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Michael Nathanson


by Michael Nathanson ,October 19, 2012

Theatre is borne of ritual. Modern practitioners trace their roots to the Dionysian festivals in ancient Greece where plays were performed in competition. We understand ourselves to be involved with one of the oldest arts; verbally sharing our stories with others. As a long-practiced art, we understand we are covering ground that has already been covered, more times than we can likely imagine. This is true not only of the subject matters of plays – we ask, of many things, what is truly new under the sun? – but also of the process. 
There is nothing revolutionary to be done in rehearsals these days. Different directors have different techniques and approaches, each actor is unique in their preparation and what they bring to the table, but we tread in the familiar. Like a well-written play, the rehearsal process has its narrative structure; a clear beginning, middle, and end. We understand the end to be the climax and for our purposes, that’s Opening Night, which now looms ever closer, on October 24. Time, which once seemed a luxury, slowly begins to work against us.
Week Two has seen the acting get clearer and clearer in the intentions and the delivery of the script. As a director, I have to be very conscious of where the actor is in her process. A key moment in any rehearsal period is when the actors get “off book” or when they are no longer in need of their script as their lines have now been memorized. The enormous task taken on by our actress, Rebecca Auerbach, is that DAI is a solo show. It’s her onstage, by herself, for ninety minutes. This means there are an awful lot of words for her to memorize.   Her work ethic has been inspiring. In tackling the text – and add on the difficulty of learning nine different dialectics – Becca’s dedication has allowed us to constantly be ahead of the curve, a real luxury. For the most part, she is not in need of her script, which frees her up to discover more moments in each monologue, new discoveries in the playing possibilities, wrinkles as she physicalizes the characters. 
Harold Clurman wrote a book called On Directing, which is one of the seminal texts when studying theatre direction. One of the tenets that I have carried with me is that “every play has its own style.” I always understood that to mean that part of my job was to understand what was unique about each play I directed, not merely in terms of style, but also in terms of approach. While the structure of rehearsals is very predictable within modern Canadian non-profit theatres (you wouldn’t find much variation at all between what we do at WJT to what’s done at MTC or PTE), I’m always aware that part of my job is to understand the demands being made of the actors and how best to respond to those.
I recall when we were rehearsing Cherry Docs at WJT three years ago. It was a bleak play that centered around a Jewish lawyer who ended up representing a skinhead who was accused of stomping a man to death. Not a lot of laughs. Also, adding to the already dark hues we found in rehearsing the play, was the reality that my father was on the brink of death. (In fact, he passed away during rehearsals.) We needed an outlet from the gloom and one of the actors would find these uproariously funny videos on YouTube which we proceeded to watch on my iPhone. We would laugh very, very hard. The humour in the rehearsal hall was always over the top and our stage manger, a woman of infinite patience and virtue, not merely put up with it, but in time participated as well. We couldn’t get through the material without that release.
While week two of rehearsals for DAI didn’t require such diversions, what it did require was close attention to Becca’s energy levels. Her work has been exemplary but once we pushed through an intense day on Thursday, we were all feeling the exhaustion in our bones. We gently tiptoed through Friday and Saturday, getting work done, but I was constantly checking in with Becca to find out what she had left in the tank. She continued to work on the script at night, for hours at a time. I implored her to take the night off on Friday night, which she did. The hard work is necessary, don’t get me wrong. But it is also necessary to take time off from the project, even while in the midst of it, to let things settle, and to tell the unconscious mind that we are in good shape, that we can trust the work that’s being done.
Week three is always a fascinating, transitional week. We have but three more days in the rehearsal hall before we move to the Berney Theatre, where we will incorporate the costumes, lights, and sound into the performance. We will take these three days to cement the acting as best we can, for the reality always seems to be that when you actually get into the theatre, it takes at least two days for the actors to adjust to the space. As a director, I won’t be concerned with the acting until we actually run the play straight through which may not happen again until Sunday night. We have to get all the technical elements working and then get it all into one cohesive whole. That’s where the trust must manifest into reality, that all the hard work we’ve done in the rehearsal hall will be there when we need it. And I have no doubt that it will be.
Week Three: Almost open
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