One of the things we've discovered over the years is that, often, our audiences have no notion of what goes into bringing a show to the stage. So as part of the lead up to our production of Peter and the Starcatcher, we'll be giving you all a rare glimpse behind the scenes into the rehearsal and production process for the show.
Peter and the Starcatcher is a musical written by Rick Elice, with music by Wayne Barker, based on a novel written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. The story serves as a prequel to Peter Pan, and follows the adventures of Boy (who ultimately becomes Peter), his two friends, and a young girl named Molly, who is a Starcatcher-in-training. The kids set sail aboard The Neverland, run by the villainous Captain Slank. Meanwhile, Molly's father, Lord Aster, is escorting a trunk full of magical Starstuff aboard another ship. Unbeknownst to them all, Slank has stolen the trunk, and the crew of Lord Aster's ship are pirates in disguise, led by the fearsome Black Stache. What follows is the stuff of legend, with ship-to-ship battles, magic, pirates, sword fights, mermaids, giant crocodiles, and more!
It's a story designed to appeal to kids and adults alike (though it is not exactly a "kid's play"). The cast is made up of an ensemble of adult actors who play everything from children, to pirates, to native islanders, and even furniture and parts of the ship. The show is directed by M. Derek Nieves, whose credits include last seasons's Boeing Boeing, as well as A Few Good Men, A Tuna Christmas, The Hobbit, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
First Night: Read-Through
It's 6:30pm on Wednesday, after three nights of auditions. The show is finally cast, and one by one the actors are trickling in for the first read through. There's a simmering feeling of excitement that comes with the start of any show. For some of these people, they're meeting for the first time; others have worked together before and they take a few minutes to greet old friends.
Jessy Reaves, the stage manager, passes out scripts. "These have to stay pristine. Write in pencil. They'll need returned at the end of the run." Stage Managers are the unsung heroes of the theatre. They are with the production, usually from beginning to end, from auditions to being the last person to lock up the theatre after the set has been struck and everyone has gone home. Jessy's job today is to keep everything organized, make sure everyone fills out their paperwork, has a script, and knows what's going on.
On the other side of the room, Megan Preston, who will be playing Molly, is already using removable sticky tabs to mark scenes in her script, while joking with Keith Martinez, who plays Boy. A couple of actors are flipping through their paperwork, or asking to borrow pencils. One or two people are running late. It's a fairly typical first night.
Jessy gets us started, going through the theatre rules and the forms that have to be filled out. Theatre Tallahassee takes production seriously. There's a code of conduct form (don't show up to rehearsal drunk, learn your lines on time, no vandalizing the building, etc.), a model release form (so we can take photos), emergency contact form, a liability form. We go over the rehearsal schedule, contact sheet, and finally do introductions in case anyone is confused about who is who. It's the boring stuff before the fun begins, but it's necessary.
Then Derek, our Director, gets us started. We go over the basic set, the concept behind the play, and then finally we start to read. From the first words on the page, the actors are with it, and as the story becomes more convoluted, the descriptions of actions more unusual, Derek pauses to explain what's going to happen. In many plays, things are pretty straightforward, but Starcatcher utilizes a somewhat different technique. The actors assemble bits of the scenery or props on stage, they don costumes in full view of the audience, actors holding a bit of rope will become doors, kitchen utensils become swords and spears. In the corner, the lighting designer is taking notes as Derek describes spotlights and special lighting for some effects. In another corner, the costumers are measuring actors whenever they're not reading. The musical director and accompanist are there, ready to do some range tests for vocals when the reading is over.
There is a lot of laughter. It's a fun time, even if we're all multitasking. This will be the first and last time we hear the show straight through until we get closer to opening. At this point, it still exists mostly in our imaginations. It's our job to make it become real.
Week One: Blocking
We begin our rehearsal process as vagabonds. This part of the Theatre's season tends to be very busy, with multiple shows overlapping. Such is the case at the moment, with Private Lives entering into dress rehearsals, we're too noisy to be rehearsing in the Coffeehouse theatre space while they're on stage. In situations like this, the theatre has to look for alternative rehearsal spaces, borrowing or renting them as needed. Tonight we're at Pyramid Studios, but we're scheduled to move to two other spaces later in the week. This means that we can't bring much with us: just a keyboard for musical rehearsals, and a few odds and ends like rope for props.
We start the evening with music, as Matt Jarvis and Gerry Neilson, our musical director and accompanist, take the cast through the first big song of the show. Meanwhile, the director and stage managers talk over props that will be needed.
An hour into rehearsal we switch gears, and Derek talks the cast through the layout of the set. At this point, the cast has to imagine where the walls and stairs and platforms will eventually be. Once everyone has a good idea of the layout of the space, we start blocking with the opening scene of the show.
"Blocking," in theatre parlance, refers to the process of figuring out when and where everyone stands or moves. It can be tedious, especially in complicated scenes where multiple people are running around; and with an ensemble cast of fourteen actors who almost never leave the stage, Starcatcher is going to have a lot of those scenes.
The opening scene is especially important, since it establishes the idea of the play with the audience. It's what will help the audience to suspend their disbelief and go on this adventure with the actors, imagining along with them the sails and decks of two ships, or the tropical forest of a remote island, without needing to see them in detail.
We're working on one of the more action packed scenes in Act One, where Boy is thrown overboard, and one of the ships is destroyed, forcing characters to swim to safety. Obviously we can't build a giant ship on stage and flood the audience to achieve this effect, and luckily the script doesn't need us to. The "water" is a long piece of shiny blue fabric, the ships railing is two actors holding a rope, and the imaginations of the actors and audience provide the rest.
Derek explains to the actors how we'll (carefully) throw Keith overboard, but we're not working the stunt today. Eventually there will be crash mats and the actors who lift him will practice until we're certain it can be done without injuring anyone. Then we work on the individual characters swimming to safety. It's a fun night of rehearsal. Everyone is focused but enjoying the ridiculousness of the scene, the actors are really getting into their characters, exploring how they might variously swim, float, or flail their way to safety.
This leads into a big climactic musical number, and we walk through it slowly, noting where choreography will eventually be needed. Even though everyone is in rehearsal clothes, and we're missing the band, the set, lights and ... well, everything else, it's enough to give us goosebumps. It's a fantastic moment and everyone leaves feeling like they just got a glimpse of what this show will become.
We've moved rehearsal spaces again, this time setting up for a single night in the Fellowship Hall of the Presbyterian Church. We start rehearsal with warm ups; Derek leads the cast through various exercises designed to help them relax and get more into character. Though warm up exercises can be silly – "You are all now sea cucumbers," Derek tells them as they sway gently back and forth – they help actors to focus and let go of personal stress, while getting the body ready for the demands of performing.
Tonight we skip music and go straight into scene work. Molly and the boys are exploring the ship and encounter something strange. "There is a cat. It is flying. It is an evil cat," Derek tells them. Daniel Gray, playing Slank, makes evil cat faces at them. He will need to wear a white shirt in this scene; we'll project (somehow) the image of the cat onto him. It's another glimpse at the interesting ways this show uses theatricality instead of literal representation to get across an idea.
We spend some time working with Molly and the boys. Megan Preston plays Molly, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl who speaks Dodo and can levitate with the help of Starstuff. Keith Martinez is the stubborn, sometimes sullen Boy, an orphan with no name or past he cares to remember. David Ko and Samantha Algaze play Prentiss and Teddy, respectively. Prentiss is the know-it-all, self-declared leader of the boys, and Teddy just really likes food. These four form the heart of Starcatcher, and it's important that the actors explore who they are and their relationships to one another. It helps that all four actors get along well, and have a high degree of chemistry and camaraderie between them.
Later, Doc Dean joins us briefly to sing one of the musical numbers involved in this scene. He nails it without needing to rehearse it, singing the haunting melody in a high, clear falsetto that gives all of us chills. We move on to a scene where Boy is confronted by Slank, which leads up to the scene we blocked the night before. It's not always possible to rehearse scenes in the order they happen, so everyone has to keep in mind where they need to end up for the blocking to flow properly. Jessy keeps track of all the blocking in her rehearsal script; which will serve as our ultimate reference manual in the weeks to come.
Another move, this time to a preschool gym, where all the furniture is for tiny people, but the cavernous space gives us lots of room to work. We try to be careful and respectful when borrowing or renting other spaces. Though the preschool isn't in operation while we're there, the rest of the building is, and we do our best to be quiet when moving through the halls, and we make sure to put things back the way we found them.
Tonight we're working the second scene of the show, which introduces us more fully to the characters of Molly and her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake. Doc Dean is playing Mrs. B – the role is written to be played by an obviously male actor – and he gets some of the funniest lines in the show. Derek works with him and the musical director to nail the right feeling for one of Mrs. B's big monologues, which has music underscoring it. Eventually Alf, a flatulent sailor who develops a tendre for Mrs. B, arrives, played by Ken Catullo. These two actors carry the comedically romantic storyline of the play.
When Alf leaves, Molly follows, and we dive into one of the more complicated scenes of the show. On script, it takes only half a page for Molly to follow Alf through the bowels of the ship, opening doors and seeing what's behind them. In reality, it takes us more than an hour to work out the details, as the cast become – in the space of a few minutes – gamblers, pirates, and worshippers. Each moment needs to be laid out carefully, which means moving around the actors like chess pieces on a board. We run the scene several times until they've got it down
It's the end of the week and everyone is a little tired, there's a bit more goofing off and it's harder to focus than usual. Everyone does their best to leave their worries and stresses at the door. Our actors are all volunteers: many of them are students, or have just gotten off a full day of work before they come in to rehearsal. By the end of these six weeks, they'll have learned how to leave all that behind once they're on stage, but for now there's enough downtime that it sometimes seeps through.
We're working possibly the most complicated scene in the show, as well: the moment when the actors become two ships at sea in the middle of a storm, about to do battle. There's a lot of movement, all fourteen actors (though we're down three tonight) are on stage, and the director and stage managers are trying to track them all. "At some point," Derek tells Sam and David, "you're going to go up on the stairs so I have all the kids on this side of the stage." It takes running the scene a couple of times to figure out when that happens. Meanwhile, the pirate ship, led by Nathan Williamson playing Black Stache, are trying to "pretend" to be British military.
It all ends in a fight between Slank and Stache, complicated by the fact that Daniel is out sick tonight. Nate and Mick (standing in for Daniel as Slank), take notes on the fight choreography, though the specifics will be worked out later. The rest of the cast crowds around, ready to cheer or referee as needed. It takes most of the time allotted for rehearsal to get it all blocked, and with fifteen minutes left we try to run it. We manage to make it with two minutes to spare. Three hours of work boiled down into thirteen minutes of stage time. That's what we call a good night's work.
Photos and journal by Melissa Findley