This last week has been leading up to our first preview of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley and the introduction of audience to the recipe. It is that ingredient, like yeast, that will make our work ‘rise’, and elevate the rehearsal process to live theatre.
The set is receiving its final touch ups, we are still waiting for one chair that is currently starring in a production at another theater. Props are being adjusted and finalized. Decisions must be made about the exact amount of cranberry juice for color in the ginger ale punch bowl and how much light to throw on the Christmas tree without upstaging the actors. Do we use the incidental music to transition us from one scene to another, and does it end when the lights come up or fade as the actors enter? As the director, I am consulted and involved in all these decisions and processes.
But my primary focus is on the actors and their journey to bring these characters to life. The cast is as widely different in acting and work styles as the characters are different. One actor is very free and able to commit to even extreme and presentational-performance styles. Another found the core of the character early on but is still trying to find the exact vocal balance. Still another actor must understand the psychological ramifications of every single gesture and inflection to the point of being crazy-making. Some seek me out for private conversations to rationalize a piece of blocking I’ve given. Others seem almost jealous to receive this information second-hand, so I have to reprise the conversation all over again. My detailed notes after each rehearsal are generally taken with eager and good humor, while occasionally there seems resistance to changing anything without extensive discussion. Once in a while, I have to remind a cast member that I’m the one sitting in the audience and seeing the stage picture, and I’m the one whose responsibility it is to fulfill the vision of the play, not just his or her character.
While highly professional, this is a very young cast. I find their willingness to be creative and collaborative exciting. But their equal eagerness to challenge every decision and offer their own insights as to what the play should be, sometimes takes valuable time out of the rehearsal process. A more mature actor would consider it impertinence. But then, I would not have the benefit of the occasional insight that leads to a solution. It is a balancing act.
Sunday marked our first preview. It was an almost full house, which is an advantage because it frees people to laugh. The first audience is so important to the process. It is during previews that we discover whether the humor is working. Do we need to take an extra beat before the next line so as not to ‘kill’ the laugh? Are there lines we forgot might be funny and so the laughter takes us by surprise? Even more gratifying is to discover you have actual Jane Austen fans in the audience who get the inside jokes from Pride and Prejudice. Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have skillfully inserted such references without drawing attention to them.
During the preview, I sat with Artistic Director, Becky Udden, and Carrie Cavins, my lighting designer.
It was exciting to see the eager and attentive faces of our somewhat older audience members. The first preview invariably includes long-time patrons and senior citizens. Any concerns I had about volume of the actors were allayed quickly. Pacing seemed very good, but a few scenes seemed a trifle slow to me. A sign that the actors are still tentative about what they are doing. While pleased with the audience response, I saw all the little things that needed to be fixed.
Carrie, like me, saw only the places where the light was uneven, or an actor was standing just out of light. She can only do so much if the actor cannot feel the light on his/her face and seek it out.
Becky on the other hand, seemed delighted with the show and recognized that any small imperfections can be fixed this week in rehearsal and previews.
Audience response and the buzz in the lobby were very good. I had a few interesting conversations with patrons. Later, Shannon Emerick forwarded our first email response from an a longtime Rice University staffer in the audience, who wrote, “It was an absolute delight. Terrific way to begin the holiday season. Helen”
We’re off to a terrific start. The rest is in the details. Next rehearsal on Tuesday. Then three more previews before opening night.
Main Street Theater announced its season to include “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” as its second production, following Gorky’s “Enemies”. I’ve agreed to direct it and am very excited to once again be working with the characters from Pride and Prejudice and the work of Lauren Gunderson.
Having performed in Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” a couple of seasons ago and delighted in “The Revolutionists” this last season at MST, I am very excited to be involved in this play, which she co-wrote with Margot Melcon. A lovely person and talented writer, Gunderson has become one of the most produced playwrights in America.
To add to my joy, this play is a riff on one of my favorite Jane Austen books. I performed in MST’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (penned by Artistic Director, Rebecca Green Udden) in the 1980s and directed a revised and improved version of that script in the 1990s. This will be like a holiday visit with extended family.
Which is where the play picks up, two years after Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have settled their differences, overcoming his pride and her prejudice to become a happily married couple. The lovely Jane has married her Bingley and they are expecting their first child, seemingly at any moment. But they have journeyed to Pemberley to celebrate Christmas with the Darcys, the studious Mary Bennett in tow. The rest of the family is expected to arrive before Christmas day.
More mature and accomplished, Mary is still more comfortable playing the pianoforte or perusing an Atlas than serving tea or engaging in polite conversation. She has come to realize that everyone expects her to be an old maid and care for her parents as they age, but she is not sure she’s happy with that lot in life. A woman ahead of her time, she would prefer the life of the scholar or the professional musician, but those avenues are not readily available to her. (This seems to be a theme in Lauren’s plays.)
Meanwhile, Darcy’s aunt, the formidable Lady Catherine has died, and despite her best efforts, the estate is entailed to a distant cousin named Arthur de Bourgh. A diffident young scholar and scientist, he could not be more uncomfortable with his new role as Lord of the manor. On his reluctant journey to assume his dubious title at Rosings, he accepts Darcy’s invitation to join the family celebrations. Unfortunately, Darcy invited him without telling Elizabeth.
The ‘cute meet’ happens when Arthur arrives somewhat unexpectedly to be greeted rather curtly by Mary, who seems to assume he is more likely a burglar than a guest. They are just starting to discover how much they have in common and struggling to express their attraction, when first Lydia Wickham then Anne de Bourgh arrive to complicate the matter.
As you might expect, Lydia’s rather patched up marriage to Wickham is not entirely successful. But she is too arrogant and proud to admit they are anything but happy, until she thinks she might latch onto a rich Lord for a lover.
Anne, the almost invisible and sickly daughter of Lady Catherine has emerged from her chrysalis upon her mother’s death. Unfortunately, her new gregariousness has a decidedly snippy and privileged tone very like her mother’s. Unwilling to wait for Arthur to get around to arriving at Rosings, she arrives at Pemberley in the middle of the night to root out her cousin and stake her claim as his fiancé.
Needless to say, mayhem ensues.
I have cast a wonderful group of actors and am anxious to begin the rehearsal process in October. Meanwhile, I’m working with the talented designers at MST to create the world of Pemberley on MST’s thrust stage.
Keep the show in mind when you are trying to find things to do around the holidays. Opening in early November and running through mid December, it should be a delightful alternative to the usual Scrooge and Nutcracker offerings.
For more information visit the Main Street Theater website at www.mainstreettheater.com