Welcome to Michael Grandage Company’s production of Hughie by Eugene O’Neill
1928, New York City. A hotel lobby.
A small-time gambler and big-time drinker makes his way back to Room 492. With a new night clerk on duty, he is forced to confront his personal demons and discover the real end to his own story.
Hughie is a rarely seen theatrical masterpiece about the loneliness and redemption of one man chasing the American Dream.
Michael Grandage directs Academy Award, Golden Globe Award and BAFTA winner Forest Whitaker and Tony Award winner Frank Wood in this Broadway revival by one of America's greatest playwrights.
‘Great drama addresses the human condition in a profound way and at the same time has the ability to speak to us individually. As one of America’s greatest dramatists, Eugene O’Neill consistently tackles important topics such as loneliness, addiction, grief, disillusionment and the search for the American Dream in a way that reaches us on a very personal level and makes us reflect upon our own lives.
‘Such is the case in Hughie. O’Neill masterfully excavates a panoply of these big ideas into a succinct hour-long evening of theatre. It is a play about the need for connection, and how through such connection one can find redemption.
‘I am thrilled to be directing this rare revival with two extraordinary talents. Forest Whitaker is a towering actor with a remarkable ability to define character. To be working with him to tell the story of Hughie is not only an incredible opportunity but also a privilege. I feel equally inspired by Frank Wood, a celebrated Broadway veteran, who through his carefully crafted silence speaks volumes about O’Neill’s themes of desolation and hopelessness.
‘Now, more than seventy years after O’Neill put pen to paper, the themes in Hughie resonate louder than ever – especially our desire to stay connected to others. I cannot think of a better way to connect than through the shared experience of theatre. I hope you will enjoy studying this rare gem and exploring the inner lives of these two dynamic characters.’ Michael Grandage, Artistic Director, MGC
The early hours of the morning, summer 1928. A hotel lobby in New York City.
Just steps beyond the bright lights of Broadway, Erie Smith, a small-time gambler and big-time drinker, returns to the faded hotel that he has made his home. There he encounters the new night clerk, Charlie Hughes, and laments how his luck has gone bad since the death of Hughie, Charlie's predecessor.
As the early hours of the morning give way to yet another dawn, Erie continues to tell tall tales, searching for the American Dream in order to survive.
Director - Michael Grandage
Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin
Composer & Sound Designer - Adam Cork
General Management - 101 Productions
Company Manager - Lizbeth Cone
General Press Representative - Polk & Co.
Casting - Calleri Casting
Production Management - Aurora Productions
Production Properties Supervisor - Buist Bickley
Production Stage Manager - Peter Wolf
Stage Manager - Lisa Buxbaum
Technical Supervisor - Ben Heller
Associate Director - Timothy Koch
Associate Set Designer (UK) - Lee Newby
Associate Set Designer (US) - Daniel Muller
Scenic Associate - Frankie Bradshaw
Associate Costume Designer - Amanda Seymour
Associate Lighting Designer - Gina Scherr
Associate Sound Designer - Christopher Cronin
Wardrobe Supervisor - Eileen Miller
Vocal Coach - Kate Wilson
Movement Coach - Taaj Jaharah
Production Assistant - Megan Sprowls
Behind the Scenes Guide - Rachel Weinstein & Tim Koch
Behind the Scenes Editor - Dominic Francis
Eugene O’Neill was born on 16th October 1888 in New York City - in the Barrett House, a hotel on Broadway and 43rd Street similar to the one in which Hughie is set. The son of famous Irish actor, James O’Neill, he was raised in the theatre and would later come to be regarded as the first great American playwright.
Eschewing the popular vaudeville and melodrama of the day, as typified by his father’s generation, O’Neill wrote plays that drew directly from his own life and experiences, inspired by such celebrated European writers as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Anton Chekhov. A prolific author, he ultimately won a total of four Pulitzer Prizes for his work and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 – the only American playwright ever to have won the award.
O’Neill’s major plays include: Beyond the Horizon (1918 – Pulitzer Prize 1920), Anna Christie (1920 – Pulitzer Prize 1922), The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape (1922), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924), Desire Under the Elms (1924), The Great God Brown (1926), Strange Interlude (1928 – Pulitzer Prize), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (written 1941-1943, first performed 1947). Many regard The Iceman Cometh, written in 1939 and first performed in 1946, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night as his greatest work. The latter was written in 1941 and first performed in 1956, three years after the author’s death, for which he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957.
After a lifetime of recurring depression and alcoholism, O’Neill eventually died of a neurological disorder aged 65 on 27th November 1953 in Boston – in the Sheraton Hotel on Bay State Road. His last reported words were allegedly: ‘I knew it… Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.’
Eugene O’Neill’s use of stage-directions
Some scholars believe that Eugene O’Neill never intended for Hughie to be performed, but rather to be read as a work of literature. As such, the stage-directions are equally as important as the dialogue he puts into the mouths of his characters, underscoring the themes of loneliness and desolation through figurative language, metaphor and symbolism.
In his directions, O’Neill uses vivid imagery to give voice to the Night Clerk’s inner-thoughts and memories in a way that could not be conveyed through spoken dialogue. He seems to wrap the past, present and future into one inseparable knot that defines the feeling of absence and longing often found in human existence.
Elaborate stage-directions became a trend among playwrights in the early twentieth century. Celebrated British dramatists, such as George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker, used extensive directions to convey intentions and to offer psychological and sociological explanations for their characters’ behaviour.
In performance, they function as an aid to help the actor develop the inner-life of a character. In Hughie the stage-directions establish the disconnection between Erie and the Night Clerk.
The play and past productions
Hughie was written between 1941 and 1942, shortly after Eugene O’Neill completed The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It was originally intended as part of a series of eight one-act plays given the overall title By Way Of Orbit.
It was the author’s plan that the central character in each piece would examine their relationship to a person who had died while another character would do almost nothing but listen. O’Neill commented: ‘Via this monologue you get a complete picture of the person who died – his or her whole life story – but just as complete a picture of the life and character of the narrator.’ Hughie is the only manuscript from the collection that survives, the author having destroyed his notes and drafts for the other plays.
Although completed in the early forties, the play did not receive its world premiere until 1958, in a production at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Sweden with Bengt Eklund as Erie Smith. Five years later, in 1963, Burgess Meredith played Erie in a production at Bath’s Theatre Royal in England.
Hughie was first performed on Broadway in 1964 with Jason Robards in the title-role, the actor receiving a Tony Award nomination for his performance. Robards revived his portrayal in 1975 in California, playing opposite Jack Dodson as Charlie Hughes. The pair reprised their roles three further times: at the Hyde Park Festival in 1981; on television for PBS in 1984; and finally at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in 1991.
The play has been produced two more times on Broadway since the 1964 production starring Robards. Ben Gazarra played Erie, gaining a Tony Award nomination for his performance, in 1975 and Al Pacino directed and starred in a production at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 1996. Other notable productions include Brian Denehey in the title-role at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2010.
The play in context
Times Square in the 1920s
Before becoming an entertainment and business district, Times Square - formerly known as Longacre Square - housed the carriage-making industry. The area acquired its current name in 1904 when The New York Times moved its headquarters to the newly built Times Building. With the proliferation of cars and the completion of a subway that connected it to Grand Central, the area changed rapidly. After World War I, Times Square grew dramatically, becoming a cultural hub of theatres, music halls and upmarket hotels.
The nightlife in Times Square attracted many celebrities. Especially popular at the time were vaudeville performances that featured a range of acts performing together in one show. The most famous was possibly the Ziegfeld Follies, which was known for its beautiful chorus girls in elaborate costumes.
During this period Times Square was also besieged by crime and corruption, in the form of gambling and prostitution. Gangsters dominated local nightclubs, often bribing the police. When Prohibition came into effect, many of the legitimate cabarets and restaurants in the area closed and were replaced by cinemas (movie theatres) and tourism that would attract advertisers to bring in the bright lights that are associated with Times Square today. This is how Broadway earned its nickname, ‘The Great White Way’, as it was the first street in America to be fully lit by electric light.
In 1920 the 18th Amendment was ratified to the US Constitution banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, and thus beginning a period in American history known as ‘Prohibition’.
Prohibition was the result of a widespread temperance movement, born out of religious roots and a belief that excess alcohol consumption was responsible for society’s moral corruption. It led to an increase in the illegal production and sale of liquor, known as ‘bootlegging’, as well as illegal bars, known as ‘speakeasies’. It was a time that invited clandestine behavior and saw an accompanying rise in gang violence and other criminal activity.
Prohibition was difficult to enforce, especially as consumption of alcohol itself was not illegal, and eventually had a negative impact on the US economy. Thousands of jobs were lost through the closure of distilleries and breweries. Restaurants and theatres saw a sharp decrease in revenue and the government lost valuable income from excise taxes. This, coupled with the many difficulties arising from the Great Depression, led to waning support for Prohibition.
In early 1933 Congress proposed a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th Amendment. It was ratified by the end of that year, bringing the Prohibition era to a close.
Gangsters played a prominent part in 1920s New York City. One such figure, referred to in Hughie, is Arnold Rothstein. He was a legendary gambler, notorious for rigging the 1919 World Series. Having built his empire on fixed horse races, card games and Manhattan gambling houses, Rothstein diversified his business during Prohibition to include the illegal sale of alcohol. He moved into bootlegging, selling drugs, racketeering, loan-sharking and everything that went with it, including bribery and murder.
Rothstein was nicknamed ‘The Brain’ for his sharp intellect and polished demeanor. He associated with other famous gangsters, notably Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Dutch Schultz, as well as politicians and legitimate businessmen. Rothstein was known to have conducted his business at Lindy’s Restaurant on Broadway and 49th Street, just a few blocks from Erie’s rundown hotel – and the Booth Theatre, where MGC’s 2016 production of Hughie was staged. Rothstein was eventually murdered in 1928 by rival gamblers for not paying debts.
Why is it that the Night Clerk obsessively asks Erie if he knows ‘The Big Shot’ Rothstein? And why is it that both characters idolise his gangster lifestyle? To them Rothstein represents the possibility of power, wealth, glamour and respect that they are so lacking in their own lives. He also symbolises, albeit in a corrupted fashion, the realisation of the American Dream, to which so many people aspired.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was a worldwide recession that severely affected America throughout the 1930s, following the crash of the Wall Street Stock Market in October 1929. It had a significant impact on individuals in cities, where unemployment reached as high as 25% in 1932. Inner-city men over the age of 45 with few skills were one of the key demographics to be worst affected.
Hoovervilles - named after the then American President, Herbert Hoover - formed in urban centres, where the homeless created slums made of cardboard and wood. Both Central and Riverside parks were overrun with such shanty towns.
Economic depression is often accompanied by emotional depression. By setting Hughie on the eve of The Great Depression and focusing on his characters’ desolation, O’Neill foreshadows the destitution that would ravage the country for the next decade.
In Hughie, Eugene O’Neill incorporates slang vernacular from the 1920s. Below are definitions of some of the terms used in the play.
Horses - usually refers to those whose tails have been cut
Gangsters - many mafia families were based in Brooklyn in the 1920s
An ancient walled town
Dead wrong Gs
Are owed thousands of dollars
Follies, scandals, frolics
All refer to the glamorous showgirls from the Zeigfield theatre revues
Hanging on the ropes
Boxing metaphor indicating that a fighter is nearly beaten
In the bucks
Rich with cash
In the sticks
In a small, rural town
Man o’ War
Considered one of the greatest thoroughbred race horses of all time. During his career, just after World War I, he won 20 of 21 races and close to $250,000 prize money.
Off on a bat
To go on a spree
On the lam
On the run - usually from the authorities
Put the bite on
Ask for money
A foolish or gullible person
A hurried wedding involving a pregnant bride
Took a run-out powder
Left somewhere in a hurry
To renege or fail to honour - as in a debt or obligation incurred through a promise or agreement
Hughie by Eugene O’Neill (Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1982)
The text of the play
The following biographies of Eugene O’Neill were consulted in preparation for MGC’s production of Hughie:
Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts by Robert M. Dowling (Yale University Press, 2014)
O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo by Arthur & Barbara Gelb (Applause Books, 2000)
‘A teller of tales.’ Early 40s.
In manner, he is consciously a Broadway sport and a Wise Guy – the type of small fry gambler and horse player, living hand to mouth on the fringe of the rackets. Infesting corners, doorways, cheap restaurants, the bars of minor speakeasies, he and his kind imagine they are in the Real Know, cynical oracles of the One True Grapevine.
Erie usually speaks in a low, guarded tone, his droop-lidded eyes suspiciously wary of nonexistent eavesdroppers. His face is set in the prescribed pattern of gambler’s dead pan. His small, pursy mouth is always crooked in the cynical leer of one who possesses superior, inside information, and his shifty once-over glances never miss the price tags he detects on everything and everybody. Yet there is something phoney about his characterization of himself, some sentimental softness behind it which doesn’t belong in the hard-boiled picture.
Tall, thin, with a scrawny neck and jutting Adam’s apple. His face is long and narrow, greasy with perspiration, sallow, studded with pimples from ingrowing hairs. His nose is large and without character. So is his mouth. So are his ears. So is his thinning brown hair, powdered with dandruff. Behind horn-rimmed spectacles, his blank brown eyes contain no discernible expression. One would say they had even forgotten how it feels to be bored.
Associate Director Timothy Koch provides a week-by-week summary of rehearsals for Hughie
It’s January 2016 and rehearsals began today for the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s epic one-act masterpiece, Hughie. We gather in the upper floor of a rehearsal studio in midtown, New York City, just off Times Square. It’s a fitting location to explore this play: O’Neill was born in a hotel just around the corner, at 43rd Street and Broadway, in the 1880s and the setting of our play is the lobby of one of the many hotels that adorned the Broadway area in the early twentieth century and, for our purposes, the year 1928.
The room is abuzz as we set out on our journey. Gathered are: our two actors, Forest Whitaker, playing Erie Smith, and Frank Wood, playing Charlie Hughes, the Night Clerk; understudy, Peter Bradbury; our director, Michael Grandage; our Voice and Speech Coach, Kate Wilson; our Stage Managers, Peter Wolf, Lisa Buxbaum and Megan Sprowls; and me, Timothy Koch, the Associate Director.
I’ve worked for Michael on three previous productions: Red, Peter and Alice and The Cripple of Inishmaan – three plays written in the last twenty years. This will be my first venture with him into working on a mid-century classic, and an American classic at that. I’m excited to see how his process applies to the peculiarities of O’Neill’s play.
Michael is generally averse to table work. He feels that any conversation we might have sitting down is more fruitful and productive once the actors are off-book and on their feet rehearsing the scene. There’s always an exception to the rule, however, and Michael recognises the individual needs of each unique play. O’Neill has written the dialogue of Hughie using slang, jargon and references that filled the streets of jazz age New York. To truly begin the rehearsal process, it’s necessary to sit down and go through the play line-by-line, making sure we all know exactly what we’re saying.
Some of the terms that warrant this table work: Bangtails, call the turn, C-notes, fins, sawbucks, dolls, frails, Brooklyn Boys, on-the-lam, lousy-with-jack, made-the-break, moniker, racket, raw, rubbed out, run-out-powder, shut eye, small fry, sored up, square shake, on the spot, take-to-the-cleaners, turtles, Wise-Guy, sporting blood and square shake.
Although it’s English, it feels like a different language. It’s the slang you hear in Damon Runyon novels or Boardwalk Empire. My part in the process, as Associate Director, begins weeks before rehearsals as I pour over the script, looking up definitions, origins and usage for all of these words. The greatest resource for this, beyond compare, is the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s entirely thorough and full of etymological, historical and cultural context that illuminates the words of this world unlike anything else. (Many major libraries have a partnership with the OED online. Check if yours does!)
Michael begins by setting the tone for this work session: ‘There are no stupid questions.’ And even more to the point – ‘I’m going to ask a lot of stupid questions!’ He makes everyone feel comfortable to ask the meaning of what may seem like an obvious phrase or saying. This attitude encourages us to discuss words and meanings that we may know, but which we may all have a slightly different understanding of. Emerging from this process we achieve a common clarity to the language of Hughie, in addition to a well-rounded sense of the historical and cultural setting of the play.
After table work, we move right into staging. Hughie takes place in a hotel lobby and Christopher Oram, our Set and Costume Designer, has created a beautiful space in which to tell this story. Many productions place the Night Clerk’s desk, behind which the Night Clerk remains for the duration of the play, directly up centre-stage. Michael and Christopher have avoided this standard staging by placing the clerk’s desk on an angle off to stage-right. This creates a vast, open expanse for the lobby centre-stage. Michael and Christopher deem this Erie Smith’s ‘arena’. From this vantage point he can really take the stage and deliver the heaps of text, tales and drama over the course of the play.
A rough mock-up of the set has been constructed for the rehearsal room using chairs, plywood and the like. Before we start staging, Michael and Forest walk through the playing space with Michael pointing out the different areas that may be of use at some point: a chair near the broken elevator, a water cooler upstage right, the first few steps of the grand staircase, a long bench forlornly downstage left. Michael doesn’t dictate where in the play Forest should use these spaces, nor even that he need use them at all. Instead, Michael uses this moment to introduce the wealth of possibilities available. Forest has an open ground and free reign with which to explore the play.
Michael describes the first pass at staging the play as ‘sketching’. Just as an artist would draw with pencil and paper before attempting a grand painting, we too are merely sketching the outline of what will someday be fully realised. This allows a low-pressure freedom to permeate this week. Rather than being results-oriented, the process is focused on the light shape of things. Forest and Michael therefore try his first entrance and subsequent crosses maybe a dozen different ways, until the sketched lines start to grow darker and the clearest and most natural choice becomes more boldly marked.
Michael’s idea of ‘sketching’ melds nicely with Forest’s approach to building character. Early on he asks for bits of paper and other detritus that may be in the pockets of a down-on-his-luck gambler. O’Neill’s text never specifically mentions these elements, but Forest has a hunch that they will prove useful in getting into character and motivating the action. Within the first few days this proves true: old betting slips motivate a cross to the bench, where he works to sort them out, thus helping Erie get his bearings before launching into another story for his new audience, Charlie. In a beat of despairing loneliness, Forest fishes out a half-smoked cigar and attempts to light it. Erie’s lighter is out of fuel and after repeated attempts he gives up on this last respite, defeated in full. These bits of action will evolve and refine themselves over the rehearsal process and it’s the nature of ‘sketching’ in the first week that sets the tone for that exploration.
Hughie is by no means a long play. Compared with O’Neill’s more notable, hefty works, Hughie is a brief drama with a run time of approximately one hour. Within this hour, though, Michael emphasises that we find all the highs and lows, tragedies and laughter of any four or five-act drama. With the shorter run time there is the tendency to go quickly, running through the play by the second or third day or rehearsal. Michael resists this, emphasising to Forest and Frank that they should go slowly. We intentionally stop and start and repeatedly run even just a page or half a page of text. We do not even attempt a full run through in this first week. Each day we begin where we left off the day before - the middle, the ending, the beginning sometimes - and we continue from there, moving slowly. Anytime we start to gain momentum, Michael will stop the actors with a note or adjustment. In one instance, after Forest finishes one of Erie’s longest speeches in the play, Michael says simply: ‘That was good. Let’s do it again.’ We work in these smaller beats, plumbing the depths of the play and refining the blocking for the rest of the week.
After a much-deserved day off, we resume our work in the rehearsal room. Before the session even begins, Michael is checking-in with Forest: What feels good? What are you worried about? What’s unclear from week one? Forest replies that he’s feeling good about the stories and dialogue with Frank’s character, in isolation, but stringing them together - the transitions between them - still feels strange and undiscovered.
Michael refers to these moments of transition as ‘corners’. He takes this term from music, when a passage or phrase of music turns and becomes another phrase. It’s not a full-stop between scenes or stories, but rather an active moment of transition that strings a whole play together. Michael finds them to be some of the most exciting moments in a play and I have to agree. It’s a thrill to cull them out in rehearsals and watch them energise the piece.
Michael structures the first day of week two around the corners. We start at the top of the play and anytime we encounter a corner we stop. First we identify it collectively, making sure we’re all on the same page and agree that is, in fact, a corner. Next, we ensure it’s being energised for its maximum potential - that the momentum of the play continues, and possibly even builds, through the transition and that we launch into the next beat or story retaining the audience’s interest. Finally, we go back a few lines or pages and run the corner again. And then again if needs be. It’s a start-and-stop process, but as we continually remind ourselves - it’s only an hour-long play.
Michael’s focus on the exploration of corners is total. It’s a terrific lesson in committing to a director’s objective for rehearsals. He’s a great example of never letting his confidence get in the way of exploration. Even when we pass a corner that plays beautifully and clearly, Michael will stop the process and check-in with the actors, asking: ‘Was that clear? It was clear to me, but let’s make sure it’s clear to all of us and we all know what we did.’
This work continues throughout the second week as we deepen our exploration and refine the narrative. Michael maintains his restraint in never letting us have a full run through. He’s always one to caution about getting too fast too early. The length of this play is, again, our great advantage.
Erie is a depressive character: down on his luck, fighting off delirium tremens, mourning the loss of his friend. But theatre is active - acting is active. We therefore spend a portion of week two examining an important question: How do you keep depression energised? Forest finds some of the energy in his and Erie’s generally upbeat nature. Erie, and certainly Forest’s Erie, has a cheery attitude of, ‘Something always works out in the end’. This optimism becomes an active force in fighting off the depressive energy that can cause problems theatrically. The brightness fights to shine through the dark.
Several key pieces of blocking we discovered in the first week involve Erie sitting down on the steps or a chair, which show both his exhaustion and familiarity with the hotel lobby. In our quest for an active drama, Michael makes an excellent adjustment. He coaches Forest to make the sitting down an ‘active depression’ - that Erie is sitting down with the urgent purpose of working something out, and in doing so discovers something new on his journey.
Michael likes to incorporate as many elements of production into the rehearsal room as he can, so that when we move to the theatre the actors are adjusting to as little as possible. This week we begin to incorporate Adam Cork’s music and soundscape, plus Christopher Oram’s costume pieces. (If Michael could incorporate Neil Austin’s lights, I think he would, but this show and rehearsal room don’t allow it.)
Adam attended rehearsals throughout the first week. Laptop in front of him and massive headphones over his ears, he watched and listened to the play, noting places where there might be passing footfalls or the sound of an elevated train. He also spent time measuring the number of seconds Forest was taking for certain beats and planned moments of reflection on stage where original music may be used. This week we’ve now started to play those sound cues in rehearsal.
Introducing sound and music into a play is always a specific process for Michael. First he listens to it over headphones, giving Adam any necessary adjustments. Next, we listen to it through speakers with the actors in isolation from ‘acting’ the scene. Finally, we play the scene fully, completely integrating the sound. All the while, Michael stresses that the sound or music - or any production element for that matter - should come entirely from the actor and out of their choices, not the other way round. A sound cue should never feel like something layered on by the director or design team. It should be a natural and organic expression coming from the characters’ action. We work each sound and piece of music into the play slowly. By the time we’ve finished we’re naturally running longer sections, gearing up towards the inevitable and much-anticipated run through.
On Friday morning, our tenth day of work, we put it all together. Forest is wearing Erie’s suit and hat and Adam’s music is playing along, bringing us into the world of 1928. While the whole process is certainly drawn out and bumpy in parts, we run through the play from start to finish. Once we sit down for notes, Michael states: ‘Well, that’s a very big boil lanced!’ Indeed it is.
In the afternoon we work through several sections that needed work from the morning session. After that the clock reads 4.30pm. We have about an hour left of the day and Michael leaves the decision about what to do with it to Forest. He views rehearsals as the time for Forest to get what he needs, as much as for the production to get what it requires. Forest thinks for a moment before saying, ‘Let’s go again’. So we use the last part of the day to work through the play once more. So much of a good rehearsal process is repetition.
The following day, our final in the rehearsal room, we follow much the same pattern. We start the day with a run through, this time with a small invited audience of our designers and a few producers. It goes quite well. We learn there are laughs at moments we didn’t expect, and we find that certain moments are lost on the audience and will need further work before we open to a paying audience in a week’s time. ‘We know what we’ve got to do and we’ve got plenty of time to do it,’ says Michael.
After a very positive and reassuring notes session, we break for the day and say goodbye to the rehearsal room. Next week will begin with continued acting work in the Booth Theatre for the first two days, followed by technical rehearsals and our first dress rehearsal and preview.
While we’ve been busy rehearsing, the crew at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street have been hard at work building the stage, revolving door, broken elevator and grand staircase that fill the lobby of Erie’s hotel. Today we’ll finally start to combine our work from the rehearsal room with the stage and house of the theatre.
Our day with the actors begins not onstage, but in the large lower lobby of the Booth instead. While the crew finish their work upstairs, we utilise every moment we have and begin with a rough run through in the lobby, approximating props and furniture while Forest and Frank focus on their lines and blocking. It’s a good run through and primes us for work on stage that afternoon.
Heading upstairs to the stage, we first take a moment to acclimatize. Forest walks around and tries going all the way up the stairs and sitting on the bench downstage left. As Associate Director, this is the day where my job entails running to the extreme corners of the house, sitting in what might be the most difficult seats from which to see the play, so that we can tailor our staging to the whole audience. Michael stresses that this is a work session just for us. We’re not yet tech-ing or working with a full crew, so the actors should absolutely take all the time they need. Forest and Frank do a few vocal exercises they’ve learned from Kate Wilson, our Vocal Coach, and start playing with their sound and characters’ text in the space. The Booth is a beauty, and Forest’s baritone and Frank’s reedy tenor fill the space terrifically. O’Neill sounds great in these walls!
The following day begins with a thorough technical rehearsal. All the designers and their teams are in full force and the stage is busy with crew making final adjustments. The first moments of a tech are often the most difficult, as everyone works to find a common vocabulary for the creation of a fully integrated production. Working to our advantage is the long history Michael has with his three designers. He, Christopher Oram, Neil Austin and Adam Cork have worked together countless times and have honed an aesthetic and shorthand that makes tech-ing with them a blurring dance of collaboration and art.
The play begins with Frank pre-set at the Night Clerk’s desk, from before the audience enters. Frank’s character, Charlie, has almost forgotten that he’s existing and sitting there, and this choice allows the audience to essentially forget him and, instead, view Charlie as part of the scenery. After the house lights go out, the musical interlude begins, during which time Neil has programmed a lighting sequence that brings the lobby to life.
A major component of this are several wall sconces that adorn the lobby walls, leading up the grand staircase. We have our first go and the lighting and music is timed well but could use some finessing in the quality of its movement. Michael sees an opportunity for a more gradual growth of the light, which invites the audience into the space and play. He turns to Neil and says, ‘You know how the lights are going like this…’ - Michael demonstrates an illuminating gesture with his hands – ‘What if it was more like…’ and he makes a flower-blooming gesture by opening a fist to reveal his palm. Neil nods, understanding what Michael wants from this demonstration, but also from the knowledge that comes from years of working together. He radios to his Lighting Programmer, they make a few adjustments, and before too long we are running the sequence again. This time the sconces crescendo to their lighting state gradually, like a slow inhalation. The desired effect is achieved, the first sequence has been tech-ed and we’ve gained an integration of different sensibilities that we will replicate and explore throughout the play.
As we continue to tech, Michael encourages Forest to carry on with his acting rehearsals during the time he finds himself waiting and standing in place as we focus lights on him. Forest jumps on this, taking any break where we’re making adjustments to run his speeches and lines with Frank.
It’s worth mentioning that this is Forest’s first time on stage in over three decades. He has a wealth of experience portraying a range of characters, and brilliantly so, but theatre acting is a totally different beast. The intimacy of a rehearsal room served as a nice bridge and now we find ourselves on a Broadway stage, it’s important we do all we can to encourage Forest to share his performance with the auditorium. These moments of rehearsal, while tech continues around him, are key in giving Forest the repetition and comfort level he will need for this performance.
By Wednesday afternoon, after just a day and a half of tech, we are basically ready for our first stumble-through. On Thursday we re-tech from the beginning of the play, which is a favored tactic of Michael’s. This is really the same as his sketching method in rehearsals. We tech quickly and then have a stumble-through with full tech. Then, taking what we’ve learnt, we re-tech from the beginning of the play and follow that with another run through. We repeat this process until we have it and we’re ready to open, and with this hour-long drama that’s no problem for this tried-and-tested team.
Throughout this process, Michael never loses sight of his actors. He continues to feed back to them on their performances, giving notes and making adjustments as we go. He reminds them to emphasise the key set-ups in the first ten or so lines of the play. For Forest, this is the first mention of the titular ‘Hughie’ and the expositional line, ‘Poor guy croaked last week…’ Michael reminds Frank to really hit the words in his line, ‘Hughes, Charlie Hughes’, when he responds to Erie asking his name. It’s key we hear this and Frank takes the note and plays it well. With Forest, Michael also encourages his playfulness with the language, finding expansiveness with key words. This helps Erie paint the picture of his stories and for the audience to be pulled into the play. Instances like: ‘Some of these dolls were raw babies.’ And: ‘While I was signing up for the bridal suite.’ A little spin on these words yields great rewards.
We approach the end of the week and it’s time to add that final and most important element, the other character in the play - the audience. Saturday night, a small collection of friends and family of the show file into the theatre. It’s a warm and happy crowd who are anxious to be the first to witness this performance.
Forest and Frank play the piece beautifully and Erie Smith’s story is told. The high and lows, the despair and laughter, are all found in this hour-long drama, just as Michael hoped we would way back at the beginning of our journey.