Prior to the opening of Quotidian Theatre Company’s next play, Brian Friel’s Irish drama Dancing at Lughnasa, several actors in the cast are writing here about various experiences they have during the rehearsal process. All previous posts can be found here.
Last week, David Dubov contrasted action and memory. Here, actor Doug Krehbel explains “The Actor’s Toolbox” and reveals how he was challenged by this play.
Hang around actors long enough (or at least as long as you can stand), and you’ll hear about “The Actor’s Toolbox.” Basically, it refers to a collection of skills — accents, movement, building a character, textual analysis — which every performer on the stage uses to help bring a character to life. It’s a metaphor that I happen to like. You can’t build a house, or a role, after all, without the proper instruments. An actor I directed long ago referred to his “actor’s golf bag,” which was apropos, since he delivered every line like he was clubbing a woodchuck with a 4-iron. But whatever metaphor floats your boat.
Your Toolbox is a living, breathing thing. It varies wildly with every actor. And much like your own handyman’s kit at home, it contains useful tools that you call upon with confidence in any situation. For one actor, it’s accents — like the owner of a finely tuned set of socket wrenches, he or she knows exactly which one to bring out, subtly and effortlessly, for the job. For another, it might be the ability to emotionally connect with the audience. My castmate, the fantastic David Dubov, must own the patent to this one, and I’m thinking of sneaking into his garage one night to “borrow” it. Some actors possess the useful and rare gift of perfect pitch, folio-quality scansion, or even an EMT’s ability to rescue a scene when a scene partner has skipped ahead to a line in the third act.
But whether they like to admit it or not, once in a while every actor looks deep into his or her toolbox and sees… well, the tools that are either missing altogether, or are in shoddy enough shape to remain buried deep behind the dried-up can of spackle. The pliers you bought and never quite learned how to use. (I learned to juggle for a role before being told at a late rehearsal that the bit was being cut.) The wrench which looked great in the shop but ended up ruining your IKEA bookcase. (“Oh! You were supposed to be from Scotland? Hmmm. Scotland, Arkansas?”)
And my own personal screwdriver-left-out-in-the-rain-to-rust? Ah. It’s in the title of the play, dear friends. Dancing. I am the man at the wedding who scampers to the bar like a squirrel when a danceable song comes on. Don’t get me wrong – I like the skill and I try hard. I have danced convincingly in a half-dozen musicals without fatalities. And when I have a patient and excellent choreographer like Lughnasa’s Vanessa Terzaghi, I’ll give it everything I’ve got. But through the years, as I’ve tended to leave musical theatre to those much more talented than myself, the dancing tool has become neglected. And learning that choreography has become a bit painful, because it’s a language I’ve forgotten how to speak. At times during our process I’ve wondered why playwright Brian Friel used the dance metaphor so pervasively. And why on earth did the apparently-sane director Craig Mummey cast me as the dance-mad Welshman Gerry Evans? Surely we can say our lines and the words will carry us, right? None of this falling asleep with nightmares of step patterns and tempo progressions in my head.
But then there are moments like tonight. During our rehearsal, I watched in Act 1 as the sisters danced madly and joyously around their tiny cottage in pre-war Ireland. Five amazing women whooped and cantered and flew and laughed like children around our rehearsal space to tinny music from the director’s laptop. And then I waltzed through the garden with the beautiful Rebecca Ellis (playing Chris), as we felt the other sisters watch disapprovingly yet enviously from the windows. And I watched as our Father Jack created a ceremony in far-away Africa with just a pair of sticks and his splendid imagination. And even as I drew a blank on the opening choreography of “Anything Goes” in Act 2 and flummoxed about with the grace of a hippo on methadone, my partner, Laura Russell’s sweet Agnes, made it all work.
Dance is release. Dance, like Friel’s gorgeous memory play, is a way to capture the pure feeling of a moment. Lughnasa’s ghostly sisters and the men who orbit around them know this. They dance like no one’s watching. And what begins as a technical chore, somehow morphs into a beautiful thing. That’s why we do this – spend spring evenings in stifling rehearsal rooms, stepping (literally and figuratively) on one another’s toes.
If you come across me at the next wedding you go to, I’ll probably still be leaning on the bar, trying to look invisible. But maybe not. Some occasions, like the Lughnasa festival, need more than words alone.
Brian Friel’s masterpiece Dancing at Lughnasa is a drama about five unmarried sisters eking out their lives in a small Irish village in 1936. It won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play, and Time Magazine called it “the most elegant and rueful memory play since The Glass Menagerie.” Our production opens this Friday. Tickets and further information are available here.