“Okay ladies and gentlemen, let’s begin. We are in Paris 1870. A theatre.” Brett Smock speaks briskly. We are at MetroStage on March 28 for the first read-through of “Becoming George.” There is a table set up onstage and Smock, the director, is addressing the actors who sit around it. The musical’s writers, Patti McKenny and Doug Frew, are sitting with them. The writers have just finished discussing the background of the play, why they wrote it and what inspired them. When Smock takes control of the discussion and the actors begin to read from their scripts, the journey of the musical from idea to acted-out reality enters a new phase. Although the writers will be an integral part of the production process up to and beyond the musical’s premiere, they must consciously begin releasing their art into the hands of the director, actors, stage technicians, and ultimately the audience, allowing the musical to transcend dialogue and stage directions to become itself.
As the actors read their parts, the mood is light and the laughter comes easily. Sometimes it sounds simply polite. There is aura of awkwardness to the procedure. But it is not the actors’ first tentative attempts to fit their tongues around a new accent, or speak with a new voice, or think with an as-yet-unexplored consciousness. It is the awkwardness of a first date that’s going really well, the awkwardness of people that know they are going to be bound together tightly in the future, but must observe for just a little longer the formalities of being newly acquainted.
“The director breaks it out into little pieces,” says Carolyn Griffin, Producing Artistic Director. “At a certain point a week later, you put it together to see the flow and then you see if the flow works or if it doesn’t…You only know if it works after you’ve had the actors… putting it all together.”
McKenny and Frew have been gradually learning whether it works through a process that began in 1996 when McKenny read an article about George Sand, the eponymous hero of “Becoming George,” in an article in “Smithsonian” magazine. McKenny was startled to read about a woman who had produced 123 volumes of every imaginable form of writing, as well as worn pants, smoked cigars and taken lovers during an era when most French women were still unable to go many places simply because of the physical constraints imposed by the size of their petticoats. The question “Why is she so forgotten?” nagged at McKenny. She calls it “the greatest disappearing act in history.”
McKenny and Frew have known each other 30 years. They met in a comedy class at Northwestern University and started writing together in late 1970’s.
“We share a brain,” explains McKenny. Frew says their method is simple.
“We sit in a room and we talk and when one of us laughs we write it down.”
“We just instinctively saw we have the same take on how we want to get some stories out to the world,” says McKenny. Frew says this common vision was best described by an anthropologist who set down “what it takes to make a family or a tribe: [agreement on] what’s funny, what’s sacred, who the enemy is, and what work has to be done.”
The pair of writers not only agree on these things, they finish one another’s sentences when speaking about them. McKenny said she was first attracted to Sand because she was “living a very large life… George Sand had it all constantly. And the answer isn’t just that she had enough domestic help. She wanted to do everything, not just in the arts but attending to family, attending to community-“
“Attending to friends,” Frew interjects.
McKenny: “She gives us a model for a way to live that big, rowdy healthy life with as much connection as possible.”
Frew: “Her friends back then were the most famous people in the world: Whitman Dickens, the Brownings, Chopin, Delacroix… all the major artists of that period in the world.”
McKenny: “Not only knew her but were profoundly influenced by her.” Sand was widely read in intellectual and literary circles. “Anybody who was anybody in the literary world, from Matthew Arnold to Karl Marx, was reading George Sand… these ideas are revolutionary for how we create community.”
At a personal level, says McKenny, Sand “leaves peoples questioning whether they are really stuck in the role they have been playing or whether there is another way to play something more true to yourself.”
But, McKenny adds that despite the political and social implications of Sand’s life, “We didn’t write it like a dead serious play because we never will. If there are no laughs we have not done what we set out to do.”
AFTER FILING the article away for four years, McKenny and Frew began working on the musical seriously in 2000. They quickly realized they would have to narrow their focus, Frew said. “To try to write a show that encompassed the entire life would just be impossible. You have a couple hours to tell a compelling story on stage.” They chose “a point very late in her life to show her influence on the world, on women, by sort of passing on her legacy” to a young Sarah Bernhardt.
“Dramatically this is a hot spot,” explains McKenny. “By all rights this woman has retired. She should choose to do nothing. Does she choose to fight one last battle when the France she loves is being sucked into a stupid and corrupt war to cover up its own corruption?” The musical takes place in 1870, as France begins its entry into the Franco-Prussian War.
Frew says they were aware of the work’s political implications. “Placing it in a time of political unrest and upheaval we were hoping to say a little bit about what the artist can do in those times. What power doe the artist have and what responsibility does the artist have.”
Frew and McKenny enlisted the help of composer Linda Eisenstein. The three stayed at a house in the Michigan Woods for four days and hammered out a draft that would become “Becoming George.” Then they took their early script to the Cleveland Playhouse’s “Next Stages” new play development festival, which allowed them to put the work directly to an audience instead of a series of endless workshops. “Too many new musicals get read by everybody sitting down and it’s all people who are part of the tribe… workshop hell,” said Frew. After Cleveland, they took the musical to another workshop, then to the Kennedy Center’s “Stage to Page” program, where Griffin saw it and told them she wanted to produce it.
The next step was to find the director who could shape actors around the words on the page. “Attaching the right director is of paramount importance,” says Frew “We need someone as invested in it and committed to it as we are.” Griffin had worked with Smock before. She knew he had experience with musicals and with new works. But she had to convince the writers. So Smock flew to Chicago for an introduction. Eisenstein flew in from Cleveland for the meeting. “The four of us sat around all day long in my house talking about the play and the characters and what we were trying to do by telling this story,” says Frew. “Within half an hour we could tell this was the right person.”
“He wanted to go through every nightmare you go through in putting on a new work because he was committed to presenting a great narrative of how to live a committed and unconventional life in the way George Sand did,” says McKenny
Two and a half weeks into rehearsals, the writers see the production of their musical as more than an artistic endeavor. And the cast is doing more than practicing lines, songs, and swordfights, says McKenny. “It always happens in show business that you start out with a bunch of people that don’t know each other and they come out of it an army ready to take on the world.” She extolled the commitment that the cast had made in the weeks since they had sat for the read-through, a commitment not only to their own art or their own character, but to one another and to the very act of collaboration. “It takes a village to raise a curtain,” McKenny said. Smock and the cast were “indispensable, pushing back” and transforming the play from “pieces of paper lying on a table [to] a living, being entity we are all working on together.”
“Musical theatre is the most collaborative type of art you can get... It’s is no longer your baby it is the tribe’s baby and they have their own ideas about how to raise it and put a little bow in its hair and let it walk out in to the world,” said McKenny. “You cannot be inflexible.”
The musical has gone through many changes since read-throughs. Some were made for logistical reasons. Frew cites two scenes that had been flip-flopped to avoid a scene change, but the switch proved to be an artistic improvement as well. This is standard procedure, according to Griffin. “Every single day the actors come in and get new rewrites, new music, and everything completely adapted, changed, revised and that’s just the nature of doing a premier.”
“Everything ends up being a huge pressure to get it open,” she adds. “You’re hiring extra carpenters, extra painters because you’re adding extra things to the scene.” To have time to do everything, the crew wheels the piano out into the lobby and the actors rehearse songs with the music director, while other actors rehearse speaking parts with the director onstage. There are changes being made all the way up to opening night. “That goes on for three and a half weeks,” says Griffin, then “what you see is what you get.”
IT IS APRIL 14 and the cast is doing a designer run-through. The songs are now in the repertoire. The scenes are set. The choreography is in place. But the cast is not yet in costume. The exits have not been perfected. Actors occasionally bump into one another as one rushes onstage and another rushes off. They frequently burst into giggles or guffaws, and still have to call out, “Line!” now and then. But everyone’s joy in the process is transparent. After finally completing a scene that had to be restarted time after time (once or twice because Kat’ Taylor, playing Sand, could not keep a straight face during the most dramatic moment), Smock shouts “Good. Let’s hold there,” he pauses for a moment as if considering, then says flippantly, “And let’s give it another go!” The cast is expecting it. They begin again, smiling.
The lines that were first read around countless tables are now spoken from center stage, whispered on the floor below the footlights, shouted on the stairs amidst the audience’s seats. The clang of fencing sabers fills the theatre as Meegan Midkiff, playing Sarah Bernhardt, rushes up and down the length of the stage in a climactic duel with Brian Childers, the Prince. They swirl around each other confidently, always meeting blades, but still facilitating the choreography by counting off, “Five. [Clash!] Six. [Clang!] Seven. [Clash!] Eight. [Clang!]”
Smock has them count more slowly and move in slow-motion as he directs the action that swirls around them, planning how one actor will free another from bondage in the background without anyone getting nicked. “I’m concerned about safety,” Midkiff says, while the other actors are crawling through a “secret passage” cut into a wall just as she is rearing the tip of her sword back over her head in their general direction. Someone asks if the tiny door can be made a bit bigger.
Greg Violand is playing Alexandre Dumas the Younger. Asked to describe the production he says, “A new one. That’s the big thing… Everything we do and experience is totally fresh and new.” Violand describes himself as a technical actor. He begins with the formal actions of speaking his lines and finding his placement on stage in relation to the other characters. After he is comfortable with these, “Then I start fleshing out the character and where he would relate to those people.”
“When we start doing run-throughs is when it will start to gel for me… it becomes a story then… Once the story becomes clear… all those little blanks get filled in.”
Violand stresses that this journey towards becoming a character is not made alone. It is influenced and guided by his comrades. “Collaborating is the big word: between authors, director, actors… the input from all these sources is where we start to build character… Every actor’s process is slightly different. But we all try to achieve the same end point:” a developed character revealed when the curtain goes up. But at this stage even the motivation for reaching that endpoint is collaborative. “We [the actors] are working to make the authors and director happy at this point. The audience is an afterthought… we give ourselves over to those creative minds and they shape us and mold us.”
But on opening night, everything changes. The locus of creation shifts. The writers fade into the darkness beyond the footlights. The creative force suddenly ceases to be the painstakingly honed text. It expresses itself as a spontaneous and fluid relationship: actor and audience. “It’s all about ‘does the audience get it?’” says Violand. “Live theatre is all about emotions… When it happens it’s a marvelous experience for an actor… you really can see chemistry and electricity with the audience on some nights. It just crackles. It’s just there when everything’s working right.”
But the opening is still a week away. During the run-through, Smock is rushing onstage, backstage, into the seats to perch for a moment beside his bottles of vitamin water and iced tea then rushing down again to perfect an exit or show an actress how to bend her knees just so. Now Taylor is standing alone at center stage, delivering an impassioned monologue. McKenny sits in the dark seats raising her arms and clenching her fists just as Sand does beneath the lights. It is not clear who is mimicking who.