Someone probably made this for a wedding rehearsal. The internet is a funny thing.
Greetings from inside the production process for Justified Sinners! If you have even briefly spent time with me or this blog, you know how long I have hoped and wished that I could take part in bringing my play to life. And now, I am finally and joyfully able to report that the journey from page to stage is well underway and we are nearly a week into rehearsals.
Right before rehearsals began, I had the pleasure of attending the annual NASSR (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism) conference in Ottawa. There, I was fortunate enough to listen to papers by many outstanding Romanticists, meet some wonderful people, and speak about contemporary Romantic Biodramas (you know, nothing fun or thrilling for me). After I presented my paper, someone came up to me and, during our conversation, I mentioned that I had written a play about the Shelleys and that it would be going in to production later that week. Something about saying it aloud to someone, realizing the impending start of rehearsals, or seeing a real-life Romanticist’s enthusiasm over the project made me giddy and grateful all over again that I would get to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime process.
Now, to stay true to my intention of making this blog into a process journal for the creation of a Romantic Biodrama, I felt it was necessary to briefly descend from “Cloud 9” (aka my permanent home during this staging process) to offer some insight and perspective on how the rehearsal process has been so far. Brace yourselves, I have built up a lot of thoughts and feelings.
As I write to you, we have completed nearly a week of rehearsals, discussions, blocking, and character exploration. Because of the sheer insanity of my creative team’s schedules (staging a play during Edmonton fringe is a suicide mission, but they are so unbelievably stoic and dedicated to all their many projects), a two-week-long staging process made the most sense for the group. And so, we began rehearsals on August 16th, just two weeks before our August 30th opening. To accomplish the necessary work during this limited time frame, we have primarily held full-day rehearsals, usually from 9-5.
In my former life, I had some experience as an actor and I have endless empathy and respect for my phenomenal actors, who (alongside their other projects and responsibilities) are charged with the task of learning blocking, lines, and building characters in such a limited amount of time. Again, having the world’s best creative team is imperative here, since any actor will tell you that this is a Herculean task, made even more challenging by the play’s poetry, monologues, sometimes-sticky dialogue, and the obvious pressures of any show with only two performers. They spend an hour onstage reciting so many lines and going through the ringer (emotionally and physically speaking). Needless to say, they are my absolute artist-heroes. In addition to the gift that is dedicated and skilled performers, this rehearsal process has been aided immeasurably by our organized and tireless stage manager and the steady hand and intuition of the wonderful director. These two guiding influences have literally made this all possible and, thanks to them, the two-week rehearsal period will allow for plenty of time to get the necessary work done and produce a play that I am already so proud of (and which I hope they are all equally as proud).
From this acknowledgement of my good fortune in having an excellent creative team and the time constraints and pressures they are daily working against, I want to talk about the format that our rehearsals have taken and outline the structure of our time together thus far. First, we have the could fortune of rehearsing in the theatre where the play will be staged, which is a real luxury, and because we are the only ones using the space, we are able to keep our set pieces out all the time (again, this is highly unusual).
Our first rehearsal (a behemoth eight-hour day for the team) began with a read-through of the script. This was the first time for me to hear the script read aloud by anyone (other than me and my long-suffering husband) and it was genuinely thrilling to hear the actors read it. Additionally, it allowed me to get a bit of distance from the text and really hear all of it for the first time: the good, the bad, and the wordy. After this initial read-through, my director and I discussed our perception of the script and I subsequently made some more edits (a process I will discuss in greater detail in my next entry).
Following our first read-through, we discussed the background of the play and I gave a brief overview of some of the materials I prepared for the group’s research pack. As I detailed in my previous entry, I wanted the team to have those materials available to them, but I didn’t want the documentary record to become prescriptive for them. To that end, our dramaturgical discussion at this point primarily focused on addressing any specific questions that emerged from their first encounters with the play and its supporting materials. I also glossed some key aspects of the Romantic period (especially the perception of the “artist” and “poet genius” at the time) and the Shelleys’ own context (chiefly, the notion of “Romantic sociability” and the important fact that the Shelleys’ lifestyle meant that they were only ever infrequently alone in their relationship).
Once we developed a collective understanding of the play and its historical subject matter, we discussed the production design and some specifics regarding how the play would be staged. While I will discuss design in more detail later (and trust me, it is a real treat) it was amazing to hear about the director and designer’s ideas for how the playing space would look and how they were working to emphasize key elements from the script through their concept (water and paper will be focal and dynamic forces in the design, so my heart is exploding). Design makes it feel real and it was great to hear about their concept early in the process so I could have that in mind.
After the initial groundwork of reading the play, engaging with the subject through my dramaturgical work, and discussing the production design, we immediately began the process of getting the play on its feet and started the blocking process on the first day (again, this rehearsal process has been at warp-speed from the first day). And if that weren’t enough, we managed to cruise through the first fifteen pages of the thirty-three-page script on day one. Yes. That’s right. I keep telling them they are a dream team for obvious reasons.
In addition to the professionalism and skill of our team, another thing that has aided the rehearsal process is that the director and actors have worked together before (earlier this spring, in fact, on yet another historical drama). This sense of trust and understanding between them has greatly expedited the process, allowing them to make connections quickly, respond to each other’s needs in the moment, and to establish a network of positive communication. It has been wonderful to see this in action and to watch them bring this piece to life together through collaborative discussion and an appreciation for one other’s point of view. Because of this positive and productive dynamic in the room, we have completed initial blocking of the play and we held our first full run yesterday. Again, dear reader, if you too have worked in the theatre in any capacity, you will appreciate that starting rehearsals on Wednesday and having a complete run of the play by Sunday is a preternaturally fast turn-around and I am in awe of everything that has happened in such a short amount of time.
Furthermore, while holding a complete run of the play after five days is already a heroic measure, the team’s incredible speed has importantly not come at the cost of depth, nuance, and character development. Accordingly, on Friday we took a break from blocking the play and charting the actors’ movements on stage to complete a fantastic exercise. Our director noted that, in the process of blocking the play and memorizing where you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to be doing in every moment onstage, characterization can often get lost. To help mediate this, we took a break in the formal blocking process after working through the play’s first twenty-four pages. We set up a room on the other side of the theatre, complete with walls, a door, a couch, and a window. The actors could get coffee, get comfortable, and explore the emotional arc of the play without the pressure of sticking to where they had to stand, sit, or walk in any given moment. Working in this new space, which was intentionally created to make them feel at ease and to forget about theatricality and the presence of an audience, the actors ran through the whole script and followed their characters’ emotional journeys and their own impulses. The director, stage manager, and I were there, although we were tucked to the sides and behind furniture to make them feel even more at ease.
Periodically, they or the director would pause what they were doing and take a break to reflect on what had occurred in the preceding section. The director would ask questions about their intentions or emotions and they could pose questions to him (or to me as the playwright and dramaturg, whenever necessary). I had never seen or participated in an exercise like this before and I thought it was an excellent addition to the rehearsal process, especially at this key moment when the actors were still becoming acquainted with their characters, their lines, and what they would be doing onstage throughout the play. It gave them a chance to temporarily forget about the performative element of the story and focus on the emotional beats and relationship that are key to any production, but especially important for this two-hander about two writers and the relationship between them. The director advised them to think about the journeys they had gone on during this exercise and to bring the character arcs they had discovered to their performance. In discussing the exercise with me afterwards, he noted that this method of combining the blocking of the play (which is inherently regimented and orderly) with a purely emotional and intuitive exploration of the material was akin to a process of thesis and antithesis combing together to produce a creative synthesis. In the rehearsals that have followed, this sense of creative synthesis has certainly pervaded the actors’ work and I think this exercise has rendered meaningful results in this highly-condensed rehearsal process.
At this stage, we now have just over a week until the production opens (how is that even possible?). The next step is for the actors to get off-book and the director has asked that they have the first half memorized for Tuesday and the second half for Wednesday. Again, I can’t help but feel intense empathy for them as they accomplish this task and I feel the urge to make every word go away so that I can make their jobs easier. But I have absolute confidence in them and I know that if anyone could memorize the script that quickly, it is certainly them. Once they have the play memorized, we can really delve deeply in the material, refine the blocking, and continue to develop the characters they have already started to create.
As for little old me, I just keep pinching myself, absolutely in awe of the fact that these talented people have all congregated to stage a play that I wrote. I’m trying not to let my nerves dull the pure joy of this process and my next entry will continue to unpack my role in the rehearsal process and my impressions as a first-time playwright (who has been out of theatre for a minute and is not yet used to this new role and all that it entails). My subsequent entries will continue to chart and unpack the staging process but, for now, I wanted to conclude this tome of a blog by again noting that this is a surreal and fantastic experience that I am far too lucky to be having. I am already so proud and excited about this production and I can’t wait for the next (and final!) week of rehearsals.