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That’s how I’m feeling today, and it’s not about the rapidly falling temperature that is greeting us on this grey November day. It’s a moment of disequilibrium, imbalance, nonequilibrium, and unbalance. It’s that (hopefully) brief period that marks the transition from research and living room preparation of a play to stepping for the first time out onto the floor of the rehearsal room. Preparation time is cozy, safe, a mental invitation to venture deeply into the weeds and pop down limitless rabbit holes. Lots of dead ends to be sure, but potential of unexpected insight or even revelation is always lurking around the corner.

Just yesterday I discovered that Shirer’s The Nightmare Years, his memoir, his life as a European foreign correspondent in the 1930’s first for the Chicago Tribune, then Hearst International News Service and finally as one of the first voices of CBS radio, had been made into a 6 hour mini series shown on TNT in 1989. The Nightmare Years is a major source of information for both Murrow/Shirer and Brecht in Exile. Not only had I not seen it, I’d never heard of it. It starred Sam Waterston and Marthe Keller with a screenplay by Bob Woodward. Did you see it? From what I’ve read about it, no one did. It was barely mentioned in the press of the time and the only dvd I’ve managed to run down is a PAL region 2. It’s arriving next week. I’ll let you know what it’s like.

Yesterday I was filling out a press questionnaire for The Good Soul of Szechuan as it’s titled in the David Harrower translation which we’ll be using in our production. I went through 5 different translations before settling on the Harrower. Styles ranged from the poetic of the Bentley to the intellectually exacting but untheatrical Willet. I began with the Bentley, the version I was most familiar with as it was the one we used in our 1984 production, which featured Barbara in the role of Shen Te and Terry as Shu the Barber. Picking it up again after so many years, I thought it read like a fairy tale. All the voices of the characters that I heard in my head sounded like characters from the Disney Snow White. But as I continued working my way through all the other translations, I started hearing the play as early “40’s Warner Brothers noir” and suddenly the characters were sounding like the cast of Casablanca-very Sydney Greenstreet. So now I’m hearing a gritty fairy tale-one that traces the journey of angel of the slums, the former prostitute Shen Te. She’s given a small tobacco shop by three incompetent gods as a reward for her kindness towards them. As she struggles to keep the shop afloat and discovers she is pregnant, she sees no way out but to call on her ruthless “cousin” (Shen Te in disguise).

Back to the questionnaire. One of the questions was: How long have you been working on the play? I calculated a year and a half. Then I thought to myself: A year and a half? That’s a long time. What exactly have I been doing with all these idle moments? So, buttons on your underwear (which is a childhood expression of Barbara’s that still tickles me with its midwestern charm), here’s what I came up with. This is what I did, and more or less what I do for each play.

Here it is: Jim’s Guide to Research and Preparation. Maybe you do something like it yourself.

First, read the play again and again. Notice it’s structure, and how it works and functions. Avoid reading critical analysis and criticism of the play at this point.

Learn about the playwright, where they lived, and the theatre they wrote for.

Okay so far? Now read some quality scholarship on the play and the writer, also check out other plays by the author to better understand how they think and what makes them tick. How is the particular play situated within the writer’s total body of work?

Finally, begin to connect all the insights from the research with the initial kick you got from first reading the play, the reason why you want to bring the play to the stage today and what is the story we want to tell our own audiences of today. This is what I was doing last night when walking home from the Q train and in my state of preoccupation discovered I was lost. I’d overshot my street by three blocks.

And that brings me back to my frozen paralysis of today. Here is what I have been telling myself since 7:30 this morning. Remember that all the research, all certainties, and all the answers about the play you have come up with will be challenged from the very first moment you begin to examine the play on its feet in rehearsal. The deeper you immerse yourself in the play during rehearsals the more you will lose your earlier sense of certainty and of knowing. And that’s okay. It’s an expected hill or valley along the course of the journey, or rather the marathon. Once you truly start to communicate with the “stuff”- the fabric, the texture of the play, it will likely give you back an entirely different set of responses than the ones you initially believed were there.

As the brilliant Thomas Ostermeier once said, “More often than not you will discover the truly vital and central questions only while rehearsing almost (but never actually) by accident.”

Barbara gets her transplant tomorrow. Big doins’ here. Keep your best thoughts coming her way. Thanks for all the cards, and calls and visits. They are so appreciated.

And all that’s what’s on my somewhat scattered mind today.

Oh, and today is Peter Kleinert’s birthday.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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