Fences: First Day of Rehearsal Meet and Greet (Web Exclusive)

The first day of rehearsal for any play usually begins with a welcome greeting from the artistic director of the company, followed by the director and designers sharing their vision for the play before the cast reads through the play for the first time.

Marin Theatre Company Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis
Welcome. [Fences director] Derrick Sanders and I have been attempting to find a way to work together since – it’s in debate, but somewhere between 1998 and 2000 – so I am personally delighted to finally have him directing for us. It has been a long time coming and he is exactly the kind of artist that we have been hoping to work with as we revisit August Wilson’s Century Cycle here at Marin Theatre Company.

For those of you who are new to the company, we have made an informal commitment to revisit August Wilson’s canon – one of his plays every two to three years – with the express purpose of bringing in the young black artists who were raised on August Wilson and who were part of the early August Wilson experience but who were not actually the prime artists of that movement. Derrick is a perfect example of that. Derrick was one of the rare people who got to assist on three of August’s world premieres. He was on the ground floor for that work and met the artists who were part of the process, as were many of the people sitting around the table. And Derrick is the rare director who directed a remount of one of August’s plays that August Wilson actually saw.

What we’ve heard from younger artists is that they’re starting to look at August Wilson the way artists look at Shakespeare. They know how it was “done,” they’ve seen the quintessential productions that August was part of, and they’re interested in opening up and looking at a much wider picture of it, beyond what August and the people we keep talking about specifically thought about the visions and the executions. Derrick is one of those amazing artists that has the ability to bridge that. He sat with August and talked with August and watched August work and knew what he was looking for. And at the same time, he didn’t get to put his own stamp on those pieces until now.

At this company, we have found in our exploration of new play development that we are fascinated by voices other than the traditional mainstream theater voices. We’re interested in having conversations at this theater, and much of that began with our exploration of August Wilson and wanting to revisit these plays for future generations. Our audiences are very curious about looking at the world through other people’s eyes. This is our second production in what is potentially going to be a twenty-year commitment we’re making. So thank you for being here. Thank you for taking us on this journey.

Fences director, Derrick Sanders
Fences, for me, is very special, not just because I’m doing August Wilson, but because he was a friend and a mentor to me. I always feel like doing his work is having a conversation with an old friend. I’ve heard the stories from different perspectives. I know his laughter. I hear the rhythm in the way he talks in the play. I hear what he felt like was going on in 1957 that was still going on in his life.

I treat a classic like a new play. With these guys’ help [the actors and creative team], I’m going to look into this play and I’m going to find out why it’s a classic all over again.

I subscribe to the philosophy that the only thing an audience knows is what it feels. At the end of the day, what they carry away with them, what they feel is the only experience they have. We have to bring a little bit of ourselves – as we do, hopefully in every production – to get under the words, get under the skin, get into the DNA of Fences.

Working on August’s work requires a little bit of yourself, and I thank all of you who dare to take this journey with me. You’ve seen a little bit of how I work, and you know that I like to dig in there, and I love to bathe myself in the language, and I love to experience the work from the inside. And it takes a lot of bravery and a lot of responsibility, and I honor you for being a part of this.

If I can translate a little bit of my love, a little bit of my understanding, a little bit of my responsibility that August has placed on me – I know a little bit about him, I know a lot about the work, and I experienced the man and the work in the same instance. My hope is that you’ll see the love that I have for the playwright and his words up on that stage.

Scenic designer, John Wilson
We have the house, the front porch. The second story. We have one of those rickety old stair cases that are so typical of the Hill District coming down the side here. Up against the back, the house is basically built up against a hillside, so it’s kind of emerging from the cliff. That was the first image that Derrick ever told me, so the house is sort of emerging out of a cliffside. It’s a really difficult landscape. I can’t imagine living there. But the research shows it to be very steep with lots of staircases everywhere.

What I chose for the tree is a black oak which is native to that area. It’s almost dead but there is one little hopeful new branch sprouting out. The front porch is old weathered wood – it does snow there, so you can see the paint flaking off. The main wall of the house is dark brick. And the cliffside is very dark, as is the floor, so it’s a dark world and the lighting is going to pop everyone out from that.

Derrick Sanders
A lot of this research comes from [John Wilson’s] genius, but a lot of these ideas come from time I spent in the Hill District. And from knowing where August lived and where his daughter grew up. She lived in the place on the Hill, similar to the architecture here. It was really interesting because August had this brick house and it looked like the earth, the hill, was swallowing the house.

What’s really interesting to me in the Hill District is that August talks so much about community – in all the other plays, he’s always talking about community, but they rarely, if ever, mention any neighbors. So to me, that feels like they’re in the spot on the Hill that nobody can get to, that nobody gets to, really. Nobody is at the end of the street, and to me that’s a symbolization of Troy finding his safe place, a little tucked away safe place where nobody will bother him. And it may be a little hard to get to, to come see him, but that’s the way he prefers it.

Costume designer, Christine Crook
We’re looking at historical images from the 50s. It’s realism: we want them to feel like authentic, real clothes that belong on these people.

Derrick Sanders
I would love to add – I think one of the things I do a little bit differently is with Gabriel [Gabriel is the brother of the main character in Fences. He is a World War II veteran and was gravely injured, resulting in brain surgery and living with a metal plate in his head]. I’m really interested in seeing evidence of his surgery. I know people who have had brain surgery and a lot of times the scars never heal, especially if it was done crudely during wartime. We’re going to play with him having a hat, but when he takes off the hat, you’re going to see clearly that he has a scar.

I remember in my neighborhood in Virginia, we had this guy who was a war vet, and I remember always seeing him. And the whole neighborhood took care of him, but also my mom was always kinda like, “watch out for him.” But they all took care of him, made sure he was alright, but there was a “don’t get caught alone with him” kinda thing. I don’t know what it was about, but I remember he had a scar that was evidence of his wartime – and sometimes he would be yelling at people, not people who were actually there. I remember how my neighborhood huddled together to take care of its veterans, protected him from things that were outside the community. So if he would wander into another neighborhood, somebody would go get him and bring him back to his house. The evidence of war, and what it does to the vets and to the people of that time and to Gabriel – and, what did that open him up to? Sometimes near-death experiences open a spirit up to things.

Lighting designer, Kurt Landisman
I’m really happy to be doing another August Wilson play here at Marin Theatre Company. I think we’ll approach the lighting mostly from a realistic vantage point, but occasionally we’ll break away into a more abstract world. The fence will provide a lot of opportunities, of course, for shadow, and the set and you folks are a beautiful canvas for the lights.

Composer, Chris Houston
First of all, I’m just delighted to be able to focus on the music in this show. The language, the hints in the text, Gabriel and his horn, “Jesus Be a Fence,” “Old Dog Blue” –  these are really important touchstones for me. Also, this wonderful period in Pittsburgh’s music history in the late 50s, early 60s where you have Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Stanley Turrentine and Erroll Garner – all coming up right then. I’ve got an ensemble of players. This is one of those moments for me – looking at this cast, so happy to be working with Derrick, and I’m thinking, “They pay me to do this?” [laughter] So I’m psyched about it.

Derrick Sanders
A lot of the composition we talked about comes from the musicality of August’s text. But we were talking about the opportunity of really getting a feel of what the music is of this cast, and how the music of the time period reflects and echoes the musicality of this production. The musicians are going to be commenting on the way we make the play sing. I think that’s exciting, and that would make August happy.