(from left) Theresa Takacs, Andrea Bona, and Jan Schmitz take direction from Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan, while Jim Mertel (background) waits offstage for his cue. Photo: Barbara Roden.

Theatre Diaries 3: A minor setback as the play moves forward

Rehearsals for Blithe Spirit are now underway with a vengeance.

Shortly after the table-read for Blithe Spirit — the next Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society (WRAPS) theatre production — on August 24, cast member Nancy Duchaine sends her regrets, but says that she has to withdraw from the production. We are all saddened by the news, as Nancy has been a valued member of our acting company since 2014 (and who can forget her star turn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 2015?), but we understand that she needs to do what is best for her.

Theresa Takacs — already cast as Mrs. Bradman — auditions successfully for Nancy’s part, and Andrea Bona, who was alternating in another role with Skylar Dubois, steps up to play Mrs. Bradman. Casting complete, we draw up a rehearsal schedule, and work begins.

And it is work. During the production of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical in 2017, cast and crew members were asked to log the time they spent memorizing lines, rehearsing, designing and building sets, creating costumes, directing, managing, and much more. The total came to 2,632 hours, which is probably well short of the actual time spent. And most of the people contributing have jobs, or are in school, and do this on the side. When stage manager Jessica Clement tells cast members “Starting in November, you’re mine” she means “Forget about spare time; when you’re not in work or at school, Blithe Spirit is your life.”

Before rehearsals start, however, there is blocking to be worked out. The actors have scripts, so know what to say; but where are they standing or sitting when they say it, and how and why did they get to that spot? That’s for the director to work out, and normally we only have one director: the wonderful Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan, who usually sets the blocking on her own.

This time, however, there are two directors, and between the table-read and the first rehearsal I have been promoted from assistant director to co-director. The reasoning behind having two directors is to give WRAPS an option in case Mavourneen is not available, or wants to take on a substantial role in a production (she is an actor first and foremost).

The initial plan was for me to assist as director, and learn the ropes (I directed the 2015 WRAPS production of Shirley Valentine, which starred Mavourneen, but that was a one-woman show; I have no experience in directing several people who are moving around a stage at the same time). However, Mavourneen has a good-sized role in Blithe Spirit, and due to unforeseen circumstances might not be able to make it to some rehearsals, leaving me in charge, so co-director I become. Mavourneen and I meet early before the first few rehearsals, figuring out the blocking, then let the actors take the stage and tell them where to move and when.

It’s an organic process: what looked good on paper might not look so good when real human beings do it in three dimensions, so all blocking is subject to change without notice (“I know we told you to stand up on that line, but it would be better if you stood up on your next one”). Cast members stop frequently, to pencil in (or erase) blocking notes in their scripts, which are already looking well-worn.

Stage manager Jessica Clement is with us every step of the way, noting down our blocking and gamely standing in for any actors who aren’t at a rehearsal. She’s also noting down the props that will be needed (“Cucumber sandwiches? Okay”), and deciding that we can dispense with the writing-table indicated in one scene. Herbal cigarettes need to be sourced, we’ll have to find snapdragons in November, and — in a first for a WRAPS theatre production — special effects are a factor. Jessica makes copious notes.

Set designer Jim Duncan is there before one rehearsal, and Jim, Mavourneen, Jessica, and I discuss what everything is going to look like. Blithe Spirit takes place on one set, meaning Jim can design something similar to what he did for Arsenic and Old Lace in 2016: a single set where nothing has to be moved on- or off-stage. We discuss mantelpieces, colour schemes (“Wedgewood blue?”), chair rails, mouldings, pelmets, and cornices as if we’re on an HGTV show. Phones showing Google images of “English country house interiors 1940s” are shared, and we cast a critical eye over them. Too dark, too light, too fussy — hang on, that looks good, make a note of it.

As of September 22, the blocking is done. We gather next on September 25 to take it from the top, as rehearsals get underway with a vengeance. Opening night stll seems a long way away, but it will be here before we know it.

Blithe Spirit will be at the Ashcroft HUB for six performances from November 16 to 25.


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