Monday, April 09, 2007

Open Rupture

posted by Damaso Rodriguez at 3:05 PM
We opened the world premiere of Matt Pelfrey's play An Impending Rupture of the Belly on Saturday night, April 7. It was a great night. We've now opened 13 plays since our debut in April of 2002. It's become difficult to get a seat to the opening performance. With an overcapacity audience (there were 85 people seated, with several folks standing in the back), "no-shows" were welcome. We've unfortunately taken to limiting the number of comps available to cast, crew and ensemble instead encouraging everyone to invite friends to the always less-than-full 2nd performance. Our opening night audiences have become an interesting mix of donors and their guests (often Furious first-timers), board members and guests (also first-timers), press, leaders of other Pasadena arts organizations, Playhouse leadership, and close friends and family of the cast and crew. Surprisingly, though the audience probably represents our collectively saviest and smartest audience seat-for-seat, it's not necessarily the 100% "friendly" audience you might expect at a small theatre's first night. The last few shows have included at least one walk-out within the first 10 minutes. On Saturday a women found her way to the aisle during the first scene whispering "that's the worst thing I've ever heard". Several scenes later, her husband ducked out searching for her. Apparently, she'd recently suffered a loss in her family and wasn't up for a play that opens with a monologue detailing how blind we all are to the potential disasters that could befall us at any minute. The walk-outs while disruptive always force some imperceptible shift in the audience as if a challenge has been called out "are you IN or are you OUT? Because if you're not willing to go on the ride, then NOW's the time to get off."

Regardless, the show went very well. And the opening night running time came in at 89 minutes, a full 6 minutes shorter than the previous night's final "preview" performance. Like many directors, I'm obsessed with the running time, looking for places to remove the air or keep the momentum building to a surprising yet inevitible conclusion (read your Mamet). Sometimes this is achieved by making last minute cuts to the script, by encouraging the actors to 'think faster' and oddly enough by changing the blocking. The few days before the opening night are always where a show takes its most significant leaps. Anybody who saw one of the previews, even the final preview, saw a very different show. Here's what you missed during the final, sleepless days and hours:

Saturday, March 31 (7 days until opening)
We're at the theatre from 10am to 10pm for supposedly final technical rehearsals. The actors are saying their lines, but the focus is all on how we're going to get the furniture on and off stage, simplifying costume changes, and getting the hundreds of light and sound cues right. The set is not complete. Scheduling conflicts with the space forced us to delay the load-in of the set and the actors are working with several wall units and pieces of furniture that "represent" what they'll eventually have. It's not ideal...but nobody's blaming anybody. We're gonna make it. Many of us stay until 1am continuing to prep for dress rehearsals the next day. The build crew pulls an all-nighter.

Sunday, April 1 (6 days until opening)
There simply weren't enough hours in the night. The set is not finished. The photographer is coming to take press photos at 11am, but we bump him to 4:30pm hoping it will give us time to finish up a few more things. We also decide to cancel the morning dress rehearsal and instead focus on the technically complex final 20 minutes of the show (there are several dozen light and sound cues, a 90 second sequence of complex fight choreography, and some really challenging scene changes, and quick costume changes). Again, I'm not worried about cancelling the dress. The actors have been working in full costume and makeup since the first "tech" rehearsal on Friday. We haven't had an uninterrupted dress rehearsal at this point, but that's not what this particular production needs. After our lunch break, we come back and run the show, but have determined that we will stop as necessary to resolve and re-do scene changes that go awry. Some pictures are taken during the run. The L.A. Times has requested something for a pre-opening pic in Thursday's Calendar section.

Monday, April 2 (5 days until opening)
There's no rehearsal tonight. Actors are off as they can't work more than 6 days in a row. This gives the set crew time to finish.

Tuesday, April 3 (4 days until opening)
From 5pm-8pm we continue working cue to cue on the scene changes. At 8:30pm we begin our first uninterrupted dress rehearsal. Afterward, the production team gathers for notes, then everybody runs off to work. I give the actors notes. During the course of the last few days, we've made some modifications to the location of certain scenes, plus masking is now in place and it requires changes to the lighting levels. Our lighting designer Christie, Nick (production manager) and I stay and reset the furniture for every scene (Nick and I acting as stand-ins walking through the show) while Christie refocuses, resets lighting levels, and reprograms the light board. We stumble out at 4am knowing that was painful, but necessary.

Wednesday, April 4 (3 days until opening)
Rehearsal from 5pm-6:30pm focusing on problematic cues. First preview begins at 8pm before a small audience. Just enough people to raise the stakes and keep us from stopping. Half way into the show the power goes out on stage. Doug Newell keeps improvising. It almost kinda works. In the booth people are trying to figure out what went wrong. Clearly, we blew a fuse. Magically they come back on and we continue. We were never able to determine what happened. And this is why the space is getting a renovation.

Thursday, April 5 (2 days until opening)
Rehearsal and preview. We're still tweaking lines and lights. More of the set is materializing. No dramatic power outages today. The show is o.k. The big fight was off tonight. Somebody skipped a move and it looks weird. The actors stay for notes. Matt makes some cuts. We change a couple lines. This will continue until we open.

Friday, April 6 (1 day until opening)
Rehearsals and final preview. The run was pretty smooth and uneventful. It was just slow. I think the show is there technically, though we will still make some tweaks. This time, cutting some unnecessary light and sound cues. A couple friends come to see it that run theatres around town. I can't help but wish they had waited until after we open. Now the focus is finally 100% back on the text and the acting. Matt makes a really big cut to one of Aubrey's monologues. It's painful but the best thing for the show. The cast stays after to "take the air out of the show". This involves them running lines while I stop them any time I feel there's an unnecessary pause or the pace lags. We also reblock several scenes, simplifying them. Sometimes too much movement and business gets in the way of the show. Some people try to solve "slow parts" of a play by making the actors move around more. I find the opposite approach is sometimes what's missing. At a certain point we get tired, and sit down and have a beer together. We don't stop talking about the play, moment by moment. This cast and company is amazing. No one wants to leave. You'd think after doing so many show's together people would just get jaded and go home!

Saturday, April 7 (5 hours until opening)
3pm-6pm. It's basically more of what we were doing the night before. Taking the air out. We also run with lights and sound. We put in more tweaks to the script. We make a significant change to an early scene, moving a major line to the top of the scene instead of 10 lines in. Funny how something small like this changes everything about the scene.

7:15pm. Everyone's milling about backstage getting ready for the show. Audience will begin arriving in 15 minutes. Shawn, in costume, plugs in a circular saw and begins to cut off the troublesome corners on the backside of 3 removable flats he's responsible for changing in the dark during scene changes. They had been slowing him down. He thinks it'll speed up the show by a few seconds. I see him doing this. "Cool, that'll help," I say. Shawn says, "yah" and wraps up the cord. I love this business.


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