I have worked in many great theaters with many fine people, but I can’t remember when I’ve had more fun in rehearsal than I’m having now with To Master the Art. A recent Wednesday night’s rehearsal was (typically) joyful and productive, and it is a thrill to be part of this process.
It was a full room: Bill, the director; Doug, his partner as playwright; actors and understudies; the stage manager, Ana, and her assistant, Emily; Jules, the props designer; and a guest, Beth, a friend of Bill’s who has managed many fine Chicago restaurants. The floor was taped to mark where walls and doors and audience seating will be, and we had tables full of baskets and wine glasses and plastic fruits and vegetables standing in for props.
The Crowning Touch
The first and last scenes of the play are set in the same place, an elegant restaurant in northern France called La Couronne (“the crown”). Julia and Paul eat their first meal there as they arrive in France in 1948, and they eat there in 1961 before returning to America.
At a break in running the final scene, we looked at a photograph of the real La Couronne on Ana’s computer: the colors and ambiance, the flowers, the fold of the napkins. Beth immediately recognized that the napkins were folded into a classic “Bishop’s Hat” style — each restaurant patron is seated before his or her own crown — and moments later, Ana and Emily were surfing the internet for directions on how to fold one. After several attempts at Napkin Origami, Emily successfully produced a perfect Bishop’s Hat. Cheering ensued. They would become part of the set.
We begin most rehearsals with stories about which of Julia’s recipes we’ve tried — we spend a delicious amount of time talking about food. If anyone working on the production wasn’t a “foodie” before rehearsals started, he and she are fast becoming one.
Working a scene
Bill wanted to work on the final scene. How would the actors playing Julia (Karen Janes Woditsch) and Paul (Craig Spidle) play it? Who had gotten what s/he wanted in those years between meals at La Couronne? Where was the regret, the celebration? True to form, Bill invited the actors to “play” and “explore” and “take your time.” It wasn’t time to pin down the layers of feelings, but rather to brainstorm possibilities and try things out. Moments were repeated and new intentions were tried; actors and director and playwrights were equal partners in the exploration, and most questions were left unanswered.
Beth coached the actor playing the waiter in the restaurant (Joel Gross) on serving a fine meal (the playwrights had brought in real bottles of wine for practicing; we all smiled each time Joel removed a cork with a satisfying pop): what to do with the cork, how to pour wine (with the label facing the customer to guarantee it’s the real thing), what to do with Julia’s napkin. Joel listened, took notes, and, after a few tries, was able to master the basic techniques. Consciously and unconsciously, audiences will know these tiny physical details when they come to see To Master the Art.
Jeannie Affelder portrays the characters Marie and Simca in To Master the Art. She previously appeared at TimeLine in When She Danced last season.