Dynamics of a Stumble Through: Anxiety to Elation

The Seagull unfolds in 4 acts and seems to take about two and a half hours of stage time (hopefully ten to fifteen minutes less than that). Our tech weekend saw us meet all our goals, as we finished all the moment to moment cueing of the show by the 4 pm dinner break on Sunday, and then, at 6:30, in full costume, we were able to work through the whole show, stopping every 25 or so minutes to re-do or tinker with something that needed addressing. At the end of the opening act, the play’s longest, I was concerned. At the end of the second act–which is where we’ll have our fifteen minute intermission–I was relieved. At the end of Act III, the play’s shortest, I was excited, and at the end of Act IV and the play’s final moments I was, yes, elated. And so, the chronicle of a bi-polar audience member; a nervous adapter totally uncertain as to whether this big experiment will work, slowly and surely giving way to the high quality of everything unfolding before the assembled.

Near the start of Act I, I received a text from our literary director, Shirley, asking if she should still come by and was everything okay. My feeling at that moment was, “no, it’s a train-wreck, don’t bother” even though it wasn’t really a train-wreck; actors were doing their work and executing their lines and their moves, but nothing seemed to be connecting. The moments weren’t registering. Imagining myself as a first-time audience member with a good degree of skepticism coming into this enterprise, I kept wondering (in the voice of the imagined/composite audience member), “why are they making these choices? where are we? Why is everything so busy?”

“How will the opening act land? In presenting a new set of theatrical groundrules, will audiences get it? Are we too stylized for them? Are we too contemporary? Are we too intent on ramming this ethnic departure down their throats? Isn’t there too much underscoring?” This is everything that went through my mind, all of which was eventually shared with our director and design team. And yet even during that first act, where I remained so much of a Doubting Thomas, I noticed reasons for tremendous hope. There is thrilling theatricality in the staging of Treplev’s play-within-the-play and Nina’s wild performance as the Sabbath bride. The opening procession and our movement from Shostokovich into Yakov’s solo is also, equally arresting and, ultimately, feels quite right. The end of the act, Masha sitting on the edge of the stage and coming out with the most poignant of plainspoken confessions is just absolutely beautiful. And so, perhaps indeed, all things that still aren’t working are just technical adjustments (tons of characters talking upstage, ignoring the audience, volume issues, us not really settling into the drama of any given interchange), all that is going to change over the coming days. John Vreeke knows exactly what to do. And yes, the success that the actors had in the three subsequent acts will teach them, instinctively, so much of what they need to know for how the show must open.

Here’s what you should know about how we turned the corner in Act II and thereafter last night. Midway through the act, a contractor with the JCC, Chris Downing on Innersound, came into the theater with a handtruck to pick up some left-over speakers from the Jewish Music Festival. The speakers were in the second row of the house and it would have been a little bit of a disturbance for him to gather up the gear with all the action happening downstage just in front of where the speakers were resting. I walked down from the back of the house to greet Chris and invited him to watch until there was a break, or until we stopped to fix something. Chris, who’s been staffing our festivals and the JCC’s literary/Nextbook programming for 12 years, has also worked the occasional Theater J gig including the entire run of Sandra Bernhard’s “Without You I’m Nothing” and he’s got a pretty high degree of respect for what we do. So I invited him to sit in the row right behind me down in front and fully expected a break in the action in a few moments. But the break didn’t happen. Nina’s scene with Treplev, where he walks in with the dead bird, was an uninterrupted joy of grotesque maudlin humor that played rather wonderfully, Chris laughing at the spectacle of that real life specimen of a seagull dead in Treplev’s and then Nina’s arms. And then, in fairly swift order, came Nina’s scene with Trigorin, the older author of the show. Actor Jerry Whiddon was trying a new take at the top of the scene. It was totally compelling. A scene between an author in his 50s and a would be actress in her early 20s turned into the most intimate of unlikely flirtations and Chris and I turned to look at each other about 5 times during the scene as we could see what was unfolding on stage. Our Nina was confident, fetching, even confrontational, in the most alluring kind of way and, for the first time, in front of a tiny gathering of audience, this scene held, and then soared as it evoked a lot of different really wonderful reactions.

The act came to a close and Chris looked at me and said, “you got something here.” And I’d venture to say he’s right. He gathered up the speakers. Shirley had arrived and agreed that things seemed to be proceeding quite wonderfully. Acts III and IV revealed themselves similarly; the actors were settling in; the production was finding its way to hang back, and then scenes, one after another, felt like they were holding.

It’s bad karma to go into specific detail over good news coming out of a rehearsal. No telling how we might sabotage whatever wonderful things were working. And we all know we have miles and miles to go. But the point here is to tell you that anxiety gave way to hope and then real excitement over what was being created.

I’ll send on my notes to John, buckle down with the work ahead, and report some more soon. Feeling good…