It’s finally happened: I’ve gone inside.
For the past year or so I’ve been thinking, talking, and teaching a lot about the concept of “embedded” theatre reporting – that is, a scholar, critic, or student writing about a theatrical production from a privileged vantage point close to the creative process. London-based theatre critic Andrew Haydon first re-appropriated the term “embedded” from war reporting to theatre writing in early 2012; New York blogger and arts advocate Andy Horwitz expanded considerably on the concept in October 2012. Theatre writers such as Maddy Costa and Matt Trueman have experimented with its possibilities; students in the Theatre Criticism course I taught at Brock University embedded in seven different productions during the 2013-14 academic year; and we discussed the practice at some length at a theatre criticism colloquium I convened at Brock in February.
Now, I’m trying it on for myself: I’m following the making of the Shaw Festival’s production of Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, which opens in July and will run through the end of the Shaw’s season in October. Of all the temptations in the Shaw’s ten-show season, Juno made the most sense for my embedding because it’s being directed by the Shaw’s artistic director Jackie Maxwell, who, intrigued by the concept of embedding, participated in our colloquium discussions and was open to me following Juno as a sort of pilot project (to be clear on the terms: I am not being paid for this work, and it’s by mutual agreement that this writing is appearing on my own blog, not on the Shaw Festival’s website). Having worked as a theatre critic in Dublin for ten years, Juno is a play I know well, and I’m particularly curious to see how it’s approached and received in a Canadian context.
More broadly, it is exciting for me, who is used to responding to theatre once it’s “fully cooked” (to use a culinary metaphor favoured by the Québec director Robert Lepage) to have a few peeks into the kitchen. Like others who are drawn to embedding, I want to better understand how productions come together, how choices are made, and what interactions between director and actors (and designers, and stage managers, and technicians…) look like. These blog posts are an opportunity for me to reflect on what I observe, and for others to get a vantage, via my writing, behind the scenes of a large-scale theatre production. It’s also my hope and expectation that being embedded will give me a greater comprehension and appreciation of the work of theatre artists in the future. That’s the wager anyway….
My first encounter with Juno was its first read-through, on April 22, 2014. When I arrived in the Shaw’s Rehearsal Room C, the first surprise was how full the room was: not just with furniture and other set pieces that the company will use as they rehearse, but also with people. It’s a big-cast show – 17 in the ensemble – and thus one that few theatre companies in Canada outside the major reps could take on. Beyond the 25 or so performers, directors, designers, and stage managers sitting around a big square of trestle tables, there was an outer ring of people observing. I recognized the Shaw’s executive director and various heads of departments (education, literary, publicity) and their staffs; Shaw ensemble members who are understudying the show were also present. There were also a number of older people there, reading along in playscripts; I later learn they are volunteer docents who lead tours of the theatre, who get the privilege of attending read-throughs as part of this work (see above re: the allure of the kitchen).
First read-throughs have their certain protocols: introductions; the director’s spiel about her overall approach to the play; the read itself; the presentation of the set model and other key design features; and the going-through of Actors’ Equity rules and regs. For theatre professionals, I expect these rituals add to a sense of comfort and recognition – certainly, there is a strong feeling of familiar, joking bonhomie as the members of the Shaw ensemble greeted each other and took their seats. Maxwell underlined in her introductory remarks the centrality of O’Casey’s work to Irish theatre: Juno was first performed at the Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) in 1924, and O’Casey has since become the theatre’s most-performed playwright. Though they do not share characters, Juno, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) are known as O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy. All are set in the Dublin tenements during the 1910s and ‘20s, and cast an unsentimental eye on the effects on the country’s poor of Ireland’s revolution against British rule. Though not written last, Juno falls chronologically latest in the series: it takes place during the 1920s civil war, as the Die-hards, who oppose the treaty that would keep the six counties of Ulster part of the United Kingdom, battle the Free Staters, who support the treaty.
It took Maxwell less than five minutes to outline this context, and she and I discussed later how relatively straightforward this political backdrop is, as compared to that of The Plough, which the Shaw staged in 2003. That play is set in 1915-16 during the Easter Rising, and for those who don’t know the history, it can be challenging to figure out who’s on whose side and why that matters. Juno focuses closely on the domestic: it’s set in the tenement home of the Boyle family, whose patriarch, “Captain” Jack Boyle, is a drunken wastrel who spends most of his time avoiding employment and domestic responsibilities in the company of his even more wastrelly sidekick Joxer Daly. His long-suffering wife Juno is the only one working in the family: son Johnny lost his arm in the War of Independence, and daughter Mary is on strike. Part of the intrigue is exactly how the political context is connected to this domestic situation: it slowly becomes clear that it’s not just because of his injury that Johnny doesn’t want to go outdoors… but I don’t want to say much more here. Writing that, I realize that it may seem a bit ridiculous not to want to “spoil” the plot of a 90-year-old play; but it is also the case that this is will be an unfamiliar story to the vast majority of Shaw viewers, and part of viewers’ pleasure (and the company’s challenge) will be discovering how the larger political context plays out in the story.
Another surprise, when the read-through actually started: the actors already had quite credible Dublin accents. Not just Irish – Dublin, which involves some distinct vowel sounds (an extended, nasal “aah” in “father”, for example; and an dipthong-y “eeugh” sound for the “u” in Nugent). Mary Haney, who plays Juno, has so embraced the accent that her facial appearance significantly changes when she speaks her lines: this made me wonder if there is such thing as a characteristic Dublin face (which Hogan may also have access to genetically, if her name is an indication of her roots). O’Casey wrote somewhat in dialect and phonetically, as in: “Father Farrell is just afther stoppin’ to tell me to run up and get him to the new job that’s goin’ on in Rathmines…” Andrew Bunker, playing Jerry, nails the rhythm of that line and the particular Dublin pronunciation of “Rat-MOYNES.” How far along he and the rest of the company are with the language is really impressive. Maxwell tells me later that the Shaw makes dialect training available for ensemble members even before rehearsals start. Oh, proper funding for theatre! How rare and wonderful you are.
Another key element of the play is its interspersing of farcical comedy with elements of melodrama and tragedy. O’Casey’s theatre is rooted in popular traditions of burlesque and variety, and nowhere in Juno is this more evident than in the Captain/Joxer double act, for which O’Casey took direct inspiration from music hall. Maxwell cast these roles out of the Shaw’s top drawer of senior actors, and Jim Mezon’s hunger to get stuck into the Captain became apparent when he literally twirled the tips of his handlebar mustache as his first entrance approached. He and Benedict Campbell, who plays Joxer, didn’t sit next to each other – the actress, Jennifer Phipps, who plays Mrs. Tancred, sat between them – and they didn’t much look at each other during the reading. But the comic interplay and rhythmic feeding off of each other was already well in evidence, and Joxer’s repetitions (“that’s a darlin’ song, a daaarlin’ song!”) and the Captain’s equivocation noise (“e-e-e-eh”) already feel like natural speech patterns. There was evident pleasure coming from Mezon and Campbell – and shared by the whole room – in the thrust and parry of their interplay.
Another thing I found surprising (and familiar, in a theatre-scholarly sort of way) was Maxwell and her assistant director Alistair Newton’s close attention to textual detail. After the read-through they went through the script again, pointing out moments where there is discrepancy between different published versions of O’Casey’s text. Most of the changes have to do with the material realities of staging (different references to furniture as it is brought into and out of the Boyles’ apartment, for example); Maxwell highlighted these points as moments where this company might want to experiment with different possibilities. Textual instability seems to be viewed as an opportunity for local interpretation.
When designer Peter Hartwell presented his set model, he and Maxwell talked about how there are elements in the one room where the action takes place that pretty much need to be included in order for the script to make sense – several doorways, including one looking out on a shared stairwell; a window. Maxwell called them the play’s “stations of the cross.” One thing that jumped out at me was the choice to place one of those stations – the family’s stove – against the (imagined) wall facing the audience. Several key passages of action happen with the characters facing the stove, and I recall that both times before I’ve seen this play in production, I’ve been frustrated that the acting energy in these scenes headed sideways rather than out towards the spectators. This placement addresses this challenge, but presents another – if the stove is a literal object (as it appears it will be), how to work sightlines so that it doesn’t block the view of spectators, particularly ones close to the stage? Something I’ll keep an eye on.
Towards the end of the session, music director Paul Sportelli set the agenda for that evening’s rehearsal with a bit of a surprise: the whole company – not just the actors called on to sing them — were going to learn the several songs that are sung and/or referred to in the play. As Sportelli points out, the songs were standards that everyone at that time would have known, and learning them together would help build a sense of community amongst the ensemble. This idea went down well with the group. The dialect coach was also work with the company that evening, though as she pointed out (and I’ve already made clear I agree) “you all already sound fantastic for a first run.” Then Equity business meant it was time for the likes of me to exit the room.
Travel plans meant I wouldn’t get a next look into a Juno rehearsal for three weeks – and by the time of my next visit, the show will be nearly all blocked. I can’t wait to see what it looks and sounds like on its feet.