In the Room: Theatrical Observations from Tommy C.
I entered the rehearsal room in 201 Granby tentatively, trying not to creak the floor as the actors were orally conjuring their characters. Being too loud in that space, at that moment, would feel as if interrupting magic. So I teetered to a vacant chair on the periphery of the two tables that had become one large rectangle of the artistic process. I could see Jacqueline E. Lawton, playwright of The Hampton Years, waving me over to the table. I sheepishly sat in my self-assigned seat and mouthed, “I’m just going to watch.” So I did. The scene being read continued, and I listened intently, lost in newly discovered cadences and speech patterns. Then an actor asked a question about his character in the scene, thus breaking the enchantment for me and clearing the air for interaction.
“What are you doing sitting all the way over there?” Jacqueline asked, perplexed at my self-imposed distance. She waved me over again, indicating an open chair.
“I’m just watching. I don’t want to be too involved.” I’d arrived 15 minutes late so I was punishing myself for that. Also, as an actor myself, I know that outside energy, even if it is from a fellow thespian, can sometimes be jarring for those in rehearsal.
“Come on over here and join us!” It was half-invite-half-command, all gregarious and, overall, loving. The other actors at the table, two of whom I was familiar with from working with them previously, and director, Chris Hanna, joined Jackie in making room for me at the table. With so much generosity, it was only fitting that I accept the seat at the table and be privy to step one of the rehearsal process: Table work.
The first day at the table means discovery. It is a chance for actors to have a voice in the process allowing them to blueprint their character journeys or arcs. The actors begin investigating character history and purpose in the world of the play. These are known as objectives. What is the purpose of their character at this particular story at this moment in time? What triggers the chain of events that will make audiences want to follow these characters through these imaginary circumstances for the next hour and a half? How will this be staged once the actors feel strongly enough in their character’s motivation? Every person in the room has one job: to tell the story as best as possible. This is always the main goal, and asking those kinds of questions helps the story to be told effectively.
As I sat at the table, I noted how brilliant it was to see a playwright who was in charge of her work and who knew it inside and out. This would aid the actors and director when any confusion arose in the script. It meant that Jackie could handle it. Suddenly words like “maybe” were just as important as “perhaps” and adding them to a character’s line would ultimately change that character’s intention or meaning. A character’s motivation could be justified more clearly with Jackie in the room. But the energy in that room was reciprocal. Everyone sitting around that table wanted to learn. No one was looking to overpower or serve their fragile egos. (That would’ve been a tyrannous situation, and not conducive to creativity.) Instead, I witnessed true collaborative effort: suggestions being volleyed, history being shared, personal accounts being referenced in relation to moments in the play. More importantly, conversations about art began.
I pleasantly observed a conversation about the artist’s purpose. “An artist can define an experience,” Jacqueline said. A novel of essays can be written about that sentence alone. That same conversation weaved into conversations about whether or not art should reflect a society, or merely be aesthetically pleasing. Who owns art? What types of artists exist in this world? Is Black art political by its mere existence? What is that value of art, and in particular, Black art? These are all questions that arose during a mere table read that would continually be explored in rehearsals and hopefully in the actors’ personal time.
But it wasn’t lost on anyone in the room that this story, The Hampton Years, is one of local and historical significance. These actors are aware that they are portraying people who lived and breathed and made a difference on this earth. Giving those real people the theatrical treatment encourages audiences to receive new stories about the Black experience that aren’t trite and overdone. It exposes them to a world not too far removed from their own (or extremely similar to their own), and it stimulates the intellect while also remaining surprisingly current.
There is a lightness to the room, despite the weight of the story being told. It is this energy that remained at the table and that I hoped would translate into the next step of the theatrical process: rehearsal.