First person account: “Behind the Curtain” gets busy

The scene at the Ellyn Bye Studio Saturday ... was not like this./Wm Hogarth via Wikimedia

On Saturday in the Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio, we at Oregon Arts Watch held our very first Special Event, “Behind the Curtain: The Art of the Theatre Director.”  Oregon Arts Watch is dedicated to coming up with creative ways to explore the arts and creative ways to present what we discover, and this little experiment seemed to be a good way to combine them both.

OAW board member Gretchen Corbett asked three directors and two actors to  help us, and Gretchen being Gretchen, they agreed. Rose Riordan, the associate artistic director at Portland Center Stage, even helped figure the whole thing out. The other two directors were Brian Weaver, the artistic director of Portland Playhouse, who was opening a production of “Gem of the Ocean” that very night, and Jerry Mouawad, Imago’s co-artistic director, whose “Zugzwang” opened a couple of weeks ago. Riordan, by the way, had just returned from Berkeley, where she’d directed Adam Bock’s “Phaedra,” to critical acclaim.

The idea was to give these three directors 45 minutes or so to explore a scene from “Fire Island,” a Charles Mee play, a love scene between two characters.  Actors Laura Faye Smith and Sean McGrath agreed to run this gauntlet. At the end, we hoped, the audience (us!) might have a better idea of how theater “works,” how directors and actors talk to each other and attempt to get to the bottom of a scene. And theater people being theater people, I expected this to be pretty fun to watch, too.I wildly underestimated how engaging the whole thing would be. I thought we in the audience would start experiencing fatigue as the same scene played out over and over. I even suggested to the audience that they should feel free to wander in and out, if they felt restless or needed coffee. I don’t think anyone budged while the exercise was in progress, except for the people (including my mother!) Mouawad moved over a seat or two so the actors could play the scene from the seats.

We gave the actors and audience members 10 minutes or so to re-load between directors, and several people (we had a crowd of maybe 50, which included several interns at Portland Playhouse, who helped us out at the box office) came up to say how much they were enjoying the experience. One of the audience members, Sandra Geary, left a comment on our “announcement” story:

“This was the most satisfying “show” I’ve seen in a very long time. Something like a cross between voyeurism and improv, or like watching distinguished artists work their magic right up close and personal and…oh, right. That IS what we were doing. Lucky, lucky us. I felt sorry for the billions of people who were not there yesterday!”

Even the plucky Playhouse interns would have had a hard time dealing with billions of people if they’d shown up! But thanks, Sandra: Your comment was what the whole thing was about, really.

It’s difficult to report on something you’re involved with. I wanted things to work out, after all. So, you should take my judgments and descriptions in that light, though to me, the experiment was the experiment. I was going to be happy with whatever the results were, once Riordan and the actors started working in the first segment. Any information I got was going to be interesting, even if it was simply, “a director and two actors can’t really do very much in 45 minutes.”

Then Riordan, Smith and McGrath went through the love scene (or at least parts of it) 15 or 20 times in Riordan’s 45 minutes, each time trying something a little different, expecting a little different response. In the scene, the guy is talking to the girl, basically explaining to her that he’s interested in her, seriously interested, and why, which involves their history together as children and his active imagination. And she’s trying to process this information.

First, Riordan chatted for a few minutes with Smith and McGrath, just so they understood the setting (Fire Island) and the characters a little bit, and then she watched them go through the scene the first time. Her first instruction after that run-through was to McGrath, and she asked him to speak about three times more quickly. (I did not take notes, so I’m going on my memory throughout this account.) When he did that, the whole thing changed. First of all, we in the audience were amazed that he could rev it up to that sort of warp drive (the actors had scripts in hand, but they knew things pretty well, and as time passed, they pretty much had the whole thing memorized), and then the whole scene changed completely, becoming funnier and funnier and making more and more sense.

How was Smith going to react to this amazing information coming out of McGrath’s mouth? Heck, several sentence in, the word “marriage” came out of his mouth. Riordan asked the actors to play around with that pivotal moment for several minutes, settling on an approach that had McGrath staring out at the ocean and babbling until the fateful word came around and then pausing turning slowly and watching Smith’s response. Which was, “Marriage?!?!?” Sometimes she played it skeptically, sometimes like a moth attracted to a flame. They tried it a multitude of ways.

And that’s how the 45 minutes went, a deep (fast) exploration of lines and characters and directions. The scene had its funny moments and in the process of explaining and observing Riordan displayed a sharp, dry sense of humor herself, but it was business on that stage, and when that segment finished, I thought this scene has been explored as much as it can be explored. We have it totally mapped out.

Then Weaver arrived. The idea was that a director couldn’t watch the previous directors work. They wouldn’t be building on what came before, they’d be starting fresh. Of course, we in the audience weren’t and neither were the actors. How different could it be? How about, totally?

Weaver arrived having made a crucial error. Chuck Mee sometimes uses the same characters in the same scenes in different plays. The scene everyone had been sent was from “Fire Island,” but Weaver thought it came out of “Big Love,” which is a re-working of Aeschylus’ “The Suppliant Maidens.” Oops. So, Weaver wanted it to have that big Greek epic quality.

But first, time-out for improv, because he asked McGrath and Smith to pretend they were 16 and at the big dance, and McGrath was supposed to ask Smith to dance. She says no to the dance but yes to the date request later on. They were hilarious.

Then Weaver got them running. Well, actually, McGrath started running out of the theater into the lobby and then back into the theater, and whenever he slowed down, Weaver said something like, “You’re in a battle, faster!” Meanwhile, poor Smith was throwing herself on the floor and getting back up as quickly as she could. They did this for several minutes. In the audience, we were panting. McGrath and Smith looked close to death.

Then they stopped and started the scene, breathless, gasping. Nikos (McGrath) starts:

I thought,
I’ve always liked you, Lydia
seeing you with your sisters
sometimes in the summers
when our families would get together at the beach.
I thought you were fun, and funny
and really good at volleyball

And suddenly, everything was different. The scene was different. The energy the actors brought to it was different. Working off of “Big Love,” in which an invading force led by Nikos’s brother is threatening to lay waste to the island, Weaver had arrived at a different “key moment” in the scene, a few lines past the marriage bit.

but maybe this isn’t quite the thing you want
and really I don’t want to force myself on you
you should be free to choose
I mean: obviously.

Thank you.

Wow, we were in a totally different scene, now. And then Weaver tossed in a surreal monologue for Lydia from “Big Love,” and raised the passion level to the max. Our heads were spinning. Mouawad was next.

For Mouawad, the whole project was like the torture of the damned. A few days before, I’d seen him at “Zugzwang,” and he’d told me that he never prepares for a rehearsal, but he’d spent a ton of time preparing for this one. And then, when he arrived, he told us he’d gotten up at 4 that morning and written several pages about why what we were asking him to do ran so counter to his approach that… and I thought he was going to say that he couldn’t in good conscience do it.

Which would have been interesting, but not nearly so interesting as what he actually did. To remove the idea of of the audience watching a rehearsal, which he views as this intimate, private process, Mouawad decided to make the audience into actors playing an audience. They’d take their cues from him. The actors played members of the audience, too, acting their lines as they took their seats, and then they’d turn into actors in the play the audience was watching.

The audience had to learn some “lines.” We clapped on cue, we sighed “Ohhhh,” we laughed on cue, and some of us yelled out things like “No way.” I think there were five little phrases in all. As the actors delivered their lines, Mouawad cued us to “enter” as well, which gave the actors something to play against. Uproarious laughter at the mention of “marriage,” for example. Suddenly, the actors were in a totally different play yet again, overcoming obstacles, reacting to each other and the audience at the same time. The tone changed, the meaning changed, the actors, thrown off track a little, fought for their lines in a different way.

Mouawad, who was “playing” the director, had a little smile on his face the entire time, even as he corrected a mistake by the audience. Later on in the question and answer period, he said, 1) that he’d never do this sort of thing again, and 2) that theater was enjoyable on the first day and the last day and everything else was entirely painful. But that little smile indicated that he may have been employing a bit of hyperbole to make a point.

The audience asked great questions and praised the decision of the directors and actors to take part. One man asked Mouawad to reconsider his decision never to do this again, because it was so instructive, and the audience applauded. And not because Mouawad gave them a cue, either.

I’d thought that this group of actors and directors would be interesting to watch, but in my head, I’d been “frozen” on the schematics of the experiment. How it would work. How much time in between segments. When the talkback would occur. And then it started happening, actually came to life, and it was amazing — how much talent, work, commitment, creativity, risk-taking, maybe even craziness goes into making theater, even just the little slice we saw on Saturday morning.

I’m going to give the last word to Sandra Geary, though I hope other audience members will comment on what they saw, too, whether they agree with her or not.

“Behind the Curtain was a smashing success. I have a renewed respect for the collaboration that directors and actors bring to the development of a play, and my future theater experiences have been wildly enriched. All in all, I am thoroughly in love with this…what would you call it? Director Talk-Back? I don’t know, but I love it, and hope to do it again very soon.”


Special thanks to Portland Center Stage for donating the space and staff for Saturday’s event. Couldn’t have happened without them.

And again, thanks to Laura Faye Smith and Sean McGrath and the directors who opened these doors for us.

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