Like many theater artists, I’m finding myself at loose ends, with a project more or less dissolving in my hands, getting less likely with each news break. Future projects are getting less certain as well.
I’m trying to look on the sunny side; while I’m mourning the projects that might not happen or might be delayed, I’m also a little happy about a few things I didn’t get, but very much had hoped for. If I had gotten them, I would be even more upset now, to have them in this disjointed limbo, right? I’m grateful that I didn’t get them, kind of. The losses would have been even harder to take.
Right now, I’m still technically in rehearsal for As You Like It at Harrisonburg High School. It was my first show with this age group since 2016, when I directed Much Ado at the American Shakespeare Center’s theater camp. I was excited about it; the work we do to develop young artists is both important and joyful. I cast 21 students—I wanted everyone who auditioned to have a chance to experience making Shakespeare. Some of them had never been in a play before. At least half hadn’t ever seen Shakespeare performed.
We had two rehearsals—a readthru and a movement workshop, focusing mostly on thrust stage blocking. The last part of the movement workshop was something I borrowed from Ashley White’s intimacy workshop at STA: I had them practice telling a partner their physical boundaries so that they would get used to saying what they needed. They were giggly at the beginning; it’s an awkward exercise. By the end, they were focused and intent on each other. At the end, I asked them what they thought about it. One actor said, “I never knew it was okay to say what I don’t want. I thought in theater, we’re supposed to say, ‘Yes, and!'”
If these students remember nothing else from working with me for these few days, I hope that they remember that they always have the right to name and enforce a boundary. “There are directors who will ask you to do things that aren’t safe for you, and who might belittle or threaten you for advocating for yourself or your cast mates. No matter who they are, you should never offer your work to someone who doesn’t care about your physical, spiritual, and emotional safety,” I told them. I hope they believed me.
Since schools closed last Friday, we’ve been connecting on Google Meet to try to continue. I did a text workshop that way on Tuesday, which was okay, and I’ve had one-on-one-or-two “table work” sessions with several of them the rest of the week. I don’t normally do table work at all, because, as Tina Packer says, “Table work robs you of half your knowledge centers.” I usually do plenty of text work, but it’s all moving around and embodying the text. So this is challenging.
We’re focusing on monologues so that they will have something they can use for auditions or competition, even if (likely) the show doesn’t go on.
Even though we are all showing up and giving everything we can, the rehearsals feel hollow. I think that all of us know this play is not going to happen. The school hasn’t officially come out and said so, but I don’t think they are going to reopen this semester at all. So that’s hard. We’re having fun together, but it’s also deeply sad. The uncertainty is wearing on us.
Yesterday, I had a call with Azalea, who is playing Rosalind. She’s brilliant. She said, “I know there are people who are struggling and sick and losing their jobs. I feel like it’s silly to be so disappointed about this—but I was so excited to play Rosalind!” I told her, it’s okay to be angry. Swallowing our anger or diminishing our disappointment doesn’t make anybody else’s life easier or better or healthier. “I’m angry and disappointed, too,” I said. “I was so excited to see your Rosalind.”
I keep thinking about a year ago, when I was rehearsing Richard III via Skype. That was a difficult and disappointing situation, too, but at least we were definitely doing a show. Because the actors were all together and only I was remote, they were able to hold the space between them. On this project, with all of us blinking in from our homes, we don’t have a collective there. We aren’t sharing and creating in a space. We’re having a hard time focusing; there’s no sacred set-apart-ness. Actors’ cats are wandering over their keyboards, their parents are poking in to see what we’re doing, their connections are dropping and blurring. Working on Richard, I felt like I was projecting myself outward over the distance to be present in the rehearsal room where everyone else was gathered. On this project, there’s no gathering place.
I’ve always been the person who responds to whining about loud, or cold, or cramped rehearsal spaces with the insistence that we have what we need: An empty space, a story, each other. I’m learning now how very desperately we need that space.