Anyone who has ever raised a dubious eyebrow in English class can appreciate this gag from “Annie Hall”: while standing in line at a movie theater, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, argues with an arrogant professor from Columbia University about the correct interpretation of a book written by cultural critic Marshall McLuhan. To prove his point, Alvy reaches off screen and magically pulls McLuhan into the scene. McLuhan quickly destroys the professor’s foolish thesis, and Alvy turns to the camera and says wistfully, “Boy, if life were only like this.”
For Michael Lew ’03, director of “Freedomland,” life is exactly like this. Last summer, Lew learned “Freedomland” playwright Amy Freed was a full-time professor at Stanford University, and obtained her e-mail address. After exchanging notes, Freed gave Lew her home phone number; Lew grilled the author on her characters, her dialogue, and vision of the play as a whole.
So when Lew’s actors question a bizarre line or seemingly unmotivated shift in character–or if they’re “just not feeling it” — chances are Lew has both his own ideas and the playwright’s guidance ready and waiting, a luxury virtually unheard of at the undergraduate level.
Not that Lew feels particularly bound to the author’s interpretation — or even her script.
“Let’s add a word,” Lew said to David Laufgraben ’04 at last Wednesday’s rehearsal. “Change the line to: ‘It was good, it was SO good.'” Lew flashed a guilty smile. “Can we add a word? She won’t mind.”
She’ll have to decide for herself. Thursday, producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss ’03 learned that Freed is planning to come to New Haven for a long weekend in February to see “Freedomland” and the Yale Repertory Theater’s production of her play “The Psychic Life of Savages.”
“It’s a real honor,” Lemon-Strauss said.
It’s also motivation of the best and scariest kind for the cast and crew.
Seven-eighths of a window
“I approach design as you’d analyze literature,” set designer Tina Sessions ’03 said over dinner last Tuesday in Calhoun. “I think about it in terms of themes and relationships. My job is to think of the space as a visual manifestation of what’s going on in the script.”
Sessions speaks animatedly, and forcefully, about set design and her own experience and aspirations to design professionally after Yale. She is quick to criticize the design of student productions here.
“The bar is just pretty low,” Sessions said. “Resources are spread so thin. I think Yale theater would benefit from fewer shows, and I know directors and actors would disagree with me.”
Sessions is basically self-taught, no thanks to Yale, she said. She can’t understand why a university with such a strong theater studies program — not to mention a highly respected drama school — doesn’t offer courses in design or management for its undergraduates.
But Lemon-Strauss points out that the drama school has a lot to offer undergrads. Its warehouse makes props, furniture, and costumes available to undergraduates at generous, cost-efficient prices.
“There’s absolutely no way you could produce a show here without using the props warehouse,” he said.
And when Sessions talks about her own design methods, she admits that vision can’t be taught. She reads the script several times, consciously avoiding thinking about sets the first few times. After that, she said, “It just comes to me.”
“If it doesn’t come to me, I know I’m in trouble,” Sessions said.
For a play that walks the line between reality and absurdity, depicting an eccentric and dysfunctional family, what came to Sessions was a space that looks “disjointed.” She described it as an “organic,” “fragmented,” “cluttered, strange space” with “mismatched colors and patterns” that “spill over into the audience.” She said she wants the inside of the family’s house to be “basically normal” but, somehow, feel terribly wrong.
There will be seven-eighths of a window frame, for example, strips of wallpaper to simulate a wall, one stair to stand for a staircase. If done correctly, the set will add to the show’s comedy, and dictate how the audience should react to the performance.
To communicate her ideas to Lew and the cast, Sessions constructed a scale model of the set out of foam board, balsa wood and construction paper. She brought the model to Wednesday’s rehearsal at the Whitney Humanities Center.
“He’s a little sad because he walked here in the wind,” Sessions said of the model as she waltzes into rehearsal, bundled in warm winter clothes, her cheeks red from the stinging cold. She set the model down on a table and everyone crowded around to see what their world is to look like. Sessions gave a “tour” of the model to the excited cast, recommending that everyone kneel down to look at the model from an audience member’s perspective.
“OK,” Lew said after a moment. “Does this change any of the blocking we’ve already done?”
The cast concluded that some of the scenes they have choreographed will have to change, now that they know where the kitchen is in relation to the living room, or the lawn in relation to the roof.
“We can cut those scenes,” Lemon-Strauss joked.
“Yeah,” Sessions continued. “Actually, we’re just going to build a set.”
But Lew was still having trouble visualizing the stage.
“Can you walk me through the set?” he asked Sessions. She began an elaborate charade, gliding through the empty space, shimmying and narrating her way through her imagination. Suddenly, she became self-conscious.
“Do you like my dance?” she asked.
With her work complete for the moment (she still has to find wallpaper and rugs and will help finish the set during tech week), Sessions left. The actors tried to run a scene, but they soon discovered that everything had changed. Characters were having a conversation from opposite sides of the room.
“I feel like we should be playing a football game,” said Sally Bernstein ’03, who plays the young artist, Sig, as she drops back to throw an imaginary pigskin. “”Either that, or it’s a high school dance.”
“So, actors,” Lew announced over the laughter. “Forget all of the blocking I told you.”
This early in rehearsals, it shouldn’t be too difficult to change — the cast still has time and energy to spare. On Wednesday night, the actors attacked the material with such consuming spontaneity, wonder and confidence — chutzpah that Lew can only hope will last through the final performance — that learning new tricks will hardly seem like work.