Where to begin?
It must have been October 2010 when Davina approached me about assistant-directing Metamorphosis. We were at a bar in Shinjuku, where the cast and crew were celebrating another successful night of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
My qualifications? When Davina mentioned that she was planning on doing Metamorphosis, I was the only person who didn’t say, “Oh, really. What’s that about?”
At first I didn’t believe her. Then I started telling people about the play I might be assistant-directing, and they said the exact same thing. I’d thought everyone knew Kafka.
I was then shocked once again to learn that Davina didn’t know Metamorphosis for Kafka: she knew it for Steven Berkoff, a British playwright and provocateur who uses the human body as a multifarious prop. In the UK, Berkoff is so notorious that his monologues are banned from auditions, and I received a sidelong “Where d’you think I’m from?” when I asked a Brit in the office if he’d heard of the man. North Americans, on the other hand, may recall Berkoff as the villain in Beverley Hills Cop, or, more recently, as the craggy-looking guy chasing Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist.
As this was my first time sitting near the director’s chair since high school, every peek behind the curtain was fascinating. I felt privileged just to listen in on audition deliberations between Davina and Jon Reimer, my director for Once Upon A Mattress, who was casting his next play at the same time. Jon even gave me his critique of my own audition face-to-face, which is something I’d normally pay for.
The assistant director’s role differs for every TIP production. In Of Mice and Men, AD Claudia Hamann had been present at every rehearsal, took notes, told us which lines we’d missed, filled in for missing actors, and gave us our schedules week by week. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, conversely, I saw the assistant director all of twice. Even in Once Upon A Mattress and Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the AD seemed to be a nebulous personage with unspecified responsibilities.
I ended up doing a little of everything, from watching Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow in early conceptual research sessions to packing and unpacking the set after the show. Consistent with my penchant for diving in with both feet, I was so involved in rehearsals that Davina eventually had to ask me to take a few days off so the cast could recognize who was at the helm of the ship.
Behind the scenes, I did set design and set construction, took the cast and production photos, designed and printed the posters and flyers, and, with the invaluable help of Shinji Kobata and Rika Wakasugi, liaised with the theatre before, during, and after the run, as well as tending to minor concerns like getting drivers for the load-in van.
I particularly enjoyed working with Troy Fisher-Harper, our props man and scavenger extraordinaire, who can make anything out of anything. On the way back from checking out materials for the cage that Gregor Samsa would climb as the insect, Troy and I spotted a table in a garbage pile by the side of the road. Five minutes later we were hefting it through the ticket gate into the Yamanote Line, acting like it was perfectly normal.
Most plays allow a certain amount of down-time during which the actors can take it easy and fool around. In Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, all four leads are onstage permanently, and every movement is choreographed to the extent that the play is a 100-minute dance. It was quite stressful for the actors, and after two months, somebody was fighting with somebody else on almost a daily basis. Yet right after each fight, the actors would attack the scenes with such intensity that I was soon tempted to intentionally antagonize them before each show just to ignite the same fire.
The family of four were a fantastically eclectic group—a Canadian (Laz Brezer) as dad, a Japanese woman (Rika Wakasugi) as mom, a Brit (Roberta Hamilton) as the daughter, and a German from Dresden (Stephan Schmidt) playing Gregor. The different accents created an innate sense of dissociation between the family members. An American (Elliott Davis) and another Brit (Liam Shea) rounded out the cast, playing the Chief Clerk and the Lodger, respectively.
We had almost as many helpers as we did cast. Lou McLeod developed a stretching routine for our actors and worked with Gregor on insect movement. Linden Wint (my dead wife from OMAM) choreographed scenes as our Berkovian movement specialist, and Liam also served as vocal coach in addition to playing the Clockwork Orange-style Lodger at the end of the play.
The cage was almost a pampered VIP, disassembled and reassembled daily, then adjusted regularly so it could be climbed sideways and upside-down. The music, too, had to be micro-managed, and Davina and I worked with violinist Julius Fuentes to put sounds to every key moment. Julius would sit onstage throughout the entirety of every performance, often receiving some of the warmest applause. The opening piece he selected was a lovely bit of scritchy-scratch that set the tone for the play.
The rehearsal process was a learning exercise for me. Among other things, I learned about consistency: We had intensely rehearsed a 90-second sequence to near perfection one night, yet when the sequence got sloppy on subsequent nights, I kept quiet about it, assuming the actors only needed more practice. Then, a few weeks later, one of the actors surprised me by commenting that the “changed” version felt choppy, and wondered if we could do something about it. Nothing had changed—I had just been waiting for them to get back up to their old level. It seems that if you don’t say anything, silence is taken for consent. Yet I was constantly concerned about overburdening everyone, with actors writing reams of notes about blocking and delivery, and even so, more often than not forgetting by next week which version we had decided to go with in the end, or else something had changed at a rehearsal they missed, and everyone had to be brought up to speed. Videos helped, but only so much. Even coming into production week, so much was left "mostly-done" that I just had to hope it would all come together in the end.
Yamano Makeup Day
When we got to the theatre, stage manager Frances Somerville had to pry me away from the cast with a stick. Apparently, once you get into the theatre, the stage manager is in charge and the directorial team just become cheerleaders. This was an entirely novel concept for me, as in high school the stage had been left to manage itself. I still wanted to tweak a million things, but for our four-day production, it wasn’t an option. “That’s what the rehearsal process is for,” I was reminded.
I ended up feeling like a bit of a fifth wheel, except that every time we needed a garbage bag someone had to come find me (we had to buy them from the theatre—theatres have a lot of tight rules). In the end, I was slotted as the guy who turned the projector on and off at three points in the show, which actually wasn’t so bad—I could see most of the show through the projection screen, safely unobserved. I suppose I could have fobbed it off on someone else to get a look at the show from the front, but there was actually a bit of a knack to it, and I figured it wasn't worth the risk.
Back in October 2010, I’d been concerned Davina and I might not get along. I tend to play poorly with others when authority needs to be shared, while Davina seemed to have some pretty strongly-formulated ideas, whereas I tend to question everything.
Sitting down to go through our mad lighting sequence two days before opening night, I became conscious of just how well she and I had worked together. Lighting designer Jonah Hagans had set up the lights, but Davina and I still had to hack through the script to talk our long-suffering lighting operator Jack Merluzzi through programming what turned out to be a staggering 127 lighting cues.
I’d started from the front of the script and Davina at the back. As we went through each cue, we discovered that not only had be picked out the same points to change lighting in our overlapping sections, but we’d given the cues the same names.
Davina and I didn’t always agree on everything, but we both knew what we were looking for, and we backed each other up. I’d even started throwing out the random London slang Davina peppers through every sentence as if everyone knows exactly what she means.
In the Dressing Room
Sadly, after all our marketing efforts, our audiences were sparse. I’d made two different posters and distributed them to fashion schools in Tokyo in the hope that our Tim Burton-inspired costumes, courtesy of the brilliant Suzy Retro—as well as our mime-from-hell makeup courtesy of Yamano College of Aesthetics—would attract some attention. As always, I canvased my office, and as always, everyone got excited when I told them a month in advance, then made alternate plans for the actual weekend of the show.
It was also interesting to discover how little the average person knows about theatre. I had friends calling me up to ask if I was free to hang out the week of the show; they had no idea that even before the show starts, the cast and crew are living in the theatre until 10 each night to only stumble home around midnight. When a friend arrived early and noted that it was an hour before the show, he called up and invited me out for a drink to kill the time. I tried not to laugh; my next hour would be spent ensuring that our stools were on their marks, the projector was working, and the cage was safe to be climbed on for another night, as well as making myself available in case someone needed to talk to theatre management—or needed a garbage bag.
A play isn’t like a movie you just turn on and off. Our actors arrive two hours early for makeup, and it’s a mad dash to clear the building within thirty minutes at the end of the night. Then once the run is over, everything needs to be taken apart, packed into a van and driven away, then just as carefully unloaded and stored on the other side. Months of preparation, planning and rehearsals are condensed down to five 100-minute slots of genius that will never be seen again.
I say “genius.” Was this the best play ever? Likely not. But it had some definite sparkle. There were many things I wish we could have done that didn’t get done—but what we did was spectacular. The colours alone were brilliant. When he designed the lights, Jonah took the cage I’d built to a new level, giving it life as an ominous silhouette that loomed over the Samsa family. Between lighting and sound, every character had his or her own unique ecosystem on the stage. Some scenes in the dress rehearsal brought tears to my eye.
We got our first and only sell-out audience Saturday night. Three of my friends couldn’t get in because they arrived 45 minutes late, and I did them the disservice of inviting them to wait for us at the post-show bar. By the time the cast and crew arrived, we were running off the high of having just pulled off the greatest show of the run, and I had nothing to say to anyone who could not relate to the experience. For the week, that was my world.
The weeks leading into the production had been hectic. I’d had to fight a typhoon that shut down Tokyo to attend my first meeting with the theatre managers, got called into work on the first two days of the show, and called in again the day after the show, all of which I’d meant to take as detox holidays, and then I was summoned up for emergency 1:00 a.m. editing when the program needed to get from our Europe-based designer to the Japan-based printer ASAP to be ready in time for the show. My company’s intense summer training session had been held right in the middle of our rehearsal schedule, and the day after I came back from losing three kilos to a killer string of sixteen-hour days I immediately had to contend with a cranky actor who didn’t feel like taking direction.
When we finally hit the last show on Sunday afternoon, the energy had dropped from Saturday’s high. The Sunday show was good, but we’d reached our peak. Rather than watch from the side and back as I usually did, I just took a nap backstage until it was time to turn on the projector.
When the last show ended, I said hello to a few friends who’d come out, then started to take the set apart and clean the stage. Everyone expected me to know everything right when I was asked, yet wouldn’t listen when I offered recommendations. I guess that stemmed from my nebulous position as theatre-liaison-not-stage-manager: I knew some things, but it was up to others to make things happen with that knowledge.
The show itself had been brilliant. Watching it finally come together on the stage at the dress rehearsal, with the lights isolating the actors and creating a spectacle around the cage, then Julius’ violin bringing out the feeling behind every motion—that had been my highlight. Then by the time it was all taken apart, it just felt like another job, and it was time to go home and think about work on Monday.
From the dress rehearsal September 28th.