Page to Stage: The Deep Dive

Once the preliminaries are over—the table read, the initial preparation–it’s time for actors and director to buckle down to the real work of rehearsing a new production. Leader of my Zoom course on the rehearsal process, Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington DC’s Theatre J, let us see how they dissect every line.

As an avid audiobook fan, I’m well aware of how a talented narrator wrings so much more juice (and often humor) out of a text than I’d get from scanning words-on-a-page.

Immerwahr pointed out that Shakespeare, with his scant stage directions, forces director and players alike to figure everything out. It’s fantastic training. And he, with actors Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell, the actors helping with this course began figuring out our “test-case” play, Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. As the play opens, middle-aged restaurateur Barney peeks into the door of his mother’s apartment. He believes she’s away for a few hours, and he’s arranged an assignation for the afternoon—a first for him. He calls out, “Hello? . . . Mom? . . . .”

We don’t get any farther before Immerwahr asks, “what would Barney have done if his mother had answered him?” Nickell’s reflections on that possibility suggests a number of ways to approach that very brief line. Is Barney hesitant? Apprehensive? Confident? We fiction writers use adverbs to convey a character’s state of mind, though these days using too many modifiers is increasingly frowned upon. Just as actors have to determine what body language and intonation will achieve their intent, writers have to avoid becoming lazy—tossing in an adverb when more precise language and “stage directions” might be more effective.

In posing such questions to the actors, Immerwahr is trying to nudge them in a particular direction, toward a common understanding of what’s really going on in Barney’s head and in the play itself. Text and subtext. It’s painstakingly slow, and even actors who are not in the scene benefit, Nickell said, because “they have to get on that train.”

Neil Simon’s long stage direction describes how Barney fusses around the apartment, checking his watch, trying not to leave evidence he’s been there, shutting the blinds. These simple actions show the audience how nervous and indecisive he is. He makes a chatty, unnecessary phone call to his restaurant and in the middle buries his real questions: “Did my wife call? . . . And you told her I’m at Bloomingdale’s?” Ah, his alibi is intact, and we also learn is that he’s a clumsy liar.

Bringing out a multitude of revelations from such seemingly commonplace actions and dialog demonstrates how much art is involved here. As an audience-member, you get the “right” impression of Barney seemingly effortlessly. With a good performance, you don’t believe the role could be played any other way. But, as Immerwahr emphasized in a class last fall on how to watch a play, “everything’s a choice.”

This is just one of many entertaining Theatre J classes launching this spring, expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater. I find they give me new ways to look at my writing too. Check it out!