A “First Designer Run” is a complete run of the entire play that everyone in attendance accepts in advance is not going to be good. The audience, made up of the full production team, is there to make lists of things that need to get done, but a list that can only be made once you see a play on its feet. Given that it is the first time the actors have an audience, there is always a need to defuse the situation for them – to remind them that everyone understands they are about to witness a train wreck. In 10 years of being a designer, I have never been to a first designer run that did not begin with some kind of reassuring speech that said, essentially, “we understand.”
As I watched the first designer run of The History Boys last night, I thought from time to time about what it would be like to have someone in attendance who did not understand this. What would they make of all the dropped lines, the confusion about where to enter or when to move a piece of furniture, and the strange energy that a cast has when they aren’t yet fully confident with the material? I imagine that person would leave the experience needlessly worried about the final product.
I realized that what is required of the designers and production team is imagination and faith. While the actors are worrying about piecing together the arc of a piece and the director is evaluating the choices made up to that point, the designers are comparing what they see and hear to their vision of the final version. Without the ability to make that imaginative leap, a designer would be lost. The director has faith that his or her team can make those leaps and the team has faith that the director will sort out what is problematic in the staging or the storytelling. There really is no judgment at this point because we DO understand.
So what of this run? Not a total train wreck. A little long, a little slow, some confusion about when to move furniture, but really nothing to cause anyone who’s seen a run-through before any great concern. What I was mainly impressed with is how prepared our “boys” are. These are very young actors and some are no doubt participating in one of their first professional productions. I’ve been involved with newbies who overreach in these settings and I saw none of that last night. They function very much as a team, and I am very eager to see how their dynamic develops over the remaining rehearsal process.
Occasionally, you get to witness something for the first time – meaning, the first time anyone has witnessed it. Last night it was a kiss. It’s a moment of some significance that had never happened in rehearsals up to that point. Last night, the energy of performance took over and the kiss took place. The reaction was genuine and spontaneous, to the point that one of the actors was a little taken out of the play, much to the delight of his cast mates. These little unexpected leaps forward are what the train wreck is all about.
Andy is a TimeLine Associate Artist and the sound designer for The History Boys.