From Script to Stage: Justin Anderson Realizes Body Awareness

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Mistaken identities, confusion and slap-stick antics boil to their climax. A ribbon of blue light shines down on the ingénue as she breaks into a pivotal monologue. On the other side of the stage, her nemesis sulks. The audience stands to attention, hands clapping enthusiastically, as an adrenaline-pumped cast bows. But, before these events can happen, much hard work has already occurred to get to the final product.

Justin Anderson directs Body Awareness at Pinch 'N' Theatre. Photo by Jamie Dee McGowan

Many theater patrons don’t realize that a large of amount of planning, design and construction must take place to get a production off the ground, even before the cast begins rehearsal. Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre Artistic Associate Justin Anderson, whose past Atlanta directing credits include Synchronicity Theatre’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Serenbe Playhouse’s Ordinary Days, has recently gone through this process in directing Body Awareness.

Part of Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre’s second season, the play is set during “Body Awareness Week” at rural Shirley State College in Vermont. Phyllis and her partner Joyce are hosting guest artist Frank in their home but when he shows up with his passel of photographs of naked women, things start to go awry. Written by Annie Baker, Body Awareness is a probing new comedy with an astonishingly complex web of emotions and ideas.

Read below as Director Justin Anderson walks us through the selection of the play, the selection of the cast and creative team, the rehearsal process and the process of staging the play.

Play Selection

At Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre, we want to explore and present work that relates to our audiences in a 21st century context. We choose realism-based plays that showcase moment-to-moment work by the playwright, director and actors involved in the process. But even more important than specific criteria, a play that is a good fit for Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre is one that you will continue to talk about after you’ve seen it. Annie Baker’s Body Awareness is one you’ll talk about.

I read a lot of plays, focusing on as much new work as I can acquire. Annie Baker’s Body Awareness came to my attention this past winter. After reading her most produced play, Circle Mirror Transformation (recently and wonderfully produced by Theatre in the Square) and directing a scene from it for The Unexpected Showcase at The Alliance Theatre last August, I fell in love with her unique voice and her understated, honest approach to relationships.

Fast forward several months to initial programming conversations for Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre’s 2011 season. After weeks of suggestions and deliberations, we noticed there were no options by a female playwright on our short list of works that we wanted to produce.

So that’s when I started looking to acquire additional scripts by Annie Baker. About two pages into my first read of Body Awareness, I knew I had to get this play done here in Atlanta. Once I sold Grant McGowen (the Producing Artistic Director of Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre) on the script, he asked me direct it.

Cast and Creative Team Selection

Body Awareness

Daryl Lisa Fazio, Kathleen Wattis, Jayson Smith, Barrett Doyle star in Body Awareness by Annie Baker at Pinch 'N' Ouch Theatre.

For both actors and designers, I wanted to surround myself with folks who had a passion for storytelling, talent and creativity in their respective role/field, a hunger for collaboration, and flexibility during the process. Every individual involved in this production has contributed and participated beyond his or her pay scale, which is not unusual for a theater of our size and newness. But we wanted to tell the best story we could tell regardless of restraints on time, man-power and finances.

Last spring, Grant and I began assembling our Body Awareness team. As far as the cast goes, two of the roles for the show were precast. Having worked with Barrett Doyle and Kathleen Wattis in a series of Meisner classes (and having seen their work around town over the past couple of years), I knew they would be perfect for this play. Daryl Lisa Fazio and Jayson Smith came in during a series of auditions for the season and really owned the roles they were auditioning for, making the casting process relatively easy.

In terms of a design team (Nadia Morgan on set, Dusty Brown on lights and Elizabeth Lanier on costumes), we decided to go with folks who had already worked on previous shows with the company.

Rehearsing the Play

Barrett Doyle and Jayson Smith in a rehearsal for Body Awareness. Photo by Grant McGowen

Availability of actors, designers and space all go into determining a rehearsal schedule. It’s an equation that is different for every theater company for every show. For us and for some other theater companies around town, you have an interesting set of challenges to maneuver around and find solutions for when your rehearsal location is not in the same building as the performance space.

Everything from having to tape out dimensions for your set every night, unpacking and repacking props before and after each rehearsal, and dealing with and adjusting to the size and acoustics of each space. In our case, we rehearsed in a conference room at Hotel Midtown and are now performing in the 7 Stages Backstage in Little Five Points.

From our first read to opening night, including previews, we rehearsed for 20 days across three and a half weeks. A typical day of rehearsal varies depending on where you are in the process. For the first few days (a week, if you have that luxury), I like to keep things at the table. It’s an opportunity to ask questions, discover the nuances and rhythm of the playwright, and, for the actors especially, start to establish solid, believable relationships with scene partners.

After that, you have to get the work on its feet. Even with a notated floor plan, you have to give yourself permission to let things get messy. They will and they may stay that way for a while. But, then, you start to craft and shape the movement and moments of the play within the context of each beat and scene, looking at everything from floor patterns for actors to overall composition of stage pictures. The work should continue to get more specific with each rehearsal.

Barrett Doyle and Jayson Smith rehearse the same scene as pictured above during a tech rehearsal of Body Awareness. Photo by Drake Simmons

I like to run a show after initial staging is complete to see what is still working. Then, I take at least two days in between to rework, craft, and tweak each act, or half of the play, if it’s a one-act. Then I run the act or a large section of the play again to see how the changes have taken effect. I liken it to shampoo: wash, rinse and repeat as needed. After you’ve taken the time to work each moment in the play, string it back together, the actors (and I) need an opportunity to run things as often and as completely as possible.

Prior to tech rehearsals, I like to have at least four to five runs under my belt. Rehearsals in tech are all about stop and go. You have to take the time to space things out on the actual set, as they may be slightly different from your rehearsal space. And, then, you start adding in lights, sound, costumes, and any last-minute permanent props you weren’t already using. So, for a few days, it’s not really about the content of the play: it’s about the execution of the production.

When you get to the end of the tech period and start going into previews, those rehearsals allow you to refocus on the story and how best to help your actors live in and tell that story to their fullest potential.

Staging the Play

This model shows Nadia Morgan's set design for Body Awareness. Photo by Grant McGowen

The set for Body Awareness is a unit set, meaning that it is stationary. There are no wagons that move on or drops that fly in. The space is in three tiers, comprised of living spaces within a small-town Vermont home and a couple of locations at local Shirley State College.

With every designer, before sketches or concepts are even mentioned, I like to sit down and just talk about the play. How did the play work on you the first time you read it? Is there something that doesn’t quite make sense? Is there a particular character, scene, or bit of dialogue that resonates with you?

After those conversations I like to ask designers to create a collage of pictures that make them think of the show. I do the same thing. We come together again and share our pictures and start to see if we can extract a sense of shape, color, dimension or texture that can give us a jumping-off point for an initial design.

Then, you start talking about functionality and the specific needs required in the script. Do you need a doorway? Is a character cooking at a range in the kitchen? Factor in the space in which you have to stage the work, and you have a whole new set of considerations: the set can only be so high, do you want a lot of separation between set and audience, etc. Nadia and I worked through this process and leaned toward a functionality and flexibility in the space because we knew we needed the set to serve multiple locations.

The design itself is grounded in wood and books. We both wanted to capture the earthiness, homey-quality, and academic nature of Shirley, Vermont, as reflected in the home of Phyllis and Joyce. You’ll see evidence of this in the structural design, the floor treatments, and many of the set dressings. As an open floor plan, it is extremely simple and clean in design, allowing for a great amount of fluidity from scene to scene.

It was a small operation for construction of the set, and it took about three weeks. And there is no set crew during the performances. There’s a lot my fabulous stage manager, Kat Tierney, has to preset and then reset before and after every show. While she is calling the show from the booth, the only folks running around are the actors.

Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre’s Body Awareness runs through August 28 at 7 Stages Backstage. For tickets and more information, please visit www.pnotheatre.org. Special thanks to Justin Anderson for taking us on this behind-the-scenes look.