By: Alec Clayton
A bunch of kids get together and decide they want to put on a play. They pick a story, maybe they write it themselves, and they decide who is going to play what parts. One of the kids probably takes control as a director. Maybe they borrow clothes for costumes and maybe some old furniture and other items for sets and props. They rehearse and then they put their show on in a basement or a back yard for their families and neighbors. They might even sell tickets for a quarter or a dollar.
The process is essentially the same but on a larger scale for community theaters or even major Broadway shows. Here’s how one local theater company does it.
Harlequin Productions chose for their latest show the dramatic play “The Seafarer” by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. It is a hard-hitting drama with moments of outrageous humor set in Dublin. Director Scot Whitney chose it because he has done four other McPhearson plays and likes his work. “All of his plays are about redemption.” Whitney said. “I picked the script because it’s a brilliant piece of work. I love Conor McPherson’s transcendent storytelling. His stories are intricate, mythic, full of mystery, and really attempt to explore the fundamental meaning of human existence. And they’re fun!”
Actor David Wright added, “His plays are magical, very real and very honest combined with the supernatural,” and Whitney replied, “They’re all like that.”
They purchased the rights and bought scripts and invited actors to audition. Some theaters do this part with open auditions where anyone can try out. Harlequin invites actors with whom they’ve had successful previous experiences or actors they’ve seen and liked in plays at other theaters. There are five characters in “The Seafarer,” all men, and in this case the first five men to read parts were cast. They are: David Wright, Daniel Guttenberg, Jason Haws, Christian Doyle and Dennis Rolly. All but Guttenberg are veterans of previous Harlequin shows. Wright, who is the oldest, said, “What attracts me is the chance to work on, well, anything. (At my age) the roles are not there.”
Rolly said, “I wanted the role because it’s Harlequin.” He and the others indicated that their experiences working with Harlequin have been so outstanding that they’ll do any show they can there.
The five were also pleased to be able to work together as an ensemble. “These are guys I’ve loved watching a long time,” Doyle said. Haws and Wright also did “The Weir” together, another McPherson play.
The next steps in any production are memorizing lines and a first reading. “On a Harlequin show casting is usually done weeks before rehearsal starts, and the first read-through is in front of a live audience,” Rolly said. “In this case I had a couple of weeks the get familiar with the script before the first reading, and then I had a month to memorize my lines before rehearsal started. We had only three and a half weeks to rehearse this beast. ”
Wright said it’s the hardest script he’s ever had to learn. Doyle agreed, saying “I’ve had bigger line loads… but there’s no such thing as a cue line in this one.” The dialogue is written the way people talk in real life with interruptions and broken thoughts and things out of context, so things do not necessarily follow in a logical manner, making it extremely difficult to memorize lines.
Whitney said: “We’ve started opening up our first read-throughs to the public at no charge. They’re pretty exciting. We recently started doing them in the Wine Cellar Room at Waterstreet Cafe and Bar. It’s a wonderful, warm space, and audience members can order drinks, appetizers, and/or dinner, if they feel like it. It’s the first opportunity we have to hear the play out loud, and by having an audience there, we really get a feel of how people might respond to it. As an example, we were all a little surprised that the humor in “The Seafarer” just seemed to leap to the surface. It was much funnier than we had expected. It also became apparent that people just loved all of the characters, despite their appalling frailties. For audience members, it also creates an opportunity to get a sense of the process and see the development of the piece.”
The set designed by Linda Whitney is the home of brothers Richard and Sharky. There’s a couch and a few chairs, a wood burning stove, beer bottles scattered on the rug, blankets and pillows strewn on the couch. The guys are real slobs. At the back is a fully equipped kitchen seen through a pass-through window. The kitchen walls are bright green. There’s a back door, and when actors go through the door the audience can see them dimly through a translucent window. The main room is downstairs and the front door is at the top of a large stairway. There are heavy timber beams and high windows at the top of the stairs.
Tech director Mark Bujeaud did CAD drawings for the set and led the build with help from assistant technical director Bass James and painting by Toby Batcheldor.
The first-through was in early December. “We got together two more times during that month at the theater on the “Stardust” set (previous play) to just read and talk about the play,” Whitney said. “On January 2nd and 3rd we were rehearsing in a little community center on the west side. After that we were on the set.”
On a Sunday before the play opened they rehearsed for five hours, took a break for dinner and came back for the first complete dress rehearsal. In the afternoon they broke it down scene by scene, stopping to discuss things such as the placement of a tea cup and the timing and placement of props in a scene where Ivan (played by Guttenberg) pours tea out of a cup and fills it with whiskey. Ivan, sloppy drunk, pours the tea onto the rug and fills it with whiskey for Richard (Wright) and then picks up another cup for himself off the kitchen counter and rather than walking to the kitchen sink to empty the tea he sloshes it ten feet across the room in the general direction of the sink. Someone asked “What do we do for butter?” It has to look real and spread easily. Similarly, whiskey has to look real. There are many such details to be planned and practiced. They discussed how to do the scene and practice a few variations, and then ran the scene again and again. Later Whitney stopped the action again to discuss timing and cues when actors re-enter at the beginning of the second scene. He does not hand down directions autocratically, but rather it is a discussion between the director and the actors. Nearly all of the discussions have to do with where to stand or sit and where props should be placed; they already had the dialogue down pat.
After dinner they came back and did the whole play without stopping.
Finally came the moment everyone was waiting for. Opening night. Patrons gathered excitedly in the lobby. Actors waited backstage. Everyone took their seats and silenced cell phones. The house lights went down and the play began. Two hours later, happy and exhausted, the actors took their final bows, the audience gave them a standing ovation, and Whitney and his crew broke out the champagne for a meet-and-greet with the actors, an opening night tradition at Harlequin.
“The opening was fantastic!” Whitney said. “People love this play, the characters and the cast.”
“The Seafarer” runs through Feb. 18 at Harlequin Productions’ State Theatre, 202 4th Ave. E.,
corner of 4th and Washington Street, Olympia. Call (360) 786-0151 for tickets.