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Local actors, director get creative in rehearsals

Profile image for Lucinda Breeding
Lucinda Breeding

Editor's note: In the Nov. 25 edition, we published a story about the process of staging 'Other Desert Cities,' the upcoming Denton Community Theatre drama by Jon Robin Baitz. The first story examined the 'homework' actors do early in rehearsal. This story explores rehearsals just after "blocking," or when movements are connected to spoken lines. 

Actor John Rodgers is doing everything to avoid lifting the script in his hand.  Actress Micha Marie Stevens doesn't have her script in hand at all. 

Denton Community Theatre will present Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" in January.Denton Community Theatre
Denton Community Theatre will present Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" in January.
Denton Community Theatre

Brows furrow as the performers push through memory lapses, and director Bill Kirkley  periodically stops the cast of Other Desert Cities. 

"John, do you mind taking it back to before 'But you didn't'?" Kirkley asks. 

Rodgers obliges.

"That'll give me a chance to get those lines in I skipped," said Rodgers, a Pilot Point resident and regular face on the Denton stage. 

Other Desert Cities tells the story of a liberal writer, Brooke Wyeth, who has come back to her parents' California home for Christmas in 2004. Brooke has a bombshell to drop on her parents: She's written a memoir about the death of her brother, Henry — including the warts and flaws of her parents. Polly Wyeth, the matriarch of the Jewish family, is scandalized. Her husband, retired film actor Lyman Wyeth, is weary from carrying a brutal secret. Brooke's much younger brother, Trip, is tired of playing peacemaker. And Brooke's aunt Silda — a primary source for the memoir — might have lied by omission.

Kirkley has a lot of directing experience behind him, leading large and small casts through weeks of rehearsal. With Desert Cities' small cast, Kirkley said he's been able to try some exercises that make his actors feel more like family. 

Last Monday, Kirkley had the cast rehearse at a longtime theater volunteer's house. It was a festive atmosphere, and Kirkley said they ended the evening singing carols around the piano, where the host played.

"It was really organic at points," said Rodgers, who plays the role of Lyman Wyeth. "We were in a home, and we could get up, get a drink, and move around the house and still be in the scene."

Stevens, who plays the role of Brooke, said being in a place where the living room, kitchen and windows aren't in the actors' imagination made the words on the page feel more real.

"I feel like ... I got to make connections," Stevens said. "Being at a table with the other cast members made it easier to relate. Tonight, we're trying to get off book."

"Off book" is theater-speak for memorizing your lines well enough to rehearse without referring to the script or notes. 

Patrick Britton, who plays the role of Trip, said sitting around the rehearsal table was entirely different from rehearsing the scenes on the stage. 

"When you're sitting around a table, you have this picture in your head of how it's going to be," Britton said. "Then you get on stage, and you start working to get that script out of your hands and you start thinking, 'Maybe it's better if I say this line this way.' Because when you get that script out of your hands, you can really listen to the other actors."

Judi Conger, who plays the role of Silda, said putting the script down gives an actor a chance to inhabit the character physically. Rodgers said he's standing straighter, while Stevens said she sits differently, taking up more space and striking a contrast to the formal postures of her character's parents. Conger said she's giving herself over to Silda's fidgeting. 

"Silda moves a lot. She has a lot of anxiety. She goes like this and this," Conger said, crossing  and uncrossing her legs. "Silda drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes so she won't drink. She's got a lot of nervous energy. "  

In addition to holding a rehearsal in a home, Kirkley has devoted entire rehearsals to the development of each character. On Tuesday night, the cast rehearsed all the scenes involving Polly Wyeth, the conservative matriarch of the family played by Amanda Carson Green. 

"It gives us a chance to concentrate on each character," Kirkley said. "And it gives the cast a chance to work through particular scenes, and ask questions and work things out. You can do this sort of thing, take this kind of approach with a small cast. This isn't something you could do with a bigger cast."

Kirkley also has shortened the rehearsal period.

"I really like this approach, where we have less rehearsal time but really work it," Green said. "I've done shows where you rehearse for months and when you have a lot of time, you get to opening night and it's cold, it's flat and it's over-rehearsed. I like this approach. You have less time, but there's more life in it when you get to opening night."

When the actors reconvene after the holidays, they expected to be fully off book, though they still will be able to call for lines if they have lapses. Kirkley said he'll continue to give the actors more rein as they move closer to opening night. 

"I think the pedigree of this cast is such that they know how to inhabit the space and how to be with each other in the space," Kirkley said. "I trust actors. I know that they'll bring something new to story as they work."

Performances will be 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12-13 and Jan. 18-20, with matinees at 2 p.m. Jan. 14 and 21, at the Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St. Tickets cost $22 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and older, $15 for students with valid ID and $10 for ages 12 and younger. For tickets, call 940-382-1915 or visit www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com.

Other Desert Cities includes mature themes and strong language.