Fresh Eyes on CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, 3rd Installment
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS moved into the theatre this week. After three weeks of working in the rehearsal room with the set taped out on the floor, we've moved onto the multi-level set. The first task, heading into technical rehearsals, is for the actors to adapt their movements and timing to the reality of moving around on the set. Suddenly everything feels strange and utterly different!
Table work is done. Dialect coaching is done (and Susannah is ever so deeply entrenched in hers). The musical score is—mostly—ironed out. (Note to self: let’s do this again some time when I’m not out of pocket for those steps in the process.) We have a set and props on the stage, ready to be manipulated by (and to manipulate, whether intentional or not) the actors. This rehearsal is all about timing, spacing, and movement.
My very first impression upon walking into the auditorium was that I was watching a game of chess, in which the pieces move off, on, and around the board, creating spaces to be filled by other pieces. The strategy in this game involved determining who landed where when, so they were in the proper position to pick up or leave props and costume elements in context of both the physical and temporal surroundings. A change as subtle as one actor taking a longer route around the front of the set had a tremendous impact on drawing the audience’s attention away from some awkward transitions taking place upstage, as well as refining the timing with which everyone landed in their spot for the next bit of action. A great deal of the ensemble choreography was reminiscent of battle lines clashing on the field. I was struck by the manner in which Paul provided guidance to the actors so as to craft a cohesive vision onstage, while still allowing them discretion with the specifics in order to find their own voice and place within the narrative. We also discovered a few physical impossibilities along the way, like one prop which was to be positioned by an actor who needed assistance to lift it—by adjusting another cast member’s position just a few feet, the problem was overcome and the action now looked as natural as if it had been planned all along.
I also saw a lot of attention paid to how specific motions can effect an emotional impact. Something as miniscule as Bronson stepping down off a platform to ground him as Chester delivers the line, “I can’t kill a man. But I can make sure he gets his supper,” brought about a significant change in the tone of that scene. Similarly, there were a few lines where the ensemble was instructed to turn and look at each other in order to create a visual and psychological unification in that moment. It was fascinating to watch inspiration strike Paul while running the scene with Walt Whitman at the Armory Hospital, in which he positioned the chorus members along Ted’s path so they could deliver their “To me he brought…” lines while physically interacting with Whitman. Another focal point of this rehearsal was coordinating movement with the musical elements and vice-versa, both incidental cues and full show-stopping numbers. The most significant example of this was toward the end of the play as Mrs. Keckley speaks to George’s ghost: after she says, “I promise I will let you go,” the chorus launches into “Ain’t That A’Rocking” with each clap driving George back from her.
I must also give props (if you’ll allow the pun) to Tim Stapleton and Emily Wilken for designing such a versatile stage that can transform a dozen different ways to create the multitude of locations in which this story takes place. Each time a cast member moved part of the set or grabbed a previously hidden prop, I was like a child on Christmas morning, tearing open the wrapping paper to discover what treasure lay beneath!