Monday, July 19, 2010

Neverwhere closes, long live Neverwhere

After 52 performances and over 4,700 tickets sold, the show came to an end yesterday.

Attending the closing performance of Robert Kauzlaric’s world premiere theatrical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE, I had that sort of experience where you look back on the past year as a series of snapshots relevant to the present moment.

It was about this time last year that I listened to Mr Gaiman read his novel in audio book format as I drove to and from a wedding I was officiating in rural Ohio.  

I remember the auditions. Chris Hainsworth’s leather pants, goatee and long black hair waltzing in the door with a charming, disarming, confident and dastardly Marquis deCarabas. Kyra Morris’ simplicity of power and resolve reading Hunter’s monologue. Watching Rob out of the corner of my eye reading Richard opposite some other auditions and scratching my head in wondering “Why not?”

First rehearsal. Reading INSTRUCTIONS aloud with the cast. Describing, without a sketch to show anyone, how I envisioned the Beast of London as a 10 to 12 piece puppet of a giant boar that would fly apart when attacked and come back together again to strike.  Alan’s beautiful scenic design sketch, which now hangs in my living room.

I remember fondly the early combat rehearsals with Rick Gilbert. The rehearsal when Richard is running to his office late and no one sees him or recognizes him, where I sat back next to Katie McLean and we watched the actors sort out their traffic needs.  The night we actually choreographed the basic moves of the Beast of London fight with all the puppet pieces in the room. The night Sean Sinitski brought in his first homemade candy glass Kai Lung statuette.

On and on - the tech process, the opening process, the run process, the understudy and extension process - it all crept back into consciousness while witnessing the final utterances of these scenes by these actors in this space.

There is an exchange towards the end of the play between Door and Richard in London Below that Rob adapted from the book with an eye and ear to being succinct while staying true to the emotional stakes of the characters.  Yesterday’s goodbye had an extra layer to it. Rob and Katie have been friends for years and there is no doubt they will see each other again, but playing these roles in this relationship together is something they will remember all their lives, and when saying goodbye as characters, they were also saying goodbye as actors to their shared experience.

Maybe I got something in my eye.  I’ll never tell.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Pair of Special Guests

We received a few special guests at the show last Sunday, Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry.  Mr Henry is acknowledged in the dedication page of Neverwhere for bringing the idea of tribes of people living in the London underground to Mr. Gaiman who put it into a television series that Mr. Henry produced.  

They were incredibly gracious. Snuck in right before the curtain speech and hung out in the lobby during intermission to chat with our Artistic Director, Dorothy Milne, about how much they were enjoying themselves and that they intended to stick around after to meet the cast and offer congratulations and autographs. Which they did. Needless to say, everyone was totally thrilled and geeked out by the experience. Me included.

Mr. Gaiman tweeted that he will blog about his experience when he can blog again. I am especially proud for Rob, who received many hearty handshakes on his adaptation from the men who dreamed it all up in the first place, which is an incredible honor. And as a company of artists, meeting them and having their sanction that we did well is a tremendous validation.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Extension logistics and more (more?) press

Due to popular demand, we have just extended the run of Neverwhere until July 18th. While some of the original cast wont be able to do the extension, we've snagged some excellent understudies to back them up and will be running what we call put-in rehearsals (plugging in a new actor in place of the old one and doing a run of the show with them). I'll have a little bit of work to do, especially in tweaking the fight with the Beast of London, but regardless I'm glad the show has legs.

If you have 30 minutes to spare and want to hear me blab about staging Neverwhere in an interview podcast with my scenic designer Alan Donahue and projections designer Charlie Alves, you are in luck (clicky clicky).

And Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wrote some more about us here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Some more word of mouth and good reports

Yeah, so, word of mouth has been great and the show is selling out 5 shows a week! Imagine that - almost 500 people a week are coming to see Neverwhere and audiences are often hoping to their feet to applaud the cast for a second bow. It is, as you can probably see, very gratifying for me and Rob and the rest of the cast and crew.

Tonight I am rushing up to the theatre for an interview with Talk Theatre In Chicago, who will produce a podcast with scenic designer Alan Donahue and projection designer Charlie Alves talking with me about making our little stage space seem like London Below.

And for those of you unable to get to Chicago for the event, here's a teaser trailer...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review Round Up

Greetings friends - reviews are coming out for Neverwhere and the response is rather positive so far. For the most part. The majority of quibbles have to do with the length of play - approximately 2.5 hours counting the intermission.  This is a little surprising considering 2.5 hours certainly is at par with the majority of theatre I've experienced and that we have condensed such a great deal of material into one evening's entertainment.  My theory is that the genre is either your cup of tea or it isn't. If it is, you are watching 2.5 of awesome. If it isn't, you are watching 2.5 hours of ambition, which can get tedious. Anyway, I wanted to share with you what some people are saying that could maybe entice you to see the show yourself.  We're having a blast and tickets are selling well!

Few American theaters can do this kind of thing — with such imagination, dignity, humor and judicious restraint — quite like the master storytellers at Lifeline. And thus it is safe to take Gaiman fans, young and old, to “Neverwhere.” They'll immediately see that their guy — and the worlds he has stuck inside his readers' heads — are in sensitive and aptly exciting hands.

spectacle and story so ambitious and colorful, poetic and vulgar, heroic and homely, it's like eavesdropping on your favorite author's waking dream.

Fanboys, take a deep breath: they've done it justice.

a blockbuster comedy, fantasy adventure.  Bringing it to the stage, Lifeline Theatre tackled the mission improbable with amazing results.  

Watching the lavish artistry and endless imagination now at play in Lifeline Theatre's world premiere production of "Neverwhere" -- Robert Kauzlaric's zesty stage adaptation of British writer Neil Gaiman's first novel -- it is easy to see why Lifeline recently racked up 14 non-Equity Jeff nominations. The artists and craftsmen who work with this ensemble are masterful.

I want to stalk this production like a 13 year old Bieber-fan.  I want to hand-embroider pillows with "I heart Neverwhere" on them and bake the cast little cakes in the shape of rats.

we had one kick ass evening.

For most of “Neverwhere” at the Lifeline Theatre I didn’t have any idea what was happening on stage. But I did know that I was enjoying one of the most creative, complex, and entertaining productions in Lifeline’s history.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A note about the obsolescence part...

I'm sitting in the back of the theatre, actors have fight call in 10 minutes and we open the house for the final preview before press preview tomorrow afternoon and Monday's opening.

Very soon now it will no longer be my job to tweak and change the things that are happening in the show. It is already taking on a life of its own. The actors are claiming the show, feeling their way organically through the tech supporting them, have asked me further questions for guidance or told me, yeah, they know what I'm talking about.

A good friend who is also a young director shared with me his metaphor that at this point in the process, a director doesn't have a place to put their stuff. I give the actors their backstage and dressing room space like forbidden territory - I do not belong there. The audiences come in and fill the seats, so I don't belong there. I sit in the seat in the far back corner, alone, gauge the audience response, try and appreciate the show as a first time viewer and scribble notes in the dark, often under the light of my cell phone screen, to find ways to improve the experience. These options become increasingly limited based on the corners I've boxed my designers and actors in through my direction in the previous weeks. So my notes are more sparse and specific. A few pages of this or that or more often than not, nothing at all. I've done my part and now the actors and my stage manager do theirs. When I come back, it will be as an audience member with a lot of insider information. 

There is a sweetness to this. I am tired from the constant expending of energy in coordinating the wishes and questions from such a large team. But there is an emptiness too in not having a family to be a part of anymore. And a vulnerability that comes from putting your art out for public consumption and criticism.  I often feel protective of my family in the week or so after an opening in regards to critical response but I've gotten better at that. I'm extremely proud of everyone's work and I am excited to share it with you.  This little baby has learned to fly, thus it must leave the nest.

The research on this blog may continue - there is always something new to share. For example, my dad, who saw the press photos I posted a week or so back, noted of Hunter's knife, a "kukri" style knife...
Even though it is native to Nepal, Tibet, and northern India it is based on the design of an ancient Roman sword - much bigger but the same inside curve and edge. Hunter would truly enjoy the Gurka tribesmen who use this knife as they are fearless and fearsome warriors. There is also the link to the English as they conquered this territory and brought the Gurka fighters into the royal army after learning how much they love to battle and how fierce and loyal they can be. Therefore it is no surprise on all kinds of levels that this type of knife would be in the hands of Hunter in London below. To me it also will emphasis its nearly sacrilegious use as a letter opener by Richard latter in the story.
Soon I will reverse the order of these posts so it reads more linearly and simply becomes a journal about our process retrospectively.  Thank you all for reading. I hope you enjoy the show if you get the chance to see it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Genre, Audience, and Defying Expectations

I am sneaking in one more post. I have found that when I tell people that I have been working on Neverwhere I get two different responses. Those who know the novel say, “That’s great! I want to see it.” This is rapidly followed by, “How are they going to do that on stage?”

For those who don’t know the play I get, “Oh, What’s that about?” Which is actually a trickier question.

How do you describe Neverwhere? Most people rely on certain genre descriptions to help people understand what they might experience when they read a novel or see a play. It is a mystery, a comedy etc. Some works defy easy descriptions. It is a fantasy in that it has fantastical elements, but many think of elves or dwarves when they hear fantasy. Two categories are often used. Urban Fantasy, which as the name implies puts fantastical elements in an urban, modern setting. Magical Realism, has also been used which generally describes fiction in which a recognizable world suddenly has magical events described with a journalistic distance, that is, in the narrative there is no surprise at the fantastic things that happen it is the reader who encounters the description and finds it surprising because it does not fit expectations of how the world is. Magical Realism has also been more closely linked to Latin American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. However, as often happens with descriptive words, that use has broadened to include non-Latin American writers like Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. Certainly, Neverwhere could be described by either term.

While categories can be helpful shorthand can contribute to a convenient shared understanding of a work they can also be reductive. Genres often imply something about literary merit or seriousness of a work that I have always found distressing. Perhaps it comes from having been a voracious child reader who did not put aside childish books. Frog and Toad are still two of the best commentators on human (or amphibian) experience that I have encountered. By the same token I fall prey to the same judgments about genre. When I see a bright pink book with a woman’s legs in high heels or a shopping bag I cringe. I don’t know about the book and it’s relative worth, but it is being marketed under the derisive genre of “chick lit” and I do judge it on its cover and decide I don’t want it. It may be that I am simply not as interested in the complexities of dating and shopping but it may also be that I am ignoring a book because of what I assume it will be.

Genres also ignore the fact that there are fascinating works of literature in all time periods that simply don’t fit expectations. The Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish wrote a novel called The Blazing World in which she imagined fantastic creatures, a utopia, submarines and equality of the sexes in the 17th Century. G.K. Chesterton regularly worked fantastical elements into his novels at the turn of the last century. R.C. Sherriff wrote a heart-rending play, Journey’s End, about his experiences in World War I and a fantastical and satirical, 1939 novel, The Hopkins Manuscript in which the moon falls into the Atlantic Ocean and examines humanity in the wake of the catastrophe. How does one define genres in places we don’t expect them or when a work uneasily resides in several genres: feminist treatise and utopian fantasy; mystery and allegory and fantasy; or satire and science fiction.

Similarly, in theater there are assumptions about what one will see and what sort of audience goes to the theater. Part of what I have loved about watching previews is how the audiences and the production defy expectation. Of course there will be a fight with the beast of London in a tiny theater. Of course audiences will range widely in age and appearance (truthfully most of these audience members are look way cooler that I have ever been).

All of this explains part of the enjoyment of Neverwhere. It defies expectations. On some level the references and the journey may feel familiar but there are also countless surprises. What happens when you can’t be seen? What happens when you see something for the first time or the 999th time?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Process and Obsolescence

I wanted to expand on what Paul had said about previews, mostly because he has been a little modest about how unusual their process of working on an adaptation is. This was my first project with Lifeline, so I was not familiar with their process, which is unique to their mission to present adapted works of literature on stage. A few weeks ago, I got to sit in on an in depth discussion of the script with Paul, the artistic director, stage manager and ensemble members.

You should understand that many of these ensemble members are double or triple threats, they are actors, directors and adaptors in their own right and they have a carefully honed ear for storytelling and how it translates on stage. We sat there for a couple of hours, with a couple of bottles of wine and worked through everyone’s notes on the script after seeing it on stage. These were very detailed thoughts or notes about the script, how things translated to the stage and looking for places where the storytelling hit bumps. I was impressed both with the thoughtfulness of the comments and the kindness with which these comments were delivered. It was clear that the priority was making sure that a good story made it to stage and didn’t get muddled in the process.

Last week, I got to watch previews with the design team and more ensemble members all taking notes and comments on each run through of the play. In addition to all of these, Paul also got comment cards from the audience as part of the preview process. Again, I should explain that these were pretty enthusiastic audience members; some standing in the lobby writing notes well after most of the audience had left. The adaptor, Rob, then made more rewrites, Paul, the cast and the design team re-teched certain scenes and there will be more previews this week.

Admittedly that is a lot of cooks in the kitchen (to start mixing metaphors) but, remarkably, there seemed to be no bumps or crashes.

I am looking forward to watching the play again this week, even having seen the play in various forms many times. When you get to see theater again and again you get to see subtle changes in the performances and big changes as technical or design elements change.

At the same time, I am starting to get a little wistful and sad. This is the point at which my role (a shadowy, vague thing to begin with) in the process starts to end. A dramaturg is always a bit of an outsider, a benevolent observer, an information gatherer, a bit of an interferer, a scribbler and but always a fond well-wisher. At certain point, I stop giving feedback and just watch the creature that is a play as it lives, moves, and has its being.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


We have been through three incredible previews thus far. Previews are full runs of the show with lights and sound and all tech running as a performance with paying audiences who are invited to give feedback via paper surveys in their programs.  It gives me a chance as director to sit in the back of the theatre and watch the actors juggle their many roles in front of a large audience (about 300 people saw the show this weekend) and to gauge how our show might be improved.  

Clearly the show is working, the audiences are enthusiastic, but with consultation with my theatre collective, the Lifeline Theatre Ensemble, and Rob as adaptor, we have made some significant cuts and re-writes and are re-staging some elements this week, tightening choreography and fights, and making some of the technical elements clearer. 

Our Ensemble is fortunate enough to own our performance space - a luxury not common in Chicago Non-Equity theatre.  Since we are constantly producing world premiere adaptations, we have adopted this preview process with a full week of rehearsal between previews and opening for just this purpose - honing and enhancing our work with the benefit of audience experience and thoughtful feedback. 

Here are some of the promotional pictures - are you getting excited? We sure are!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Getting close!

Today, the Chicago Tribune's daily commuter publication RedEye featured an interview with adaptor Rob Kauzlaric (also posted on the entertainment guide website, Metromix). 

This is a welcome energy boost coming in the middle of a grueling week! Our actors and designers have been working overtime to complete all the challenging little details we need to confront to utilize everyone's contributions to telling the story of Neverwhere.  We started adding costumes last night, and just as actors starting rehearsal often have questions about their characters, are reading words off a page for the first time and don't know which way to enter or exit the stage area, our costumer is at the fledgling point in her process, handing out pieces built from scratch in her home to the live actors and seeing them move in them for the first time. She has brought a wall of 30 to 40 costumes, many of them rigged for lightning fast quick changes for the cast of nine to switch into and out of as many of them play multiple characters. Our props are coming in for the first time too and must be evaluated for their effectiveness and ease of use so as to support the actor's work and not hinder it.  

Last night we worked for the first time with a mini-projector that we had hoped to incorporate into Lord Portico's Journal. Alas we discovered that the controls were too complicated for use in the scene and had to move on to plan B.  It's time for that - moving on to plans B and C and D for moments where we are relying on a variety of theatrical stagecraft to get the story telling elements of this sprawling fantasy feeling just right. So sometimes you have to - as Stephen King puts it in his memoir On Writing - kill your darlings. How many darlings will be killed before May 10th? Hard to tell, though everything seems to be able to be kept for now, you just have to stay flexible and keep moving on. Just another way the creative process mirrors the developmental one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dress rehearsal

Sunday night I had the opportunity to watch another run through of Neverwhere. I have to confess this is the fun part. Every time I pop into the theater there some cool new feature to the set or suddenly there is music or an actor enters in a costume piece I have never seen before,oh and the puppets are really spiffy. This week there will be preview performances with audiences.

Tonight, I stopped by the theater to start installing the messy collage that will hold some dramaturgy and production photos as well as maps of London, the tube, quotations, a variety of other images. It may be the only time I have looked at a lobby display and said I think it needs more rats and pigeons.

At this point I don't know that I have much more to add other than the wonder and excitement I feel at the close of a process like this. I look forward to watching it again and seeing what other new discoveries are waiting.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dry Tech

I'm currently sitting in the theatre while Assistant Sound Designer Adam Hubbell gets his computer plugged into the sound system from the audience seating. Charlie Alves has his projector set up. Kevin Gawley just told me that 80 - 85% of the lighting fixtures are ready. We're hunkering down for Dry Tech.

Why "Dry"? We are essentially doing a run of the show without actors and without lines, hitting every moment of light, sound and projection transition before we add actors tomorrow night and start Tech rehearsals. It is a Dry Run.

We're getting started almost an hour late - these things happen of course - and it will probably be a late night. But the time we spend on this stuff now will save the actor's from too much sitting around and expedite our process to come.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Floating Market Benefit

Hello all!

Monday evening our theatre company had a benefit themed around the Floating Markets of Neverwhere and don't just take my word for it, the event was an incredible success.  Bleeding Cool contributor Greg Baldino was there and wrote up a cool piece about the event here.  And photographer Lisa Marie Ogle has put some pics up on her Flickr page. I'm the guy in the white tux jacket. :P

Friday, April 16, 2010

Old Bailey: "London shall have all its ancient rights"

The quote above is one of the inscriptions in the Old Bailey the name given to the criminal courts in London and named for the street on which it stands. It is close to Newgate prison.

Old Bailey also makes a cameo in a children’s rhyme, “Oranges and Lemons.” Like many old rhymes there seem to be many variations. I have included one below. When will you pay me feels appropriate for Old Bailey in Neverwhere, although I have also heard the perhaps apocryphal story that it refers to the bells of Old Bailey ringing and being used as a signal for hangings at Newgate prison which lends a darker tone to the concept of “being paid”. Old Bailey is linked closely both to death and to the obscure bartering system that governs London below.

"Oranges and Lemons" say the bells of St. Clements.
"You owe me five farthings" say the bells of St. Martins.
"When will you pay me" say the bells of Old Bailey.
"When I grow rich" say the bells of Shoreditch.
"When will that be" say the bells of Stepney.
"I do not know" says the great Bell of Bow.

Old Bailey is also the court in A Tale of Two Cities. Old Bailey in Neverwhere is certainly a Dickensian creation. Unlike the other denizens of London Below he is a self-proclaimed “roof-man” and a costermonger branching out in his business from birds to information. Like a lot of characters in Dickens he is likeable but one suspects he is often be on the wrong side of the law if the law is anything he stops to consider. He occupies the other neglected spaces of London - the rooftops.

In looking for images of the Old Bailey I stumbled across this website, which is part of an effort to put cases from the Old Bailey between 1647-1913 on line. It is not particularly relevant to Neverwhere but it was so interesting I felt I should add the link.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bits, Bobs, and Oddments

I have been away from the rehearsal process for a bit (working on another play) so I am feeling a bit disconnected. I am looking forward to coming back and witnessing what has happened while I have been gone. In the meantime I am including some bits and pieces, quotes and facts and tidbits from things I have been reading that resonate with Neverwhere.

"If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time." – G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

"But when first the two black dragons sprang out of the fog upon the small clerk, they had merely the effect of all miracles--they changed the universe. He discovered the fact that all romantics know--that adventures happen on dull days, and not on sunny ones." – G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

"He was a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland. But he was perhaps the first to realise how often the boundary of fairyland runs through a crowded city." – G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

" Of the thousand millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are -- socially, morally, and perhaps even physically considered -- but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers -- the vagabond and the citizen -- the nomadic and the civilized tribes." – Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

“The Street-sellers of Mineral Productions and
Curiosities -- as red and white sand, silver sand,
coals, coke, salt, spar ornaments, and shells.

These, so far as my experience goes, exhaust
the whole class of street-sellers, and they appear
to constitute nearly three-fourths of the entire
number of individuals obtaining a subsistence in
the streets of London.

The next class are the Street-Buyers, under
which denomination come the purchasers of hare-
skins, old clothes, old umbrellas, bottles, glass,
broken metal, rags, waste paper, and dripping.

After these we have the Street-Finders, or
those who, as I said before, literally "pick up"
their living in the public thoroughfares. They are
the "pure" pickers, or those who live by gather-
ing dogs'-dung; the cigar-end finders, or " hard-
ups," as they are called, who collect the refuse
pieces of smoked cigars from the gutters, and
having dried them, sell them as tobacco to the
very poor; the dredgermen or coal-finders; the
mud-larks, the bone-grubbers; and the sewer-

Under the fourth division, or that of the
Street-Performers, Artists, and Show-
men, are likewise many distinct callings.”

Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A station agent at King’s Cross station said there were two suicide attempts per week – Stephen Smith, Underground London

The closed Angel station was used as a bomb shelter during World War II - Stephen Smith, Underground London

“This author’s endeavour should be to make the Past, the sense of all the dead Londons that have gone to the producing of this child of all the ages, like a constant ground-bass beneath the higher notes of the Present. “ Ford Madox Ford, The Soul of London

The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Monday, April 12, 2010

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Tonight begins the first time we rehearse on the nearly completed set, constructed in wood and metal in four hundred or so square feet of stage.  We've been rehearsing in a bare room upstairs at Lifeline Theatre's space since early March, imagining various platforms, ladders, doors and stairs, we've experimented with movement through different entrances and exits to help us tell the trajectory of the story from London Above to London Below and back again.  We've fidgeted with the script, tweaking here and there or asking Rob to rethink whole passages.  We've speculated on what props need to be tracked onstage and off, how we deal with them, which of the characters my nine actors are channeling in each scene, how they use their bodies and focus to create the environments we need and I've pondered much about how lights and sound and projections will help us get where we need to be.  We've choreographed the fights, including the epic battle with the massive Beast of London.  We've tried to time and foresee how all of this movement will work once we get on the set.  And now we get to find out.

It's an incredibly exciting moment. We've been peeking in downstairs every now and then to watch the progress as scenic pieces are being built.  We all have had our oohs and ahhs over parts of it and we also have had our fears  - about how a clumsy step on a high platform could spell disaster, or how a whip quick costume change could affect a timely entrance on the other side of the stage.  No doubt about it, this is another part of the process calling for brave hearts and flexible thinking.  I assume I understood the way the space will work for us, but that vision will be tested this week.  

Last night I met with members of our technological design team on lights, sound and projections for five hours to talk through the script from start to finish and decide what we want to happen when.  The meeting for this is called a Paper Tech in that we technically work out on paper the results of our conversations.  (In an interesting turn of technology we had four Mac laptops plugged in, our lighting designer Skyped in to attend from where he was in Wisconsin, and yet still all of us had pencils and erasers and paper in hand - it does not appear that Paper Tech will change to "Laptop Tech" any time soon.) We talk about how long a transition should feel like, what it might sound like, how our various arts can combine to help tell the story, tell the story, tell the story.  We tie the cues for these lights and sounds to specific actions the actor's have created in rehearsal or we tie them to a specific line - even down to a word.  So gestures, words and movement cue the stage manager to drive the tech.  Now my designers, encouraged and empowered by our meeting, will have almost two weeks to build their contributions in preparation for our actual technical rehearsals, the next big leap in our process when we put all of that theory into practice.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

First Run Through: Fragile Things, Magic and Darkness

I was having one of those late-night-into-early-morning bouts of insomnia. Where a single worry or two seem to invite another and another and they, in turn, are acquaintances of some of my old fears and a few old embarrassing moments and so they come along too “to relive old times” and finally the party is in full swing and it is four in the morning. So I gave up trying to sleep and decided to wait for the sleepy comfort of dawn. The cats were perplexed by the change in routine but were willing to sit next to me on the couch and wait for breakfast while I typed.

I turned to thinking about the first run through I saw on Monday. It is part of a sacred trust as a collaborator with other artists on a play not to reveal the first rough steps of a production. An audience must wait to see a polished gem not a bumpy rock. (Which is not to say that this rehearsal was that bumpy; I thought it was in rather good shape.) I can however reflect on the process though not the details of it. A first rehearsal is a delicate creature. I have heard other dramaturgs refer to their role on a production as midwife to a play and I have never been sure I agreed with the analogy. However, a play newly on its feet (which is often what we refer to the process as getting a play on its feet) is very much like a newborn creature, full of wrinkles and fits and starts as it struggles to stand up. Newborn creatures are not generally lovely right away. But like other newborn creatures it inspires a protectiveness to guard and help until it can stand on its own and defend itself as best it can.

If you are not a participant in theater, then you should appreciate the job the actors have to do at a first run through of a play. They are remembering new blocking, and lines, thinking about the development of their characters, working on dialects and fight choreography all while still working in an empty room with tape on the floor to indicate doors, or steps or ladders. Often this is after putting aside the concerns of a day job and fueled by caffeine while fighting a cold.

Designers come to a first run through and do not generally make a good audience. Not because they don’t enjoy the play but because they are thinking about their various tasks and may have heads bent over notepads or laptops writing questions about a sound cue or how a set piece might function or some costume change that might be needed, or could some story arc be made more clear.

The Marquis de Carabas tells the stranded Richard,You’ll just have to make the best of it down here in the sewers and the magic and the dark.” The act of making theater, the contract between an audience and actors who agree to sit in a dark room and share an experience that is meant to move them is source of continual fascination to me no matter how long I work in theater.

It is no surprise then that the earliest acts of theater are associated with religious rituals. One can imagine the day a hunter at night by a fire told the story of the hunt and the moment another person took up the skin of a gazelle and pretended to be the creature hunted. It is easy to see how the recreation of a fierce hunt for those who didn’t see it but are about to enjoy the meal might become a mystical play. Early Greek theater was part of religious festivals and a shared communal experience. So even though theaters today are not generally tied to religious practice and they often struggle for their financial existence in a world of many competing entertainment voices; there are still those struggling to create fragile things and delicate creatures and there is still something that draws audiences to share the magic and the dark.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Down and Out in Earl's Court

The earl in Neverwhere is nameless. He is so old his person and title are synonymous. The noun earl was used to distinguish nobility from those who weren’t noble, the churls. The word first appears in Beowulf as “eorla,” which here generally means a brave knight or warrior. The King Hrothgar is sitting amidst them. The earl of Earl’s court has something of the Anglo-Saxon about him. His elderly man at arms is Dagvard- his name from the Anglo-Saxon means Dag or day and vard or guard or day-guard. The other man at arms is Halvard and the meaning of the name is a bit more opaque to me. It feels like he should be either the hall guard or the night guard but hal is associated with rocks and sloping hills in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary. (Ah yes, I still have my Anglo-Saxon dictionary from a time when I thought I might be a scholar of this sort of thing so moving it from city to city and apartment to apartment has finally proved worthwhile.) Thus it is also significant that the poetry quoted in the Earl’s court is in the Anglo-Saxon mode which uses alliteration, “Brave the battling blade, flashes the furious fire . . .”

Just to speed through a little bit of English history. The early Celtic inhabitants (who themselves may have immigrated to the Island country) have been continually overrun by other people who thought it looked like a nice little green island for pillaging or possibly settling down and building a summer home. The Angles, the Saxon and the Jutes (from Jutland which refers to Denmark) are all early Viking tribes from the areas that are modern Scandinavia that over a long period of time invaded, settled then were invaded upon by other early Viking tribes who either forgot or didn’t care that these were some early cousins. The name England is derived from Angle-land. (There were others who have thought it was a nice little island the Romans and French prominent among them.) Stephen Smith in his book, Underground London, describes a Anglo-Saxon cross found underneath All Hallows that is carved with the word "Werhere" which he says Peter Ackroyd has said strongly suggests, "we are here."

There is another charming nod to this history sitting on the train platform where the Earl’s train court arrives. The beggar Lear is sitting on the platform. King Lear is based on the legend of an early Celtic king. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the foolish king divides his kingdom and loses his power, his mind, and his daughters. Of course Lear in Shakespeare does not live but his Neverwhere namesake sits begging outside the court of a later ruler.

There is a fool in King Lear (apart from Lear) who is known only as the Fool. In Earl’s court there is a fool named Tooley. Tooley is a London street in Southwark. It is apparently a corruption of St. Olave’s church, St. Olave or Olaf being the patron saint of Norway. It was apparently the home of many wealthy citizens in the Middle Ages. Since it was close to the docks it was for a time known as “London’s Larder” It is now home to the campy London Dungeon which features actor recreations of gory bits of London history. Tooley Street was also the location of a cheap boarding house where writer George Orwell lived played the part of a beggar while he researched social conditions for his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Richard is able to imagine the earl as he was when he was “a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, and a terrifying foe.” The earl’s court has undergone a similar decline to Tooley Street and similar to the end of Beowulf. (I have linked to the Gummere translation but if you get a chance read the Seamus Heaney translation.)In reading it again, was reminded of one of the final episodes of Beowulf in which the aging king Beowulf goes out to face a dragon with a young hero. There is a sense of decline in that the old King can no longer protect his people but the young hero, Wiglaf, is not up to the task and will not be the leader that Beowulf was. Together they slay the dragon but Beowulf dies of his wounds and lives only in the after-singing.

The earl is the one who assumes Door is out for vengeance he is also getting old and his memory is muddled. Hunter calls the earl’s real domain “Things lost. Things forgotten.” He has collected not only the lost detritus of London above compressed in London below but fragments of history and old alliances and knowledge of Islington which enables him to help Door.

A side note for those who are getting tired of obscure footnotes. I am looking forward to watching the first run through of the play tonight. All this research is fun but it will be nice to see the story "on its feet.."

Sunday, March 28, 2010

First Weeks

We are now out of the theoretical and in practical research mode, testing staging theories on an approximation of the set and figuring out the way we are going to tell our story.   I say "we" because the process, for this director at least, is about collaboration. I can't imagine doing this alone, the show will be that much richer for the contributions of all involved.

There is a sense of enthusiasm that continues to develop as we get into the scene work and discuss characters and as we stage this sucker.  Rob has had to cut much, but he tried very hard to keep in as much of the dialogue from the book he could, often rearranging some small bits here and there to emphasize thematically the growing trust, honesty, and heights of courage and speak to the heart of what is in the book.  And the entire cast is on to it.  

We came across a particularly tricky page or so in the script where Richard is in a variety of different locales trying to get to work and No One notices or recognizes him.  The morning after Door leaves, Richard is running late for work and the people on the street almost knock him down by bumping into him. Gary and Sylvia at the office look at him like they never met him before. His desk and things are gone. Jessica doesn't recognize him. His apartment is being shown to a potential new renter. And the phone stops responding. Then Croup and Vandemar show up, and they are not happy.

This all takes place in about a minute. There is no way I could imagine staging this without the cast in the room, just for the sake of seeing the bodies move in the space. On top of this physical necessity though, many of the cast members are directors and fight choreographers themselves and frankly there is no end to the feeding we get off of each other when we try and sort out a problem. This sequence took input from most of us to figure out. 

This is such an incredibly rewarding way to begin a process - collaboration and enthusiasm will go a long way for us in rehearsal and make the run for the actors that much more enjoyable. Everyone is getting along great, thinking and chattering and joking and figuring it out together.

It is hard to judge what to blog about or share at this point.  We've blocked the play. We are performing the entire play from start to finish for the first time tomorrow night. The fight with the Beast of London, which we haven't had the pieces in place to play with before, comes Wednesday.  To tell you about specifics or show you video of some of the combat we've choreographed would be showing too much - we want you to come see the show LIVE and not know what's coming in advance!  Just trust me - I've collected some of the best minds and voices in Chicago theatre to this project, and we're going to show you something incredibly special.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

London Above: Blindness and Sight

I have been thinking about the characters we see in London above that are from London Above: Jessica, Gary, Sylvia and Mr. Stockton. The new renters or Richard's flat. Almost every moment we see in the world of London above is associated with business or status. Richard works in the financial industry as do Gary and Sylvia and the descriptions of his actual work are coded in the jargon of the industry so as to be as obtuse as the hieroglyphics. Anaesthesia asks him "what's an investment an-thing." He is plunged into a world of bartering, favors and strange alliances where his matches and used hankie take on a new value but his credit card is worthless.
Perhaps it is because I have been dipping into Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, but it feels very deliberate that the world of London above is tied to money and status. Richard discovers in London Below that his whole life had prepared him to be an investment analyst but it hadn't prepared him to survive particularly well in London Below. Actual survival skills have ceased to be necessary in London Above and it is highly abstract work with an ambiguous monetary system that allows Richard to have a London apartment and a girlfriend who thinks she can make him into the correct marriage prospect.

Jessica and Mr. Stockton are not in finance but they are in a world peopled almost entirely with the wealthy and famous, who behave appallingly at the opening or "Angels of England."

In 1956, anthropologist, Horace Miner, famously published The Body Ritual of the Nacirema. In which he wrote up descriptions of modern Americans as an anthropologist studying a foreign tribe. Nacirema is American spelled backwards. It now seems to be a popular article to pull out in high school sociology or history classes to make students look at the common practices of a society with fresh eyes. This is what Richard has to do when plunged into London below.

It is telling that in the ordeal it is the faces of Jessica and Gary that come back to him, the faces of what his normal live and goals and values have been. Richard must struggle to hang onto a sense of self that is separate from what failure leading to suicide would be in London Above.

This does not mean that the characters in London below are idealized. They are often selfish, unscrupulous and dangerous but their traits are much more readily identifiable than in London Above. I actually have some sympathy for Jessica and Gary. Jessica is terribly hurt that Richard had changed and doesn't understand it. Gary thinks that Richard may be going off the deep end when he is back and still not satisfied. They both don't have the painfully won self-knowledge that Richard has gained. Jessica is not evil she is self-involved, fairly callous to the homeless but she is operating with in perfectly acceptable standards for success within her society. The same is true of Gary. He is unseeing and perfectly content in his world of work, pubs and women. Thus the refrain from London above is that above-worlders don't see anything.
This leads me to two other characters. The first is the old woman who tells Richard's fortune at the beginning; she first thinks he is homeless because she has been homeless herself. She tells him to beware of doors and that his good heart might be enough to see him through. She is the proverbial seer who links London Above and London Below and links Richard to his future but in the classic fashion of Seers, Richard fails to understand her.

The second is the abbot of the black friars who is blind. "The abbot regarded his own blindness neither as a blessing nor as a curse: it simply was. . ." But in the abbot's darkness he knows another pilgrim is going to arrive and attempt the ordeal. He has a measure of foresight but his sin is waiting because he knows a pilgrim is coming and he ceases to live in the present. However, the abbot does not anticipate how Richard will survive the ordeal.

Seers are associated with blindness but so is Justice. The statues picture here are of Justice, which has long been depicted as blindfolded with sword and scales. The first is on top of the Old Bailey, the criminal court in London, the second is outside the supreme court of Canada (it just looks more menacing and mysterious). Yet, so much of Neverwhere there is not justice. It is not fair that Door's family has been murdered; it is not fair that Richard's life is taken away by being a Good Samaritan. Door seems to hesitate every time revenge is suggested as the motivating factor in her quest. She never seems to be trying to mete out justice herself but to see, to understand her unfathomable loss. Sight in Neverwhere becomes a more nuanced thing purchased at great price. Richard and Door can't go back to the way things were they can only come through them to with a clearer vision. It is a much more sophisticated idea than that everything will just be made okay again by an omnipotent source. It is telling that Door, Richard and the Marquis end up back at the black friars who are not there to make everything as it was but to help heal their wounds.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New article on another site

The comic book industry news website "Bleeding Cool" just posted about Neverwhere, with some quotes from Rob and I about the show and a cool picture. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Croup and Vandemar (and Freud - yes that Freud)

"Croup and Vandemar, the Old Firm. Nuisances eliminated, obstacles obliterated, bothersome limbs removed, and tutelary dentistry."

I have struggled with writing about Croup and Vandemar, so I have put it off. They are so specific and at the same time deeply ambiguous. It was delightful to hear our actors Croup and Vandemar at the first read through of the script and I suspect it is a delight for the actors who play them to have the comedic payoff of the Croup's circumlocutions followed by Vandemar's bluntness. Yet, I find the idea of the characters (not the actors) deeply disturbing.

First, to focus on the names. Gaiman has said that Croup and Vandemar are what they call themselves and no one would dare call them anything else. The word croup in the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as the hindquarters of a horse or other beast of burden and also as a disease fatal to children of inflammation to the larynx and cough, or the short form of a croupier or card shuffler. None of which is inappropriate for Croup but none of which captures his menacing loquacity.

Vandemar, is a Dutch name van meaning of de the. I did not find any specific Dutch translation for Mar as either a region or of the sea. However, on its own to mar can mean to hamper, hinder, damage or impair which sounds about like one of Croup's lists of their favorite activities.

There is a history of appealing villains. Iago in Othello, Edmund in King Lear, Count Fosco in The Woman in White. But none of them compare to the menace of the pair of Croup and Vandemar and I think that is because they are all at least human. Croup and Vandemar are not human. They move with great speed and apparent ease, when Croup asks, quoting The Merchant of Venice, "If you prick us do we not bleed." Vandemar answers, "No" Vandemar puts a knife through his hand without feeling any apparent pain or bleeding. When Richard calls them men, Door scoffs then says, "I suppose you could call them men." She then refines her definition of their being men as has having two arms, two legs and a head a piece.

Part of what makes Croup and Vandemar so uncomfortable, so uncanny, is the fact that they have the appearance of the human but are, in fact something other that seeks only destruction. Sigmund Freud has an essay on The Uncanny (which is very accessible - it is as much literary criticism as psychoanalysis) in which he talks about E.T.A. Hoffman's fairy tales and the uncanny. He specifically addresses the idea of the double first in the idea of the body and soul which allows one to think about the immortality of some part of the self in response to fears about mortality but then mentions that its reverse can be seen as a harbinger of death. In Neverwhere, Croup and Vandemar are uncanny because they represent a double or a doppleganger. They have the appearance of men but are not human. These apparently immortal humanlike creatures bring death with them. An outraged Croup lists their credentials to their mysterious employer as having assassinated, kings, popes, heroes and reputed gods as well as starting a plague. Their uncanniness is heightened by their powers seeming to be magical and beyond human. Not only do they bring death but also the can not be stopped by normal human means.

They are disturbing precisely because they seem human and are not and because their power to harm or bring death seems unstoppable. They are also disturbing in the way they function as a pair. They seem almost to know each other's thoughts. At the beginning of the novel Gaiman gives us a long description of how we can tell Croup and Vandemar apart and then tells us they look nothing like each other. Yet that description is necessary because the two beings function together. When Door has opened the door at the end of the novel Vandemar shrugs when he sees Croup sucked in without out him and then lets go to join his partner. The two of them seem to need to be together to function. Oh and for all the Gaiman fans, if you decide to read the Freud there is an interesting discussion of Hoffman's Sand-man.

I also wanted to mention something that has always struck me about Croup and Vandemar's crucifixion of the Marquis. As it is described, the Marquis is not on a cross but on a circle. His arms and legs are out in a gruesome parody of Leonardo daVinci's drawing "The Vitruvian Man" above. It always struck me that this is the height of what Croup and Vandemar stand for. It is not just the loss of life (which would be enough to horrify) but the destruction of beauty, thought, art, every good humanist ideal that we could associate with Leonardo daVinci's renaissance world. It is why Croup's eating a one of a kind piece of T'ang Dynasty pottery fits with the destruction of human life. It is not just an erasing of life but of all human potential and capacity for goodness and beauty.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is their ability to as it is put in Hamlet, "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."Although perhaps that refers to Islington since Croup's smile is described as ghastly.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

The beating of wings, candlelight and a game

When I started my reread of Neverwhere a couple weeks ago. I noticed the quotes Gaiman gives the reader at the beginning of the novel and thought it might be worth thinking about them a bit.

"I have never been to St. John's Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood red cup and the beating of the wings of an eagle."

The first quote is from G.K. Chesterton's
The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Which is a brilliant choice to allude to. Chesterton's novels blend the fantastical and the real in fascinating and disturbing ways, and although he was writing at the turn of the last century, I am always stunned by how modern Chesterton's books feel. The Napoleon of Notting Hill takes place in a future London (1984) that is much like the London of 1904, when it was written, but it is just a bit off. By agreement and lack of interest the England, which seems to have amassed more empire in the intervening years, now choice a king by alphabetical drawing. There are many analogous interests in the story. The people of London seem to have become entrenched in the ordinary, accepting of their class system and social roles. Clerk Auberon Quin is made king, and being of a whimsical (and possibly mad) nature starts requiring the provosts of the various districts of London to dress in obscure and antiquated ways. As king he also makes up some fairly fantastical histories related to London place names.

The relationship to a fantastical London in which the place names are tied to different histories than we might expect is clear. I think there is more. I confess I am a fan of Chesterton but had not read The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I am about half way through now. I have long reading history with especially The Man Who was Thursday but also The Man Who Knew Too Much and even Father Brown. It struck me how often Chesterton uses the word nightmare. Both Chesterton's worlds and Gaiman's worlds take on a nightmare-like quality in the true sense of a dream the feels real but in which normal things are displaced, distorted or somehow menacing. Both also freely mix humor with societal or personal events that are much more terrifying like say anarchists or murder. Both writers unapologetically take you to that place that is familiar and frightening and fantastic without explaining or making things easy for the reader which, I think, is a mark of respect for the reader, not to explain too much.

The second quote is the 14th century Lyke Wake Dirge from north Yorkshire

If ever thou gavest hosen or shoon
Then every night and all
Sit thou down and put them on
And Christ receive thy soul

This aye night, this aye night
Every night and all
Fire and fleet and candlelight
And Christ receive thy soul

If ever though gavest meat or drink
Then every night and all
The fire shall never make thee shrink
And Christ receive thy soul

The portions of the dirge, or funeral hymn, that Gaiman quotes all refer to the acts of charity that one might have done while living which in the last stanza protects one from the fire (presumably the fires of hell). Lyke is a dead body and wake is the watch that would be held for the deceased. Hosen are stockings and Shoon is an archaic plural of shoes. Fleet can be a small stream but I also saw a variation on the dirge that seemed to substitute hearth or home for fleet. Sleet is sometimes substituted for fleet which is an old form a salt that may have to do with early funeral rituals. The refrain with firelight and home contrasts with the judgment meted out to those who were not generous in life. It fits nicely with Richard's act of kindness that starts everything for him.

Another reference Gaiman has mentioned in interviews is a children's game with a map of London. I suspect it might be Scotland Yard. Where a group of detectives chases the criminal Mr. X through London using the bus, the underground and taxis (why Scotland Yard does not get its own vehicles is never explained.) What is splendid about the game is how much time you have to look at the map of London with all its place names. Before I had visited London I had played the board game and spent time staring at the map, not just trying to win but as if it might give me understanding of London when I should finally visit (it didn't). Nightmare, dirge, game, it is somehow right that they should all fit together.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

No. Its Just Door. D-O-O-R. Like something you walk through to go places.

So a couple of weeks ago Paul emailed me about how Neverwhere was like The Wizard of Oz but turned on its head a bit. Richard wants to get home but Door sounds like Dorothy. What are the roles of Hunter and the Marquis in that party if you want to extend the comparison

I agreed but replied that Neverwhere is also like many other fairy tale quest narratives. However last week I did another reread of the book before first rehearsal and it struck me that twice Gaiman invokes the Wizard of Oz. Lamia makes fun of Hunter and Richard and Door as being like the Wizard of Oz, when they are on their way to meet Islington so Door can avenge her family and Richard can get his life back. So Gaiman both invokes the Wizard of Oz and mocks it at the same time. This is a darker fantasy than the Wizard of Oz. The revelations about Islington are much darker than discovering the Wizard is just a man behind a curtain.

Of course the story makes it clear that Door is just Door. It is not short for Doreen or Dorothy. If anything Door, because of her ability is like the physical doors in other fairy tales, the door to the wardrobe, the hole in the ground. So many fairy tales start with some sort of entrance. Of course, the old woman warns him to beware of doors.

Door's whole family are "openers" and their skills allow them to find and open doors and locks. The names of the family are all portal names. Door, Arch, Portico, Portia and Ingress. (I have to point out that Portico also refers to the colonnades where Greek philosophers met - which is appropriate for Door's father.) Richard does find a door to another world.

I was struck when I was rereading the novel how twice uses her skill in a way that shocks her once she opens to save herself from the assassin and kills him. Once she reaches out for somewhere safe then, at the last moment, thinks "someone." She calls a person not just a place and so her guilt over having gotten Richard into his mess is real. She called him.

It always pleased me when reading the novel that the story switches back and forth between Door and Richard. Certainly Richard follows the classic fairy tale or mythological model. He is forced into an adventure. He is from our world so he is our point of view character. We experience London Below as he discovers it. (Unless perhaps there are folks from London Below reading the novel). But Door is on her own journey, she has had her own loss and being orphaned and seeking revenge are also fairy tale devices.

What is trickier is that there isn't quite a direct analog for Door. She is both the entrance to this other world for Richard, but she is not just the guide to Richard. She is in the midst of her own story. Strong women in fairytales are tricky. There are a host of evil witches or bad step-mothers.
There is a clever girl like Molly Whuppie. (I had the Errol Le Cain Illustrated version as a child.) The Twelve Dancing Princesses are clever but only so they can evade their father and dance at night.
In East of the Sun West of the Moon and the Frog Prince the peasant's pretty daughter and the princess go on quest but only after they had rejected a magical suitor.

A number of years ago I read Reviving Ophelia, in which psychologist Mary Pipher examines the increasing problems facing young women. She describes how strong female characters start to disappear from books for girls when they hit adolescence and those characters become increasingly focused on relationships and marriage. Door is refreshing in that she is so unique. She is strong and skilled and independent. She has vulnerabilities but does not need saving. In fact, all the women in Neverwhere are strong.

She is not just an entrance for Richard into his story. They both have stories that are tangled together like a map of the London Underground.