A Look Back: 6 Days Before Opening

This was written October 17, 2014. 6 days before the first performance at Goodspeed.
After our staged reading in September, we had work to do, but I realized I was with a group of folks who know how make effective changes. Producer Sean Cercone always says his job is to “put the right people in the room, and get the hell out of the way.” It’s difficult to throw yourself in with new artists, but a lot of trust began to happen once we got to Connecticut. Before that however, time to work was sparse. The scenes and songs were diced up on a cutting board, there was debate as to what story we were actually telling. Every time new creatives get on the project, they read the novel, fall in love with that, and then I have to inform why we diverted from the book, and where. That takes time, to get everyone on the same page.
IMG_0150On day 1 of rehearsal, we had a script about 120 pages thick. To be expected. But we also had fourteen actors, and they all had a lot of down time. This is at its core, a story about individuals who come together by fate. In this reworking of the show we see all the background, and the collisions between characters. Most times, that involves four people, tops.
With our script opened up ready for surgery, it was difficult in some ways to have legitimate production meetings. At Ball State, our beloved elephant, Caesar, was a fully operational puppet, life size, two man operated. Stepping into Goodspeed however, we couldn’t give a definite answer as to where he would be used, nothing was solid. We didn’t know if he’d be able, physically, to take up a lot of space, as Norma Terris is smaller that University Theatre in Muncie. Not to say its a small space, it’s versatile. But we had to be practical.
I found as we started problem solving, I made an effort to insert more voices, even in solo style numbers. Just to keep actors occupied. Because they deserve that, they’re all talented. Folks like Jim Hogan. I knew right away, he was the guy we needed as Gordon. But, Gordon sings one killer ballad, and then really disappears. That’s just how it is, but he’s extraordinarily talented. Same can be said for Victoria Huston-Elem, Charles Gray, Scott Parker, anyone. Some of my favorite vocalists. I’d like to think most people have a moment to shine. But the moment that tops any vocal effort I’ve contributed is the idea Joe (director) and Spencer (movement/choreo) have conceived, Caesar the elephant created by the ensemble, in shapes and bodies, with buckets and chains. Saying those words out loud made me want the puppet created by Justin and Christopher Swader. Change is scary sometimes, it’s difficult to be apart of something so liberating as the journey Circus has taken from Muncie to the real world and not crave a recreation of that success.
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Patience is terribly important when you have three weeks to craft, rewrite, block, chart, choreograph, and justify a new musical. Equally important is belief, and the ensemble and movement work Spencer and Joe have created is magnificent. The elephant can be living, breathing, reacting, and suddenly burst apart to a new scene. Theatrically, there are three characters on stage, and the way the elephant functions, you forget it’s actually made of people, you forget you’re watching the entire cast. It’s very captivating. When things like that are experimented with in bold ways, and everybody commits 100% to making it work, leaving the fear of failure out of the picture, we find our story. Everybody puts a piece of themselves into it, literally.
This show is truly becoming a finished product, Im confident saying, that will be the best incarnation yet. The story is expanded, thick, and dramatic. The staging is innovative, the music is dynamic.
Here’s where it’s still nuts: we finished blocking yesterday, we open in six days. We tech for two days, we get the band with cast for one rehearsal before butts are in seats.
IMG_0155There’s a lot to do still, but the contributions thus far have me feeling completely relaxed. Everybody has the right attitude. Talking to James Penca, playing Ollie, a few nights ago, he said “When have you ever gone into tech for ANY show saying, ‘Yep, we’re right on schedule'” Bottom line, if you’re the kind of artist who pushes yourself constantly for the best, no settling for unrealized performances, you will always feel the optimal stress of getting as far as you can before the curtain goes up. “It doesn’t matter,” said Aaron Ramey (Wallace) earlier during a rehearsal break. “Opening is going to happen, this is what it is, and that’s fine.”
He said that four days ago, and now, though expectantly hectic, I feel better than fine. This show at the end of the day is always going to draw people in, I just know that at this point. The pit orchestra is full of guys who are excited to play something in flux, the actors are happy to be involved in the process of creating this story, as opposed to retelling a finished one.
And now we’re all in the world, on the same page, whatever you want to call it. Better late than never. The good news: a thematic understanding of the story and its structure is something that can’t be undone.