Behind the Scenes at Bristol Riverside Theatre: Orchestrating a Cast

Stage Design

Model design for the set.

The day after the script read-through, rehearsals of Inherit the Wind begin at the Bristol Riverside Theatre.  The cast is practicing rousing hymnals as Keith Baker plays an upright piano including Rock of Ages and Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  While the script calls for a few verses of Old Time Religion and Walking to Zion, the other hymnals give the production team options for scene transitions or a preamble to the first scene.  The script provides dialog and action, but there are plenty of details left to fill in.

A ten minute break follows and then Act I Scene I begins. The room has been drastically transformed from the prior arrangement at the script read-through. It’s gone from tables arranged in a large rectangle to a mock court room. Tables sit atop one another to form a tiered jury box with the judge’s bench towering above the rest. This is the heart of the play where Drummond (Keith Baker) and Brady (Michael McCarty) face off against each other over the fate of a small town teacher, Cates (Jered McLenigan), accused of teaching evolution.

Rehearsal starts with seating the jurors and court room audience.  While watching a play, I don’t give these details much thought, but these are the practical concerns that need to be addressed.  No sooner than everyone is placed, Director Susan Atkinson has the cast get up and practice their entry and note their place in line.

Fewer actors are at this event than at the read-through, but it’s still a packed court room.  Some roles are filled by two actors.  Kathryn Moroney, assistant director, encourages them to shadow one another if both are present.

With places and movement worked out, Drummond and Brady start their legal arguments as the court observes and Susan orchestrates.  The cast demonstrates they know their lines, but they can’t see the court from perspective of the theatre audience.  An actor in the court room audience is seated behind Drummond fanning herself.  The script does describe the day as hot and stuffy.  It’s a perfectly natural thing to do.  Susan asks her to remain still since her movement behind Drummond tends to distract from the principle movement on stage.  That’s not something the actor could have seen from her perspective.

As Brady and Drummond verbally spar, the audience reacts in favor or derision and Susan guides and fosters it.  During jury selection, Sillers (Mark Collmer) has his religious beliefs questioned.  Ultimately, he responds with “I just work at the feed store.”  In context, it’s a funny response and the actors responded with a laugh. At the script read-through, the laughter was candid. Here, in the rehearsal, laughter is an unscripted part of the response.

The cast’s job is clear.  They need to read between the lines of the script and respond in character. Not as they would respond naturally, but as a Christian in a small southern town in 1925 might respond.

As the session winds down, Kathryn gives the ensemble cast a few suggestions that remind me of the advice I was given in my recent acting class. She tells them to consider their character’s background and their history. Let that inform how to respond and react.

Next up is another hymnal rehearsal and a visit to the costume department. Stay tuned!

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