| Kenny and the Sisters - 12/14/07
As I drove to the rehearsal hall through the rain this morning something came clear to me. There is
a strong kinship between the Weird Sisters’ incantation and “O Fortuna” in Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”
Both give the feeling of being at some kind of diabolical Sabbath, driven and rhythmic. * * *
So I came to this afternoon’s rehearsal with an idea for an attack on that scene.
But first, Aaron and I wanted to spend a couple of hours planning the one remaining magic scene:
Banquo’s apparition. Matt was away doing a gig, so it was just me and Aaron and Jeremy (assistant director)
and Kate Olden and Angie (stage manager and assistant) in a big room with tape on the floor marking the
parts of the set.
We’ve set ourselves the formidable challenge of doing this show without trapdoors in the stage
(the Folger is impossible to trap and we don’t want our cast to have to learn two completely
different methods.) This scene has Banquo appearing, vanishing, appearing, and vanishing again.
And to make it even more tricky, Aaron has an aversion to furniture. So what Shakespeare wrote
as a feast at a table (presumably with a long tablecloth for Banquo to skulk under), is going
to be a cocktail party with everybody standing.
Matt and I had made a starter plan, but left a lot up in the air, knowing that that we’d have to
rethink once we saw the reality of the situation. So I paced around the taped floor plan.
I imagined walls and platforms and stairs where they would be, and pondered on entrances and exits
suitable for a ghost.
Without giving away anything, there isn’t much more I can say just now. Surprise will be our friend
on the appearances, and we have a second vanish that is based on continuity of motion. But that
first vanish -- that may be hard.
* * *
And now it was time for the Weird Sisters and Kenny. During the break (Equity gives actors compulsory
breaks every so often, and the stage manager make sure they happen like clockwork) I took Kenny Wollesen,
our composer and percussionist, aside and told him that this scene was seeming like Carmina Burana,
and I asked him to make it a piece of music. He started setting up some instruments.
Meanwhile the Sisters worked at getting their lines locked into their heads. Then they did a run,
using Kenny’s drum case as their cauldron, for Kenny. He nodded, then said in his very polite,
tentative way (a tentative way that only a really confident person can pull off) that he thought
the Sisters should work to a rhythm.
He started on his drums, very tribal, very insistent. When Kenny works, he he leaps like a grasshopper
among his instruments, his brain almost visibly shooting off sparks as ideas hit him.
And he knows about music in a way I will never understand – he knows how to get himself and others
into that alert intent state of mind where the concentration is total, exuberant, merry, carried
away but not carried away.
I watched as he turned the Sisters into his band, asking them questions, conducting and directing
them in half-sentences: “You know – you don’t have to, like – do all the little…you can go
the way Cleo did – do you need it a little slower, right?” I know that doesn’t read like lucid
conducting; believe me, it is. His feeling and thoughts were pushing directly against the faces
and bodies of the Sisters, nudging them with complex little taps, a sheepdog moving a flock.
And they started to get it. Next run, they set aside the action and just sat in chairs and concentrated
on the music and the words.
* * *
Wanda Landowska used to tell a story about being in a sleigh on the way to Tolstoy’s house.
The blizzard obscured everything. Determined little Wanda decided to walk. She hopped out of the sleigh
and sank into the snow “up to my big nose.” The driver got out, hoisted her back into the sleigh and said,
“Let the horses find their own way.” Presently the horses did just that.
How? She didn’t know. But she acquired a healthy respect for the value of not attacking every problem
like a fistfight, and began to let some of her musical problems solve themselves. My father used
to say about working out a problem on a painting, “It’ll come to you.” It’s hard for a person
of my nature to let the reins go, but it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that many of
the best ideas come out of letting the horses go their own way.
* * *
Under Kenny’s mysterious influence, little by little the piece started to swing.
Our hour and a half session was clearly not going to be enough, so I asked the stage manager to see if
she could buy us an extra half hour to finish. She did.
By the end of the two hours, nearly every word and image was clear, and it was impossible to keep from
moving with the rhythm. It swept everybody away, even Angie, the quiet assistant stage manager
was growling the dialog of the cauldron demons out of Kenny’s bullhorn (I swear he has every
sound-making device in the universe).
Dan was whacking his foot on the ground. Eric suggested repeating the “double-double” refrain
and started scatting over the chorus. Cleo was picking up the big climactic lines like weights
and hurling them into the cauldron with an expression on his face, as Poe says, “Like a demon that
is dreaming.” On our last round, Kenny started letting out maniacal screams and I was laughing,
my face swollen with adrenalin and blood.
I’ve had joyful moments in my life equivalent to this. I have. I remember one when I took
my mother to see the world premiere of “Timbuktu.” The show was awful, but she was all dressed
up and devouring every face in the crowd, every scintillation of every chandelier and her eyes glittered
like diamonds. That was one of those moments. I remember, after Penn and I completed the Upside
Down bit on SNL, and it was a perfect idea that went perfectly and the audience had gone completely nuts,
and we were dizzy from tension and inversion, and all our friends were screaming and cheering,
and we flipped and took a bow, I felt this kind of rush.
And when Kenny started howling and screaming, well, that was another.
* * *
Matt had watched part of the Sisters run. But then he had to run off to work on the prolog of the
play – again, something I must leave undescribed until you see it. But as he left, he said to me,
“Remember to point out to the Sisters that the demons they are calling up are MORE powerful
than they are. The Sisters call them, ‘our masters.’ The sisters should show that.”
In nearly fifty years of reading the play I’d never thought about that detail. I told the Sisters
Matt’s suggestion. And when they acted that reverence for their bosses from below, the scene
was intensified yet another degree. The cauldron became the mouth of hell, and the ultimate evil
was inside it. It was all right there in the words. The kind of thing that Lovecraft tried to
suggest (and never quite pulled off, so far as I’m concerned); the kind of thing Speilberg
was going for in the demons from the Ark; all of this was right there, conjured out of words,
palpable and terrifying.
* * *
Matt returned from his prolog rehearsal grinning like a kid. With the help of fight choreographer
Dale Girard and the performance of Liz Green, the casting director and Aaron’s right hand, the prolog
was cooking and hot.
Matt and I hopped into the car and drove to the scene shop. One of our tricks won’t be happening
till it’s on the stage; it’s totally scenery-dependent. So we inspected the items (sorry to be evasive)
in progress and pronounced them workable.
Duane the master carpenter was there, as always, asking us eagerly what we needed done. We asked him to
join us backstage in half an hour.
Backstage I showed Matt the dagger hallucination. Matt was so happy. He remarked as I had:
a good idea executed better than we could have dreamed. But there are still the sticky problems
with making the blood appear on the spectral blade, and some angle and operational concerns that had
not yet been addressed. So Matt got a tape measure and we did the schmeh, the “crucial knitting.”
Some things can be solved by letting the horses go their own way. Others can be solved only by mind-numbing
figuring and work. That’s what we did now. Duane dropped in and we gave him a dagger to tear apart
and rebuild. We measured and measured, oftentimes Matt just waiting patiently while I tried to calculate
That is a big part of artistic partnership. When your partner is solving a problem, you need to learn
when to just sit and wait. It seems like you’re doing nothing. But that’s not true. The dynamic
you’re supplying by being there while your partner is thinking is helping to solve the problem.
It was 5 p.m. and all Matt had eaten so far this day was an English muffin. It was time for dinner.
We were about to walk out the door when Duane showed up with our reconstructed knife and we got
our hands bloody for another hour before we buckled and went downtown to dinner at Osteria Dante.
Matt pointed out that the mural depicting Venice proved that the restaurant was genuine Italian.
* * *
We arrived at the theater with a fight rehearsal in progress. Dale had worked out a way to stage
the trick Matt had come up with for Macbeth to a guy’s stomach open “from nave to chops” and Matt
wanted to see it and help out. I went to the smaller rehearsal room where Aaron was rehearsing
the opening scene of the second act.
* * *
Aaron was discussing the text with the actors and trying to untangle how to make its complex and crucial
information clear to the audience in an entertaining way. He asked for my suggestions, and the moment
I had something to say, he said, “That’s great. Would you be willing to work this scene while I
look in next door.”
So again, Aaron threw me in the deep end and I had to swim.
Watching humans act text is a very sensual experience. You have to take in another person by
looking at their bodies frankly, and feeling the vibrations of their voices. All the things you
can politely ignore in real life are the center of your attention. And when complex text is added
to this, you’re not just studying the sensual but the intellectual.
So here I was with Lennox, played by Dr. Evander Duck, a round-faced, professorial man in his forties
with an equally round voice and his colleague, Noel Valez a smaller guy with the grin of a cartoon wolf.
The first half of the scene is gallows humor jokes about how bad the world has become; in the second
half they realize they’re talking treason and get confidential and despairing. What started as
wry becomes a cry clinging to faint hope. And at the same time they are presenting critical exposition.
We tried different approaches to the scene and what kept astonishing me was how putting the actors
in different physical places changed the meaning and tone of what they said. A line that had been
stilted, was laugh-aloud funny when Evander said it after staring at a severed head. We made discoveries
like this and got most of the way through the scene by the time we had to move to the next rehearsal.
* * *
I asked Matt how the “nave to chops” cut looked, now that Dale had worked it. “It’s like Christmas,
Hallowe’en and your birthday all at the same time,” said Matt.
* * *
We closed the evening with Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. For this rehearsal, we set aside
the tricks and just concentrated on Lady M, and her eavesdropping Doctor and Gentlewoman.
The two actors playing the latter roles are Eric Hissom, who also plays the Porter and a Sister;
and Karen Peakes, who also plays Macduff’s wife, and who in the real world is the wife of Ian Peakes
who plays Macbeth. How’s that for Byzantine fodder for a docu-soap?
But the monster challenge goes to Lady Macbeth, who must become a woman walking in a dream
of guilt and horror. Kate Eastwood Norris is the most awake person imaginable. She’s a greyhound;
a racehorse. She moves fast, she thinks fast, her eyes are bright and alert. I can’t picture her
sleepy, much less sleepwalking. And she’s such a go-getter, I can’t picture her helpless.
And yet even in the first run of this scene, there was a moment that made everybody’s hair stand
on end, when she suddenly saw an ocean of blood on her hand and so did we. I think she was
a bit frustrated not to get to the bottom of this scene in a single rehearsal, but I can see
those wheels turning.