I’m not entirely sure that the two ideas I mention in the title of this blog post are terms that are used elsewhere – or if there is a better set of terms to use – but I’ve been thinking a lot over the past two weeks about the different ways that a play can be staged.
Most scripts are full of stage directions – little notes from the author that can be either specific blocking notes (the best example ever has to be from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale when Antigonus is said to “Exit, pursued by a bear”) or detailed descriptions of emotional states of characters (Eugene O’Neill, one of my favorite playwrights, has some doozies on this front…. many of which are currently being staged by the New York Neo Futurists).
The level of adherence that a production takes to these stage directions varies greatly: I’ve met directors who slavishly follow every stage direction and I’ve met directors whose first action with a script is to go through it and cross out every stage direction with a sharpie. Both approaches seem crippling to me – the strict adherence to every single stage direction locks patterns in before the actors or the director have a chance to explore other options, while the idea of casting away any of the clues that a playwright gives seems to willfully make the work harder.
Avoiding any further discussion of those two extremes, however, there are two general ways of approaching staging of a play – for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll call them Received Blocking and Generated Blocking. For Received Blocking, the production team bases the staging of the play primarily on the stage directions in the script, paying careful attention to both the design as described by the playwright and the movements around the stage prescribed. Generated Blocking is the other end of the spectrum: the company views the stage directions as a guide to one way of performing the play, but not as an absolute roadmap for how each production should exist.
At Whistler, we work on this end of the spectrum. I don’t really believe in “blocking” a play in the traditional sense – we never have a day or a series of days where I tell the actors where to go and when to go there. Instead, movements arise from the work we do as an ensemble and from our developing understanding of the play we are working on. Over the course of our (luxurious?) five-week rehearsal process, we develop a physical language that is unique to each production – and then out of that language emerges the stage life of the show. Working with our designers (usually the incomparable PJ Strachman, Mac Young, Emily Woods Hogue and Meron Langsner), we find and refine stage pictures that will highlight moments in the text of emotional and dramaturgical resonance.
But now, here we are. In the middle of our second week of rehearsals for Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth. In addition to being a writer who employs some of the most sophisticated linguistic jokes I’ve ever heard, Stoppard packs his plays with an inordinate amount of visual jokes – puns that exist only for the eyes, along with slapstick and tight almost-vaudevillian physical humor. Added to that, Stoppard has introductory notes to Dogg’s Hamlet:
Dogg’s Hamlet derives from a section of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations. Consider the following scene. A man is building a platform using pieces of wood of different shapes and sizes. These are thrown to him, one at a time, by a second man, as they are called for. An observer notes that each time the first man shouts “Plank!” he is thrown a long flat piece. Then he calls “Slab!” and is thrown a piece of a different shape. This happens a few times. There is a call for “Block!” and a third shape is thrown. Finally a call for “Cube!” produces a fourth type of piece. An observer would probably conclude that the different words described different sizes and shapes of the material. But this is not the only possible interpretation. Suppose, for example, the thrower knows in advance which pieces the builder will need, and in what order. In such a case, there would be no need for the builder to name the pieces he required but only to indicate when he is ready for the next one.So the calls might translate thus:
Slab=Okay Cube=Thank you
Tom Stoppard Plays One: The Real Inspector Hound and Other Entertainments (Faber Contemporary Classics) p.142
You can see where this is going, right?
In Dogg’s Hamlet, we have a group of schoolboys who speak Dogg – a language comprised of English words but which mean different things. And into their midst stumbles Easy, a delivery man commissioned to build the set for their play, who speaks English. The boys and Dogg set about trying to build a set comprised of planks, slabs, blocks and cubes. But the words mean different things.
It’s a great premise, and has been a ton of fun to figure out – but it also means that we need to:
- Design a set that we could use for this production using only the components that Stoppard gives us – and only the numbers of those items that he calls for;
- Build that set onstage, within the time allotted to us by the script, paying incredibly close attention to the stage directions given to us about the misunderstandings that ensue.
I’ll let Mac, our intrepid set designer, talk a little about the process of designing this set. What I want to talk about is the process of blocking…
What I thought was going to be the hardest part of this process – figuring out how to stage the play so that the first 10 minutes of action before Easy arrives are intelligible, given that a new language is being spoken – actually turned out to be the easiest. The script is so carefully crafted, and my three boys (Jen O’Connor, Mike Underhill and Chris Larson) and their headmaster (Scott Sweatt) are having so much fun exploring it that this section flew by. In fact, for the first time I can remember, we ended a rehearsal over an hour early because we had accomplished all we set out to do that night.
It was the next part – figuring out how to build the set – that was challenging. Not because it was particularly difficult (although it is meticulous) but because, by necessity, it is the opposite from the way we usually work. Instead of exploring the play in a loose way, chasing impulses and gut instincts, we’ve been breaking the script into beats, sitting down and hammering out how a particular beat has to work, and then getting up and drilling that. So, half-page by half-page, we made our way through the script in painstaking detail. When in doubt, we stopped and I read the stage directions aloud and we all tried to figure out where we’d departed from the business as described. It’s been more tiring than rehearsals traditionally are for me, simply because it has been relatively plodding work – we made progress, but with little of the elation that we usually experience after a night of wrestling with a play.
What was particularly interesting to me, however, was Monday night’s rehearsal. We had spent the past week meticulously blocking the show and now we were getting to run it for the first time. All of a sudden, all of that experimentation and improvisation that is the traditional rehearsal process for Whistler came flooding into the room. Freed from having to worry about the movements patterns anymore (they knew them now), the actors started playing again, riffing on the ideas they had worked with the week before, exploring new responses and connections within the text. So, from our week of Received Blocking we gained a floor pattern and now that we had it, we were free to explore, to Generate the finer moments inside this pattern.