Extending the Ensemble

At the start of every season (and on a regular basis throughout each season), I revisit Whistler in the Dark’s mission statement to check our work against it and remind myself again what we are working towards:

Whistler in the Dark Theatre produces highly theatrical and physically inventive plays that question and challenge our assumptions about the world in which we live and the rules we live by.

Whistler strives to develop an ensemble of theatrical artists and audiences dedicated to exploring plays that celebrate the imagination through linguistic acrobatics and a stripping away of extraneous trappings. We hope to provoke the senses by focusing on the primacy of the actor in space.

For those of you who have joined us over the past seven years as Whistler has grown and adjusted and morphed, you’ll know that we’ve been constantly exploring and expanding our understanding of our ensemble. While we have always had an informal collection of artists who frequently collaborated with us and helped us develop our work, it was not until our sixth season that we started to formally develop the idea of being a theatre that draws its identify from the ensemble of artists who work there.

Starting two years ago, we developed the role of our Artistic Associate to be a more permanent part of our infrastructure: we’ve instituted monthly trainings where we work and grow together as an ensemble separate from any immediate project, we bring all activities of the company to the Associates for conversation before decisions about our path are made, and most importantly, we’ve empowered our ensemble to be advocates for Whistler in the community, and to use Whistler as an artistic home in which to grow.

Last year we took steps to expand the idea of ensemble into our audience as well, by creating membership tiers that gave our audience full access to every step of our productions, from first read-through to closing night.

As we’ve begun this season, I’ve been gratified to realize that we have expanded our ensemble even further. For our first production, a re-investigation of Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, we are honored to be working with ArtsEmerson. For the second half of our season, we will be in residence at the Charlestown Working Theater, not just producing our repertory of Our Country’s Good and The Recruiting Officer and then our first devised piece, Vital at the theatre, but also collaborating with Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso of CWT in on-going trainings and outreach.

These two artistic homes are not just places in which to work, but rather physical manifestations of either new or deeper connections to two institutions that bring some of the best theatre in the world to Boston. And so, our ensemble, formal or informal, grows to include a larger pool of collaborators.

I am thrilled to be starting a season of growth and exploration with these new aspects of our ensemble. I’ll be reporting from the rehearsal hall of Ovid with updates about the ongoing collaborations and the discoveries we are making.

Posted in Ensemble, Season 8 | Leave a comment

There are no easy questions with Churchill

While talking with an actor who came to see Fen following a dress rehearsal, I was asked the seemingly simple question of: “so, what is the Common Market?”  I started to reply with the simple answer: “It’s sort of a precursor to the EU (European Union).” But, as the dramaturg, I realized that I couldn’t just tell him that, because I didn’t just share that with the actors. Caryl Churchill didn’t just throw that phrase into the text without thought.  Every word that she writes is done with intent.

Fen is so deftly layered with economic and political history that its full richness can easily be missed until you delve ever deeper into the text. Aside from being able to decipher colloquialisms and learning farming jargon (both past and present), I wanted to be able to present the cast, crew, and audience with a more rounded background of the time and area that they were being presented with: East Anglia circa late 70’s early 80’s.

This, however, was not as simple as it first appeared. Sure, I could easily tell you how they dressed, what the pound was worth at the time, who was in parliament… but that would really just give you the world of the central characters. The central characters of this play, Val, Frank, Val’s kids and friends, are really about the heart of play, the emotional core, the people who are living at the time of the play. The characters who are asking you to look beyond the now and find how they got to this place and why they’re being as affected as they are, are the outside ones. The characters who appear for one or two scenes who practically demand that you learn the history, as Geoffrey does when he starts to complain about the Common Market. These are the characters who forced me to face the economic and social changes up to hundreds of years of before the play exists. It’s the information that these characters want me to pass on, that I’m going to share with you today.

I’ll begin by answering the question posed at beginning. The Common Market is the English term for the European Economic Community (EEC). The EEC was established in 1957 as a way of unifying and collectively regulating certain economic areas in Europe. The original six member countries were West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Ireland, Denmark, and the UK joined in 1973. The organization of the EEC would later develop into today’s EU. One of the major economic implementations of the EEC was the Common Agricultural Policy.

Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was originally created as a way of maintaining high agricultural production among the members of the EEC. Food shortages, rations, and general hunger had been such a major part of European life following WWII that politicians wanted to eliminate the fear of this ever happening again. The idea was to consistently produce large quantities of food and lower tariffs between the members of the EEC so that food would always be available. While the intentions were always positive, some of the ramifications weren’t.

Sicco Mansholt, Agricultural Commissioner wrote a plan (Mansholt Plan) in which he laid out a strategy for the modernization of farming in Europe. The idea was to create bigger farms with less employees, and the monitor what was being produced. While much of the plan was discarded, three major components were implemented.  In short, small farmers were encouraged to sell their farms to others to create larger farms, and were often paid to retire or to learn a new trade.

The landscape of farming in Europe drastically changed under these political groups, and the corporatization of farming began to take hold. And this is how the play really starts. Our first speaking character, Mr. Takei, beams about the corporate ownership of the land, and how  companies like Esso (ExxonMobil), Imperial Tobacco (4th largest cigarette company in the world), Equitable Life (major insurance company in the UK, later deemed one of the first “too big to fail” companies), and Gallagher (major international insurance company) run it all. However, these are not the faces of the people who actually work the farms. We see the effects of this ownership on the characters we come to meet.

The other one scene characters beg us to continue to look further into history as well. Ivy tells us through her broken memories about the early fear of unionization on farms. Agricultural unions had a particularly hard time with momentum and sustainability as farming was so entangled with family and neighbor relations.  After many failed unions had formed in the UK over the years, the one that finally took hold and lasted was the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers and Small Holders Union in 1906, which would chronologically the right time period for Ivy to be remembering. The name changed in 1910 to the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, which became the agricultural brand of the Transport and General Worker’s Union in 1982. That merging, and continuing unrest between owners and unions, is referenced by Mr. Tewson himself when he says “You want to watch the Transport and General Workers. The old agricultural union was no trouble. We’ll have these buggers stopping the trains.”

Finally, Miss Cade, whom Mr. Tewson is speaking to above, is a physical representation of the government’s place in farming as she and Mr. Tewson discuss the selling of his land. They discuss a bevy of economic terms including Inland Revenue and rollover relief. Mr. Tewson also mentions the Country Landowners Association (now Country Land and business Association), which is a group of land owners and businessmen in rural areas that pay dues and have lobbyists on their behalf in government. Essentially these two characters play out a microcosmic version of the discussions occurring in Parliament at the time.

All of this information is important and a vital foundation for the play. These people are here because of a long history that some characters have witnessed and others are simply living with the consequences. The heart of the story, however, is still the people. The play demands you to see the scope and respect the politics and economics of the world these people live in, but ultimately, it wants to you to feel and connect with the characters presented. Their story, amidst all of this outside turmoil, is the heart of Fen.

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Jason King Jones – in quadruplicate

Interview with Jason King Jones

Regarding A Number, part of Whistler in the Dark’s Wanted Something celebration of Caryl Churchill’s plays.

[beginning of recording]

Jason 1: Welcome, Jason!

Jason 2.: Thanks, Jason. It’s great to be here.

Jason 1: Great to have you!

Jason 2: Sure thing.

Jason 1: So, tell me, Jason, how did you get hooked up with Whistler?

Jason 2: Well, I, maybe you don’t know this, but I’m a grad student at Boston University in the School of Theatre

Jason 1: Uh huh?

Jason 2. and while I’ve been working on my MFA in Directing, I completed a Certificate in Arts Administration.

Jason 1: Really?

Jason 2: Yeah. But you should talk to Jason 3 about that

Jason 3: Someone call for me?

Jason 1: Hi Jason. Jason over here was talking about your Arts Administration classes and the connection to?

Jason 3: Right. So, for one of those classes, “Individual Fundraising for Nonprofits,” I needed to find a local nonprofit and draft a proposal for a two-year fundraising strategy. Jason and I had seen THE EUROPEANS, and we really dug what Whistler in the Dark was doing artistically.  I met with a Meg, realized how cool she was and all the ambitious things she was doing. I wanted to be a part of

Jason 1: Did you pitch any fundraising stuff to Whistler?

Jason 3: Yeah, certainly, but the pitch wasn’t what was important to me to or to Megs 1 through 4. What we found valuable were the questions I was asking that not even Meg 5 had thought of. Also, Jason, you got something out of it, right?

Jason 2: Yeah, I got to know a Meg or two, and learn more about Whistler. I got to see more work that Whistler was doing, and I even got to see Meg on stage–not sure which one that was. One of her came to see a show I directed, and to make a long story short, she asked me to work on A NUMBER.

Jason 1: That’s great. Next question, what’s the rehearsal process been like?

Jason 2: Well, you’ve been there, you can see.  It’s been great. The actors have a great respect for each other, they are inventive, honest, and connected. They have an incredible dynamic, and they allow themselves to follow new ideas freely. It’s a dream to work with a cast like this.

Jason 1: Great. So can you tell me? What is A NUMBER about?

Jason 2:  Well, that’s a great question, and one that I’ve spoken about extensively with the Dannys and the Marks. There have been some pretty lengthy debates, but I think we’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s quite simply a play about–

Jason 4: Shut it!

Jason 2: Oh for–! Seriously?

Jason 4: Are you crazy? You’re going to hand Jason a pithy little phrase to prove how clever you are?! Jesus, you’re such an arrogant prick.

Jason 2: Um, this is an interview. it’s being, you know you can’t just

Jason 4: I can’t what? I can’t stop you from making a fool of yourself? Too late on that one, dude

Jason 2: Jason maybe we should find a better time to

Jason 1: Are you talking to me?

Jason 3: No he’s trying to– wait what?

Jason 4: Look, you can’t possibly pretend to think you’re qualified to answer a question like that for an interview?

Jason 2:  Why not?  Isn’t it my job to know the answer to that? If I don’t know what the play is about how the hell am I going to direct the effing thing? Why the

Jason 4: of course you need to know that, you jackass, but to give the answer out of the back of the book isn’t going to help them. It’s going to tell them what to think before they even set foot in

Jason 1: Perhaps we should pick

Jason 2: Knowing what i find

Jason 1: this up at a different

Jason 2: to be the most powerful idea of the play doesn’t make it any easier for the audience, you nitwit, it’s just

Jason 3: Jason, Jason, the name-calling is just

Jason 2: it’s just the beginning of the conversation!

Jason 4: Ok fine. Spill it.


Jason 3: um

Jason 2: don’t touch me


Jason 3: happy?

Jason 4: whatever

Jason 1: i think perhaps we should. yeah I’m gonna–

[end of recording]

Posted in A Number, Caryl Churchill, rehearsal, Season 7 | Leave a comment

“History is not a costume drama, Emily”

It’s getting chilly out there…it’s practically winter. That means it’s time for flannel, hot toddies, and making period clothing and then destroying it.
Or is that just me?

This will be my third winter of creation and destruction as sponsored by Whistler in the Dark: One Flea Spare, The Europeans, and now… Fen.

I’m excited about Fen for a myriad of reasons, not all of them costume-related. I’ve been thinking about certain lines, characters, and themes within the play since first reading it myself, even more so since hearing it read aloud at our first read-through last week. Two characters, however, stick out to me for obvious (and not-so-obvious) reasons.

The play, on paper, opens with this: “As the audience comes in, a BOY from the last century, barefoot and in rags, is alone in a field, in a fog, scaring crows…”
As a costume designer, this is interesting and exciting because of the whole “last century…barefoot…rags” section, obviously, but it’s also exciting because this BOY’s clothing might be seen as an aesthetic trick at the beginning of the show. Because he is the first person the audience sees, and because he will be wearing clothing of a certain time period, it will be easy for people to make the assumption that he is representative of the rest of the show, and his clothing representative of the rest of the costumes.

This is not the case, at least in terms of clothing. There is another character who is similar to him in dress, and while her clothing might not be representative of the clothing the rest of the characters are wearing, she as a character is (at least in my reading) representative of the rest of the show. She is the GHOST, and her stage direction is as follows: “She is as real as the other women [working in the fields] but barefoot and wearing nineteenth century rags”. Again with the “barefoot”, again with the “rags”, and, like the BOY, she is working in the fields.

I say this GHOST is representative of the rest of the show, at least for me, because in Churchill’s use of these two characters from centuries past, I am able to sense the definition of “history” with which she is working throughout the play.

History was my other focus in college, neck-in-neck with costume design. I frequently mixed these disciplines, talking about capital punishment in Britain in the eighteenth century while in the costume shop and Vivienne Westwood while in history class. I know at least one of my history professors got exasperated with this tendency, because his favorite thing to say to me was “History is not a costume drama, Emily”.

This statement, I think, can be taken in several ways. Of course, there are the actual BBC costume dramas, with Lydia Bennett crowing about how much she likes soldiers whilst wearing layers of sumptuous finery. That, while looking like history (if you don’t make a sport of looking for zippers, like I do), is a sanitized version of history. The definition of “history” that I take from Churchill’s use of the two ghosts is the furthest from this “BBC definition” as possible.*

In her use of these two ghosts, Churchill creates a historical continuity for Fen that is inextricably tied to the land and the people who have worked, do work, and will work this land, day in and day out. Churchill’s idea of history seeps into the play through these two presences that are made more dramatic by their place in the annals of history and therefore their costumes. One might argue that is, in fact, “costume drama”.

I’m planning on beginning construction (and, in turn, destruction) of both costumes (the BOY and the GHOST) soon, so stay tuned for more historical musings. And probably fire. And some bleach.

*Please don’t get me wrong, I love the BBC. And all of their sumptuous finery.

Posted in design, Emily Woods Hogue, History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Post your own review of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth

Thank you for joining us for Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth!

Aimee Rose Ranger and Michael Underhill

Are you still thinking about the production? We’d love to hear those thoughts.

Post your own review here and then check back to see other audience responses.

Posted in audience response, Cahoot's Macbeth, Dogg's Hamlet, Dogg's Hamlet Cahoot's Macbeth, Season 7, Tom Stoppard | Leave a comment

77 Things

I was dragged kicking and screaming into the Twitter age – specifically by Jason McCool and Robyn Linden. The whole idea of it seemed a little too coy to me. However, and I admit this with a certain amount of residual shame, I’ve been converted. Largely because of #2amt, which is a collection of conversations about everything theatre.

Recently, DC Playwright Gwydion Suilebhan (@GwydionS) – who I know only through Twitter – posted a blog entry that I loved: Talking About What’s Good. In an attempt to accentuate the positive a little, he has created a list of 77 (an arbitrary number that he selected because it seemed hard) things he loves about DC Theatre.

I love his list. It’s been 7 years since I lived in DC, so a lot of the references go by me, but some of them struck such wonderful chords in me. He’s grateful for Jennifer Mendenhall’s brilliance onstage (which anyone who has ever seen her understands), for Eric Messner, for his collaborators, for the ceiling of Gala Theatro, for certain places he gets to eat before shows. And that is only four items on his list…

So, I’m going to try the same for Boston. I’ve been here 7 years now, have a company and collaborators that I love, serve on the Boards of the Small Theatre Alliance and StageSource – I work with wonderful people all the time. And I have a tendency to demand a lot from this town, so I more often find myself talking about what we need to do or have or be… and not what we are. So, in the spirit of celebration and in no particular order:

77 Things I Love About Boston Theatre

  1. Jen O’Connor – walked in to audition for the first show Whistler did and has become my best friend and most frequent collaborator. The most fearless person I know – Jen walks around saying “yes” to the world.
  2. Seeing Waiting for Godot at the ART when I was in 8th grade and deciding that my life would be spent trying to do that;
  3. A few years later, getting to do a stage management internship for the ART production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, featuring Claire Bloom, Bill Camp, Michael Stuhlbarg and Dan O’Herlihy which absolutely cemented that goal for me;
  4. Drinks at Coda after almost every show I’ve seen at the BCA;
  5. Standing in front of the BCA between 7:30-8pm on a night when there is a show playing in every theatre – the whole plaza bursting with audience members and actors…
  6. Aimee Rose Ranger, Melissa Barker, Danny Bryck, Nate Gundy, Molly Haas Hooven, Meron Langsner, PJ Strachman, Scott Sweatt, Emily Woods Hogue, Mac Young – my collaborators and inspirations;
  7. StageSource – a hub of information and assistance for theatrical artists of all stripes;
  8. Reading The Hub Review every week – love him or hate him, Tom Garvey is a true provocateur – he gets me riled up enough that I have to rethink my positions on issues and plays I thought I was clear on;
  9. Blackbird at Speakeasy Stage – shook me to the core both times I saw it;
  10. While I’m on that track, Marianna Bassham and her courageous beautiful work. In every thing she does;
  11. The Factory Theatre – without this tiny wonderful little theatre, the thriving fringe and small theatre community would be largely homeless;
  12. The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston – less than three years old, and representing over 35 member organizations;
  13. Heckling actors I love at imaginary beasts‘ yearly Winter Panto;
  14. Also, the imaginary beasts’ celebration of Gertrude Stein’s work in their production of Look and Long;
  15. Collaborating with Charlestown Working Theater this past fall on our Greek festival;
  16. Getting the chance to see CWT’s Odyssey for a second time;
  17. Pirates! (or, Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d) at the Huntington – gleeful ridiculous mayhem;
  18. An evening of Beckett shorts presented by Molasses Tank Theatre when I first moved to Boston that convinced me that I was in the right place;
  19. The Alliance OpenMic Night for playwrights – this semi-monthly playwright project gives me exposure to some great new voices in Boston and a chance to do cold readings, which is always wonderful;
  20. Getting dressed up to go to the Wang Center for the Performing Arts once a year and just looking up in that lobby and pretending I’m in a different century;
  21. Lorna Nogueira and her brave beautiful work;
  22. Caesarian Section, presented by Theater Tzar at the CWT this summer – 50 brilliant shocking minutes;
  23. Larry Stark, who has attended every Whistler production, including our inaugural one, where he was the only audience member in attendance that night;
  24. Rough & Tumble – specifically their production of  Hinterlands: Season One and that one scene in it where we saw backstage at the circus;
  25. The now annual tradition of Mill 6’s T Plays – a gathering of people who must have won “Plays Well with Others” in their respective senior years in high school;
  26. Henry V at Actors’ Shakespeare Project – a beautiful spare production of a lovely play;
  27. New York Pizza Kitchen slices before weeknight performances at The Factory;
  28. More collaborators: Curt Klump, Matthew Woods, John O’Brien, John Herndon, Nora Long, Dawn Simmons;
  29. Bridget O’Leary – wonderful friend, inspiring artist;
  30. ArtsEmerson. The World On-stage, indeed. Bringing challenging, beautiful, provocative work to Boston;
  31. Going with Matt Chapuran (theatre-buddy extraodinaire) to see Les 7 Doigts de la Main perform Psy: a wonderful and giddy show;
  32. John J King, playwright, Renaissance man;
  33. Working with Meron Langsner to create the 23 atrocious acts of violence in our production of Family Stories;
  34. Watching the audiences’ reactions to those 23 atrocities;
  35. SOOP – Aimee Rose’s monthly potluck of storytellers, singers and artists building a community of work together;
  36. The fact that entering pretty much every theatre in this town brings with it a feeling of being at home and with my people;
  37. The feeling of exhaustion after a day at the StageSource open call auditions – and the one or two actors I see every year who surprise me out of my daze;
  38. Being at a place in my life where people who I’ve worshiped since I was a kid seeing them at the ART are now friends and collaborators;
  39. Learning aerial silks for Tales from Ovid;
  40. Watching every single performance of Tales from Ovid;
  41. The Sparrow at Stoneham Theatre;
  42. Jim Petosa – sage, mentor, elegant and clean director whose work is now starting to grace New Rep’s stages regularly – more please!
  43. ArtsBoston.org
  44. The army of ushers at Stoneham Theatre who are honest-to-goodness that happy to see you – and who make sure you don’t trip on your way in or out;
  45. Julie Henrikkus – that woman is going to save the world somehow….
  46. Being able to organize and commission an evening of new works in under two months because Boston artists are that excited about generating material;
  47. Running into any number of our cities great actors in full period garb while exiting the Park Street T stop;
  48. The late-night, post-show ritual of closing down a bar or two before heading out to Central to grab a falafel wrap at Falafel Palace;
  49. The plethora of Pay-What-You-Can nights for all theatres, combined with Under 35 and Industry deals, that mean I actually can afford to see as much theatre as I want;
  50. The fact that I will still miss some shows because there is simply SO MUCH work going on;
  51. Ben Evett;
  52. Frans Rijnbout’s Theatre in Greater Boston report – and the long conversation I had with him to participate in it;
  53. PJ Strachman’s elegant designs that absolutely guide the audience into the world of my productions – even when I’m asking her to work with 15 dimmers;
  54. The on-going and sometimes infuriating conversation about how we can make Boston theatre better/stronger/more supported/more in the foreground of public attention. The community is committed to engaging this issue – and lately has actually been putting action into it as well as words;
  55. The Mirror up to Nature – Art Hennessey’s informative blog;
  56. ARTiculation at Company One – so much delightful poetic fun;
  57. REPA;
  58. New to me this week – tech week at the BCA Plaza Black Box – something so fun about having two shows teching in the same theatre at the same time;
  59. Reading the StagePage every month and trying to figure out just how I will cram it all into my schedule;
  60. Mac Young – kindred spirit as both an actor and a designer;
  61. The Twitter feeds from all the companies attending both of our city’s award shows – so much love and support across the community;
  62. The Pain and The Itch at Company One;
  63. Boston Center for American Performance at BU;
  64. Emerson Stage;
  65. Diego Arciniegas’s performance in Thom Paine (based on nothing) at New Rep
  66. The Boston Theatre Conference – a semi-annual time when we all get together and talk about the process of creating work in this city;
  67. New young companies, like Vagabond and Fresh Ink, emerging every day;
  68. Mikey DiLoreto, a tireless and endlessly positive force in the small theatre scene;
  69. The willingness of established professionals to mentor young and emerging artists in their fields;
  70. The handful of companies, large and small, who are actively creating ensembles of artists who work together time and again, deepening the level of the work on stage;
  71. Drinks at 21 Nickles after every show at the Arsenal Center;
  72. Last season’s Opus at New Rep – lyrical and lovely;
  73. The flurry of Facebook- and Twitter-love that is spreading through the companies of the city – we are supporting each other’s work  and promoting shows outside of our own organizations in ways that are truly heartening;
  74. The fact that there are still several companies in this town whose work I have never seen – companies like Gold Dust Orphans, whose work I know I will love;
  75. The Alliance SmallTalk series – learning about the nuts and bolts of producing theatre in this town by having intimate conversations with practitioners from a variety of small theatres;
  76. Specifically, the SmallTalk where I got to speak with Darren Evans, John O’Brien, Matthew Woods and John J King – so much learned and shared that night!
  77. The fact that the trend in Boston right now is one of collaboration – that companies are working together, working to promote each other, sharing resources and information.

Okay. That’s my 77. Both harder and easier to compile than I thought it would be.

Now, what did I miss?

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Received vs. Generated Blocking

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:

Plank=Ready            Block=Next
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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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.

Posted in design, Dogg's Hamlet Cahoot's Macbeth, rehearsal, Season 7, staging, Table work, Tom Stoppard | 2 Comments