Tuesday of this week, we gathered for the first rehearsal for the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s production of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s “The Gospel At Colonus.” I told you before about how my dear friend, ERT’s Founder/Producer, Wren T. Brown had contacted me a few months back about stage managing this production. I had said “No, I can’t do that,” but then, intrigued, added “What are the dates?”
Nothing could please me more than to work again with Wren. He embodies the humanity we all should strive to emulate as theatre artists; he is generous, funny, and knows how to kick off a rehearsal process in the most celebratory and validating way I have ever experienced.
I have been working a week to get ready for today’s rehearsal. Stage managers have lots of paperwork to put together in the week we call pre-production: contact sheets, calendars, scene breakdowns, you name it – if it can be organized, it will be organized during pre-production. In the final days of last week, I was assisted by one of my students, Jessica Major, who is the Production Assistant for the production. She assisted me with taping out the floor, and many other tasks in preparation for today. I don’t know who taught who more last week – I have always been a firm believer in two way mentorships.
I have also enjoyed getting to know Andi Chapman, who is directing the production, admiring her equally thorough organization of materials in preparation for the rehearsals. She and I worked through the play’s script and lyrics from the score, bonded from our first work comparing indications in the score that the choir’s “oohs” should sound like “glue.”
I have a confession. First rehearsals stress me out. I get nervous at the responsibility for getting all the actors to the theatre at the right time, to have the coffee ready when the first actor walks in, to have the numbers correct on the contact sheet, and enough scripts and pencils and high lighters so that the work of the first readings can happen. This isn’t just because this is the first play I’ve stage managed in ten years. Even in the height of my stage management career, I would get nervous. So sorry, Jessica, and the others; I wish I could say it gets better. It does not. It is for me the most stressful day of the process. Much more stressful than tech rehearsals, where one might argue that there is far more pressure on the stage manager.
My husband laughed at me on Tuesday morning as I left the house.
“I’ve never seen you in such a state. You know everything will be fine; it always is.”
I knew he was right. When I bade him goodbye, I said, “I’ll be a different person when next you see me.”
He quoted Tyrone Guthrie as I rolled my bag out the door. “The most important thing about the first day of rehearsal is to get to the second day of rehearsal.” And I was humming that tune on my way out of the house for sure that first day.
Which is where Wren T. Brown comes in. I needn’t have stressed the least bit. I could have sat there with a nervous stomach until lunch had it not been for his version of the “meet and greet.” The meet and greet is where the actors and theatre staff meet and get to know each other prior to the first read through of the play. Usually there’s a bagel or two, some fruit and coffee involved, and on Tuesday, there was an elegant spread provided for us by Production Manager Sheldon P. Lane, who stocked us up not only with yummy treats, but also with all the stationery supplies I could have dreamt of needing.
When it finally came time for the introductions, Wren T. Brown kicked into gear. Around the huge table sat a bevy of gifted actors: Tony winner Roger Robinson, William Allen Young, Sam Butler, the guitarist and balladeer from the original 1983 production and many incarnations, Kim Staunton, Ellis Hall, Jackie Gouché, Gilbert Glenn Brown, and even one of our recent MFA grads from USC, Sedale Threatt, Jr. Three of the four members of the design team, Ed Haynes, Phil Allen, Naila Sanders sat, waiting to talk about their design concepts; musical director Abdul Hamid Royal and Tony Jones, the Choral director for the Los Angeles Young Adults of Gospel Music Workshop of America were standing by to hear the actor read the play.
Beginning with the youngest members of the company, Wren introduced us to each other. Just a line or two, but he pronounced our strengths and capabilities to every one in the room, including, often to the day of meeting each other, what our personal history with him was. It was an individual unveiling of each artist in the room to the context of the history of the Ebony Repertory Theatre and what we would individually bring to make this project literally sing in the theatre. I don’t know if I could ever say that I have been seen like that before in a rehearsal room, nor will it probably ever happen again. Wren took each of us and pinned us up for just a moment, like a lepidopterist pinning a bright array of butterflies on a board, for all of us to marvel in their splendor. It was quite extraordinary. We ended the introductions with a song, sung at the piano by Mr. Ellis Hall.
And each day we have spent together since Tuesday has helped us to celebrate more the collective talent in the room. As I collect the bios and read in detail about the various bands and striations that have made the beautiful butterflies in our cast who they are, and as I have listened to them read their words and sing the music with Musical Director Abdul Hamid Royal in rehearsal, it has made me truly grateful for the project coming my way at a time when I could manage to do it.
Every day, I ask Jessica what she learned that day, not because I am trying to be didactic, but because I really want to know. I remember what it was like to be a PA in a room of truly august artists – I remember PAing for the Mark Taper Forum productions of “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” that were done back in the late 1980s; I assisted Mary K Klinger and Jimmie McDermott, to whom I literally owe all that I know as a stage manager. I remember sopping up each day and learning how I was part of a team. Everything that they knew they shared with me and then I knew it too. And we were stronger and a better support structure for the cast and show because of it. I watched the talented artists, Gwyllum Evans, Peter Frechette, Meagan Fay, Maxwell Caulfield and the beautiful Joseph Maher strive for comic perfection under the direction of John Tillinger.
This is what a life in the theatre means to me and has always meant to me. The act of sharing and building history with all the beautiful and diverse humanity in the rehearsal room. Thank you, Wren T. Brown, for allowing me to be a part of building my history up with Ebony Repertory Theatre.