Act II

Snow began to fall as I drove into Seattle to see the walk through of Act II. The director and cast have given shape to the second half of Prairie Nocturne, and I can’t wait to see it. Greeted by a piano, a stand-up bass, and actors hitting each other with a stick, I thought to myself, just another day at work.

The good news is, the hitting was fight choreography, not an actor going postal, and the piano and stand-up bass fill out the instruments played throughout the show. A wooden outline now delineates the location of the rolling platform, and more rehearsal furniture and props fill the space, signs of forward motion. Actors in various costume pieces, vests and hats, move around in a carefully orchestrated battle between characters. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I won’t tell you any more, but I will say, no sticks were harmed in the making of the fight.

Act II clipped along at a decent pace, especially given many of the scenes had only been roughed in. The arc of the play became visible, despite actors reading scripts and various moments of … am I on stage?

I felt heartened at all the hard work going on in the room. I said to myself, yes, this is as it should be, rough, unfinished, but with all the hallmarks of a wonderful show.

Rehearsals are a process, and these are the dog days for this one. The transition from reading to memorizing – and trusting that memorization – is an uneasy one. In my experience, actors always know more than they think they do, and not as much as they should.

Putting the script down is a balancing act of craft and art as they move from words, to characters and back again, learning not just what they say, but how they say it. Actors have to know their lines by heart, but demonstrate them through their body. Currently, decisions are being made about the visceral nature of each moment in the play. When are their characters angry? Sad? Afraid? And more importantly, how do they behave in that moment. Do they yell? Whisper? Mock? Do their voices go up or down? When do they touch each other and when do they back away?

Human beings read body language instinctively, and subconsciously. Actors, on the other hand, have to telegraph those messages, without telegraphing they are doing it. As writers we talk about “show, don’t tell” – actors have to do both.

I found a few adapter errors, luckily nothing too serious, so armed with a few notes, I left them to their devices, picking up their scripts and putting them down again. Trusting their memories, and then not, the back and forth of getting off-book well established. A few stride bravely onward, sans script, calling “line” when they get stuck, others carrying a page or section, but each actor moving forward towards letting go of the script and trusting the words will be there.

Next week – the entire show at one go…

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.