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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

January Spotlight On...

The Life of Riley: Living the good life

Wrylies: Those pesky directions writers include on lines of dialogue in a screenplay to tell an actor what emotion the line requires. The mark of an amateur.

The Life of Wryly: Living the good life of a writer and reporting on same.

This will be my Spotlight for January and a separate blog page from then on.

See you in the funny papers.

This month: Prairie Nocturne, by Ivan Doig. Adapted by Elena Hartwell for Book-It Repertory Theatre. Previews Feb 7-9, Opens Feb 10 - March 4 at the Center House Theater, Seattle WA.

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...

Act One

Act One of Prairie Nocturne is on its feet. I am quite pleased with how much work has been done in such a short time. Watching on Wednesday afternoon, rain falling down in buckets outside, I could see the shape of things to come.

One of the first things a director does is "blocks" the show. For those of you unfamiliar with the process of mounting a stage production, that means the director - working with the actors - makes decisions about where people physically are onstage at every moment in the play. It also means tracking where moving set pieces, props, and other inanimate objects are as well. Sometimes the offstage choreography is even more complicated than onstage. Furniture must move from one side of the theater to the other, actors have to get props or costume pieces, stage crew have their jobs to do, all without bumping into each other in the dark.

The stage managers tape the outlines of the set on the rehearsal floor with spike tape, so the director and actors can "see" where the set pieces will be. It's always fun to notice an actor look down, realize they are standing half on, half off a platform, and move over to the correct side of the tape.

Table work is another aspect of rehearsal that happens early on in the process. During table work, the cast and director work through the lines in a scene, discussing the meaning, clarifying pronunciations (Gros Ventre is one of my favorite names in the play, who knew it sounds like Grow Van?), and with a new script, changing lines (or adding or cutting or moving). So far so good.

Can't wait to see Act Two on it's feet!

The Life of Wryly

Updates from a writing life. 

We started rehearsals for Prairie Nocturne by the brilliant author Ivan Doig, which I've adapted for Book-It Repertory Theatre. The difference between creating from the  ground up and taking someone else's work and shaping it into a script, is like the difference between piloting a plane and flying as a passenger.

Both have inherent risks. But when I write my own scripts, the story takes me along and I just record the voices in my head. Adapting Ivan Doig's book, I knew what the plane looked like, I knew where we took off and where we would land, but if I failed, I'd take my co-pilot down with me, not to mention all the other passengers on the plane.

Maintaining his stunning use of language, while honing in on an active, concise script challenged me as a playwright in ways my own scripts never do. He has an interesting and complex story, so a lot of paring down had to be done to keep it from running five hours. His characters are engaging and compelling, so that helps to propel the story, but which aspects of them to keep and which aspects to cut? My main goal, however, has been to bring his lyrical writing into dialogue that protects his poetry, but moves the story forward in a dramatic way.

The first read through on Dec 27th went very well. Ivan and his wife, Carol, were in attendance. I couldn't decide if that thrilled me or terrified me. A bit of both. I admit I occasionally looked over at them to try to read their reactions.

Note to self, never try to read an author's face while hearing my adaptation of his work for the first time.

I can't tell you how relieved I am to report Ivan and Carol both approved.

Check back throughout the month of January for updates on the process. The show opens February 10th and runs through March 4th.