Patrons of TimeLine Theatre know that they can read TimeLine’s Backstory or download a study guide online to delve into the issues of a play, but most often they expect and rely on lobby panels, beautifully designed by Associate Artist Jim Keister to give additional information about the historical context or contemporary relevance of a play. These materials add to the discussion between TimeLine artists and the audience, which is central to the mission of the company.
So those who may be entering TimeLine’s lobby for the first time may be surprised to see not only the beautiful floors and new seating system, but that there are no panels. For these patrons I would love to give a glimpse behind the scenes into some of the dramaturgical work an audience generally doesn’t see and into the dramaturgy that is contained in the set itself.
Early in the process Director Nick Bowling, Assistant Director Bridget Dehl and I discussed how we were going to help the actors understand the vast number of literary and historical references in the play. Well before the first rehearsal the actors were sent a daunting 94-page packet in which I gave them references, biographies, translations and links to further information. Then the rehearsal room was filled with books of the poets, reference books, books on Oxford and Cambridge. I must say all the actors responded very positively to having so much material to read and understand in addition to the work they were already putting in at rehearsals and at home. Don Brearly and Andrew Carter often brought in even more materials.
In addition to this homework, the eight actors playing students were given real homework. Each actor was assigned one of the major poets of the play and expected to present on the poet’s biography and poetry to the group at large. During the first week of rehearsal while we were going over the references in the play, the boys also had to stand up and do a school-style presentation on their poets.
It was fascinating to see already a difference from actor to actor and character to character in the style of presentation. One seemed outwardly calm but his hands were shaking, another lost his place, some spoke casually. It was an illuminating exercise not only because the boys had to learn about the poetry and poets quoted in the play, but also because they were given a taste of the kind of work the characters in the play have done to apply for Oxford and Cambridge.
It wasn’t all just learning poetry. One of my favorite rehearsals to watch was the day the boys brought their other homework assignments. They were asked to find a piece of music significant to their characters and then they were asked, as a group, to move in response to each piece of music. It was an acting class and a lesson in group dynamics and a mythic dance that harkened back to the early rituals that must have inspired the very first theater. The rehearsal came to be referred to by Managing Director Elizabeth Auman as the “stomping rehearsal,” as her office is unfortunately beneath the rehearsal space and eight boys dancing, leaping and jumping around are not terribly quiet.
This particular exercise was revealing because of the way the boys would move as a group and then suddenly as individuals, or how at certain moments one boy would be left out. It seemed very much like the dynamics of young adulthood with shifting friendships and values, and it also seemed to cement the friendships of a cast that I think are reflected in their performances on stage.
Finally, as you enter the theater or wander around at intermission, it is worth taking a close look at the boys’ rooms. In the rooms you will find references to the poets, the authors, the movies and the music featured in the play as well as things chosen by the actors themselves. Feel free to pick up a book and look at a title or read a poem taped to the wall. These are books we used in rehearsal and poems the boys read and found significant. Although they may not be as glossy as the traditional lobby panels and you may have to step over laundry to look at them, this is dramaturgy, too.
Maren Robinson is the dramaturg for The History Boys.