(from l) Paulet Rice, Marina Papais, Matthias Sampson, and Sarah Onstine get their first rehearsal on the set of A Murder is Announced, which is still a work in progress. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)

Theatre Diaries 3: The play and the players find a new home

With less than two weeks to go until opening night, the stage takes shape

It seems like only a couple of weeks ago that we were still in the blocking stage of the Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society’s spring theatre production of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, and opening night was a comfortably long way off. Now it’s less than 10 days away, and while there’s still some tinkering with the blocking, the focus is on the lines and in creating characters the audience will empathize with, feel for, and of course suspect of being a murderer as the clues pile up and death could come for anyone.

The first couple of rehearsals after we go off-book on Feb. 14 are … rough. It’s to be expected: even if you think you have lines down cold, they have a wonderful way of evaporating as soon as you open your mouth to speak, when you know you don’t have the reassurance of a script to glance at. Thus the first two off-book outings are stop/start affairs, as actors continually call for lines, and the mood in the room is one of vague despair.

However, a miraculous thing happens in the span of a couple of days: those lines that were but dim memories are suddenly there (most of them, anyway). They may not come trippingly off the tongue, and there are a number of pauses as an actor waits for the words to come, but the calls of “Line!” are much less frequent.

Once scripts are out of hands, it’s much easier for the actors to focus on movement while on stage, as well as do things like hold a magazine, serve sherry, eat a piece of cake, or juggle a bag of apples, a jar of honey, and some handkerchiefs at the same time. It also makes it easier to spot where people can work on their deportment, bearing in mind the play’s setting of a genteel English household in 1952. Directions such as “Hands out of pockets”, “No slouching”, and “Ladies, don’t cross your legs” sometimes make rehearsals sound more like deportment lessons, although no one has been asked to walk across the stage while balancing a book on their head (yet).

Watching everyone commit to the production, and take these directions in stride, makes me realize — and appreciate anew — how dedicated our small but enthusiastic band of volunteers is. No one is getting paid to be there and dedicate hundreds of hours of time each, but they continue to do it. As of Feb. 17 we’re rehearsing four days a week, three hours at a time, yet everyone continues to be there, whether they’re students also juggling schoolwork, sports, and jobs, or adults who are fitting rehearsals in around work, family, and other commitments.

“Why do you do it?” is a question I sometimes get asked (and sometimes ask myself, to be honest, on damp, cold nights when I’d rather stay home curled up in an armchair). My answer is that I do it because I love it, and because it brings enjoyment to other people. Every time someone in the audience laughs or gasps during a performance, or cheers or applauds, I forget the hours of work and enjoy the result.

We get a pleasant bonus with this production: the early construction of the set, designed by Jim Duncan and built by him and his wonderful crew of helpers. Our rehearsal of March 1 — the last one before actors can’t call for lines anymore — is held on the set, which is still in its early stages but boasts actual doors that open and close, the proper chairs that we’ll be using during the performance, and more items that the actors have had to imagine for the last seven weeks.

We usually only get three or four rehearsals on the set, but for this production we’ll have eight. It gives everyone an opportunity to get a feel for their new surroundings and become familiar with the actual space, and gives the production team an idea of what pieces of furniture and set dressing we’re still missing. It also gives me a chance to make a few more changes to the blocking, now that I can see the space and the way the actors move in it, and the cast takes it all in stride.

The rehearsal over, I take a look at the now-empty stage. Seeing it brings home the fact that there are only seven rehearsals, and less than 10 days, until opening night. The project we all talked about so carelessly just four short months ago, before a role had been cast, a costume considered, or a prop acquired, is almost a reality. On the one hand, I feel my usual sense of mild panic at this point: we’ll never be ready in time, and I wish we had another month to prepare. On the other hand, I know we’ll be ready, and I can’t wait for opening night. On with the show!

A Murder is Announced will be at the Ashcroft HUB for five performances (Thursday, March 12 at 7 p.m.; Friday, March 13 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, March 14 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and on Sunday, March 15 at 1 p.m.). Tickets are $15 each and can be purchased at the Ashcroft HUB office, online at https://bit.ly/32Lleb0, or at the door (unless sold out).


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