Observing a Curious Incident

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By James Nelson

“I see everything,” says 15-year old Christopher Boone in Simon Stephen’s theatrical adaptation of Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is looking out a train window, and unlike the average person who glances and takes in a quick image of what they’re looking at, Christopher can count and describe every single object he sees in the distance: 19 cows, 32 houses, 3 different types of clouds… until the sheer act of taking in so much sensation overwhelms him and he wets himself on the train.

For a director, “seeing everything” is a sort of impossible ability you strive for in the rehearsal room. As you watch your play take shape, you want to notice every single choice that’s being made, and you want to imagine every potential choice that could be made. At the same time, you’re trying to monitor the overall effectiveness of your work, surveying the tone, pace, staging, etc. Of course you can’t actually “see everything”, but you can’t afford to stop looking, just in case that perfect piece of untapped theatre gold is waiting for you to discover it.

Also, for a director, it’s an absolutely fascinating experience to be in the rehearsal room for a play that you aren’t directing. Which is what I, along with my directorial colleagues Liam and Rachel, got to do over the last couple months for the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeWe took part in an ‘observership’ (arranged between IU and IRT), which meant that the three of us drove up to IRT together, sat in on a few rehearsals over the span of a few weeks, and, well, observed.

Walking in to somebody else’s rehearsal room means you’re missing a lot of context: how the production has been introduced to the team, the initial discussions around the table that preceded the work, and what mistakes and discoveries have already been made in previous rehearsals, just to name a few. Also, you don’t have a clear sense of where the production is going because it’s not your production. So you’re simply watching one cross-section of a rehearsal process in a vacuum.

During the first rehearsal I observed, director Risa Brainin was refining a particularly interesting sequence, in which the character of Christopher travels to London all by himself, despite his fear of strangers and difficulty understanding transit systems. In this sequence, the ensemble of ten actors has to represent whole crowds of faceless people, all moving around the space quickly with different paths, and resetting frequently to populate the next environment that Christopher reached. It was a flurry of activity that was meant to represent the overstimulation that Christopher felt traversing the world.

While working the sequence, Risa would stop frequently, adjust one or two pieces of business, restart at the beginning, and run it again. The actors would often chime in their suggestions for how to make their own choreography more efficient, knowing full well that Risa couldn’t possibly have her eye on all ten of them at once. Even though I hadn’t seen the rest of the play, I could tell right away what the context of this scene was, and what Risa’s “rules” of her world were: this was going to be a play in which the actors worked as an ensemble to create a stylized reality, with Christopher being our lens to the world.

Where I saw the “director’s eye” most clearly in watching Risa’s work was in the direction of focus. At all times, despite the flurry of activity across the whole stage, my eye was clearly drawn to one event at a time: Christopher bumping into somebody, Christopher losing his pet rat, Christopher getting overwhelmed and curling into a ball while looming figures surrounded him. The actors knew when to draw focus and when to yield it, and their actions were very carefully arranged so that in the orchestra of movement, we could still hear a very clear melody. It was very impressive, focused, and complex work.

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Christopher (Mickey Rowe) makes his journey to London in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Photo: Alexis Morin via Indiana Repertory Theatre)

We returned to the theatre the following week to watch a few hours of a technical rehearsal. The show is intensely tech-heavy, so it was a slow-moving process. The floor is lit from above along painted gridlines to isolate different areas of the space, and the setting immediately changes from scene to scene. The sound design is very integrated with the action of the play, and actors time their movements and lines to sound cues. Projections are timed with lines of dialogue as well. Because of the sheer amount of technical precision the show requires, we only saw the director work through less than 15 actual minutes of show time in the three hours of tech that we observed. Every last detail was being worked out: such as the way in which an actor laid a beach towel across a table so that it would take as little time as possible.

A few days after we sat in on tech, we attended the first preview of The Curious Incident, and it was exciting to see all the work culminate in an actual performance. As I watched the play, it was cool to see little details that had been worked in to the show during the rehearsals we watched. For example, on our first day, one of the actors randomly pulled out a Scottish accent for one of her small characters, much to the surprise of the leading actor (who broke out laughing in response). Sure enough, Scottish Lady became part of the finished product, like many other pieces that had been layered on in the few hours of rehearsal that we’d watched.

Even though our observership only entailed a few rehearsals and a performance, it was definitely a great way to see a professional director in process, including how Risa communicated with the actors, ran the rehearsal room, and worked toward creating a cohesive experience for her audience. It was an educational and exciting opportunity.

And, as an added bonus, I got to spend quite a few hours in the car hanging out with Liam and Rachel, who are the finest colleagues a director could ask for!

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The MFA directors unite! (From left to right: 2nd year James Nelson, 3rd year Liam Castellan, 1st year Rachel Hoey)

James Nelson is a second-year MFA directing candidate. He will be directing IU Theatre’s production of MACHINAL in Spring 2018 in the Wells-Metz Theatre.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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