By Vicki Weisfeld
This week in my Zoom class, “Inside the Rehearsal Room,” the actors– Kate Eastwood Norris and Cody Nickell—started adding movement to the words they’d been working on. Led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, we saw the now-familiar first scene of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers taking shape. Would the character ideas they’d explored in their deep dive into the script actually work on stage?
Norris and Nickell are married, so their living room became the covid-bubble “set,” with sofa, coffee table, bookcase, and cameo appearances by the couple’s cat. Ground rules established where entrances and exits would be, which furniture could be sat on, what could be moved, and so on, to give the actors the greatest flexibility in engaging with what was, after all, a very simple layout. Even though they were in their own familiar living room, “The first time you’re on your feet is always nerve-wracking,” Nickell said. The actors don’t know yet where to look, or what to do with their hands, which is why, as Immerwahr said, “Actors love to touch furniture!”
In blocking scenes, he encourages actors to “avoid the magnet of the chairs” and has them delay sitting down as long as possible. Once they sit, it’s awkward to find the right moment/motivation to get up again. There can’t be just random movement, or movement for its own sake; rather, the staging should convey the emotional points. Too, there may be embedded stage directions in the dialog. For example, Barney (hopeful of having a fling with Elaine) asks her if she wants a drink, and she does. That gives him an excuse to stand up. If he’s only just sat down, then pops up again, the action underscores his indecisiveness.
At this early point, actors are balancing getting their lines and knowing where to stand and when to walk. Ideas have to be tested. Here’s one that worked on several levels. Elaine wanders around, checking out the apartment as they chat. She reaches the bookcase, takes down a book, looks at it, and tosses it on the sofa. Barney—scrupulously trying to avoid leaving any evidence he’s been in the apartment, which is his mother’s—picks up the book, and as Elaine moves away, nervously replaces it in the bookcase.
Even though the staging process takes a lot of attention and time, Immerwahr said that, in general, a rough cut of the staging can be accomplished in about two rehearsal days. There’s a physical fight between Elaine and Barney near the end of the first act, and, for something like that, Immerwahr said they would wait for the fight director to be on hand.
In part because of the placement of the lights, these movements have to become part of the actor’s muscle memory, and however spontaneous an action may appear, the staging for a multi-person scene is almost never improvised. It’s set in stone, in the stage manager’s notes.
New Theatre J classes are launching this spring, expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater.