Thursday, May 14, 2009 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

The Work's the Thing

posted by Meghan Coleman

This past March, Mass Humanities awarded a grant to Actors’ Shakespeare Project for a broad-based, educational community partnership centered on a production of Much Ado About Nothing, which opens this week at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall. ASP staff members forged collaborative relationships with seven Roxbury schools and organizations serving at-risk youth; the eighth organization involved with this residency is the Eliot Treatment Center, where ASP education staff is leading a series of workshops that constitute their Incarcerated Youth at Play program. ASP’s grants manager, Meghan Coleman, offers this glimpse into a recent open rehearsal.

* * *

 Live theatre is never more live than in rehearsal: in fact, nothing may be more live than rehearsal. If by live you mean, a big family pot-luck where everyone forgot to bring the food, but no one forgets to try the wine.

Entering the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s open rehearsal, it was hard to tell what was the performance space and what were the remnants left by a party the night before. In a high-ceilinged hall that was once a courthouse, aluminum and plastic chairs ringed a more-or-less cleared circle set with round tables. Against the far wall loomed a folded something that was later revealed to be a stage platform, now cut from the production. The audience and actors both hovered over the table set by one of our community partners for this production, the nearby bakery Haley House, with coffee and tea and amazing blueberry-cranberry muffins whose dark fruit bled into the bread. At 11 AM on a Saturday morning, as it was, the actors might have been the family hosts and the audience, the guests, of a house party now rising together to confront the morning after. And after a few minutes of mingling and greetings, here came the host--Ben Evett, ASP’s artistic director and Much Ado’s director--to step back from the crowd and draw their focus, so he could begin to lightly organize the day’s activities. Without thinking about it, we all found seats at more tables or chairs set around the central ring.

The audience was as mixed as the crowd at an MTA platform. Couples, singles, a few children, groups of friends, groups of colleagues (the production company, the Haley House hosts), six girls from Arlington’s Germaine Lawrence Treatment Center, who over the past four weeks and for the next four would be working with ASP teaching artists on creating and staging their own performance, centered on the play. Turns out, the rehearsal atmosphere was already of a piece with the production. Ben began by speaking about what he did not call his “concept” of the play, but rather, the images and actions that the words had brought to mind, and that he now sought to bring to life. He perceived the play as a retro-set (the late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s) piece staged in the minds of the characters as they recalled the events of the past few days and nights. One party after another, interspersed with skirmishes from the “merry war” between once-and-future? lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, and lots of misplaced identities: some comic, some awful. “We’re the Rat Pack,” noted actor Michael Walker, gesturing toward the male ensemble and breaking off a cool-cat move. No one volunteered what that made the ladies.

An ASP open rehearsal is a real rehearsal: the scenes worked on are whatever scenes originally appeared on the call sheet for that day, and the actors are working on the mechanics, not the magic, of their performances. So we saw the cast (the entire cast, with some actors doubling in other roles) go through what might be one of the most complex scenes in the play: the party in Act Two where every machination and every romance is set into motion. The “motion” included a full-ensemble foxtrot, in which the masked characters whirled from flirtation to flirtation (and as Beatrice, Paula Langton noted, paraphrasing Ginger Rogers, “Doing it backwards, in high heels...and iambic pentameter.”) Bobbie Steinbach donned and duffed a man’s tuxedo jacket as she moved from one scene, one character and one gender, to another. Actors stopped mid-line to call for “Line” from the stage manager, then resumed in character, in-step. Benedick got “put down” by Beatrice and played it well but took it badly. Claudio turned green, then greener, egged on by Don Juan (and by Ben).

During the break, Ben explained that this was not only the first week the actors had been in the performance space (not the rehearsal hall), but it was the first rehearsal since he had decided to scrap the two-foot-high platform on which they had previously played over the audience: the first affected their vocal projection (that high ceiling!) and the second, their timing and blocking. Before beginning the scene again, he and Johnny Kuntz discussed what Don Juan was about when he referred to himself as “Jove,” and this led to Johnny’s playing the scene this time at full cry, then asking, fake-worried, after he made his exit, “I know: too subtle for you?” But it was easy to see how full cry, once sounded here, could go now go on to be modulated into something resonant.

The rehearsal wrapped with the actors pulling chairs from the set in-the-round into a more conventional proscenium arrangement, all facing the audience. Questions centered on the design of the play: how the house-party set would be mirrored by a concentric circle of more party tables and chairs, for some of the audience. Also, as Ben pointed out, how the floor of the hall, now unmasked from the platform, had a huge “bounce” that sucked dialogue into the wood, and how the actors would learn to compensate for that – and also, how the lighting would focus the audience’s ears as well as their eyes – come performance. The actors explained how at this point, they were concentrated on getting from point to point without bumping into their colleagues, or their colleagues’ cues. “How long have your been rehearsing? ” someone asked, “Two weeks,” Ben replied. “And how long until you open?” asked someone else. “Two weeks,” Ben replied again. “So, we should probably get back to work.”

He didn’t add that this meant nights and weekend, only: ASP actors are also teachers, not only for our outreach projects, such as its residencies at Haley House and Germaine Lawrence, but at Boston’s colleges and universities. Some of their students go on to work as our interns, onstage, backstage and front of house; some of our program participants go from meeting their first actor (as their teacher) to attending their first play, featuring that same actor. As for most of the audience that day, they had gone from seeing one or more of ASP’s bare-boned productions, to coming out early on a Sunday morning to see the bones laid bare . . . and yet begin to take shape as the skeleton of something to be brought to new life, in a few weeks’ time, for new audiences, in our time.
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