This week was tech week. The process is a slow one. I am continuing to work with the actors while the designers work on the bigger picture of the show.
Each designer works to incorporate his piece. For example: Stephen Strawbrige’s crucial lighting cue for Nina’s “my three men” speech at the end of act two, Fitz Patton coordinating his beautiful and haunting score with the slight set change. Backstage, the stage managers and assistants facilitate transitions between scenes, while wardrobe helps actors learn their 30-second costume changes. Many people are working together as part of a large machine—all the people the audience never sees during the run of the show.
Anyone who has ever been through a tech process knows that when we enter the theatre, we are forced to face the inevitable realities that are sure to come. Our original ideas may be achieved by the production team, or may need to be transformed entirely. The lights or sound planned in the mind can often have no impact—less is more than imagined. The set changes may need to be simplified so as not to have lengthy waits between scenes—the projections may need to be rethought; the video made longer or abridged (as a matter of fact, we went from projecting graphic images on the walls in the scenes to a textual palette).
More than anything, tech week leads to problem-solving and revision. You have to be demanding and flexible, a difficult combination. It can be one of the most fruitful periods of the rehearsal process—when dreams seem to be solidifying from shadows into substance—and it can also be the most frustrating.
For example, our first day of tech was last Tuesday. Right off the bat, we were plunged into the heights and the depths of the tech experience. Our production staff has built a stunning set based on Walt Spangler’s beautiful design. The set is unique—fully automated, which allows the scene changes to occur very fluidly. While much of the furniture is moved without the help of stage hands, in the first scene there is one chair that has to be brought on manually. The minute I saw the first transition with the full tech—lights, projections, sound—I knew it was a problem. Here is a graceful transition—and there is our wonderful stagehand, dragging a chair onstage. The piquant effect of the transition was perfectly ruined.
After discussing many solutions, I decided on the following: one of our understudies, Marilyn Bennett, is playing the Leeds’ maid, Mary. The role is unseen, since she’s heard answering the door and speaking to Marsden and Nina in the first two scenes, and we had always planned (as specified by O’Neill) to keep her offstage. But who better to move a chair in the Leeds’ living room than the maid? We tried it, and the problem was fixed. So now, of course, Mary needs a costume.
In addition to the technical nuts and bolts of transitions, lights and sound, this is the first time we get to see the actors fully dressed in their costumes, wigs, and makeup. Jane Greenwood is the best costume designer Eugene O’Neill has ever had. If you were to look up all of the famous productions of O’Neill, particularly the ones directed by José Quintero—Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Dewhurst and Ingrid Bergman in More Stately Mansions, The Iceman Cometh, A Touch of the Poet, the list goes on—Jane has designed it. She also designed the costumes, of course, for my production of Mourning Becomes Elextra at STC. She is brilliant.
I’ve known her since 1968 and worked with her for many years on many productions. She’s never done Strange Interlude either, so this production was on her bucket list as much as mine.
Since this is a 20th-century play, one with a less opulent silhouette than in one of Shakespeare’s plays, you might think that the costumes are somewhat less complicated. But the details are vitally important. Strange Interlude is not just a snapshot of a woman’s life—it’s Nina’s entire adult life, spread over many years. One of O’Neill’s great themes is that life goes on, regardless of our own illusions. Years pass from one scene to another. Major transformations have to happen to the characters in the 30 seconds between scene changes, and costumes help us to track those differences.
For example, Sam Evans undergoes a dramatic conversion between the two scenes in act two. In the beginning, Sam is at the end of his rope. He appears to be losing his mind, and is suicidal at the thought that he can’t give Nina a baby. In scene two, Nina’s baby is born and he gains a new lease on life. As Marsden says, “What a changed Sam!” He’s a success in business and has gained the self-confidence that he always lacked. The first time we ran this transition, Ted Koch went offstage and simply changed his suit jacket. It looked different, but it wasn’t enough to match his major change in psychology. Working with Jane, we decided to alter his look for the first scene. We removed his suit vest, rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his collar so he looked disheveled, distracted. Then, in the next scene, he’s buttoned up, wearing a three-piece suit and an assurance that wasn’t there before. The clothes match the man.
In addition to changes in psychology, it’s important that the characters appear to age naturally over the course of the play. Nina goes from her early twenties to her mid-forties, and according to O’Neill, she looks even older than that. The play is not just a moment, it’s a lifetime. Her journey depends on what she learns from growing older, and her revelations in each successive scene are increasingly dependent on her life-experience of many years.
At the beginning of act three, she acknowledges that “nothing about love seems important enough” anymore. By the end of the play, Nina wants “to be old and to be home again at last—to be in love with peace.” These are not revelations one can easily imagine a young person having. We must work to create the illusion of passing time, and the wisdom and sorrows of age. Mannerisms and body language help, but makeup, wigs, and costumes add even more. But as with most things in theatre, we must be careful to avoid going over the top. We don’t want it to look like a play. It needs to look like a life.
Until next week,
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Strange Interlude opens March 27th and runs through April 29th, 2012 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC.