A stage manager takes notes on being part of the team for Nice Fish at A.R.T.
By Jake Stepansky '17
A few weeks ago, acclaimed actor Mark Rylance was nominated for his first Academy Award for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. More important, a few weeks ago he was my doubles partner in a Ping-Pong match. We lost, but I wasn't terribly miffed.
During the rehearsal period, I was production assistant for Nice Fish: A Midwestern Tale at the American Repertory Theater. Working with Rylance (who co-wrote the script) and director Claire van Kampen during that time was eye-opening for me as an aspiring theater professional. Created from the prose poems of Louis Jenkins, the Minnesota-based poet who co-wrote and performs in the show, the piece is an ethereal, poignant, oftentimes hilarious reflection on life. The play premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2013, and, since then, the script has undergone a major reworking. The newer version runs through February 7 at A.R.T. It then moves to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The following short daily descriptions offer a snapshot of the nuanced discussions, intimate discoveries and the belly laughs that filled the rehearsal room every day.
We begin by lying on our backs in a circle on the floor of Farkas Studio, heads toward the center and shoulders touching. We breathe together and make strange noises. At one point, I fall asleep (as I often do). It’s not at all typical for stage management to be involved in these sorts of rehearsal shenanigans, but since there are only nine of us – five cast members, the director, and my three-person stage management team – we quickly learn that everyone is a part of the family.
Later, we begin what I soon realize will be weeks of character work. The cast spends a full hour seated, facing one another and completing a series of statements in character: “I am ___”, “I am your ___” and so on. Van Kampen guides the actors through the exercise skillfully, refusing to allow any throwaway responses. We spend a lot of the rehearsal in near silence. The room is, for now, free of technology – except once in a while, I jot down a few notes in a small notebook. For the most part the stage management team is silent and unplugged, only speaking to call our breaks. Often, the only sound is the mechanical whirring of the actors’ brains.
Rylance is well known in theater circles for his love of competitive sports and games; today, we set up a Ping-Pong table and a nine-square (think elementary-school-playground-four-square, but with nine squares) court. The ceiling in our rehearsal room is too low to construct a volleyball court, but volleyball is also considered. I inflate several large blue exercise balls to replace some of the chairs in the room; it’s all about good posture and core strength. This sort of health-consciousness is already a pervasive presence throughout our rehearsal process and environment – plenty of healthy snacks and herbal tea on hand. If a snack is healthy, you can eat as much of it as you’d like, right?
We’ve begun to use the nine-square court for more than just fun (although we do play one-to-two games per day). The court has become the tool through which we workshop each scene in the play. Actors perform a rough sketch of the scene within the boxes, only moving once they’ve declared their intention with the statement, “I want to be here.” I don’t know whether using this technique is planned or spontaneous, but it helps the actors find intention and precision in their portrayal of characters that are slowly and richly starting to emerge from the sumptuous text.
Before rehearsal today, Rylance sent all the actors out into Harvard Square with $5. Their task: Remain in character the entire time and buy a gift for the person in the play who is most important to
you. It was unlike any warm-up character-development exercise I had ever seen. Each cast member shares his or her gift – a small hand-warmer, a carved wooden trinket – in an intimate circle at the center of the audition room. Every scene that day is charged with new and powerful electricity.
The red pen is out. Even though we’ve moved into tech, we’re cutting poems like they’re kids on a high school soccer team. Some of my favorites have been given the ax – a beautiful poem called “Somersaults” that speaks to the way we do or don’t hold onto things from our pasts. Working with such abstracted material – that is, telling a cohesive narrative through poems that span an enormous range of subjects – has proven a formidable challenge. But the work is working – van Kampen and Rylance head home from rehearsal each day and trim the fat. Where can we find another laugh? Does this or that poem actively further the story that we are trying to tell? It’s a rehearsal room that I am very proud to be a part of.
“Somersaults” is back! Other favorites have come and gone, but overall tech is working absolute wonders for the show, lending it a new verve and shimmering energy that was hard to capture in a windowless, taped-out rehearsal room. I certainly don’t want to give away any of the theatrical magic that fills this production from top to bottom, but I will say that – pardon the pun – I’ve been hooked.