Note; This is a collection of posts from January 2013, grouped here so you can read about the production diary in chronological order. ~marc
During the month of January I’ll be following the development of Centaur Theater’s production Innocence Lost: A play about Steven Truscott. The play by Beverly Cooper deals with the events following the 1959 murder of a young girl in Clinton, Ontario, and the subsequent wrongful incarceration of 14 year old school-mate Steven Truscott.
Director Roy Surette and the cast have given me the unique opportunity to attend rehearsals with my sketchpad. I’ll be drawing live while the actors go about the work of building the characters and story. The drawings are both a document of the actors at work, and a visualization of the story they conjure from the page.
Innocence Lost opens at the Centaur on January 29th, 2013. My sketches will be on display in the theater lobby throughout the run of the show.
Come back often throughout January for updates!
Part 1 – Jan 7 – First week with the Cast:
I’m the new guy here. There’s a 13 year old actress in the cast, who clearly knows more about what’s going on than I do.
The actors are quite incredible. They’re learning the text as they go, switching back and forth through multiple characters, jumping forward and backward through the scenes. It’s really interesting to see it happen. To call them mercurial would be an understatement. Some of the cast are switching between ten different roles. They collectively represent the entire town, showing us how everyone reacts to the terrible events of the murder and the strange course of justice that followed.
In the first few sessions, I’ve been sketching rapidly. Trying to memorize faces as the actors read, re-read and discuss the text. They call the first few days ‘Table Work’ – for reasons that became fairly clear. It was very much like watching a jury deliberate for hours. Everyone trying to determine, what does my character know at this point? Who knows what rumors, what are the police doing, how did events move so quickly to their bizarre conclusion.
I’m just learning the faces of all the people involved. They’re sitting down, but they’re not still by any means. There’s the usual fidgeting of people in a meeting, but also plenty of emoting and gesturing and debating. The faces are constantly in motion.
Next week they get up on their feet, and I’ll begin to see scenes come to life. Looking forward to it!
Part 2 – Jan 14 – Getting on their feet:
After the first few sessions of reading, the actors are up on their feet, doing blocking. The internet says the term comes from a practice of ‘using small wooden blocks to represent actors, moving these about on a miniature of a set of a planned work’. For these guys it’s walking through the script, half reading, half acting, getting the feel of things – sometimes calling out ‘line!’ when they need a hint from the production crew. Sometimes calling a stop to say – ‘wouldn’t it be better if I stood over here?’ Or ‘would my character know this at the time?’
It’s fascinating watching them work – I can see why the Actors Nightmare is a play about forgetting lines.
I’m continuing to study the faces. It’s challenging, as each actor has multiple roles in the play. Each time I’m wanting to portray them slightly differently. I’m imagining once they’re in costume it’s going to look even more impressive. People changing age and persona right before your eyes.
I was glad to get a good one of the playwright, Beverly Cooper – she was only here for a few days, so I made sure to get a few of her. And of course, the director, Roy Surette. I’m not sure what’s the right thing to say about directors – puppet master? collaborator? cheerleader? It’s certainly some of all of that.
As the actors block the scenes, sometimes a posture will happen, just for the briefest second, that really tells the story. Here’s a couple from early in the play, as the school kids are just finding out that their friend has been murdered.
At the end of a session I grabbed a shot of Steven Truscott’s bike leaning in the corner, with some other props – a detective’s hat, some old bakelite phones, a super 8 movie projector. I don’t know what some of it is for, but I know that bike will be in a big scene soon.
Part 3 – Jan 17 – Drawing Emotions:
[ Don’t get your hopes built up. Anything can happen. ]
We’re getting into the actual scenes now. Not just reading through it, but doing the scenes over and over. Looking for the best way to imply emotions. To show the undercurrents. The drawings come out less like portraits, and more like versions of the characters. I find when the actor is playing younger, (they often switch between addressing the audience ‘now’ and what happened ‘then’ within the same scene), the drawing also comes out younger. It’s the same people – but I’m drawing them smaller, more vulnerable. I didn’t start doing it on purpose – it just happened.
[ They found her dead? In Lawson’s Bush. ]
Sketching from life usually involves exploring a city, drawing architecture. Maybe sometimes drawing people doing interesting things – usually it’s people doing something work related. It’s not often that you draw people in emotionally charged situations. Drawing these actors, I’m seeing expressions of anger, shock, disbelief, grief. A greater range than I’ve ever drawn. Perhaps not the ultimate truth, (they are acting after all, and you can tell they’re holding back some juice for later on) but still – emotional situations a sketch artist just doesn’t usually see.
[ I couldn’t think of anything sadder in the whole world. I still can’t. ]
[ The Father arrived in a belligerent manner asking why Steven had been picked up. ]
The great thing about the actors in rehearsal is they give me the scenes over and over, rewinding the action, trying on a slightly different attitude or emotion. (They actually make rewinding noises, walking and talking backwards speedily re-setting to the start of a scene. Really. Not kidding.)
This experience has been much more interesting than any drawing workshop. I get to draw the thing from life, but I also get three or four tries at it.
[ Eight to one. Upheld his conviction. ]
Part 4 – Jan 21 – Courtroom Drama:
It’s getting close to the end of rehearsal. Time is running out – I’ll be drawing right to the last minute. We’re hanging the show for opening night Tuesday January 29th. We’ll be having a small meet and greet from 5-7 pm, if anyone would like to come down to see the drawings, and I hope, also see the 8 pm show. As of this writing tickets are still available. (Purchase tickets here).
[I’m Curious how a 14 year old boy comes to be sentenced to hang?]
Innocence Lost is about the aftermath of a murder. So of course there are trials and appeals, interrogations and interviews. Some of these scenes have all the dramatics of a police procedural. Big shot expert witnesses, testimony of the first responders. The stuff we’re so familiar with from our Laws and Orders and CSIs.
Allan Morgan is particularly cracking as the judge – spitting lines like ‘…there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.’
Or the judgmental cop asking – Do you like girls kid? Maybe take’em into the woods?
Director, Roy Surette calls this Perry Mason Stuff. Some of the 20-something actors had to pull out phones and check that on Wikipedia.
What’s more interesting is the way the play handles the real situation. What it must have been like for the kids in the witness box. All of them seem out of their depth testifying – do they even know they’re building an incriminating timeline? Do they understand that it really does matter if it was 7:00 or 7:30 when they saw Steven and Lynn? Why are the authorities interrogating these school kids and not looking closer at the military personnel in town?
Pippa Leslie is particularly chilling as young Jocelyn Gaudet. Could this girl really comprehend what was going on? She seems hell bent on executing her classmate with testimony. Tying the noose with her words. Was she a thoughtless kid lying for the attention, or just scared enough to say whatever the crown prosecutor wanted to hear? Did she make a small lie early, and end up way too deep?
It’s hard to say – who knows what any one of us would have done at that age. The crazy thing is that it ever happened. The idea that a gang of seventh grade kids could reliably testify in a death penalty case! I understand why the story is still controversial.
I hear second hand, that there are people in Clinton who still say the jury did the right thing, despite what we know today. Would you want to say your dad almost got a kid hung? Tough situation all around.
Part 5 – Jan 25 – The Cutting Room Floor:
Just a quick report today. At the Centaur, the actors are finally up on stage, rehearsing in the theatre, in the actual set, testing lighting, music and sound (and some clever video effects). Here in our studio we’re in the midst of cutting mats and assembling frames. It’s all coming together. Starting to become a real show.
The other day I went backstage (or, I should say, below-stage) to see the costume and wig fittings. All that stuff takes place in a cramped basement full of old props and miles of electrical cables. The costume shop is packed to the steam pipes with hats, shoes and clothes from every period of history. The working spaces could be called ‘utilitarian’ – low ceilings, a tiny few barred basement windows, but nonetheless you can feel the theatre magic going on.
I was promised full access to the production – but strangely they didn’t let me draw the costume fittings. After watching the actors pour out emotions day after day in rehearsal, I would think seeing them in their underwear wouldn’t be a big deal :) But, at least I got to watch a wig-fitting!
The stylists are clearly at the top of their game – it was a whirlwind of styrofoam heads and disembodied hairstyles in a tiny room, barely wide enough for a dressing table and a hilarious pink satin couch. I was drawing tucked up into a corner, perched on the smallest sink I’ve ever seen.
I got a kick out of all the mirrors with rows of lights. It doesn’t get more ‘backstage’ than that.
I’ve saved my favorite sketches for the last in this series. See you next week when the art is up in the gallery and the show is on the stage.
Part 6 – Feb 1 – Artistic License:
So: we come to the end of the production diary, but the beginning for the play.
Last night was the sold-out premiere at Centaur Theatre. We can finally see it as it was meant to be – with music, lighting, and scenes flowing one into another.
During the dress rehearsal, I was given a little lamp with a dimmer, so I could sketch next to the stage manager Melanie St-Jacques. She sits surrounded by crew, computers and mixing boards, wearing headphones and mike, calling out in a steady, calming voice a constant stream of cues. Spotlights, sound effects, and video clips – fade this effect, bring up the next. All in perfect timing with the actors. Like an orchestral conductor crossed with NASA mission control.
I’m amazed at the leap from rehearsal to stage. It’s a huge jump in the experience. Once again, I’m sure I’m the only one surprised. The actors and crew know this feeling, but for me, seeing what was already impressive reach that next higher level – it’s really quite a thing.
Frankly, I didn’t really understand live theatre before this experience. Now I get it. My form of art is mostly a solitary practice. It’s been eye opening seeing this kind of team work.
I’ll leave you with my favorite sketches from the project. These are the ones that went off the rails. The ones where I got a bit carried away. Sketching what I felt, rather than what was actually going on.
In rehearsal, without the lights and music, I formed an instantaneous impression of this scene. They actually do this – the entire cast is there, floating around the two children on the bike.
I only saw it happen a few times. Had no idea it was coming, and it was over in a second. As long as it takes to bicycle across a room. They said “let’s do that one more time” – I immediately grabbed a new sheet and scribbled furiously.
On stage, it’s an unsettling, ghostly scene. To me, more than a little ominous. I saw it as the overbearing presence of the community gathered in judgment. All the lies, the gossip and the fear that built up around these kids.
Beverly Cooper told me I missed the point entirely – that it’s meant to be redemptive. (That’s what I get for asking! Always go with your instinct.) Certainly the mood is completely different on stage. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. But this remains my favorite sketch as it is, just because it’s an example of how everyone responds differently to art.
Here is Pippa Leslie again, as Jocelyn Gaudet, on the witness stand. I found her small scenes the most chilling. I couldn’t help but think of the Salem witch trials. Children testifying about life and death.
This one is a little more light hearted. Allan Morgan as the first cop to interview Steven. There wasn’t a costume at this point – just the hat. He actually had a rolled up magazine, or winter gloves or something, stuck in the pocket of a bulky military surplus sweater. I swear he was miming a gun-belt. The real 1950 cop uniform is even weirder on stage – all brass buttons and leather belts. Like a fashionable Italian fascist.
[“They’ll send him to Collins Bay! He’ll be in a penitentiary with hard criminals!”]
The actual staging of this line is completely different. There was a slight change in the script for clarity, and there’s a bunch of other people in the full scene, and Julie Tamiko Manning looks completely different in her 50’s housewife costume and wig. And of course, she’s not clutching a page of the script. But still, this was one of my favorite captures of a line reading in rehearsal.
So there it is! This has been a tremendous project. Enriching artistically. Educational for me, coming from outside the world of theatre. I’m very grateful to be allowed the opportunity. And of course, I’m hopeful I’ll find a chance to do something similar another day with another production.
If you are in the area, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to see the play here in Montreal, live at Centaur at the time of this writing, or when it opens at the National Arts Center in Ottawa on Feb 27th.
Thanks for following the production with me, and thanks to Centaur Theatre, the cast and crew, and Creative Director Roy Surette for making this happen.