Thursday, March 17, 2011

Behind the Scenes: "Passion Play" at PAC

The actors are in a beautiful tableaux. The scene for an actual Passion Play – that is, a dramatization of the life of Jesus Christ – could erupt from this perfect stillness involving a crucifixion pose, attendants kneeling in prayer, and pious witnesses on ladders.

Rose Riordan, left, with PAC Artistic Director Beth Harper
at the 2010 Student Orientation.

Instead, the actors snap and begin to move to the next scene in Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play,” an epic drama from the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony nominee examining the people behind three different productions of the Passion of Christ in three different time periods spanning 16th Century England to 1970s South Dakota.

Before allowing them to get where they’re going, director Rose Riordan claps her hands. It’s a small sound, but a sound the nine students in Portland Actors Conservatory’s Class of 2011 are attuned to. Before they graduate from the Conservatory’s two year, professional actor training program in May, they get this rare opportunity: the chance to work with Portland Center Stage associate artistic director, Rose Riordan.

At the sound, they stop what they’re doing and run in place facing out toward the audience, some like jackrabbits, some like lazy SOBs, some emerging from the wings where they’ve been resting to be seen in this stationery sprint. There is the sound of the entire cast running in place for a moment. She claps again; they resume the transition and move into the scene’s dialogue. This clap, stop, run, clap, resume, pattern will repeat several times in the 10 or so minutes remaining in today’s work through of Act I.

Clapping and snapping? What’s this multiple Drammy-Award winning director up to as she whips PAC’s second year students towards graduation?

“That was very exciting,” says Riordan dryly as the act concludes on a disturbing scene between a young Jewish girl and a Nazi youth who used to be friends. She sounds dry, but she really means it. “I’m starting to see the beginnings of a play there.”

L-R, Anika Radloff,
Lionel McCann and Susan Nelle
in "Passion Play"
The clapping and snapping, it turns out, is nothing compared to the physical and mental challenges Riordan had placed on the actors at the top of the run. Each was assigned a secret obstacle; some falling down drunk, some had toothaches, headaches, or vertigo. Each actor had to go through their scenes fighting this internal problem. The snapping helped the group-think of the ensemble to end a scene with precision; the clapping was a cue to inject what Riordan calls “the imitation of urgency” into the middle of a moment.

“I think we try too hard sometimes,” Riordan says to the group of actors in front of her at rehearsal’s end, explaining the painful and uncomfortable assignments. By giving them something else to focus on, the actors are able to be more natural in the scenes and relationships they’re inhabiting. She’s essentially giving their brains another ball to juggle to prevent them from overfocussing on their performance.

So the lazy runners were just ACTING drunk – all part of the exercise.