Failure: 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 together for the first time.

Marin Theatre Company Artistic Director and Failure: A Love Story director, Jasson Minadakis
Welcome everyone. I am really excited about starting this production. We’ve been working on it for about two years. This is the first time this play will be done with only five actors, and it’s the first time so many instruments are being used in the production.

This play is a gem that [Marin Theatre Company Director of New Play Development Margot Melcon] found when she was reading for another play prize. She brought it straight into my office and said, “You have to read this. This is a fantastic piece of work.” We tried to figure out how we could possibly do it the minute we read it. It’s been a long time coming.

Coming up with the way we were going to make it happen was something that took a lot of brain power from the entire staff, and it took a lot of coordination with [sound designer] Chris Houston to make sure we could actually do something this nutty. It is an absolutely joyous piece of work, and a really amazing piece of theater. We are asking a lot out of everybody working on this play: the design team, the actors, the people who are working backstage. Everybody onstage will be playing instruments and singing, and they’re all going to be doing puppeteering at some point. This is a big one in terms of how we make it all happen, so I’m going to start saying thank you now for all the work that you have and will put in.

Scenic designer, Nina Ball
The play spans a number of years, but we’re focusing on the part of the story set in 1928. I got to play around with one of my favorite time periods – the art nouveau, art deco time – which I adore. It’s Chicago, around a dirty, polluted river. The downstage area suggests dock levels – there are pylons, there’s rope, there’s dirty water and some grassy, garbage-y muck. Upstage of that is the clock shop, which has Grandfather Clock in the middle. Some of the instruments will be hanging on the walls, where the actors will grab them from. There are little clocks at the top that the actors will either stand behind, or take the clock face off and be able to walk around with it. There are lots of little tricks in that downstage area.

Then the center walls opens up and reveals the upstairs, which is a beautiful art deco, stained glass glowing world of blues and greens. There will be a piano upstage, and another one in the downstage clock shop, and there are two spiral staircases that go to the upstairs. The walls will open and close a couple times, and there will be magical stagehand dockworkers making that happen. And there are lots of fun things that we’ll be discovering as we figure things out in rehearsal. It’s exciting – it’s a great script and I’m super excited to see what you do with it.

Props artisan, Seren Helday
I’m excited to get started – there are a lot of surprises with the props, like some really fun puppets. There’s a giant snake with a detachable head, there’s a sad dog that wags its tail, and there are some birds that can fly around. Even the clocks in the show have their puppet feel. There’s a moment when a baby is found in a basket and he’s holding a snake in one hand and a note in the other; we’re going to have a basket with a lever system, so you’ll see a giant baby arm hold up the snake and then the note. So that’s the kind of feel we’re going for with all the props in the show.

Lighting designer, York Kennedy
When I first read this play, I just flew through it sitting on my couch and loved it. Something I love about it is that it’s so honestly theatrical. It’s a celebration of performance techniques and storytelling – of performers and how they generate wonderful images and moods and emotions onstage. It’s a tale of love, and time, and chance, but all of it very honestly theatrically crafted, which is part of its whimsy and charm. Light has to go all over the place, and be responsive to what the performers are doing and keep the tale alive. The actors are constantly going all over the stage and making something happen in a different time or place, so the light has to be really flexible. It isn’t about a lot of special effects; it’s about being really nimble, and very suggestive of time and place, but minimally articulate.

Costume designer, Jacqueline Firkins
I feel like there’s a trend in modern theater right now to show families that hate each other. We see it over and over and over again and what’s so great in this show is seeing a family that celebrates each other. This piece has a sense of joy to it, and a sense of celebration, and a sense of fun. Obviously, there are still these moments of profundity, but they’re profound within this fun, celebratory, very rapid-paced environment, so when they hit you, they don’t hit you like you’ve just been waiting for them to come the whole time.

Costume-wise, I get to play with the idea of archetypes, so I’m thinking about what is old-fashioned and what is modern in this world. How does time pass? How do we tie to what has gone past, how do we tie to what is coming? There’s a lot of movement in this piece, so we need to find the piece that allows someone to dance and not restrict their movement. Everything in this show happens really, really quickly, so there’s no time for long costume changes. I’m giving the actors archetypal pieces and everything else will come and go very quickly. There are lots of subtle things but ultimately I don’t want this to be a “slam the audience over the head with metaphor through costume” kind of show. That said, it’s got more punch and more symbolism than shows where the clothes just need to feel real. This is beyond real. We want to make sure that the audience doesn’t feel at any point like we are in an exact time and place. There’s more of a symbolic language to it.

Sound designer, composer, and musical director, Chris Houston
You’ve heard a lot about how this show has so many balls in the air, so many moving parts. I’m accustomed to wearing a couple hats in the productions here, but in this one, I get to wear a couple hats and a vest and spats. We’ve got some recorded sounds, certainly, but we’re going to try to do everything with our voices and with instruments. [Playwright Philip Dawkins] has asked for specific late twenties songs, like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” – those kinds of beautiful, nostalgic, innocent, and yet somehow, still sexy and fun tunes. And there are three original songs as well; he’s written lines for songs and we’ve got a dance number. The whole thing is extravagant in a way that’s innocent and yet really fun and knowing. I love the combination of all those things.

Choreographer, Kathryn Zdan
All of the choreography for this is based in social dances. I’m loosely giving each one of the sisters a different dance form, so Nelly will have the charleston, Jenny June will have jitterbug, and Gerty will have foxtrot. The parents are going to be represented by a waltz. The big dance number is going to be a tango. Jasson said something wonderful, that he wants the three sisters to almost never walk, to almost always just barely be dancing. I’m really excited to explore how the characters are expressed through their movement in subtle ways that weave throughout, and how we see Mort-Mort go through this journey and through the different styles of the movement.

Jasson Minadakis
I’d also like [the actors] to tell us quickly what instruments you think you’ll be playing in the show.

Actor, Patrick Kelly Jones
Baritone and tenor ukulele, and maybe a little guitar.

Actor, Kathryn Zdan

Actor, Brian Herndon
Piano and trombone.

Actor, Liz Sklar
Flute and ukulele, as well. Snare drum!

Actor, Megan Smith
Stand-up bass, mandolin, and maybe a little piano, possibly guitar. We’ll experiment.

Jasson Minadakis
And Brian will be playing a little bass too, I believe.

Brian Herndon
Oh good!

Jasson Minadakis
Patrick may as well, and that’s because a lot of people play the Grandfather Clock at different times during the play. The Grandfather Clock is the center of the clock shop, and a lot of different actors rotate through that part.

This play turns me into an emotional mess. I’ve taken to not working on this play at home, because I get upset and my kids get really upset when I get upset. I’ve taken to reading this play – especially the end – at the gym, so that when I’m running and very sweaty and crying as I read the end, no one can tell that I’m crying. I’m warning you ahead of time that this play turns me into a puddle. It’s just the play.

Photo: From L to R: Sound designer/Composer/Musical Director Chris Houston, Actors Patrick Kelly Jones, Kathryn Zdan, Brian Herndon, Liz Sklar, and Megan Smith