Theatre Diaries – Pt. III: Comings and Goings

Barbara Roden follows the behind the scenes work on what it takes to get a play to Opening Night.

Wherein we follow the Winding Rivers Arts and Performance Society as it puts on a show. . . .

Feb. 1: As I had suspected, the final scene of the play undergoes more blocking changes. At the scene’s height there are 20 people on the stage, and director Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan is trying to figure out how to keep things flowing and make sure people get where they need to be. She’s also trying to prevent several actors who are standing upstage from being completely hidden from the view of the audience. Her solution is to add raised platforms to the back of the stage, which will be wonderful once they’re built and in place. For now, however, the cast will have to pretend the platforms are there, which is easier said than done.

We’ve also lost two cast members, who have had to bow out due to other commitments. Newcomer Susan Little steps into the role of “Mom”, while current cast member Cecelia McLean moves into the role of Abigail, the high school vice-principal who’s trying to keep peace in Marvin Gardens High School. Abigail has about 20 times more lines than Cecelia’s previous part, and two weeks of rehearsal time have already come and gone, meaning the young actress has a real challenge ahead of her. The full scope of the challenge comes at the end of the rehearsal, when Mavourneen tells us that we have to be off book – that is, have all our lines memorized and the scripts out of our hands – in just two weeks’ time. This strikes fear into the hearts of many who’ve already had a fortnight to familiarize themselves with their lines; Cecelia just nods and smiles, looking determined.

Feb. 4: Now that blocking is more or less finished, rehearsals are focusing more on vocal work, reactions, movement that looks natural, and bits of stage “business”. Mavourneen is advising us to “punch up” certain lines – that is, give them more weight, more “oomph” – and reminding us to keep the tempo up. “Switching Principals” is a farce, so a lot of the dialogue has to have the rat-a-tat-tat crispness of machine-gun fire. One scene in which several characters introduce themselves to each other is rehearsed over and over again, faster and faster each time until the tempo approaches what Mavourneen wants to see in the finished production.

Feb. 5: Cecelia’s move to a different part opened up her previous role, and tonight we welcome new cast member Alice Watson to our ranks. This is her first time acting, but after a quick lesson on stage directions she’s throwing herself gamely into the fray and finding her way about.

Doors are becoming a problem; specifically the two doors stage left, through which most of the comings and goings occur. There will be real doors, when the stage is built, but for now all we have are pieces of tape on the floor to show us where they are. This doesn’t help us much, however, when it comes to getting a feel for where we have to stand to avoid being whacked, or blocking the doorway for other people. Stage manager Jessica Clement solves the problem by acting the part of the door, swinging open and closed with each entry and exit. I wonder if members of the Stratford Festival go through this.

Feb. 8: A seemingly random assortment of items sits on one of the library tables, and the uninitiated would have a hard time guessing their connection. There’s a Mexican sombrero; a plastic accordion-style folder for storing business cards; a scholar’s robe and cap; a lottery ticket; a tote bag masquerading as a satchel; and a newspaper. They’re not part of a puzzle; they’re some props and costumes we’ll need, and Barb Davidge has started to assemble them for us. Those bits of “business” I mentioned earlier? Many of them involve props, so the sooner we can start working, and getting comfortable, with them the better. Of course, it’s difficult to work with props when you’re still holding a script in your hands, but that obstacle will soon be removed.

Feb. 11: A few people are trying to go off-book tonight, in advance of Saturday’s deadline, with mixed results. It’s a constant source of amazement how lines that you knew cold when you were safe at home vanish without trace as soon as you’re standing on stage. A few more people are still holding their scripts but are trying to do as much from memory as possible, but the temptation to glance at the printed page is a strong one. Cecelia is still referring to her script a lot, but she has a lot of theatre experience, and we’re all sure that she can have her lines memorized by the next rehearsal. How will she – and everyone else – fare? Wait and see. . . .

Barbara Roden