It’s been a while since I’ve been in a cast in which I feel like I’m part of a sports team. The last time I can remember feeling like this was in Of Mice and Men in 1995 at the Philadelphia Drama Guild. It was also a cast of all men and one woman, with some serious stage combat in it. Cyrano has a similar energy, but maybe that’s because we’ve been rehearsing the fights intensely, given our two weeks-plus-tech rehearsal schedule.
When I arrived in Philly, the normal rehearsal period went like this: three weeks in a rehearsal room, a week of transition into the theater (called tech), then previews for a week, then opening. This meant we had four weeks of rehearsal before a paying customer saw us, and five before a critic saw us. In one of the clearest signs of how the economic situation has impacted the arts, here is how the standard rehearsal schedule goes now: two weeks in a rehearsal room, a week of tech, previews then opening. In order to save money, theaters have shaved a week off of rehearsal and added preview performances, thereby decreasing expenses and increasing income. It was true for Midsummer Nights Dream last year, Gypsy in December and Cyrano now. Three different theaters, three different shows, same rehearsal schedule. In each case, it wasn’t and isn’t enough time.
And just as with more conventional businesses all across America, it is the workers who bear the brunt of this change, working harder for the same hourly pay. In for-profit businesses the implication is more . . . upsetting, because those institutions make more money in this paradigm shift, while the workers do not. In not for profits, like theaters, it is not the same. In most cases it has to do with these theaters genuinely wanting to do big shows they have trouble affording. So there’s an admirable aspect to it: the refusal to compromise on artistic goals because of economic restraints.
Yet just as with Gypsy, we are rushing: to rehearse fights, to learn lines, to make choices. These are the creative essentials of the theater, and they are compromised when we hurry.
Take line-learning. Line-learning is personal. Every actor is different. Some can learn them quickly and others cannot. And while this idiosyncrasy has no bearing on the actor’s talent as an actor, in this new sped-up rehearsal process a premium is put on getting off book ASAP. Every actor wants to work without a script in his hands, and as quickly as possible. But there is a valuable and important period of rehearsal which used to get more focus: table work, when for days the cast and the director, assistants, stage managers and dramaturges sit around a table reading and re-reading the play, diving deeply into its themes, relishing its images and language, investigating its questions. Or that week or so when actors worked with script in hand or script close by. It made for delicious and thoughtful collaboration with directors, as actors paused, stared at a passage in the script, motioned to directors who huddled with actors around the words, and carefully considered their meaning and momentum. We do not have that luxury any more, because of money, and it’s hardest on the directors, who are forced to race and exhort their actors to make confident choices sooner than ever.
Does it sound like things are going badly? Well it shouldn’t, because their not. We are working on a new translation/adaptation and it is a wonderful balance of romance and efficiency. Our Cyrano is Eric Hissom and he is wonderful, and has the advantage of having played the role, in this adaptation, last year at the Folger Theater in Washington DC. So the guy with the most lines knows his lines best of all – added incentive for the rest of us to catch up.
The playwright in charge of the translation is my dear friend Michael Hollinger, and the co-adapter and director is my friend Aaron Posner, who directed me in Around the World in 80 Days last year. The cast is full of some of Philadelphia’s finest actors: Scott Greer, David Bardeen, Doug Hara, Luigi Sottile, Justin Jain. New York actors Keith Randolph Smith and Jessica Cummings (our exquisite Roxane) round out the cast. Aaron has just had his first child, Masie, and I am godfather to Michael’s daughter Willa. So the whole theater family thing is full swing here, and I am loving it. I play the Compte de Guiche, who I was describing to my friends before rehearsals began as “the villain”. But in Michael and Aaron’s version, he is so much more than that and I have fallen completely in love with him, as sad, awkward and vain as he is. You can have your Tony Awards and and New York glamor. To be working on a masterpiece like this, on a character that calls to me, with friends like these: it’s what I signed up for.