Thursday, February 9, 2012

A joyous "Hello, Dolly!" rehearsal

I had the privilege and joy of attending a rehearsal for SHS’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” directed by Rebecca Groeb-Driskill, who happens to be one of my favorite directors.  How lucky Saline is to have her.  She began in theater with the Saline Area Players and has since mentored hundreds of Saline students in drama over the years.

There are so many things I love about her directing.  She gives very specific comments to her cast members, but always in a nice way.  She was working with Joel Stralnic, who plays the young artist, Ambrose Kemper.  Within a very short time, she added on more and more things to the direction… say the lines more ‘staccato,’ accent certain words, think about a time that you were angry when you say that line…. and then she said… “I’m asking you to do many things at once… it’s hard”.  And, he did it.  He kept getting better and better with each run, even adding some hand flourishes as he said his line, “but I’m an artist, Mrs. Levi….” His girlfriend Ermengarde, played by Sophie Skochelak, hung by his side, appropriately wailing at every opportunity, as her character calls for, and even asked if she could wail more at a later time.

Then came Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker played by Aaron Mukerjee and Austin Terris, respectively.  Mrs. Groeb helped them really tune into what the characters were thinking.  Barnaby comes up with this sudden idea (don’t want to give away the plot) and she showed him how to do a “thinking cross.”  Then she helped him convey to the audience what he was thinking so that when he came out with the big idea, it seemed like he was thinking on his feet.  She helped Austin with his internal dialogue … say that line like it is Christmas!

There was a point when she needed them to sound more excited.  This happened later in the rehearsal too with Caitlyn Mulder (Irene Molloy) and Carolyn Petersen (Minnie Fay).  She had them do a speed run through the scene so they could feel the excitement and the adrenalin of what they were saying.  Of course that often ended up in lots of laughter as they tripped over lines, but the result was this incredible excitement.  Then she had them do the scene slower again, but keeping the excitement in.  It worked.  And, she frequently asked her team of assistant directors for confirmation. 

When they worked on choreography for “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” she asked for the assistance of Caitlyn, who is a dancer, to suggest a dance step for the two guys.  She came up with a cute step.  What impressed me was how collegial the whole project was.  They let Caitlyn choose a step, the two boys tried it in front of the director and a whole host of girls (assistant directors and other actors), and they all seemed to enjoy the process.  When they messed up, which was to be expected in a first run, they all laughed together, but each repetition became better and better with additional tweaks, like Mrs. G’s shouting out “remember the arms behind your back.”  I was impressed how quickly they picked it up.  Austin’s youthful exuberance as he danced was infectious.

A few times Mrs. G noted that a certain cast member had a certain personality, complimented it, and then challenged the actor to do something different.  She told Carolyn that she was a composed young lady and told her it was “awesome” but added “I want you to do something else.”   What an empowering comment!  After that Caroline turned the character Minnie Fay into a lively, animated, unsophisticated hatshop helper, much different than her own personality.   She came alive and made a nice contrast to the more mature character of her counterpart in the play, Mrs. Molloy.

She also challenged her actors to think about what they were saying.  She worked with Aaron on examining the lines in his monologue and dividing them up into thoughts.  Then she asked him to think about the words he was saying and figure out which were the most important ones that should be emphasized.  Is it “did you forget what we DID last Christmas” or “did you forget what we did LAST Christmas?”  (It was the latter one in case you’re stumped).

There were so many things that impressed me.  One is that students had their lines memorized well before the time that they were supposed to do that.  This is a luxury for a director who can then give them suggestions for movement without faces being stuck in a book.  And I was impressed how quickly they took a suggestion and incorporated it.  And I was extremely jealous at how quickly they picked up the dance.  They sailed through “Elegance” and had only learned it the night before. And they all had beautiful voices – these are talented kids!  And it wasn’t just the actors who were engaged.  Three of the four student assistant directors were there that day and they all had different tasks.  Anna Krisher is in charge of getting the rehearsal space ready.  Emily Burke helps the choreographer and runs the music.  Shelby Harris records the blocking. (CJ Slotten wasn’t there that day). They all help with attendance and making calls to kids who aren’t there.  But what was stunning was how free they felt to make comments and suggestions.  One yelled out “hands on your knee” to Barnaby who took direction well.  They were part of the team and Mrs. G welcomed their comments.

If the talent and enthusiasm that I witnessed in this one rehearsal is any indication of how the actual show will be, I predict it will be a fabulous show.  And much of this is because of the director Rebecca Groeb-Driskill who is a educator, mentor, and an inspiration to these students.  "Hello, Dolly!" will be presented at Saline High School on February 24-26!

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