Thursday, August 14, 2014

Staging "La Cage"

The Anatomy of a Production

                                              The first reveal of Les Cagelles
                                              All photos by the author, save where noted.

“Let’s put on a show!”

Well, for regional and local theaters it’s not as simple as the old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films would have you believe. In the age of digital, when every legitimate theater is fighting for an audience – and funding – the decision to put on a show, or a series of shows, is fraught with imponderables: What show?  Will it appeal to our audience? Can we afford it? Can we cast it? These and a hundred other questions arise when a theater decides to bring a drama, comedy or musical to life on stage, and although, in almost all cases, it’s a labor of love, the steps a theater has to take to board a show are numerous and, as with anything else, the devil is in the details.

Jacqueline Hubbard, executive/artistic director at the Ivoryton Playhouse, made a decision, based on the success of “Dreamgirls” during the theater’s 2013 season, to opt for “La Cage Aux Folles” to fill the end of Ivoryton’s summer season, an important time for the theater.

“I decided ‘La Cage’ was a possibility for us after seeing the revival and understanding that the glitz and glamour of the original production was not necessary to make the show work,” Hubbard commented in an e-mail.

                                   Window card for the original Broadway production
                                  of "La Cage Aux Folles"

Anyone who has been to the Playhouse, a venerable venue nestled in the middle of Connecticut that recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, knows that its stage presents, if nothing else, limitations. It’s a small theater (240 seats) with restricted space in the wings to store and shift sets and little or no fly space (space above the stage where scenery can be raised and lowered). Thus, putting on a “big” musical is, by its very nature, a challenge. However, Hubbard, who has been with Ivoryton in various capacities for the past 20 years, knows what can and cannot be done.

“Something that has become apparent to me over the last 10 years,” she wrote, “is that even though we have a small budget and cannot provide all the bells and whistles of the much larger theatres, we can take a large production and make it more intimate, sometimes revealing and highlighting aspects of the show that may get lost on a grander scale.” The same philosophy has been embraced by other theaters in Connecticut, notably MTC Mainstage in Westport (a venue much smaller than that of Ivoryton’s), which produced an intimate “Cabaret” several years ago that both revealed and highlighted aspects of the show that might have been less evident in the Broadway productions or the even bigger film version.

Still, the decision to stage “La Cage” is not without its possible perils. It will run through most of August, a time when the local audience is augmented by tourists – if the show doesn’t work, if Hubbard has made the wrong decisions, if the audience doesn’t respond, or if those she will choose to bring the musical to life aren’t up to the task, it can have ramifications well beyond bad reviews. There are risks, but Hubbard is sanguine.

“Fortunately for me,” she wrote, “There is no one else in the process [of deciding what will and will not run at Ivoryton]. As long as I can find a creative team that I trust and that is as passionate about the work as I am, then it’s a go.” She added: “The members of the Board of Trustees that oversee the Playhouse have been terrific in not involving themselves in creative decisions and, as long as we are still paying our bills and growing an audience, they are happy to let me run the show. It can be scary and, as you know, it doesn’t always work, but it’s always an adventure.”

Yes, an adventure, and a very long one, for although the show will run in August, preparations begin a good four months in advance and will continue until opening night. Over that time many people with multiples talents – actors, singers, dancers, the creative team and technical professionals -- will meet, argue (politely), make decisions, reverse those decisions based on reality, work long hours, rehearse, and strive to bring to the stage the best “La Cage” Ivoryton can produce.

An adventure indeed, and it begins with trying to decide who will fill the roles of Georges, the master of ceremonies at his St. Tropez drag nightclub, “La Cage Aux Folles,” Albin, his long-time significant other who, when on-stage, becomes the exotic Zaza, Jean-Michel, Georges son (the result of a brief, straight fling many years ago with a showgirl named Sybil), Anne, Jean-Michel’s fiancée, Jacob, Georges and Albin’s somewhat ostentatious “butler,” and, among others, the Cagelles, the female impersonators who perform at “La Cage.” The task of finding these actors and actresses is carried out through the storied, time-honored “casting call,” when aspiring and seasoned actors and actresses put it on the line, knowing they are being judged. It’s a unique job interview, for the candidates aren’t simply asked questions, they must perform, often in a sterile atmosphere under less than flattering lights, accompanied by a single piano, all while the creative team sits behind a table and observes. It can be, if nothing else, daunting.


On Saturday, April 19, over 50 actors and dancers make their way to Pearl Studios at 500 8th Avenue in Manhattan to audition for roles in two upcoming productions at Ivoryton: “La Cage Aux Folles” and “All Shook Up.” Several weeks prior there had been a local casting call in Ivoryton and several roles for “La Cage” have been tentatively filled, but this will be the major casting call for, after all, it’s New York City, where the talent is…abundant.

Studio space at Pearl is at a premium, so Ivoryton has one of the large dance studios booked from 9 to 11 a.m. Over those two hours, choreographer Todd Underwood (for “La Cage…”) and director Richard Amelius (for “All Shook Up), along with Hubbard, “La Cage’s director, Lawrence Thelen, and music director Michael Morris, will get a quick look at the skills – and subtle yet tell-tale attitudes and demeanors -- of dancers and actors. “Quick” means that Underwood has about 15 minutes to teach groups of 12 to 14 dancers a brief routine he has choreographed for the chorus part of the “We Are What We Are” number from “La Cage.”

As the first group of dancers troops into the rehearsal room, Underwood immediately establishes a warm and supportive atmosphere, joking with the dancers. Many of the male dancers have chosen to wear female footwear -- Underwood points to one dancer wearing tan pumps and orange/brown argyle socks and says, “I’m so jealous. Does your sister know you’re wearing those?” There is nervous yet appreciative laughter.

The dancers stretch out and then Underwood begins the process of teaching them the routine, demonstrating short combinations and then having the dancers try them out. As the dancers move, Underwood shouts movement cues: “Shoulder! Shoulder! Step! Kick!”

After an initial, somewhat awkward run-through there are questions about movements and timing from the dancers that Underwood answers in a soft, embracing voice, Amelius taking it all in while sitting on the floor, his back against one of the full-length mirrors that line one wall.

The dancers again work the routine with Underwood urging them on, a sympathetic drill sergeant counting out a syncopated cadence: “Step – Touch! Step – Touch! Boom! Boom! Ladies and gentlemen, there has to be a little bit of loveliness to it.”

                               Dancers auditioning for "La Cage" and "All Shook Up."

After each run-through, Underwood adds another series of steps, one of them calling for the dancers to turn and perform a small leap, their arms bent, hands scratching at the air in a kitten-like gesture. “It’s just a little kitten,” Underwood calls out. He jumps, fingers fluttering as if they have tiny claws. Several of the dancers imitate his movements, trying, trying so hard to get it right, trying to understand what Underwood is looking for.

Ten minutes into the audition and sweat has now appeared on the dancers’ foreheads, stains their shirts – some dancers are obviously comfortable with the routine while others still seem tentative – there’s some bumping into each other and quick apologies: “Sorry! My fault.”

Underwood shows them the final steps. There’s another run-through, and then the dancers are broken down into smaller groups and the tension in the room rises a bit. Those dancers who, for one reason or another, were using their fellow dancers to “hide” will now be out there for all to see – it’s crunch time and everyone knows it. As Underwood calls out names – ladies first -- Amelius spreads head sheets on the floor in front of him. The dancers are keenly aware of his actions.

“Really take the floor. Don’t be shy,” Underwood counsels as the first group of four dancers steps out into the center of the rehearsal hall. Some dancers are smiling, others have eyes tight with concentration; body language speaks volumes about insecurity and the discomfort of being judged.

“Give me a little attitude,” Underwood calls out. “I’m what they call the ‘hit’ queen – I want you to do something on that hit,” referring to body and head movement as the dancers’ feet hit the floor at the end of a sequence. The music begins and the dancers start the routine. As they move through the steps, Amelius occasionally picks up a head shot and stares out at the dancers, who are concentrating on the routine, yes, but part of their attention is on that head shot in Amelius’s hand. They are also aware that Thelen is in the corner silently observing.

All too soon the routine is over. As those who are yet to be judged politely applaud their fellow dancers’ efforts, Underwood squats down near Amelius and makes quick notations on the backs of the head shots – “D1,” “D5” – a “1’ basically means there’s no hope; a “3” means “fine” with some work; a “5” means that, unbeknownst to that particular dancer, serious attention will be given to him or her during the next stage of the auditions.

Underwood looks up at the dancers. “Jillian, how tall are you?” Jillian answers, and the thoughts immediately running through her mind are obvious: “What does his question mean? Why does he want to know? Am I too tall? Too short? Is he considering me?”

After all of the small groups run through the routine the dancers are thanked and excused. As they walk out of the room, Underwood, Amelius, Hubbard and Thelen sift through the head shots, making quick comments: “Keep him; he’s a possible.” “He’s great – broad shoulders.” “I’d give him another shot.” Sometimes nothing needs to be said – just a wave of the hand consigns a head sheet to the growing “No” pile.

Thelen makes a comment about one of the dancers and Underwood jokingly responds: “You want the look, you want the voice, you want the dancing and you want the talent. You don’t get everything.”

And then it begins again as another group of dancers files into the room, and then another group…and another group. When it’s all over some dancers will grab their gym bags and walk down the hall to the elevator while others will stay for the second round, the singing auditions.

                               Dancers running through a routine at the casting call

Many of the dancers believe they have been judged solely on their ability to duplicate the routine, but Underwood has been watching them from the moment they walked into the rehearsal hall. “I can sense the ones who don’t understand my sensibility,” he said. “And then I can tell who has the technique, the ones who ‘understand’ the show.” Underwood continues, “When they’re not dancing, if they just stand there…” his shoulders sag, his face goes blank, “that says something.” Then the choreographer places his hands on his hips and strikes a pose. “But if they show a little attitude, maybe even give me a quick look and a confident smile – well, that says something too.”

11 a.m. The dancing portion of the casting call is over. Amelius adjourns to a smaller room where he will audition actors and dancers for roles in “All Shook Up.” The creative team for “La Cage” gathers in a similar room.

It’s the day before Easter and some of Hubbard’s support team is absent, so she will fill several roles, chief among them sorting through all of the actors and dancers waiting in the hallway to be auditioned and then greeting them at the door to the casting room. She will be moving constantly for the next nine hours, always gracious, always welcoming.

The auditions have been scheduled in five-minute intervals. The creative team sorts through lists and all too soon they are behind schedule – it will take four hours before they finally catch up. Each member of the creative team is a seasoned professional and they have worked together before, but they will be looking at the actors who stand before them with slightly different eyes.

Thelen, who will guide the rehearsal process, has certain “types’ in mind for the various roles; Hubbard does as well. Sympathetic to their needs, Underwood’s focus is on movement, while Morris has a different set of criteria by which he will judge those who walk through the door.

“When we cast,” he said, “we want to make sure we have a good balance of different vocal types – you know, sopranos, altos, tenors and baritones, but the show is somewhat unique – it’s mostly men in the ensemble and two male leads.”

If the director likes a certain actor, Morris will be listening to decide whether, if the actor is cast, orchestration might have to be transposed to fit the actor’s vocal range. A laborious task, but “I want to make sure the actor shines as he was meant to,” Morris says.

All of the talent who will audition for the creative team will sing a song – some will choose a song from the show, others will perform a song from a different Broadway show, or a pop single or, in some cases, something very eclectic and unexpected. One actor will sing “God Bless America.” The actors may not realize it, but their choice of material is important.

“What they choose to sing,” Morris said, “well, it gives you a quick look into the actor’s mind. You see if he or she intuitively understands the show, if they’ve made an intelligent choice of material.”

If the actors are asked to come back – a “Call-back” – then they will most likely perform a song from the show. But the call-backs are in the future. Right now, it’s show time in a spare room that features one table, a piano, a coat rack with five hooks and a small blackboard on the wall. There is no dramatic lighting, no full orchestra, no costumes…and there’s an audience there to judge on a level that can be mind numbing. Those waiting out in the hallway know that this judgment will begin from the moment they walk through the door. They’ve been through this before, but still…the stomach muscles tense just a bit.

                                                 Actors and dancers in the hallway
                                                 waiting to audition at Pearl Studios

And so it begins. One young man enters and sings a song from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” He leaves. Morris comments – “He has problems.” Thelen asks: “Can you work with him?”

“Well,” Morris says, “if we can avoid it,” and shrugs. None of the members of the creative team wish to second-guess what the others are thinking – opinions are expressed as hypotheticals.

The door opens and another actor walks in…and then another…all carrying sheet music bound in binders, the pages covered in plastic sleeves. There’s a song from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” then “Where the Boys Are,” then “It’s in His Kiss.” Some of the actors stare directly at the creative team sitting behind the table while others focus on some point verging on infinity. As each finishes his or her eighteen or twenty-four bars of song, Thelen gives them some supportive words: “Very nice.” “Nice job,” and as they pick up their sheet music Morris will often add, “You have a very nice voice.” The people sitting in judgment know what these folks are going through, the emotions that are churning inside as the actors smile, emote and try to win a job. There is no cut-throat “Right! Next!” from the creative team, no Hollywood-image of “eat-up-the talent” going on here.

Every once in a while, as a performer moves towards the door, Thelen will clear his throat and ask, “Would it be possible for you to come back, say around six o’clock?” The magic words. Most of the actors pause for a second before responding – they don’t want to appear over-eager – and then they say yes, it would be possible. They’re being called back. However, some have conflicts – they’re in shows or singing at a church. Thelen, when he can, makes accommodations. When the church singer eventually returns for his call-back he thanks them all for seeing him early, “So I don’t go to hell.”

Thelen comments: “I don’t think we have that much control.”

As with Underwood, who watches his dancers before they start dancing, Thelen is interested in how the actors and dancers comport themselves before they start to perform. He greets them and asks a casual question or two. “I’m interested in the conversation that we have before they start, in their attitudes,” he explains. In a subtle way, it tells him what this or that actor might be like to work with.

If a dancer is auditioning, when he has finished his number Underwood will often ask if he can tap dance (most studios don’t allow tap dancing – it ruins the floors), and if he can do a split. Some will hesitate, others will swear they can do what Underwood asks, and some will demonstrate.

Over time it becomes apparent there is a marked difference in the candidates, and it often has to do with what they do with the space they are given. Some seem locked in place, sing their songs and then await judgment, while others actually perform, moving about the room, using whatever is there, including the piano, to build a character in the three or four minutes they are actually offered to perform.

Given the nature of the show being auditioned for, there’s a glamorous variety of footwear worn by many of the male actors – purple pumps with sequins, platforms, three- and four-inch sling-back heels in various colors. Some actors are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, others have a touch of puce or violet in a scarf or bow tie.

The auditions and the songs continue – “Heat Wave,” “Here in Eden,” “I Don’t Want to Know,” “Almost Like Being in Love.” Interspersed with those auditioning for ensemble and subordinate roles are those actors vying for the leads – Georges and Albin. As they appear and leave a discussion commences – what should be the age difference between the two leads? Thelen comments that in the original production no mention was made of age. Lines in the current script referencing age will be cut. The discussion segues to vocal quality and Morris comments: “I don’t think we need a Pavorati for either of these roles.” Questions about who will play the lead roles – the chemistry between the two actors, their respective ages, their acting styles – will continue throughout the afternoon and well into the evening. At one point Hubbard comments: “What’s important is the relationship between Albin and Georges – Albin’s the mother, the caretaker.”

And then there are the little things in the audition process that mean so much. One actor comes in with a 4x5 head shot (most are 8x10). He leaves and Hubbard turns the head shot over to read the credits, rubs her eyes and complains: “I can’t read this.” The head shot gets dropped into the “No” pile.

Another young man does his stuff, and when he leaves someone comments about his credits, that he’s only done college productions but he’s already got a Equity card, which means that if he’s hired he gets paid a higher rate and gets a Equity contract; such contracts, for Ivortyon, are limited – a total of five for the entire cast. At other theaters they’re even more limited. Hubbard shakes her head. “How is he supposed to get experience?” she says. Ah, the dark lining in the silver cloud.

One actor comes in and goes over the top. He’s “big” from start to finish in his number – he uses all the space available and makes every move possible. A killer audition? No. When he leaves, Underwoood comments: “He had no restraint. You do one big thing. Everything can’t be big.” He’s probably right, but you can’t help but wonder what went through the actor’s mind as he prepared for his audition: “If I do this, and then I do this, then I do this – I’ll blow them away.” Books have been written about the auditioning process, but each audition is a unique dynamic and there are, essentially, no guidelines that universally apply, except, perhaps, to smile no matter what happens. It’s all in the moment, the gestalt. It has as much to do with the chemistry of the creative team observing as it does the actual performance by the actor.

The songs keep coming: “I’ve Got Your Number,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “The Best of Times,” “Fabulous Feet.” An actor comes in hoping to be cast for one of the leads. He leaves and Hubbard says: “He looks like a Georges but sounds like an Albin.” Another actor enters and departs – Thelen: “He has sort of dead eyes.”

It sounds cut-throat, but it isn’t. In this drab room with harsh lighting, Hubbard, Thelen, Underwood and Morris are intellectually and artistically “squinting,” trying to envision an actor up there on the stage at Ivoryton, under the lights, in costume, relating to his or her fellow actors and the people sitting out in the audience, most of whom will be, to say the least, mature. Decisions made in these hours will have positive or negative repercussions, and there’s no gold-standard check-list…all the team can do is rely on experience, individual visions of what should be the ideal…and gut instincts.

Another actor enters, a dancer, and absolutely nails the audition. Underwood asked about tap and the actor goes into a tap routine; Underwood asks about splits -- the actor does a right and then a left split. Thelen asks where he lives. He’s local, which means he won’t need housing. He exits with a smile and a wave. As the door closes, Underwood says, “He’s going to look lovely in a dress.” Hubbard stands and stretches: “I feel so much happier now.”

As the door continues to open and close the clock inches towards 5 p.m. There have been several five-minute breaks, but none of the casting team has eaten anything other than a shared power bar since 9 a.m. Attention holds, but energy is starting to flag. The door opens and close, opens and closes, and the songs keep coming: “Over Here,” “Take a Moment,” The Devil You Know.” Splits? Yes? Tap? Basic tap. An actor has a good voice and gets a warm “Thank you,” from Thelen, who then turns over the actor’s head sheet: “He’s never worked the same place twice. That means he’s probably difficult to work with – they don’t want to work with him again.” Maybe so, maybe not. Snap judgments are being made because they have to be made. Between the five-minute auditions the discussion about assigning Equity contracts is again brought up – it sounds like the group is planning a family party and trying to decide who will be seated next to whom. There’s a lot of “If we do this then we can do that,” but it’s all still up in the air.

A dancer stands before the group and sings his song very credibly. He’s thanked. As the door closes there is silence. Finally, Underwood says, “Talent is a very…” and wiggles his fingers. “It either attracts you or it doesn’t.” Enough said. The auditions move on. An actress comes in and sings “The Best of Times” from the show – an acceptable rendition, but mid-way through the song the tone of her voice changes, as if she’s shifted vocal gears. She leaves and Morris explains: “It’s called ‘flipping,’” he says. “The voice starts in the chest and then shifts to the head. A lot of singers, like Idina Menzel, can get a ‘solid mix.’ It sounds like it’s coming from the chest but it’s really coming from the head.”

The clock continues to tick. Some actors are asked to come back at 6 p.m., some are gracefully sent on their way. And finally part two is over. It’s 5 p.m. The group leaves the building to see sunlight for the first time in eight hours. A quick bite to eat, then it’s back to Pearl Studios for the call-backs…and crunch time, for decisions have to be made and there’s only two hours left in which to make them.

                                       Actors studying "sides" for their call-back auditions

Six p.m. Actors line the hallway studying “sides” –photocopied pages from the musical’s book. Inside the casting room, Underwood sets up another table and head sheets are spread out and paired, determining who will audition with whom. There are not enough “sides” for a scene, so Hubbard rushes out to make additional photocopies. She comes back only to realize she’s photocopied the wrong scene. “That’s three dollars down the drain,” she says as she scurries back out.
As the group waits for the first call-backs to begin, Underwood explains, “You make your selections but you don’t always get whom you want. I wish it was just based on talent but it isn’t. It’s contracts and who needs housing and who is available and who says yes then bails out because he’s got a better offer. You put it together the best you can.”

                                   Allison Webb and Zach Trimmer audition  for the roles
                                  of Anne and Jean-Michel. They will win the parts.

The first to read for parts are Allison Webb and Zach Trimmer, she reading for the part of Anne and he reading for that of Jean-Michel. They do a short scene, Trimmer is thanked and Webb is asked to stay. She does the scene with three other male actors, adroitly adapting to each actor’s style and sense of what he thinks is happening in the scene, including whether the actor has envisioned movement stage right or stage left. She just goes with the flow and then brightly thanks all assembled for the opportunity. She’s young, but she knows what she is doing.

The door opens and closes and actor after actor reads for parts. Several pairs of actors read two scenes involving Georges and Albin; the casting team’s attention is intense, for it’s these two roles that will make or break the show, and a mistake in casting here can mean disaster.

                         MarTina Vidmar auditioning for the role of Jacqueline. She will be cast.

MarTina Vidmar returns to read for the role of Jacqueline. She takes a deep breath, wiggles her shoulders, and immediately turns into a somewhat venomous French coquette. Her accent is established and held throughout her reading, her character’s intentions obvious. She leaves and there are nods and smiles.

The casting decisions are starting to become more obvious, but not so for the two leads. Pairs of actors are brought in and asked to read two different scenes. David Edwards, who had wowed the casting team during the initial auditions, seems to have the nod for the role of Albin, but the question remains, who will play against him as Georges? Several actors read, and it comes down to two.

                        Larry Thelen, Jacqui Hubbard, Todd Underwood and Michael Morris
                        watch David Edwards audition for the role of Albin

It’s 7:15, and both actors are asked to come back and sing the song that the other sang in the initial auditions – they do so, and then are asked to wait outside as Hubbard and Thelen politely yet firmly discuss pros and cons. There is no clear agreement, so Edwards, who initially read with one of the actors, is now asked to read two scenes with the second actor. Still, no agreement as to who is to get the nod as Georges. A suggestion is made: Georges is the emcee at the cabaret; can each actor be seen in a scene in which he performs that function? Of course, but it will be a cold reading – that is, the actors will not have had time to study their lines.

Individually, the two actors return and run though the scene. It’s now 7:40 p.m. With the two actors now waiting outside in the hall, Hubbard says, “The play is about the relationship between the two men. It’s a relationship that is not in jeopardy.” She is actually commenting about the two actors’ relative size and age. There is more discussion as the clock’s minute hand edges ever upward. Both Hubbard and Thelen again express their opinions.

                                    David Edwards and James Van Treuren
                                    auditioning for the roles of Albin and Georges

Thelen says, “Edwards is going to overshadow everyone else in the show – he’s going to drive the show.” He again opts for his choice for the actor to play against Edwards. As the minute hand reaches towards 12, Hubbard concedes to her director and a decision is made.

And then there are the dancers. The casting crew stands behind a table on which head shots have been arranged in two rows by Underwood. He starts to comment about his choices and then Amelius, who has joined them after closing out the casting for “All Shook Up,” points to one head sheet and says, “He’s a terror. I spoke to someone who’s worked with him. He’s really difficult; he sits on the side and snipes at his fellow dancers.” The head shot is lifted and removed from the arrangement. The theater world is a small world – what you do in Paducah or Des Moines will reverberate in New York.

Amelius points to another head shot: “He needs some whitening strips on his teeth. Put lipstick on him and it’s going to be obvious.” Another head shot gets shunted aside. And so it goes. Decisions made based on…what? Looks, style, size, impression, a moment in the audition that works, that doesn’t, personal preference, nervousness, a little bit of body language? There is no textbook that can cover all the parameters, all the variables.   

It’s 8 p.m. and the show has been cast…maybe. It all depends on how the actors respond to calls that will go out on Monday and…well…serendipity. Head shots of “possibles” are not thrown away because rehearsals are three months away and a lot can happen in the interim. That’s show business.

Putting it Together
First production meeting -- Thursday, April 24.

Most members of the creative and production teams have gathered at the Ivortyon Playhouse for an initial discussion of the staging of the show. Hubbard arrives several minutes late – she’s been at a high school career day. “I was the resident dream-crusher,” she says as she sits down at the table, “A little girl came up and said, ‘I want to be a dancer.’” Hubbard drops her voice to growl-level: “I said, ‘Don’t!’” She laughs. It’s apparent that is actually not what she told the young lady – but maybe it was what she was thinking. “Then a boy came up and asked what the starting wage was for an actor. I said, ‘Do you know what minimum wage is? Well, think lower.’ He ran off to one of the other tables. ‘Dental hygienist’ I think.”

                                                The first production meeting

The acting profession – and actors -- is on Hubbard’s mind. One of the actors they had seen in Ivoryton three weeks ago, whom they were going to cast, has since accepted another role. Of greater import, one of the two male leads has yet to commit. Hubbard would very much like to cast him but he’s talking with his agent, though there may be extenuating circumstances stemming from what occurred during the auditions in New York. It all remains to be seen – she’s going to give him until Saturday to commit or say nay. Then…? That’s why you never throw away a head shot.

Dan Nischan, the show’s technical director, steers the meeting. With the ghost light up on the stage casting a faint glow on the set of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” which is currently running at the Playhouse, and framed photographs of such luminaries as Celeste Holmes, Alan Alda, Paul Robeson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Elaine Stritch and, of course, Kate Hepburn -- all of whom have appeared on Ivoryton’s venerable stage – gracing the theater’s walls, Nischan announces that they are ahead of schedule (it will be a statement that he will later regret). No one responds, knowing full well that being ahead of schedule simply means that problems have yet to arise that will cause schedules to be re-written or…scrapped.

                                        Rough sketches of the set done by Cully Long

Cully Long, the show’s set designer, is the focus of everyone’s attention. Using a red pen, he has roughed out what the basic sets might look like. “I’m very much in the idea phase right now,” he says. “It’s coming down to mechanics for me. Figure out how things will work and then we’ll worry about what it all looks like.”

Nischan turns to Thelen and asks for his vision of the musical.
“I don’t have a vision yet,” Thelen says, “but I’m intrigued by the possibility of using the turntable.” What he is referring to is a nine-foot turntable, or revolve, that will be used in “All Shook Up,” the production that will precede “La Cage.” Perhaps it can be worked into some of the “La Cage” numbers. At this stage in the development of the show, “perhaps” is one of the operative words, for no one really has a clear idea of the show’s look yet – it will evolve over time and through discussions…and the reality of what can be done.

It’s agreed that the band will be placed upstage, but the question arises as to how the band will be masked when it is not directly involved in a scene. Lang suggests the use of barn doors that will slide open and closed as needed, their fronts painted a color that will be neutral for the show. He’s also thinking of two staircases in front of the revolve that will, essentially, lead to nowhere. The staircases would also pivot when not in use to form walls.

Thelen has a problem with the no-exit staircases. “There’s no escape off the top of the stairs,” he says. “I like the look, but if there’s no escape it will be boring, the dancers go up and then they just come back down.”

Lang responds: “We can definitely figure out a place for them to go.”

Nischan adds, “Especially if all of our scenes are pre-dressed,” meaning that the scenery and props for scenes are already in place and are basically just revealed.

Given the somewhat restricted size of the Ivoryton stage, the lack of fly space plus the shallow wings, the focus of much of the meeting is how to visually differentiate the major scenes which will occur on-stage at the club (the major production numbers), back-stage, at a café or on a street, in Albin and Georges’ apartment and in a restaurant. Curtains can be of use – there are plans to employ a rain curtain and perhaps a black scrim – and the apartment, Lang suggests, can be created by the use of wagons, which are mobile platforms, with pre-set scenery, that can be pushed/rolled into and out of place as needed.

Lang turns to Underwood to caution about the wagons, which will have to slide across the floor. “They’ll be on tracks, maybe two or three inches wide and maybe a quarter-inch high.” He mentions this as a concern for the dancers, who will be wearing high heels. The track could present a “trip trap.” Underwood shrugs. “Most of them auditioned in heels,” he says. He doesn’t seem concerned.

The meeting continues with a lot of fluttering hand movements as people attempt to describe how scenery will slide, open, close, nest, appear and disappear. However, there’s not much more to decide at this stage. It’s all conceptual, with the iffy “perhaps’ hanging over everything.

The hour assigned for the meeting draws to a close. Nothing has really been decided, but there’s a sense of direction, a feel for what might be possible.

Lang: “I’m going to start building something a bit more visual.”

Thelen: “Give me a few days to work through the script.”

As it stands right now, what “La Cage” will look like is as much up in the air as who will be performing in it, and yet everyone at the table knows this is how it is done, a voicing of the ‘perhaps’ tempered by the reality of what will prove to be possible. They have three months to put it all together, bring it to life. All at the table know that problems will arise that will need to be solved, that there will be surprises, setbacks, frustrations…and a lot of hard work. They’ve been through this before, they’ve worked together before, and they know that, somehow, it will all get done.

Throughout the meeting, Hubbard has been relatively silent. She is not a micro-manager. She has chosen her creative and production teams and she allows them to do what they do best. There is no sense of ‘management’ looming over the process. As necessary, she will comment, she will nudge, but essentially she has made her decisions about who will bring “La Cage” to the stage and she is comfortable with those decisions. That comfort level will waver a bit as the process moves forward.

The Choreography

Thursday, May 8.

Underwood drives up from New York City to discuss his vision for the show’s choreography. As he sits at a table in a restaurant in Saugatuck, Ct, occasionally addressing spiced chicken wings and a salad, he talks about the process of creating movement.

                                       Todd Underwood, the show's choreographer

The show has been on Broadway several times and was made into a film, so there’s ample reference to how other choreographers have approached the task, but for Underwood that’s somewhat irrelevant.

“Most of it will be my own,” he says, thin, supple fingers extending to emphasize ownership. “I’ll throw a nod to some things from the original, but I didn’t see the revival, but I know the music, the tempo was different.”

He begins the process of creating the choreography by just listening to the music. “The music dictates the style,” he says, “it leads you down a path, gives you a road map, a possibility. A picture will come into my head,” and then he shrugged. “It doesn’t always work out.” His words will prove to be prophetic.

However, Underwood recognizes that he alone is not creating the choreography, that it will have to be translated by the dancers, and he is more than open to seeing what they bring to the party. “I want to let them create and watch them,” he said, “to use, if possible, what characters they come up with.” His attitude is, if nothing else, embracing; although he knows what he wants he shies away from the dictatorial approach. “I want the audience to see the dancers as individual people,” he says, “and the dancers will often ‘tell me’ who they think their characters are.”

As he envisions the dancers’ movements he writes down what he sees in his mind’s eye, always trying to keep it as simple as possible. “You know,” Underwood said, “do the ‘twinkle’ here, do the ‘jazzy arm’ there. That would be the first layer, and then, with the ‘twinkle’ do this, you move the foot up, the shoulder goes up, the head goes there. What we’re trying to do is punctuate the music.”

In the process of creating the choreography he will be determining where and when his actors move, but actors’ movements are normally the province of the director, so Underwood and Thelen have to come to an understanding about who does what. “We had a discussion about what each of us was going to do,” Underwood said. “I’ll do the choreography, he’ll do the blocking, but there are numbers that require what we call ‘staging.’ Take the number ‘Mascara’ (performed by Albin as he transforms into Zaza) – it really is movement-based because of the eyelashes and the make-up and hair and the dress and the shoes, that all can be done in a very choreographic way, so that’s one of the numbers I’m going to be doing.”

                                  "The music dictates the style." Underwood explaining
                                    how he will create the choreography for the show

Underwood is well aware of Ivoryton’s space limitations and one of his tasks will be to make the stage, and what is happening on the stage, seem bigger than it really is. He suggests that it is “all about how the number builds.” As an example, for the opening number – “We Are Who We Are,” performed by the Cagelles – Underwood is planning to use the revolve that Long has designed. His thinking, which may change when he and the actors finally have access to the stage, calls for all of the “girls” to begin on the revolve with very minimal, simple steps. “As the song progresses,” he explained. “they will come off the revolve; as the number proceeds it builds from being just mid-stage to using the entire stage and that will give the illusion the theater is bigger. Of course, lighting helps and costumes help, and keeping the number building and moving, making sure that it doesn’t become stagnant – using those staircases, using the revolve, using different entrances --- they can enter anywhere.”

Underwood pointed out that if directors, set designers and choreographers don’t “play” with the space they are given, they often end up with what he calls “a very flat show.” He noted that “levels” (basically small platforms) are “incredibly useful,” as are different entrance and exit points.

Based on what he saw at the New York casting call, Underwoord selected eight dancers; he considers himself very lucky that seven out of the eight turned out to be available, and the replacement for his eighth selection is, in his words, “incredible.” He acknowledged once again that “casting is a big puzzle,” but once the show is cast you go with what you’ve got and don’t look back, you just “have to put the show together.”

The time allotted for this “putting it together” is very limited. Rehearsals begin July 22, which will give Underwood 11 days to work with the actors before the first technical rehearsal (a rehearsal most actors don’t look forward to, for it consists of a lot of multiple run-throughs of the same scenes, then a lot of standing around as the technicians adjust lights and marks [where an actor must stand so the lighting illuminates him], move sets, adjust sound levels and tweak cues.) It’s an intensive, demanding time, and Underwood knows that, so during the casting in New York he attempted to gauge which of the actors were up to the task, which would maintain a sense of humor during the grueling 11 days. That’s why he has chosen the style he has: laid back and supportive, a style that was obvious during the casting call.

“You want to make them relax,” he explained. “You want to get to see their personalities and you want to stay away from people you sense don’t know how to have fun.” Although he is laid back he is also demanding, ruling with an iron fist in a velvet glove. “I work them,” he said. “Often, people – actors, dancers – aren’t pushed to be better. I like to push.”

The initial rehearsals will be held off-site, which means that the sets will not be there. To compensate, the rehearsal floor will be taped, approximating where walls and staircases, entrances and exits, will be, but the emphasis is on “approximating,” for once the cast transfers to the theater and actually gets to work with the sets, things might…no, things will change, and the actors have to be flexible enough to embrace those changes. In fact, there will be times when a part of a number, or an entire number, will have to be re-thought, or moves that Underwoood thought would take eight counts will actually demand 12 counts. Underwood hopes he has chosen his actors wisely, for if they can’t handle the possibility (inevitability) that things will change right up until opening night there will be problems that affect the show.

Most of the numbers he will be choreographing are ensembles, and there’s always the possibility that one or more of the actors will, of an evening, out of boredom or personal concerns, just go through the moves or “call in” a performance. Underwood is aware of this. “I tell them,” he said, leaning over his chicken wings and salad, hands gripping the edge of the table, “there will always be someone watching you…usually that person is me. When I teach a master class I tell my students, whatever is going on, give all of your energy, focus on the moment.”

The operative words are “focus” and “moment.” Underwood suggested that there are shows where the creative team simply hasn’t focused the show, worked the “moments,” hasn’t built those moments so that the audience becomes, well, a bit anxious in anticipation of the moments’ closure. In other words, what he tries to do with his choreography is create a certain amount of tension in the audience, then build on that tension until the audience needs a release, and that release is applause. If you don’t get that response, well, you know you’ve done something wrong.

A playwright builds these “moments” with words -- choreographers build them with movement, and Underwood is a student of movement, so much so that he will often find himself in Manhattan’s Times Square simply watching people as they maneuver through the bustling thoroughfare. “It’s truly a scene,” he said. “There’s every type of person, character, walking pattern. I love watching people as they move through their everyday environment. I get ‘walks’ from people.”  His study of people’s modes of perambulation will be put to use when he choreographs the “With Anne on My Arm” number, which takes Jean-Michel and Anne from the apartment and out onto the street. Underwood’s challenge is to convey the couple’s changing moods as they change environments, to tell part of the story. “If there’s no story behind it,” he explained, “it just looks like dancing.”

Once the show opens, Underwood will drop by to check on what has happened to his original choreography, looking to see if his “original intent” has been lost. However, he understands that he is not dealing with robots. In fact, he loves to see how the dancers have enriched what they do. “I love to go back after a week,” he said, “and see that they’ve let the show become part of themselves. I wait a week, until everybody knows where everything is, knows how much time they have to do what they have to do, and then see that the show has become ‘their show.’”

It remains to be seen if that will happen with Ivoryton’s “La Cage.”

The Direction
Thursday, May 22

Early on in the first production meeting, Thelen was asked what his vision was for the show; his answer then was that he didn’t have one yet. Almost a month later, Thelen, sitting in his office at his home in Haddam, Ct., elaborated on the idea of a director having a “vision” for a show and how, at this stage of the game, he plans to stage “La Cage.”

“You talk about ‘vision’ or ‘concept,’” Thelen said, clasping a coffee cup in both hands, “I always sort of shudder when somebody says, ‘What’s your concept for this show?’ Whenever I think of ‘concept’ I think of [Bob] Fosse approaching ‘Pippin’ and how he laid some big ‘concept’ on the show and took the show in a totally different direction. My ‘concept’ is to do the best possible production in this theater with this cast at this time.”

Thelen doesn’t think much of directors who come into a project believing that they intuitively know better than the writers and composers who have labored two or three years in creating the show. Though he disdains the idea of “concept,” he will admit that he has a focus for “La Cage,” which is the relationship between the two main characters, Georges and Albin. “That love relationship has lasted well over 20 years and the strength of that love now has to tackle this new problem.” No matter where he might mount this particular show, Thelen explained, that clear focus would not change. That being said, he acknowledges that the actual theater – its dimensions, its limitations – will influence how the show is actually staged.

                                           Lawrence Thelen commenting on how
                                           he will approach the staging of "La Cage"

“Doing this show at Ivoryton,” he said, “you don’t have a fly system, you have a small stage, you have a 300-seat audience, you have five Equity contracts for a cast of 19. I’ve got a great cast, but all of that’s going to influence how you approach this show. All of a sudden the set becomes pretty stationary -- there’s not a lot of places it can go. If you have a fly system you can fly out multiple sets – if I was working in a proscenium stage [referring to a ‘picture frame’ stage] with a fly system I would probably approach it differently.”

When Thelen takes on a revival of a show, as he has with “La Cage,” he draws on rather than disdains the work of those who have staged the show before him while, at the same time, being acutely aware that, as he put it, “There are so many ways a director can screw up a show.” Years ago, Thelen said, he was seeing so many bad productions of musicals around the country directed by people who had no idea what they were doing that he was motivated to write a book -- “The Show Makers” – which consists of a series of interviews with directors of Broadway musicals in which they discuss how they pursue their craft. In mentioning the book, Thelen came back to the idea of not fiddling with or putting a different spin on an existing work. “What’s wrong with doing a show…as it is?” he said. “That’s what people are coming to see, Rather than put your energies and time into some concept that has nothing to do with the show, put your energies into finding out what the writers were saying and why they said it that way, and how to best express that.”

When Thelen begins rehearsals he will be working with two men who have already played the roles of Georges and Albin. Some directors might see this as a potential problem in which the actors might seek to do it “their way” rather than being guided by the director. Thelen doesn’t hold with this. “If I’m doing a Goodspeed show,” Thelen said, referring to productions at the Goodspeed Opeara House in East Haddam, “and I have five weeks of rehearsal, I might want to start from scratch with somebody who’s never done the role before, but in a two-week rehearsal schedule, how great to have somebody come in who already has a sense of the character, already has a sense of the songs, already has a sense of the show, already has a sense of the lines. You’re starting at 50 percent.”

Once the rehearsals begin, Thelen and his cast will be working in the rehearsal hall and will only have access to the stage several days before the technical rehearsal. The first time the actors walk the stage is what Thelen calls a “spacing rehearsal,” in which the actors get a feel for the space they will be working in. “You’re really working on how far downstage an actor has to come to be in his special,” Thelen said, referring to a light, or an “instrument,” as it is referred to in the business, that is devoted solely to the illumination of one character. “It’s not a lost rehearsal,” Thelen explained, “it’s more about the nuts and bolts of putting this particular show on in this particular stage than refining how we tell the story.”

Mention of the necessity of telling a story leads Thelen into a discussion of the story “La Cage” has to offer and the challenges inherent in how this story unfolds. “The plot for this show is so slight,” Thelen said. “It’s basically Jean-Michel comes home to his father and says, ‘I’m getting married and I’m marrying a woman whose parents are not open-minded enough to accept your lifestyle. Deal with it.’ And Georges and Albin have to overcome that. That’s it! I mean, I can’t say the plot of ‘West Side Story’ in one sentence. So you’re really dealing with a lot of other components.”

To add to the “trickiness” of staging “La Cage,” Thelen pointed out that the conflict is not introduced until 20 or 25 minutes into the show – Jean-Michel doesn’t come home until the fifth scene -- which means you are dealing with what Thelen terms “soft material,” – essentially exposition, establishment of setting and character development. “You have 25 minutes of having to entertain your audience, keep their interest, keep their focus on something so that when the plot does come around they are still interested.” A problem like this doesn’t exist in such shows as “Hello, Dolly!” or “West Side Story,” in which the conflict – Dolly deciding to marry Horace Vandergelder; the Jets and the Sharks vying for control of their turf – is made manifest right from the start. “So,” Thelen suggested, “with ‘La Cage’ you have the added responsibility of holding the audience’s interest long enough for the ‘story’ to start, and a lot of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the choreographer.” It’s a big responsibility, for if the audience isn’t engaged or loses interest, Thelen suggested, then “the audience is going to fade out on you, and once they fade it’s very hard to get them to re-engage.”

Engaging the audience also entails controlling the pacing of the show, and pacing is greatly affected by how the cast gets from one scene to the next. These transitions – how they are handled – have inherent in them the possibility of boring an audience. “When I was in high school,” Thelen said, “you did a scene in a musical and then it ended and you had a blackout and the band started up some scene-changing music while the set was changed. Well, you lose your audience in those moments – they’re deadly at this level of theater.” Thus, how Thelen approaches the staging of a show will be dictated by how he wants the show to “flow,” and this is dictated by the set that Long will create for the show, a set “that will allow us to make those transitions move,” Thelen said, “and be part of the show as opposed to a respite from the show.”

Once the show is up and running, Thelen, like Underwood, will drop by to see how the show has “matured.” He expects that there will be slight changes as the actors, often based on audience reaction, modify what they are doing. This doesn’t bother him in the least. “It’s one of those things you learn as a director,” Thelen said. “When you’re a young director, you want them to execute what you say to the ‘T’ and you don’t want it to change. As you mature you realize that you need that audience, because the audience will take that show to a better place than you as a director could take it alone. Where the audience laughs, where the audience isn’t going to laugh, where they’re going to applaud more than you thought -- all of those things are going to affect how the performances change.”

Thelen often lets his cast find its own way. It all depends on the length of the run. If the show runs for only two or three weeks there’s just not enough time for change to occur; for a longer run change is possible, as is time for reflection on whether or not the show is going in the right direction. Thelen believes that “more often than not a cast will grow to create a better show.” However, there are exceptions to the rule – conflicts amongst cast members can send a show off into the darkness; egos can interfere with the show’s coherence, its very soul. Consideration of these possibilities has inevitably brought Thelen to consider the importance of teamwork in mounting and maintaining a musical.

“They always talk about how important sports are in education and, if necessary, cut the arts and keep sports because sports teach teamwork and all that,” Thelen said, leaning forward as he warmed to the topic. “But there’s no greater teamwork than that found in putting on a musical because you’ve got to work together. You have to rely on your fellow actors – they’ve got to give you the next line; you can’t do the whole show by yourself. It’s like a good football play; when it works it works because everyone does what he’s supposed to do.” He sat back, sipped from his coffee cup, then said: “In a musical you really can’t be selfish.”

With regards to teamwork, and given the nature of the show, Thelen will be working closely with Underwood to create the flow – the movement – that will make the show look seamless to the audience. As Underwood mentioned, he and Thelen have already decided who will choreograph or block which scenes, but attention must still be paid to transitions from one scene to another, from, say, movement of actors into or out of a production number. Thelen won’t give serious attention to possible blocking until he receives a scale model of the set from Long, but once he has that model he still won’t set the movement of his actors in stone. He believes that blocking is relatively simple. In fact, “My grandmother can do blocking,” he said. However, if he becomes too rigid, too dictatorial, he will lose the opportunity to draw on the experience of his actors, their sense of where they should be at a certain moment and what they should be doing. His experience, most recently with directing “Dream Girls” at Ivoryton last season, has taught him that his actors often come up with suggestions that just make a scene work better, and to disregard these suggestions is to limit possibilities, possibilities that can lead to turning a mediocre scene into a central moment of the show for the audience.

What Thelen will come to the first rehearsals with is what he calls “a skeleton,” a sense of where his actors should be entering and exiting, where they should move. He’ll provide that skeleton and then let his actors “play with it, and from that they may come up with better ideas.” Yet, he will always have a sense of what is supposed to be happening on stage. As he explained, “If there’s a really strong moment I’m going to want to bring them downstage; if there’s a really strong character in a scene I’ll want to have him towering over the other characters. I mean, there are certain tricks that you are naturally going to want to play, but in terms of, say, ‘Cross down right three steps, now cross back and lift your left arm’ – you learn all of these specific things as an actor. It’s a handicap, I find, to tie your actors to such strict blocking right off the bat, because then they feel there’s no room for contribution, and I want them to contribute, I want to hear what they have to say. You explain where you want the scene to go and let them fill in the blood and guts.”

Movement of actors, Thelen believes, is trickier in a musical than in a play, because you have to set up a musical number. “What I hate is when the actors do a scene and then as the music starts everyone repositions themselves to where the choreography needs to start. I want to get them to those positions before so when the music takes off they take off too. How can you be so tied to a piece of blocking that it can’t be changed?”

Thelen reached forward and set his coffee cup down on a small end table, sat back, and said. “You know, directing is not about blocking, it’s about storytelling. The blocking…well…you move the actors so the audience knows where to look at a certain moment, but you want to lead the company, emotionally, to the point where the audience feels something, feels laughter, feels sympathy, feels…whatever. That’s directing.”

More of the pieces.
Second production meeting – Thursday, June 12

Things have happened since the last production meeting on April 24. The cast has been set, or so it would appear, and all on the production and creative teams have been doing some thinking, chief among them Long. He has taken his initial, rough sketches and changed them into four-color designs, which he has on his Ipad.

He, along with the Thelen, Nischan, master carpenter Noah Rice, production manager Steve Johnson, Njaye Olds, the costume designer, and Jo Nazro and Holly Price, electrician/sound engineer and prop mistress respectively, sit at a long table in a somewhat bare side room at Ivoryton’s business office, which is situated in a small industrial park about a mile from the theater.

                                                     Dan Nischan, Cully Long and
                                                    Lawrence Thelen discuss set designs.

Thelen, who chairs the meeting, turns to Long first, and for the next half-hour or so he and the set designer will play a question-and-answer, what-if game as they try to merge Thelen’s “vision” of the show – what will happen, where will the actors move, what will be the look of the scenes – with the reality of what can and cannot be done on the Ivoryton stage. All attending have worked together before, so the discussion is interspersed with some comments, often humorous, sometimes a bit sarcastic, about previous shows at Ivoryton or shows at other venues. It’s a relaxed atmosphere filled with a lot of verbal “shorthand” and sentences that don’t need to be completed.

Long is soon out of his seat. His Ipad is on the table in front of Thelen as the two discuss the positioning of a door, the need to hide signage for the café when it’s not in use. The others at the meeting listen quietly as Thelen shifts from leaning over the electronic display to sitting upright and waving his hands, drawing pieces of the set in the air, asking questions. As he does so, Long grabs a pad and begins quickly sketching. It appears that they are communicating, and they are at this point, but things can change.

Questions about specific elements in the set lead to quick discussions of movement of actors, transitions between scenes and the use of light to accent or mask scenic elements (the lighting director is, noticeably, absent from the meeting). Often, Long answers Thelen’s questions with a variation of “it’s a matter of space available.” The conversation moves to the size of a door through which actors, many of them coiffed in rather large wigs, will have to enter and exit. The size of the door may require some bending down by the actors. Thelen comments: “They’re young and agile – they can do it.” The dimensions must also take into account that several actors dressed as café waiters will use the entrance to bring in trays of food to serve to the café patrons. Long bends over and again scratches out quick designs on his pad.

The conversation shifts to the birdcage, the semi-enclosed space where the Cagelles will perform. Again, size is a concern, for the actors’ costumes will be substantial and the wigs impressive. Thelen eases some of the concerns when he announces that only four actors will be in the cage, thus diminishing the need for space. However, actual design and execution of this “cage” will come to haunt the production.

Talk quickly shifts to the living room where the two main characters, Georges and Albin, will have to entertain Anne’s ultra-conservative parents.
“The living room is supposed to be pink,” Thelen says.
“Right,” Long says. “How over-the-top? How stylish?”

“As over the top as you can go,” then shifts gears, thinking about the movement of actors. “But, we need three entrances. I don’t know how you’re going to get them in.”
They both look at the design image on the Ipad.
“Well, they could be doors, or just door frames,” Long says, then sits and picks up some small pieces of folded cardboard and starts rearranging them, envisioning how it all might work, might come together. Thelen interrupts his musings.

“The only thing missing is a front door – I have to have a front door, something to keep the paparazzi out in the second act.”

More “what-ifs?” follow: the furniture in the apartment – what can be kept open – perhaps light on a scrim can create the needed pink – and what about the crucifix, maybe it can be put on a track and rolled in, because it has to be big, the bigger the better (there will eventually be two smaller crucifixes). Thelen’s overall point is that he wants excess, excess in the original design of the living room – in essence he wants it to scream “gay” – and then when Geoges and Albin have to go “straight,” they do it with the same excess, they just won’t be practicing Christians with a discrete crucifix on the wall, how they re-decorate must scream Christianity. This is the image Thelen has – the reality will prove to be a bit different.

Long has focused on Thelen’s comment about the need for a front door. “The smaller birdcage – the extra space may allow for the front door to be moved.” They look at the Ipad on the table, and the subject of the barn doors, discussed in the first production meeting, comes up again: can there be a functional door in the barn doors?

Thelen comes back to the crucifix, again emphasizing that it should be ‘huge,” which leads the discussion back to the re-decoration of the apartment – maybe some of the images, the crucifix, for example, could be pre-hung and rolled in on racks – ah, but then it’s the question of the limited space in the wings.

                                                Members of the production staff listen to
                                                Thelen and Lang discuss design options.

Space – space to store things, space to allow the actors freedom of movement – the subject dominates every aspect of the production meeting. The mere mention of space again raises a question about the size of the costumes the Cagelles will be wearing – there simply has to be enough room for the actors to function. Everyone acknowledges the necessity but no hard and fast decisions are made. Design of the set will proceed with every intention of giving the actors “room,” but the proof will come – for the director and the choreographer – only when the actors are actually on the dressed stage, which means there’s still a rather large element called the “unknown” that, regardless of how specific the planning is, will only be revealed once animate bodies have to interact with inanimate objects.

                                      Long's design for the apartment in "La Cage"

The questions keep coming – what about the table in the café scene – how will it be set to accommodate six actors? How will the chairs be gotten into position? And what about the “back-stage” scenes? How will the “back-stage” be established? Possibly done with a light change against a black scrim. Then it’s on to the positioning of the stairs, a major topic in the first production meeting. Thelen acknowledges that their positioning will basically be the choreographer’s call (Underwood is not at the meeting) because they will just be used for the Les Cagelles scenes.

“At what point will they be used?” Long asks.

Thelen gives a little sigh. “We really won’t know until we get into rehearsal,” he says.

Thelen and Long have taken their discussion about the sets as far as it can go at this point. The rest of those in attendance have been relatively silent, offering a quick comment now and then but willing to allow the meeting to be dominated by Thelen and Long. One might wonder why, in fact, they were all invited, but that question would show a misunderstanding of how a show like this – with all of its disparate elements – is brought together. Yes, the others sitting at the table have been silent, but they have been taking it all in, and many of Thelen’s comments reverberate in their own areas of responsibility, for in questioning Long he has, without being dictatorial or didactic, revealed quite a bit about how he “sees” the show, and that “seeing” will hopefully be translated by all present, from sound technician and carpenter to costume designer and prop mistress. They don’t need to actively participate in much of the current discussions, but they do need to know the “drive” behind a lot of the decisions.

                             Long's design for the "Christianized"
                             version of the apartment

Planning the production has come a long way from initial casting calls, but nothing is yet set in stone. Olds is asked about the costumes – she also has designs, which she has on her I-phone. She’s made some initial decisions, but she won’t finalize anything until she knows what the general style of the stage lighting will be. Costumes, also, will eventually become a dark cloud hanging over the production.

Contingencies hinging on contingencies, which is to be expected at this stage: many of the actors will be miked, which will require that Olds know the size of the battery pack that the actors will have to wear so she can conceal it in the costumes.

What about the furniture for the apartment? “Can we make the furniture over-the-top?” Thelen asks Price. There’ll be a need for a chaise stage left and some chairs and a table stage right. When they’re replaced in the re-decoration, can they be bigger than life – maybe a pew to replace the chaise?

And the costumes. Olds asks how “pink” the apartment will be, for its “pinkishness” will dictate some of her costume decisions, especially those she designs for Albin in his “Zaza” mode. You can’t have pink clashing…or blending with…pink!

Thelen turns to Long: “You feel okay with where we are?”

“Yeah,” Long answers, even though “where we are” is still somewhat up in the air – but the meeting has apparently gotten them all closer to where that “are” is.

Back to costumes. Olds explains that there will be no “time signatures” with the costumes. Albin will be going elegant – French couture – while the Cagelles’ costumes will each reflect an iconic personality – there will be a “Beverly Sills” and a “Betty Paige” and a “Lolita.”

“It’s not your mother’s ‘La Cage’,” she says

Her comments bring up a question from Thelen. In the finale, the costume Georges wears to the café has to be changed, but the actor has absolutely no time to make the change, yet what he will wear for the final number must be “finale-worthy.” Olds nods and explains how she plans to pull that off, then adds a bit about her plans for the Cagelles and their costume changes: the costumes for the “Can-Can” number will be traditional, while for the “Birds” sequence the costumes will emphasize lyric ballet, and for the finale, well, they will be a little over-the-top, very Rio.

Now that the meeting has opened up and everyone has a voice, questions are aired with the rapidity of corn kernels exploding in a popper. The meal prepared in the apartment – the food has to be overcooked, burnt – perhaps a “fogger” can be used to generate the smoke effect. And props – where are feathered fans to be found? Sound cues…are there any? Thelen says he doesn’t think so. Nazro smiles – she’s heard that before and doesn’t believe him. And what about the mikes? Are there enough? Thelen suggests they can be swapped-out, which means that when an actor comes off stage his mike system is given to another actor. Olds and Nazro shudder, envisioning the chaos of removing and replacing the mike systems given the complexity of the costumes.

Nazro responds in Bartleby fashion: “I’d rather not.”

Maybe more mikes should be rented? Which actors will need mikes? Thelen counts them out – If there’s to be no swapping, then they’re short, but wait, they’ve rented additional mikes for Ivoryton’s July production, “All Shook Up.” What if those mikes are kept over? Problem solved. But what about the number of people dedicated to assisting in costume changes back-stage…and the person dedicated to just the wigs? Well, that’s what interns are for, but interns…well…things can happen.

Olds chuckles. “I’m working very hard at making the costumes ‘intern-proof.’”

Suddenly there’s nothing left to say. Things have been decided…maybe…and plans have been made…perhaps…but everyone at the meeting realizes, and accepts, that there will be changes and surprises. To work in this environment, and to be successful in it, you have to be adaptable, understanding that nothing is set in stone until the curtain goes up for the first time and, even then, change is inevitable, for it is only in previews, when an audience is asked to respond, and that response is measured, that the entire team will know whether or not their decisions have been correct.

The group leaves the room knowing that there’s still a lot of work to be done…and soon that work will become complicated by another human element, for in less than a month the show goes into rehearsals, and that’s when the actors arrive on the scene. Who knows what baggage they will bring to the party.

…And Then
Tuesday, July 8, and following.

The actor who was cast to play Georges calls Underwood and tells him that he has sustained an injury, or rather, problems from an old injury have cropped up again. The actor suggests that complicated choreography might be physically beyond him until the injury heals. Underwood calls Thelen, who calls Hubbard. The problem is now on her desk, where most problems eventually end up.

In an e-mail, Thelen explained the complications: “Georges and Albin have a whole dance number in ‘With You on My Arm,’ as well as other ‘staged’ musical moments in the show.” He added that the choreography wasn’t the only consideration. He explained: “The dressing rooms at Ivoryton are below the stage and every entrance would require him to climb stairs before and descend after each scene. There are also stairs on the set he would have to navigate.”

                                                Stairs leading up from the dressing
                                                rooms to the stage at Ivoryton

It’s Hubbard’s call, and she makes it. That’s why head shots are never thrown away. She calls the actor who had been cast – a difficult conversation – and then calls the actor who had been considered for the role. Fortunately, he is available. Thelen is not ecstatic, but he is philosophical. He wanted one actor and he is now getting another – not his first choice, as the actor who will take on the role well knows. Thelen, in thinking about the production, had envisioned his first choice for Georges and started to make creative decisions based on that envisioning. Those have to be scrapped, for the new actor brings a new dynamic to the show – perhaps better, perhaps not. That remains to be seen. However, it is just one more “provisional” element as the show moves inevitably towards a first rehearsal.

The decision was made for the good of the show. The thinking was, what if the injury flared up again during rehearsal, or previews, or during the run? What happens to the show then? As Thelen put it in his email: “What the show might have been with the original actor we’ll never know – but we feel a bit more confident that the actor we now have in place will be able to get us to the end of the run. Of course, this new actor – God forbid – could fall down a flight of stairs and that would be the end of all of us! But we’re hoping that doesn’t happen.” It won’t, but other complications will arise.

And so it goes…as the production inches forward.

The First Rehearsal
Tuesday, July 22

Directors approach the first day of rehearsal in different ways based on the total time available for rehearsals and the nature of what is being rehearsed. Thelen’s approach for the first day, at least for musicals (unless it’s an original musical), is not to have what’s called a “table read,” which basically consists of the cast sitting around a table and reading through the script. Since “La Cage” is an established show, Thelen assumes that the cast members have at least a working understanding of what the show is about and, in general, who their characters are. Thus, as he commented in an e-mail, he looks to get the show “up on its feet” as soon as possible.

As he explained: “In a musical, because so much of their characters are dictated by music – tempo, melody, dance – there are fewer large shifts in interpretation that each actor can make.” There’s another reason why Thelen eschews a table read: “Since none of the songs have been taught to the actors yet (and you can’t assume they come in knowing them), a reading becomes rather fragmented, with actors reading a scene, then the music director or someone sings a song, then the actors pick up the scene again. It becomes more comical than helpful…It’s easier just to get to work.”

                                           The Centerbrook Meeting House

The work on the first and subsequent days occurs at the Centerbrook Meeting House, a converted church about two miles away from the Ivoryton theater. The first day’s call is for noon, but at 11 a.m. stage manager Laura Gonzalez, who is seven months pregnant, and assistant stage manager Michelle Tuite, are in the main room of the Meeting House, sorting through papers and talking to Nischan.

The room is perhaps three times as long as it is wide and boasts an array of windows through which the sunlight streams, illuminating, among other things, the strips of tape that Gonzalez has placed on the floor, tape that approximates the outlines of the set Long is working on. Long has provided black and white schematics of the set, which are taped to cabinets behind where Gonzalez and Tuite sit.

                                            The "footprint" of the set taped out
                                            on the rehearsal hall floor

Soon, Thelen and Underwood arrive and almost immediately begin talking about transitions from book scenes to musical numbers, that gray area that requires that director and choreographer work together, for these transitions are a mix of blocking and dance. Price arrives and begins to unload the props she has brought to be used during rehearsal: bottles, glasses and tray, several parasols, a mirror and hair brush that Albin/Zaza will use.

As noon approaches the cast members start to drift in. There are greetings amongst those who know each other and introductions for strangers. The atmosphere is congenial and collegial – all of them know that this is the start of a very intense period in which they will be spending long, sometimes tedious hours together. No one wants to get off on the wrong foot.

                                            The cast on the first day of rehearsal

Hubbard arrives and is immediately asked three questions by three different people. Beverly Taylor, Ivoryton’s company manager, approaches Hubbard and asks “Who’s that actor? I don’t know him; I don’t have housing for him.” Housing – an eternal problem for Ivoryton. Hubbard isn’t sure who the actor is and suggests Taylor ask Underwood – soon all is resolved – the actor had introduced himself using a nickname.

The next hour is devoted to paperwork – contracts, Equity Membership Candidate forms, payroll documents. As this is going on, Olds brings various cast members into the Sanctuary, a room off the main meeting room, for measurements. When not engaged in filling out forms or being measured, the cast members cluster in a corner, sitting on chairs or on the floor. The dispersal seems casual, but a closer look reveals that ensemble members have gravitated towards each other while those in supporting roles seem to be drawn together. The show’s two leads, Van Treuren (Georges) and Edwards (Albin) stand alone in conversation. This fragmentation will diminish over the course of rehearsals and totally disappear in the tech rehearsal.

                                           Van Treuren and Edwards standing apart from
                                           the rest of the cast on the first day of rehearsal

As the administrative tasks are being taken care of, Thelen, Underwood and Nischan are standing in front of Long’s schematics for a discussion about the birdcage, the enclosed structure that will be used once in the show but that is presenting some difficult staging problems – specifically, the cage’s size, shape and how it will appear for the scene and then disappear. Nischan suggests there’s a Plan A, then Plan B, C and D. In other words, two weeks before the first preview nothing has been resolved. No decisions are made.

                                                Nischan, Underwood and Thelen
                                                discuss construction of the birdcage

An hour and a half into the first day it’s time to start dealing with the show. Gonzalez asks for everyone’s attention and Hubbard steps forward to greet the cast. She welcomes them and hopes that their experience at Ivoryton will be an enjoyable one. She apologizes for whatever confusion or inconveniences there have been with regards to housing, then reminds the actors of Ivoryton’s storied history and that everyone from Marlon Brando to William Shatner has experienced the same thing they are experiencing. It’s part of the first-week initiation to theater at Ivoryton.

                                  Hubbard addressing the cast on the first day of rehearsal

“With every production I learn something new,” she tells them. “So, I’ll say two things. First, if you hurt yourself during rehearsals or tech or previews, let us know. Don’t keep it a secret. Second, if you are intimidated or harassed by anyone, let us know, tell us. Don’t let it fester.” One can only wonder what actual past events have motivated Hubbard to speak to these points.

Hubbard cedes the floor to Thelen, who steps forward. He is about to set the tone for the entire process – rehearsals, previews, the run. His approach, as it was during the casting process, is casual, supportive and accessible. He knows that what everyone is about to become involved in is a group process; he is confidently in charge but not a dictator.

Thelen asks the actors to grab chairs and gather around him. Once the cast is seated he invites each cast member to introduce himself or herself and announce their roles, then he speaks about the rehearsal schedule, which he emphasizes is flexible and will be changed based on needs. “It’s a day-to-day process” he explains. Given that, he tells the cast that by Sunday – five days away – he hopes to do what he calls a “stumble-through” of the whole show so the cast can get a feel for how everything might, or could or should work together. He also notes that two days have been set aside for tech rehearsals – when the actors, on the actual stage, work through the show as lighting, sound and set movement are all dealt with. He hopes that only one day will be needed for the process. It will turn out to be a vain hope.

Thelen shifts gears and begins to speak about the “soul” of the production. “The set determines a lot of what we will do,” he tells them, then acknowledges that the size of Ivoryton’s stage makes staging “La Cage” a bit of a challenge. He turns to Long’s set designs taped to the cabinet doors and outlines the space the actors will have to work with.

“The whole set is on stage for the entire show,” he tells them. “It’s all about how we’ll use the set.” He then reiterates the approach he spoke about when he was interviewed in his home: he wants to put on “the best production of La Cage with this cast in this theater at this time.” His focus will be on Georges and Albin and their 20-year relationship, and he charges the cast to do “everything you can to add to that story.”

As for the feel of the show, well, he wants realism, but he also acknowledges that in Georges and Albin “we have characters larger-than-life,” so the show has, inherently, a certain heightened nature. He then addresses the eight actors who will play the Cagelles, the showgirls. He emphasizes that, unlike the take on the club in the Broadway revival of the show, this “La Cage” will not be set in a “dive,” a down-at-the-heels cabaret. Thus, the “showgirls” have to have “class,” and they can’t just be eight “bitchy queens” (laughter), he wants these eight actors to be individual characters, but “you have to create these characters, make your little moments exciting. We want to know who the Cagelles are.”

Thelen cedes the floor to Morris, who tells the cast that they will be using the revival orchestrations, which means the “orchestra” is reduced down to eight musicians, “which gives it a much more intimate sound.” He will begin by working on the ensemble numbers, teaching all of the harmonies, and he will teach them to the entire ensemble. “For a number, if you are in the wings, sing along. It will add to the sound, to the choruses.”

At this point Thelen interrupts. “The obvious question will be. ‘Am I on stage for this number?’ Well, I have no idea; we’re still working that out.”

There’s not much more to say. What Thelen envisions and what will actually come about will be the result of his, Underwood’s and Morris’s interaction with the cast and the actors’ responses to that interaction, plus imponderables. The end result will be the sum of many factors: talent, dedication, direction, hard work…and the “gestalt” of the group as it slowly becomes what is called a “cast.” No matter how “cast” is defined in a dictionary, each cast for each show is unique, creating its own dynamic that will either enhance or detract from a production…and then there are the theater gods to deal with, those fickle deities who seem to take great delight in tossing down unexpected thunderbolts.

During a short break, Thelen, Underwood, Hubbard and Nischan once again gather in front of Long’s schematics taped to the cabinet doors, and the topic is, once again, the cage in which the Cagelles will dance. What will be its size, its shape? How will it be “delivered” and how and where will it be stored when it’s not needed? Again, suggestions are offered, but all of them present complications. At this point there doesn’t seem to be an answer, so Thelen suggests that they all take a day to think about the problem and, perhaps, with the sun’s rising there will be a solution. Hubbard, who has other things to worry about, waves her hand. “Well, have fun,” she says, and departs, confident that the team will come up with a solution.   

It is now time to start the actual rehearsal process. Most of the cast stays upstairs with Morris to work on the show’s anthem, “The Best of Times,” while Thelen and the two leads go downstairs to a smaller meeting room. Once there, settled at a table, Thelen speaks to the obvious: “I’m not going through the nuts and bolts of your roles,” he tells Van Treuren and Edwards. “You’ve both done this before.” In fact, the actors have performed their respective roles three times before.

                      Van Treuren (L) and Edwards (R) discuss their roles with Thelen

“So, in a way,” Thelen continues, “this is your fourth set of rehearsals.” He pauses and measures his two leads, then says, “I’m not here to change what you know about your characters but I don’t want you to hold on to past productions.” Both actors nod in response.

“There’s enough different in this version,” Van Treuren says.

Riffling the script, Edwards says, “Yes, but there are moments when you just go…” He shakes his shoulders. What he’s referring to are those moments when you come to changes in a script you had been familiar with…your eyes are telling you to say one thing but your mind – the file that has been titled “La Cage” – is urging you to say something else, because that’s what you’ve always said at this point in the show.

“Let’s just stay with what we’ve got,” Van Treuren says.

The conversation turns to cuts in the script, the first being a reference to Georges and Albin’s respective ages, a piece of dialogue that has been edited multiple times based on the actors playing the roles and their age disparities, much as Willy Loman’s comment in “Death of a Salesman” will change from “I’m too fat” to “I’m too short” depending on who is cast in the role. The subject of age stirs Edwards, who has possibly been dwelling on Thelen’s opening remarks about the multiple times both actors have played their roles, to comment: “When I first did it…I was too young…What? Thirty-five? I didn’t understand…What the hell was I talking about?” It’s an unstated answer to Thelen’s unstated question: Yes, his Albin will be different than the Albins he has played before. It will be this show’s Albin.

Other cuts are discussed – the dialogue leading to the finale, for example, will be made tighter – then Edwards expresses a concern. “There’s so much in here,” he says, again referring to the script, “that has to do with costume changes. It’s hard to do if it’s not rigged properly.” His comment will turn out to be more germane than he realizes.

Thelen nods, acknowledging the problem, but shifts the focus to his primary concern, which is the chemistry between the two actors’ characters. “There’s a wonderful quality to Albin and Georges’ relationship when they are off-stage.” His comment leads to an extended discussion of previous productions of the show and the nature of that relationship. Meanwhile, upstairs, the rest of the cast continues to work through “The Best of Times.”

Pieces of the puzzle, pieces whose fit will not become apparent until later in the rehearsal process (perhaps not until the first preview), pieces of songs, pieces of blocking, pieces of dance steps that will, eventually, become production numbers, pieces in the heads of the director and the choreographer and the musical director – this piece goes here, this piece goes there, this piece fits with this piece. No, this doesn’t work; we have to change it. What if…Why don’t we…How about…Can we…Maybe we should…? There is a constant stream of questions that leads to answers, answers that are not definitive, merely speculative.    

Morris coaches the cast through “The Best of Times” measure by measure, first the altos, then the baritones, then the tenors. It’s all a bit ragged, but there’s a sense of what the number will become when it’s finally staged, its power – how it will move the audience. Quite a few of the cast members are holding their I-phones, recording the song so they can run through it again…and again…when they are not in formal rehearsal. Morris asks for the females alone to sing…their voices rise on “Now – Now – Now” – the final note…missed by one of the singers… elicits an “Oh, shit” from her. It will take some work.

                     Morris, at the piano, coaches the cast through "The Best of Times"

Morris now turns to the males – he’s at a passage in the number in which several of the male singers need to drop there voices. He asks for volunteers. Two arms shoot up.

“I’ll go down…I’ll go down.” The cast laughs. It’s one of many moments during the rehearsal punctuated by laughter, for Thelen, Underwood and Morris are all working hard to create an atmosphere that allows for the funny comments, the ironic asides, the faux pas moments that do not embarrass, the errors that are gently corrected, the momentary confusions that are allowed for. The word “no” is simply not used. No one is told that he or she is not “doing it right.” Rather, suggestions are made that will “make it better,” and these suggestions, whether offered by Morris, Thelen or Underwood, are often delivered in a self-effacing manner, as if the joke (or the error) is on them.

As the cast continues to work on the number it becomes obvious that there will be several “live wires” who will, because of their personalities, add a certain zest to the rehearsals and, most likely, to the production itself. Chief among them is Phil Young, who will play Jacob, Georges and Albin’s rather eccentric butler (Jacob prefers “maid”). As the cast works through “The Best of Times,” Young is in constant motion, swaying in his chair, emanating energy, his shoulders jerking, head bobbing, just grooving to the music, index finger occasionally shooting up into the air to punctuate a note.

                                                  Underwood sizing up the space
                                                  he will have to work with

As the cast does a complete run-through of the number, Underwood is pacing behind them, eyes glued to the floor, measuring distances between tape marks, estimating how much space he has to work with. A break is called and one of the Cagelles, John Paul LePorte, watches what Underwood is doing.

“That’s the choreographer putting together the numbers,” he says. One might misconstrue what LePorte means by “the numbers.” The dance numbers? Not exactly. “It’s all about the numbers,” LePorte explains. “We’re mathematicians on the floor. Yup, that’s what we are. Mathematicians. We move to the numbers.”

Fifth Day of Rehearsal
Saturday, July. 26

Pieces being fit into pieces.

Five days into rehearsal, eight days from the first tech rehearsal and ten days from the first preview, Thelen works on individual scenes, the first being the scene that follows the opening number.

Theren sets the moment: the musical number ends and all of the Cagelles are still on stage in a final pose. It is here that Thelen’s philosophy about blackouts comes into play. He tells his actors that the lighting changes, the band lights go out, the proscenium lights are doused and…the scene is now immediately backstage, which requires the Cagelles to start bitching and griping, and Thelen wants it to happen immediately – no blackout, no musical transition. Whether this will work, or serve to create momentary audience confusion, remains to be seen.

He tells the cast what he is looking for and then allows the actors to improvise…noise, complaints, movement. In essence, he wants to see what they will do on their own and then add, modify or enhance their instincts. After giving basic blocking suggestions he says, “Let’s try it and see what happens.” What follows is modified chaos with little jabber and ill-defined movement. It doesn’t bother Thelen. He comments on things that he likes, makes additional suggestions, moves people around and then emphasizes that this is the scene where the Cagelles will establish their individual personalities. He doesn’t suggest what those personalities should be, just that the actors must find them.

                                        The Cagelles rehearse the backstage scene

The scene is run through again, and then again. Thelen asks for more vocalization at the start of the scene, more bitching, more griping. The cast responds. At one point, Thelen approves of what Francis (Conor Hamill), the Cage’s stage manager, has been doing, but asks for a more fevered, frenzied reaction. He then does five seconds of fevered, frenzied reaction as an example. He stops, then somewhat tongue-in-cheek says, “If you could just imitate what I just did that would be great.” He’s not serious, but he is. It’s multi-layered direction, a command hidden behind a suggestion masked by a bit of “theater.” Though he may not be an actor, and does not claim to be one, Thelen emanates an eagerness to take on each role, major or minor, and this eagerness is transmitted to the cast, and the actors respond with “What if…?” and “Could we…?”

“Remember the details,” Thelen urges his actors after a final run-through of the scene. “Next time we can add more layers,” and he moves on to staging the second scene, which occurs right after Georges and Albin’s “Song in the Sand” number. Again, he begins with blocking – who crosses from where, entrances, exits. At this point he’s moving actors around as if they are chess pieces – he wants to see what it looks like. Once it’s set, he’ll allow a little latitude, a little freedom. The mood of the rehearsal, and Thelen’s manner of directing, is captured with: “Let’s see what kind of mess I’ve created and then we can clean it up.”

There are smiles and nods from the cast. Some might call this the “Aw, shucks,” approach to directing, but there’s no doubt who is charge of this process and what he is looking for. The fact that there is no yelling, no dictatorial commands, no denigrations, merely enhances the “learning” process, for learning is what is occurring, and if the process does not allow for mistakes then rehearsals become more like interrogations and the rehearsal hall a jail or concentration camp that the inmates are loathe to enter.

The end of the scene has Francis announcing to the cast that a collection will be taken up for a wedding gift for Jean-Michel. The Cagelles voice suggestions about what they can contribute. One offers to make ratatouille – another Cagelle casts aspersions on the idea – which leads to Thelen blocking a quick moment in which one, then two, then four Cagelles sing “Ratatouille” to the music of “La Cucaracha.” It’s a bit of choreography, normally Underwood’s province, but the lines of authority are fluid here and as both Thelen and Underwood acknowledge, those lines can’t be etched in stone, not if the whole that will eventually be created will be greater than the sum of its parts.

                                 Patrick Heffernen, Jay Garrick, Lincoln Ward and
                                 Dyllan Vallier rehearse the "ratatouille" scene

During the process, actors feel free to make suggestions about movements or motivations for movements. Thelen listens and then, often, agrees. One actor, Cameron Benda, playing the dominatrix Hanna from Hamburg, speaks a line to Francis and then places a whip around his neck. Thelen likes it, and then adds to it. “Why don’t you lead him off, like he’s on a leash?” The moment works.

Two scenes have been blocked and run though. Neither is perfect but there’s a base and refinements can be made. The third scene Thelen wants to work on occurs right before the “I Am What I Am” number that closes the first act. The cast members involved gather in the center of the rehearsal hall, but Thelen and Underwood conference. Underwood gestures, Thelen points here and there, Underwood waves his hands. Their body language does not speak to antagonism, rather to attempts to understand what each man is saying. The two have been on the same page throughout all of the rehearsal process so far, but now there’s a difference of opinion about how a scene should be staged, how it will play. Rather than put the cast through its paces only to change the entire scene at a later rehearsal, the two men agree to cancel work on the third scene until they can figure out what will serve the show best.

Given the time remaining, Thelen has the cast members run through the second scene that he staged, then the first. The clock dictates that there should be a break, something that Gonzalez keeps an eagle eye on. Thelen thanks the actors for their work and then says, “Please go though what we’ve just done just like you would your dance numbers…or at least look at it every once in awhile.”

His comment speaks to the unique nature of staging a musical, which requires men and women who can dance, who can sing and who can act. “La Cage Aux Folles” is not a review, a supper club act, it’s a musical, it’s a play, it’s a story, and Thelen wants to tell that story, and to do so he needs his dancers to act, he needs his singers to dance, and he needs his actors…well…to sing and dance…and there are different levels of talent out there on the rehearsal floor. It is most apparent with the dancers – some work though their routines focused on where they place their feet, how they move their bodies, in essence, wrapped up in the dance, in the moment, and some are still tentative, their feet moving but their eyes seeking out Underwood’s, searching to see if he has seen they have made a mistake or, simply, don’t know what they are doing at the moment, where they are supposed to be. At this point, those unsure of the choreography are also keying off their fellow dancers, which means they are just a beat or two behind, always in “catch-up” mode.

Some of the indecisiveness is due to the fact that four of the cast members are working in Ivoryton’s current production of “All Shook Up,” which means that they have to leave rehearsals early or are simply not available. It presents one of many scheduling problems, but there are reasons for the double casting, some of which apply to all regional theaters and others that are unique to Ivoryton. As Hubbard outlined them in an email, “a longer contract is good for nonunion actors. They get EMC (Equity Membership Candidate) points towards admission to the union for every week they work. We can attract better non-union performers with a longer contract and perhaps an Equity card when it is done.”

But the reasons don’t stop there, they extend to the nature of the business, for as Hubbard pointed out, “we often cast actors in the spring and then lose them before the show opens to [productions on] cruise ships or bigger theaters. A longer contract lessens that possibility.” Finally, there’s the situation that’s not totally unique to Ivoryton but that bedevils Hubbard, and that is housing. As she explained, “during the overlap week I struggle to find housing for all of the actors. If four of them are in both shows then that’s four less beds I have to find that week. It may not seem like much, but in my world it is a major motivating factor.” The mundane weighed against the magic -- let’s create a world of sparkle and glitter, but where will those who give off the light sleep at night?

Whatever the limitations and the challenges, Underwood works through them, building dance numbers step by step, patiently making minor adjustments – placement or arc of an arm, movement of a fan. He calls for another run-through of what he has just taught his dancers, snapping his fingers and humming the music they will eventually hear. It is, as LePorte commented, a matter, at least at this point in the rehearsal process, of numbers, for the dancers are moving to music that is not being played, music that they can only imagine in their heads. It is, obviously, a challenge, but if they can eventually execute the steps without music how much better will their performances be once they can actually hear the band, once their bodies will be able to respond to actual beat, tempo and rhythm…when there will finally be music to dance to?

A half-hour into Underwood’s part of the rehearsal he finally sets up a playback system and lets his dancers hear the music they will be dancing to. It’s the finale, and before there’s a run-through Underwood works out, as best he can, the movement of white-feathered fans the dancers will use to reveal the new Cagelles, i.e., the Dindon family in drag as they attempt to escape the paparazzi. The dancers play with their fans, then attempt to mimic what Underwood has shown them.

                                              The Cagelles get their fans

“Don’t worry, there’ll be a fan class,” Underwood tells them. A “fan class?” Yes, time will be set aside during rehearsals to train the dancers on how to open, flourish and close their fans. It is all in the…multitudinous…details.

Up until now, almost all of the dance rehearsals have involved the ensemble members, primarily the Cagelles, but the leads are involved in many of the numbers and it is now time to insert them into the choreography. The finale calls for Georges, La Cage’s emcee, to dance with the Cagelles. The first reveal with the fans will introduce him into the number. Underwood has the Cagelles work through the number to the point where Georges appears – it’s a bit rough but Underwood calls out, “Looks like it’s going to work.” Then there’s another run-through, this time with Van Treuren involved – he takes up space that hasn’t been taken up before, in essence, an unknown quantity. The Cagelles work to accommodate this new presence – the result is tentative. Another run-through, and then another, and it starts to come together…not perfect, but there’s the outline of what will finally appear on stage.

Underwood brings it all to a halt after a final run-through. “Okay,” he says, “this is all clear as mud, right? Or maybe clear as dirty water?” There’s nothing in his voice that suggests it all shouldn’t be as it is right now. For the cast, all is well, regardless of Underwood’s private thoughts. It comes down to a matter of trust – the cast must trust that Underwood knows what he is doing and knows where he is going, and Underwood must trust that what he has just seen will, over time – very limited time – be refined, will actually all come together, that the dirt will settle and the water will become crystal clear.

The Stumble-Through – First run-through of Act One
Tuesday, July 29

There comes a time when you have to see if the pieces you’ve been carving out actually fit in some kind of order. The cast is now one week into rehearsal, and some might suggest that they aren’t ready yet for a run-through of an entire act, but the first preview is only eight days away. There’s not much choice. At least the question of how to handle the “cage” on stage has been resolved. Nischan has come up with the idea of treating it like a giant beach umbrella: when it is needed it will unfold and rise, when no longer needed it will collapse and be carted off. “It’s such a simple solution,” Thelen says, “and it solves the problem of space, of storage, where to put it when not needed.”

                                          Zach Trimmer and James Van Treuren
                                          rehearse the "Anne on My Arm" number

It’s 10 a.m. and Gonzalez calls, “We’re here.” Those cast members involved in the morning rehearsals are now on the clock. The first number Thelen runs through, which calls for a mix of choreography and blocking, is the “Anne On My Arm” number, when Jean-Michel (Zach Trimmer) announces to Georges that he is in love and wants to marry, the plot point that will initiate much of what happens for the rest of the show. Van Treuren and Trimmer run through the scene as some of the dancers wander in. Underwood and Thelen make suggestions as the dancers, in the corner, put band aids on their toes (most have been rehearsing in heels) and begin stretching, limbering up.

                                          Dyllan Vallier stretching before rehearsal

Thelen and Underwood pause to discuss a transition as Young, the butler/maid, glides around the rehearsal hall, possibly practicing some steps, possibly just working off energy and getting ready for his scene. As he moves, the skirt he is wearing is in constant motion – it flutters, it swirls, it twirls.

                                    Phil Young seeking his "inner Jacob" before rehearsal

At 10:30 it’s time to merge Edwards with the Cagelles in the “La Cage Aux Folles” number. Underwood runs through the number with Edwards as most of the cast chats in the corner, mostly about make-up – base, foundation, white cover-up. “Can we keep it down to a dull roar,” Gonzalez calls out. Immediately voices drop.

With Morris at the piano, Underwood coaches Edwards and four of the Cagelles – Patrick Heffernan, Lincoln Ward, Dyllan Vallier and Xavier Reyes – moving Edwards through the routine that the dancers have already rehearsed. Some of the dancers seem more comfortable than others, and Edwards, perhaps remembering past choreography of this number, is tentative. Then there’s a run-through of the second part of the number, followed by a Can Can sequence with all eight Cagelles now on the floor. The cast runs through the number three, four, five times, all while Thelen sits behind a table and silently watches the proceedings.

                                   Edwards, second from left, rehearsing with the
                                   Cagelles: Heffernen, Ward and Xavier Reyes.

He can see that the Cagelles are still at different comfort levels with the choreography; he can also hear that some of them are selling the song while others seem to be holding back vocally. In just over a week they will be performing before an audience. It has to be a concern for him, but he’s experienced and realistic.

“You have to learn to back off,” he said as the Cagelles and Edwards begin another run-through. “You’re throwing a lot at them, too much in too short a time. It’s best to let them go home and sleep on it, then start over, begin again tomorrow.”

Time is running out. Thelen wants to begin a “stumble though” of the first act at noon, but there’s still another number to deal with, the “Mascara” number, which involves Edwards sitting at his dressing table and transforming his character, Albin, into the exotic Zaza. As props and the dressing table are arranged, Edwards wanders by the director’s table, smiles, and says, “Have you ever been in a room with so many men in high heels?” He shrugs, then walks to the dressing table and takes his place. As he performs the number, first alone and then joined by the Cagelles, the confidence level of the dancers seems to rise. The number seems to be further along than the ones already rehearsed; the dancers seem a bit more sure of themselves. Although Edwards has some questions about timing – how much time to put on the make-up, to don his costume – his performance seems to send a message to the rest of the cast, a message that will be doubled and then tripled before the end of the stumble-through.

                                             Edwards rehearsing "Mascara"

Throughout the process, Underwoood makes comments and gentle suggestions to the dancers. They listen and then respond with “Thank you.” It’s as if there’s an unwritten code dealing with how corrections are made and how corrections are received, a decorum  that seems both outdated and yet appropriate, for egos are involved in both the giving and receiving of corrections, the atmosphere, although not tense, is influenced by the ticking of the clock and the striking off of days on the calendar. If someone – either in the cast or on the artistic staff – were to “cop an attitude,” this fragile yet functional “womb” that Thelen, Underwood and Morris have created to allow the musical to gestate would be torn apart and the child growing in it would be born deformed.

The time approaches for the run-through. Underwood pauses at the director’s table. “I’m pleased with where we are right now,” he says. “We’ll go through the run-through to see where the holes are. The cast, well, they’re supportive, open, willing to try different things.” Then he shrugs. “I’ll be happier by the end of the week.” He turns and glances over at his dancers. “Some are strong dancers, some are strong singers, some are strong actors, but as a group there’s a great amalgamation of talent.”

Thelen calls the cast together and readies them for the run-through. He echoes Underwood – “We know there are holes. When you get to one of those holes just follow your own path, your own instincts. When we’re done we’ll try and fix the problems. There’s not a lot of time to say, ‘Can we rethink this?’ We can’t. We don’t have the luxury.”

It’s noon. Gonzalez calls out, “Clear the stage.” Van Treuren surreptitiously blesses himself as the cast divides, some going to what is now stage left, others going stage right. A subtle electricity pulses through the room. No, there’s no audience, there’s no orchestra, there are no lights and costumes, there’s no make-up, but for the first time those assembled are about to perform as a cast, about to see what they have accomplished individually and collectively over the past week – how far they have come and how far they still have to go.

Morris plays the introduction and then…”We Are What We Are” – the number that opens the show. Over the next hour the cast works to tell a story, to entertain. Some scenes just fizzle out – a hole has been reached. There’s confusion. Other scenes seem to flow, to work. As Underwood and Thelen take notes, the cast soldiers through scene after scene, pausing only for prop changes or an occasional “hold” called by Thelen, Underwood or Morris when something is going obviously off-track.

Lines are dropped, lyrics are jumbled. The actors, most of whom are now off-book, frequently call out to Gonzalez – “Line!” She cues them and the run-through goes forward. Jean-Michel announces that he’s going to marry Anne – Georges is faced with telling Albin that Albin must, in essence, disappear when Anne’s parents arrive – Georges and Albin dance, Underwood coaching them through the steps. Anne and Jean-Michel exit quickly from a scene and run into a metal costume bar.

Eventually, the run-through reaches the finale of the first act. There’s no telling what each of the cast members is thinking, but there has to be concern – it’s still so ragged, still so unformed, still so tentative…and then something happens, something that Hubbard and Thelen and Underwood thought might happen when Edwards auditioned for the role back in April.

Edward’s character, Albin, has just been told that he must excuse himself for the evening so that Anne’s parents will not be shocked by the lifestyle in which Jean Michel has been raised. Distraught and hurt, Albin still has a number to perform. He joins the Cagelles on stage as they begin to sing “We Are What We Are,” but he can’t go through with the number. He tells the Cagelles to leave – he will perform the number alone – and then proceeds to sing “I Am What I Am.”

                                         Edwards rehearsing "I Am What I Am"

There is no tentativeness, no confusion. As the cast, totally quiet, totally focused on Edwards’ performance, sits in the corners of the rehearsal hall, Edwards’ character, via song, emanates the pain of rejection while at the same time demands to be accepted for who he is. It’s a complete, totally moving performance, and when it is over there is silence, followed by applause.

Whatever doubts the cast might have had about what they have been doing, what they have been creating, have, at least for the moment, been dispelled. Edwards’ performance has told them in no uncertain terms that, “We have a show. We have something to say to an audience.”

The run-through is over. There’s a break while Thelen, Underwood and Morris discuss the lead-in to Edwards’ finale. It’s about motivation and mood. Thelen suggests that the Cagelles intro – the start of “We Are What We Are” -- should be more up-tempo, more fun, so that the Cagelles frivolity, gaiety, grates so on Albin, is so contrary to his current mood, that it provides the motivation for him to kill the number and do what he does.

Morris plays the intro, speeding up the tempo. Thelen nods, then asks, “Can it be faster?”

He turns to Underwood. “Can the Cagelles be moving, not just standing there?” Underwood thinks, then closes his eyes and begins moving his hands, envisioning the movement Thelen is asking for. “Yes,” he says, twirling his hands, “they can…” He doesn’t finish his sentence, simply continues to move his hands. If the three of them can pull this off, accomplish what Thelen envisions, then Edwards’ performance will be even more powerful, more moving, will send the audience out into the night to get a breath of fresh air eager to get back into the theater, wanting to see what happens, wanting to see how the story ends.

After the break, Thelen calls the cast together and asks them to take chairs. It’s time for notes, but before they are handed out, Thelen has some comments.

“We need to clean up a lot of things,” he says, “but I think the storytelling works quite well. However, there’s a lot of ‘thinking’ going on on-stage; we need to get past that.” What he is referring to is the tentativeness, the eyes of the cast looking out at the creative staff for approval. The cast has yet to take on the show as its own – that won’t happen for a while, may not happen until the second week of the run, but Thelen needs to address the self-consciousness that is evident.

He addresses the Cagelles – when the close of the opening number was first rehearsed he asked for immediate groaning and griping from the Cagelles, asked the actors to individually project their characters. It didn’t happen in the ‘stumble-through,’ so: “You need to be more vocal, and you need to do it immediately.”

Thelen cedes the floor to Morris, who notes that some cuts have been made in the score. Then he emphasizes the importance of the actors not on-stage during chorus numbers to sing along, to add to the total effect. To do that they have to be taught the numbers, which he says he will do over the coming days.

Thelen interjects: “Back-stage singing does make a difference.”

Then it’s Underwood’s turn to address the cast. He hands out notes, talks a bit about timing, especially in the “Mascara” number, then reiterates that there’s a lot to do, but he doesn’t leave it there.

“Yes,” he says, “we’ve got some things to do, but…congratulations, congratulations, congratulations.”

Smiles appear on tired faces. No, the show is not perfect, it’s far from perfect…yet…it’s come a long way and, yes, congratulations are in order.

The Tenth Rehearsal – Reversals…and Life
Friday, Aug. 1 –One week from opening night

Nothing is etched in stone, nothing ever goes truly as planned, and nothing can stop the real world from impinging on the “world” actors create up on the stage.

The rehearsal schedule for Friday, Aug. 1, calls for Edwards and Van Treuren to show at 10 a.m. to work with Underwood on the reprise of the “You On My Arm” scene, a dance number that has Georges cajoling Albin out of his funk about Jean-Michel’s announcement that he intends to marry. Perhaps the timing is prophetic, for Edwards has other, greater concerns to ponder – before arriving at the rehearsal hall he was informed that his 88-year-old father had passed away. It was not a shock – the man had been suffering from Parkinson’s, was in a hospice in Virginia, and the end was long expected, but…

“I’m not sad, in a way,” Edwards said. “There’s just an empty feeling…a hole…and I don’t know what to do with that.”

Edwards won’t be leaving the show, won’t be missing any rehearsals. His father’s remains will be brought back to New York, where most of his family and friends lived, and where his wife, who died when Edwards was in his early 20s, is buried. There will be a memorial ceremony…after the show.

Gonzalez calls “We’re in” and the rehearsal begins. Underwood guides Edwards and Van Treuren through the sequence, counting out the numbers. Perhaps Edwards is distracted by the news, perhaps not, but he continues to miss steps.

“Stop,” Underwood calls out.

“That’s the hard part for me,” Edwards says. “In the old version (referring to a previous production of “La Cage” he was in), it was like this.” He does a quick routine. “Now it’s…” He does a faster routine. Underwood acknowledges the problem – his answer: “Let’s do it again.”

As Edwards and Van Treuren go through the routine, Underwood is counting out the numbers: “ Ah one, ah two, ah three, ah four…” Now it’s Van Treuren that has a problem with the steps and the count. “Okay, it’s on a two,” he says, “never on a one.”

                                        Van Treuren and Edwards work through
                                        a dance routine with Underwood.

Underwood: “No, it’s never on a one.” He gestures to Van Treuren, intending to show him the next steps in the sequence. “I’m going to do him now,” he says.

“Oh, you sweet talker,” Edwards says…and it seems the actor is back into the rehearsal process, problems set aside, his natural wit once again apparent.

As Underwood continues to work with the two actors to refine the routine, the problem of what might be called “show memory” becomes more manifest. It’s not that Edwards and Van Treuren don’t understand what Underwood is showing them, what he’s asking them to do. Intellectually they get it, but their legs want to do something else, something those legs have done many times before. Edwards voices the problem: “We’re still thinking of the old rhythm, that’s what’s in our heads.”

There are several more run-throughs – now with Morris on the piano -- each one just a bit better, but it’s still not there yet. After another run-through Van Treuren asks: “Are we singing at this point?’ Underwood: “Yes, you’re singing.” Edwards: “And patting our stomachs.”

Thelen, who has been watching the entire process, now suggests: “Wait until the end. He’s going to ask you to juggle three balls.”

One more run-through. Van Treuren: “It’s so simple.” Edwards: “Not for me.”

There’s now a discussion of some lines that are in the scene. In the old script, Albin would say he can’t dance and Georges would tell him that he can. In the revised version the lines have been reversed, and Edwards suggests that they revert to the former script. “That gets me off the hook,” he says facetiously, implying that his line will cover whatever mistakes he makes in the routine.

Thelen considers the request. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he says, “but when I read through the script and got to that part I thought – this is better. Zaza is the one who has been on stage – it makes sense that she’s the one who can dance.”

It’s decided the scene will be played as now written. “Okay,” Edwards says, turning to Van Treuren, “that gets you off the hook.”

Back to the routine. Underwood adds more steps, then says, “Why don’t we try to sing and dance at the same time.” The two actors laugh and give it a whirl, but there’s still a problem. Near the end of the routine Van Trueren is down-stage from Edwards and he has to make a move to get back up-stage and then immediately be in sync with Edwards for the close, when the two each lift one leg and offer air kisses to each other – it just isn’t working; the timing is off. Of the final pose, Edwards says: “I just hope they don’t applaud too long…we’ll fall over.”

Van Treuren calls for a brief “water break.” It’s granted, and Edwards asks, “Does anyone have any gin?” Several minutes later they’re back at it again, and the problem with Van Treuren joining Edwards up-stage is still there. Underwood calls another halt and, as he does, Van Treuren goes up on his right foot and spins. “What if I do a ‘gentle pirouette,’ he says. He spins again. Underwood considers the move, then nods. “Let’s try it.” It works. Van Treuren is with Edwards up-stage when he should be, they do their final steps and they offer air kisses.

Actors have scripts, musicians and singers have scores, but dancers, or those learning dance routines, have no printed reference to take home and practice with, but they do practice when they are not in rehearsal. Underwood suggested that dancers have their own idiosyncratic ways of “memorizing” what they are supposed to perform.

“I would write it in my script,” he explains. “You know, here’s where we do the ‘twinkle,’ here’s where we do the ‘sailor.’ Dancers all have their own shorthand, but it’s less about the steps, it’s how does my body get to the next ‘thing.’

Referring to the paces he has just put Edwards and Van Treuren through: “You have to get your body re-acclimated to dancing. There are several steps to that, and the third step is when they add their own ‘isms’ to it, they make the routine their own.”

That Van Treuren’s suggestion about the pirouette worked, that it allowed him to make the transition up-stage with greater facility, didn’t surprise Underwood. “When you see someone execute something they’re comfortable with – well, you go with it. It’s a collaboration.”

As Edwards, Van Treuren and Underwood were wrapping up what they were working on other actors started showing up. One brings another bit of life from outside the realm of the theater, a bit of reality that she shares: she had walked into her daughter’s room earlier in the morning only to be confronted by a masterful example of fecal smearing: on face, clothes, crib…and anything else little hands could reach. A quick visit to the tub and then a conversation with the significant other – and then off to rehearsal. And so it goes. Edwards, listening to the story, says to her: “I just thought you were wearing a new perfume.”

                              Webb, Samantha Lane Talmadge, Vidmar and Cori Stolbun
                              work on an ensemble number they will sing off-stage.

Morris works with the female members of the cast on the off-stage singing that will add depth to many of the Cagelles’ numbers, then Thelen begins working on the scene that has the Dindons arriving for their visit. The scene has already been blocked but nothing is actually set, and as the rehearsal progresses there’s a lot of standing around and discussion about movement and motivation. The actors will play perhaps 10 seconds of the scene and then Thelen will stop them and make a comment – they are not always cogent, as he himself admits. He makes one suggestion – the actors comply – and Thelen’s response is “No, I hate that. I don’t even believe that,” referring to why an actor should make a particular cross. Thelen makes another suggestion to have Webb, the actress playing Anne, make a cross – before she even attempts that he has second thoughts: “No, no – I know – it’s cheesy.”

At 2:30 the Cagelles appear and they are soon integrated into the scenes. Attention now turns to the chase scene near the end of the second act. “It’s the whole crazy scene that involves the Cagelles and the Dindons and just about everyone else,” Morris says, “and nobody knows yet what’s going on in this scene.”

Most of the actors are now off-book, but some are still carrying around pages from the script. This adds to the raggedness of the scenes as actors pause to check their lines. No one comments, but everyone is aware that these lines have to be down very soon – after all, they are a mere five days away from the first preview.

Underwood takes the cast through the chase scene, which requires the Dindons, seeking to escape the den of debauchery that they believe they have uncovered, being confronted by pairs of Cagelles, including two that will be at the bottom of the stage stairs. Underwood directs them in an intricate weave of Cagelles and other cast members that, at first, looks like a Chinese fire drill. After several run-throughs the scene starts to take shape, but there’s the possibility that most of this work will be for naught. The reality of the Ivoryton stage, the steepness and limited depth of the actual stage stairs and the proximity of the audience may all require a re-thinking of the scene, but that’s for another day, a day when cast and creative staff can actually start working on the stage.

                                                 The Cagelles rehearse with fans
                                                 for a second-act ensemble number

As Thelen watches Underwood put the cast through its paces, he worries a bit about what he and the cast will find when they actually have access to the stage. “They (meaning members of the production staff) are so behind I don’t know if we will be able to do the tech rehearsal on Sunday.” He’s also concerned about the set designs, designs that have been discussed since the first production meeting. “What we talked about and what we are getting are two different things.”

                                                 The theater on Friday, Aug. 1

There’s a sense that this is a classic disconnect that, in the business world, is manifested in the perpetual sales-marketing friction. In an e-mail, Hubbard offered a different perspective. There has been, from the onset, a difference of opinion between Thelen and Long with regards to the set. As Hubbard wrote, “Because of the limitations of our small stage and the lack of wing space, Cully wanted a more abstract, conceptual design. Larry really wanted more realism.”

Hubbard pointed out that the cast’s access to the stage was not totally limited by any delays on the production crew’s part. Morris had requested a band rehearsal on stage for Friday, which meant that regardless of the state of the set, the cast would not have access to the stage until Saturday.

Pragmatically, Hubbard commented: “Bottom line is that this is the most stressful time in the production process for everyone.” She added that, “Once we are through with tech everyone will breathe a little easier and next year they will have completely forgotten that they wanted to kill each other at this point.”

An Interlude – The Cagelles
Saturday, August 2 – before rehearsal

The eight actors – Carlos Chang, LePorte, Jay Garrick, Vallier, Ward, Benda, Reyes and Patrick Heffernan -- playing the Cagelles gathered before rehearsal to talk about being in the production, beginning with the casting call back in April.

Most had opinions about that casting call, and casting calls in general. Ward started the conversation by suggesting that “I’ve always thought the hardest part is just showing up, because you have so many other things to do that sometimes it’s easier to just make your day about something else other than the reason why you’re in the city. You have to remind yourself why you’re there…I tell myself that every day.”

Other than just committing to the casting call there were other concerns. As LePorte explained, “Before the ‘La Cage’ audition, I was actually a little nervous because I had never danced in heels before. I was worried that I was going to roll one of my ankles.”

There were other reasons for nerves, one of them being how the casting call had been announced. Chang explained: “That call was a complete mess-up on Backstage (referring to the casting call listings on the Backstage web site). They had a totally different call time, so I got there at, ah, ten to eleven, and the call was actually from nine to eleven, so I was in the last group, right at the last minute (many who were finally cast were in that last group). We had to get into our outfits in like ten seconds and get into the room and I didn’t even know if it was for ‘La Cage’ or ‘All Shook Up,’ so it was like, ‘What are we doing…Go!’ but actually it was hilarious because we didn’t have time to think or over-think. It was ‘…five-six-seven-eight go.’”

Whatever anxiety the actors were feeling was lessened by how Underwood, Thelen, Hubbard and Morris ran the call, supportive rather than intimidating. As Vallier explained, “I got that immediately. I hadn’t done a dance call in, like, forever, let alone for a professional company, but as soon as Todd started teaching us and Jacqui was getting people together I immediately got a sense of community and family in the company and so I became a little less nervous, because going in I thought it would be this big scary thing with the choreographer standing in the corner with his or her nose up, intimidating, but that wasn’t the case at all.”

Benda took a more philosophical approach to that morning and casting in general. There’s always an element of doubt about what the company is looking for, what the production needs. “All of us have a wide range of audition experience,” he said. “A lot of us have been in those auditions where it’s been very high stakes, but what I’ve learned is that casting is a crap shoot and you can never figure out who likes you or who doesn’t like you, why they cast you or why they didn’t cast your friend. I know there were probably people in that audition who – well, ‘Oh, for sure, he’s gonna get it or she’s gonna get it, and I’m screwed,’ and then, for whatever reason, they don’t get it. It’s kinda a ‘who you know’ kind of business and your reputation stands for itself. And there’s the, ‘Okay, we already have a tall blond boy, so we need a short Hispanic.” There’s laughter. There are several short, Hispanic members of the Cagelles.

                                The eight Cagelles rehearsing with Van Treuren

Heffernan takes the philosophical approach even further by turning the tables and suggesting that an audition is a two-way street. “As an actor,” Heffernan said, “it’s kind of our chance to audition the theater. With these summer stock theaters, there’s not a ton they can offer us, especially as far as money goes, so we do have a little bit of selection that we can start to make. You go to a call and somebody is not treating you very well – yes, we want the job, we want to perform – but you’re getting a chance to see what it’s going to be like to work with these people and if that doesn’t speak to you, it’s not going to give you the experience that you want to have, why put yourself through that? So, when you have a place that just seems very welcoming, very inviting, where people are going to work from a creative standpoint, understand the process and work with you, it makes it very appealing and attractive to the actor to want to work in a theater like this one.”

While actors have been memorizing their scripts and singers and musicians have been going over their scores, the dancers have been working through their routines (often without musical accompaniment) , but there’s no written reference for what they are being asked to do, no script they can go back to. Vallier spoke to this point: “Aside from the muscle memory of each number…” he said, “I mean, while I’m doing it I don’t necessarily think about which number I’m trying to get to next, it just kind of happens. What I like about different choreographers is their lingo, how they’ll go about teaching. Todd – I’ll remember him as just ‘Boom!’ and that move and that flourish – all the quirky little vocabulary that they have.” Vallier also appreciates that Underwood is basically one of them, he has acted in this particular show, he understands what they are going through, as Vellier put it, “He understands our world.” That often means understanding very simple things, such as the stress for men (and women) of rehearsing hours on end in heels. Some choreographers will demand that male dancers wear the heels throughout the rehearsal day, but Underwood has told the Cagelles that when they are not on, “you can take your shoes off.” It sounds like a small thing, but to aching feet, it’s a godsend, and the dancers appreciate the gesture. “He’s very understanding about our bodies,” Vallier said.

                                                    Rehearsing in heels

Ward explained that there’s more to the process, that it is much like when an athlete trains for his or her particular sport. “When I’m laying in bed,” he explained, “I go through everything in my head to commit it to memory, but what it really comes down to is what we do as a group...we key off each other. Yesterday, both Jay and I knew what we were supposed to do but because neither one of us did it, we both didn’t do it.”

Perhaps they are attempting to describe the inexplicable, a process that simply can’t accurately be put into words. “There’s no way to explain ‘pick-up,’ though,” Benda commented, referring to how fast or how slow the particular dancer is taking in the direction “All of us went to programs to learn how to be a professional. You work on  your ‘pick-up,’ or you don’t work. When you go to auditions, the amount of time they have to audition a large group of people is very small. So, like with Todd, to get through all of those people at the call and see what they can do…if you don’t pick up the steps, don’t give it your own individual flair…” He shrugged, and the shrug said it all.

So there’s “muscle-memory,” visualization and “pick-up,” but Reyes suggested there was something else, what one might call the Zen approach to being a dancer. “It’s all about being present,” he said, “being in tune with the director. Just focus, be present, try to be on the same plane and in the same mentality as the director. I can’t talk or do other things in rehearsal, I need to be with the director or the choreographer and try to understand the vision, the sense of the number.”

There’s that, and then there’s the more mundane approach. “I also write things down,” Le Porte said. “When there’s a lot of direction it helps me, personally. I’ll go home and write down my numbers, track the pattern, your road map.”

The conversation veered to the show they were rehearsing and the fact that there just isn’t a lot of time to do what needs to be done. Vallier commented: “This is my first summer stock job. People talk about it at school, but I always wondered how do you put up a full-production show in just two weeks? That’s absurd. Doing shows in school you always had this longer production period – you had a month or two months. I don’t know what it is about here, but it just hasn’t been that overwhelming. We learned these huge production numbers in just a matter of days and now we’re running them and it makes sense. It all seems to come full circle.”

“It comes together,” LePorte added. “When you get into the theater it comes together for everyone. We don’t work with the band until maybe two days before the first preview, but it will feel like we’ve worked with them for years. Everything just comes into focus. It will happen here.”

Given there is so little time to stage the production, missing just a day of rehearsal can prove disconcerting. Chang had asked for permission to miss the rehearsal on the previous Tuesday, the day of the “stumble-through” of the first act, so that he could make an invitation-only dance call for a production of “Evita.” Permission had been granted and Chang apparently did well, for he was on call-back for the upcoming Monday, but missing that single day has presented problems for him. “I missed the ‘stumble-through,’” he said. “I have a little sense of…well, not terror…but I don’t feel I know how the pieces fit together yet, because once you know your little part you have to figure out how that part fits into the bigger picture of the entire show, and there are some things that you are totally not in but it’s those pieces that influence what you do – when are we going on…after what line, after what song? That’s what I don’t have yet.”

One of the pieces is the chase scene near the end of the second act, and on Friday, Underwood worked with the Cagelles and the other involved cast members in staging the scene. The results were, to put it kindly, just a bit rough, especially since the staging involved movement down the stage stairs which, of course, were not there, as well as movement in the front of the house, right before the first row. There was a lot of weaving and crossing…and several collisions just four days before the scene would be performed in front of an audience. The Cagelles did not seem overly concerned.

                              Heffernen and Vallier strike a pose for the start of a scene

“That’s kind of normal,” Benda commented. “I mean, when you do big production numbers like that and adding principals and dancers to it, you’re just getting a rough road map – you start here and you’re going here, but there’s a lot that we can’t really do until we’re on the stage with the actual set.”

Yet, it is just four days away from the first preview, and not every dancer is happy about learning a new routine this late in the process. As Reyes explained, “Right now, I’m not in the mood for learning new choreography, I’m in the mood to rehearse what we’ve already done, really learning it. It can be a little tough to be one day away from tech and to learn new choreography. I want to polish what I have.”

“That was tentative choreography,” Chang said. “Okay, learn it, but it might change.”

Vallier pulled the conversation back to more general terms, commenting on how the group of eight Cagelles has become a working, cohesive unit, much like a squad in the military will form bonds that will carry the unit through good times and bad. “There are the big production scenes and the chase scene and all of the back-stage scenes,” he said, “but what I love about our little group is that we just somehow click and come together and it all makes sense once we consult each other. I love the sense of ensemble that we get here.”

That feeling of “ensemble” extends beyond the rehearsal hours. When not in rehearsal the eight dancers will often gather to talk about various numbers, decide to wear their heels for the entire day even though they are not rehearsing, talk about the application of make-up (some have never had to apply the make-up required for the show) and actually have a make-up party, go out together as a group of an evening to do a bit of carousing, rehearse and critique each other’s dance steps. It is, quite simply, a bonding process that will enhance the show and their lives, for if there is one group in the show that understands that “it’s not about me, it’s about us,” it’s the Cagelles. Yet none of them are misty-eyed or overly sentimental about the profession. They understand the life they have chosen.

“This all takes work,” Reyes said. “You’re almost naked up on stage,” referring to the scanty costumes that they will be wearing, but the comment goes deeper and speaks to every actor’s experience, for all actors are “naked” on stage, and that ‘nakedness’ can sometimes have negative consequences. “You turn into a product when you are an actor,” Reyes said, “so you have to work to maintain outside relationships, personal work – family, girlfriends, boyfriends – that sounds odd but it’s part of the work outside of rehearsals. There’s work on different levels, like mental work, Yoga, to be a better human being.”

One of the things the Cagelles have found odd about rehearsing at Ivoryton is the lack of mirrors in the rehearsal hall, mirrors that allow them to watch themselves as they learn their routines, help them “imbed” the steps in their minds. “I love looking at myself,” Reyes offered, to immediate chiding and laughter from the others. He shrugged it off and explained, “The mirror is a learning tool, your friend.”

Heffernan added: “Mirrors would have helped…I’m not as familiar with the style of ‘being a girl,’ so mirrors would have helped me with that – beveling my leg or putting my hand on my hip. I don’t know what I look like. I’m just looking at other people and trying to put my body in that position.”

Vallier would have also liked to have mirrors available, but he had a different take on their absence. “We used them in classes and in school,” he said, “and when I got here I thought -- we don’t have mirrors -- what are we going to do -- but I found it to be like a little physical awareness exercise. Okay, I’m always this far away from these two people. A lot of shows you use the mirrors to learn the choreography and then they take away the mirrors and you’re back to square one or square two and there’s a lot of cleaning to do, Here, we don’t have to go back to square one or two, we’ve already done that.”

Vallier took a breath, and then commented on his time so far at Ivoryton. “This is my first professional experience,” he said, “and I’m having so much fun. I really like working with all of these people. It reminds me, when my feet hurt and I want to take a nap, why I love doing what I do. It reminds me why I go through the trouble of putting on three-inch heels for a couple of hours.”

Vallier had suddenly created a reflective mood, and Ward responded. “The ensemble really has to have each other’s back, because anything can happen. We’ll be running around and someone might need his wig adjusted or his costume changed and he just needs a hand. Especially with the dance formations, you have to be aware of everyone around you – if you’re up there for yourself, you rush through something and hit someone or trip someone, it’s game over.”

Heffernan chimed in: “When you have three-inch heels on you can easily fall over if you are distracted. There’s no time to ‘wander.’” And then LePorte: “It’s scary up there.”

The Technical/Dress Rehearsals
Part One -- Sunday, Aug 3

If anyone walked into the theater at Ivoryton on Sunday morning and was told that in just three days an audience would fill the house to watch “La Cage,” he would have shaken his head in disbelief, for the theater looks like it is holding a yard sale of objects gathered from a deranged hoarder’s apartment.

                                             Theater house on Sunday, Aug. 3

The first eight rows of seating are non-existent (stacked to the rear of the house). In their place, gathered on tables, chairs and the floor, is an amazing collection of lights, props, wires, paintings, broken chairs, dusty stemware, silverware, mannequins, artificial flowers, hammers, screwdrivers, a forest of ladders and objects whose names and uses are known only but to God and the production crew.

Adding to the visual chaos is a cacophony of chiming church bells, the band warming up, doorbells ringing (actually, trilling) and a hand-held drill whirring and whining. All in all it is a scene that could well have been painted by Hieronymus Bosch entitled “The Garden of Thespian Despair.”

Amidst the chaos sits Gonzalez and Doug Harry, the show’s lighting designer. Although Thelen and Undwrwoood are in charge of this rehearsal, it will often be Gonzalez and Harry who set the pace, or lack of pace, for the entire day, for each lighting cue must be typed into the computer, then the results evaluated, then changes made. It is, to say the least, a laborious process that does not allow for a smooth run-through of the show. It is, for the cast, a necessary evil.

                                         Gonzalez and lighting director Doug Henry
                                         at the start of tech rehearsal

As the cast deals with its costumes and make-up in the dressing room, Thelen walks the stage, asks a question about a costume rack prop, then turns to Nischan for a conversation about how the barn doors will open and close. The reality of Ivoryton’s stage and the set itself dictates that a lot of the work done in the rehearsal hall will have to be modified or simply tossed. For example, the narrowness of the stage steps leading down to the house will dictate a radical modification of the chase scene near the end of the second act.

                                                 Thelen and Underwood ponder the
                                                 possibilities on the first day of tech rehearsal

As the production crew awaits the appearance of the actors, Hubbard walks into the theater. “The anxiety level downstairs is high – a lot about shoes and how costumes fit – but it will be okay.” Costumes are on her mind, for the day before she had received word that costume purchases she had made online with a company called Discount Stripper had been denied by the credit card company – she had gone over her daily spending limit – “Whatever the hell that is,” Hubbard said. Consequently, items that should be available to the cast are not. Hubbard – putting the charges on her personal credit card – has paid extra for overnight shipping. Whether it will actually happen remains to be seen.

“I had this one-hour conversation with the credit card woman about what I had ordered,” Hubbard said. Hubbard’s voice went flat, losing its British accent: “’Let’s see. You ordered one black corset, with or without restraints.’” She laughed, but behind the laughter is concern, for problems with the costumes – actually, lack of costumes at this stage of the game, had not been foreseen. Another thunderbolt from the theater gods.

The controlled chaos swirls around Gonzalez, who seems unfazed by it all. She quickly becomes the focal point for questions, problems and anything else that needs attention. As she is discussing a lighting cue with Harry someone leans over and whispers in her ear. She immediately calls out to Nazro: “Jo, can you go down and help the kiddies with their mike packs. Nothing under wigs.”

                                     Stage left: the decorated barn door is downstage,
                                     the wagon carrying part of the apartment set is upstage of it,
                                     leaving little room for entrances and exits

It’s an hour and a half into the first tech rehearsal and the actors are finally starting to appear in ones and twos. Van Treuren paces in front of the stage rehearsing his lines while Edwards stands with Hubbard and Thelen having an intense discussion about costumes…or lack of same. Every once in awhile a Cagelle appears in the wings, then disappears. Harry asks Van Treuren about his multiple entrances and exits in a scene to work out the lighting. “I’ll go through it if you’d like,’ Van Treuren says. “I’m dying to do something.” In that he speaks for many of the cast members.

                                     The cast assembles on stage before the start
                                     of the run-through of the show's first number

Finally, the cast is ready…maybe…and Thelen announces that they will try to go through the opening number. Gonzalez calls out: “Places for the top of the show, please.” After several moments the band begins the overture, and then Van Treuren makes his entrance and speaks several lines before: “Hold!” It will be a word heard often over the next 10 hours. In this case, as in many more to follow, the action is halted so a lighting cue can be adjusted. Another attempt is made to run through the first number. Van Treuren delivers six or seven lines and then, behind him, the rain curtain starts to close – then stops. “Hold!’ The pulley system for the curtain has broken. Nischan is called for. As the technical director tends to the problem, Van Treuren, still onstage, uses the lighting to make hand-shadow puppets against one of the flats – it’s going to be that kind of day.

                                                          The rain curtain

The scene starts again from the top, and this time the rain curtain opens at the wrong cue. “Hold!”

The Cagelles make their first appearance. “Hold!” Lighting needs to be set. Another attempt is made at doing a run-through of the opening scene. The Cagelles get through the first part of their routine. “Hold!” Gonzalez leans over to Harry and says: “We need to make it through the opening number by dinner.”

As the Cagelles stand about on stage waiting for the lighting to be adjusted, Vallier raises his arms. He’s in a bit of pain, for he and all the other Cagelles had shaved their armpits the previous evening. “I didn’t know this would hurt so much,” he says.

And so it will go, through the afternoon until dinner at 5 p.m., and then back at it again until 10 p.m. When a halt is finally called the cast has barely made it through the end of the first act. The hope that the cast and crew could do most of the tech work in one day – it remains to be seen if that had ever been a realistic goal – is dashed -- which leaves Tuesday as the last day to complete a full run-through of the show prior to the first preview. It will be a daunting task that will not be achieved, and one of the reasons is the dark cloud that has formed over the entire process: costumes.

Part two -- Tuesday, Aug. 5

                                                  Where to place the table for
                                                  the Chez Jacqueline scene?

Up on the stage, Thelen and Underwood work out the placement of tables for the act two scene at Jacqueline’s restaurant as Nischan sits in the house cutting strips of glitter cloth. “Glitter” has become a catch-word for the show, a mantra of sorts – when anything needs to be taken care of, when problems need to be seen to, “More glitter” is the phrase used, primarily by Gonzalez, who more and more is setting the tone for the rehearsals as the stress level rises – she is witty, somewhat acerbic, and often uses hyperbole to make her point, but she exudes calm and competence, two qualities desperately needed at this stage of the rehearsal process. Regardless of how she is actually feeling, she reacts to all problems as they arise as if they were expected and are no big deal.

Behind her, the first 10 rows of orchestra seating have still not been set up, though most of the “junk” has been removed, yet no one would know that in 24 hours an audience will be seated in the house,

Frank Calamaro, who plays Mr. Dindon, appears on stage and announces that he is having trouble getting his head mike to adhere to his face. Nazro calls out from high in the theater: “Use an alcohol wipe.” Calamaro nods and exits as Nazro begins to do sound level checks, working with each miked actor to make sure, among other things, that Morris, upstage on the platform with the band, can here what the actors are saying, and more importantly, singing. Hence, as the sound checks are made each actor must stand on stage, alone, and sing. All actors comply, dealing with feelings of self-consciousness as best they can as Nazro urges them to sing “at show level,” but it’s an oddly naked moment, one that speaks to the insecurities that lurk beneath the performing façade of almost all actors, for as they endure the sound checks they have no character to hide behind, no illusions…it just them up there on the stage, singing whatever comes to mind.

As the actors endure the sound checks, Hubbard appears in the theater, costumes still on her mind, for her payment of $150 for overnight delivery has not been money well spent – much of what she has ordered, she has learned, won’t arrive until Wednesday. She needs an alternative plan. “I’m calling sex toy stores right now,” she says. As the tech rehearsal finally gets underway, Hubbard shrugs and says, “I’m off to buy costumes.”

“Masculine,” the first scene to be dealt with, is the one in which Georges attempts to teach Albin to walk and talk “like a man.” As the actors tentatively work through the scene and go into the dance number it once again becomes apparent that what was staged in the rehearsal hall simply won’t work on the Ivoryton stage. At one point, Edwards gently jibes Underwood: “You said we’d have more room – you lied.”

                                                      Rehearsing "Masculine"

There’s another, inevitable, halt in the run-through, during which Van Treuren and  Edwards, on stage, engage Gonzalez in a conversation about costume changes, of which there are many, most within a limited amount of time. One change that bothers Edwards is the one in which he must exit dressed as “Uncle Al” only to appear minutes later as “Mother.” Should it be done in the green room (something of a holding pen for actors) or the dressing room? He opts for the dressing room – the green room can be chaotic and deadly to costumes and props.

Most of the other actors in the “Masculine” scene have gone down to the dressing room to change for upcoming scenes, but Gonzalez isn’t satisfied with how the stage hands handled the scene change. She makes a decision: “I need all those people back on stage.” Easier said than done. It takes precious minutes – for Thelen it seems like hours – for everyone to re-gather. Finally, they appear and run through the scene again, which calls for a chandelier to be lowered as part of Georges and Albin’s apartment. It appears from the theater’s limited fly space, shivers, jiggles and hangs at an awkward angle.

“We have a chandelier problem,” Gonzalez announces.

From the stage, Calamaro looks out into the house: “I don’t have time for my costume change.”

Gonzalez comments to Harry: “He’s got 10 minutes.”

On stage, Edwards turns to Calamaro: “If I can make it, you can make it.” Calamaro thinks a minute and nods – okay, he may well have enough time. Meanwhile, stagehands are moving the back panels – the ones that appear to create the apartment walls. The panels are either not sliding properly or, when they close, are not meshing. As the actors wait for something to happen the right panel is pulled back – and with a ‘thud” comes off its track.

Finally, the actors again start to rehearse. This time, it’s a scene with Jean-Michel and Georges. As the two actors deliver their lines, Long is down in the house ripping fabric and reupholstering a chaise using a heavy-duty stapler. A line of dialogue – Rip – Rip – another line of dialogue -- Crack – Crack. The actors seem to take no notice. Then Van Treuren begins to sing – but he can’t hear the piano accompaniment – something’s wrong with the feed to the speakers that rest on the lip of the stage. There’s a “Hold” as Nazro deals with the problem.

Then it’s on to another scene, which was worked on extensively in rehearsals, but Thelen has to re-block. There’s just too much visual confusion – the actors seem to be moving randomly or at odds with each other as tables are brought forward for the start of the Chez Jacqueline scene. Thelen asks the actors to run through the new blocking as he observes. “Tech is the hardest part of the show. It’s when all that you imagined has to accommodate what is realistic. It’s a constant series of compromises.”

                                     Underwood directing two of the Cagelles

It is now close to 2 p.m. – 24 hours away from when an audience will be sitting where Thelen is now standing. The back panels currently don’t function as they should, the chandelier is still hanging at an odd angle, wigs have fallen off, many of the cast members are not wearing the costumes they will eventually be performing in, the tech rehearsal is running late and the cast and crew have approximately six hours left to pull it all together, to get to the end of the show.

They won’t make it. They will all go into the first preview without having done an entire on-stage run-through, heightening the anxiety level and compelling Hubbard, by Equity rules, to announce to the audience members the following afternoon at the first preview that what they will be seeing is the first time the cast has run through the entire production complete with costumes, props and everything else that is required to stage the show. She takes the edge off by telling the audience her experience with Discount Stripper, giving them a little glimpse into her world. The audience loves it…and then Morris nods, gives the down-beat – and the show, in front of a live audience, is, for better or worse, on. Two hours later, the cast is given a standing ovation.

And so it goes.   

Opening Night
Friday, Aug, 8

Whatever problems the cast and crew have faced over the entire process of bringing “La Cage” to life, the fate of the show is, by and large, now in the hands of the cast. The actors have had three previews to see how the show plays before an audience – where the laughs are – where they are not – what seems to work and what doesn’t – where and how the audience responds (something that can be measured not just by applause but by the electricity, or lack of same, that flows up from the audience).

                                 Hubbard giving her curtain talk on opening night

In a perfect world they would have had two or three weeks of previews to clean up the show. In a perfect world they would have had all their costumes rigged. They didn’t, and that’s reality. However, the three previews have definitely brought about something very specific – over the past two days Edwards has, in essence, lost his voice. He sought treatment and was given a massive dose of cortisone, with maintenance doses prescribed for the next seven days. He goes into opening night unsure of his voice. And so it goes.

                                         In the dressing room, high heel
                                         shoes await the arrival of the Cagelles

                                                  In the dressing room, some
                                                  of the wigs used in the show

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are familiar with the storyline of “La Cage,” having seen the production in one of its many iterations in film or on stage, and those who are not. The opening night audience seemed to be composed in equal parts of both. Hence, some audience members were immediately in tune with what was going on up on the stage and some needed time to work themselves into the story.

The opening number with the Cagelles, “We Are What We Are,” captures the audience’s attention, and then there seems to be a falling-off as exposition takes over, especially with the appearance of Albin and his initial conversation with Georges. One senses that much of the audience is not so much rejecting the relationship being portrayed as it is trying to understand its dynamics. Things start to become a bit clearer when Edwards performs the “Mascara” number, which receives a strong response, only to have much of the audience thrown back into the dark (the script is intended to be coy here) when Jean-Michel makes his entrance. Again, if you know the storyline you already know that Jean-Michel is Georges’ son; if you don’t, then you believe (again, with intention) that he is Georges’ young lover.

The rest of the first act works to bring the audience out of the dark and cement its understanding of the relationship between Georges and Albin. As the act moves towards its conclusion, cast and audience are finally on the same page, so when Albin is asked to absent himself from the upcoming visit by Anne’s parents, his pain of rejection is understood by everyone in the audience. Thus, as expected, when Albin joins the Cagelles for his closing number and then demands that they leave the stage – he will do the number alone -- the audience is “with him.” Thus, the “I Am What I Am” number does what it is supposed to do. As Edwards sings the final notes and strikes a defiant pose, the audience roars its approval. Mission accomplished – the audience is eager to know what will happen next. More important, the audience cares about what will happen next. As the folks in the audience stand, stretch and go outside for some fresh air, they little know, nor should they, what it took for Edwards, voice impaired, to belt out that number.

                                          Edwards singing "I Am What I Am."
                                          Photo by Anne Hudso

If there was any doubt that the audience has been won over it is dispelled by the extended “Masculinity” scene near the start of the second act. With Van Treuren acting as straight man, Edwards goes through his education of becoming “John Wayne.” The audience laps it up. From there, from the audience’s point of view, it’s smooth sailing through the “Cocktail Counterpoint” and the show’s anthem, “The Best of Times.” And so, when Jean-Michel performs the reprise of “Look Over There,” in which he acknowledges that Albin is, in fact, his “mother,” the audience has its happy ending, and shows its approval with an extended standing ovation at the curtain call.

                                                   Opening night audience
                                                   gives the cast a standing ovation

Is the show now “clean”? Not exactly. Dance numbers still need to be tightened, the stage crew needs to be a bit more comfortable with scene changes (the back panels are still not functioning as they should), timing needs to be honed, the follow spot needs to anticipate movement, some minor bits of blocking need to be re-thought, and a way to anchor the wagons needs to be devised (they move when the actors put pressure on them). It will all be done as the actors and crew grow into the show and make it their own. What matters is that the opening night audience enjoyed itself, and based on comments overheard as the audience exited, that enjoyment will be conveyed to others, giving the show good “word of mouth.”

                                                  At the cast party

By 10:45 p.m. the theater has emptied out. Slowly, cast, crew and guests gather at The Copper Beech Inn, minutes away from the theater, for the cast party. At first, it’s just board members, guests and crew members, but ever so slowly the cast members begin to appear and the atmosphere becomes charged. It has the feel of a graduation party, and so it is, for like a graduation party, this is a celebration of what has been done over time – the hard work, the set-backs, the learning, and the coming together to form the “family” that will take “La Cage” through its three-week run. There is still work to be done, but for the moment it is only about the “glitter.”

                                                    Underwood and his Cagelles

Saturday, Aug. 9

On a balmy summer’s evening, the show’s two leads, Van Treuren and Edwards, sat on a picnic bench in the small park adjacent to the theater and spoke about the production, which had opened the night before, and, more broadly, their extensive experience in the theater.

Each man had played their respective roles three times before, though not together. When asked if there were pros or cons to this, Edwards said, “The biggest pro is that you get another shot at it. I find that with the roles I’ve done many times you realize after the show has closed that ‘I’d like to try that,’ or ‘This really means this.’ For me, for this role, the first time I did it I was a little young – I think I was in my early 30s – so I really didn’t know what it means to be in that station in life where you feel like you’ve watched a child grow up. And the world has changed a lot in the last 15 years.”

“And dramatically so,” Van Treuren said, “since we both got married.”

“It’s just the way you feel as a performer at a certain point in your life,” Edwards said. “You have a little bit more understanding. I think I didn’t know what it was like to be a middle-aged man. I was playing at it.”

“That’s interesting,” Van Treuren said. “My brother, who has revisited the role of Fagin (the aged thief in “Oliver”), did the role when he was much younger and felt he had to play at some of those things, but the last time he did it, just last year, he just had to say the lines – he was now old enough so, well, the age things came naturally.”

Edwards picked up on the theme, noting that when he did “A Little Night Music” he simply “was not anywhere near understanding what Fredrik (who is experiencing a mid-life crisis) was going through – and Don Quixote, which I’ve done I don’t know how many times.” In essence, what did he, as a person, know what an old man desperately clinging to reality was dealing with?

Returning to the idea of doing a show that he has already done, Edwards pointed out, “There’s a Yin and a Yang to that, too. There’s a trap that you will go to an old, comfortable place rather than exploring something new, which I don’t like to do. There are two kinds of directors: people who want to work with somebody who’s done it before to make their job easier, and then there are people who would rather not, they would rather work with someone they can mold with their own vision.”

Van Treuren noted that the “time crunch” also influences the decision to cast someone who has done the role before. “If you only have two weeks or less, you would think that they would want to have somebody who has done the part before. Both of these parts (referring to the roles of Georges and Albin) are super big parts and if you don’t come in pretty well knowing your stuff you’re really gonna screw up everybody else. The whole rehearsal is going to be about you instead about the whole process for everybody – it should be an ensemble effort.”

Van Treuren agreed with Edwards that revisiting a role allows an actor to “find new things,” but he then posed a question: where, exactly, do you find these new things. With regards to this production of “La Cage,” he had a ready answer: “I’m finding new things because I’m playing opposite him,” he said, nodding at Edwards, “and he’s real different than the two other gentlemen I did it with before, so that forces you to listen and to be aware. That’s part of the fun.”

“You don’t always get lucky enough,” Edwards said, “to have someone playing opposite you who’s done it before who is willing to listen to what you have to offer. Sometimes they’re still hearing it the old way, they’re not paying attention. There’s a tennis match being played, it goes back and forth – the other person has to receive and give at the same level, otherwise it’s all kind of wasted.”

Speaking to that point, Van Treuren mentioned the extended “Masculinity” scene that takes place early in the second act. Edwards jumped in: “That whole bit is working” – he knocked on the wooden table top – “because the beats are clean. I’ve done it before where it’s all muddied and it’s all one thing – the other actor wasn’t letting a line land before we go to the next thing.”

“The way I look at that scene,” Van Treuren said, “I’m integral because I’m driving him to do what he does…” “Absolutely,” Edwards said. “…but I’m also the straight man – pardon the pun – but I’m there to facilitate the comedy. The comedy is also storytelling, it’s good storytelling because it sets us up for the next scene back in the apartment, so part of the scene for me is, yes, to react, but basically also allow him to capture the audience with the humor of it all, which he certainly does.”

“This piece works especially in a small house,” Edwards said, “because everything can be seen – a lot of the detail that we are putting into the scene can be seen in this house. When we did it at the big theater in Patchogue – that’s maybe 2,000 seats – a lot of the little things that you are doing may not be caught by more than the people in the front row, and I think there you don’t always get a director who is gauging that particular house, they’re just staging their show.”

The mention of directors moved Edwards to comment about Thelen. “Larry’s never done this show before but we have, so he’s open to our suggestions.”

“He gave us pretty much free rein,” Van Treuren said, “especially in the intimate scenes between the two of us. Even in the second act, when it goes from intimate to comedic, when it’s just me and David he just kind of allowed us to do our thing. Of course, he would pipe up once in awhile about various things or he would encourage us, but I think he felt pretty comfortable with us listening and reacting to each other, because David and I have known each other for many years – we’ve only worked together twice, minimally – we’ve always said, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to do ‘La Cage’ together.”

As for doing the production at Ivoryton, both actors are glad they have been given the opportunity, if only because of the history of the theater. “I think here – the first day you’re always missing the comfort of the last show,” Edwards said, then cleared his throat twice – the problems with his voice were starting to once again manifest themselves – “but pretty soon you get bombarded with exciting things and new ways of doing things from the other actors. I think we all kind of bonded in the last few days, mostly because of the tech hell we went through…”

“It wasn’t an easy opening,” Van Treuren said. “Jacqui will attest to that. The thing about this type of theater – there are all of these great summer stock houses dotted throughout the East Coast – being back in summer stock – playing in a theater like this – I feel like I’m back home. They have such a wonderful history here; when you look at all of those pictures up on the wall you just know this place has wonderful spirits.”

“When your housing is comfortable,” Edwards said, “and everything has been taken care of for you, it makes a big difference. You go to some of these summer stock theaters and they pay you good money but you still have to share a bathroom with 15 people and you’re not near any conveniences. I’ve gotten to the point where my agent asks for certain basic things before we even go any further because – I remember peeing out the window at night at one of the places where I was housed – I told myself I just can’t face the walk down to the bathroom – I’ll be completely awake.”

“Here it’s nice,” Van Treuren said. “We have our own digs and it’s just easy.”

The conversation veered back to the “hell” of the tech rehearsals. Not surprisingly, both actors, having been through worse, were philosophical. Van Treuren commented: “The biggest problem with this particular production – it’s no great secret -- is the costumes. That was the big issue. They weren’t prepared.”

“And it caught us blindside,” Edwards said, “because we had costume measurements taken in New York, but none of us had a fitting.”

“The rest of the tech rehearsal,” Van Treuren said, “you know, the dragging in and out of the set pieces – I didn’t think there was any great horror.”

Both actors have been in productions when they were not able to get through complete run-throughs during tech rehearsal. In a previous production of “La Cage” that Edwards was in he believes that the cast never got past the “Mascara” number before going into previews. Van Treuren added that in a production of “Kiss me Kate’ he was in last year they also opened without doing a complete run-through. Van Treuren shrugged: “That happens.”

Edwards noted that, more and more, it has become simply a matter of money. Many theaters are pushing for shorter rehearsal schedules – if they can do it in 10 days why not try for nine or eight, “And the union just sort of caves in,” he said. It’s also a matter of Equity contracts – the lower the level of contract the fewer the hours Equity actors are allowed to rehearse.

All that being said, and with whatever problems this particular production has faced, both actors would readily return to Ivoryton for a show. “We’d come back here for many reasons,” Van Treuren said. “First, it’s always great to work, it’s great to play these wonderful parts, it’s great to work in a lovely environment. It is also great to work for nice people who appreciate actors for the type of work that we do. We’re treated well here. Jacqui has put together a great staff that is really responsive to our needs and she’s responsive to our needs and, granted, even with some of the problems we’ve had she’s always been here and Beverly (Beverly Taylor, company manager) always been here to help us.”

“And you know,” Edwards said, “the funny thing is, women say you forget the pain of childbirth and that’s how you are able to have more than one child. There’s no production that doesn’t come without some difficulty along the line. We are resilient that way and we remember why it is we do what we do and what we love about it.”

With that, the two men stood and walked towards the theater, passing people sitting on stone benches that ring the theater’s entrance patio, people whom Edwards and Von Treuren and the rest of the cast now down in the dressing room would, in less that a hour, be entertaining.

In an email, Hubbard commented: “Obviously, at our size, we don’t do it for the money, and those who work behind the scenes certainly don’t do it for the glamour or prestige, but that moment when it comes together and something wonderful is created and you know you have been a small part in its creation – that’s what it’s all about.”

Author’s note:  This piece would not have been possible without the support and assistance of the cast and crew of “La Cage.” A special thanks to Jacqui Hubbard, who agreed to the project, Lawrence Thelen, who welcomed me aboard with no restrictions, Todd Underwood, who took the time to answer numerous questions, and Mike Morris for his guidance on matters musical. Thanks must also be extended to the production staff, stage crew and of course, the cast, especially the eight actors playing the Cagelles and the two leads, David and James. Break a leg, folks.


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