Collaboration and Communication Productively within the Bounds of a Rehearsal Power Structure

This past semester at Arizona State University, I served as one of three Assistant Directors for The Crucible, the final main stage production of the season. Unfortunately due to COVID-19, the production was cancelled just as we were to enter our tech week. Despite being unable to produce this production for a live audience, there was much to be learned from director, Rachel Bowditch’s, vision and process which relies heavily on physical theatre practices, image work, and dance. My responsibilities as an AD centered on the dance and physical movement sections of the play including stage combat. As such, I worked primarily with Rachel and our choreographer, Elissa Reed, to rehearse, maintain, and fine tune the movement vision for the show. This collaboration required extremely effective communication skills, specifically the ability to translate between performers and production staff and to interpret text and ideas into movement.

Translation

With Rachel’s background strongly grounded in physical theatre work, her vision of The Crucible reflected a highly stylized interpretation of the piece. The actors trained early on in the rehearsal process in Lecoq neutral mask and Rasaboxes to help create a physical center for their characters. The first week of rehearsal was entirely centered on creating the physicality of each character. Building off of this work, I spent initial rehearsals both taking part in the exercises and then standing back to observe the actors at work. Witnessing the stances and gestures that they created through element work in particular helped me to codify a series of gestures that I offered up to our choreographer, Elissa, as movement vocabulary for the pre-show movement sequence.

Some photos of the neutral mask work that we did early in rehearsals.

Creating the opening movement sequence exemplifies the process of translation that I often found myself in throughout the rehearsal period. Rachel had clearly communicated her aesthetic idea to both Elissa and I. Elissa was only able to come to one rehearsal a week, which would be when the heaviest movement moments were scheduled for work. However, on most days, I would be in rehearsal observing and taking notes to build movement vocab or reviewing with actors previous work that we had already choreographed. Translation became an important skill for my role. At all times I had to hold Rachel’s vision as I understood it in my mind. Using her description and visual research images helped to communicate the movement style for each piece within the show.

I sketched out a series of 12 possible movements for the Townspeople to perform in some sort of movement score. These were inspired by the physical play of the actors in character development and the research images. Elissa took these movements and crafted three scores for three groups within the ensemble to perform as they stood encircling Abigail at the top of pre-show. These movements were overwhelmingly bound, ordered, and sharp or angular. Elissa played with the pace of each movement score to heighten the tension in relationship to other moments of physicality in the show.

Digital sketch of the formation for the opening sequence

The process of developing this opening section for the townspeople required multiple levels of translation:

  • understanding Rachel’s vision and translating that to reality
  • cultivating the actor’s ideas and physical play into a codified language of movement
  • collaborating with Elissa to navigate musicality and physicality of the whole moment, which included the girls, Tituba, and John Proctor moving in juxtaposition to the townspeople.

Below is an example of one of the movement scores that we developed, performed by me.

Group 1 Opening choreography for townspeople group 1

Elissa, an MFA in Dance candidate in her third year, comes from a very robust dance practice and was just beginning to bridge into theatre collaboration by choreographing The Crucible. Having a strong background in both dance and theatre helped me to speak both Elissa’s language and Rachel’s as I helped to coach actors through realizing the physical demands of the show.

Particularly because there was a range of dance abilities in the show, breaking down the movement and translating it to their bodies was necessary. One of my primary responsibilities was to set the counts. While this was fairly easy on a transition sequence that had a strong beat, it was much more difficult on a sequence like the Chaos Ballet, which Elissa wanted to feel naturalistic. However, the actors often required a strong sense of the counts to be in unison. This was a challenge to balance in some cases.

In the case of the Chaos Ballet, I found myself making a compromise to help set counts and cues for the performers who needed them, but work off of different elements of the movement to help emphasize the chaotic nature of the moment. Below is an video of one of our final rehearsals on this piece.

Chaos Ballet final rehearsal

Interpretation

Towards the end of our process, time became shorter and scheduling issues made it necessary for me to take the lead on some areas of the movement for the show. These were smaller moments or segments within moments that needed to be created or refined. In these cases, I again turned to the concept of translation. What was the essence of the vision and how would I communicate that to the necessary parties.

In particular, there were two moments that I led the creation of – Betty & Abigail at the end of act one accusing various people of being “with the devil” and the transitions out of intermission and into the courtroom scene. For both of these moments, Rachel had set the blocking and had clearly outlined the basic structure of the vision, like a broad stroke sketch. I then went in and refined it with detail work.

For the Betty/Abby scene this detail work was fairly straight forwards. Rachel wanted a repetitive pointing to happen along with some sense of undulating or wrapping. While straightforward as an idea, the area that the girls would be navigating was quite small – no more than a 2 ft x 3ft table top. The actresses in these roles had to drill the footwork for this segment so that we could get the winding and wrapping that Rachel was after while still ensuring the performers’ safety in this moment.

The “Easy” moment, named because of the music it was set to, occurred in the transition into the courtroom scene. Rachel wanted the male townspeople in the play to encircle Abby & Proctor in their duet scene which brings the audience back into the play after intermission. This metaphorically commented on the presence of the patriarchy in Abby & John’s relationship as well as symbolized a sense of pillared structure in the society and the idea that God’s eyes are always watching. We needed to transition though from 8 actors standing on chairs encircling the action, into 8 actors sitting to await their entrance into the courtroom.

Transition into the Courtroom scene.

For this segment, I pulled again from the movement vocabulary at the top of the piece. We played with waterfalling (domino effect) the movement around the circle. These waterfalls flowed from the two judges – Hawthorn & Danforth and worked their way down through the townsfolk men based on stature in society. As a technical matter, we need to reverse the way the chairs were situated. Rachel knew what she wanted this to look like, so I set the footwork and the counts for that moment.

The most significant interpretative moment in my work came directly from the dramaturgy. in order to develop the movement of the chaos ballet, I looked through the court transcripts that our dramaturg, Karen Jean Martinson, had made available to us. I led a workshop with the actresses playing the four girls and narrated some of the transcript. We played with both individual interpretation of these transcripts and a flocking exercise version of them. Working with the descriptive language from the trials definitely helped the performers to embody the unnaturalistic quality of the bewitched movements. This exercise helped to both acclimate the performers to the style of movement and to generate possible movement for the scene.

In process workshop of the Chaos Ballet choreography at an early stage

While interpretation was not my primary responsibility in my role as AD, the work that I did in this area distilled the inputs from several parties (director, cast, and choreographer particularly) in order to help make the movement of the show seem cohesive and of one voice.

Final Results

As with any show, not everything goes according to plan. Unfortunately The Crucibles performance were cancelled due COVID-19 just before we entered tech week. I am disheartened to never get the chance to see this interpretation of The Crucible come to light. The bold vision and highly physical interpretation of several key moments coupled with the tech elements that were planned (including projections, sound, lighting, and rigging) would have been a sight to behold.

Despite this disappointing end to an otherwise fascinating rehearsal process, I will take away how to navigate the delicate balance between communication and collaboration with multiple artistic staff. Ultimately this boils down to a commitment to the director’s vision and a rigorous adherence to “staying in your lane”. That’s not to say that collaboration doesn’t occur in the moment, but it does require a clear understanding of how to interrupt in order to refine the artistic shape rather than disrupt the cohesion and order of the rehearsal space.

It also requires an understanding of the “pecking order” and acknowledging that some voices carry more weight than others. At one point in reviewing and refining something about the opening sequence, I remember giving an actor a note that confused them. The confusion sprang because the note I gave went against a previous note given by Elissa, which I hadn’t heard. Taking a few moments to talk that out with the actor and withdraw my note in favor of a translation of Elissa’s note (which hadn’t been taken fully) kept the situation calm, professional, and effective. Hearing the original note given helped me to hone in on the specificity of the desired movement quality and coach that actor to better achieve the intended vision.

There is little room for ego in such a highly collaborative space. What aligned the multiple perspectives of each member of the artistic staff was the clear vision that Rachel had delineated at the outset of the production process. In order to best realize that vision, the assistant directors had to work as deputies of that vision by translating when needed and interpreting each of our segments of production in a way that would further that vision. By collaborating in this way, I believe we were able to effectively negotiate a variety of factors – such as scheduling, ability, prior experience, and retention – to best bring this version of The Crucible to life – if only in rehearsal.