Scorched-post 6: tech

Four years ago, in the fall of 2005, I created and led an exploration into possible connections between Quaker worship and performance creativity. I called this exploration “Revival: Meetings for Theatre.” Part of the exploration had to do with offering actors a way into the spiritual implications of their art using Quaker worship as a medium. Part of it had to do with offering Quakers a window into the expressive possibilities of worship using performers as generators for that expression. Part of it had to do with exploring the implications of silence and stillness. It was a deeply personal and meaningful time for me, and affirmed all these connections.

So imagine my surprise when Blanka directed the first moments of Scorched this way: the actors come on stage casually and sit in chairs around the stage, the house lights dim to half, and everyone sits in silence for 30 seconds or so before the first scene begins. The play begins, for me, in a moment of Quaker worship. God is speaking to me. You can call it what you want. But last night, God tapped me on the shoulder and said, yes, that’s right.

And so we are now lost in the magic of tech. I have always loved this part of rehearsal – except when there’s a fiasco brewing – and I always feel like we’ve all boarded an ocean liner or space ship, some enclosed arc of creativity, and are on our way to opening night. I always feel like I am lifted out of my “normal” life: I lose track of time, of days, of details. I feel the words and images of the play sinking more deeply into the soft fleshy parts of my dreaming brain, as I watch them come to life all around me in the colors and shapes of costumes and lights, in the sounds of music between scenes, in the spirit of actors all around me.

The plainness of the butcher block is gone. It is now what I suspect it has always been: a blank canvas for our brilliant lightening designer to work on. And what work he is doing. Striking geometric shapes, slicing columns of light, sharp borders, beautiful pastel pools all coming to life as we dance in and out of them. Costumes too: bold color choices to pop against the great empty stage, delicate suggestions of mid-east tribal cultures, Alphonse in a brown suit and yellow tie. Gorgeous music composed by Amir and mixed by Jorg: sad piano and trumpet jazz riffs for the western scenes, mysterious Arabic music for the Lebanese scenes.

I love to be on stage during the many pauses. I stare out at the audience and see the shadowy outlines of designers, stage managers and technicians lit by tiny flex lamps clipped to tables, which hover in the sea of seats like small islands of inspiration in the quiet vastness. I love it when the lighting designer uses one of these pauses to try a new look, or a transition, and I sense the air around me turn into waves of blending shifting light, and I swear I can feel the light change on the surface of my skin, on my scalp beneath my wispy hair. I love stepping out of the cue as I work on some lines, and walk around the outside of a splash of light, feeling the way the light bounces off the surfaces and lights me from below even though the instruments are high above. I love sitting in the house behind the designers, and watching the birth of this great event we are all making together, marveling at the quiet strokes of mutual genius muttered between artists in the darkness. I love the way it all seems so high tech, with banks of computer screens, cables and wireless walkie-talkies; and at the same time, it seems so ancient, and I sense our connection to the Barrymores and the Forrests, to the Comedie Francaise and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to the Moscow Art Theatre and ultimately, to Epidaurus.

Perhaps I am thinking globally because of our international design team. It begins with our playwright, a Lebanese man repatriated in Canada, where he writes in French. Our director, of course, is Czech. Our set designer, Polish; composer, Iraqi; sound designer, German; costume designer, Romanian; ASM, Chinese. But we are actually Americans. Here is the melting pot at work, cooking up something glorious. And with that statement I am reminded of the way we actors tend to lose any critical distance from the thing we are making, but mostly become starry-eyed cheerleaders, besotted with mutual admiration and passionate love for the play we are bringing to life. I am no exception. Even when I am in a play without the obvious attributes of Scorched, I tend to be this way. But I think we must be this way. One of the most hard-bitten veterans in the cast turned to me and said, “I love this play. Don’t you love this play?” Yes, I replied, yes. I have to. How could I bring Alphonse to life, and hold the event itself at arms length, passing judgments? At the center of the actor’s gift is this ability – this need – to sink into shameless, abject exaltation of the thing being made. The actor’s imagination will not tolerate analysis, dividing things into hierarchical categories and explaining away the magic. It’s like my Russian acting teacher Slava Dolgachev told me: acting isn’t for smart people. Acting is for people of faith, brave and a bit crazy, willing to dive in.

Scorched-post 6: tech, originally published Thursday, February 19, 2009