First full run-thru of Praying Small today. This is mostly so I can figure out where in the world I'm supposed to be at any given time throughout the play. The most oft heard phrase in rehearsal these days is "what happens next" or "what just happened." The play is episodic and non-linear so sometimes I feel like I'm rehearsing a scene in a void. No one's fault, it's just written that way. So today, hopefully, I can get an idea of the continuity of the piece. How A connects with B and so on.
Yesterday we worked a bit on the last scene in the play. Victor Warren, the director of the play, sat in the booth and added our incidental music (from the astonishingly gifted Kyle Puccia) to let us know what kind of background music we'd have so as to time it all out. When we finished I looked up and noticed Teal Sherer, our boundlessly energetic producer, weeping. It was at that exact moment I realized we had a play on our hands.
Victor has decided to go in a slightly different direction than I had in my mind. At first I wasn't too sure about his choice. But the more we work and the more I listen to him explain his vision, the more I like it. Music is used very sparingly in the piece. In its place is ambient sound. Consequently when we do use it, it is very powerful. The incidental music in the last scene is an adaptation of Leonard Cohen's beautiful song, Hallelujah. When timed correctly a small snippet of vocals come in at precisely the right emotional moment. It was a tad haunting yesterday and I was pleased. Tara Orr, the extraordinary actress playing Susan, the love interest in the play, was having a tough time simply saying the lines because of the emotion that unexpectedly welled up in her. It was just one of those moments when everyone in the room suddenly realized we had a winner. I admit to being a bit overwhelmed myself.
I remember some years back, the first time I did my all-time favorite musical, Sunday in the Park with George, when the entire cast nearly fell apart singing the final song in the play - "Sunday." The song is just beautiful, incredibly moving. The emotion jumped, without warning, from one actor to the next. A minute into the song and the whole cast was a mess, just a mess, crying and sniffling our way through this majestic piece of music. None of us saw it coming. It was just one of those moments when everyone realized in an instant why we were professional actors. Because sometimes, not often but sometimes, the sheer joy of doing something absolutely brilliantly written on stage made our lives have some profound meaning.
That was how it was at rehearsal yesterday. It's not something that can be recreated. It simply happens on its own accord. Another time like that was when I was doing The Boys Next Door down in Florida. I was doing, for the third time, Arnold, the mentally challenged ring-leader of the boys. It is the scene when the care-giver, Jack, goes to find Arnold, who has run away from the group home, and discovers him sitting in a bus station waiting patiently for the bus to "Russia." One night while doing that scene I was completely blind-sided by the emotion inherent in it. Projectile tears flying from me. The actor playing Jack was utterly surprised by my sudden and new interpretation of the scene. I couldn't help it, though. It was one of those unplanned, rare occasions on stage when everything simply comes together in a rush and even the actor is surprised. Moments like that make all the struggle, all the work, all the rejections and self-doubt worthwhile. They are fleeting.
I think it is good for an actor to be caught off guard like that every now and then. For me anyway, it is a subtle reminder that the material itself is in charge. Dustin Hoffman said he had just a terrible time getting through the scene in Death of a Salesman when Willy realizes Biff loves him. It's toward the end of the play, set in the kitchen, and Hoffman said he just couldn't get through it. He said it got to the point that finally Malkovich, playing Biff, said, "Um, Dustin, you DO realize, don't you, that no one can understand a word you're saying when you cry like a girl there." I can hear John saying something like that and it makes me smile. He directed a friend of mine in a play once. At the end of the act my friend did something to make the audience collective say, "Ahhhhh." He said Malkovich rushed backstage and playfully slapped him on the back of the head and said, "Never do that again! That reaction is reserved for puppies and babies ONLY! Not in any play I direct!" Again, I can hear John saying that. He once told me how hard he worked to avoid that reaction when he played Lenny in Of Mice and Men onstage. He told me, "the last thing I wanted was to play a lovable retard."
During the run of Praying Small in Chicago I used to sneak in the back and watch the audience from time to time. Gauging their reaction. I was always terribly pleased when I saw them all start reaching for their hankies in the last couple of scenes. I could hear the sniffling all over the theatre.
So full run-thru today. I'm ready for it. I'm off book now for chunks of the play. This time next week I hope to be completely off book. It's starting to come together in little moments here and there. I know today is likely to be a big train wreck most of the day, but I also know we'll probably find little instances when we breathe some life into it. When, quite unexpectedly, there is beauty in what we do. And redemption. And reassurance that we have chosen the right road in our decisions to be actors, the road less travelled, the road that has made all the difference, the road to this very moment in time.
See you tomorrow.