Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, 4th Installment

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Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: Brennan Randel, Matthew Corwin, and Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

It's tech time! A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS has moved into the theatre, and now it's time to add the set, costumes, and lighting. This is when the magic starts to happen -- although for these first couple of days, there are short bursts of magic amid long stretches of waiting, repetition, and starting/stopping. Matthew Corwin and Brennan Randel gamely sat through two days of this process, and share their observations.



I was honored to get to attend two rehearsals of A CIVIL WAS CHRISTMAS over the last two days, and while each session was quite different, they both provided some in depth insight into the process of theatre.  First off I must express my gratitude to the cast and crew of CWC!  You are all incredible and talented, and I thank you for allowing me into your house to see the behind the scenes processes.  I am warmed to the soul to see the mutual respect and dignity with which you all treat each other, and the openly collaborative work environment, I believe, is going to produce a stellar product when the show is audience ready.

On Wednesday I got to see the end of the blocking process in the theatre. Work lights were still being utilized and only a few costumes were out for use so that final positions could be marked. This process was profoundly interesting and complex!  The director and musical director were playing so many rolls that I didn’t recognize were part of a production.  Both directors (and most of the stage crew as well) were watching the big picture of the whole production on stage – “10,000 foot view.”  They were calling on individual actors to “keep these two things about this scene but let’s change one item and see what it looks or sounds like…,” and then the actors would be asked to re-step a scene.  This repetition along with tiny changes here and there made the action and movements on the stage more organic and less crowd cluttered, but it also speaks to the talent and dedication of the actors and crew (I did not know that actors could be given a tiny bit of a line and from there recall their lines and where they’re supposed to be and then restep an entire scene or song – this was one of the coolest things I saw all evening).  The roles of psychologist, sociologist, and historian also came heavily into play while I watched the designers choreograph out scenes.  Telling actors to “look” [cast your eyes in this direction, or find a scene partner and make eye contact…} a certain way, or creating continuity by linking cause and effect so that scenes don’t drop off requires incredible attention to detail and skill of visualization for the world that is being created.  The music and non-spoken soundscape is also an interesting tool in the theatre, and getting to watch discussions about the uses of prolonged silence to create emotional tension, or ooooh’s versus aaahh’s in the harmony of a song, and then getting to see it worked through by the actors each way was very enriching.  Getting to see all of this in process more deeply explains how the directors and cast get in tune with the emotions they wish to convey, and then how they explore every facet so that they can be effective.  It was also nice to see actors out of the show elements as well, so an impromptu acapella break out dance session of Stand By Me was an exceptional treat to witness!

Thursday was the beginning of Tech for the show.  After seeing the blocking process the previous day, I was blown away to see the additional textures that lighting adds to a production.  Seeing individual components being layered together makes me think of the cumulative time that is spent creating individual minutes on a stage.  Exploring things like prop placement and how fast lighting queues need to happen added more to the items on everyone’s watch list, but it was all handled beautifully and quite smoothly.  I really love the use of the platforms in the back of the theatre!  The ability to engage actors on stage from a hovering audience perspective and use the entire space was magical and genius.  I hope this makes audiences feel more surrounded by the world of 1864.  More studies in movement… soldiers marching, choreographed “noise of life” in the market, and party at The White House… all of these scenes had to be worked through and repeated so that the show could become what the designers have envisioned, and today there were more tweaks and re-do’s.  Prop placement for lighting focus was another thing that happened today… mad respect for those folks since they’re up and down some tall ladders. The directors were watching transitions today and were trying to smooth them so the storyline flowed more easily… in doing this they would add a guitar strum here or a chorus hum there, then they watched scenes tied together by these mechanisms and it anchored the storyline to each scene more completely.  Today as well there were some funny interludes during the holds.  I know I heard a Monty Python reference during one hold, and thank you for the laugh… it was great! This is going to be a beautiful show, and I can’t wait to see the preview next week.



Hammers, saws, and screws—oh, my!  It’s time for Tech Week!  Right away I notice that the build team has addressed a number of the spatial concerns that came to light in last night’s spacing rehearsal.  Paul calls Jimmy over to discuss a moment in the music where, “we have a cause without any effect,” illustrating his continued attention to the musical components within the context of the narrative.  I watch Andrew have a discussion about the style of a particular piece of music in which body language was more pertinent than the actual words spoken.  Tim strolls about the set, adjusting the position of a few props to better harmonize with his visual design.  Amy’s mandolin gets a new home on a hook in one of the windows.  Ayanna debuts the elegant blouse that Bobby has selected for her.  A discovered cache of additional instruments provides the inspiration for a new atmospheric sound cue.  The work lights go down, and Peter’s lighting design transforms the stage into a post-apocalyptic world, another time—is it 150 years ago, or three years hence?  Seth, Andrea, and Blake launch into a flash mob of “Stand By Me,” gradually joined by the rest of the cast.  All of this happens before Jamie calls, “Places!”

I must say, it is an interesting experience to hear actors speaking in hushed tones as a quiet calm settles over the hall.  As they launch into the first couple of lines, several times in a row, it becomes readily apparent that a good deal of today’s work will involve tying lighting cues to musical hits.  Paul offers a note to one of the actors, who responds with, “What are you hoping to get with that?”  After a few moments’ discussion, clarity is achieved, and the result is a marked improvement over what went before.  Several minutes later, Ted takes liberty with one of Lincoln’s lines, dropping the last word to great effect, and the decision is made on the spot to keep it that way.  I mentioned in my first installment how significant an impact I expected lighting and costumes to have on the audience’s ability to follow who is playing whom at any given moment; the scene with “three wise men, on opposite shores of the Potomac, bowed their heads and prayed” illustrates this point magnificently—add blocking into the equation, and the Three Wise Men reference positively crystallizes.  A subtle movement from the ensemble in the background signals a shift in location as we join Company A at Point Lookout.  When we come to the full group singing “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Andrew spends some time working a section where the tempo tends to drag, and as soon as the musical timing comes together, so does the motion on the stage.  At the line, “See?  There’s the North Star,” it turns out that Andrea and Miya were looking in two different directions, so they took a moment to identify a particular light offstage to use.  (I still get goosebumps at the Star of Bethlehem analogy, by the way.)  With “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” the musical transition both establishes continuity within the story and delineates another shift in location.  Coming out of the lighthearted dance number between Raz and Silver, Paul changes Seth’s entrance from walking around the front of the stage to stepping up onto it from behind.  Trimming up that motion by a mere half beat tightened up the flow of the scene, akin to the pickup note which opens “The Star Spangled Banner.”  In the market scene, I loved seeing Paul’s suggestion that the company freestyles, all the props become wares to be sold, with an overall swirling motion around the central scene featuring Mary Todd Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley. 

True to what I said at the outset, the bulk of today’s work centered around refining the lighting cues now that the actors are landing in their spots.  I took note that the speed and degree of shifts in the lights were every bit as important as was the timing of those shifts.  In some cases, we saw Paul and Kristen insert sequences of motion to bring lines, lights, and sound into sync with the actors’ position on stage.  Nowhere was this more apparent than the scene in which the cart comes out at the Potomac guard post for Jessa to hide within.  I look forward to next week’s preview, and bid the cast to break legs.