With a jewel of a play like Noël Coward’s Private Lives, rehearsal is a bit like faceting a diamond. The gem is there in the rough, each crystal trying to gleam from under layers of physical choices, extraneous movements, vocal generalities, and the mysteries of a time gone by. But with a talented professional cast such as mine, it is a labor of love.
As actors, we may be limited by our understanding of the time and setting of the play. That is why, I encouraged my cast to watch several films from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bringing Up Baby and The Thin Man are both American films, but they capture the bright brittle repartee and some of the playfulness of this style of comedy. I also encouraged my cast to watch Downton Abbey, which is currently (and conveniently) being reprised on public television.
For a better understanding of the British upper class tradition of the ‘house party’ and the ‘grand tour’ there are a variety of novels and short stories by contemporary authors such as E.M. Forster. Personally, I recommend checking out Rhys Bowen’s upscale period cozy mystery series “Her Royal Spyness.” The books are set in the 1930s, featuring am impoverished, aristocratic young lady moving in the circles of royalty and the wealthy in England and on the continent. They are delightfully funny, easy to read, and very well researched.
My cast is working hard on their Standard British dialects and looking at portraits to better understand the fashion, demeanor, and mannerisms of the upper classes, and trying to cram what they’ve learned into their vocal and physical representation of Coward’s brilliant words. But, in the midst of rehearsal I like to pause to ask a question or pose a scenario, so we don’t become all style and no content.
“How curious would you be about your new spouse’s previous marriage? Is it idle curiosity or self-preservation?”
“What would it feel like to suddenly meet the love of your life again, years after a vicious and vindictive divorce? What kind of courage or Narcissism would it take to flee from a new relationship with your acknowledged soul mate?”
“How would you react to discovering that your new spouse has absconded with an old flame at the beginning of your honeymoon? How vulnerable would you feel, abandoned in a foreign country? While tracking down your missing mates, would the ordeal bring you close to the other person’s spouse? Or would you blame them for not controlling their partner?”
Watching a cast of extremely talented actors explore such questions and incorporate the new knowledge physically and emotionally into the life of the characters they are building is exciting. I find it enormously satisfying to be able to facilitate that kind of discovery and be a small part of deepening the characterization and the life of the play.
I hope you will join us when we bring this wonderful script to life in its latest incarnation at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, Houston, TX.
For show times and ticket information, please check out Main Street Theater’s website www://mainstreettheater.com or call the box office at 713-524-6706.