report: From First Read-Through to Tech Week

by Joanna Grosodonia

The very first rehearsal starts with a manuscript 105 pages long.  A group of strangers gather to work together to create a living, breathing play in 3 weeks. It’s called table work.

Picture a rectangle of banquet sized tables with 6 actors seated around this rectangle reading their lines with the beginnings of expression, looking up at the Director as he guides them through the first impressions of the words on the page, and the awakening of the characters they are going to become.

Sometimes the words don’t flow; it’s a stretch to laugh at a line seemingly intended for humor that right now falls a little flat. The pages flip as they are dusted off and aired. It’s like watching the start of a sculpture or a picture on a canvas, only this is more than 3D and there will be lots of moving parts.

Each day the Stage Manager will send notes that encompass general comments on the work accomplished for that day, the time of the next rehearsal, and instructions and comments for 7 departments listed under production management.  And there are changes every day.

By the next visit the tables are gone!  There is furniture on a “stage” that is demarcated by blue masking tape, and an area demarcated in purple with chairs for “cohort” and any other observers that day. The actors face 3 tables where the director, the assistant, the line prompter, the stage manager, the prop person, and other crew sit to watch the action unfold.

The Book Club Pay set

The Book Club Play  set

So now we look at a couch, a loveseat, a tufted coffee table, 2 ottomans, a rug, books, wine glasses – and movement!  It’s so engrossing to watch this up close that it’s hard to take notes!

Problem – how to kick a pillow?  Where should the actors stand while the pillow is being kicked? Should the pillow be kicked or tossed? Who is going to catch it? Placement of all moving parts is crucial.

And then there are the pundits – the actors step out of the scene and assume a different personality whose life is also affected by or related to books. Lots of quick, simple costume changes that need to be seamless and seemingly effortless for the transformation.

The actors went to visit a book club in the neighborhood- art observing life in order to imitate it? Picked up some useful accent props. The book club attendees had books that were marked up, with color coded sticky notes and book marks protruding everywhere.

Issues — the actors at various points have to slide on the carpet, which has created rug burns, so the carpet had to be changed.  The couches had to be covered for now – as the actors sat on the couches in their jeans, the blue color has bled into the white upholstery.

Sean is guiding this process constantly. He asks for input on every line spoken.  He also asks for full energy from the first words out of their mouths. He wants full tilt momentum; no build up because the laughs must start from the first lines.

On one visit when I walked in there was silence (!?!)  Sean and the actors had just finished blocking the entire show. Each actor had to write in the blocking in the script for his or her character for the entire script. And then they started from the beginning.

Sean went through this slowly, asking each actor to add action and word emphasis for each line. He cued the movements, asking the actors questions like what would be important to emphasize- not just the phrase or the word, but the way a certain word was pronounced, or the pause needed before or after delivery of a word or line. Painstaking!!! Within 8 days the actors are “off book.” When a line is not forthcoming, the actor shouts out “line” as if to shout “air” or “breath” and each person picks right up again.

Each movement and action is repeated with subtle nuance changes to maximize the effect for the bigger laugh or to set up the next action. Isn’t it hard to be funny? It sure looks tiring! Each character has an attitude, so the body language must reflect that attitude. Daily you can see how each actor is growing into the skin of his or her character. The lines on the page don’t necessarily elicit chuckles when you read them.  It’s the facial expression, the posture, the tilt of the head but most importantly – the delivery. The actors laugh with each other. We in the outer ring laugh at them, as the audience will.

Leaf blower, yes. Quiet, no.

Leaf blower, yes. Quiet, no.

Every day the tech notes cryptically offer glimpses of all the work and interaction among the actors, the director, the costume shop, stage crew.   There is a call for a leaf blower! A quiet leaf blower!  Is there such a thing? How many pretzels do they need? What should be used for dip? Real food is a challenge. And food is important for book clubs. A wise decision was made to use “white” wine, since the furniture is all white, as is the rug.  Because at some point, there may be mayhem (slight spoiler alert!)

I meet the assistant lighting director who has to produce copious notes on each scene to approximate lighting needs and cues for the lighting director who will build on her notes once tech week starts.

And tech week starts tomorrow…………..

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