It’s been nearly a month since I was in the Juno and the Paycock rehearsal room; last week I visited the company twice – once for a run of some scenes in the rehearsal hall, and the next day to watch director Jackie Maxwell and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher set lighting levels in the Royal George Theatre. The theme of this post is labour: the serious, continuous graft that artists and technicians put into productions, much of which is not known about by audience members. Or, indeed, by scholars and critics: this experience of embedding in the Juno production continues to be one of fascinating revelation about the layers of work that go into putting on a production at a well-funded theatre like the Shaw Festival. And labour itself is of course a key theme of Juno and the Paycock: it’s about the working class of Dublin (or in the case of the Captain and Joxer, the avoiding-working class) and the hard realities of life during the revolution and civil war of the 1910s and ‘20s. Given the nature of its mandate, putting labourers onstage (as opposed to posh people in frocks) doesn’t happen frequently at Shaw: “We don’t have a big stock of work clothes,” designer Peter Hartwell admits when talking about the particular realities of costuming this show. While he can pull most of the characters’ outfits from the Shaw’s store of existing costumes and then dye (and presumably somewhat distress) them, the Captain’s much-discussed moleskin work trousers and the Coal-block vendor’s work vest are the only items that Hartwell is designing and building for this show.
The company were able to run the show all the way through in the rehearsal room two weekends ago, and Maxwell seems pleased where they are at this point in the process: There’s clearly a story being told, she says, a line for audiences to follow. The subsequent week was spent in smaller rehearsals working through scenes, drilling down deeper into particularities of blocking, motivation, and relationship. The rehearsal I attended was, in the Shaw’s lingo, a “secondary”, meaning that another production (The Philanderer) had first dibs on actors, and the company members that Juno had available to it dictated what scenes they’d work on. A byproduct of this was that they were running material out of order, meaning that in some cases the actors had to get themselves into a heightened emotional state out of context, and this is where I particularly saw the professionalism and expertise of the company come into play. No complaining, no visible emoting on the sidelines: Each performer took responsibility for her/his own preparation and way into the scene in question. Maxwell says she enjoys secondaries because they’re quieter and more focused, allowing for a more intense and intimate exchange with actors about their work.
The first scene they worked is in Act II, during the Boyles’ brief experience of wealth, when Mary and Juno bring home the new gramophone and the family welcomes Mary’s suitor Bentham for tea. There’s a lot of complex, fiddly blocking in this passage, with characters in their own personal worlds frequently moving around the same small space at cross-purposes. The company also work on navigating the tonal shifts in the scene, from very funny stuff like the Captain’s posturing about “Consols” and the family’s strained attempts to fathom Bentham’s pretentious lecture on theosophy; to Johnny’s angry response to Bentham and his increasing hysteria as he thinks he’s seen a ghost. There are several early moments of brief silence in the passage, and two actors verbalize concern about such moments being able to “fill” or “holding”, which – I think – means being sufficiently imbued with relationship, tension, and signification that they will keep the audience’s attention. Maxwell notes these concerns but doesn’t let them stop the rehearsal; there seems to be a tacit understanding that they’re being patient allowing the material to ripen, and that they’ll address persistent concerns in subsequent runs if needs be. Ninety minutes of rehearsal are spent on seven pages in my Faber edition of the play; taking on a faux-imperious air, Maxwell exhorts the actors to run it one last time: “Just a shaft of brilliance, please, and then we’ll move on…”
The group then twice runs the scene in Act III that I wrote about in my last blog, in which Juno tells the Captain and Johnny about Mary’s misfortune. The levels of emotional commitment and intensity that Mary Haney (Juno) has added to her performance in the meantime are evident – even in these relatively casual rehearsal conditions, she rivets attention. Then, a switch of gears: stage manager Allan Teichman takes over proceedings to plot out two major scene changes which will be executed by the performers in view of the audience. A spreadsheet Teichman and his assistant have worked up, in consultation with Maxwell, about who moves what piece of furniture or prop piece when draws a big “oooh!” of appreciation from the actors. I, too, am a big fan of a thoroughly conceived set change; this doubtless has to do with two decades of studying the work of Robert Lepage, for whom transitions can be as much an opportunity for the generation of meaning and affect as scenes themselves.
Something particularly intriguing emerges in one of these Juno changes about the performance mode of two characters called the Furniture-removal men (played by David Ball and Jay Turvey). Their raison d’être in the play is to cart away the Boyles’ belongings; then they re-appear during the set change and keep doing this task, but it’s not yet clear whether they are meant to still be in character, or in some other mode executing the same action. To keep the theme going: do they continue to be characters performing labour; or are we meant to understand them as the actors themselves actually labouring, and if so, why — what meaning are audiences meant to glean from this? I’m going to continue to monitor this question with interest — and not just because it’ll be a good concrete example the next time I teach semiotics and phenomenology, putting meat on the bones of the sort of “can a chair onstage ever be just a chair, or is a chair always to some extent performing being a chair?” questions that tend to intrigue and frustrate students in equal measure. Without wanting to spoil too much, I will say that some scene changes contain important aspects of Maxwell’s interpretation of the play… and we’ll have to leave it at that, for now.
When the rehearsal ends at 5:30 pm, another kind of furniture removal kicks in: a crew arrives to pack up the stage furniture and deliver it to the Royal George to have it in place for the lighting levels session at 8:30 the next morning. This is the Royal George’s changeover crew, a full-time team devoted to getting sets on and off the George’s stage in time for rehearsals and performances — a very particular need for a repertory theatre. After that afternoon’s matinee of Arms and the Man in the George, this crew will have struck the Arms set and are now putting in the Juno set, including the furniture they’re taking from the rehearsal hall. When the lighting levels session finishes at 6 pm the next day, a new crew of “call workers” will arrive to get the furniture back up to the rehearsal hall for a 7:30 pm evening rehearsal. All technicians at the Shaw are members of the IATSE union, and the apportioning of these jobs happens for house crews (who actually run the shows as opposed to navigating between them) and changeover crews on a seasonal basis, while call work jobs are apportioned weekly.
These are aspects of the behind-the-scenes labour at theatres that most audience members know very little about; I am certainly on a steep learning curve, and thank my colleague Gavin Fearon, who used to work at the Shaw and now works at Brock, for a crash course! The overall scheduling at Shaw is undertaken by a number of departments working together (including production, stage management, and administration), and the level of complexity is boggling. It must be determined, for example, what productions actors can be cross-cast in; which shows stage managers, technicians, and designers might double up on (Teichman and Beecher, for example, both work on Cabaret as well as Juno, which for Teichman means needing to be available for every performance of each production to call the shows, that is, control how the productions play out by reading cues to the technical team over headsets). Add in other commitments such as fittings, training sessions, talkbacks, and education/audience development events, and it follows that there are two full-time roles (the Production Stage Manager and the Production Coordinator) who undertake, amongst their other responsibilities, schedule-keeping and maintenance at the theatre.
Another thing we mere mortals don’t know goes on: the 12-or-so hours that a lighting designer spends with the director, assistants, technicians, and the stage manager going through every planned lighting cue in a production making sure the intensity of light, blend of colours, positioning of the beams, and combination of areas of light in different areas of the stage look good and convey the desired atmosphere and meaning. Maxwell has recommended specifically that I watch part of these sessions; while acknowledging that for someone not directly involved it can be like “watching paint dry”, she rightly intuits that this is a new and interesting vantage onto theatre production for me. The cast is not called for levels work; rather an individual called the “light levels walker” (in this case a teenage guy named Mallick) is instructed to stand or sit in various places so that the designer and director can see how the light looks on a face and body.
There are hundreds of lighting instruments (e.g., lights themselves) hung in the Royal George this season; some of them are set in place (or focused) for the whole season in a plot agreed by the designers of all three shows in the space (Beecher, Louise Guinand and Jason Hand); and each designer has a number of instruments that they can use for their design specifically. Based on discussions with Maxwell about their overall take on the production, Beecher has created a plot and preliminary set of cues. After she and Maxwell take a first look, there are frequently changes, which Beecher calls out over the headset (“170 through 175 at 40…”) and a lighting operator in the booth executes, while the assistant lighting designer updates the documentation. When the cue is set (for now) they confirm the cue number to Teichman, who writes it into the production’s prompt script, which includes lighting, audio, video, scenery, atmospherics, and actors’ cues; this is the production bible which Teichman will use to call the show. The lighting levels will be tweaked on an ongoing basis as the production further moves into the theatre space, actors and all.
Part of the challenge for me throughout the session is straining to even see the lighting changes; because of the nature of the material, the goal here is not for quick, evident shifts of light (as with a musical such as Cabaret) but gradual changes that the audience doesn’t necessarily notice as they are happening. Maxwell advises me to focus on an item on stage (a table, a chair) as the cue happens to see how the light changes on it, which works up to a point, but I can’t help feeling I lack a certain Spidey sense when it comes to observing light (but, having been to see two theatre and dance productions in the meantime, boy do I find myself being much more attentive to how light works in them!) It’s particularly interesting to hear Beecher and Maxwell talk about how they intend colours of light to reflect changes in mood and tone: when the play is in “wacka wacka funny land” — as in Act II when the Boyles are flush, the characters are relatively happy, and there’s singing and joking — there will be yellow tones in the lighting, but as their fortunes fall, the warm tones will strip away to a starker palette dominated by white light.
They’ve worked their way into Act III when the eight-hour session ends, and Maxwell and Beecher seem happily confident that in one more four-hour session the following evening they’ll have time to finish the task and even go back and finesse certain moments. As the crews take over the space, Maxwell, Teichman, and assistant director Alistair Newton head into a 90-minute break before that evening’s rehearsal… and I head home feeling a bit like a slacker. Next week I’ll see a workthrough, which is a technical rehearsal in the theatre in which the cast are integrated with all the production and design elements (save costuming, which is added in later) for the first time. You’ll hear from me again after that!