“I’ve never done anything harder, and I’ve never had more fun,” Mosher told us a week ago. It was the end of a week of rehearsals, and while our days were getting longer, the number of them left before departure was noticeably shorter.
Fatigue was sinking in. The studio could not, apparently, be kept below 85 degrees.
And we decided to go find our first audience.
On Monday we gathered at Casita Maria in the Bronx. Thanks to the generosity of Sarah Calderon and her colleagues, we were invited to conduct our rehearsal in front of the students. We arrived lugging drums, chimes, woodblocks, newly purchased costumes, bales of rope, and whatever else we thought might be useful in putting the story across.
Our set – or at least the parameters of our playing area – had only been determined a few days before, but Sarah and her team were kind enough to arrange it for us: a rectangle of seats approximately 25×18, with the “upstage” side remaining partially open for our palace entrance. The actors walked out their marks, including Benita de Wit, subbing in as Ismene for the day while Phumzile prepared to play Antigone, Tiresias, and the Messenger. Soon we were joined by 30 middle schoolers. Gregory gave a brief speech, and off we went.
Conducting rehearsal for an audience is a bit unusual in the American theatre today, but once again we are following in Brook’s footsteps. During his celebrated Midsummer Night’s Dream (as well as other plays) he would begin rather early in the process inviting selected audiences or taking the show to them. There are many, many arguments for doing so, but perhaps none more fundamental than the fact that a play does not exist without an audience and at a certain point the limited number of people in a typical rehearsal room can no longer effectively fill the role. We no longer know anything, and in order to find out what we’re dealing with we must expose the show to the true conditions of the environment it will ultimately inhabit.
Our company was thrilled to find that let out into the wild, our show survived. Flourished, even. The kids joined us from the opening flute and drums, and joined us, with increasing vocal contribution, right up until the final tragic tableau. Thanks to the students at Casita Maria, we felt flush with the confidence that we have something real on our hands.
Children make a wonderful audience at this stage. Their righteous indignation at Kreon’s treatment of Antigone proved to us that the central moral situation is evident. Their fear when the king came to sit by them showed the force of Lunga’s presence. Their laughter at Marcel – and how quickly that turned to silence or hushed chatter – showed both their receptiveness to an actor’s charm and their sensitivity to the dangerous motion of circumstance in Sophocles’ play. Phumzile looked up during Antigone’s farewell speech to see a girl in the audience crying. It surprised her so much she nearly lost her lines (which she had only learned the night before – I ought to point what a hero she has been in this undertaking).
The students also told us precisely where we were failing: “how many of you understood he was the king when he walked out?” Mosher asked, pointing at Kreon. It was one of the first things he said during our post-show Q&A. Most shook their heads. We found several such ambiguities and were able to quickly take them into account in our next rehearsal.
As the students inhaled slices of pizza and took turns lobbing questions at the actors, I had a moment of wishing that all talkbacks could be this way. The majority of their questions centered on the material of the play, on the characters and ideas. The whole room felt excited by what had just happened.
A massive thanks again to those at Casita Maria who invited us into their school and were kind enough to share in our work. I know I speak for the entire company when I say it was a revelatory experience for us and a much-appreciated jolt of energy into this production.
I later heard Mosher telling the cast that seeing how the children interacted with the play reinvigorated his belief in the theatre.