Finally, the day arrived when Patrick Andrews and Joe Drummond, production stage manager of RED at the Goodman made it into National Airport to get back to the play. Two nights before our first rehearsal. That same evening, the incredible press coverage continued for the show with an interview on “Around Town,” for WETA, the local PBS affiliate, not in the studio but actually in front of the Rothko Seagram’s murals on exposition at the National Gallery of Art. Wow. I wanted Joe and Patrick to feel welcomed to town, so the next night we gathered at my home for dinner. I picked up Patrick earlier in the day and the two of us made a pilgrimage to see the murals at the NGA.
I had set Patrick up. As you walk into the gallery, the first thing you see, is across the portal: a large canvas, a Pollock. Patrick was drawn to it immediately. The installation is set up such that viewers see the Pollock and walk over, not noticing see the three large Rothko’s on the wall to the viewer’s right. So, Patrick followed the visual cues and became totally immersed in the Pollock, as I stood slightly behind him and to the right, waiting for him to emerge and turn towards me to his right bringing him into direct sightline of the Seagrams murals. That way, I could see his initial surprise reaction. Well, he was literally knocked off balance by their power falling backward with a gasp. He laughed immediately, appreciating my visual ambush. His response was so physical and immediate, as is his work in the play. We stood there, the two of us, engaging these giant masterpieces in the flesh, “letting them work, allowing them to move.” We stood silent for a long time. Appreciating Rothko’s brilliance and strength. Appreciating, too, in a silent shared moment, the gift we had been given to reinvestigate, reinvigorate and reenter the world of these paintings vis-a-vis John Logan’ s special play, and Robert Falls’ special production. It was really happening. RED was coming to town.
Happily, because of the long MLK weekend, Joe’s wife, Sarah was able to accompany him for the weekend. So the first arrivals from Chicago settled down at Marijke and my table to catch up and take some shop.
We would have two days on the set for the weekend to re-orient ourselves to the space and the changes to it. And those changes were not insignificant. The Kreeger Stage at Arena is a smaller house (550) than the Albert (850)in Chicago, a more intimate thrust compared to the more Broadway proscenium feel of The Goodman. The footprint of the stage house is a bit narrower, and shallower on the backend, but deeper on the forestage area. It took some getting used to the kinesthetic feel of the space. Todd Rosenthal, set designer, had to design an adaptable set.
A few feet were lost in the width, so the key working area of Rothko’s bench had now become more cramped, and the moving central easel had less depth to move up and downstage. The effect we felt on the staging was a kind of flattening out. But Joe kept his eye on the blocking and helped us make sure that we were open to everyone in the audience. Because of thrust stage, the seating plan is a bit curved so extreme left and right on stage is lost to the extreme left and right seats, particularly in the balcony. Joe would prowl threw the theater to make sure sightlines would be accommodated.
The second and perhaps more significant adjustment we discovered was the audio dynamic range. The acoustics in the Kreeger are terrific. The sound is alive and contained, which give Patrick and I an enormously expanded dynamic vocal range. The Albert in The Goodman is a big space to fill up. Thanks to the full ceiling in the set which acts like an acoustical shell throwing the sound out into the house, we had a relatively easy time in Chicago, or so it felt. Now in the Kreeger, with a large portion of the playing area on the thrust and outside of the ceiling, our voices are exposed into the room. The audience feels much closer, as if they are in the studio with us, rather than peering into the space through the large window of the proscenium. Suddenly we felt we could do less. We quickly realized that the project of the previews would be to modulate the playing, calibrating the performances to respond to a smaller, more intimate room.
By the second day we had gone through the play twice. Called for lines a few times, nothing significant, by Sunday evening a full run-thru. A day off on Monday and designers in for tech on Tuesday. We were at speed in two days.
Two 12 hour rehearsals now scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday brought in Richard Woodbury, sound designer and Todd Rosenthal, set designer. The Washington Post Art Section had run a practically the entire section devoted to the show and Rothko, with the banner headline focusing on an in-depth piece about Todd and the “Red Hot ‘RED’ Set.” It was good to see them both. Keith Parham, lighting designer, would come later in the week, so his assistant Gina Patterson would get the lighting effects up to speed.
Both Richard and Todd were immediately impressed with the same things Patrick, Joe and I had been – the intimacy and the acoustics. The audience was now inside the studio. Consequently, the use of practical sound out of the record player on stage could be utilized to advantage. The already realistic sense of the evening could now be heightened in the technical aspects. For Todd, because of the slightly more narrow setting, some rearranging of easels, less canvas detritus strewn throughout the space all became important. Less would become more.
For dinner we all went to the new restaurant two blocks from the Arena, Station Four. These Chicago foodies were impressed with the meal. When I saw a wine on the list from a vineyard not 5 kilometers from my ancestral village, Cassano Irpino, the sommelier came by to present the wine and began speaking in Italian. It turns out he recently immigrated to this country from Cassano’s provincial capital of Avellino. A paesano in the hood! An outstanding meal. It was the one chance for the team to socialize and it was well worth it.
In the evening, we continued the tech. It had gone so well that on Wednesday we did a full tech run. That, too, went well enough that Joe decided we could learn little else without an audience present, so we wouldn’t return until the next evening on Thursday for the Invited Dress rehearsal. By then, Birgit Wise, costume designer arrived. That afternoon, haircuts were done, notes on clothes given. It was enormously helpful to have Birgit’s fresh artistic eye on the work we had done up to then. Like the paintings of Rothko, the remount was happening in layers, “slowly building up the image, until it’s done.”
The run-thru gave the Arena crew a chance to get another shot at running it. Speaking of which, the crew at Arena is fantastic. This is no easy show to set up for: heavy on props, quick costume changes, blank canvas preparations, and so on. Since we know where and how everything WAS, it could have been difficult to rediscover where everything needed to BE with changes.
Kurt Hall, Arena stage manager who would be taking the handoff from Joe, had seen the closing weekend of the run in Chicago. So now, like running a relay, he and the crew saw the Chicago gang coming in town at speed, and in anticipation, picked up their pace in the two short days of tech to make for a smooth hand off and the anchor leg of the run.
Invited dress went flawlessly. The audience was supportive, but the comedy was a little suppressed. I chalked that up to a more intimate space. Distance creates comedy sometimes. Perhaps it was less than a full audience. Sometimes that inhibits comic reaction. Whatever. The show ran smoothly and we were up and running.
In the ensuing days, we would have three shows before Sunday evening, when Bob Falls would come in to town on the red eye from LA. He is now in rehearsal for a new Beth Henley play, “The Jacksonian” at the Geffen Theater, starring Ed Harris.
What kind of notes would he give us? Joe had been so encouraging through the week, as was Kurt. Both agreed they were seeing the show they saw in Chicago. So now it would be a final gathering of the artistic team. Keith Parham had seen both shows on Sunday, so we had a little social gathering to catch up. He was surprised by the intimacy. He actually felt too close to the action.
He recognized that was an adjustment from the two spaces, but that his reaction matched ours. Bob was totally encouraging, regaling us, as is his wont, with stories of the rehearsals in LA. His only regret was that he was unable to spend some time and get to see the Rothko’s hanging all over town. It was great to see him, if only for a few moments. It meant a great deal to us that he came in to pronounce his imprimatur for the run. In fact, Peter Marks did a terrific piece that ran today about Bob’s process as a director of late in The Washington Post.
The evening went by quickly. We had already said farewell to Todd, to Richard, now to Keith and Bob. A day off and then the final preview with Joe on Tuesday. Of course it went well, we have found our stride, the show is within the same running time as Chicago, which it had been since the first run-thru. The comedy is fully there and the houses equally appreciative with their ovations each night. We are ready to open.
A word about Joseph Drummond, “Old” Joe or “Spicy” Joe as he calls himself these days.
He has been production stage manager at the Goodman Theater for 38 years. This year the Stage Manager’s Association honored Joe with a lifetime achievement award. This accolade rarely is given to a stage manager outside of New York. I can say, without reservation, that Joe is one of, if not the best stage manager I have ever had the privilege of working with. Never ruffled, always quietly making the world run smoothly, without so much of a snarky, snarly or even weary word. Joe knows when to encourage when needed and always shows concern and fairness for his actors and his crew. More than anything, after such a long and full career, Joe maintains his energy and above all his infectious joy of work. I am deeply grateful to him and proud to say that I have had the privilege of working with him twice now. The two most satisfying projects of my career – King Lear and RED. Thanks, Joe. You prepared us well and handed RED off effortlessly. I hope to have the privilege of working with you again soon.
Now, it’s OPENING NIGHT IN WASHINGTON!
NEXT: The Run at The Arena