As part of MRT’s Cohort Club, I get to observe new shows from first read-through through every step of the process. It’s an amazing opportunity, one I’m really enjoying. Sitting in on a rehearsal of the upcoming “I and You” on Sunday, I was struck by how incredible it is that anyone is capable of doing the difficult work of making theater.
I was watching them rehearse and block a difficult scene. I and You is a story about two teenagers getting to know each other as they work on a school project about Walt Whitman. The show covers a lot of ground, but central to the story is that special teenage kind of conversation, as two people who are still in the process of defining themselves test each others’ limits, sharing deeply in the way few adults easily do.
In the scene I was watching them rehearse, actress Kayla Ferguson takes the lead during an emotional, physical sequence. She had to time her lines and actions with the music playing in the background at that moment, while taking a quick emotional turn when the scene changes tone rapidly. As I watched, she and her co-star Reggie D. White ran the scene again and again trying to get the timing precisely right. Five minutes of physical, emotional acting, only to immediately have to take feedback on everything from tone of voice to overall performance. Not one person in a hundred could handle what she had to do. Memorizing, getting delicate physicality right, doing emotional calisthenics and making yourself vulnerable in front of total strangers, only to immediately be told that a minor detail needs adjusting. I don’t even like it when someone looks over my shoulder while I type! How amazing to be so vulnerable and yet so open to feedback. I think of acting as the ability to realistically recreate emotions, but it’s so much more.
It’s also fascinating to watch Director Sean Daniels shaping the show. Two weeks into rehearsals, the show was blocked, and it basically looked how it will on stage. The actors run through the scenes until they hit a roadblock or until the director stops to fix something. Sometimes 10 minutes go by with no comment. Other times they do a sequence over and over, tinkering until it works. Some notes are big. I heard Sean ask the actor “What do you think he means when he says that line?” and offer feedback about what the character’s thinking and why a scene progresses the way it does. Other notes are minor physical adjustments: “Can you angle this way when you say that line?” “Can you do this in one movement, rather than two?” It’s easy to see the delicate balancing act a director faces between shaping the show to be technically elegant and meet their vision; and letting the actors experiment and use their own creativity.