Behind Summer and Smoke: Details Matter

Alright, Summer and Smoke has got its actors, the actors know their characters better than I know myself, what’s next? Unit work. Lots and lots of unit work.

When preparing for the start of the rehearsal process, the director divides the script into “beats” – the smallest unit of dramatic progression. Several beats then make up a “unit”. Dividing the script up this way makes it more digestible and understandable for the actors.

The units don’t necessarily follow the way the scenes are divided – Summer and Smoke, which has 13 scenes, has 38 units. For example, I don’t think an entire scene has so far been rehearsed all in one night (at least on the nights I’ve attended). While that might seem strange, after thinking about it for a while, it makes sense – scenes are usually defined by the playwright to reflect the progression of the play’s various development points: character development, plot development, or time or setting changes; while the units are determined by the director to help the actors understand the progression of the play. Since this is the first rehearsal process I’ve ever seen, I don’t know for sure, but I’d suspect the division of the play into units is why audience members can walk away from two plays directed by different people with different ideas of what the play was about.

Back to my thoughts on unit work – my initial urge when writing about unit work is to tell you all how detail-oriented it is. I was surprised by the number of times scenes and lines are acted out and re-acted out to ensure that everything in the scene is “just right”. I know that being an actor requires more than just being able to memorize lines, but I guess I didn’t realize just how much more. In Summer and Smoke there is a lot of thought put into mannerisms that I think we, as audience members, don’t consciously take note of. Don’t read that as a criticism of the audience though – what I’m realizing is that if these mannerisms weren’t rehearsed, or if the actors just moved their bodies the way they do in their everyday lives, we wouldn’t really believe the characters they’re playing or the time period they’re portraying.

One of my notes from the seventh rehearsal I attended reads, “do we really always have a reason for saying things?” (feel free to insert jokes here). Another note from that rehearsal reads, “A lot of the things we do – gestures, etc. we don’t notice that we do. Do the playwrights have visions of all these minute gestures when they’re writing the play?” (If you’re  a playwright and can answer this, please do in the comments below!) The way that gestures and mannerisms create authenticity – through conveying social status, character traits, and the time period is one reason why Summer and Smoke is bringing in a movement coach specifically to ensure that the actors use gestures appropriate to the period. Essentially, these small gestures and mannerisms that the actors use to build characterization and allow the world of the play to exist onstage. If they’re there, they allow the audience to feel as though they’re looking in on another time and place. If they’re not there though, I don’t know if we, as audience members or even reviewers are really able to put our finger on why the play didn’t feel authentic.

What is this project teaching me about reviewing, or even just watching theatre? To be honest, it’s intimidating to pass judgement on a play – as an audience member or a reviewer – having seen the actors putting so much time into rehearsing each aspect of the performance. Someone once told me that a theatre review attempts to capture a moment in time, and how effectively that moment in time was created. What I’m realizing though, is how many aspects there are to try to observe during a performance – which is why I wanted to do this project in the first place.

Read other articles in this series here.

Next up: production team meeting

–          Jenna Marynowski

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There are 5 comments

  1. Kristen

    I would say that a playwright does not imagine gestures when writing. At least I don’t. I figure that every actor will interpret the character different and that will manifest in their movements to support the text. I think more in terms of objectives – the ‘wants and needs’ of the characters. Actors should too, as should directors. However, in a period piece the physicality of the characters might help set place and time so it is good for a director to think about that. We are much. More relaxed in our posture today than they were 100 years ago or even 50 years ago so these things have no be thought about.

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    1. jennamarynowski

      Hi Kristen, interesting – thanks for your response. What cues, if any, do you give in your scripts then to give actors an idea of how their character would gesture? Or do you leave it entirely up to the actor?

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  2. Kristen

    Sometimes there might be a comment from another character which might hint at a gesture or action of another character. Also there is usually a character description which. Gives clues to the energy and motion of the characters. Tennessee Williams was very elaborate in his stage directions. Many playwrights today are more spare in them, as they know directors will often discard them anyhow. Today it is more likely that a director will work with their cast to develop the physical vocabulary of the play.

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