Rehearsals start this week at Boise Contemporary Theater (BCT) for a play that opens in three weeks. For a professional company like BCT, three weeks is a slightly tight, though fairly normal rehearsal schedule.
Three weeks is usually plenty of time for experienced actors to memorize lines, work on their characters, and learn what they’ll be doing on stage. But for the play, The Uncanny Valley memorizing lines and actions has an added challenge. They're still being written.
I’ve been following the writers as they race against their opening night deadline, April 5 (previews start April 2). It was just three weeks ago that the actors and design team got a first look at the unfinished script. Let me set the scene of that first read.
A weekday morning, a table is set up in BCT’s theater between the empty seats and the set of then current production Warren, or Those People. At one end Uncanny Valley writer/director Dwayne Blackaller sits and passes scripts around. At the other end is a laptop with the face of one of the actors Skyping in from out of town. Between them are the designers, stage managers and the show’s other four actors including co-writer and co-director Matthew Cameron Clark. Some of the people at this table have seen parts of earlier drafts of this script. Some are coming to it completely cold.
Clark tells the group he’s nervous about how this will go. Blackaller says that feeling is a good counterpoint to the other day when they were congratulating each other on being geniuses. “We’re over that,” Clark says getting a laugh from cast and crew.
Blackaller starts reading the stage directions. “The Longhouse, isolated at the edge of the Idaho wilderness, built as an artists’ retreat, a large rustic, but comfortable lodge with an open kitchen at one end and a gigantic stone fireplace at the other,” Blackaller reads. He describes the setting in detail – stairs leading up to bedrooms, windows with views of the Sawtooth Mountains. “Act one, scene one, late spring, late afternoon,” Blackaller continues. “Stanley is in the kitchen preparing dinner. He speaks to someone off stage but it seems as if he is speaking to the audience.”
What follows has a compelling narrative shape; action, tension and some lovely speeches. The story also includes cooking, painting, photography, sex, minor injuries, a robot and a surprise. It sounds like a finished play right up to the black-out on immanent violence that ends the first half. But after the stage directions say to bring the lights up for the second half, it doesn’t sound like a play at all.
The actors don’t read their lines because they don’t have any yet. Instead, Blackaller and Clark sketch out some ideas of what might happen.
Blackaller takes a deep breath, “So that’s where we are right now,” He says. “And there are things that will change in this, but that’s sort of the rough road map of where we’re going. If you have any questions or thoughts let’s talk about them real quick and we can let everyone go.”
When the discussion ends I remind Blackaller and Clark how they described their progress back in December when I first started following this project. Back then, they said they had a mostly-complete first act, a pretty good idea where they wanted to land at the end and a second act that was mostly a mystery.
“We’re much farther but you could still describe it the same way,” Clark says breaking up with laughter by the end of the sentence and sending Blackaller off too. They're confident in what they’re creating but there is some tension under their laughter. Opening night is now weeks not months away. No one is more aware of that fact than Clark and Blackaller, who aren’t just the play’s writers and directors, but BCT’s Artistic Director and Education Director respectively.
“We were counting a little more on magic back then,” Clark says. “We now know in more concrete terms where the story is headed.”
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