STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/01/2009

FEATURE | A Dream Sabbatical

A Dream Sabbatical
by Jeffrey Miller

When informing me that my sabbatical proposal for assisting on a production in New York had been approved, Kina Mallard, Dean of Faculty, suggested I keep a blog, to share what I was learning with students, alumni and interested friends. I never expected it to grow to 46,185 words. Here are just a few excerpts.

No more pinching myself; it's really happening. And to prove it, I now know the secret passageway of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center Theater (LCT). At my introductory meeting yesterday, I was given the grand tour of "our" theatre and told about this important escape, used most often by directors and assistants to communicate quickly with cast members during previews--something, no doubt, I will need to know. Going through the building took me back to fifth grade when my class toured LCT. We were taken through the production booth during a performance and told to be very quiet. I stopped to watch the show, pulling myself up to the ledge of the plate-glass window, mesmerized by the sheer scale of the production and magnitude of the sound. I didn't realize the class had continued without me, and the guide had to come back to find me. Rather than being upset, however, she was thrilled to see me still standing there on tip-toe, taking it all in. And now I'm working here.

Lincoln Center Theater
This whole operation works on a scale far beyond anything most people in theatre ever encounter. A relatively small scenic budget cut that was made just last week would purchase new risers and deluxe seating for us at Gordon. Seems out of touch with reality. Seems excessive. Then the stunning beauty of the scenic design unfolds and it takes your breath away. Every possible artistic choice is being made available to transport the audience to this unusual Elizabethan/Roman/fairytale land of Cymbeline.

Yes, Shakespeare relied on the power of the human imagination, but there is still a place in theatre for excessive beauty, abundance and extravagance just as there is in God's creation. Were the Rockies necessary? The Grand Canyon? Not for God. But they continue to point us to something bigger--a God of overwhelming beauty, excessive and extravagant at times, stream-lined and economical at others. I think we need both. And since I live and work in the latter most of the time, having a taste of the other is quite delicious.

About Cymbeline
It is one of Shakespeare's latest plays, likely written in 1610 between The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Scholars also speculate that Cymbeline was, in a sense, Shakespeare's audition piece for a new indoor theatre being built about the time the play was written, and he submitted this piece to "show his stuff." He pulled out all the stops, and this explains, say some, his use of every conceivable device: night settings, decapitation, flying gods, battle scenes, potions and spirits.

Sunday is the first read-through of the script with the entire cast. At the conclusion of the reading, an eerie sense of peace fills the room. I know of no other Shakespearean play that ends quite the same way. As in others, all strands come together, all is forgiven, all evil righted--but it unravels at a fairly slow pace, particularly since the audience is miles ahead of the actors on stage, having learned long ago what the characters are just now seeing. Far from creating any sense of omniscient condescension, the effect is one that lifts the audience. The play seems to unfold a kind of peace and restoration that we all, very deep inside, long to see.

Starting Out
The actors do not disappoint. They come to this project with able instruments and keen minds. Some know lines already; all have thought about their characters. Questions abound, new connections are made, relationship complexity is explored. It is a wickedly great discussion with our director, Mark Lamos, at the helm--guiding, clarifying, pushing forward. Add an incredibly informed dramaturg and vocal coach and each nuance is gently unfolded. It is clear why each has been selected for his or her part.
Curiously, something I've observed at all levels of theatre occurs. Actors begin to push against some of the director's cuts. "How can this make sense when we've eliminated . . ."; "How do I make this emotional jump without these lines . . ."; "Could this word stay from the original instead of what's in this version?" Lamos listens, considers and then accepts the suggestion or argues for the change. We move on. He encourages the actors to "ride the iambic pentameter; let it support you." And do not "land on pronouns." Lamos is not above giving interpretation but prefers to allow the actors to find it.

Trippingly on the Tongue
The run-through goes three-plus hours, not including intermission. Mark insists we need to cut 40 minutes out of the running time. That will definitely be a challenge. He dismisses all but 15 speaking principals and gives detailed notes. The overarching issue is that the emotional journey be present; all the characters know where this needs to go. But the verse needs to be spoken more fleetly. Some stuff, some emphases, need to be subsumed. The thought needs to be the speech. Many are pausing unnecessarily to tell us what they are thinking and feeling instead of allowing the speech to be the action. "Find a way to ride the verse as you are expressing what you are thinking," is Mark's exhortation. "Otherwise we cannot follow what is going on." As Shakespeare puts it, in the mouth of Hamlet, "Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue."

What A Day
Today my assignment was to escort the actor playing Clotten, Adam Danheisser, to Den Design in Brooklyn, where he would have his full head cast. You see, Clotten loses his head during the show; it's carried about the stage. So a cast must be made to create this rather important prop.

The process is messy but straightforward. First a bald cap is placed over the head and the face is prepared with substance that will make the gel applied not stick to facial hair. A bluish goop is then slathered over the entire head leaving holes only for the nose and mouth. It sets fairly quickly and is very similar to what a dentist uses to take a mold of your teeth. After it starts to harden, swaths of plaster cloth, such as those used for broken bones, are layered over the head as well, carefully applied so that once they harden, the cast can be removed in two pieces, front and back.

From the blue goop to mold removal takes approximately 30-35 minutes. If one is in any way claustrophobic, this process is torture. Adam did very well until near the end when he began to breathe deeply and get dizzy. But they were able to get it done and off him before panic set in. The overflow goop peels off the body like rubber cement. From this mold they will make the head mostly of silicon, which, they say, would be very nearly the weight of a human head.

Jeff's Debut
It is no small thrill to find yourself standing center stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre of Lincoln Center, all eyes following your every move. It happened this way: Michael Cerveris, our Posthumous, has been having some back problems. When he had to leave for a doctor's appointment midway through our  day, Michael, our stage manager, quickly came up to me, told me to put my script down and take Michael's place onstage. My Broadway debut!

I'm very visually-oriented and could probably tell you every person's approximate blocking for each scene. But I had no lines to associate with that blocking, no particulars memorized. So naturally a bit of fear immediately came over me. The last thing I wanted to do was hold up our rehearsal in any way or do something stupid. But I sprang to my place--I was there to do whatever was needed, I told myself. Just as I was walking through the first part, however, Phylicia Rashad began humming "Be Still My Soul" from her side of the stage, near where I was standing. Can you believe it? "Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side. . . . Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end." That was beyond any doubt the very LAST thing I expected to hear in this place, at this time. What calm came over me instantly! The Lord is even in this place--thank you, Ms. Rashad--something I all too easily forget.

Stopping and Starting
With the play roughly blocked and the lines pretty solid, we launch into a period of rehearsal when we work through the play chronologically. One overarching impression--one the actors will occasionally make side comments about--is that Mark wants this tale to move: "Don't pause. Connect those two thoughts. Move while you speak." The actors frequently balk a bit and suggest they need time to think before saying the line. Mark reminds them that we think while we act and we are about it quicker than we know.

Final 10-12
Today is the last of what is called "10 to 12's," rehearsals that can extend to nearly 12 hours. And the mood is more urgent. After today we have Tuesday and Wednesday before preview audiences. As expected, the costumes add a new dimension of challenge but increased luster. With wigs many of these actors are hard to recognize--and I've been working with them nearly daily for the past 5 weeks. The detail of these fairytale costumes is rich: brilliant color, a touch of Eastern and medieval, unusual fabric combinations, buttons, sashes, robes, crowns, armor, swords and a myriad of textures give much for the eye to take in. Some of the fabrics have subtle designs which spring to life under the right lighting, such as the pattern in Imogen's pants when she is disguised as the boy, Fidele.

As in any rehearsal, some glorious accidents occur. Today the layers of trees/pillars were being raised on stage and stopped for some reason. Both Mark and Michael, the scenic designer, saw this and loved the look. So it was immediately worked into a cue. If you think about columns floating in air from a logical perspective, it makes no sense. But then neither does a boat floating down a misty river with candles emerging from it as in Phantom of the Opera. The image works, regardless.

I continue to be reminded of how bold Shakespeare was with this play. He was either trying something very new (Marlowe and other writers of that day had a lot of blood and horror, too, but the tone in those plays is clearly more melodramatic), taking a devil-may-care attitude and going for broke--or he had such trust for his actors and audience that he knew it would all play well--or some combination of all of those. Even if you are not a lover of Shakespeare, you have to appreciate this gutsiness.

A Broadway Opening Night
Could it have been a more exciting evening? I do not know how. The show bristled with energy and intensity--one of the best I have seen this company perform. And after an enthusiastic final ovation, everyone moved on to the big party at Tavern On The Green in coaches provided by Lincoln Center. It is a place you have to see to believe. The meandering hallways are lined with mirrors and low-hanging, jewel-strung chandeliers every two feet. The inner rooms are lit by brightly colored faux stained glass windows, more elaborate chandeliers, more strung tree lights and imposing candle centerpieces. The lush drapery is pulled back from the glass walls to reveal twinkle-lit trees and statuary.

It is not likely I will ever experience a Broadway show opening like this again. The sense of artistic accomplishment, of personal engagement with such a large company of fine people (both on and off stage) and of contributing something of value to our culture through a strong message of grace and reconciliation is something that briefly, wonderfully, lifted us all. This is both humbling and moving to participate in; this is the power of good theatre.

Jeff Miller, M.A., is chair of the Theatre Arts Department and moderator for the Fine Arts Division. His directing credits include The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Macbeth, Shadowlands, Edith Stein and Forgiving Typhoid Mary. At Gordon Jeff has directed a new adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, Tartuffe, The Secret Garden, An Evening of Pinter, Tarantara! Tarantara!, Sueño and Quilters. The student ensemble-created devising called Growing Up Christian, directed by Miller, was selected in 2007 to be performed at the Region 1 gathering of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

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