I’ve written before about the first time I was directed by Joe Ferrell in That Championship Season on the Laboratory Theatre stage at the University of Kentucky. A couple of years after that show, Joe cast me as Kenny Talley in The Fifth of July on the Guignol Stage at UK. It was a wondrous cast, though at the time they were all new to me as performers except for the actor playing Jed. I had just finished directing him in Whodunit Darling at Studio Players, but I had never worked with Martha, Sheila, Tim, Michael, or Sue. The early rehearsals were filled with delightfully intimidating discoveries as we explored each other’s’ storytelling gifts. I’ve gone on happily to do a lot of theatre with those folks. I count every one of them as an admired friend.
“Jed” and I had the interesting challenge (for the mid-1980’s) of two straight actors playing gay lovers. My character had the further complication of being a double AK amputee veteran of the Vietnam War.
I know it’s a stretch.
That’s why we’re here.
It’s what we do.
In the first scene of the play, in the first ten minutes of the play, Jed and Kenny (my character) quarrel about our garden, our house, our guests, and our lives. The argument reaches its peak and a relationship-testing silence ensues. In that silence, Jed kisses Kenny and we all understand in that moment there are things on the planet more important than our garden, our house, and our guests…and maybe our lives. It is our loves that matter. Having established that “minor” understanding, we can now have a play and tell our story.
An explanation is in order here.
I love to rehearse.
Strangely enough, I also like to audition. Un-strangely enough, I really like to perform.
But I love to rehearse.
By the time an audience sees the show, they’re only seeing one of about a dozen things we’ve tried in rehearsal. Many of those unseen choices are embarrassing or just plain awful, but in rehearsal it’s OK to try ‘em anyway. It’s where a useful new reality gets invented; the “alternative” reality of an imaginary world. For me, there may not be a more powerful reality. But…it’s not for the real world. Don’t try this at home. And most certainly don’t try this in the White House. Please.
This was our first rehearsal on our feet for The Fifth of July.
The first few rehearsals of a Joe Ferrell-directed play usually take place around a table, reading and discussing. That’s good, that’s good…but let’s get up and move, even if it’s with crutches (double AK amputee, remember?).
For this first rehearsal on our feet, we were in a large rehearsal room and we began at the top of the show. “Jed” and I were on stage and the rest of the cast arranged themselves around the perimeter of the room with their books and knitting and whittling. I’m lyin’ ‘bout the whittling, but remember these were primitive days before laptops, ipads, and smart phones. Hell, this was back when you actually had to know things – you couldn’t just google it – primitive! I like it better now.
Jed and I stumbled through the opening argument and arrived at the kiss.
The rehearsal room became silent. Everyone was still bent over their distractions, but their eyes had shifted to an impossible position on the side of their heads. Avid nonchalance reigned.
Like the first time you mentioned a girl to your parents…
Like your wisest response to the officer’s query; “Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?”…
Like your friends’ reactions when you let slip the fact you actually liked Independence Day: Resurrection.
We went on for a few more lines and then Joe stopped us. I vaguely remember we discussed the opening spat and the possible reasons for it. We discussed phlox and verbena in Jed’s garden and what legless Kenny might see every morning in the mirror. Then we did the scene again from the top.
The big moment returned and so did the silence.
We stopped again and discussed how we felt about Aunt Sally’s (Martha’s character) visit, and my feckless friends’ (Sue and Michael) visit, and the heat of a Fourth of July weekend in Missouri. And we did the scene again.
By about the tenth time through, the kiss meant nothing except in the flow of the story of these two men. It also meant nothing to the rest of the cast except for their desire for us to get it right so they could finally rehearse their scenes.
Awkwardness had been diffused – an urgent truth had coalesced in its place.
A new reality had been established in about 45 minutes.
It’s what we do.
25 years later or so, I was cast by Joe in his production of A Lion in Winter at Woodford Theatre. My character had to kiss his mistress (30+ years younger than me) in front of his wife and his grown children in full knowledge of all involved. Awkward.
We did the scene once, stopped, discussed, Joe suggested a cruel, slow, twirl of the young lady in the face of the family to precede the kiss. We did the scene once more. A new reality was created in about 15 minutes.
It’s what we do.
We seek surprise to capture it and add it to what we are.
We open ourselves to growth and growth comes.
We grow bigger as our world grows bigger.
It’s what we do.