Lauren Rogers ’05 sits on a piano bench with her eyes shut, pressing her hands to her cheeks. Standing to Rogers’ right, Michael Lew ’03 fires simple math questions at her, repeating them with the rapidity of an impatient 2-year-old asking “Are we there yet?” until she answers. On her left, with the same insistence, Michael Schulman ’03 asks personal questions, ranging from “What’s your favorite color?” to “Do you love your children?” The cacophony and pressure build until Rogers seems to relax and starts to answer instinctively.
It’s only a matter of time before Schulman asks, “How many times a week will you have sex with me?” and Rogers shouts “Forty-eight!” answering in response to one of Lew’s multiplication questions. “YES!” Schulman pumps his fists in the air. There’s a quick laughter break, and the game resumes.
In the Frost Room, a small, private den off of the Pierson College common room, the second rehearsal for Amy Freed’s play “Freedomland” is underway. Lauren Rogers and Michael Schulman play Claude and Noah, a wacky married couple in charge of a hilariously dysfunctional family, and throughout this rehearsal they split time between being themselves and venturing into their characters’ skin. For this interrogation game, the two are “in character”: director Lew, cradling a notebook in one arm, takes notes on his actors’ insights about their alter egos and their history together. The actors will not use a script until next week.
Lew discovered “Freedomland,” a finalist for a 1998 Pulitzer Prize, last summer while he working as a literary manager for an off-Broadway theater in New York. He immediately recognized it was something he wanted to produce. It was funny (Yale theater students, himself included, need to make more room for comedy, he says); it was written in a distinct voice; and it had a small but strong ensemble cast. He also knew that he wanted to coordinate its opening with the first public preview of another Amy Freed play, “The Psychic Life of Savages,” at the Yale Repertory Theatre on Valentine’s Day. “Freedomland” will open Feb. 13 in the Whitney Humanities Center.
Back in November, Lew got the script approved for his senior directing project and organized readings with friends and people he had worked with on previous productions or in theater classes. He finalized the cast during exams, never having held auditions — a practice he says is typical for many non-Dramat shows –instructed the cast to memorize their lines over the break and started to mobilize his design team.
“My favorite part of the rehearsal process is scene work,” Lew admitted after the rehearsal. But these improvisation sessions are “important for making that informed. Anything that gets [the actors] thinking critically is useful and translates directly to the performance.”
By now, Lew has a reputation for using games to prepare for his shows, including “Endgame,” “Three Men of Golgotha,” and last fall’s Dramat Ex production, “The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.” His fondness for using mind-stretching exercises early in the rehearsal process earned him the title “mad scientist” from Schulman, who has known Lew for years but had never been directed by him before.
“He puts people in these weird experiments, and is always taking notes,” Schulman says with a grin. “When I was in Theater Studies 210 with him, we had to come in one day in our idealized costume. He came in a lab coat. It was perfect.”
In other improv games, Rogers and Schulman mime their six-year marriage, year by year, and trade hypotheses about things their characters would like: red bedsheets — bubble bath — listening to Wagner. When Cameron Abadi ’04, who plays Noah’s grown son, Seth, replaces Rogers at rehearsal, Abadi and Schulman perform variations of those games and then improvise a scene, recreating it while switching characters or speaking only one word to focus on the emotional content of the scene. The last task of the night is for Abadi and Schulman to choreograph a 10-step secret handshake, and then perform it with changing guidelines (Seth is 5 years old, Noah’s forgotten the sequence; both are trying to impress with their machismo).
Last Monday the cast and crew met to discuss the script and on Tuesday, the mad scientist began his experimentation.
Schulman, who considers himself primarily a director, is not sure how much the improv sessions will help him as an actor.
“We’ll have to see in the long run,” he said after Wednesday night’s rehearsal. “But I didn’t really know Lauren, and we had a great time.”
The exercises may seem far out, but Lew claims that they can help “evoke the atmosphere” of the play and force actors to confront questions about their characters that they would not otherwise consider. Additionally, the exercises help Lew gauge how well the actors will work together. At this point in the schedule, rehearsals are as much about actors logging in hours together as they are about making progress toward the final product — an opening night that still seems far away.
With its compact five-week schedule hardly begun, a lot remains to be done. The production has not yet secured Sudler Funds; producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss ’03 hopes $1,200 will come next week to help recoup what he estimates will be the show’s $2,000 cost. Lemon-Strauss has yet to complete his crew; he is still looking for a lighting designer. And on the creative front, the play is still wide open to interpretation.
“There are many different ways we could go with it,” Lemon-Strauss said. “We’re trying to make the show funny. Basically, we just want to laugh.”
So far, it seems to be working out. When the cast was kicked out of the Frost Room at 10 p.m. by a group of musicians, Abadi was satisfied.
“This was definitely the best rehearsal of the two we’ve had so far,” he said.