Sunday, April 15, 2007
Scraps of distraction: Part 2
There's to be a week of previews. I arrive at the theatre early every morning. The actors are called at midday. They need to sleep. The play runs for three and a half hours and they are exhausted. I check in with the theatre staff and look at the bookings sheet for the next preview. Sonia is ecstatic! The Previews are all nearly sold out ... and there is a buzz about "the Tchaikovsky play". Glenda Jackson (who played Piotr's wife - Antonina - in Ken Russell's Tchaikovsky film The Music Lovers) has been invited to opening night. So has Ken Russell. Jackson sends an autographed photo and Russell sends a note: 'Thank you for your invitation, but I am unable to support someone who appears to be making the same dreadful mistake as I did.' Or something like that. I left Russell's note at the theatre. By the time it was all over, I would hate more than anything how insightful he would turn out to have been. In the meantime, he can't be right: there's a waiting list for the black-tie opening night and the box office staff are fielding telephone calls all day.
Helen, our Stage Manager, is devoted to me and our play. She's always at the theatre before me, and over strong coffees, like neurosrugeons, we go through my notes. One morning, Sonia's husband Roy brings Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean into the operating room. They are clients of his and the three of them are off to a media call somewhere. They are looking forward to seeing the play tonight and glance excitedly around the space. I'm annoyed that they're there. A Director and Stage Manager's time together is sacred. Personal. Private. Sensing my impatience, Helen fluffs and giddies them out the door.
"Who were they?" I ask.
She ruffles my hair. "They're ice-skaters darling."
A note goes up to the office: we are not to be disturbed.
The stage is tiny and the rehearsal room was huge. That's my dilemma. The drama has shrunk from an horizon-less vista of possibility to a pinhead of reason. And it's no longer working. The ocean currents of air, space and 'room' around any creative work - both for spectators and practitioners - has vanished. The whole thing is feeling - and looking - pinched. My rehearsal process has failed us. Permission, safety, passion and consideration - by their very nature - lack economy.
The play exists around the music - not the other way around, so the music cues are analysed first. If Tchaikovsky's not onboard, this ship doesn't sail. We re-mark the beats.
Set changes are taking up far too much time. The crew will just need to get faster. The actors will need to get offstage quicker. We re-plot the scene changes. The actors won't exit ... they'll merge with the change. More needs to happen onstage in the blackout than off. Blackouts become cross-fades and I ignore the collisions and confusion that instantly appear in my mind. The morning is getting away and the actors will shortly start to arrive.
The cuts. To the script. Helen is concerned. The actors won't like it. We talk through them and she frowns. The whole time.
The actors start to arrive. Like excited children at a new playground. They are all early, which I like ... and as they all settle in the auditorium with their scripts on their knees, I wait on the stage for their attention.
"We need to make some cuts."
Lips purse. The steaming fresh turd in their sand-pit is obviously mine.
"It's too long."
The actors haven't yet mastered the art of disobeying or ignoring me, and the scripts are dutifully - if not reluctantly - marked. Tim, who is playing the Russian Prince Alexei, looks away. Tim trained as a ballet dancer and handles the physical vocabulary of Alexei magnificently. His painful and compulsive strip to nakedness in Act 2 is pure instinct and all courage. But he hasn't the actor's skill to deliver Alexei's bad poetry as subtext. He is playing it as cure, when it is actually disease.
The cuts are harsh ... and the general consensus is that they should have been made days - if not weeks - ago. I refuse to blame them for taking three of the eight week rehearsal period to even begin to connect to the passion of the piece. That would come later ... when I would find myself limb-less, gripping my steadily deflating life-raft with my teeth, alone at sea, at the height of a perfect and terrifying storm.
Bits and pieces here and there go. I justify each cut with extreme precision. I talk about tempo, pace, clarity and over-writing. I praise their abilities as an ensemble and remark that all of the dialogue we are losing is simply because they are acting so well. It might sound like a flabby embellishment, but it's true. I had simply written too much emotion. I still do.
The shark takes a huge bite out of one of Alexei's monologues. Tim rises out of his seat, throws his script to the ground and storms out of the theatre. I let him go. (There had been tantrums galore in the rehearsal room and there were some gob-smackingly memorable tantrums to come.) He needed to react. He was very good at it. And I knew he had met his match.
We continued the vivisection. Nobody argued.
Until the doors to the theatre were flung open and Tim stormed back in.
"I thought you were stronger than this". He was trying not to let me know he had been crying. "I think we all did."
I looked at Michaela, who was playing Antonina. Michaela was my anchor in the cast. She had secured the role at the auditions in the final showdown with Madonna's understudy in David Mamet's Speed The Plough on Broadway. If I had made a mistake, it would show in her eyes. Tim, it appeared, was telling the truth ... or at least part of it.
I faced him.
"Your ... beautiful words ..."
"The Playwright is not in the room, Tim." This had been a device I used, and would always use at work in the theatre everywhere, to differentiate between Geoffrey 'The Playwright' and Geoffrey 'The Director'. A safety-valve. A necessary mind-set. A creative schizophrenia ... which would also, years later, fracture the Melbourne production of Maestro ... but I digress.
"Well, I want him here. Because I, for one, am not going to cut one word."
The Playwright wanted to kiss him. The Director wanted to sack him. I needed stronger medication.
"If there's something you can suggest that might make this speech work more effectively as far as you're concerned, then let's have it. Because that's your only option. I'm going to deliver it, as it is, whether you like it or not!"
Helen wanted to kill him. I'm actually surprised she didn't. She, better than anyone, knew we would read about the length of this play in the reviews. (The extent to which it would bury us - and at the same time save us - was yet to be revealed.)
But the anchor of my theatre-making process was a concept called "Actor Ownership" - and Tim knew it.
"You gave this wonderful work to us. You are not going to take it away from us now."
My medication arrived as Sonia bounced into the theatre and rushed up to hug me. The Previews are now all entirely sold out ... and for the first time in the New End's recent history, the "House Full" sign had been dragged out from the pitch black of storage.
And for the last time in my theatre making experience, I gave up.
I had written the rule book which was now being used to penalise me. Actors in almost complete (as "complete" as it ever is) performance readiness are awesome foes. I had struggled for eight weeks to strip their Englishness away. They had run from the rehearsal room in tears. One of them had disappeared for nearly a week, so confronted had she been. English actors train in cause and effect - not emotional truth. It's all about the way it sounds and the way it looks - not about the way it feels. My ensemble were raw and their power was immense. I had made sure of it.
I looked at Tim, with honest eyes, for the last time. I would never be able to look at him in quite the same way again. (And once the reviews began to appear, he would never be able to look at me in quite the same way either.)
I didn't realise it at the time, but he was to become the last person to ever deny me permission. To my face, at least.
Helen let the company go with a half hour call to the "Top and Tail".
It would now be a matter of tweaking the length in other ways.
But Ego was to have other ideas. And, unbeknownst to me, I was squarely in Her sights.
Image: The New End Theatre Auditorium.