Fresh Eyes on THE HUMANS, 2nd Installment
This week in rehearsal saw the actor up on their feet, working through staging and beginning their deeper dives into character and relationships. THE HUMANS is particularly tricky in very specific ways: the apartment where the story unfolds is two storied, much of the dialogue is overlapping, and it centers around a meal, which means a lot of props and food. So timing of everything is everything!
Our Fresh Eyes volunteers, Scott Dunn and Garrett Brown, share their observations from Sunday afternoon.
“The blue tape is the first floor and the purple tape is the second floor.”
Or perhaps it was the other way around. But regardless of the colors of tape on the floor, until the set is constructed this is the only way the cast can rehearse a play set in a space with two levels. It is an approximation of the spatial orientation the actors will experience while onstage. They will re-orient themselves once they get to play on the set after construction. They’ll be able to call up or down to each other rather than out to the entire rehearsal room, playing as though they are calling up or down.
Personally, I’m excited to see how the acoustics will change, not only for the reasons of being in a proper theater space with a fully constructed set, but for how the layers of dialogue create a soundscape within this space. The designers, as we learned from the design presentation, will be working to create a space that immerses us, the audience, in this world of the play as much as it immerses the actors. The challenge for the actors and the director will be to hone the dynamic range of the characters as they speak so that we can hear the lines we need to hear. Coming back from a break on Sunday, a considerable amount of time was spent working through a short section of dialogue wherein the characters react to something onstage and nearly all of them speak over, under and around each other. They prioritized the integrity of each line, meaning saying the line exactly as it is written. Then they focused on how each line of dialogue overlaps with all the others. Oftentimes a playwright will mark a line in the text with a slash (/) to indicate when the next character is to begin speaking over the previous character’s line. But even more challenging and beautiful is the next layer of attentiveness to the lines: crafting the dynamic range. It’s akin to an orchestra conductor directing one section of instruments to play softly through a passage of music so we can hear another section of instruments more prominently. Each voice within that moment of the play is an instrument that the director, Dámaso Rodríguez, orchestrates. “Your line goes up while your line goes down.”
But one of my favorite moments from rehearsal on Sunday occurred before the rehearsing even began. A huddle was called for everyone working that day: director, cast and stage managers. “Bringing In and Leaving Out.” Everyone took a turn saying what they were bringing into rehearsal and what they were leaving out. Leaving out distractions, stresses, conflicts, obstacles; bringing in patience, attention, compassion, empathy. It was a wonderful exercise and one that I will likely incorporate into the next production I work on. It brings everyone to the present moment while creating and ensuring a unity of purpose.
Until you work on a show, you don’t fully know how precisely coordinated everything is in a play. When you’re sitting in the audience watching characters pass food around a table at dinner it appears to be occurring as naturally and spontaneously as it would at your own dinner table. It does not. It takes an enormous amount of time to plan, orchestrate, attempt, fail, rethink, attempt, fail, attempt, fail … you need to eat the turkey and say something about the turkey so you need to receive the turkey before your line … attempt, fail, rethink – and there are six people at the dinner table and food has to get to everybody. It is a process that anyone outside a production rarely gets to see. By the beginning of the run, the passing of food with overlapping dialogue will look and sound as natural and as fluid as life happening right before our eyes. Until then: Leave out impatience; bring in dedication and discovery.
There is a huge difference between reading and watching THE HUMANS. While reading it is obvious what characters are talking (and talking over each other) in the script, it is only because there are stage directions. Seeing it live and in person will likely be a whole different experience. It’s fascinating to watch the actors work through this play, rehearsing tiny beats over and over, knowing that lines that seem perfectly interwoven are carefully scripted to be “timed” naturally.
I once heard a director describe this type of theatre as “organized chaos.” Everyone outside of theatre/art/film thinks they can just have actors improv a fight, or dialogue, or whatever. But in reality, if two actors have to punch each other on stage, they better know exactly where those punches are landing (fakelanding). If a mob is running around on a movie set, they have to know exactly where they are running to. Just saying “do what comes naturally” looks fake unfortunately.
THE HUMANS is essentially organized chaos, or at least rehearsed chaos. When Erik and Rich are talking downstairs at the dinner table, their conversation is punctuated by the rest of the family unpacking boxes upstairs. However, because the two conversations are separate, they need to be organic, independent, and controlled.
This doesn’t mean the conversations aren’t related in some fashion though: the audience will notice that what subtext is huge in this play and it takes the term “many different levels” quite literally. People go up stairs to take phone calls, to vent to siblings or spouses, or to be alone. However, one should pay special attention to any conversation that is congruent with another downstairs: when Erik is upstairs with Aimee, he comforts her by invoking how when he was sad as a child, his mother used to comfort him. However, downstairs at the same moment, the rest of the family is taking care of his sleeping mother “Momo” who is suffering from Alzheimers. These symbolic moments denoting the circular ways of life and togetherness of family is key to THE HUMANS.
At this stage, the actors have most of the script down and are practically off book. This is about working out the vocal levels to help distinguish those conversations from one another, to help build the relationship of each character. While they unfortunately don’t get to work with the real stage (with a second level) they do get a table, with a fake kitchen, and doors, and even food to eat throughout the play (it is Thanksgiving after all).
This should continue to only get more exciting, especially as the actors get more resources and more practice working with each other.