Learning by Stages

(l to r) Alberich (Gary Taylor) defies his creator Richard Wagner (Adrian Cerrato) in ‘Das Ende’

When actors are learning a role, the most important question they must answer for themselves is “What does my character want in this scene?” Another way they’ll ask that is “What is motivating my character at this moment?” If a character’s want and motivation are lacking, the actor has the misfortune of working with a defective script, and the action will be muddled and emotionally shallow.

Last year I and fellow Seattle playwright John C. Davenport took the bold and, for writers, unusual step of launching Red Rover Theatre Company. Our motivation? To produce our own work.

I had come to realize that my skills as a writer would progress only so fast if all I did was sit in solitude at my desk turning out scripts. Theatre is a collaborative art form that only begins with the script. Think of an architect’s plans and how much additional effort by how many people is needed to erect that building. There is so much more to learn about theatre than just inventing characters and giving them speech and action. And the optimum way to learn all that extra stuff is by participating in the full process of making theatre.

But staging a play is hard work and not inexpensive. Selling tickets is tricky with results far from assured. So producers are understandably choosy about what they stage. To reduce risk they favor playwrights whose scripts have a track record of aesthetic and financial success. And that, my friends, puts obscure playwrights in the most damnable position. John and I decided to blow up that Catch-22 logjam by putting our own work on stage.

Our current offering is my new play Das Ende. The story concerns the very complicated poet and composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883, with a return to the present in Das Ende). One way to think of Wagner is as the original bad-boy rock star. Another is as a hybrid of Beethoven and Shakespeare. Complicated can make for rich dramatic material.

We hired our director Kelly McMahon last November, cast six actors in December, and began rehearsals after the first of the year.

As Das Ende nears the end of its run, I can report that taking my script the full distance from page to stage has been a learning experience every bit as rich as I had hoped, on both the creative and producing fronts. This week I share some of what I have learned on the creative side. Next week I’ll review insights gained while wearing the producer’s hat.

Give up control. A script is a baby you deliver and then hand over to others to raise. The author’s role shifts from parent to something more like a concerned aunt.

The director rules. In rehearsals the director is sovereign. A writer’s communication with actors should go through the director. Furthermore, there are points where the writer’s presence in the rehearsal room can impede the process of actors discovering and inhabiting their characters. At those times it’s best to make yourself scarce.

Be open to cuts. As William Faulkner advised, “You have to kill your darlings.” No script has been written that could not be made clearer and given more propulsive force by judicious cuts.  Keep an open mind and trust (I’m not saying this is easy) that everyone is serving your script and not trying to get you to write the play they would have written.

Talent of designers. Do I ever now appreciate what the designers (especially the set designer) contribute to the finished product. They create the world the play inhabits. Their design choices affect actor movement (blocking) in a major way and can even lead to changes in dialogue when speeches refer to details of that world.

Complexity of design elements. Henceforth at every play I attend I will better appreciate the precise interconnectedness of what I see and hear on stage. Of course I knew set, lights, sound and costumes were integral to theatre but I didn’t appreciate what a finely-tuned, well-oiled clock it all is. It’s in the grinding technical rehearsals that all the clock’s gears, wheels and jewels are brought into alignment.

Actors as artists. Again, this is something I knew intellectually but until now I had not experienced it firsthand. Actors contribute so much more than memorized speeches and movement. They animate the script. Their skill can render some lines unnecessary; an artful glance over the shoulder can make redundant several lines of dialogue. I am in awe of their commitment, passion and work ethic.

Actors as children. On one level theatre is nothing more than games of make-believe such as we all played as children. The rehearsal room can give rise to playful moments with the actors experiencing delight as they pretend to be someone else.

Make script changes early. The further you are into rehearsals, script changes pose more challenges for actors. Once actors have learned their lines and blocking and have begun to fully inhabit their characters, script changes are not greeted with universal joy. A related lesson is that memorizing lines and physical movement are connected in the actor’s memory, so that if you change one you can throw the other off.

If I’ve got you curious about what the production looks like, click here for a glimpse. Those of you in the Seattle area still have four opportunities to experience the result of the artistry I’ve described above. Das Ende closes this Sunday, April 2. Get tickets here.

As a free bonus, Speight Jenkins, former General Director of Seattle Opera, is hosting free discussions about Wagner and the Ring after the March 30 and April 2 performances.

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