Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Through with Read-throughs

"Usually, a first day of rehearsal goes something more like this. The actors arrive. The entire theater staff arrives, occasionally along with some board members. We eat stale donuts and mill around nervously. The artistic director says a few words. The director does a presentation. The designers do a presentation. The playwright says some awkward heartfelt things. It’s something like an ad campaign, but for who? We’re still trying to convince the theater to do our play, but they’re already doing it! We tell the actors how the play will look and sound, proud of our work, but because we’ve done the work already, the actors’ very particular imaginations won’t influence any of our big plans!
Then we sit down nervously, surrounded by a ring of about fifty people (depending on how big the theater is), and we read the play out loud at a table. The pencils are sharp, and the actors do a strange dance of auditioning for each other. The day ends, we are all relieved, and the next day we actually begin rehearsal. What if the first day of rehearsal could contain more joy? More costumes and fewer packets of information? What if it were as secretive and intimate as children building a fort, covering themselves with blankets, sitting in the dark, saying to the outside world: keep out, keep out, for now…"
Sarah Ruhl, “On the First Day of Rehearsal,” 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write on Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love Sarah Ruhl. Her plays are genius, but this little book of 100 essays has become my guidebook for theatre and life. I’m sure many of us have, on a number of occasions, experienced a read through just like what Sarah Ruhl describes above. It feels much more like ritual than rehearsal and without question there is a sense in the room that it is just something we need to do before we can start actually rehearsing. Lost in the ritual is any sense of purpose. Why do we do this? What is the point?

On Saturday morning, we had our first rehearsal for Stupid Fucking Bird. Before heading to the theatre, I re-read Sarah’s essay and was determined to avoid the typical read-through. We only allowed ourselves a 2 hour block for our first meeting because we were also scheduled to rehearse The Burial at Thebes that day. This is a cast in which some people have worked together a number of times and some people are completely new to tKAPOW so, yes, we spent a few minutes on introductions. And, yes, we spent just a few minutes explaining what we had in mind for the physical playing area. But, when it came time to dive into the script, I wanted to approach things a little differently. Stupid Fucking Bird is an amazing script and one of the things that makes it so great is that it very deliberately blurs the line between actor and audience. So, for the first rehearsal I set up 8 chairs in two rows of four. The two rows faced each other with about 15’ between them. Then we read the script, but rather than remaining seated, the actors moved into the open space between the chairs and walked through the whole show.

It was fascinating to watch the cast make decisions about where and how to enter, where to play the scene, and how to exit. If they felt chairs were needed they would drag them into the space and then take them with them when they exited. I was fortunate that so many of the cast members were off or almost off book so there wasn’t much of the awkwardness of having to balance your script while moving through space.

In this way, the first rehearsal was just that. A rehearsal. But, a rehearsal virtually free of rules. The actors went where they wanted to go and got to be in complete control. And, you know what? There were some moments, some real moments, created during that two hour rehearsal. Moments that I can guarantee we would not have found sitting around a table. Is it performance ready? No, but I truly believe that the cast learned more about the show, their characters, and their ensemble than they would have in a typical read through. Most importantly, I think this rehearsal set a tone for the rest of our work. It will be a process where the actors will be empowered to take risks, to explore, to play. I’m not trying to claim that there is anything really revolutionary here. I know that many theatres have long since abandoned the read through, but for us it was a new approach and I am really encouraged by the results. I’ll be very curious to see how many of the little discoveries from the first rehearsal end up in the finished product. Until then, we’ll have a lot of fun building blanket forts.

~ Matt Cahoon

Monday, August 22, 2016

Theatre as a Universal Language

Some of my favorite theatrical experiences as an audience member have been shows performed in languages other than English. As I've discussed in a previous blog, Teatr Zar, a Polish company that performed at Charlestown Working Theater a few years ago, put on one of the best pieces I've ever seen. I've been fortunate enough to see shows in Italian, French, Farsi, and ASL (which I'll grant included lots of English). In all of these cases, the power of the performances have had the ability to transcend the language barrier. It takes a special performer to bridge the gap of understanding, but when they are able to do so the results are profound. I suppose this is a reality with which opera fans are quite familiar.

As I write this, I'm on a plane back from Italy where I have spent the last 9 days in residence at LaMaMa Umbria International. I was last in Italy in 2013 for LaMaMa's Directors' Symposium. This time I was in Italy directing an original, one-woman piece entitled Bea and Me. The piece was written and performed by Marybeth Berry, a friend I met during the 2013 symposium. The show explores Marybeth's personal life story dealing with domestic abuse at the hands of her husband who died of cancer. As a means of unlocking this story, Marybeth wrote the piece as a conversation with Beatrice Herford an early 20th century monologist widely recognized as a pioneer of solo performance. The play deals with complex themes and features an equally complex format. We spent most of our time in Italy refining the script so as to improve flow, timing, and message. The piece was performed twice at Cantiere Oberdan, the host venue for the LaMaMa Spoleto Open.

About mid-week, one of the organizers of the LaMaMa program asked us how we were going to address the language issue for Italian audiences. Honestly we were so heavily involved in script edits and staging rehearsals that we hadn't really considered that at all. I reached out to an Italian friend of mine for help, but with time so short, the decision was made to just present the piece in English. We figured that if nothing else, the playwrights currently working at LaMaMa (a group of about 12) would come to the show and the language would not be a problem for them.

Friday night, the night of the first performance, came and we only had four people in the audiences, all Italians (some with very limited English). I gave my curtain speech and had the first in my lifetime experience of having to pause while it was translated for the audience. Marybeth pressed forward with her piece and the audience was absolutely enthralled. As a side note, I've never seen an actress embrace having an audience to play for as much as Marybeth did that night. Her story burst forth from her as if it just needed to be released. The performance reached its end, the lights dimmed, and our little Italian audience absolutely went nuts. They clapped and clapped and then clapped some more. It was clear that while they may not have understood all of the language (or Marybeth's crazy accent which is two parts South Carolina drawl with one part Rhode Island speed), but they were moved. They were moved because Marybeth was moved. The emotional tension in the room was evident and it needed no translation.

Here I am,somewhere over southern France and I find myself contemplating what lessons from this experience I can take with me to my work at home. tKAPOW has always been committed to producing the very best of dramatic literature and that commitment will not change any time soon. What I believe I will continue to explore as a director, however, is performance that is highly expressive and storytelling propelled by strong imagery. I will challenge my actors to consider those audiences members who may not be able to rely on understanding of the language alone. I hope that this approach will help us create productions capable of transcending language all together.

~ Matt Cahoon

Friday, August 5, 2016


Season 9 is here! It's actually hear, here. (See what we did there?)

It’s hard to believe, but tKAPOW is about to start work on our 9th season.  Since the very beginning we have prided ourselves on choosing scripts representative of the highest quality of dramatic literature.  As many of you may know, we generally program a piece by (or inspired by) a European playwright in the fall, a comedy in the winter, and a piece by an American playwright in the spring.  We also like to plan our seasons around unifying themes.  I’m really thrilled with what we have put together for season 9.  

Here are some fun facts about season 9:

  1. All three of our “mainstage” shows are comedies which means season 9 will be the funniest season to date.  
  2. With a combined 17 roles in the three shows, season 9 will be one of the largest seasons we’ve ever produced (by comparison, season 8 was the smallest season to date with only 5 combined roles).  
  3. All three shows feature musical instruments (more on that later).
  4. For the first time ever, tKAPOW will be doing a musical!

The season 9 theme is HEAR, HERE!  The shows in the season will all have a musical element (HEAR) and will all feature a meta-theatricality that sheds light on the shared experience of the artists and audiences when they are present together (HERE).  It’s going to be an amazing season with multiple NH premiere productions.  

We’ll kick off season 9 (after a quick stop in Thebes and a reading at the Currier) in early October with Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird.  Posner describes the piece as “sort of adapted from The Seagull.”  The show was written in 2013 and this will be its first production in NH.  It’s a very smart and funny script that roughly follows the same story as Chekhov’s classic play.  tKAPOW has produced plays by European masters including Strindberg and Ibsen and have always wanted to explore one of Chekhov’s full-length pieces (we did several of his one-acts in 2015).  It just turns out that in this case we’ll be looking at Chekhov through the words of one of America’s great contemporary dramatic voices.  As you can probably guess by the title this is something of an irreverent adaptation.  I promise that this will be a fun night of theatre as the lines between actor and audience are blurred and someone plays a ukelele!

In March, we’ll explore another piece that comes to us from a European master when we tackle Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Exit the King.  My father once told me that it was the funniest play he had ever seen. Okay, he told me more than once. In fact, basically every time that tKAPOW has done a comedy my father has told me that Exit the King is the funniest show he has ever seen.  So, you know it was only a matter of time before tKAPOW dove into this one.  The show is pure madcap fun as poor old King Berenger refuses to believe that his time on earth has come to an end.  

And, yes, in April, after years of saying that we’d never do it, tKAPOW will be jazz squaring our way into the world of musical theatre. Kind of. For this show we’ll be returning to the work of Sarah Ruhl, a tKAPOW favorite whose Eurydice we produced way back in season 4.  I truly cannot express how much Sarah Ruhl’s work has inspired me.  Her grasp of the English language is amazing and while she is a very efficient writer she manages to develop moments of such profound depth.  So it is with her piece Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical.  The reason that I say it is kind of a musical is that Ruhl originally published the piece as a play with a cello.  Approximately 10 years after its original production, she, along with composer Todd Almond, reenvisioned the piece as a musical complete with a string quartet and piano.  It’s beautiful.  Don’t let the name fool you, this is a very funny play.  We’re especially excited about this project because we will be collaborating with the NH Philharmonic.  We last worked with the NH Phil on their concert showcasing music inspired by the works of Shakespeare.  This collaboration will be more substantial and, we hope, will help both organizations reach new audiences.    

As the summer all too quickly fades towards fall, I look at the work ahead with a great deal of eager anticipation.  In just a couple of days we will be holding auditions for Stupid Fucking Bird and Exit the King and that process is always an exciting one.  Soon after we cast the show we’ll be heading into rehearsal.  It’s amazing how quickly each season comes and goes.  I hope that you will continue to check back HERE to HEAR what we are up to.  Before we know it, we’ll be headed to season 10.

~ Matt Cahoon