Fresh Eyes on EVERYBODY, 1st Installation
Fresh Eyes are back in the room to observe EVERYBODY! Rehearsals began on October 30th with presentations from designers and directors. This was followed by the cast reading the play together for the first time -- which was made especially exciting because 5 of the actors are assigned their roles by lottery for each performance. EVERYBODY is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' adaptation of a 15th century morality play, EVERYMAN, and features characters like Friendship, Kinship, Stuff, and of course, Everybody. For the actors who play these roles that are randomly assigned each rehearsal and every performance, they must learn nearly the entire script. That randomness poses unique challenges not only to the actors, but also to stage management, directors, and designers.
We are delighted to have Elizabeth Howell and Cynthia Herrup join us as Fresh Eyes, and to welcome back Matthew Minicucci, whose observations you may remember from MAGELLANICA. We hope you will enjoy seeing this special production through their eyes.
Although I have been going to live theater since I was a child, I had never been to a first read-through. My first response was surprise at its size and complexity. This was not just a working rehearsal but also a celebration of community ownership bringing in folks who worked for, supported and/or just loved Artists Rep. I expected a small focused group; what I found was a large (probably 50 plus) set of people who cheered, laughed and listened their way through close to three hours of presentations. Everyone with a part in the play, from actors to us three observers, got an introduction and welcoming applause.
The business end of things came in two parts: first the head of each design section (directing, sets, costumes, lighting, sound, puppets(!)) presented their current plans. Some seemed virtually complete, others still at the idea stage; some presentations were visual, some technical, some almost academic, but what they shared was an engagement with the text that had been going on for weeks or months. What surprised me was that at this point each department seemed to be reacting to the play in isolation from the other departments. Makes sense, but I think I have just seen too many movies that put the director at the center from the start. Then we moved into the read-through, which was the introduction to the play for us listening but already familiar to the actors. I was impressed by how smooth it mostly was and how physical and emotional the actors could make their roles even while reading the text and lacking the freedom to add movement or makeup or costume to their roles.
I love the play. Having seen Artists Rep’s production of AN OCTOROON by the same author, I was prepared for some mind-bending and Everybody certainly does that. A play about life and death is always relevant; building on medieval morality plays adds a layer, contemporary references another, switching out roles still another. Some of the presenters when they spoke obviously had in mind the murders in Pittsburgh and Jeffersonville that occurred last weekend. But the play says more than that death is uncontrollable: its references to the comforts of material things gesture towards our growing ability to distract ourselves from limits that remain and will remain inevitable; its references to love and friendship invite us to consider the values of these things but also whether they can substitute for solitude and self-awareness. And the most surprising thing, the play’s humor, reminded me of how we ultimately negotiate the tough realities. Oddly, as we listened to the read through I kept flashing both PILGRIM'S PROGRESS and THE GOOD PLACE. Maybe the play should be subtitled Everything.
At the core of the play is the lottery that determines which actors play which roles for the evening. No doubt, this is the biggest production challenge. The technical presentations discussed it repeatedly and in a way that made clear how interconnected every aspect of drama is—who plays what role matters to costumers, to directors, to stage managers, to other actors and, of course, to the audience. How does this not seem too clever by half? And since the audience will see only one of the possible outcomes, how does the company make the randomness and multiplicity stay real? The danger is that the lottery becomes either irrelevant or an in-joke for the actors, but everyone’s awareness of the issue should prevent that. The play is about transformation as well as about chance. Funny becomes somber, denial becomes acceptance, randomness becomes fairness. And as the rehearsals go on, individual designs (I am confident) will become coherent and compelling narrative.
A Play is a Poem, Standing Up
Dámaso Rodríguez, co-director along with Jessica Wallenfels, working through his excitement for the complications and opportunities in directing EVERYBODY, tells all of us, sitting quietly in the rehearsal room,that “a play is a poem, standing up.” This quote is from Federico Garcia Lorca, and it isn’t one (I’m ashamed to say as a professional poet) that I’ve heard before. As it turns out, this description is shockingly accurate when applied to this homage/pastiche/re-imagining of the medieval morality play that is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ beautiful text.
Over the three hours, listening to both production design concept pitches and the initial read-through of the play text, we watch, and hear, and experience so much poetry. And when I say poetry, I mean it, perhaps, in that way that a lot of people you talk with in your daily life mean it: a way of thinking outside of simple narrative. We hear just how difficult all of this will be, from Bobby Brewer-Wallin’s discussions of how one decides to costume LOVE (“love has a cape!” he exclaimed during his presentation), to Sound Designer Phil Johnson’s monumental task to create perfectly timed voice modulations for a cast of SOMEBODIES that will rotate via lottery for each performance. It seems that so much of how we interact with the world (even in the context of a piece of art like a play) is based around a very specific reliance on standard narratives. But here, no such bannister presents itself to guide our ascending audiences.
One of the strangest experiences in sitting through design pitches is seeing the actors themselves react to those ideas. More than once, the intrepid cast nearly fell over themselves in either laughter or fear (or perhaps both). I imagine one of the most sobering reminders we find in Lorca’s “standing poem” is that, even if it achieves some perfect poetry, each of these design choices has to actually work for the actors walking on and off set each night. Color, costume, and light can indicate the allegorical nature of the play, but it also has to service the very real activity that is the play. I won’t spoil it so early in the process, but the decisions that Props Master Robert Amico has made to create an unforgettable danse macabre are indefatigable in their unique (and spooky) vision.
Because this is a play where so much is left to chance, I expected to see a read-through with a lot of complications; mistakes even. But, here’s a moment where the repertory concept, and the trust of a company of players who have spent so many days and nights working together on so many shows, really shines through. At one point, our EVERYBODY for that day, Michael Mendelson, is chopping his way through a difficult speech, and John San Nicolas, sitting opposite, begins to mouth every single word he says. Part of this, I realized, is technique related to some amazing sound design you should be prepared for in this show. But part of it, as well, is that Mendelson’s EVERYBODY quickly becomes an erstwhile thing. Soon enough, because of luck and lottery, their places will reverse, and EVERYBODY will be relegated back to just SOMEBODY.
The trust and comfort you find at Artists Rep, between the individual actors, between the directors and production, between the staff and each and every audience, is the very thing that builds the legs for this poetic play to stand on and, from this observer’s folding chair, I can say that’s a wonderful thing indeed. I can’t wait for what next week will bring.
This is my first review; it was the first rehearsal of EVERYBODY.
It was surprising because 4 or 5 of the actors had drawn a lottery to determine which role they would play and you could not tell they had never before read the lines. They performed like champions, it was an almost seamless performance and very impressing.
The play was an abstract of life and it gave you reason to think about your own life and think then that the moral of the story was true and what you put into living your life is what you get back from it.
Some of the language became a little dicey at times, but it is probably forgivable. One actor stumbled a little with his lines, but he did have the biggest part, and so that was also forgivable. We did laugh a lot and went away in a good mood, even though this play was all about death.
I look forward to the next rehearsals when the set is finished, the costumes are being worn, etc. to really make this play come to life.