By Barry Brunetti
As I reflect on a sabbatical that not only took me to Rome but also allowed me the chance to direct Harold Pinter’s Old Times at Rome’s English Theatre, I am continually reminded of the fact that regardless of wherever and whenever we grapple with the realities of doing theatre, some things never change: as a director working in Rome in a non-Equity venue, I juggled rehearsal schedules to meet the demands and needs of English-speaking actors trying desperately to find theatrical and film work in a city that offers a dearth of English-speaking opportunities; I altered rehearsal schedules to sidestep kids on winter break, kids with stomach bugs, and kids who had guitar lessons at 3:00pm; I re-thought rehearsal schedules because of spouses who had to work late, spouses whose work took them out of town, and spouses whose own acting careers meant figuring out how to navigate the demands of child-rearing both parents in rehearsals. To add to this constant adjusting, we found ourselves moving from one rehearsal space to another to circumvent a 24-hour transit strike (not uncommon in Rome) and we entered into numerous 11th-hour scrambles because one actor/mother had to stay at home with the child afflicted with the aforementioned stomach bug—all of these components of the non-Equity theatre scene are as common to Rome, Italy as they are to Chicago, Illinois. Nonetheless, whatever contingencies may have arisen, it all somehow managed to work.
If there’s another set of common threads that, woven together, unite the Chicago theatre scene and that of Rome, it’s perhaps the notion of impossible theatrical ambitions bumping up against radical limitations. This was made indisputably clear to me as I entered the home of Gaby Ford, the founder of and the irrepressible and indomitable force behind Rome’s English Theatre. Described by Gaby as her “hippe-hovel”, the apartment had two small rooms—one used as a study of sorts, the other the living room with a loft bed—a fairly well-appointed if not slightly antiquated kitchen, and a terrace with more space than the entire apartment itself. When the weather was good, we rehearsed on the terrace. When it was cold or rainy, we crowded into the living-bedroom area, the three actors taking up the entire sectional sofa in one corner of the room and yours truly, the director, seated on a stool three feet away—at the far corner of the room.
Oblivious to the vicissitudes of time, this apartment has for twenty-plus years served as living quarters, rehearsal space, administrative offices, and storage unit for Rome’s English Theatre and la forza della natura known as Gaby Ford. What amazed me the most was that hidden somewhere in this tiny flat, as Gaby’s intern Milena informed me, are enough costumes to outfit the entire cast of Les Mis plus a seemingly endless assortment of props and flats that are stored under a tarp on the terrace—their permanent home until they are called into action. And inside this theatrical fever dream, rehearsals began.
For me, this directing gig was my sixth venture into the dramatic world of Harold Pinter, having either directed or acted in previous productions of The Hothouse, The Dumb Waiter, the Dwarfs, and two productions of The Collection. As I entered into this process with two British actors, both trained in the U.K., and one American actor, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Stella Adler Studio, I thought about previous experiences working with British actors here in the States and realized that while these actors were in fact British by birth, they were all American-trained and had lived in the States for so long that, despite the obvious English accent, they were as culturally American as I was.
Gaby Ford, whose own theatrical training was in the American Method, or “Method Madness” as she calls it, had told me early on in a private conversation that “British actors just don’t play intentions,” a phrase that she would repeat—privately—at numerous points in the rehearsal process. She is perhaps correct. The two British-trained actors, Doug Dean and Dyanne White, approached Pinter from a perspective that I can only call textual instinct. Quite to the contrary, Alexia Murray, the American actor trained at Tisch, threw herself so physically into rehearsals that, in comparison, the other two actors seemed at times not to be doing much of anything–except trying to keep up with her.
What I have termed textual instinct is, I believe, common to actors who have been acting for a considerable amount of time and whose résumés boast an extensive list of theatrical credits. In the case of the two actors from the U.K., Doug and Dyanne, their credits include lead roles in numerous Shakespearean plays, various contemporary roles in both British and Italian television and film, and extensive work in children’s theatre. And while their London-based training taught them much about the basics of actor preparation–beat work, intention, wants, and the like–their rehearsal process rarely brought into play this terminology because for the seasoned professional, the technical elements of fleshing out a role become second-nature–that is to say, instinctive with respect to what the character wants and needs, how human relationships work, and how this all is physically realized and scored on stage. For these two actors, there was little question that their process was much more analytically and cerebrally based, and while both were willing to experiment and play, the choices they brought to the rehearsal context were more often than not set beforehand rather than in the moment.
On the contrary, the NYU-trained American actor in the cast, Alexia Murray, worked continually in the moment during rehearsals and was fearless in her willingness to make choices as she interacted with the other two actors during rehearsals. Long before specific blocking was actually set, the rehearsal process, for a physically-based actor like Alexia, was a context inside which she exhibited an unrestrained freedom in moving about the space in search of the physical scoring that ultimately she would incorporate into performance.
How then does the director reconcile such distinct rehearsal styles? For me, it involved a great deal of watching and listening–translation, restraint–as I eased into the unique rhythms and processes exhibited by three highly distinctive and highly talented actors. However, what is usually the case in such situations is that Alexia’s physically-based approach, because of the unbridled freedom that she incorporated into rehearsals themselves, typically drew in the more cerebrally-centered actors. In short, both Doug and Dyanne often had to adjust their own pre-set choices in order to match Alexia’s physical freedom in the moment.
Ultimately, I was blessed in Rome with three superb actors, all of whom, despite the differences in their training and in their rehearsal process, were willing to play and equally willing to allow me to enter as fully as possible into the process with them. As a result, it was indeed a labor of love from start to finish. The rehearsal process in Rome also afforded me a unique opportunity to put my own directing process into a kind of cross-cultural perspective–that is to say, working alongside two very analytically-trained and cerebrally-based British actors, one physically-based American actor, and doing all of this in Rome. It was without question a joyous experience from start to finish, and one that for me clarified and solidified what I have perhaps known for some time: that whether I’m working with second-year actors on a BFA2 Intro here at The Theatre School or whether I’m in the room with seasoned professionals, my own process as a director does not substantively change. My first role is that of storyteller and very close behind that is my role as orchestrator—that person who hopefully provides a context and an environment into which actors, as well as the entire creative team, can enter, take risks, feel safe and unthreatened, and ultimately come together as creative and mutually supportive collaborators. Always and forever included in this mix is the directorial sense of when to speak and when simply to sit back and watch talented actors make magic happen.
Ultimately, this production of Old Times ended on the highest note possible: a wildly responsive audience, many of whom returned to see the production a second time, a wonderful review in The Italian Insider, Rome’s only English-language daily newspaper, and an extension of the production itself, triggered by enthusiastic word-of-mouth among audiences. To be sure, for this director, it was a remarkable journey—in every way possible. It is also a journey that I look forward to making again—sooner rather than later!