It’s been three weeks since I visited the Juno and the Paycock rehearsal room, and in the meantime director Jackie Maxwell and her acting company have blocked the entire show, and are now going back through each act for a second and more detailed pass at the blocking (Brock Drama student Keavy Lynch offers her own perspective on blocking rehearsals at the Shaw here). Maxwell refers to this as “layering” – the first time out, you get the show on its feet so that entrances and exits, movements around the stage and the location of various key exchanges, are known. This second pass allows for a greater focus on characterization, motivation, and relationship: they’re working out why the characters are coming and going, what they want, what they’re feeling about their situations and each other. They’re also working in more detail on complex bits of stage business, which in the third and final act of Juno are plentiful.
This act is a doozy: Maxwell rightly calls it a “roller coaster.” The Boyle family’s life well and truly disintegrates, as the bottom falls out financially, Mary’s suitor has disappeared and left her in a particularly vulnerable state, and Johnny’s past catches up with him. But inserted between scenes of mounting woe (“It just gets worse and worse!” Maxwell exclaims at one point) there are some prime comic shenanigans: the tailor Needle Nugent barging into the bedroom to take back the bespoke suit the Captain’s unable to pay for; Joxer nicking a bottle of stout; the neighbor Maisie Madigan arriving in to collect a debt. Navigating those quick shifts is surely very challenging for the actors; and getting the rhythm and tone right is clearly one of the director’s main tasks here.
One thing needs to be said about how rehearsal processes work at the Shaw Festival. In most professional mainstream theatres in Canada (and many other Western countries), rehearsals take place in a compact block of time, from 3-5 weeks, with the company working full-time for 5-6 days a week. Because the Shaw is a repertory company, this process is spread out over a series of months and is not full-time, because performers, designers, and stage managers are usually working on more than one show at once. By now, three productions in the repertory have already opened, and many of the performers at this evening rehearsal have performed in the matinees of Cabaret and The Charity that Begins at Home that day. I’m really looking forward, as this process continues, to talking to some of them about working in this system: how do they conserve energy, and what is it like to shift focus so quickly from one theatrical world – and one stage in a production process — to another?
Before they move the production onto the stage of the Royal George theatre, Juno rehearsals are taking place in one of the Shaw’s rehearsal rooms, with pieces of furniture in place, and doors and walls indicated by tape marks on the floor. Unlike the first read-through, where numerous people from outside the process were present, attendance at this is more limited: Maxwell, assistant director Alistair Newton, three stage managers, designer Peter Hartwell, and only the actors who appear in the scenes being worked on. Music director Paul Sportelli pops in and out but is not called on to do any work this evening. Hartwell is there to provide information about how the set may affect directing and acting choices; for example, he explains that the front door of the Boyles’ house has a translucent panel up top, so that whoever is standing behind the closed door is still somewhat visible.
The rehearsal begins with the moment when, having seen Mary and Juno leave the apartment, Joxer (Benedict Campbell) and Nugent (Lorne Kennedy) sneak in, hoping that no one is at home. In this act Joxer Daly’s true, complicated, colours really come to light. In earlier acts, he’s the Captain’s good buddy, but by aligning with Nugent to get the suit back, he’s now positioning himself against the Captain. Via Nugent in this scene he comes into a crucial piece of information: the inheritance the Boyles believed they’d receive is not going to happen. In front of the audience in real time, Joxer has to figure out what to do with this knowledge, while at the same time continuing to engage with Nugent. After Campbell and Kennedy make a first pass at this exchange, Maxwell gets on her feet to talk with the two actors, audibly enough so that everyone else can hear. They’re working through the power relationship between Nugent and Joxer – does the former need the latter’s permission or some kind of coaxing to actually go for the suit? What is the impetus that finally gets Nugent heading for the bedroom door? And what’s going on for Joxer as he processes the new information about the Boyles’ nonexistent wealth?
Something seems to fall into place when Maxwell encourages Campbell to consider the “relationship between anger and delight” when he hears this news. This, for me at least, offers a new perspective onto what could be going on for Joxer: schaudenfreude. From what we’ve seen of their relationship, the Captain has been the dominant figure. Now, even if there are going to be no more opportunities for sponging (prompting anger), Joxer has something on the Captain, and therefore gains power (prompting delight). But what kind of person would be so uncompassionate as to get pleasure out of the ruination of some of his supposed intimates? A really, really poor person, would seem to be O’Casey’s point: Joxer’s an opportunist, which allows him to survive a situation of profound poverty. It seems to me that in order for the play to work politically we have to be able to place Joxer’s actions in the larger context, and see him as a creature shaped by the socio-economic realities around him. The complexity of the psychology, layered with the stylistic and tonal shifts, feels boggling. And if I feel this way, what must it be like for the performers, and for Maxwell? They approach these questions as works-in-progress, and the way to get to the answers is to keep working, digging, layering. In their next pass at the exchange, taking Maxwell’s note, Campbell interjects a some delight into Joxer’s reaction, a knowing smile starting to light up his slack face, and this seems to help him travel the considerable distance from incredulity to judgment in the short speech when he hears the news of the Boyles’ downfall (from “Ah, I thought there was somethin’ curious about the whole thing…” to “Ah, him that goes a borrowin’ goes a sorrowin’!”)
As this process is going on – running the bit of the scene, stopping and talking about, running it again – the other performers sit around the periphery of the rehearsal area. Many of them are repeating their lines quietly to themselves, as if almost like mantras, adding an oddly religious feel to the room. When Corrine Koslo enters as Maisie Madigan to confront the Captain, it’s as if she has been slowly winding herself up towards this hilariously physical outburst. Neither she nor any of the actors come across as if they are “marking” their performances – they are fully in character and in the emotional place they need to be in to execute the scene. For Madigan, this means in full Dublin dudgeon as she haughtily demands her money back from the Captain; she then totally pops her cork when she realises he doesn’t have it. Everyone stops to watch – and laugh to the point of weeping – as three veteran comic actors (Koslo, Mezon as the Captain, and Campbell as Joxer) work out this bit of schtick. A little breakthrough happens when Mezon throws his arms open at the end of a line, offering a veritable invitation for tiny Koslo to lunge for his throat. It works brilliantly; the challenge now is to keep it comically fresh throughout the rest of the rehearsal process and long run.
After a break, it’s time for the actors to navigate much grimmer material: Juno (Mary Haney)’s arrival to tell the Captain and Johnny (Charlie Gallant) what’s become of Mary. Again, I’m struck by the level of focus and emotional commitment: Haney, a slender figure in O’Casey-style round spectacles and an improbable gray sweat suit, absolutely commands attention as she comes in the front door and doesn’t speak for at least 30 seconds. Maxwell pitches her conversations with each of the company members differently, and she speaks most intimately and quietly with Haney, taking a moment after the first run of this little scene for a chat that only they can hear.
Another amazing moment of performer presence comes when Marla McLean enters as Mary, her eyes brimming, seeming almost to be sleepwalking with grief. She and Andrew Bunker run the very moving scene where Mary’s former suitor Jerry tries to win her back, and there’s an emotional honesty and simplicity to it that Maxwell praises afterwards, offering very little suggestion for change. The rehearsal pushes onwards and gets more populous as four more actors enter as the removal men and the Irregulars. They’re pushing to get through the relatively complicated blocking and props use here when stage manager Allan Teichman quietly but firmly declares “we’re at time”: it’s 10:30 pm, the stated end of rehearsal, and that’s when rehearsal ends, period.
The next test of the material will come when they are able to run through the entire act at one go, seeing how these quick changes in mood and tone flow together (or don’t). In the next couple of weeks, I’ll go along to a run-through rehearsal and report back on how that goes.