Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Rehearsal Process

Due to the magnitude of this undertaking at JACK, constituting so many moving pieces on such a small budget, there were many steps necessary to even get us into the rehearsal phase. John Del Gaudio and Daaimah Mubashshir had to work out many logistical and practical concerns before we could get most of the collaborators into the room together. I was not privy to most of these conversations, or the decisions made therein, but the substance of those talks undoubtedly grappled with the usual obstacles impeding Off-Off Broadway theater producers: scheduling and funding.

Productions meetings began with a meeting of many, though not all, of the directors Anne Cecelia Haney, Charles Quittner, Kat Yen, Alex Tobey, and Emilyn Kowaleski; John Del Gaudio, the producer; Daaimah Mubashshir, the writer, producer, and director; and myself, Stephen Christensen, as the dramaturg. There were many big picture questions to sort out at the first meeting, including which plays would be included, and what the structure of the creative process and rehearsal project might be. Due to the number of people who were absent from the meeting, and the work it would entail to answer those basic questions, we adjourned without reaching any definitive answers to those questions or touching upon more fine grained issues of the production, although there were a few main points of consensus we managed to reach.

Photo Credit: Kat Yen
There was a general desire to anchor the play to a singular event, an event that would give the series of plays an animating action and a clear, organizing physical structure. The prevailing idea at the conclusion of the meeting was to present the play-lettes within something akin to a carnival or fair with Daaimah, or her avatar, operating as a type of Master of Ceremonies.

And, there was a general agreement that while the directors began winnowing through the textual body Everyday Afroplay, Daaimah needed to concoct some sort of interstitial material that would lead from piece to piece and give them or highlight within them relevant context and substantive and thematic unity.

Lastly, although we were all forced to acknowledge that due to the large number of directors and the resulting large number of actors, it would be impossible to hold most rehearsals together—that isolated pockets of practice were the inevitable solution to coordinating so many schedules on donated time—everyone expressed a desire to create or at least formulate as much of the production together in real time and live space as possible. The realistic compromise was to schedule a handful of group workshops where the directors might bring together what they'd done alone, to allow for a more reactive and responsive totality.

A long period of percolation followed this initial meeting to allow for directors to investigate and get excited by specific material and for production ideas and logistics to be readied by the writer and fellow producers. Eventually, heading into the second meeting, each director produced a list containing the plays with which he or she was interested. It was apparent from the universally lengthy lists, that a full evening could be carved from only the overlapping points of interest let, alone some all inclusive scheme. A living document was created so that the directors could work out, based on their interests and a vague sense of how the project might be cobbled together.

At this point into the process, having chosen more or less the plays that would be included, the directors could begin to rehearse the individual pieces of Everyday Afroplay. However, without the overarching structure sketched out broadly or otherwise, many directors chose simply to begin casting (which was its own long process) and to brainstorm production ideas heading into the first group workshop. Sadly I was not in attendance at the first group rehearsal, but I understand it consisted primarily of ordering and stumbling through the pieces. With a stronger sense of the whole, the directors could begin to exercise the small, specific slices of material with which they had been entrusted.

Rehearsals took place all across the city—in high rise apartments, basement apartments, and all kinds apartments in-between; in backyard and fronts yards, rooftops and beneath the glistening New York Times building--with the rare spare conference hall; at The Bushwick Starr, JACK, and in any last piece of affordable (free) space that could be scrounged.

Photo Credit: Kat Yen

The great variability in each Every Day Afro Play resulted in a similar variability in directorial approaches to rehearsal, amplified of course by the personalities of the directors themselves. Sometimes, especially with more poetic passages, the approach was geometric with primary concern for the physical arrangement of the actor or actors. Shifting lines of bodies indicated decisive action when pursued with speed or frustration and stasis when slowed. Futility and familiarity both found expression through physical and aural repetition. Protrusions in otherwise uniform arrangements evoked obstacles and opportunities. Clusters formed alliances while individuals could shrink from existence or expand wide as the cosmos. More narrative material usually engendered a more traditional theatrical process where the directors focused on actions, prescribed by the text or invented from circumstance, and their reactions.

Despite this diversity of circumstances, material, and people, there were strategic and practical commonalities throughout the process. Often, when a piece was being rehearsed for the first time, the actors and directors would discuss how it fit under the EDAP umbrella. When the material of the play dealt explicitly with blackness, either through its prescribed use of the black body or the infusion of racial discourse into the substance of its dialogue, the conversation would spill from the boundaries of the text into sadly relevant contemporary events, the critical undervaluation of black life in the justice system prominently figuring in a large majority of discussions. Usually the material swung wider and the conversations followed, through postulating about our base impulse to observe, create, and maintain hierarchical systems in many contexts for good and bad, to the socioeconomic legacy of opera and its edifice.

When we reassembled as an ensemble, the task was to start honing the through-story, which had its own director Raja Feather Kelly. Some blocking and set arrangements were changed due to the logistical needs of moving the actors from scene to scene and into and out of the playing space, which had the added effect of bringing greater harmony to the distinct physical vocabularies developed in each passage. This burgeoning unity accelerated the discovery of an impressionistic continuity lent to the piece through Naj and Dandy's interstitial appearances. For although there is no clear arc or resolution to the thrust of their interactions, they remind us of the infinite density at the core of Everyday Afroplay. They refocus our attention on a constant expansion and contraction of blackness, but they deny us the satisfaction of clearly defining terms or naming conflicts and their solutions. Instead, they offer us a structural persistence, an endless questioning of the limits of their past, present, and future.

Photo Credit: Kat Yen

While this was a strong amount of growth through a relatively short period of rehearsal, and while it addressed our most pressing questions at the time, the fast pace of change and short window of opportunity left many sections under-exercised and a few glaring question marks. Most significantly, we had not yet seen our dancer dancing his or her formless dance at any of the rehearsals, group or individual. This dance was intended to be a focal mechanism for the piece, keeping time and propelling the show centrifugally through its repetition. It would remain to be seen whether this element would manifest at all.

With this final group rehearsal concluded, the individual groups once again dispersed to either run cleanup on their pieces before entering technical rehearsals or to take a break and reflect on the trajectory of the project going into the final week of shows. My next encounter with Everyday Afroplay would not happen until the end of the technical rehearsal process. In the meantime, the realities of producing a work of live performance would once again turn tumultuous with some key personnel and logistical challenges.