Gypsypost 2: the space station tech effect

I remember being in shows at the Annenberg Center on the campus of The University of Pennsylvania, back when Philly had several theaters renting space there. That’s how old I am now: I can actually write an “I remember when” blog post about Philly theater. Jeez – a part of me feels like I just left my apartment on Ludlow Street in the West Village. Anyway, the Annenberg Center is huge, and it hums with electrical and air conditioning sounds the way all big institutional buildings do. And the circular hallways which wind around the giant Zellerbach Theater led us actors to christen it “space-station Annenberg”. You would spend hours and hours there and never see the light of day, drinking stale coffee, listening to the echo of one rehearsal or another piped through tinny monitors, dressed in some bizarre costume, and completely losing touch with reality. My one memory of this effect was when I was in Of Mice and Men, and there was a simultaneous production of The Cherry Orchard in the smaller theater. We shared the large green room like some band of time-warped hostages – one group from a dirty California farm in the 1930s, and one from a once-elegant Russian estate at the turn of the century. With the added creative force of the plays we were in, it was truly a place of suspended lunacy.

I am having a similar feeling here in Bristol, working on Gypsy. It’s a huge undertaking, and I have a small role(s) to play in it, so I have the experience of being an observer for the long stretches of time when I’m not on stage. It’s like watching a great, musical machine being built. We have a spinning stage and sets that get created while scenes are being played. There’s a new cast of characters now: a small army of dressers and run crew. They whirl around backstage wearing headsets and suddenly disappear like cats. The dressers sit and watch, taking notes. We haven’t added costumes yet.

Part of what makes tech on a big show like this so surreal is the endemic exhaustion. Everyone is sleep-deprived. Cast members and run crew sprawl across theater seats during breaks. Someone is napping on a couch next to me as I write this. Me? I was up at 6:30 a.m. with my kids, then drove an hour to teach for two and half hours, before driving  an hour home for lunch, a quick nap, and then the drive to Bristol. The only person with excess energy is Tovah, who uses dinner break to go over bits, blocking and lines with her assistant, and to catch up on other business through her ubiquitous, orange blackberry. She is truly a force of nature.

Backstage, there is an amazing jumble of sets, props and strange theater stuff. BRT is being stretched to it’s limit with this show. It’s not a small theater, but it doesn’t have a fly loft, so the constantly changing locales of the musical are being handled by the spinning stage, bisected by tall sliding walls which allow one scene to be arranged while another is being played out front. But this means that all the scenes must be stored somewhere when they’re not in use – and thus the astonishing clutter mostly back stage right, where there is the bay for the loading dock. Most astonishing of all is that there is an order to it. This is what the run crew is keeping track of, and stacking just so, so that the right scene can be assembled quietly at the right moment. Oh, I forgot to tell you. The orchestra is backstage too. Where? I’m not quite clear about that. Not on the rotating stage, and not under the stored scenery, so . . . we’ll find out this weekend. There is an orchestra pit, but it’s being used for the dressing room for the stars.

I’ve always been delighted by the juxtaposition that tech always thrusts upon you: the material creativity of hard edges, paint and lighting; and the tender blossoming of the actor, awkward and stubbornly emerging into full glory through the stops and starts of the technical rehearsal. Some actors hate tech. I have always loved it. Because to me, it’s when we witness the union of the sacred and the profane: the quasi-religious experience of the actor’s performance, supported by the quasi-magical effects of lighting, scenery and sound. This is the marriage I have been a groomsman to for the last many years, even before space station Annenberg, all the way back to the Something-Something auditorium at the Park School, when Alice Mamarchev cast me a Uncle Chris in I Remember Mama. That was 1976. I can still smell the AquaNet hairspray and sticks of greasy make-up.