RHINO VICTORY DANCE
I’m home for bedtime, I’m cooking dinner, and Zoe is dancing around in a rhino mask and a wool undershirt with strange black lines drawn on it in fabric marker. Must be Monday, June 4.
Sunday, June 3 was the final performance of our production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. I can say without fear of contradiction that it was unlike any other show we’ve done. It was, for one thing, nearly twice as long as the two full-length plays we’ve done (Antigone and Picasso at the Lapin Agile both ran about 90 minutes with no intermission). It was the first play we did that required multiple sets. It was the first play we’ve ever done that called for a two-level set. And of course it was the first time anyone in this organization had tangled with Eugene Ionesco.
It was a great run. Everything really came together during show week and it was exciting to see how much the whole production grew from day to day. This was most dramatically visible in the first-half set change, which took about 15 minutes on day one but was down to under 5 minutes by the time we opened. But all four scenes got better as well, and the sound and music came in, and we got the lights up (thank you, Dennis from Grand Stage, without your help we would be gibbering in a ditch somewhere), and Paul and Rachel stayed up all night to finish the set at dawn on opening day, and off we went and it was wall-to-wall awesome except for the fact that it was, sadly, also our first production in which we had an injury. Saturday night, our beloved stage manager and assistant director for rhinoceroses (Terrie) stepped up on one of the platforms and dislocated her knee. She managed to relocate it, but not without excruciating pain. So Laura and I went with her to the ER while Act III got underway.
You know how people always say “The show must go on?” They’re not just whistling Dixie. The show actually did go on. There’s a lot I will remember about this production, but one of my most vivid impressions is of people coming together behind the scenes to take care of Terrie. Without the masks, the rhinoceros costumes look a lot like cop uniforms; so when the rhinos rallied around their fallen leader, it felt as if some special kick-ass SWAT team was zooming in to save her. We all talk a lot about the “community” part of community theater; I’m saving that image for when I need to explain the concept. I think in everyone’s mind, Sunday’s performance was dedicated to Terrie; and it was one of the best we had.
I learned a lot from Rhinoceros. It’s a hard @#$! play to put on. It’s divided into four scenes which we rehearsed more or less separately. Each scene has its own challenges. The first scene, which includes ten of the play’s seventeen speaking parts, is the closest to the absurdism of Ionesco’s earlier work. Though it pretends to be a simple representation of a little town on market day being terrorized by a rhinoceros (or perhaps two rhinoceroses), what it’s really about is the arbitrariness of language, the inadequacy of logic and reason, and the impossibility of communication. All the characters talk a lot, but very little gets said. Though John accuses Berenger of not talking seriously, Berenger is actually the only character in that scene who says anything meaningful. Everyone else is either repeating clichéd expressions (their clichéd nature often underlined by the fact that these expressions are repeated by the entire cast), arguing over something pointless (was it a unicorned rhinoceros or a bicorned rhinoceros?), or playing games (John bullying Berenger; the Logician and his cats). This is of course all fascinating from a philosophical point of view…but it makes that part of the play diabolically hard for the actors to learn. Act I is like the Bermuda Triangle of Rhinoceros. Many a production has been sucked into that maelstrom never to emerge. But not ours! Paul really worked hard on Act I in the weeks before the show and it really took off. I was so proud to see all the Act I people up on stage making it funny and making it work and getting the laughs they deserve. I also want to thank Laura, our props person, for creating the flat cat and the pizza box and finding the 50 million other props that I in my innocence made necessary by inventing all that business with the waitress and the food. Thank you, Laura!
Act I presents challenges to the directors as well. By the time Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros he was already established and he had the resources of one of Paris’s most prominent theaters at his disposal. The more Ionesco relied on those resources, the harder we had to strain to compensate for the fact that we didn’t have them. Blocking a scene with ten people in it on a stage made of seven 4×8 platforms is not easy; and as I eventually learned, it cannot be devised during rehearsal. I spent a lot of time pushing around little squares of paper at home, and in the end I was happy with what we came up with.
The office scene is more conventional in terms of how Ionesco treats the dialogue; but that doesn’t make it easy. The absurdity moves into the physical side of the production; and that creates all kinds of challenges. Once the rhinoceros that was once Mr. Boeuf destroys the staircase, the characters have to climb out of the office onto a fireman’s ladder. Mrs. Boeuf, when she bravely leaps to her husband’s side, has to jump into the void where the staircase once was and disappear. Both effects require a certain amount of height. Paul’s idea for how to achieve this was to stack the platforms on top of each other. This required a massive set change in the middle of the first half, which was organized by Terrie and executed by the rhinos, Paul, and some of the Act I cast members. Since there was no way to do anything this complicated in darkness, we decided to make it part of the show; Terrie dressed up like a construction foreman and Bill found some construction noises to go with Jenne and Roland’s transition music. The first time we tried this in show week, that change took about fifteen minutes. They got it down to under five by opening night, and it got faster with each performance. Because of Terrie’s injury, I had to help out with the set changes on Sunday, and I have to say it was kind of exhilarating to be a part of it. It was an amazing piece of work, and I want to thank everyone involved for the extraordinary effort it took to pull it off. I would also like to thank the office scene actors for coping so well with their small, elevated playing area. That scene was always hysterically funny in rehearsal, and I worried about what the move to the set would do to it; but they carried it off beautifully. Mrs. Boeuf’s scene is one of my favorite parts of the play, and I loved the way they all did it. Janna deserves a special medal for being willing to take a flying leap off the stage onto a mattress night after night. Mrs. Boeuf’s tear-away skirt was just one of about a thousand costumes thrifted, borrowed, or made by Mary McCarthy, who was largely responsible for the show looking as good as it did. Early on I had this idea of the play’s world going from technicolor to black and white as the rhinos encroached, and because the set was largely black and white it was Mary who had to provide most of the color in the earlier scenes. And by God, she did it. They were bright and beautiful costumes, and I loved watching them in motion.
The transformation scene calls for special effects—John’s skin is supposed to change color, and he’s supposed to be growing a rhino horn on his forehead—and we did our best with them. But ultimately what sold the transformation scene was the acting. If a horn fell off once in a while, so what; that rhinoceros was clearly emerging from within, and it was both hilarious and kind of terrifying, which is exactly what you need for that scene. John and Bill had great chemistry in all their scenes together, but that one was always my favorite. I was not alone. Every once in a while you’d be doing something else with some of the cast members somewhere and someone would just call out, “The swamps! THE SWAMPS!” Apart from the chairs and the dresser, Paul built all the furniture we used for this production out of plywood. At one point, as we were driving off to Ace Hardware or something, I said to Paul, “You better use the ¾ inch plywood for the platform in that bed,” and he said, “Yeah, no kidding.” We could get Bill a spot endorsing a lumber company after this show. “The Davis Plywood Company. It’s not just tough—it’s RHINO tough.”
Jenne and Roland’s music was also a big help in that scene; her rhino themes all had a kind of dance rhythm to them (sometimes a tango, sometimes a cha-cha) and the rhino victory dance at the end of the transformation scene always got a round of applause.
In Act III there are only 3 human characters left: Dudard, Daisy, and Berenger. The acting in that part of the play is very tricky; the opening scene with Dudard and Berenger incorporates a debate nearly as long as Creon’s and Antigone’s and it takes a lot of work to keep that thing interesting. The romance with Daisy is odd, and emotionally complicated; and of course the final monologue makes huge demands on the actor playing Berenger. John, Rita, and Nic all did a fabulous job with Act III and by the time we got to opening night it was a thing of beauty.
Act III is also where the rhinos come to the fore. I should explain that Ionesco and Prouse assume that the rhinos will never really become visible. They are represented on stage just as heads, or as cut-outs, and the rhino sound effects are recorded. You can in fact rent a CD of rhino sound effects along with the Samuel French acting edition, and they will charge you a fee for each use. We decided to use people power to create our rhino effects. I’m so glad we did that, because the rhino chorus was really important to the success of this show. Terrie worked with the rhinos every week on trampling & trumpeting, and they did all the rhino sound effects live. We also built 22 rhino masks, and Mary made 22 black rhino costumes, and we put all the cast members apart from Daisy and Berenger out there in rhino suits during the final monologue. Coordinating the rhino effects was something that couldn’t really be done until the last few weeks of the show; but it was one of the things I most enjoyed. I’ve always wanted us to do more with movement, and I was happy with what we came up with for the rhinos: simple enough for everyone to execute, but still effective. It was great to get the whole cast involved in that final scene, and have the humans working alongside the rhinos. Rock on, rhinos!
Directing this show was a wonderful, if often exhausting, experience, and I am grateful to everyone who made it possible. Thank you all, cast and crew, for your hard work and your beautiful performances, and I hope we will see you all in future Players productions.
Friday, June 1, 2012
How did that group of assorted people–many of whom started out as strangers to one another and to us–and that big empty room turn into this? Last night was dress rehearsal and although (in the way of community theater run on a shoestring) there was still painting and constructing and problem solving going on in the other corners of the Station, in spite of all that distraction, the actors gave it their best and, WOW, their best is plenty good enough! You don’t want to miss this show. Four separate scenes with four different flavors of funny and a little spooky! A production to remember. And only this one little weekend.
Just a note on ticket sales: the advance ticket options will sunset sometime today, but there should still be tickets at the door, provided you come at least a half hour early to beat the rush. Tickets at the door: $12 for adults; still $10 for seniors & students with a valid ID.
See you there!
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
We’ve moved everything into the Great Room of the Experimental Station, that great brick and cinder block box where we work our magic. Tools, lumber, costumes, props, specially-constructed set furniture, paint paraphernalia fill the space with a controlled chaos of creative flotsam and jetsam. Theater is made of a lot of moving parts and those parts are moving and finding their grooves and fitting into place and together. It’s easy to wonder how it all will be done, but it wouldn’t be magic if that wasn’t so.
Thanks to the hard work of a few very dedicated people, this Friday, June 1, at 8:00 pm, the house lights will darken in that great big room, the music will sound, and then those other lights will come up and the Players will play the play of Rhinoceros.
All you Players, BREAK A LEG! All the rest of you, please join us: it’s us together, audience and actors (and the crew behind the scenes), who together make the unique alchemy of live theater!
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Wow! Almost two months since that last entry, and I can feel the elements all starting to come together: rehearsals now moved to the Experimental Station, the actors coming alive in that big space; the trip to Home Depot to buy the set building materials that weren’t squirreled away in our storage locker; the rhinoceroses cutting and constructing their pachydermical masks; the first draft of Jenne’s music, flyers going up, tickets being sold; the rhino adoption agency open for business–it’s all converging. You can start to see the thing taking shape even as you can see all the work that will have to be done to fit all those pieces together into one glorious opening night on the first day in June.
There’s no business like show business!
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Alone at last…?
Yes, last night it was just little ol’ me directing, since Susan, my co- and Terrie, our Rhino Wrangler, both had other places to be. It felt a little strange to have to sit at the helm and pretend to be THE Director.
So we worked on the timing and the energy in the first scene which is all about energy and timing as a street full of ordinary citizens discuss and argue vociferously about the silliest subjects only to be interrupted – TWICE! – by a rhinoceros (or is it two rhinoceroses?) thundering by, which only gives rise to still sillier and more impassioned exchanges and everyone talking at once!
So, we try this and we try that–and the actors are still on book of course, so you get these odd little lulls in the dialogue as their eyes have to trek across the paragraphs of stage directions searching for the next line–and you think, well let’s try it one more time, so we back up and try it again….
And suddenly it all just works!
“OK, We’ll go on from there!”
Monday, March 12, 2012
SHOW ME THE MODELS
You know, when they make movies about putting on a show, there’s a lot they don’t show you. Like for instance, the two hours Paul and I spent at the Sit-Down today moving pieces of cardboard around. And yet, without those two hours and many more like them, the show does not work.
It is just one of many ways in which directing is like teaching. People think that your job consists of showing up for the hours that you actually spend in the classroom. This is a crock. 90% of the educational experience you provide is work that you put in outside of class which is completely invisible to your students. With theater that ratio’s probably even worse because…let’s say we’re going to provide around 8 hours of theater at the end of this process. Oh my God, the hours of rehearsal, it doesn’t even bear thinking about. But then there’s all the stuff that isn’t even rehearsal…such as the pieces of cardboard.
When asked, not too long ago, about how Paul and I handle the division of labor, I said something vague about us having complementary strengths and weaknesses. This is most obvious when it comes to the set. Though I am the daughter of an engineer, and though my nickname within my own nuclear family is “Mommy MacGuyver,” I cannot do set design. If you put a bunch of physical objects in front of me and ask me to manipulate them with a goal in mind, I can usually do it. But I do not have the ability to move imaginary objects around and have any idea of where they have ended up.
Fortunately this is one of Paul’s talents. It’s especially fortunate right now, because this is the first play we’ve done where the set has to be changed at any time other than intermission. And this is where our particular spatial situation starts to pose some challenges. The Great Room at the Experimental Station is not a theater; it’s a big empty space. There’s no stage or built-in seating. In that set-up, for visibility purposes, you can either raise the seats and play on the floor, or put the seats on the floor and raise the actors. We’ve always gone with option #2, which means the ‘stage’ is actually a series of platforms raised on wooden legs which are clamped together and then painted, decorated, etc. Every show we’ve done seems to require more space, so for every show we wind up building another platform. We now have a total of seven platforms, each with six legs. For Antigone, which we staged in the round, Paul designed a multi-level set which involved stacking some platforms, putting some flat on the ground, and so on. I have to say I thought it was pretty cool.
Well, Rhinoceros has four locations: the street, the office, and two bedrooms (which even in the script are described as looking suspiciously like each other). An added wrinkle is that it is important to the action that the office is a second-floor office. The second-floor business, in the script we have, is done with a trap door. Well, we can’t do a trap door. We have 18 inches of space under the platform, after which you hit solid concrete. So there’s nothing else for it but to stack the platforms. But in the other scenes we can’t do that; we need the larger playing area and anyhow it wouldn’t make sense.
So Paul’s idea was to do a modular staging, and to build the different sets by moving the platforms around. He pitched this idea to me about a month ago, expecting me to tell him he was crazy. However, I couldn’t see any other way to do it; so crazy or not crazy, this is how we’re doing it. And if it works, that’ll be one more strategy we can think about next time we’re designing a production. And if it doesn’t work…well, there is no doesn’t work. Failure is not an option.
Anyhow, so after trying to block Act I scene I last Wednesday I told Paul that I needed a better idea of how the sets are going to be set up, so today he brought the cardboard models. Now I have a better idea. We also figured out where to put the furniture for the office scene, which we did by moving sugar packets around. So we’ll be ready for tomorrow.
The great advantage to this design is that it will not involve too much actual building. The disadvantage is, well, we’ve never done this before and it is inevitable that the first couple of times we try it we will discover some unforeseen practical difficulties. But when it works, I think it will be pretty @#$! cool.
Tuesday, February 28
24 People Walk Into a Room
Last Saturday we had auditions for Rhinoceros. I love HPCP auditions. When I was growing up, I hated auditioning for anything. I was not good at it, and it was humiliating. It’s true that it’s a lot more fun being on the directors’ side of the table; but I’ve even started trying out for the shows I don’t direct, just because it’s always a good time.
Why? Because although everyone is doing their best to land a part, in another sense everyone is there to play. No matter what happens, nobody’s livelihood is at stake here; nobody gets paid for what we do and I think we have all accepted that no HPCP show will lead to anyone’s being discovered by Hollywood. There is of course the heartbreak of not getting the part you want, and for us the heartbreak of not being able to give a part to everyone who deserves one. Fortunately, though, Paul and I have always wound up directing plays where anyone who tries out and doesn’t get a part can still join the cast as a member of the corps of…well, Young Kings (On Baile’s Strand), Angry Theban Citizens (Antigone) or, in this case, rhinoceroses.
We are of course always watching to see who can do what with which role. But it’s fortunate for me that I can concentrate while laughing my ass off, because Rhinoceros is some funny @#$!. We must have done the Housewife’s scene 15 times on Saturday and yet it never got old. Thinking about it afterwards I realized that the genius of it is how people in this town both care and don’t care about each other. Everyone wants to be sympathetic to the housewife; but they’re comically unable to connect with her emotions, and when it looks like Jean and Berenger are going to come to blows everyone’s suddenly much more interested in that. The whole “one horn or two?” thing is also genius—because it’s such an absurd thing to fixate on, but also because it so perfectly performs how once you start questioning something you think you know, it suddenly becomes impossible to be sure about it. This happens to me in the classroom from time to time—a student will say something which is completely factually wrong, but say it with such conviction that you start thinking, is it possible that s/he’s right? And then you get out of the room and look it up and say, whew. But then in our world, where do you look it up, and can you trust it? What does Wikipedia say about the rhinoceros and its horns? And whatever it says, how do we know that Jean or Berenger hasn’t organized some kind of crazy Wiki-hacking campaign?
I also never get tired of Mrs. Boeuf’s scene. I wish we could do that scene 5 times in a row with a different Mrs. Boeuf each time. This is the thing about directing—it kind of makes you feel bad for the spectators, who only get to see the final product once. When you direct you get to see so many different versions of everything, it’s a constant smorgasboard of theatrical delights. I mean, it won’t always be delightful, but still.
Since people have sometimes asked me, “Say…why Rhinoceros?” I figure I should maybe wind up by saying something about that:
Though this seems to surprise everyone, Paul and I both like directing together better than either of us would like directing separately. It helps to share the responsibility—and the work—and it also helps that whatever crazy idea one of us comes up with, it has to be vetted by at least one other person before it’s implemented. (I think the adoption of this system would have made a lot of Kenneth Brannagh’s later films a lot better, but I digress.) We have different tastes when it comes to plays. Initially this was not apparent because we are both Yeats fans. We also both have strong attachments to Anouilh’s Antigone. And then…well, Paul tried to sell me on Christopher Fry, and I tried to sell him on Sean O’Casey, and nobody was getting anywhere, and I was staring at the bookcases in my office and I saw RHINOCEROS and I thought, hm.
It’s not actually my book; I read Ionesco’s short story Rhinoceros when I was in high school but I’d never read the play. I read my copy, and I thought that in addition to being funny it had a kind of Twilight Zone-y creepiness to which I respond very well. I also noticed that it was in several ways slightly more complicated than the last play we did, which is something that’s always in the back of my mind. Each production the HPCP does builds on the skills of the previous one but goes just a little farther. Rhinoceros includes a number of elements we’ve never coped with before–overlapping conversations, quick changes, masks, set changes, and so on. So I pitched it to Paul, and he liked it, and so here we are.
Theater is about creating something where there was nothing and that’s one of the things that really excites me out of it. Though it is no longer my first time, there is still something magical to me about auditions. 24 people walk into a room. For a lot of them you don’t know who they are or how they got there. But at the end of the day, those 24 people are your cast. It’s a miracle that this process ever works—let alone that it always works, that you can actually count on its working.
Onward to the swamps!