Pictured above are Mark Berger, Kelli Simpkins, and Mercedes Herrero in technical rehearsal for the moment "Finding Matthew" in The Laramie Project. In the foreground is our tech table.
Before anyone decides they want to make a living in the theater, they ought to sit in on a weeklong tech rehearsal. Tech is hell. Anyone in the theater will tell you that. And if tech is hell, tech on The Laramie Project is the ninth circle.
You may spend hours standing around bored to death and then suddenly find yourself in a fight with one of your best friends in the cast for no particular reason, and no one can quite figure out what the fight is even about. Actors go hysterical with anxious hilarity, designers have meltdowns, directors try to bear it all for a while and then suddenly flip out and tell everyone to shut up.
The tech table is set up in the middle of the auditorium, just out of earshot. There sit both our directors, our stage manager, our lighting, set, costume, and sound designers and all their assistants. Cryptic whispers float through the darkness from the tech table.
Decisions are being made about the look and sound of the piece, while onstage we all stand in our places, waiting around and trying to pass the time as best we can while lights are focused on you or costumes are changed on you or sound is played under you.
Mercedes Herrero, Mark Berger, Kelli Simpkins, and Scott Barrow — exhausted and waiting around
Twenty minutes of a 12-hour tech rehearsal might go like this. Our stage manager, Samone Weissman, says, “OK, let’s take it from Jonas Slonaker’s line, ‘It really broke my spirit when they refused to print my letter.’ Greg Pierotti, is that where your chair is supposed to be?” “No, sorry.” I move my chair six inches to the right. Moisés Kaufman speaks over the god mike (a microphone that can be heard throughout the theater): “Gregsky, move the chair back. It’s better in the other place.” I move it back. “Thank you. Kelli, Mercedes, will you please shut up and focus. Thank you.” Samone: “And on my go please ... and go ahead.” I start to speak, “It really broke my spirit ... ” “And hold please, sorry, we are going to need to start over. Hold a minute.”
Then we wait around for five minutes while we hear a whispered argument happening at the tech table. The light levels go up then back down. An original sound cue is played. Then an Emmylou Harris song. Then another country song by someone I don’t know. Moisés says, “Gregsky, move your chair back to the other spot again.” I do. Nothing happens. Someone says, “Standing by,” so I get ready to say my line again. Nothing happens. After a few minutes, Jeremy Bobb, who is hilarious, starts talking in a funny voice. People start to laugh and lose focus. We break off into side conversations. After another minute, Samone comes on the god mike and says, “Guys, could you focus, please, we really have to get this done.” I get all diva-ish, “Samone, we’re waiting on you guys. We are ready when you are. I am just waiting for your go.” “I understand that, Greg, but we are just a few minutes away from a break, and we need to get this done, so if you could all just keep it together.” Jeremy Bobb yells, “Keep it together, people!” in his funny voice. Everyone laughs. Samone says, “Standing by.”
Moe Schell, our long-suffering costume designer, who has already been clothes shopping six times today, comes onstage with a new sweater and says, “Kelli, we want to see this look on you — can you put it over that shirt?” Kelli starts to change into the sweater and Samone says, “Moe, we’re ready to go and waiting on you.” Moisés on the god mike: “Moe, how much longer do you need? Can you do this later?” Moe says, “You just told me you wanted to see this.” Samone says, “Actually folks, we need to take a 10-minute break. I’m sorry, Moises. We are on a 10. Ladies and gentlemen, it is 8:55, and we will be back at 9:05. We will resume with Jonas Slonaker’s line, ‘It really broke my spirit when they refused to print my letter.’ And after having stood around for 20 minutes to no net effect, everyone heads downstairs to eat chocolate.
Here’s Scott Barrow trying to get people through a dull moment with his impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonating Moisés Kaufman. Kelli Simpkins looks on, and Amy Resnick laughs hysterically.
Within about a minute of the break, I am yelling at our company manager because she hasn’t bought us fresh fruit and chocolate makes me tired and nervous. Then I get in a fight with Scott Barrow about the way I talked to the company manager. Mercedes is trying to calm her crying baby. Kelli and Jeremy are cracking dirty jokes in the corner and making Mark Berger laugh in spite of his best efforts to study his script. Amy Resnick is crying by the coffee machine and being comforted by Christina Rouner.
Now I am yelling at people, Kelli and Jeremy are joking around, and Amy is crying. Next break we all might exchange roles. No one gets out of tech without having a breakdown of some kind and without having considered leaving the theater at least once each day.
It’s frustrating. We are working on a micro level right now. And it is hard to hold the broad vision of the piece when you are going over each of its moments with a fine-tooth comb. Matthew and the meaning of his story, the importance of his story, suddenly seems very hard to reach. I tell myself over and over that the work I am doing is deserves the very best of me, but it is hard for me to muster that part of myself during tech, and it makes me feel very low-minded. Still, this work has to get done. This precision of detail and the polish that we are laying in at this point will make the play soar.
I have been through this process many times, and still I find myself wondering if maybe this time I really have gotten too cynical, maybe now I don’t really don’t have the same big heart I had when I was younger and doing this play. I can’t feel a drop of emotion about the story we are trying to tell. Then all at once we get to a place where a whole sequence needs to be run. And the story and my heart come alive again. In fact they come even more alive than usual because I feel them in contrast to all the boredom, irritation, and fatigue of tech.
Kelli Simpkins plays Aaron Kreifels, the boy who first discovered Matthew at the fence.
We have been in tech almost the entire day when we get to this moment in the play. All the frustration and hilarity and boredom and small-mindedness are in full play, and suddenly there is Kelli doing her work with this amazing speech about finding Matthew.
“Literally, I just thought it was a dummy, like I thought Halloween is coming up and I just thought it was a Halloween gag. Like I even noticed his chest was going up and down, but still I thought it was a dummy. I just thought it was a mechanism or something. But when I got closer to him, I noticed his hair. That was a major key to me knowing it was a human being, was his hair ... So I just ran to the nearest house. I ran as fast as I could and called the police.”
Suddenly the play unlocks itself to each of us again and we all are all suddenly present again in a shared moment of awareness, remembering Matthew and what he went through for 18 hours tied to that fence on that prairie outside Laramie Wyoming.
It also reminds me why the tech rehearsals for The Laramie Project are even crazier than the tech rehearsals for other plays I have done. What happened to Matt is too painful to stay close to it for long periods of time. You have to distance and distract yourself when you are working on this play for an extended time. We do that as a company by goofing off, getting angry, spacing out, being distracted. I suddenly see how natural and normal that is. I am also struck by the irony that this is exactly what I have judged Laramie for in the past — distancing themselves from Matt’s story. If it is too hard for me to face some days, why would it be different for the community where this murder happened? Of course, I think this distancing must be challenged. But it is a relief to suddenly understand, for a moment even, what the citizens of Laramie have to grapple with on a regular basis.