Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blargh Entry

Stage Manager Ben Herman shares some of his thoughts on the rehearsal process -- in the style of a rehearsal report, of course!

"...but that might change."

It could be the tagline for any show, but I feel I've been whipping it out far more frequently than normal. With a new play, it's especially important to remain flexible on the production end.

Constant revisions! The show is great though. Being a bit of a theatre history/lit/theory buff, I enjoy reading a really solid new play. A wiser man than me once assured me in my youth-ier youth that 70% of all theatre sucked - now that I'm older I realize how easy it is to mess up even a good play. The first place to start, though, is with the text - and this delivers. It's going to be lovely.

Now I need to get a clean copy of this script.

Putting it all together - the thing is TECHNICOLOR! There's so much to love about this play - the text, like I mentioned above, is a source of great satisfaction, but it's also full of color, physically, literally, every which way! This is reflected in the set, which reminds me of the coral reef.

Gotta say: I'm a huge music lover. I listen to a lot, and love so much of it! There's something about original compositions, though -- Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with pulling from the pre-recorded canon -- but there's something about custom-tailored sound that runs the words through me, if that makes any sense.

And furthermore, I've discovered a new love -- Indian par-tay music!!

Wow, I have a new respect for the professional props designers. How many are there in Chicago, anyway? Dan does great stuff. We've mostly been working with rehearsal props up to this point, but we're starting to introduce the actual props and they look great.

Another one of those aspects I haven't seen in the flesh yet, but soon enough! I have a new understanding of the layer closest to the actors, and watching them begin to live in their largely-unfamiliar rehearsal clothes has been interesting, culturally.

Man, If I think the set looks cool NOW... I can't WAIT to see it lit! It's so dark now. Under the work lights everyone's face is all dark.

We've found a fantastic dialect coach for this production and it has made a world of a difference. Also, there's something soothing about the Indian dialects...

There's a freedom and joy in these moves, and even though they're rough around the edges yet, I can see the spirit of the dance coming through a little. I love it. (The production team has a Bollywood night planned next week -- can't wait!)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Music of Merchant

I’m supposed to be at Great America right now riding roller coasters.

Paid attention to the weather people and stayed home.

It better thunderstorm sometime today in Gurnee or I am going to be pissed. So instead, I’m doing laundry and working on Merchant.

Just received e-mail from our choreographer, Alka, regarding the two dance sequences for Merchant.

We’re cutting and pasting several sequences of music together and the music will develop as the choreography develops. Should be fun to see the final product.

The notion of pastiche has been on my mind since I first read the script. The world of Merchant on Venice is massive from the scope of the cultural conversation in the play to the myriad of references and allusions scattered on every page. Shishir is a smart dude and if I am able to understand 75% of the references, I will be lucky.

How about the master of pastiche, Baz Luhrman? No matter how cool I would like to be, I’m a classicist at heart. When I score a play, leitmotifs and meaningful key structures abound while characters have their own instruments and situations have their own rhythms. I learned a lot in college and I’m spending the rest of my life figuring out what to keep and what to throw away. Yup, there’s a definite love/hate relationship with academia.


Anyway... Baz Luhrmann.

I went back to Baz’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Although it was not a critical success, the use of music (definite pastiche) is sensational and completely insane. Whose crazy idea was to mix Garbage, Wagner, Butthole Surfers, Des’ree, Mozart, Radiohead, and Stina Nordernstam? It’s unbelievable and inevitable simultaneously!

Wow... can I try this method?

Why does it work? Is it the solid combination of music/emotion/context? Does the music somehow loyally adhere to the overall dramatic arc? Is it gut instinct? Did they go for broke and hope it would work? Was it trial and error? Was it just another cog in a campy design that was barely controlled? If everything goes over the top in concert then did all the designers feel compelled to join the party?

I’m in uncharted waters.

What to do?

Have to re-login... my partner Todd’s Itunes library is on our main login so I need to use another one. God forbid that some of my stuff end up on his Ipod. Must suck to live with a sound designer. Especially one whose hearing is going and can’t wear headphones.

Sonic hell for Todd.

So first thing’s first. I need to listen to as many musicians referenced in the script.

Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., The Rat Pack, at least the singers.

Esquivel, Mexican lounge God, reminds me of some Ennio Morricone remixes I know. Morricone somehow defined a certain cool in his scores for the Italian spaghetti westerns. I wonder what he thought of Gil Evans. These remixes really tell a great story in their pseudo 60’s In Like Flint lounginess. Carol has her sharkskin suit and I have my Morricone lounge mixes. God I love that vintage Hammond B3 sound.

The Doors... man... that music is so iconic. Listening to L.A. Woman and Strange Days. The chord progression at the end of the chorus of Strange Days is something I need to come back to.

Leif Garret... really? Maybe I should just watch The Surreal Life. Ok, ok... listening to borrowed time.

INXS... listening to Devil Inside. Hmm. For some reason, the production, melodic structure and the vocals remind me of John Cale/Lou Reed, particularly Songs for Drella.

Ann-Margaret... listening to Thirteen Men... love the vibes.

Pat Boone... holy cow, he recorded “In The Metal Mood”. Listening to Pat Boone sing Stairway to Heaven. This is cracked out.

Sheila Chandra... spa anyone?

Mohammed Rafi... the great things about Silk Road -- I learn so much about music I don’t come in contact with often. Amazing.

Kishore Kumar... the polyrhythms... Ennio and Kishore seem to share an aesthetic.

Todd... stop hanging over my shoulder and messing with the mouse.

Ozmati... so many influences... hip hop, Latin, salsa, jazz, a bit of funk...

Quetzal... Chicano band from East L.A....Migra. The lead singer Marha Gonzalez has one big colorful voice.

Santana... African Bamba. And Batuka. The new stuff is so much glossier than the old stuff.

Antonio Carlos Jobim... there’s seems to be a lot of mallet work in all of this music. Vibes and marimbas... a bit of xylo.

First impressions of the music of the musicians mentioned in Merchant:


What a terrific exercise. Shishir has given me tone, texture, color, rhythm.

Although it’s a pastiche of artists, they somehow make sense together.

Off to do something with this stuff I have in my head. After I put the wash in the dryer.

Rob Steel

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Day In the Life of Properties Designer Dan Pellant (actually two days condensed for dramatic effect)

7am (Background Music - Beatles: “Good Morning, Good Morning”)
Wake up, stare at the wall for about 5 minutes and grumble about having to move a muscle past the edge of my bed. (Not a morning person here, I won't lie.) I stumble out of bed, taking care to avoid stepping on the antique hot plate that seems to have wandered out of the stack of miscellaneous props in the corner and made its way into the doorway. (Perhaps it was trying to escape?) Open my day planner; “MERCHANT PROPS SHOPPING” is scrawled across the weekend in black sharpie-wonder what I'm doing today?

I log on to the the computer and post some ads on craigslist asking for broken camera phones, PDAs and pagers.and a few other miscellaneous items. Mapquest an address, grab a Slim-fast can (breakfast of champions) and I'm out the door. Pause halfway down the stairs. Run back up, dig through a pile of papers, find the one titled “Merchant Props,” and run back out.

8:29 am (Background Music - Raymond Scott: “Powerhouse”)
I'm number 17 of 20-something, awaiting entry to the home of an anonymous someone so I can pilfer through their belongings like a raccoon in an over-sized dumpster. Part of my typical weekend ritual is hitting at least one estate sale in hopes I might find a good deal on something I need - a bargain on an item from the catalogue of this person's life. Apparently, this catalogue is part Sears 1945 & part Pier 1 1992. It's beautiful, and there is plenty I'd love to buy - but I can't really see anything I actually need. Except that syringe looking thing... and those jumper cables...

11:05 am (Background Music - Daft Punk: "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger")
IKEA! Massive, beautiful and terrifying in all the ways you would expect the Norse god of modern affordable home living to be. The furniture store that is a small city unto itself, ergonomically designed to ensure you travel to all the floors of the hive-like building as you search for what you seek - a museum of mass produced, unpronounceable modern art you can sit on. My key items for this trip: market umbrella and table. I consult the map while my fellow “tourists” swarm around me like an automated death squad. I become confused and seek out a guide, who points out that it is August and if I wanted summer-type furniture, I should have come during the summer. I head for the exit, but not before picking up a small lighted CD tower, a “Yurgkurdden” or something like that... this may prove useful...

1:16 pm (Background Music - Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower”)
Devon Avenue. Indian/Pakistani neighborhood. Not sure what the nickname is so I've dubbed it “NewDelhitown” - because “Little Bombay” sounds kinda derogatory. A good haul all in all, in spite of quizzical looks from some shopkeepers. I get the biggest one from a woman behind the counter when I ask about the price of a Muslim holy water set. She looks at me with a confused half smirk. “$30... are you Muslim?” she asks surreptitiously. She knows the answer I'm sure, but nonetheless raises a curious eyebrow when I answer to the negative. I'm used to these questions and looks by this point - I've had to do some odd things in odd places for props over the years. But I get what I came for; tea sets, drinking glasses, Indian Beer, luggage, random items of brass and tin - plus a treat! Rose lassi (yogurt drink with rosewater), some samosas (savory pastries filled with potatoes, herbs and vegetables) and some sort of deep-fried Indian dough ball soaked in sugar syrup (no idea what it's called, but I love it!) My love affair with Indian snack foods continues...

3:00 pm - 6:00 pm (Background Music - Pink Floyd: “Run Like Hell”)
Resale shops are a props designer's best friend. Brown Elephant, Salvation Army, The Village, The Ark - I hit as many as I can before closing time. Some places know me by my face at this point I'm there so often. I actually get a few pieces for rehearsal props if nothing else - suitcase, leather folder, round table which can at least stand in for the market table until I find the real one.

6:30 pm (Background Music - Tsunami Bomb: “Roundabout”)
Drop by unannounced at my friend J's. Ask to borrow his Razr phone for a few months. (It's broken anyway, so it's not like he's using it...) Stop home, reply to one e-mail asking $100 for a broken Blackberry with a, “Thank you but no,” which wanted to be a, “You're loony,” and reply to another explaining the finer details of props donation as I understand it. I ask my roommate if he's found the cigarette case I've wanted to buy off him and when he replies, “No,” I'm out the door again.

7:00 pm - 9:00 pm (Background Music - Reel Big Fish: “Take on Me”)
Hit the Belmont and Clark area in search of cigarette cases, flasks, Zippos and other such tools of debauchery and vice. Realize that the Zippos I want are crazy expensive and decide to look on eBay first. Find a few cigarette cases which might fit the bill, but all the flasks are a bit boring... or covered in skulls with plastic red gems for eyes (not really going to work for this show.)

9:00 pm – 11:00 pm (Background Music - Perry Como: “Papa Loves Mambo”)
Home Depot. Lowes. Menards. Linens N' Things, World Market. Doesn't anyone carry wooden umbrella tables?!? They're useful for fall too! Keeps the leaves out of your lemonade and such... Good deal on spray paint at the suburban Lowes though... and I do loves me some spray paint....

Midnight (Background Music - Green Day: “Insomniac”)
E-mails. Check off items on my list. Enter receipts. Do a bit of research on where I should try to go tomorrow for props. Ponder the concept of sleep but give in to the desire to see people with twice and much talent and half as much alcohol tolerance stand behind a microphone and belt Whitney Huston to a cringing public. Temptation, thy name is karaoke... Out the door again - good night!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Launching into “Merchant on Venice” from actor Anish Jethmalani

Anish Jethmalani plays the role of Sharuk in Merchant of Venice.

It’s been an amazing time to launch into rehearsals for this play. I’ve been very excited about the opportunity of performing in it when we first did the staged-reading earlier this year at Silk Road. The response from the audience during the reading was extremely enthusiastic and the theatre was packed to the gills. It’s also a gift and a challenge to have a go at one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and complex characters. While Sharuk is the archetype of Shylock, he possesses nevertheless the same attributes that make him so delicious to play. Shylock’s monologues are by far some of the most memorable in Shakespeare’s canon and the speeches of Sharuk also pack the same firepower and punch.

When I first read Shishir’s play last year, I was blown away by how similar, but also how extremely different it was from Shakespeare’s original piece. Similar in the sense that most of the text follows the same physical pattern and structure of the original Merchant on Venice and different in the idea that South-Asian culture attributes and a fresh modernized use of language are completely embedded within this structure to channel its themes and arguments for a contemporary audience. It truly is Bollywood meeting the Bard.

As an actor, tackling this piece from a technical standpoint is not too different from approaching any of Shakespeare’s pieces, but the challenges of execution presents itself in a whole new way beyond just taking on the fundamental text work that is required. Shishir’s play is written in iambic pentameter, so the basic rules of scansion and text work apply. Essentially, the rule of thumb is that all the clues are hidden in the text. Shishir, like Shakespeare himself, has written clues into his play to help us, the actors, guide our way through his dense, complex, and beautiful language: where to lift the language, where to pause, where to pick up a line, where to color a word - it’s pretty much all there for us. We just have to find it. If done properly, the tone of the language can resonate with an audience thus deepening the impact of its ideas on ones ear and mind.

One of the many challenges in this piece is to give truth to what we are saying and that means making sure that every gesture, every word, every intention is grounded in some sense of reality. It also means that the truth has to underscore and reflect appropriately the South Asian and Latino cultures that we are representing in this play. We want to humanize these characters and show them for all their strengths and all their flaws.

I started rehearsals this past Saturday and most of our time thus far has been doing table work and trying to unlock the language to inform our choices that we make as actors. From breaking down the text to giving color and texture to certain passages to shaping our intentions. All of this ground work helps tremendously to take us to the next level when we start to get on our feet. My particular challenge is trying to make Sharuk a completely distinct character that will stand on his own. Yes, many people will compare him to Shylock, but he really is not - he is his own man with his own ambitions, fears, and insecurities and I hope to continue to find as many layers within him that will give him that distinction right from the beginning of this process all the way up to the end.

I look forward to the journey ahead –

Anish Jethmalani

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Day in the Production Manager’s E-mail

Production Manager Allie Herryman and Assistant Production Manager Isaac Sernoffsky have been busy preparing for rehearsals (which begin today!!!). The emails fly fast and furious between these two. Below is an excerpt from their email exchanges in the past 24 hours:

Allie: So I’m preparing for the first rehearsal. I’ve been chatting with Ben about paperwork, working through actors’ contracts and crazy rehearsal schedules, getting ground plans and diagrams to the TD and carpenters, and more or less trying to stay afloat and sane. One last thing to get underway is the supply order. Isaac, can you think of anything we need?

Isaac: I think we need a drink... Other than that the important things I can think about are paperwork (mainly bios for my sake so I can get the program formatted), and making sure we have a full cast and crew. Are we cool with a TD or is that still up in the air? I'm having “the Dans” meet tomorrow for the first time, which should be a great meeting of the minds. I'm really excited to get our newest intern on board and in action. By the way, is there anything that you want him to start working on, like the benches, that we have the supplies for? I'm also taking care of all of the RSVP-ing for the big birthday party! It's going to be great to see everyone in a fun, light atmosphere. Anyway, that's what I'm working at this moment...

Allie: Good, and while you’re at that I’m prepping for the production meeting tonight – last one before we go into rehearsal – yikes! Laura’s going to do the note-taking. Stuart has returned from Pennsylvania and Becca (lighting designer) is home from Fargo, ND. It will be lovely to have everyone back together. We’ve also got lots of new faces around the table including – yes indeed – a new TD! His name is “Ziggy” Olson and he’s our first venture into using a single TD rather than a big set building company. I talked to him today and he said the back wall is already built! As for the Dans, yes, I think the bench project will be good for them so we can get the benches into rehearsal in time for them to use ASAP.

Isaac: I'm excited to get the show going! I think it's going to get a great reaction. Everyone has been having some great ideas! See you at the meeting!