By Tim Treanor
– ED: DCTS received a special invitation to tour Sidney Harman Hall and sit in on a rehearsal of the upcoming Tamburlaine.
We are in darkness. Suddenly, the roar of human voices, punctuated by a drumbeat, surrounds us. Massive doors open. Tamburlaine, in the person of Avery Brooks, emerges in an enormous chariot, drawn by three kings he has recently retired into their humbling new profession.
“Now crouch, ye kings of greatest Asia,” Brooks intones. He sounds a tad perfunctory. Perhaps he is saving his voice. “And tremble, when ye hear this scourge will come.” He flicks a whip through the air; it is, regrettably, soundless. He tries again. “That whips down cities and controlleth crowns, adding their wealth and treasure to my store.” The whip slices through the air again. It is as quiet as a drug lord before a battery of reporters. “The Caspian, north northeast; and on the south, Sinus Arabicus; shall all be loaden with the martial spoils.” Again, the whip is all action, no talk. Brooks gives it a bemused look. “CRACK,” he says loudly.
“We need a crack.” Michael Kahn’s disembodied voice floats over the proceedings. “Give me a few seconds,” a sound artist replies. I count eight computer screens arrayed beneath us; two fly into use. The assembled actors begin to meander around the large stage. Several of them practice cutting each other’s bodies open. Brooks jokes with the stage manager.
After a startlingly brief delay, they are ready to go again. Brooks delivers his speech once more and this time we hear three smart cracks. They are a hair’s-breath too late each time. “Wait a minute,” Kahn says, sounding annoyed. But it is not the whip that has his attention. “Could you move back a step?” he asks one of the warriors, deep in stage left. “We want to get the light on your hands.” The light had previously been on the actor’s face, but if he is disappointed with the instruction he does not show it. He moves back slightly, and Kahn is satisfied.
The old saw about not watching sausage and laws being made applies also to tech rehearsals of theatrical productions. It is eight-thirty, and these actors have been at work since noon. They have another hour and three-quarters to go, and they are tired. The director and technical staff are focusing on extremely narrow slices of next week’s production – things which the audience will not know unless they go wrong.
It is not pretty, but it is oddly reassuring. Kahn, and the company, is justly celebrated for attention to detail. I am seeing that attention now but I doubt I will even notice it when I review the play on November 7.
I am sitting in the large but surprisingly intimate mainstage theater of Sidney Harman Hall, Shakespeare Theater’s brand-spanking-new venue, with about twenty other electronic-site writers. Except for a young lady from the Washingtonian, I am the only one there who writes specifically about theater. The others write about architecture, public space, and the F Street neighborhood. One gentleman writes about dance, which will be a prominent feature of the new facility.
That we are there at all is in part the brainchild of Liza Lorenz, the Associate Director of Communications. She is spearheading the company’s effort to communicate through internet writers. The company has a blog itself, and is not reluctant to link to other bloggers who have nice things to say about Shakespeare Theatre productions.
We are sitting toward the back of the first tier of the 776-seat, 10,100 square-foot theater, in comfortable padded seats. Mine is a little snug for my 290-lb body, but most of my colleagues, having dedicated themselves to the slenderizing principals that have made America great, have plenty of wiggle room. The seats sweep from left to right; the theater here (like the Lansburgh) has eschewed the central aisle in favor of seats with excellent sight lines. I see everyone beautifully, despite the distance to the stage. And I can hear every word Brooks speaks, despite the fact that he is not projecting for this tech rehearsal.
There is good reason for his audibility, as I learn from Project Architect Jennifer Mallard. Mallard is an intense young woman – impressively young – who has commuted between Washington and her company’s home in Toronto during the four-year construction of this project. She is giving us a cook’s tour of the new place.
Mallard explains that the theater is physically isolated from the rest of the building. It sits on massive rubber pads, which insulates it from the sounds which might otherwise carry into the theater. The theater sits about three feet back from the lobby, and is thus surrounded by a moat of air, which can be breached only through the use of slender bridges. The walls between the theater and the rest of the theater building are ten to twelve inches thick, and are made of concrete, specifically baffled in the way best designed to reflect sound. The inside walls are made of makore, a dense African cherry wood known for its ability to reflect sound. (I.M. Pei’s Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas is principally makore on the inside; it is probably the most famous use of this wood). Between the wood and concrete walls there is a twelve-inch gap, which can be filled with heavy curtains, or not, depending on the acoustical need of the piece being performed.
There’s a reason for this versatility: the space will be used for more than Shakespeare Theater productions. According to Associate Artistic Director David Muse, the company hopes to book two hundred non-Shakespeare production days into the Harman and the Lansburgh over the next year. There will be concert and dance as well as spoken-word productions. And the company will rent out space in both buildings, for weddings and the like.
Mallard scuttles us out of the theater and into the lobby, which features a massive glass wall overhanging the street. “It’s our marquee,” Mallard explains. It was the theme of the company’s successful appeal to the Historic Preservation Board, which agreed to give it eight of the twelve feet in overhang it requested. Through the special low-lead glass, we gaze at the historic Verizon Center across the street, and at the historic Hecht’s Department Store building, which has its own overhang.
We trudge down the handsome, utilitarian stairway into the guts of the building, where the prep work is done. There are dressing rooms for eight; dressing rooms for six; and a few dressing rooms for one. There is a seamstress’ room for costumes, and a room for hair – it is full of wigs – and special-order makeup. There is a tiny little kitchen, to keep special props – stage blood, food items and so on. Underneath the stage, there is a Trap Room – when you see an actor disappear through the floor, this is where he lands. There is a cozy little green room, about five hundred thirty square feet. Apparently rehearsal had interrupted a highly competitive scrabble game. A chessboard was also loaded for action. This bottom floor features a substantial multi-purpose room with a sprung floor. Behind it is the kitchen (both the main and mezzanine lobbies have places to eat and drink). Underneath it all: three levels of parking.
Mallard troops us into the Patron’s Lounge, a commodious space painted in the facility’s predominant color, a sort of burnt orange. (According to Mallard, Kahn calls it “Pompeii red.”) I am obliged to eat a large piece of chocolate covered in coconut and drink a glass of red wine to restore my strength. This area, as the title implies, is principally meant for donors, and according to Lorenz can comfortably accommodate about seventy of them. The seating is large and comfortable but modern and unfussy. There is a large-screen television and facilities capable of projecting movies.
Outside (the building is half a block from the Gallery Place metro) you notice something you might otherwise have missed – that the theater is part of an 11-story office building. The rest of the building is owned, somewhat improbably, by the American Bricklayer’s Union.
Or – perhaps not so improbably. The actors who perform on Shakespeare Theater’s stages mostly belong to a powerful union, Equity. And bricklayers, just like doctors, accountants, journalists, homemakers, slitter-slotter operators, hog butchers and lawyers, love to have their hearts stopped by the greatest writer ever to put pen to paper.