"Witness Uganda": Experience, absorb, watch

by Brenna McDuffie '15

"Hold on tightly, let go lightly." These words, uttered by director Diane Paulus, served as a guiding mantra during the four-week rehearsal period of Witness Uganda, a new musical directed by Paulus that will premiere at the American Repertory Theater on February 12. Paulus’ words demonstrate a softer phrasing of another common creative advisory: "You must kill your darlings." But both maxims articulate the single, most important truism of new play development: The process requires a fine balance between making confident choices and remaining open to cooperative, and often drastic, change.

The pre-tech rehearsals of Witness Uganda at the New 42nd Street Studios in Time Square brought the project’s creative forces and performers together to engage with and develop the material for the first time. At the end of December, nine Harvard College students, including me, joined the ranks of the Witness team, each of us assigned to a creative or managerial department, including directing, producing, marketing, stage management, music, playwrighting and choreography.

On our first day, Shira Milikowsky, A.R.T. associate director, and Jared Fine, director of marketing, called a pre-rehearsal intern meeting during which they shared their goals for the program, which was a Wintersession offering. We would be participating in a "professional experience, which, for theater artists, is an invaluable asset to one’s education," said Milikowsky. "Usefulness, in my opinion, is a bonus. I have no doubt that each of you will feel very useful in the process, but there will be rises and falls of that sensation. This is your time to experience, to absorb and to watch. Then, suddenly one day, you'll be more busy than you can possibly imagine." She was absolutely right. I never imagined how useful I would feel throughout the entire process.

"Developing new musicals comes with countless unpredictable challenges," Milikowsky reflected more recently. "Unpredictable" is the key word here. For the four weeks of rehearsals in New York, I was the designated playwright intern, which allowed me to engage closely with the ever-changing script and with writer/lead actor Griffin Matthews. I quickly learned that in the development of a new work, the playwright’s job extends through rehearsals and previews, right up until the opening night.

During the period in which the script remains "unfrozen" and malleable, the playwright is in constant communication with the directing and dramaturgy teams, whose notes and script analyses contribute to daily changes in the musical’s book. Six days a week, all hours of the day, Matthews, the stage management team and I were making line changes, cuts and printing new pages to be distributed to the cast. Often, the following day would bring even newer versions of the same pages and would end with the reinsertion of a line that had been cut the day before. New script development felt like a fast-paced dance whose choreography was always subject to change, even before you had a chance to memorize the original steps. Each day, you remind yourself of the mantra. "Let go lightly, let go lightly."

Such day-to-day accomplishments were products of Paulus’ dynamic direction. Her insistence upon the development of a new work as a wholly collaborative process resulted in a room of dedicated artists who embraced the suggestions of others, but who also offered up their own ideas. This kind of collaboration at the professional level amazed me, and it was reflected in the way that we, as interns, were treated as an integral part of the creative process. "In every department you were assigned to you were literally doing tasks that if you hadn’t been there, we would have been scrambling to fill the holes," said Milikowsky of our team of nine. "Because we are trying to make a musical for the 21st century and for a young generation, you guys as artists and as thinkers contributing to the creative process was a really big contribution."

Being exposed to a professional rehearsal process as a young artist is invaluable, as is having the opportunity to observe the work of Paulus, whose enthusiasm, focus, dynamism and generosity created a room in which every human poured his own creative energy into developing a show with a palpable passion reflective of its collaborative process.

Last week, I attended a preview performance of Witness Uganda at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center.It was my first time watching a full run of the show since our final rehearsal in New York City. When I mentioned this to Ryan McKittrick, A.R.T. resident dramaturg, he simply laughed and said, "You’re in for a big surprise." I smiled when the lights revealed Matthews standing center stage, delivering an opening monologue that was nearly unrecognizable to me, the girl whose eyes had scanned every word of every draft up until the move to Cambridge. I can assure you that when I sit down to enjoy opening night, I will be greeted by even more show-enhancing changes.

My experience working on Witness Uganda, observing a professional approach to creating a new work, has already begun to affect the way in which I approach my own theatrical endeavors. I have learned that the heart and soul of a piece, whether new or widely produced, is difficult to crack. Trial and error is the name of the game, and openness to collaboration and change will lead to victory. Another way of saying that? "Hold on tightly, let go lightly."

[Caption: Melody Betts and the cast in rehearsal. PHOTO: Kati Mitchell]

[Caption: The Harvard student team for "Witness Uganda." PHOTO: Jimmy Ryan]