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Outside 1156 Chapel Street, it’s a spring afternoon in New Haven. Inside, it’s evening in Manhattan. A slim young woman enters her apartment kitchen, lets her glossy Marc Jacobs shopping bags slide to the floor, and flips through a stack of mail. She pulls out a letter and holds it up, as if she could read through the envelope if only the light were right. She hesitates.
In the fourth row of the seating bank, stage management student Glenn Sturgis '06MFA sits in the dark, watching this final rehearsal of The Lacy Project. Sturgis is responsible for making sure that everything goes right in the black-box theater inside Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall: that when Lacy’s friend opens the window, the sound of traffic will come up on cue; that when an ambulance siren sounds, lights will pulse red on the wall; that when Lacy’s roommate goes to the sink to wash dishes, water will flow from the faucet.
Lacy is part of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays: three new works by Yale playwriting students, performed in rotation for nine days. As the festival’s chief stage manager, Sturgis has been working 14-hour days filled with meticulous preparation—overseeing nine hours of daily rehearsals and moderating post-rehearsal meetings with the stage managers for the three shows. He has backup plans for any number of crises. But his eyes glint in the stage lights as he confesses, “The most fun part is when stuff doesn’t go right. The audience loves it when they know something’s going wrong, because theater is about the aliveness of the event. You truly never know what’s going to happen.”
The 2006 Carlotta Festival inaugurates what will be an annual event. It is named for Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, playwright Eugene O'Neill’s widow, who in 1955 granted Yale the rights to North American editions of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
The drama school will invite, and anxiously await, agents from “the industry” to attend the festival and evaluate the new talent it showcases. But the primary goal is pedagogical. “A playwright wants to communicate a story through a three-dimensional space,” says Nastaran Ahmadi '06MFA, author of Layla and Majnun, one of the three plays. “As a consequence, you need a production. The play is a piece of the production, but it’s not the whole. You need designers. You need a stage and actors. Getting any production is a joy, because the only way you see if your story works is to see it unfold before you.”
That experience of moving from drafting into production is “bipolar,” says Alena Smith '06MFA, who wrote The Lacy Project. “There is the very lonely solitude part of it, but then you have to get into a room with people and be noisy and crazy and do the work of collaboration. Once you give the play over to other people, it’s still your play, but the production belongs to everyone. It’s terrifying.”
Eighty-two students take each play from flat page to three-dimensional stage. They come from all departments at the drama school: they are actors, technical designers, directors, dramaturgs, stage and theater managers, and designers of sets, sound, and lighting.
To put it all together, they’ll need sound. For Lacy, this means street noise, sirens, hip-hop by the Wu-Tang Clan, an apartment buzzer, telephones ringing. For Layla: Persian music, thunder, the disembodied voice of the mythical Majnun. For the third play, In the Red & Brown Water: recorded rap music and percussion performed by the actors using empty wine bottles, bones, and buckets.
They’ll need lighting. The gradual shift from evening to nighttime outside Lacy’s apartment window. Lightning for Layla. In the Red & Brown Water calls for light that strikes the characters from one side as they stand alone, so that they cast long shadows.
The set for Lacy is the New York apartment, with a cast-iron radiator and a window that works. Layla’s set is a grimy Los Angeles apartment with glass sliding doors. Water takes place in the projects of small-town Louisiana, but the set is minimalist: a glossy black floor and a row of chairs.
Costumes for Layla include a pair of Middle Eastern striped pantaloons; Layla, flirting with the building superintendent, will ask her to try them on. For the street party in Water, Shun needs a slinky green camisole to attract male attention. Lacy, waiting in vain for her mother to visit, will wear a childish white dress.
Props include a red umbrella; a clothesline and sheets; dolls whose clothes and hair resemble those of two characters; a camera—a fresh one for every performance—that Lacy will smash to the floor during an argument. A gas mask, a copy of Toqueville’s Democracy in America, a baby in white swaddling clothes. Cardboard moving boxes and crumpled newspaper from unpacking (sprayed with fireproofing salts to meet fire code). “Works” for Giselle, who shoots heroin, and fake blood to drip from her arm. A bowl of cherries that Lacy will eat while noting that they’re not hers, but her roommate Charlotte's.
“I didn’t own the play once I came into the rehearsal room,” says Tarell Alvin McCraney '07MFA, the author of Water. “It was ‘Let’s see what this idiot who wrote the play is talking about.’”
At one rehearsal, he adds a new line. A shopkeeper is talking to the main character, a young woman named Oya. The shopkeeper tells Oya his little daughter wants her to babysit again. “She remember you Oya,” he says. “She call you Ms. Mama Oya."
“It’s almost a throwaway line,” comments Anna Jones '06MFA, director of Water, “but it hugely sets up where the entire play goes in the second act. It plants the seed for that plot motive, of wanting to be a mother.” In the second act we will realize, increasingly, that Oya longs to become pregnant.
But lines are only part of it, says May Adrales '06MFA: as director of Layla, her job “is to bring language, emotion, and visual images into three dimensions, primarily using the beautiful artwork of the actor in space.” For an exercise early in the rehearsal process, she asks the actors to sit in a row. As the actors read through the scenes, they move closer to each other or farther away, depending upon how their characters feel—using their bodies, not just words, to express emotion.
One of the actors, Brad Love '07MFA, can’t use words at all; his character, Baba, remains silent until the last lines of the play. The script does not explain why the Iranian-born engineer-turned-grocer has stopped talking; we only know that he has been beaten following 9/11. Baba’s grown children, Layla and Omid, have moved him from his Los Angeles neighborhood to a new apartment. In a play running one hour and 34 minutes, Baba speaks only the five final lines.
The pressure of keeping silent helped Love to become Baba. During rehearsal, says Love, “it was amazing how many times I wanted to speak. I would have a potential reaction and had to learn in that moment why Baba chose not to speak.”
Charlotte, Lacy’s roommate in The Lacy Project, hopes to be admitted to art school so she can escape her stultifying office job and study photography. To learn how a photographer “moves through the world and looks at other people,” says Emily Dorsch '07MFA—the actor playing Charlotte—she walked around New Haven taking photographs.
The actors “get deeper inside a character than the director ever could,” comments Susanna Gellert '06MFA, director of Lacy, “even deeper inside than the playwright.”
Four TD&P (technical design and production) students are perched in the theater gallery, building the backdrop for Layla and Majnun. The 38-foot-wide canvas has been painted sky blue for the daylight scenes. Now the students are installing 100 stars for a nighttime scene in which Majnun appears to Layla. The TD&Ps use pushpins to poke holes, then insert into each hole the end of a single optical fiber (two fibers for larger stars). They hot-glue the fiber to secure it to the canvas. When the 150 fibers are all attached, the students will gather them into three bundles and attach each bundle to a theatrical light. The four students will spend 40 hours in all, poking, threading, and gluing.
The set design for Water calls for a red chalk outline that circumscribes the acting space on the black floor. The impermanence of chalk is suggestive, says Jones, the director. “We want to make it feel as if it comes out of nowhere. The actors bring the story to life for an hour and a half, and then they bow and it’s over.” She and set designer Tamar Klausner '06MFA are brainstorming with Sturgis, the production stage manager. They decide chalk may not work because it takes a lot of time to apply; with one play in the afternoon and a different one that evening, the run crew will have only two hours to change over the sets. And chalk could be slippery, too easily scuffed, or toxic to breathe. Would paprika work? It’s only $30 per gallon. What about crumbled cork? Could it be vacuumed with a DustBuster after each show and re-used? Sturgis refocuses the conversation: “What would be your ideal if there weren’t budget constraints?” Eventually, they will settle on cork, dyed red. The 50-pound box costs $75.
It all has to fit into the festival budget—$13,000 for all three shows. The Lacy budget benefits from free “blood” for Giselle, left over from a Yale Rep run of The Duchess of Malfi. The cherries are another story. They’re out of season, so properties master Jessica Stanley, an intern, ends up buying two boxes of red chocolate-covered cherries by mail order. With express shipping, they cost $63. In rehearsal, the actors eat grapes.
For Layla, the budget challenge is custom vertical blinds for the sliding glass doors at the back of the apartment; the initial price quoted is more than $500. The blinds aren’t mentioned in the script, but designer Rumiko Ishii '07MFA included blinds in her model, and now director Adrales feels strongly about them. She makes her case at a budget meeting for the festival: “Having vertical blinds makes the room look more oppressive,” she says. “They’re like bars.” The group agrees to shift some money. As it turns out, the blinds cost only $150.
Layla’s older brother, Omid, complains that in strangers' eyes, he’s a terrorist. “Their brainwashed brains put a turban on my head and a machine gun in my hand.” Layla barely responds. But the next day, when she’s flirting with the super and the super declines a gift of Persian pants, Layla reacts with a tirade.
“I’m a terrorist,” she tells the super, speaking fast. “I was trained in a camp outside Bandahar. I’m an Iranian Sunni Muslim who was happy to have the Shiites wiped out in an eight-year slaughter led by Iraq in the name of Allah. [ …] My family took this apartment to hide away for a covert fundamentalist operation [ …] and we thank you for the use of your facilities.”
The super exits, leaving Layla alone with half-unpacked boxes and a bare mattress on the floor.
In a rehearsal, the actor playing Layla, Aubyn Dayton Philabaum '08MFA, hesitates. Then she turns to director Adrales. “I feel lost in the space, like I don’t know what to do with myself,” she says.
“What just happened?” Adrales asks.
“I just pushed the super out of my life.”
“I think it’s a shock that it came out of your mouth. Twelve hours earlier, this is what your brother was telling you. Just go with that feeling of ‘What did I just do? God, everyone’s gone. I successfully drove everyone away.’”
In the course of rehearsals, Philabaum will try lying on the floor, flopping on the mattress, retreating to a bedroom. By opening night she will have found the right move: curling up in fetal position in a large cardboard box.
In the basement rehearsal room at 305 Crown Street, Water playwright McCraney, who has had dance training, is helping to choreograph the party scene. Four men enter from the four corners of the stage to surround Oya. McCraney watches them orbit her. She stands still and straight, eyes ahead. Then he models how they should walk: slowly, deliberately, almost stalking, gazing intensely at Oya.
“The thing that’s going to tell this is the kinetic energy in our bodies,” he says. “Really feel like men—the collective world of men gathering like a rain cloud. Bring all that aggression right into it. The journey is in moving the hip.” He leads with his right foot and his hip follows. “In the move, can we already feel how sexy the party is?” Oya locks eyes with one of the men, Ogun.
McCraney turns to the director: “It’s a little more rounded, Anna, a little more 'space, the final frontier.' There’s this lyrical, light thing happening between Oya and Ogun.”
The pace quickens, the men pull away from Oya. A DJ announces, “Around here sometimes out of nowhere—” and men call out in unison: ”—a party!” The DJ grabs a cart from upstage loaded with audio equipment and plunges forward, calling out: “Dum da da! Dum da da!”
McCraney stops the action and tells the actor playing the DJ, Brian Henry '07MFA: “There’s something really soft happening in front of you, so you won’t capture our attention unless you do something sharp: you sort of herk and jerk it.” He shows Henry how to walk with a swagger. “Can you do ‘Dum da da?’” he asks.
“Just because you ask so damn nice,” Henry says, and walks in the rhythm McCraney has sung.
The starry backdrop for Layla is history. It takes only an hour to dismantle after Adrales and the designers decide to use a black sky instead. The TD&P students unbundle and untangle the optical fibers. They fold and store the canvas, to be repainted for some other production.
“Something like that happens in every show,” says TD&P Gregg Carlson '07MFA, master electrician of the Carlotta Festival. “If you let it bother you, then you’re just going to get bitter. Nobody wants to be bitter, because then you enjoy your work less. And I really enjoy my work.”
“Half the reason why we do theater and we’re not civil engineers,” says Andrew Gitchel '07MFA, technical director of the festival, “is that there’s a certain level of mundaneness in doing the same thing over and over again. The beautiful thing about theater is that it’s always changing. You work your butt off to get a show up and running. Then four weeks later, you tear it apart, and you’re moving on to the next challenge.”
Bryan Terrell Clark '06MFA plays a character in Water called Elegba—an annoying, endearing mischief-maker. Clark isn’t in this scene, but as he sits in one of the folding chairs upstage, he stays in character, shooting a rubber band again and again toward the stage lights above him.
This five-hour rehearsal is the last chance to make sure that all goes smoothly—lights, sound, props, even the “fire speech” pointing out the exits, which will preface every show. Tonight is opening night for Water and for the Carlotta Festival.
As the cast of ten waits for the lighting crew to adjust the stage lights, someone starts singing a version of “Summertime,” and others join in: “Summertime, / And the livin' is easy … Your daddy’s rich / And your mama is hooking.”
The fooling around provides an outlet for the cast’s energy, says stage manager Sturgis. “You want to keep a light atmosphere, not work the actors too hard on the last day, because they have to give a full performance tonight.” They’ll begin a full run-through in a few minutes, but first they’re fine-tuning some technical aspects in a scene in which Shun tells her friend Nia that she plans to keep her new boyfriend away from Oya. Stage manager Joanne McInerney '08MFA asks the actors to start with the line “You just gotta learn how to tether niggas.”
“Jo! You watch your language!” Clark cries out in mock dismay, and hoots of laughter follow.
“I’ve avoided it the whole rehearsal process,” replies McInerney.
“To be fair—she has,” says an actor. More laughter, and then the actors take their places.
It is opening night. Layla sits in her father’s rocker. Baba stands at the back of the room, staring out the sliding glass doors into the darkness.
Layla: You could turn anything into a story. That’s how you put us to bed … remember? Do you remember anything, Baba, or has your memory gone with your voice?
From a dimly lit booth above the last row of seats, stage manager Derek DiGregorio '07MFA quietly speaks the cues into his headset.
DiGregorio: Stand by, sound cue 195. Sound cue 195, go.
Layla: Tell me the story of getting here … when you first got here with Omid […]—tell me about the plane ride. It was bumpy.
Planes flew into buildings. … They want to fight Afghanistan, they want to fight Iraq; we’re from the country that sits in between.
DiGregorio: Stand by, sound cue 210. Sound cue 210: go. Stand by: light cue 42, lightning box, sound cue 215. … Go!
The first Carlotta Festival goes well. The 12 performances draw an audience of more than 1,500 playgoers—among them about 70 industry people, including literary managers, dramaturgs, and artistic directors. On opening night, some members of the audience at Water begin talking back to the actors, call-and-response style. Sitting in the back row, director Jones is elated. “It felt as if they were having a conversation throughout the play,” she says afterwards. “The actors just soared.”
Later, Lacy writer Alena Smith looks back on the rehearsals and performances: “It gave me a clearer sense of what the goal of the playwright is, and how a play functions, to see the actors struggling to find their journey through the play.”
At 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 14, not long after the audience files out from the final show, the “strike” begins. Every student with a role in the festival picks up a wrench, a Sawzall or a screwdriver and dismantles sets, packs up costumes for the cleaners, stores what will be saved—the refrigerator from Lacy, the folding chairs from Water—and trashes what won’t.
Two days later, when one of the students stops by, the black-box theater is empty. Even the seating banks are gone. In the dimly lit room, a custodian walks methodically back and forth, pushing a broad white dust mop.
When the performance ends and the actors scatter, the play itself vanishes, says Anna Jones. “It’s just like life. It happens when it happens, and the next day, it’s over.”
From The Lacy Project
Lacy: In my opinion artwork looks better on a postcard than in real life. Because when it’s on a postcard, and the postcard’s in your hand, then it belongs to you. It’s a collectible. That makes me happy. I collect postcards of beautiful girls. Botticelli’s goddesses, Degas’ dancers, Cindy Sherman’s Cindy Shermans …
Giselle: And of course, yourself, Lacy. Daughter and subject of the famous photographer Brigitte.
Lacy:I love to look at myself along with all the other reproductions. All of us four-by-six souvenirs. All of us darlings.
From In the Red & Brown Water
Shango: I know I been …
Oya: You got to be you.
Shango: That’s what I say. Always be you, and …
From Layla and Majnun
Omid: You took the night shift at a convenience store without even discussing it with me. There is such a thing as basic common sense.
Layla: I did it before what happened to Baba. [ …] It was anthropology.
Omid: You never cared about anthropology before. You want to get in touch with your roots, come home more often, have dinner with your father when he invites you over. You are not the same as those people. You come from a wealthy family. Your father is an engineer.
Layla: Was. Was an engineer. Used to be a wealthy family.
Omid: But that’s the kind of people you come from. You do not come from convenience store people.
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