Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dress Run

Confession time. I love actors, really I do; I love watching them explore and test out a role, make discoveries, and finally dive in and make a character their own. I also love watching them get so wrapped up in their process that they forget about everything else around them. Non-industry observers would mistake this for egomania, but in most cases, it's just attention to detail.

But I also enjoy the foibles of actors, particularly their relationships to other parts of the theatrical process. They crave anything and everything that will help them to define their characters; yet they are uncomfortable with those parts of the process over which they have no control -- and, if you're an actor, you know there are a lot of them. As a result, they end up loving and hating all the stuff that's going on around them: the set, the lights, the sound, and so forth.

Nothing illustrates this more than costumes. Right from the start, actors ask me, "What will our costumes be like?" Sometimes these questions relate to very practical concerns (ie. Will I be able to see/move/fight/dance easily?), and once in a while, it's a matter of vanity (although I don't detect a lot of divas in this cast). But usually, I think that actors' curiosity about attire stems from the connection between costume and character. Some actors feel like they can't really embrace their characters until they see themselves in costume.

Consequently, actors await the first dress rehearsal with bated breath. Because it comes so late in the rehearsal process, there's a lot of excitement built up around it. In some cases, they convince themselves that, as soon as they slip on that dress/tunic/breastplate/hat, they will magically unlock all the secret parts of their character, and their performance will achieve escape velocity, and head for the stars.

In reality, the opposite is true. The first dress rehearsal is usually the most awkward, uncertain, stumbly of all the tech-week run-throughs. Some of the stumbling is literal, of course (ie. How come my dress is so damn long?), but it's psychological as well. Actors who expect a miraculous transformation are disheartened to discover that their costumes feel not liberating but, well, weird. After all, they aren't designed to feel great; only to look great. And the actors aren't in the audience, so they can't see how good they look.

And they do look good. Melissa has done a fabulous job, not only with the leads, but also with the soldiers, the Egyptian women, and even walk-on characters like banquet servants. But I had to smile, watching the Romans and Egyptians recede into the background, replaced by a stage full of slightly bewildered actors. By Saturday, they'll be comfortable, and the energy and characterization will return. They might even find ways to use the costumes after all.

But, just like there are no easy solutions to directing, there are no short-cuts to characterization. The costumes don't sell the show; they're just the wrapping paper, to decorate the presents underneath. Ditto the set, lights, sound, props. By Saturday's run, the ball will be back in the cast's court. Go big or go home.

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