Open Rehearsal: The Court Theatre Blog

August 20, 2008

It actually hurts, learning something new

by Traci Brant in Rehearsal, 2008/2009 Season, Caroline, or Change,

Tuesday, August 12th, 11:40am

I’m late, as usual.

The parents of the child actors performing in Caroline, Or Change are having a meeting right now, and they’ve all got questions about their kids’ contracts—questions to which I, ostensibly, have answers.

I make it to the rehearsal hall about ten minutes into the meeting—parking was bad, but not as bad as I expected—and Ellen, the Stage Manager, is visibly relieved to see me. I distribute some contracts and fake my way through explaining some tax paperwork. I need a work permit that says “Court Theatre”, not your child’s agent—no, not a photocopy, the canary original. Etc.

In the kitchen, at the same time, the first production meeting is wrapping up. There are more new faces here than I’ve seen at one of these in a long time, alongside the old standards (Josh Horvath, Doug Peck, Ray our TD). The ASM, Wendy, is new to Court, and when I arrive the room is in the middle of an involved discussion about scheduling. I hate this part of the meeting—it always feels like the full compliment of the production team will never be in the same room again (and they’re not this time—John Culbert, scenic designer, is absent). Wrangling calendars is thankless and brutal, and I tune out the voices. I slip a paycheck to Sean Blake, actor in Raisin and Carousel who is serving as Movement Consultant (too bad about that title, but his duties fall somewhere between Choreographer and Movement Director, so it’s the most appropriate we could come up with) on this show. He’s thrilled to get the envelopes, but he’s also visibly nervous—he says he’s been waking up in the middle of the night to make notes about the Radio girls. After the meeting, he runs out to perform The Producers in Indiana. I’m glad Sean’s on this show. I think it’s a great step forward for him, and for his relationship with Charlie and Doug. As far as I’m concerned, Court Theatre is producing the best musicals in Chicago—any artist with an interest in the form should want to work here. But then, I hate musicals—I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Carousel premiere. And yeah, it was the best Carousel I’m ever going to see in my life, but it’s still, y’know, Carousel.

Caroline, Or Change is different, though. I’ve been playing this CD nonstop in my car and office for two months. I’ll publish Charlie’s whole first-day schpiel a little later, which describes the importance of the show far more eloquently than I can, but suffice to say that it’s the most interesting and complex musical theater score I’ve ever encountered (yeah, I haven’t heard much Sondheim, yell at me in the comments), and that’s not even considering the characters, the relationships, and the plot, all of which can stand proudly next to the best straight plays in comparisons of depth, novelty, and resonance.

The cast has arrived now—the Equity contingent replaced the parents and kids in the main hall for their super-secret meeting about Deputies and Pensions and God knows what else. Harriet Plumpp catches my eye as she’s coming out of the bathroom—she’s glad to see a familiar face. I realize that this show is scary as hell to be in. But I have absolute faith in Charlie—there isn’t a doubt in my mind that he can handle this show and the massive cast it entails. That’s why I’m his assistant. I’ve gotten into fights with good friends, people I trust who have informed opinions, about whether Charlie Newell is hands-down the best director in Chicago (mostly at the bar, after performances of Titus). To me it seems self-evident. Maybe I need to leave Hyde Park more often…

Charlie grew a goatee, apparently at his sons’ behest, over the vacation. Everyone’s responding to it—it’s fun to watch him get treated slightly differently, and how he reacts to the responses to his new face. He promised a week ago that he was going to lose the new hair soon, but he hasn’t yet. It’s clear he likes it more than he wants to. E. Faye Butler likes it too, so my bet is it stays through tech.

I’ve been a little nervous about our student dramaturg—throwing students, even research-friendly U of C students, into the Production Dramaturg role is historically a bad move—but Brittany is on the ball. The actor packet isn’t printed yet, but I’ve seen a draft and it’s just right—19 pages, each item no longer than 2 paragraphs, tons of pictures. I think about the one I made for The Glass Menagerie—something like 40-odd pages of interminable text about pleurosis, and demographic information about St. Louis in the 30s. I remember the day we (the real dramaturg and I, her research assistant) presented the packet. I could hear the actors’ brains clicking off as they hefted the bound tome with Tennessee Williams’s face and dates staring morbidly from the cover. Brittany’s gonna be just fine. She’s asking the Stage Management Intern, another U of C student, to deliver the section of her report about Channukah and Judaism.

It’s 12:47, and this is more people than I’ve ever seen in this room. We’ve got the cast of 19 (oh my god), rehearsal staff, production staff, admin staff, Board members, donors and guests, and a young director, new to the city, who emailed me out of the blue about watching some rehearsal. We have an open rehearsal policy at Court Theatre, if you didn’t know that. If you contact me in advance and you can sit quiet and respectful, you can spend hours out of your day watching professional artists suck all the magic out of a moment of drama, checking every gesture, taking time to ask all the questions that exist, perfecting with the implicit understanding that spontaneity, that crackling energy without which theater is dead and deadly, will return later. The rehearsal room is my favorite place to be, out of pretty much anywhere.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. It takes a while. Charlie, Doug, Harriet, Jacqueline, Rob, Kate, E. Faye, Byron, Peter, Dennis, Iris, Melanie, Micah, Gregory, Donavan, Jack, Malcolm, Starr, Donika, Ellen, Jon, Wendy, Sara, Marc, Ray, Adam, Jacqueline, Erica, Greta, Hyde Park Bank, Elaine…

Doug is going to be conducting every performance. He’s got a band of 8, and someone donated a brand new Hammond organ to the theater for Caroline. It’s Charlie’s 15th season at Court. This show is like opera. Designers pitch their wares, then we get down to the reading…

Hi, I’m Jack Tamburri, and this is the first installment of the Court Theatre blog. It’s also the first in a series of posts about the First Rehearsal of Caroline, Or Change. Up next is a transcript of Charlie’s introductory speech, then we’ll introduce you to the show’s design elements and take you through the first read-through. In future weeks, you’ll hear from Music Director/Orchestrator Doug Peck, Director of Production/Theater Curmudgeon Marc Stubblefield, designers, actors, and plenty of me.

I started working at Court Theatre when I was 20, assisting Charlie on his production of Travesties while I was still a student at U of C. After I graduated I did some time in the box office, hung around Glass Menagerie rehearsals, then moved over to admin where I am now the assistant to both Charlie and Dawn, as well as the front desk, intern coordinator, University liaison, Artistic Associate, sometimes dramaturg, and proto-General Manager. It’s a fun job. And now I’m a blogger.

So, we’re going to be posting regularly in this space, sometimes long reports or essays, sometimes just a quote, or a photo set, or a provocative question. The thing is, we need you to make this work. If this blog is going to really fly, if it’s going to become a part of the Court Theatre-going experience, we need your comments, your responses, your arguments. Disagree with something I’ve said? Tell me why! I’ll go back and forth with you all day, I promise! Want to tell the world how much you loved or hated what you just saw at our theater? Do it here! The art of theater cannot happen without your presence and active participation, and neither can the art of blogging (do you see what I did there?).

More to come. What do you think?

10 Responses to It actually hurts, learning something new

Really? Curmudgeon? I'm sweet like a chocolate covered teddy bear!

By MarcS on August 21, 2008 at 7:49 pm

So my name has no "k" in it,I I know it seems like there should be .......but blame it on my parents.. anyway great transciption of Charlie's, i'm really impressed I was sitting there and I missed some of that way to go Jack.....

By DONICA on August 22, 2008 at 5:02 am

I'm very excited about this blog. I'm an English teacher at Curie Metro in Chicago. Last year I brought students to see Thyestes, and the year before that we saw a great Glass Menagerie. For the past many years, my students and I have been pretty insular -- looking at texts together, arguing about them together, but not looking outside too much. I'm moving away from that, thinking that literature will mean that much more for students if they're in on the big conversations and arguments people all over are having about texts. So I would love to see, in this blog, discussions and uncertainties about different choices actors or directors or technical staff are making in order to create the effects they'd like to create. That would be great to read about and participate in. Thanks.

By Sarah on August 22, 2008 at 5:47 am

Donica! I'm so sorry--I think I got it right on your contract! I didn't hear the whole Act 2 sing-through today, but I saw Act 1 yesterday and literally every time the Radio kicks in, it is the coolest damn thing, without costumes or staging. I already know a bunch of your words--I'm really excited to stand in the back on sold-out nights and lipsynch.

By courttheatre on August 22, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Hi Sarah! It's been great working with you these past couple of years on getting your students to see our shows - looking forward to seeing you all again at The Piano Lesson!

By Milan on August 22, 2008 at 11:57 pm

Sarah, Thanks for responding! We've got some great posts from Court artists coming up, starting with Music Director Doug Peck. We definitely want this to be a space where practitioners speak frankly about the work. I've found that when theater people argue about text, it's in a very different way from academics--I personally get a big kick out of both kinds of discussion, but there's something I find really wholesome about the conversations that bring text into reality, which is what theater does. Words on their own sing in a very special way, but words supported by lives and images and technology can access riches that theater artists are still discovering.

By Jack on August 23, 2008 at 2:44 am

Thank you for the blog. I look forward to reading more and seeing the plays. I also want to take advantage of your open rehearsals and come and visit sometime. What better way to learn when I'm not in a play myself than to watch great actors, directors, designers at work! Sandy

By Sandy Adell on August 23, 2008 at 6:55 pm

Sandy, Email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) to schedule a date to watch some rehearsal. That goes for everybody.

By Jack on August 26, 2008 at 12:06 am

Hey Jack, Great blog. I was there on first day and I think you really captured the spirit of the day. Wanted to let you know I saw Sunday's run of Act I. Wow! This is going to be a blockbuster for Court! As well as a truly great show with a company that excels as singers, yes, but as actors also! Can't wait to see the run of Act II! Thanks!

By Kate C. on August 26, 2008 at 1:51 am

What a great blog! I am a Toronto based actor, and I stumbled across the blog doing a search for my long ago friend Sean Blake. With whom I had the pleasure of sharing the Chicago stage several years ago. Sounds like the Court Theatre is doing it right. If Sean is involved, I suspect it would not be any other way. I intend to follow your continued success with interest and support. I will start musing about a trip down to see one of your productions. Blessings. Your northern neighbor, Mark Cassius

By Mark Cassius on August 30, 2008 at 4:35 am

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