Fresh Eyes on MAGELLANICA, 5th Installment
Sometime, one looks at the rehearsal schedule for the day and it says something like "11-5, Run/work part 5". Other days, it might say "10, Lars punches William; 10:45 Todor falls; 11:30 Mae trips". Wednesday was a day of the latter. Punching and falling and tripping, oh my! Elizabeth Tavares, our Fresh Eyes volunteer was on hand to observe:
ELIZABETH E. TAVARES
Three Principal Navigations
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
― Sir Francis Drake
A sea captain, slave trader, and privateer (cf. pirate), it took Sir Francis Drake three years to successfully complete the second circumnavigation of the world. In 1579, about midway through and already down to the last of his five vessels, Drake and his skeleton crew anchored in Nehalem Bay, Oregon. In the bay’s embrace—which they (re)named Portus Nove Albionis, the Port of New Albion, after the most ancient name we have for the English isle—it was as if their prayers had been answered:
The fifth day of June, being in forty-three degrees towards the Arctic pole, being speedily come out of the extreme heat, we found the air so cold, that our men being pinched with the same, complained of the extremity thereof, and the further we went, the more the cold increased upon us, whereupon we thought it best for that time to seek land, and did so, finding it not mountainous, but low plainland, and we drew back again without landing, till we came within thirty-eight degrees towards the line. In which height it pleased God to send us into a fair and good bay, with a good wind to enter the same.
The history of discovery is driven by events. With Matt’s observations [Fresh Eyes on MAGELLANICA, 4th Installment] about caesura on my mind, I realized in rehearsal this week that it is in those unromantic, uneventful moments where the important questions get asked.
I’m a sucker for the pragmatics of theatre-making. I like rehearsals where problems of doorways, blood, or punches have to be solved. Decorated fight choreographer and Willamette professor John Cole was at the helm of this particular MAGELLANICA rehearsal, “sculpting” the long list of moments in which characters make intentional contact. There were too many delicious bits of shorthand for stage combat to list. One of my favorites was used when working on a punch. Dr. Lars Brotten (Eric Pargac) cracks one to the upper brow of Dr. William Huffington (Joshua J. Weinstein) over an indecorous comment. Such an act, a second of stage time, actually consists of as many as four events. For a consistent follow-through, Pargac was instructed to “knock the parrot right off of Huffington’s shoulder.” (I was tickled by the tension such a comment would have produced for Pargac’s character, the champion of the Blue Fairy penguins.) The real purpose of the parrot comment was to help angle the punch in order to maximize sight-lines as well as hide Weinstein’s slap to the chest needed to create the sound of contact. Arms reaching up to protect his face added the sloppiness of authenticity while also aiding the disguise.
As I’ve been watching Cole, Dámaso Rodríguez, and playwright E.M. Lewis work with the ensemble, it is becoming clear that being an effective director has a lot to do with asking the right, rich question in these seeming doldrums. When working on the punch, Rodríguez asked Cole and the actors, “What does a punch feel like? What did you say to him to cause the punch? How do we process violence?” Cole responded, “it’s like hitting your head on a cabinet when you stand up too fast. Then it throbs like frostbite.” As an audience member, I find comfort in the fact that there is a crucial conversation had in the play where even the director doesn’t know what is being said. Such blank spaces invite us to pitch-in with our imaginative energies what might have been said.
Later, to call us back from break, stage manager Jamie Lynne Simons called out, “alright, everyone, get on the plane.” While Drake travelled into the unknown on the Golden Hinde, a ship barely a hundred feet long (you can board a replica down the block from Shakespeare’s Globe in London), MAGELLANICA’s scientists travel south on a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which are ninety-seven feet in length. They needed to rehearse Dr. May Zhou’s (Barbie Wu) clamber across the length of the plane and its crew to establish both setting and her character’s sense of sincere oblivion. Cole recommended she move as if stepping through mud to exaggerate the clawing over her fellow passengers. Wu responded, “like nachos?” I giggled at the memory this summoned of my first experience playing in a professional orchestra: our director kept stopping us to explain that Puccini’s aria, “Nessun dorma,” should be played like pulling spaghetti. Turns out, in order to convincingly lose your balance across the cargo hold of a military aircraft, you need food metaphors and strong knees.
The last element the crew worked on was a character’s collapse due to an aneurysm. Zhou has to cradle a man in her arms on the floor, but was finding the fall difficult on her hips. A common bit of advice you hear in beginners acting classes is “find your light”: figure out where you are supposed to stand onstage by moving until you feel the warmth of the spotlight on your face. Cole recommend Wu instead “find your butt”: to land on her sit bones before shifting her weight to cradle someone else. Success! The directors all use interchangeable verbs to describe this work of “tweaking” or “shaping” events they want to show but do not want the actors to, ultimately, experience. In order to do so, cradling a body can be like “collecting a bag of pudding in your arms,” or can be unfurled “like a wet towel.” When described as matter in this way, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that one has always only ever need a hundred feet in order to convey a body to the antipodes and back again.