Working on the Classics. Nathan Whitmer (MFA 2016)
Spend enough time with a small group of people and you begin to read each other’s thoughts. You quickly learn each other’s tells and cheats and acutely acclimate to each other’s ways of working. The new becomes the ordinary; the unnerving becomes the humorous; and acquaintances, sooner then you thought possible, become loved ones. Getting to know people so well so quickly is one of this training’s beautiful idiosyncrasies. It is wonderful to, day after day, peer into the clockwork of thirteen other people whose passions match your own. It’s also wonderful to have such dedicated tight knit faculty, closely watching your growth. But even after just one short semester of such small numbers in such tight quarters, a fresh voice is a very welcome sound. Enter Sabin Epstein -- our silver-tongued, style-minded director of Trelawny of the “Wells” -- and enter an entirely new vernacular for talking about our training. What a gift.
Sabin is not new to the Old Globe/USD program, though he’s new to all of us here, and comes loaded with years of pithy, good hearted wisdom. He can turn a phrase which will spin your understanding as fast as blink, and the respect he has for his art form is inspiring. He comes to us with his very own way of practically tackling the challenges of the stage; a way that is, dare I say, “old fashioned”? As promised, Arthur Pinero’s Victorian “Comedietta” is a singularly wonderful place for my classmates and I to get acquainted with this new, old fashioned, voice.
Trelawny of the “Wells” was written in the 1890’s about London actors living in the 1860’s. Looking at one historical period through the lens of a later historical period is a very unique form of time travel. Imagine actors from the not-so-distant future looking back on a movie we’ve made about the ’80’s. What kind of 80’s would they be seeing, and why? The particularity of the lenses we use to view a period provides us with endless sources of nuance and inspiration. What was so important to a writer in 1896 about the lives of actors in 1863? Moreover, how can answering that question help us perform a play in 2015? Contextual questions like these were the jumping off point for our work with Mr. Epstein. From there, we have begun a detailed, exhaustive process of digging into not only the plays history, but also its unique style and relationships.
Like any good feat of excavation the digging began slowly. We were at the table for nearly the entire first week of rehearsals. In the increasingly fast moving world of professional theatre, such luxuries of time are rarely afforded -- something I will sorely miss when I leave this program. What great endeavor doesn’t begin with research? A month ago what did I know about the life of a Victorian actor? Nothing! How could I then have ventured to play one? No how! Our work at the table didn’t even include the script until day three. We spent days one and two almost solely on context. We explored the lives of the characters, discovering their rich connections, in and out of the play. We dissected the characters fears and hopes in the context of those of our modern day selves. We discussed the politics of a Victorian upper class struggling against an increasingly empowered middle and lower class. The work was scientific, anthropological, and theatrical. It also felt far less ephemeral than much of the table-work I’ve done in the past. I felt like we were investing in something lasting. Before long we stepped away from the table and took to our feet, though still without scripts. We first worked out with what seemed like rudimentary acting exercises, relying on improvisation and impulse, but which soon proved to be revealing journeys into the social morays of a world one hundred and fifty years extinct, where words like status and propriety worked upon people very differently than today.
Next, we explored our character’s relationships and connections, both to each other and to the space itself. Sabin worked with us, as the characters, in building each of the play’s four unique spaces. Our characters decided where the entrances should be. We decided that a chair here would be best and that a trunk there would suit. We worked out what was actually on the imaginary fourth walls (as we are playing in the round we actually have four of them): a mirror, a picture, fire place. Thus the spaces became entirely our own and soon, connecting with our character consciousness -- the all too precious holy grail of truthful work on stage -- felt achievable. These literary, long dead foreign entities were made real, in spaces that felt like home. We were then ready to pick up the scripts and journey with our characters into the world of Trelawny. I cannot remember the last time I was allowed to use so much rehearsal exploring context, relationship and character. I also can scarcely remember being more ready to take the stage.
There is nothing revolutionary about exploring the world of a play in such depth. Quite to the contrary, I believe it’s an old fashioned way of working. Which makes it an all the more appropriate way to approach this play. The world of Trelawny of the “Wells” is one still reeling from the influences Kean and Kemble. Set during a time of great artistic change, the play deals with the waning declamatory, stagey, melodramatic artistic tradition giving way to something, then, very revolutionary: theatre that closely resembles real life. In producing this work in 2015, I think we seek to honor both of those traditions. We modern actors seek to bring new life to old fashioned people. And we are lucky to have a brand new “old fashioned” voice helping us on our way.