I’ve been struggling about what to write about in these last weeks since The Gospel At Colonus opened. In a whirlwind of positive energy here at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, the cast and band and crew have settled into their roles amidst an almost embarrassing surfeit of riches, as rave after rave after rave has rolled out from the LA Press. I say ‘almost’ because no one can really complain about reviews like these; to do so would be disingenuous at best and karmically ungrateful at worst.
The play continues to sustain me as a stage manager, both in my work backstage with the wonderful crew, and with my limited face time with the cast prior to the half hour and following at the impromptu after show party that keeps the lobby abuzz until well after 11:00PM. (The show ends at a little past 10pm).
People don’t want to leave, it seems, but want to stand and reconnect with friends, and celebrate the uplifting message of the play and the talented performers.
As a teaching exercise, running a show beyond the brief five performances allotted us in the university schedule has been beneficial to my assistant, Jessica. She has gleaned more about the responsibilities of maintaining a show to the opening night level of excellence. She and Sheldon, our ASM, have kept the stage clean, and maintained their performances each night by running their sides of the deck professionally, and with good humor. Even when things have gone differently. I won’t say astray, because that isn’t correct. What interests me is that intersection where life and theatre meet and the flexibility required by all to face the ensuing challenges. Most folks in the theatre optimistically embrace challenge as a learning experience. The rest embrace it as another nail in the martyr’s cross of artistry, which is also, for them, a positive experience. I have always preferred to work with the former type, the learners. Coping with challenges and changes are what we are trained to do, and we flex those muscles every day. Live theatre involves human beings, artists with complex lives outside of their work. They face demands placed on them by the economic realities of work in a field that doesn’t pay well enough to support them exclusively. Artists every day subsidize their own work by agreeing to work for lower wages than they might earn in a standard “day job.” It is an unfortunate expectation, but it is institutionalized in America, where federal funding for the arts is minimal and ever decreasing. So it is not surprising that many in our Colonus company, have full-time jobs in other fields, as well as families to support with those outside jobs.
When Wren asked me to stage manage this production, we discussed the fact that it was not a contract that provided for understudies. This made me a bit nervous, because with 32 performers, I expect that somewhere along the way in a 6 week run, something will come up that may get in the way of their performing. For example, my own dear husband was scheduled for a procedure this week described as in-office and not complicated. While it may have been routine, and in the doctor’s office, and straight forward, it was impactful for my husband. Don’t worry, it went well, and after the immediate reactions clear, life will be better for him. Being human is messy. So a cast of 32 humans dealing with their messy humanness can be unsettling for a stage manager without understudies. I should have known Wren T. Brown would have a back up plan.
This week I should have factored in that one of our Colonus cast members was going to be out to support a family member this weekend. Another Quintet member was pegged early on to cover this actor when he went out, with a third in the wings to cover his role; we planned rehearsals and a put in this week on Thursday to prepare these two cast members. Then, unexpectedly, in the same week another member of the company received a TV offer that he couldn’t or didn’t refuse, creating a challenge in covering a second major role from within the company. whoopee! Learners rejoice! A challenge arises!
This presented the real opportunity to conduct a lab for Jessica on “put ins”, something that is difficult to replicate in academic theatre. We occasionally do double casting, but that is pretty deftly handled within the body of the rehearsal process by having cast member A do the scene once, then cast member B do the same scene the second time through. The Understudy process where you have an abbreviated shadow rehearsal process mimicking the original is not built into the structure.
Understudy rehearsals are delineated at the start of rehearsals. Understudies get hired during tech or preview week; while the show is teched, they watch, taking blocking notes and learning their lines prior to the first rehearsal with the stage managers, during opening week on an afternoon when notes rehearsals are not needed. The expectation is that the understudy will be able to go on, even from the first day they are under contract, even if they must carry a script. There is a lot of pressure on stage management to be ready to throw one of them into the show with as little disruption as possible, even before the first formal rehearsal. Replacing one actor within the company can also create a domino effect, where the others step into roles other than their own. All of these folks need to at least walk it, optimally with the show lights and sound.
The understudy rehearsal process can be chaotic, in spite of meticulous planning. Most theatres do not have the money to engage one actor to cover each part, but will hire one actor to cover, say, two or three parts. This means that stage managers will need to jump in during understudy rehearsals to walk the other roles and do as credible a job as they can to represent the timing and blocking of the original cast. All this while following the script and making sure acting intentions parallel the original ones. Putting an actor into a role as an understudy isn’t like creating a clone to the original actor. Every actor is different (remember, messy humans!) and brings qualities of their own to the role, even while respecting the blocking and needs of those they will play opposite. I’ve had more than one understudy tell me that the first night is thrilling – the understudy is treated like a hero for saving the show. The second night, they frequently find themselves recipients of helpful notes from their fellow actors to push them more into the footprint of the actor that they are covering.
A play with music presents even better challenges for the stage management team. There is music to learn, either with an associate musical director, or with the musical director himself/herself. Movement has been taught, learned and retained by the cast, and hopefully captured with a cell phone camera by stage management for training purposes of the understudies. As a stage manager, I find it imperative to get up and move so that I could learn the movement in my body, usually much to the delight of the more agile cast members. Musicals will have a dance captain from within the cast who teaches the understudies those movements. Several weeks ago, I pegged the best mover in the quintet and loudly under my breath coughed “Dance Captain.” Stage managers get good at pegging a dance captain as the person who is paying attention and repeating the steps over and over. In this case, it was the actor who I also knew would be taking over this weekend.
Everyone worked hard this week to ensure that the substitutions in the cast would go smoothly. We involved lighting and sound in our put in rehearsal, so that they wouldn’t be surprised and to be able to demonstrate to the new actors where the light was so they could best be seen.
Friday night with our four cast changes came off really without a hitch, due to the preparation both formal and informal done by the cast members and the staff. The relief following the show was palpable. The second and third performances this weekend went even more smoothly, and next week when we look back at this weekend, we’ll all say,
“Now why was I worried about that?”