From The Cape: Tech Day and Stages of Marriage

Tuesday, August 9

Technical rehearsals are a slow, painstaking process. When all of the technical and design elements — light cues, sound cues, sets, props, costumes — are layered in and integrated with the timing of the actors. Whenever I work at other theatres around the country I’m always curious to witness how other companies run a tech. The procedure is the same but the experience is different. Some are slow, some fast, some meticulous and detail-oriented, some breezy and easy-going.

As a director myself who just opened this play in Los Angeles, watching director Jeff Zinn run the tech rehearsal is like letting someone else drive your car. You hand over the keys. Sit quiet in the passenger seat. And try to not to shout out “No! Turn here!  Go faster! Slow down! Look out!” No one likes a back-seat driver. Let Jeff drive. See how he handles the road.

Whether in a sparkling new 200-seat venue or the funky intimate Fountain, the basic questions and challenges of a tech rehearsal remain the same: how do we make this moment work? What story are we telling in this scene? What should the lights be doing as she crosses to the table? Let’s work out the timing of sound cues for the opening.  How do we create the best lighting effect for the end?

The set for "Bakersfield Mist" on the Julie Harris Stage.

At 12 noon, actors Ken Cheeseman and Paula Langton arrive on stage and walk on the set for the first time. After weeks in a barren rehearsal room, they finally  step into the colorfully eccentric universe of Maude’s trailer. Their eyes light up. Grins spread over faces.  They explore the set, picking up props and playing with all the weird-looking tchotchkes like giggly kids on Christmas morning.

Tech rehearsal begins. Soon Ken and Paula are acting the play, saying the lines, doing the blocking as light and sound cues are created around them, and from the back row of the theatre it hits me like a slap in the face: they are not Jenny and Nick. They are Ken and Paula. Doing my play. They are saying all the lines but the voices coming from Maude’s trailer are not the familiar rhythms, inflections and cadences of Nick Ullett and Jenny O’Hara that I’ve heard so long and know so well. It is now Ken and Paula. It is their show. Ken is now Lionel and Paula is now Maude and I suddenly have this out-of-body experience that’s hard to describe: time-and-place flashing forward in one instant. I am in the present moment watching Ken and Paula while — at the same time — I see Maude and Lionel on other stages, too, at other venues, around the country in the future. Lionel and Maude have become characters in a play right before my eyes. Part of the landscape of the American Theatre. To be played by actors. Everywhere. It is a thrilling, overwhelming private moment for me. Like watching your child’s graduation.

Ken and Paula are deeply committed to the play, grabbing it with everything they’ve got and making it their own. They are smart, talented, with a lot of experience and very hard-working. Fine actors and dear people. And today is not only tech day. It is also Ken and Paula’s 25th wedding anniversary.

“What better way to celebrate our marriage than by doing a play?” Ken tells me.

Paula Langton

Later, chatting about marriage with the couple in the dressing room, Ken describes for me the first time he saw Paula more than two decades ago. He smiles. The memory so alive and stamped on his soul as if it were this morning. As a young actor, Ken is in a theater workshop when a young actress appears. Sexy, vibrant, alive. He watches her do an improvisation exercise. (Here, Ken’s eyes widen … “Wow …” ) As he recounts (and relives) the moment he first saw the young woman who would become his bride and life partner, the look in Ken’s eyes as he now glances over at Paula is priceless. Says it all. She blushes. Grins back at him. The silent exchange between them so like the intimate, knowing glances between me and my wife, Jacqueline. Also an actress. Now married twenty years. Or Nick and Jenny, who just celebrated 25 years of marriage a few weeks ago while acting together on stage in Bakersfield Mist.  Married couples. In love with each other and the art they create together. Partners on stage and off.

Tech ends at 11pm and Maureen, the stage manager, needs to make an announcement. The company of actors, designers, technicians — all of us — gather at the front of the stage as Maureen declares: “Today is Ken and Paula’s 25th wedding anniversary!  And we have something for them!” A stagehand brings out a tray of glasses filled with champagne. Hooray! As we all raise our glasses, someone shouts out the lines of Maude’s toast from the play:

“Here’s to me, here’s to you! Here’s to those we fuck and screw! Here’s to them for fucking us over! And here’s to us — for never being sober!”

We cheer! We laugh! We drink! Yes! To being married and in love! To a life in the theatre! And to never being sober!

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