My Life as a Cohort, a Geva Cohort
By Leslie Locketz
OK, so rather suddenly I’m a “cohort” or perhaps in a “cohort”, a Geva cohort. No, I’m not an actress, not on stage, or in a play, but still participating in a play or plays, nonetheless.
It all started innocently enough with a Facebook Message, and since I spend rather too much of every day immersed in my Facebook world, I saw it right away.
Hey Les – Geva has this cohort program where community folks are hooked up with a specific question. I thought of you immediately. Have pasted the message we got from the director, Sean Daniels, below. Send me your number or email address if you want to be contacted. Happy New Year. – Frank
We are about a month away from starting INFORMED CONSENT and our Spring Cohort class.
I wanted to ask all of you if there was anyone you knew that you thought would be a fantastic cohort.
Someone who is very vocal or visible in their community (whatever that community is).
The movers and shakers of any group of people – OR people you think would really benefit from this kind of immersive experience.
If so, hook me up with them and we can see if it’s a good fit.
Of course, it is very flattering to be thought of as some who is “vocal or visible”, a “mover and a shaker”, so I immediately replied with this:
It sounds mysterious and intriguing, Frank. Thanks for thinking of me! If it’s a “class” not sure how it will fit in my already pretty full schedule, but, sure, send in my name. I’d like to learn more.
Hi Les – No, nothing like a class. Folks are just invited into the process, rehearsals, discussions etc. according to their own schedule. Some of them blog about it. I’ve forwarded your email to Sean Daniels and you’ll likely here more on it from him.
Time does fly, so a mid-January invitation has suddenly become a mid-February beginning, and, yes, I am a “cohort”.
February 18, began with a “Meet and Greet” for the staff, the cast, an assortment of trustees, and interested community members whose work is related to the themes of the play, and the neophyte “cohorts”, almost all of the 20 of us present..
At 10:00 AM, there must have been 70 people in the second story room of the theater building, and we were reminded that it “takes a village” to produce a play. We introduced ourselves, but really that was just one big blur to me. We were treated to breakfast pizzas and fresh fruit, and after some socializing, asked to leave the room so the equity actors could hold a brief union meeting.
By 11:00 AM, we were reduced to a group about half the original size, I was surprised and thrilled that the playwright, Deb Laufer, was present and also to learn that this play would have its world premiere at Geva.
Ms. Laufer told us that her play had been funded through a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, an organization that supports literary works based on science and that she had had only three days to submit her proposal, which was based on a court case that a biologist friend had sent her. The themes of the play, Informed Consent, are morally ambiguous, cutting edge, and include issues of biological vs cultural identity and religion vs. science.
In the process of writing, when Ms. Laufer (do I call her Deb?) wasn’t happy how the play was progressing, she remembered advice from Marsha Norman, one of her favorite teacher/mentors, “When you’re stuck, write about the thing that terrifies you most.” I won’t give away the story here or how Deb got to her deepest emotional level, but I will say that it involves a scientist with some frightening knowledge and a four year old child.
To get us into the mood of the play, Sean Daniels, the director, told us a story about his Irish ancestors and then had all of us (actors and cohorts, the inner circle and outer circle, respectively) follow suit with stories of our cultural heritages and present identities. It was interesting to me that two of my fellow cohorts mentioned living in the “19th Ward” as part of their cultural identity. That’s my neighborhood, too, a city neighborhood, where some suburbanites fear to tread, but where the inhabitants proudly fly the flags, “Urban by Choice”.
There were quite a few Irish and Italian (Sicilian) Americans in the room but also folks with Iraqi, Jamaican, Russian, French, Norwegian, Swiss, Hungarian, Dutch, Welsh, Polish, Austrian, Sioux, and German roots. There were those whose ancestors came on the Mayflower and those who fled lives of crime, those with famous ancestors (Robert Frost as a great, great uncle), those who were obsessed with genealogy and those who hadn’t a clue. Many of the stories were fascinating, and Sean remarked (yes, I think I can call him by his first name) that any of our stories “could be told”. Are there any other potential playwrights among us?
I think the story many of us liked the best was from a man whose grandfather settled in Batavia, NY, then decided to move and told his family that they would travel “until the horse becomes tired” and settle there. That place ended up being Leroy, NY, just 10 miles down the road. The Leroy gentleman then told us some good Jell-O stories as that is Leroy’s claim to fame.
From 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM, we cohorts observed the first read through of Informed Consent by this group of actors. The nine of them were seated around a table, so this part of the process is referred to as “table work”. Sean told them (and us) that the goal was “to get to the end.”
I loved watching Deb Laufer’s face as she watched and heard the actors reading. She warned us that she cries easily, but I didn’t see her cry.
The reading went very smoothly with only a few slight pauses to check pronunciation of a word (Havasupai, for example). It seemed to me that some actors were reading “full out” while others were more doing a “run through”. That often happens in the dance classes I take. Some people always practice “full out” while others “mark” the steps first until they have them fully ingrained in their brains and bodies.
This will be a play without an intermission, so the timing was perfect for what the final performance will be. I noted a few lines that I especially like:
“a tribe of competing storytellers”
“We’re all cousins, and we’re all Africans” (as in all humans)
“I deserve to know just as much as you deserve not to.”
At 1:00 PM, right on schedule, according to the previously distributed outline for the day, the cast was excused for an hour lunch, and I walked back to my job, which is conveniently located about two minutes away.
Some thoughts about this first day
- A big part of the director’s job seems to be to quickly build community among this group of actors (mostly strangers to each other, I think?) who come from far and near.
- A big part of the stage manager’s job is to organize everything and keep it running smoothly. When I got home, Frank had already sent everyone a summary of the day’s events as well as a plan for the next day (more “table reading”, rehearsal from 10 AM – 6 PM, with an hour off for lunch at 1:00 PM).
- Frank’s notes could read as an outline for what has taken me 3.5 pages to get out. I’m sure some serious editing is in order on my part, but since this is a first for me, I wanted to get it all down.
- I found some synonyms for “cohort” online from Webster’s: “associate, companion, compatriot, compeer, comrade, crony, fellow, hobnobber, mate, running mate.”
The one that appeals to me the most, and the only one that even comes close to what I think this experience will be like is “hobnobber”, and I’m not there yet. More of an inside observer, not a bad role for me… After all, I was anthropology major. Come to think of it, the themes of this play are also a good fit.
February 20 Somehow, by reading one of the Cohorts e-mails, I thought there was to be a formal gathering of Cast and Cohorts after rehearsal today, so I made an effort to attend the end of the rehearsal. I arrived at 5:00 PM, but the day was over by about 5:20 PM. and people quickly scattered into the snowy night.
Still, I learned quite a bit in my twenty minute visit. I watched the actors participating in the editing and re-writing of the script. Deb Laufer is known for her many rewrites. (Sean mentioned the first day that she “rewrites about three words every minute”.)
The conversation I came in on concerned the word “too”, and I think it was Deb, the playwright, who mentioned that the two most spiritual words you can say in English are “me too”. That is how we bond and connect to each other by showing empathy, by sharing similar stories. At any rate, they decided to eliminate the word, “too” in the particular section in question.
She said to the actors, “You’re finding new things. Now we just have to rewrite the script.” Sean told them that this would continue to be a collaborative process.
From the notes and some conversations, I understand that the audiences will also have the opportunity to collaborate by sharing stories that will be given to the actors on cards to read together with (or maybe in place of?) the actual lines in the play.
Day 3 had been another read through and when I came in, the actors were starting to question what they (kind of a chorus who play multiple parts) do to support the story when they aren’t speaking.
The writer had never seen that aspect of the play as this will be a world premiere. There was discussion of sounds, instruments, songs. Evidently, all of the actors had been asked to send songs (perhaps cultural songs??). Deb said she wanted the play to have an ancient feel. So these are some mysteries that will soon be revealed.
I also got a chance to see a model of the set today. It is rather abstract with platforms at different levels (for actors to stand or sit on?). There is a feel of cliffs. I heard Frank telling someone that this type of set is actually much more expensive that traditional sets with a lot of furniture and props—I guess because it has to be built from the ground up.
The next stage of this process will be for the actors to get away from the table and on to their feet. I think that will be interesting to watch, so maybe I will try to stop by again tomorrow. I wonder if they will take away the table entirely.
As cohorts, we are also privy to correspondence among the director, writer, and other technical crew members. Today there was discussion on the relative merits of “fog” and “haze” for the play. I believe at the moment, “haze” is winning for the set, while outside in the real Rochester world, heavy rain is predicted for tomorrow, so fog it will be.