Friday, February 19, 2010

A glimpse into fight choreography

From Paul: Richard Gilbert, one of the members of R&D Choreography (with David Bareford) our fight designers for the show, weighs in with his excitement and thoughts on the process.

A long while back, I got a call from Paul, the director.  "We're doing an adaptation of Neverwhere.  Rob is adapting, I am directing.  It is going to be a while, and we can't talk about it publicly until we get some details worked out, but would you guys be interested in designing the violence?"  OK, I am making up pretty much everything after the word Neverwhere.  Because, you see, I didn't really _hear_ anything after that over the screaming "YES!!!" that was trying to escape my brain.  I hope that's what he said, because I did, of course, say yes.  And I didn't tell anyone for a few days.  Well, except my fiance, who I swore to secrecy.  She tried to make it clear that she was more excited for me than jealous.  With remarkable success, considering.

So that went on for a while.  I reread the book.  I got the first draft of the script and read that a few time through.  And then David and I started talking about the design.  There is so much to consider for this, and it ranges pretty widely.  And of course it interfaces with the other design elements - weapons are also props, so decisions about what someone fights with says a lot about who they are.  Blood - it is so intrinsic to the story ("lovely, wet blood, Mr. C") but it does funny things on stage - it can overshadow an important moment, or it can reinforce it beautifully as it drips quietly from a nostril.  But costumes are the most likely to be affected by blood.  Lights, Set, Puppets and Projections - all of these are interdependent with the violence.  

How the actors move will influence those decisions, but then once choreography is designed that will come back around and inform some of the actors' choices.   So we start out asking the questions and waiting to see what sticks.  Are the bodyguards' 'knacks' magic?  How do Croup and Vandemar move so quickly without appearing to rush in the live theatre?  If we figure that one out, how do we apply it in their fights?  Hunter's weapons should be simple, because she is practical.  Or they should be ornate, each one a trophy from some distant land where she killed a great beast.  Vandemar is a big guy - he needs a big knife.  Or wait, maybe a tiny little knife?  I can see him explaining, "People think its how big the knife is that matters.  It's not."  The spear....ok, the spear is a big deal.  It appears relatively briefly, and it is in exactly one fight...but it is a powerful artifact, so it should look cool...  Oh, right...that one big fight.  The one with the beast.  How do we make that look cool and scary?  It was already scaring me - I couldn't bear it if it looked weak and goofy in the end, and my favorite seat in the house is going to be six feet from the beast's death!  

At the first couple production meetings we saw so much beautiful thinking from every corner, and that started shaping decisions.  We brought a big bag of weapons to the second meeting and looked at what various choices would mean.  Some of it is obvious - the quarterstaff fight with Brother Sable is a quarterstaff fight.  But Hunter's staff should be a little different - maybe shorter (which will give us more room in tight quarters, and will also mean a more oriental style than Sable's European stick fighting). 

Here was an interesting evolution: for the bodyguard fight we were seeing machetes - I love the shower of sparks, and the ferocious brutality of a machete.  On the other hand, the fop should, by all rights, have a smallsword.  On the other other hand, as much fun as the fight in Rob Roy is, I don't want the fight to be about the superiority of one weapon style over another, but rather of one fighter over another - so I want the weapons to match.  Paul solved that problem - he loved our WWI bayonet.  It looks and could be held like a smallsword...and it is definitely a wicked shiv... but if has the meat to stand up to a machete blow for slashing blow!  So there, that does that.  But wait - every choice informs other choices...and look what we just did.  The Fop has this Bayonet that he thinks of as a sword, but when the fighting starts, he abandons his 18th century stance and starts hacking away... so the foppishness comes across as a thin veneer.  Lets see what the actor does with that!

Well, enough for now - so many things to work out!

A decade-long journey nears an end (and a beginning)

From Paul: I asked our award winning adaptor Robert Kauzlaric to contribute some insight into his process for this blog. 

There’s so much to discuss about this project, and Paul and Maren have already done an amazing job of that here. As the adaptor of the show, there are load of things on my mind I’m hoping to blather about on this blog, in particular: the rewards and challenges of working with such well-known and well-loved material – what do you cut? what do you keep? how do you stay true to the story while transposing it to a new medium with an entirely different set of restrictions/challenges/etc.  But before I attempt to open that can of discussion-worms, I thought it might be appropriate to share a little background on how I arrived at this point.

It was over 10 years ago that a friend first handed me a copy of Neverwhere with an off-hand, “This seems like it’d be right up your alley.” Indeed it was. I devoured it in a couple of days. Then I read it again. I had to put it away for a while out of necessity, but it kept churning in the back of my mind for months. I couldn’t get the insane notion out of my head that it would make for an amazing piece of theater I just couldn’t figure out what company would be willing to tackle it, much less let me adapt it for them.

Then, in early 2000, I saw Lifeline’s production of The Two Towers (the first MainStage show I ever saw here) and knew I’d found a place that would be insane enough to do it. And that they’d do it right: with love and respect for the source; with love and respect of the audience; with heart, humor, danger, and passion.  Later that year, I was cast in The Silver Chair, and I got my first exposure to the Lifeline process, from an early reading of the script, through auditions, rehearsals, tech, and production… and I knew it was exactly the kind of process in which I would like to see it develop.

So, without any reason to suspect that my secret plan (known only to me) to have my hypothetical adaptation of Neverwhere get produced at Lifeline would, in a million years, actually, possibly, maybe, ever happen… I got right to work on my script.  I had no idea if rights were available. I had no serious hope that anyone would actually produce it. But that didn’t really matter to me. I was feeling wildly optimistic. Not even a beating from Mr. Vandemar could have stopped me.

I finished my first draft and sent it off to some close friends who were willing to give me feedback and help me wrap my head around what I’d gotten myself into. Several months later, draft two was read aloud by a circle of friends, and I got more valuable feedback. Rinse and repeat with draft three. I’m so indebted to those friends of nearly a decade ago (circa 2001) who helped to nurture this project even when it didn’t have a hope of ever getting produced (except in my mind). Some of those friends have since moved away from Chicago, but their influence is still felt by me every time I pore through the script. (Thanks to Chris, John, Dan, Gail, Cath, Tom, Matt, Mark, Mark, Elise, and everyone I’m forgetting.)

Then I sent the script around to some director friends, and some companies I had closer relationships with at the time. The feedback was positive, but I heard a lot of, “This is cool, but seems a bit impossible. Good luck getting it produced!” Heartache ensued. The script idled on my computer as I turned my attention to other projects for a while.

In 2002, I attended one of Mr. Gaiman’s readings on the American Gods tour and was blown away by the sheer awesomeness of the experience (if you haven’t seen him read his own work yet, DO SO). I got my book signed, shook his hand, chatted with him ever-so-briefly, and wondered if my dream of adapting Neverwhere would ever happen.

In 2003, nursing a broken leg, I finally found DVD copies of the original BBC miniseries and devoured all six hours and all of the commentary. Trapped on my sofa with a full leg cast and my cats for company, I lost myself in London Below once more and began, admittedly, to mourn my dream of adapting the piece for the stage. The possibility seemed such an unattainable long-shot at that point. Perhaps the painkillers were making me excessively maudlin, but I started to fear my secret little dream would never be realized.

But by early 2005, I had appeared in six productions at Lifeline, and had finally established an actual ongoing relationship with the ensemble. The time was right to formally submit the script to the theatre. My hopes were high. I got feedback from more friends about the script. I re-edited the script. I sent off the script. And waited.

And waited.

Finally, as it turns out, the rights weren’t available. And, in any event, the timing wasn’t right for the ensemble to get behind it. The company only knew me as an actor. I hadn’t made a strong enough push to establish myself as a writer in their eyes. Nor (in retrospect), had I truly attempted to convey the full extend of my excitement about the project to them. I was hugely disappointed at the time, but I get it now.

Later that year, I was honored to be asked to join the company and got my first direct exposure to the script-selection process from the “inside. About a year later, I got my first writing opportunity with the company: a KidSeries musical adaptation of The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! Time passed. Paul and I tackled The Island of Dr. Moreau. I dove into the world of Oscar Wilde with The Picture of Dorian Gray. And by mid-2008 or so (if I have my timing correct), I re-introduced the company to my Neverwhere idea and by this time there was interest, trust and solid support. And in Paul, I had the perfect director-partner committed to seeing the project through with me. All we needed was to get the rights.

And then last year, they came through.

And there was celebration.

So, in January of 2009, nearly 10 years after I first started working on my script, I dove back in. We held a reading with the ensemble and with their invaluable feedback, a brand new draft emerged. This past summer, we cast the show. In early December, we held another reading with the cast and ensemble, and brought the production team in on the discussions. Again, everyone’s insights were invaluable. And Paul and I met repeatedly for a month to discuss character, direction, tone, theme, style and all that other great theatre-type stuff.

Now, here I sit in February of 2010, a mere two weeks away from the beginning of the rehearsal process. We’ve got an amazing cast and design team, all geeked to the gills about working on such wonderful source material. The long, SOLITARY portion of my journey is over as the project now gets placed in the capable hands of a massive TEAM of people, all working to tell the story, hone the production, and realize the theatrical vision of the piece.

And I, for one, couldn’t be more excited to see how it all turns out.