It is hard to believe that almost a month has gone by since I spent time in the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection. I had intended to give a more timely report of the arrival and progress of the rehearsals. It has simply been a whirlwind of activity since I arrived in Chicago on the 15th of August. I managed to get settled in quickly in my apartment with a fantastic view of the city. Wow. It was happening.
The first day in town was spent transforming into the Rothko look, complete with shaved head, acrylic glasses, all in order to do a photo shoot of the image for the poster. I arrived at the theater, ran up to greet the director, Robert Falls, meet my other cast member, Patrick Andrews, head down to makeup and then dash to a fabulous photo studio for the shoot. The process was all filmed, and in a few short hours the mock up graphic had become a reality. The ball was rolling. Here’s a clip of the shoot.
The rehearsal process began with meeting the entire staff of The Goodman Theater: a room filled with about 70 people, followed by a presentation of the set, costume sketches and after some opening remarks, sitting down to read the play for the first time.
The next 12 days were filled with sharing research, watching films to get a sense of the period and art (Pollock, a film by Ed Harris and Next Stop, Greenwich Village, a film by Paul Mazursky), ann an intensive “active analysis” of the script, based on Bob’s extensive study of the Stanislavski system of action in Russia and England. For this analysis, we would read the scenes, then go back and, line by line, identify the literal action of each line. For example, the first line event in scene one is the entrance of Ken, so the first action would be written as “I enter,” from Ken’s point of view. Rothko then speaks and says, “What do you see?” I would then write alongside of the text, “I inquire as to what you see.” Each line would have an accompanying action, “I disparage your response,” “I demand specifics,” “I refute that I am a cliché,” and so on. In this way, we came to an agreement about what specifically was actually happening each moment of the text. It was a painstaking process, but incredibly useful.
In the next step, Bob had us do an exercise called “State and Play” in which we would get up on our feet, and with scripts in hand, we would state each of those actions and then play the actions with large and fully committed physical gesture. So if the action said “I refute that I am a cliché,” I might spontaneously seize Patrick Andrews, the terrific young actor from Chicago playing Ken, and literally throw him away in a clear and bold physicalization of refuting him, throwing him away as refuse. After doing the scene with scripts in hand, we would put them down and do it again. The object was to fully commit again to the skeletal structure of the scene. It was difficult at first, getting stuck in the moment to moment memory, but eventually, as the days went on Patrick and I became more adept to listening to each other; moving the scene forward as best we could. We learned quickly that it was easiest to recall the strongest actions, but would get bogged down in the sections that were more rhetorical in nature, more philosophical. Fluency in that area would come later, we hoped, as we become more familiar with the text.
Then we did an “Off-text: Text” exercise. As best we could, we would play the scene for sense, paraphrasing where we needed, but all the time connecting to the physicality of the previous exercise to inform the words.
At night, we had homework assignments to continue the analysis for the next scene, and along with that, develop our immediate circumstances for the 24 hours prior to each scene. We would account for the whereabouts and major events in the timeline between scenes, in some cases having to account for months of storyline – Rothko’s trips to Provincetown, or to Europe – paying particular attention to the immediate 24 hours prior to each scene. It’s no wonder the time flew by.
At the same time, we had a lesson from Karl Kochvar, Resident Scenic Artist at the Goodman, about the use of brushes, Rothko’s paint medium and painting techniques. Karl is an artist in his own right, and excited about being able to paint the several Rothkoesque canvases that will be visible all around the set. The painting rehearsal was a raucous and fun experience. It, too, was filmed by resident videographer, Cameron Johnson, with Bob coaching from the side all the while, encouraging us to make it as physical and ferocious as possible.
By the end of these eight hour days, I would come home exhausted and literally crawl into bed, rising early to work on memorizing the lines between 6 AM to 930 AM on the rooftop terrace of the building: a quiet spot with view of the city. Each day adds up to about 14 hours of work. But in this short time, we have totally analyzed the text, repeated the exercises for each scene, and managed to stage three of the five scenes of the play.
In the middle of all this, about 12 days later, after the earthquake that struck Washington, Hurricane Irene reared her windy head. Bob was generous enough to let me get back home to assist my wife in battening down the hatches of our home, riding out the storm and cleaning up the following day. Even with all that physical work during the two days in Bethesda, it felt considerably easier work than the previous twelve in rehearsal. It cleared my mind and gave me some down time to concentrate on learning the text.
After the hurricane interval, we continued to stage the play, each day adding new business, transitions, more paint rehearsals, costume fittings, and so on. Now, a day after Labor Day, when the meteorological switch for fall has been thrown in Chicago, we worked through the play the second time. Our first full run through comes tomorrow, just a day before a visit to rehearsal from playwright John Logan on Thursday and Friday. So the pressure continues, but the work is rewarding and the play is coming together. Patrick and I are working together to find the “moment to moment” listening and responding, gaining fluency with the text and activities in the scenes each day.
In sum, the time has been incredible; full and rich. I continue to explore the realization of this character, clearly centering on his hard Russian exterior, (I even tried a slight Russian accent in the beginning, which has been jettisoned for more of a New York feel) his dogged commitment to his vision, come what may, from assistants, younger artists, critics, and a culture seemingly impervious to what Rothko considers to be the seriousness of making and viewing art.
Check out the NEW YORK TIMES feature on several images for productions of RED across the country. Click the following link: NEW YORK TIMES ARTS AND LEISURE