Thursday, July 7, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

Benjamin Irvine & Daniel Lillford
First Invited Dress Last Night, Preview Tonight!
A near capacity house last night, the cast knocked it out of the park.
In the annual Two Planks and a Passion fundraising auction, Michelin Tire has purchased all tickets for the dress rehearsal night four years in a row.  Michelin employees and families are driving up the gravel road to the Ross Creek Arts Centre right up to showtime.  Jamie nods, Nathan plays the marimba opening, the cast appears, and 95 minutes fly by. 
Rhys Bevan-John
This isn’t a kids’ show, but it becomes obvious very quickly it’s family friendly.  The audience is seated on both sides of the playing space, so it’s easy to watch reactions.  Two very young girls in the front row get a smile on their face when they realise Jamie’s character, Lara, has to learn to ride a horse—among other things.  An eight year old clutches a stick, which seems to have gone from being a light sabre to a broadsword for the evening.  The whole audience starts smiling and straining to look when they realise we’re really going to bring a dragon on stage.
Post-show we take a collective breath and share some wine with the very appreciative Michelin crowd.
Today the cast is back at it, working the details.  Daniel Lillford, who plays Gautr, is also a playwright.  He’s been telling me the last two days to let the baby go, head off and sleep by the pond.  I got an email this morning from friend and mentor, Bruce McManus in Winnipeg.  Bruce has been reading the blog and offered roughly the same advice.  So I spent a couple of hours walking the beach this morning, five minutes’ walk from Roxy’s house where I’m staying.  I’ll take the night off, go hear our composer, Mark Adam, playing jazz tonight at Acadia University.  Back for the preview tomorrow night. 

Jonny Thompson
Jamie Konchak & Alexis Milligan

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

  • Andrea Lee Norwood as Gussi
  • 4 Days to Opening: War Gear
Costume Designer Leesa Hamilton has sent us the nose pieces for the warriors.  They look strange, slightly threatening, and fascinating. I find I can’t take my eyes off any of them.  The warriors are suddenly a gang—mess with one, you’re messing with them all.
Jeff Schwager, Andrea Lee Norwood, & Chris O’Neill
It’s our second ten out of twelve day—companies are allowed to call the actors for four twelve hour days in a rehearsal period, working ten hours with two hours of lunch, supper and breaks.  The ten out of twelves are usually used for tech days—adding costumes, lighting, sound, special effects—and often there’s little real rehearsal for the actors.  But with outdoor theatre with no electrical elements… there’s no tech days.  Which translates into more genuine rehearsal time in the last days before opening.  


Musical Associate: Nathan Petitpas
Paint Your Dragon (Tail)
Puppet Designer by Karen Jones & Apprentice Stage Manager Morgan McMahon
I hang around for the day because there are still a few rewritten moments in the scenes they’ll still be working out and I may still be called to fix something.  In twelve hours I prove to be useful perhaps three times.  This is the most difficult part of rehearsals for the writer—for me, anyway.  My part’s over, it’s all actors’ work at this point.

I'm slow getting this post together, it's now 5:00 Wednesday.  Our first preview audience goes up in one hour.  The warriors are suiting up.

Jeremy Webb & Andrea Lee Norwood


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

Jeremy Webb (Beowulf) &  Burgandy Code (Grendel's Mother) 
 5 Days to Opening:  Crouching Actor, Hidden Dramaturg
Brilliant actors.  Shockingly good first run-through Sunday night.  The show is down from a flabby 2 1/4 hours to a svelte 100 minutes and getting tighter.  New work in theatre is a collaborative blood sport.

A week ago I was up to the neck in rewrites and cuts. Actors needed final versions of their scenes so they could get off book and get to the real work.  I was stuck on a tough-to-unknot second act problem, right where they always get tangled. 

Actor Burgandy offered to become my dramaturg for the rest of rehearsals.  The dramaturg is the listening mirror for the playwright, reading the scenes—or in rehearsal, reading and watching them—becoming the play’s first audience, and reflecting back to the writer her impressions of what the play seems to be saying.  Lots of questions, suggestions, support, options, alternatives are offered, and sometimes, as in this case, lots of editing.
It’s Burgandy’s first try at dramaturgy.  Five days later I can say she’s precise and insightful in her reading, a genius at finding the detail in moments, and a brilliant editor. 
Stage Manager Heather Lewis (left) and Assistant SM, Morgan  
The first night we worked together, she insisted on going over the first scene.  It’s a long one, a large meeting scene, ten actors on stage.  I’d just cut it from about 18 minutes to 12 and promised the actors they could go ahead and memorize it.  Burgandy challenged me on every line and we cut it to maybe 8 minutes.  But… could we devote any more rehearsal time to re-working the scene in its trimmed form?  I told director Ken we’d made a huge improvement to the script, but it meant going over scene one yet again.  Understandably, this was greeted as not a good thing, but as I’ve said already, Ken’s a game guy and agreed to read it.  Five minutes later, our stage manager, Heather, started Xeroxing cast copies, we were going back to scene one.
The actors were also understandably a little surprised and possibly skeptical at receiving yet another fresh copy of the scene… but it isn’t just Ken, this whole company is a game lot.  It was clear the scene was a vast improvement, spirits lifted, and so it went through the week, at least from my point of view.  By the next day Burg and I had cut and rewritten 20  minutes or more off the first half of the play.  Ken and the actors are reblocking and cleaning up the scenes with the leaner, muscular lines. 

Rhys Bevan-John (Drengi) on break
 Then we hit the second act knots.  Burgandy sets about a campaign to strip two of the plot complications that have been brick-walling me.  Much denial, anger, bargaining and so on later, plus three nights this week that went past 4am, we have our script reduced almost a third in length and an exponentially improved story.
Sunday morning, I deliver the last set of rewrites.  Jeremy Beowulf Webb looks up from the new pages, perhaps a little baffled, questions me to the effect, “I’ve been pursuing one goal since the first scene.  Have you completely changed what that goal is?”  I answer in effect, “yes.”  Perhaps a dangerous thing to put to an actor six days before opening.  Within less than three minutes, Jeremy has worked the whole turnaround, re-thought and absorbed an entirely new throughline for his character, Jeremy and Jamie are off and running the new scene. 
Sunday afternoon, Chris, Johnny, Jeff, and Andrea, our new warrior recruits readying for their first battle, have a rewritten scene with Jamie.  There’s two clear possible interpretations of the scene, they’d like to know which one I had in mind.  I answer I had the first one in mind but the second seems much better.  Ken, Burg, the actors and I collectively figure out Jamie won’t enter six lines into the scene.  Instead, the recruits will have their own scene for the first page, Jamie will join them at the end.  We scratch out a block of text, move another block, change a couple lines, read the new version.  Much better.  Call it speed workshopping.

Jeremy Beowulf Webb, Stage Manager Heather Lewis,
and Artistic Director, Ken Schwartz discuss the finer points
Sunday evening’s run-through was startling, far beyond anything I could have hoped for at this stage of rehearsal.  This was the week Burgandy saved my bacon, Ken and the actors hung in and supported us the whole way through.  I owe more beers than can be drunk in a single opening night.
Monday was the last day off we’ll have before opening.  Finished the final rewrites Monday morning, emailed them out to the actors 20 minutes late on my noon deadline.  Now I get out of the way, catch up on sleep, and the actors work their butts off for the next five days to make gold of it. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

Jamie Konchak as Lara and Jeremy Webb as Beowulf
 11 Days to Opening: The Woman on the Horse
This morning we are all right chuffed. Jamie Konchak, here as our heroine, Lara, beside Jeremy Webb as Beowulf, was nominated last night for three—THREE!—Betties—the Calgary Theatre Awards—for her performances there last year. Jamie’s competing against herself for Best Actress (Drama) in Macbeth and Reasons to Be Pretty, and Best Supporting Actress in The Penelopiad. A loud and proud shout out to Jamie.

Karen Jones Puppet Designer assisted by
Apprentice Stage Manager Morgan McMahon (back turned)

Day off yesterday gave me a chance to catch up with the backlog of rewrites for the week. While the actors worked on swords and puppetry this morning, I snuck in some script work. My to-do list is pretty darn long, but light on leftover changes still to make in the first half, heavy on the second half. Ken and I devised a plan to finish working to the end of the script tomorrow and head back to work the actors from the beginning while I keep ahead of them. Once the rehearsal hall cleared out, I stayed behind and started in from scene one.
Sometimes cutting a scene feels like stumbling around, not sure whether I’m cutting the good stuff or the bad stuff, improving it or just making it shorter. But there comes a point in rehearsal, maybe just of necessity, where you know the actors voices and the scenes so well that the decisions are easy and unneeded words and lines just fall away. Finished the night probably halfway through the first half of the play, blue felt pen highlighter marking all the additions and deletions of this time around, distinguishing them from the yellow highlighter of the last time around, and the black and blue ink of the times before the script started getting messy. End of night, I have a nice pile of cuts and insert pages to hand them tomorrow.

Jamie Konchuk as Lara in a scene you'll never see.

Which calls for one more Jamie photo today. Yesterday began with the announcement the first scene of the play, where Lara tells the story of Beowulf to three children in the woods, is cut. The last time I worked with this company, I didn’t find out Ken had cut the first scene of the play until I arrived for the preview, so I thought I’d strike first this time. I liked the scene very much, but it really is a much better start to the story to jump straight into the second scene in mid-action. So to our left is a photo of the scene you’ll never see.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

13 Days to Opening: Cut, Cut, Cut

Playwright’s holiday over, today was the end of the week stumble-through, everything blocked to date, pages 1-70 scheduled. In reality, this beast is getting really big. With 8 minutes left in the work week, Ken calls it at page 53, 90 minutes into a no-intermission show. Sharpen your swords, there’s going to be cutting and lots of blood.

9:00 a.m., as always, Ken picks me up for the 10 minute drive through green up the mountain. It’s foggy, moody, gorgeous. We don’t get much fog on the prairies, I love this. Roxy Music’s on Ken’s iPod. We give 5 minutes to our fan boy love of everything Bryan Ferry has ever done, then 5 is left for Ken to trash everything ever done by one of my favorite movie directors, Tim Burton.

But first the rewrites: day begins with Jeremy, Burgandy, and Ken looking over the tiny new 8-line scene from yesterday. They give a try at connecting the obscure and bewildering action contained therein with the bewildering and obscure action contained within the earlier meeting of their two characters. In fact, they each try connecting the action of the two scenes in about eight different ways. Nope, none fit. I have no defence. Many rewrite options are suggested, I promise a quickie rewrite of one of them before the afternoon stumble through.

The rest of the morning is spent on the story of Beowulf’s battles with Grendel and his Mother. Jonny tries Grendel for the first time and is kind of fantastic—somehow he’ll have to manage it on stilts by next week, which he’s also trying for the first time. Jamie is teaching him in between rehearsing her scenes. Which leaves not a lot of time as she is in about 95% of the scenes in the play. Also working her fight choreography on breaks and learning to play guitar, which seems to be for relaxation. The Grendel and Mom stuff is a big nasty scene, but with a great energy… and it comes in at about 27 minutes in the afternoon stumble through. It should probably be about 15. Snip snip.

Another fantastic lunch, another amazing benefit of working at the Ross Creek Arts Centre—Greg and Carole’s cooking. For the first time I have to miss my favorite part of the day—joining in with Alexis’s warm up and then watching the daily hour of dragon work—to find a corner and come up with a rewrite for the morning’s scene. All for naught, it’s in the 17 pages we don’t make it to today. We’ll get to it Tuesday.

The stumble-through starts at 3:00, the dust clears at 5:22. The scenes are pretty clear, the actors are way ahead for this stage as far as I can see, there’s no shortage of good stuff and I think the story’s emerging. We say good nights, tomorrow’s day off for the actors. I will get all the days off I want once the script is declared complete and no more cuts or rewrites allowed. But not tomorrow. Ken offers to start marking cuts in the Grendel scene while I sort through rehearsal photos. We hang around and start casually talking about more cuts. And more cuts. And more cuts. All of which will be my work for tomorrow. Cut. Rewrite. Repeat.

All day it’s been foggy out. Beautiful, moody, green below, grey above. I wish pleasant weather for everyone’s day off, but for me, this would be perfect for tomorrow, writer’s cocoon weather.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

14 Days to Opening: Bringing the Game Up

Just wrote a new version of a speech for Daniel, a rewrite for back in the second scene. Daniel plays Gautr, an old father to two sons,the favoured son and the overlooked son, of course. He has a stirring speech in the course of a war council, cajoling the council members with past glories of Geatland, demanding they prove themselves worthy of their ancestors. The first version was okay. But Daniel is doing far better work of the text than the text is giving him to work with. Which is a nice sort of challenge to the playwright, the imperative to bring your game up to be worthy of your actors.

This morning begins inauspiciously for our playwright. Ken’s laptop is open, I mention I have a new scene to insert, that fits right between the first two short scenes we’ll work today. This one’s even shorter, maybe twelve lines long. Which makes three short little scenes in a row. “When did this turn into a movie?” asks Ken. Or something like that. Which is a big ouch. Film is short, pithy, visual scenes. Theatre is long, meaty, probing, dialogue soaked scenes. Directors everywhere disdain playwrights who write film scenes for stage. My next play has 48 tiny short scenes. But Ken’s a game guy. We’ll try the new scene tomorrow, but already he’s got to re-imagine how to set the first two tiny short scenes of the day to accommodate this new one.

The first scene up is, well, maybe eight lines long. It feels kind of, uh… filmy. Andrea is Gussi, a young man recruited and unprepared for battle, about to go AWOL. Rhys is an upper class warrior who catches him sneaking off, but is beyond caring. Within two minutes, we’ve all realized the initial circumstances of the scene are wrong. The imagery in the middle is completely confusing. And the ending is…. a big, long film moment. Rhys and Andrea manage to put it together and pull off a completely workable storytelling scene. But… their work is far better than what the text is forcing them to make do with. And I have no idea how else to set this crucial moment. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Or bring the game up? Table it for now.

Jamie and Ben – AKA Lara and Halfburinn—are up next. After much problem-solving over how we’re going to establish the new convention of a tent on stage, the intimate love scene works out quite beautifully. Moving on, disaster strikes (in the story this time, not the rehearsal hall). Tons of physical stuff to work out, big fight scene, but the bones of the scene are good. Composer Mark’s marimba underneath make a beautiful sad linking of the two contrasting halves of the scene. And it all leads to the big trial scene I rewrote my first night here.

Which works far better than I’d supposed. It’s long. Or I suppose you could call it a long, meaty, probing, dialogue soaked scene. And it seems to work, holds tension, has lots of identifiable moments I can trim to tighten it up. But I have a long list of scene fixes to work on and I agree with Ken not to mess with it any further until after tomorrow’s end of the week stumble-through of everything we’ve worked through up until now.

11pm, I broke that promise the moment I got home. Went straight to the trial scene, spent two hours revising, then started chipping away at the list…. Only got three items crossed off, but including that nice, meaty little speech for Daniel to sink his chops into. All coming along.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Building Beowulf: Playwright Rick Chafe’s Rehearsal Journal

15 Days to Opening: Unexploded Bombs

Unexploded bombs are the little setups you write into a script early on, and don’t get around to dealing with them. Our hero gets a letter she doesn’t want to open, tucks it into a drawer. We all know she’s going to open that letter eventually in the story—at least someone has to. I think I only have a couple unexploded bombs left in the script. There’s one I’ve been worrying over for two drafts now, couldn’t figure out a way to pay off on a set up, but just detonated it now, 11pm. Just a tiny short scene, just at the right time. As these things do, it strikes me as pure gold now, especially as it’s 11pm and I have zero judgment left. Things have an unfortunate way of seeming otherwise by next morning.

Another beautiful morning, we moved outside and ran everything we’ve worked on so far this week to very near the halfway mark. No disasters, no detonations I noticed. I got to play photographer all through it, which is probably a good idea. I paid worry to the details of how the scenes worked, put all my concentration into how they looked through a lens.

Yes, the capes are the first piece of the costumes to be delivered. And no, great as they look, the sunglasses and sun hats are not part of the design.

After the run, Burgandy slipped up sideways to me, script in hand, asked if I wanted to hear a suggestion on a scene. Sort of, in a strange way, like one of the characters she’s playing does to our poor friend, Beowulf. I’ve come to expect these mid-rehearsal visits, or rather hope for them. Because she always brings a very precise observation about a moment that just doesn’t quite work—a script problem, not an acting problem—and then we have a quiet little conversation that, so far, has always led to an elegant solution. Burgandy has the gift of turning a script problem into an opportunity, an unexploded bomb.

In the afternoon, Jeff led the dragoneers with their prototype body pieces on an attack pattern through the playing space, to their destined battle with Beowulf. Manipulating the head, Jeff calls out the choreography, “Attack! Two, three—Rear up! Big Breath! Forward and turn!” This is just getting the track down he repeats to his team of nine, “This isn’t puppetry yet.” We get the basic track of motions down, he promises, and gradually, gradually, add layers and then details.

Turned cloudy and cooler in the afternoon. Fine weather for dragons.