“Everything is coming out of your knees. The energy is coming out. Good! Good! Walk a little faster. Breath! Breath! And everyone sigh. Sigh!”
The cheerleader, hypnotist and drill sergeant is David Krasner, professor and director of undergraduate studies for the Theater Studies Department. Last Tuesday night, he milled about the Whitney Humanities Center rehearsal space, gesticulating and following his own instructions as he warmed up the actors rehearsing for the play “Freedomland,” which will open Feb. 13.
“Send the energy to the other person,” Krasner suggested, sending ripples through the air himself. “Receive it and send it. Receive it and send it. Be bold. Be brave. Take a risk!”
“Freedomland” is Michael Lew’s ’03 senior directing project, and Krasner is Lew’s secondary advisor. Krasner stopped by the rehearsal to check in with Lew, take a few notes and, upon Lew’s request, loosen up the actors.
“Now look at each other. See each other,” Krasner demanded. “You will be acting together. You’re not zombies. See each other! See each other!”
This third week of rehearsals for “Freedomland” isn’t very demanding. Most of the cast has Wednesday and Thursday nights off, and most of what can be achieved through piecemeal close work has been accomplished satisfactorily. The infamous “final push” won’t commence for a few more days; the cast will start to run acts in full this weekend and has its first complete run-through scheduled for next Wednesday. Last Tuesday’s rehearsal was small and quiet, just to go over a few pages with Michael Schulman ’03, Sally Bernstein ’03 and Katie Vagnino ’03.
Yet it was hugely important to Lew, and not because he wanted to perfect the scene or because Krasner led the actors into a new arena of consciousness (Schulman later admitted, “I felt like I was at a spa”). Krasner’s brief presence at rehearsal — he stayed for just short of an hour — forced Lew to confront his own directorial methods, and larger questions about why he loves theater.
“It just made me wonder: What is he evaluating?” Lew said later.
Krasner sat unobtrusively against the back wall on a straight-backed chair, his right leg crossed over left, scratching a few notes on a legal pad. The professor observed Lew: an accommodating director who communicates with his actors gently and respectfully. Most of the time, Lew’s facial expressions are minimal and as a result, his voice sounds muted, except when he tumbles into uncontrollable laughter. He speech is peppered with “ums” and “likes,” yet assured and thoughtful. He’ll finish his sentences with a nod instead of a word, and ask more questions than he’ll make statements. Seldom does he step onto the stage to demonstrate a movement, or a gesture, but his confidence almost always does.
At precisely 8 p.m., Krasner left, as agreed, without a word, without interrupting. Krasner and Lew will meet later to discuss the night.
When the actors came to a natural stopping point, Lew pulled up a chair, propped his feet up on a table and offered a caveat that he was “waxing philosophical.” He began a discussion about how he approached directing, but the conversation naturally bent toward a more general rumination on the varying methods that produce theater.
“I kind of feel like the best stuff comes from you guys,” Lew said in support of his collaborative approach to directing.
A lot has. Earlier in the night, Vagnino, in a moment of inspiration, saw how to turn a few silent minutes on stage into a comedic bit: she could struggle to fit her straw into a Capri Sun drink. Lew loved the idea. Later, one of Schulman’s insights about his character rendered Lew immobile.
“I certainly never would have thought of that,” Lew said finally.
“That’s pretty nutty, Michael,” he added appreciatively.
Other suggestions were less helpful. From Bernstein: have a ketchup packet planted in her head to ooze “blood” when Vagnino, as Polly, slugs her in the head with a coffee cup. From Schulman: warn the audience that the production includes a strobe light, and use it only during the curtain call. From Lew: rope o.2
ff the first few rows of seats, and call it a splash zone, like at Sea World shows. But even these jokes contribute to the process of the building relationships between actors and director, one of the main reasons Lew does theater, he said after rehearsal. The jokes are connections that open up pathways of communication.
Bernstein responded to Lew that his job is to figure out “how the actors mesh” with his own vision. A director should intervene in rehearsal when there’s a mismatch between his imagination and the reality of the acting, Bernstein said.
But Lew wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t always have dogmatic ideas of where I want a scene to go,” he said. “My job is to make astute observations and ask questions.”
Schulman offered that a director’s involvement should simply reflect “how important the director’s concept is.” The more flexible the director is, the more room there is for experimentation by the actors in rehearsal.
The philosophy session ended after just a few minutes and the actors returned to the script, but the dialogue of the how and why of theater continued well after rehearsal.
“I try to see these [shows] as test collaborations,” said Lew — who hopes to direct theater professionally — of his cast and crew. “It’s a process that isn’t necessarily about the play. It’s about how these relationships are working.”
On the issue of process versus product, the tension between doing theater for enjoyment of its process instead of the final product of performance.
“Maybe it’s a cop-out, but I’m trying to cultivate a process that makes a good product,” Lew added. His theater experience at Yale, he indicated, could be seen as a larger process leading toward future products in the theater world.
For David Laufgraben ’04, by the time he hits the dress rehearsals, he’s already gotten from the experience what he will.
“There’s such a potential for loss in production,” he said, wary of placing too much importance on the final product, lest it color the whole experience. “If a performance isn’t what you thought it would be, at that point, you can’t appreciate the process.”
Focused primarily on her audience, Bernstein may be in the minority.
“For me, the process is all about getting the actor to believe this [play] is a reality. The process is about developing this world,” she said. “The whole process is to get a product that you can be proud of, and that will entertain people, something that touches them.”
Producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss ’04 believes that the road to production is a game of give-and-take.
“There are a few key times during a production when you have to decide how you feel about it,” he said.
He said a person can go back and forth. For instance, technical designers need to balance their vision with feasibility, especially at Yale. They may — and often do — have to sacrifice their vision for something that is more manageable — and enjoyable — to create.
“I just love the idea that there are all these problems and you have to solve them,” Lemon-Strauss said. “That’s obviously not restricted to theater. You could do that in investment banking. Well, I want to do it in this medium, in the theater.”
He said the theater can communicate ideas to people in a ways that other arts cannot.
All the musing on Tuesday night will have little if any direct impact on the final production. But the opportunity to sit, relax and reflect was nonetheless a welcome respite. It may have been be one of their last chances to do so until the play is no longer a process or a product, but simply fragment of the past.