Nearly there

family photo

Since I last posted about the making of Juno and the Paycock at the Shaw Festival,  I’ve had three encounters with the creative process; a “work-through” rehearsal; the final dress rehearsal; and then a preview performance before a paying audience.

The first was an extremely technical, slow-moving exercise: work-throughs are the first time that all the technical elements of a production (save costumes, makeup and wigs) are brought together with the full cast on stage. In other production environments, these are called cue-to-cues; the difference, Jackie Maxwell explained to me, is that in work-throughs every line is spoken, whereas cue-to-cues jump over passages of text that don’t have tech cues in them. Maxwell says that previous generations of directors tend to work in the cue-to-cue fashion, but that her generation and younger directors tend to use this as another moment to work on the substance of the material.

The night I attended they were facing some particularly complex passages, starting with the cues that close off the action before the intermission and then the opening moments of their second act (which, as written, is O’Casey’s Act III). These cues involve Paul Sportelli’s original music, Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design, and Peter Hartwell’s set, and there was considerable consultation involved to make sure the technical elements work in the way that satisfies Maxwell and her designers.

joxer and needle

There was a particularly interesting episode in this rehearsal in which an passage of staging was reworked after a performer’s intervention. Early in this second act, Captain Boyle (played by Jim Mezon) goes offstage into the bedroom, allowing Joxer Daly (Ben Campbell) and Needle Nugent (Lorne Kennedy) to enter the apartment, exchange crucial information about the Boyles’ non-existent fortune, and plot for Nugent to steal back the suit that the Captain bought from him on credit and, they now know, will never be able to pay for. An offstage cough from the Captain surprises the scheming pair: they had assumed he was out. As planned in rehearsal, the sequence ran that the Captain went into the bedroom, the sound of a cork popping indicated that he opened a bottle of stout, and pretty much immediately, Joxer and Nugent entered. When they ran this in the work-through, Mezon queried it with Maxwell, saying that it didn’t make sense that the Captain didn’t hear Joxer and Nugent. Maxwell took this point on board immediately, and the team jumped to action to create a new cue. Beecher constructed a subtle lighting change and Sportelli and the sound team put together a passage of music to play for about 15 seconds after the cork pop sound; the message of the new cue is “some time passes.” It took the team about 20 minutes to work out this little bit of business; they ran it a few times, and it’s stayed in the show.

This struck me for a number of reasons. While I’d observed discussions between Maxwell and the performers about characters’ motivations and the ways in which lines might be read, this was the only moment where I’d seen a performer directly question a directing choice; how willingly Maxwell took the note was also striking. I’ve not been present all the time, and it’s possible that other such queries and responses happened throughout the rehearsal process. It did made me wonder how much Mezon’s high status at Shaw figured in this – it’s his 30th season at the Festival, and he works there as a director as well as performer; do others feel as empowered as he does to engage with Maxwell in this way?

On an aesthetic level, this episode underlined to me that this is a production that prioritizes the audience’s capacity to believe that what’s on stage is really happening in real time. Mezon’s concern, which Maxwell and the rest of the creative team took on board, was that the audience could have been jarred out of the flow of the production, which was not desirable. What’s paradoxical is that the “time passes” cue they came up with is actually a break from straight-up theatrical naturalism. It feels like a convention borrowed from a classic film – like when you see clock hands moving in fast forward, or pages of a calendar being blown away. To me this attests to the ways in which contemporary artists and audiences have absorbed representational codes from film and television – inserting a bit of filmic storytelling actually makes a piece of theatre feel more natural (Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call this phenomenon remediation).

This also made me think more broadly about directorial approaches, and about how naturalism remains the dominant mode of mainstream Canadian theatremaking, in sharp contrast to continental Europe, where the notion of the written text as the dominant factor determining any production has been pulled apart for several generations. Maxwell has chosen to deliver this Juno in a straightforward manner: in its original time period, cast and designed for verisimilitude, with the only evident directorial flourishes (and they’re hardly extravagant ones) in the production’s final minutes. O’Casey’s text is the dominant factor here. I asked Maxwell about this and she says that it has very much to do with the Canadian context: if we were in Ireland, she might have considered making her hand more felt in the production, but here she felt the appropriate action was to deliver the play relatively straight-up (on that note, here’s an interesting post by the Irish academic and blogger Patrick Lonergan about question of O’Casey’s familiarity to Irish audiences, which he argues is actually limited to a very small number of his plays). The question of directorial intervention has been a contentious one at Shaw this season: the principal gripe that the three main Toronto reviewers had with Peter Hinton’s staging of the musical Cabaret was that it was over-conceived (a critique I don’t necessarily agree with, but that’s for another blog). It it will be very interesting indeed to see if those same critics will find the (seeming) naturalism and textual fidelity of Maxwell’s Juno to be praiseworthy qualities.

* * * * * (time passes)

After work-throughs, the company had three dress rehearsals; I attended the final of these and found the show in very good shape. There were no stops and starts and no missed cues – it was essentially a performance, with a small audience made up of staff from various Shaw departments including audience services and props. The one piece of new business left to take care of after the final dress was the blocking of the curtain call, a task that surely has its complexities, as it involves choices on the director’s part about who bows when and with whom. In this instance the task felt uncontentious, and was dispatched with diplomacy and swiftness. Haney is given the final solo bow, after Campbell and Mezon have taken theirs; then the three of them bow again together. I asked Maxwell later about this choice, and she said that for her, even though it could be argued that Joxer is a slightly less central role than Captain and Juno, the shifting dynamics between the three characters are at the heart of the play, and Haney, Campbell, and Mezon are all veteran, highly-regarded members of the Shaw company – hence the decision to have the three of them take the last bow together.

juno speechThis feels right to me – but it also feels right that Juno is particularly highlighted as the play’s central character and Haney’s as this production’s central performance. Campbell and Mezon are setting off spectacular comic fireworks in their roles – the production is a fabulous showcase for them. But the range of experiences, tones, and levels that Haney is called upon to play as Juno is of a different valence: in the beginning she is a combination of long-suffering and cynically funny; she then gets to play surprise and joy; then mounting concern and reserve; and finally descends into incredulity and near-despair before delivering Juno’s extraordinary final speech mourning her son, in which she echoes the words of Mrs. Tancred that close the first act. The speech reads like an aria (“Mother o’ God, Mother o’ God, have pity on us all! Blessed Virgin, where were you when me darlin’ son was riddled with bullets? Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our heats of stone…”) and is potentially histrionic. Maxwell tells me she and Haney worked together very hard on paring the speech back and indeed, as I have watched her deliver it in rehearsals and now performances, Haney has found her way to a stark, raw communication of Juno’s grief. It has been a great privilege to watch Haney (and the whole company) find their way to a command of the material.

As the show reached the end of its rehearsal process and started to play to paying audiences, Maxwell described the work before her and the company as that of “orchestration”, which I understand to mean the way in which all the elements in the production fit together – the pacing, the flow of energies, the tone and rhythm. Unlike a lot of contemporary playwriting, in which the action is broken into short, staccato scenes and can move around from place to place, O’Casey has written long, symphonic acts set in one room, with subsequent episodes differing greatly in tone and mood, not broken up by blackouts (the fact that short scenes and location changes are the norm has a lot to do with the remediation of TV and film conventions into theatrical form). Maxwell’s musical metaphor has been useful to me in grasping the challenge O’Casey’s style of playwriting presents, and in appreciating the director’s work in a piece which is not obviously “signed” as conceptual. In order to hold the audience’s attention, mood and tension need to build, and paces and levels need to keep shifting in order to create a credible impression of lives being lived. O’Casey didn’t make things particularly easy with some of the sharp tonal switches he requires.

Jerry and Mary

In the first act, for example, in about 10 minutes of stage time, Jerry Devine (Andrew Bunker) goes from bantering with the Captain about going down to Rathmines to put his name in for a job, to pleading with his former sweetheart Mary (Marla McLean) to take him back, an exchange that ends with Jerry refusing to let go of Mary and falling to his knees to “kiss [her] little, tiny white hand” as she tries to push him away. We veer from high comedy – as the work-averse Captain has one of his by-now-predictable bouts of “a pain in these legs o’ mine” at the very mention of employment – to a disturbing moment of what feels, in the contemporary context, like near-domestic violence. Part of Maxwell’s work as a conductor in this passage is to make sure that the comedy doesn’t get too exaggerated, so that the switch is believable and what follows does not come across as  melodramatic. She attends every preview, watching from different angles, and gives notes to the performers individually afterwards, sometimes in person and sometimes via e-mail.

And so, after a lot of hard work, and just over three months after its first read-through, Juno opens tomorrow night, July 25th. I’ll be there, and will post some thoughts about audience and critical response soon.

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