First Run Through: Fragile Things, Magic and Darkness

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Neverwhat?” blog, chronicling his research for directing our spring MainStage production of Neverwhere. This post is by Maren Robinson, our production dramaturg.

First Run Through: Fragile Things, Magic and Darkness

I was having one of those late-night-into-early-morning bouts of insomnia. Where a single worry or two seem to invite another and another and they, in turn, are acquaintances of some of my old fears and a few old embarrassing moments and so they come along too “to relive old times” and finally the party is in full swing and it is four in the morning. So I gave up trying to sleep and decided to wait for the sleepy comfort of dawn. The cats were perplexed by the change in routine but were willing to sit next to me on the couch and wait for breakfast while I typed.

I turned to thinking about the first run through I saw on Monday. It is part of a sacred trust as a collaborator with other artists on a play not to reveal the first rough steps of a production. An audience must wait to see a polished gem not a bumpy rock. (Which is not to say that this rehearsal was that bumpy; I thought it was in rather good shape.) I can however reflect on the process though not the details of it. A first rehearsal is a delicate creature. I have heard other dramaturgs refer to their role on a production as midwife to a play and I have never been sure I agreed with the analogy. However, a play newly on its feet (which is often what we refer to the process as getting a play on its feet) is very much like a newborn creature, full of wrinkles and fits and starts as it struggles to stand up. Newborn creatures are not generally lovely right away. But like other newborn creatures it inspires a protectiveness to guard and help until it can stand on its own and defend itself as best it can.

If you are not a participant in theater, then you should appreciate the job the actors have to do at a first run through of a play. They are remembering new blocking, and lines, thinking about the development of their characters, working on dialects and fight choreography all while still working in an empty room with tape on the floor to indicate doors, or steps or ladders. Often this is after putting aside the concerns of a day job and fueled by caffeine while fighting a cold.

Designers come to a first run through and do not generally make a good audience. Not because they don’t enjoy the play but because they are thinking about their various tasks and may have heads bent over notepads or laptops writing questions about a sound cue or how a set piece might function or some costume change that might be needed, or could some story arc be made more clear.

The Marquis de Carabas tells the stranded Richard, “You’ll just have to make the best of it down here in the sewers and the magic and the dark.” The act of making theater, the contract between an audience and actors who agree to sit in a dark room and share an experience that is meant to move them is source of continual fascination to me no matter how long I work in theater.

It is no surprise then that the earliest acts of theater are associated with religious rituals. One can imagine the day a hunter at night by a fire told the story of the hunt and the moment another person took up the skin of a gazelle and pretended to be the creature hunted. It is easy to see how the recreation of a fierce hunt for those who didn’t see it but are about to enjoy the meal might become a mystical play. Early Greek theater was part of religious festivals and a shared communal experience. So even though theaters today are not generally tied to religious practice and they often struggle for their financial existence in a world of many competing entertainment voices; there are still those struggling to create fragile things and delicate creatures and there is still something that draws audiences to share the magic and the dark.