Essential Collective Theatre (ECT) is a St Catharines staple. Their latest production, The Welland Canal Play, takes another local icon as its subject...
Mark Harrigan writes: Walking into the rehearsal hall, I was greeted by the set and lighting designer, Nigel Scott. Wilson had mentioned Scott in our first meeting and we had seen his set designs, but this was the first time I had the chance to meet him. He sat at the other end of the table, waiting for the run to begin, but it wasn’t long before he was on his feet asking “Why are those beds so far apart?” My heart sank as he got up and began moving Vickers’ bed stage right, stopping exactly where the duo had been placing the dumb waiter. I had thought that the space they were rehearsing in was tight as it was, but as Scott brought in chairs to represent where the audience would sit, myself and the actors saw just how intimate the space was going to be.
If I was dismayed, Anthes and Vickers only smiled form ear to ear, and Anthes got more and more excited as he became reacquainted with the new, smaller space. The reality that this show is going to be seen by an audience was brought home by Scott’s correction, and this seemed to energize them. Before they started, Wilson made sure they walked through certain scenes, in particular the strangling scene, making sure that Vickers was still able to get off his bed and cross to Anthes without stumbling over the personal space of audience members. With that worked out, the run began.
We still saw the initial struggle of the actors with pace. Where we had seen ebb and flow in the rhythm of the show, we now saw a wave of energy. When the energy was high, the pair was on their intention and the comedy was quite hilarious; however, without the energy, the play began to drag. Finishing the run, Wilson discussed with the actors the finer details of the run. One problem was that the silences had been a tad too long, unnecessarily adding to the length of the play.
After the company finished with notes, we took a 20-minute break. Here I collected some of my thoughts, but was distracted by the set construction going on down the hall. I stood in the doorway and watched as the pallets, bolted together in strips of threes, were raised up to the rafters like a theatre version of a barn-raising. They were subsequently lashed to the ceiling and each strip was secured to its neighbour before the crew moved on to the next strip of pallets. It was then that I wondered, “Where does the stage manager sit?” Nicole Titus explained that she will be calling the show from a box outside of the pallet-plated room, relying on her own hearing and a series of timed cues. While the show is not hugely tech-heavy, the cues that exist must be timed to perfection, as they help to move the plot of the story along, such as the notorious dumb waiter and its back and forth (or should I say up and down) causing mayhem with the pair in the room. Considering Titus’ impressive resume and her attention to detail in rehearsals, everyone is confident that the show will run smoothly.
Once the company returned from their break, there was enough time to fit in one more run for the day. We all settled in, and this time, the pair blew us away. Everyone agreed that it was the best run yet. They brought a brand new dynamic, doing away with the ebb and simply flowing. The comedy of different moments became startlingly clear, and all of the tension was saved until the ending moments. It was like watching a whole new show. Anthes brought new exploration as he played with a new way to test his bed sheets for his own stink or “pong” and Vickers showed us the full extent of his frustration as the kettle debate came to a close. Wilson had few notes and we all agreed that this was rightfully earned.
As this run came to an end, so too did our stint of behind-the-scenes reporting. If I may speak for the collective, it has been an honour to watch this show come to life. While there still are some moments that need to be tightened up, Stolen Theatre Collective’s production of The Dumb Waiter is ready to be seen. It is our view that it will make any audience member laugh through their discomfort.
The second week of performances of The Dumb Waiter runs from Weds 15 – Sun 19 April in the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in St. Catharines. Tickets at www.stolentheatrecollective.ca.
Mark Harrigan and Robert Herr write: We enter the small space for rehearsal once again at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre; the cast and stage manager have arrived and are getting ready for the rehearsal this evening. Tonight is the first official full rough run-through of the play! We are excited to see what Wilson has been working on with Anthes and Vickers since we last saw them, and to get a first glimpse at what the play will look like before final rehearsals in the theatre itself. Wilson walks in the door and the cast is almost ready to begin. First Anthes and Vickers warm up their faces for the run-through, and make sure that they have the appropriate sounds for specific trouble words in their English accents such as “old”, “here” and “beer.”
Anthes and Vickers set themselves for the top of the show — a small pause — and they launch Pinter’s script, with the bit about Gus’ shoes. The room was bursting with laughter in a matter of seconds watching Anthes play this shtick, as Vickers sits on his bed with the paper, calm and collected, letting his tension build in his silence. Vickers delivers his first line with great energy and they both start a verbal ping-pong match of wit and power right in front of us as Gus and Ben.
All the work that we had seen so far was becoming a remarkable event to witness. Vickers has a beautiful moment in the kettle bit where he explodes so loud that we were certain the people on the street could hear him. Anthes plays Gus with an astounding intensity and playfulness when partnered with Vickers. They stumble along at some points and have to ask for lines a few times, but they still hold the tension in the scenes.
Anthes’ Gus drills Vickers’ Ben, demanding an answer from him as to who is really upstairs, and more importantly, why such strange games are doing on between them and this unknown entity. Anthes goes all-out and is clearly trying to extract an answer. He squats down low beside Vickers and shoots the statement right at him: “I asked you a question!,” creating a powerfully uncomfortable feeling.
Vickers delivers equally powerful tension as he prepares himself for the play’s climax. While we will withhold what happens, we can say that Wilson mentions that the final moment will shift every night. The ending challenges the relationship between Gus and Ben and the play does not end on a word, but instead an action. This ending will have audience members questioning as they leave.
Once the run had ended, there was silence as everyone let the weight of the moment affect him or her individually. Eventually Wilson asked, “What did you think?” There was a brief pause and Anthes led the reflective discussion about the run. He admitted feeling that he had “missed a lot of notes” and that becoming aware of this briefly took him out of the performance. Meanwhile Vickers ruminated that near the end of the run he was “running out of mental steam” and a small chuckle escaped.
Wilson listened intently to their thoughts before delving into her notes. She mentioned that generally there was a struggle with “think-speaking” in the run. While the performers were still working to find their intention last week, that was now in hand; but now they were having to think of their intention and use it to propel their lines. What Wilson wants is for them to use their intention to motivate what the characters say as they say it.
Overall, Wilson believes that the pair is where they need to be and is happy that they are still exploring different opportunities in the play – as when Vickers decided to play the opening newspaper story more lightly, and interjected a quick raspberry noise to add humour to the story of an 84-year-old being run over by a lorry.
The show looks like it is well on its way to becoming something brilliant. They do have some problems that they will need to iron out, but we are confident that Vickers, Anthes, and Wilson will clear these speed bumps and move towards a fluid production. As Vickers would say, it will be a matter of “greasing the moments.”
Tyler Morris and Kevin Langendyk write: We arrive at the tail end of everyone’s lunch break, and it appears to have been a productive and enjoyable morning as Colin Anthes jumps around in anticipation, eager to continue. Everyone launches into the rehearsal in with ease, as is no longer a surprise to us, and they begin on page 8 with the arrival of the mysterious envelope under the door. William Vickers continues to shine as Ben, his calm, mentor-like demeanor quickly becoming a hilarious and somewhat scary murderous rage in the scene.
They quickly work their way through and arrive again at the scene with the kettle. The focus today from director Danielle Wilson seems to be to work on the intention of lines. They have gone through and blocked and memorized the entire play; now it is time to fine-tune the little details. Each line and each movement needs to have a purpose. For example, Gus (Anthes) needs to take matches out of his pocket, but it takes too long for him to reach in and take them out. Vickers suggests that Anthes begins with his hands in his pocket, acting more nervous. Wilson approves, and they give it a go. With the new addition the scene flows smoothly, and they’re able to move forward.
Vickers seems to always have a surplus of ideas going on in his head while rehearsing — new and different ways to explore his character, and help make the scene better. Never afraid to speak his mind in this open and collaborative rehearsal, Vickers suggests that Anthes should “be more questioning and stutter through ‘Who’s it gonna be?’”; he also helps find the intention behind why Gus sits on Ben’s bed. They discuss whether perhaps Gus wants to confide in Ben, but afterwards Wilson points out that the segment now seems to be too similar to a later part in the play. The trio work together to figure out how to block and perform the scene and eventually settle on a method.
With all these thoughts and changes, it does seem easy to get lost and forget where you are. Today seemed to be full of these moments. Anthes and Vickers stumble over some lines, and forget where they were supposed to start from. “Shut up, Billy” Vickers says to himself as he cuts off Anthes during one of their banters, and “come on, Vickers” as he stumbles over his own lines. Anthes asks, “Where are we? ‘Light the kettle?’ That’s good.” This is the nature of this jumping and ever-changing rehearsal, but these times are relatively few and far between; the progress they’re making is well worth the few mistakes.
Anthes and Vickers continue to check in with Wilson frequently during the process, making sure that they are following her direction. Both men value their director’s insight and ideas, and she in turn values their willingness to play with the parts and try out new ideas. They make sure they are playing up the silence during the various pauses, and Wilson and stage manager Nicole Titus laugh frequently as the two men hit every comedic moment. Anthes makes notes frequently in his personal copy of the script, after working out any issues with a scene. The trio of Anthes, Vickers, and Wilson work together to solve most issues, with the notable exception of pronunciation, as Wilson is an expert on voice. She is having Vickers and Anthes perform with British accents to keep it as close to the original work as possible. “I bet the ‘ole ‘ouse is his,” Wilson says to Anthes with a Cockney accent. Vickers points out which lines may be most important to the audience, noting that “The gas has gone out” in particular serves as a wonderful payoff after the struggles with the kettle.
The cast stops for a break just after the moment in the play when the titular dumb waiter arrives. Even on break, Anthes is still checking in on various points. Meanwhile, Vickers continues to entertain, sharing stories with everyone. They return to rehearsing not long after, picking up where they left off. Anthes struggles to put on the arm holsters of his costume, and shares a laugh with Wilson and Titus before getting them on. Anthes doesn’t pull back any punches in the scene and is mesmerizing as all of the uneasiness in Gus is pulled to the surface in the last portion of the play. Gus has shifted away from the vulnerable character he seemed earlier on, and now appears to be dangerous and on-edge.
The rehearsal ends just before the final moments of the script and we are left itching to watch the ending. “You’ll have to come see it,” Wilson laughs as everyone prepares to pack up. When asked about how she is feeling, Wilson replies that she feels great, and feels the same about the actors and the show. With only four more rehearsals left before the show premieres, everything is looking brilliant.
“If you’re running late, put your costume on before your make-up. Because you can go on without your moustache, but you can’t go on without your pants. ” – Mervyn “Butch” Blake
Mark Harrigan and Kevin Langendyk write: William Vickers quotes this bit of wisdom in an impromptu warm-up before the fifth rehearsal of Stolen Theatre Collective’s production of The Dumb Waiter. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly, and generally light, as cast and crew share anecdotes before jumping into rehearsal. Colin Anthes, who had done his own warmup in the hallway before, is ready to work. The laughter fades away, and the transition from personal to professional is seamless as Anthes and Vickers start in on the scene they had been working on in the previous rehearsal.
They pick up on page 14 of this 32-page script. Gus and Ben are arguing over lighting a kettle — or lighting the gas, depending on whom you’re talking to. The scene heats up as Ben becomes so frustrated that he rushes Gus and attempts to strangle him.
This is potentially a tense moment, except that Vickers is at least a head shorter than Anthes, and the company softly laughs as he tries desperately to reach for Anthes’ neck. The laughter dissipates as Wilson steps in for some brief notes. The struggle stays in, and despite the humour, it is still a powerful and captivating scene.
After this moment of review, Wilson moves the actors on to a new section. She sets up her iPad and the portable speaker to prepare for a recording session. Vickers and Anthes read as Gus begins to ask serious questions, ones that could get him in trouble — questions like, “Who owns the place?” and “Who cleans up after we’re finished?” Ben knows that these questions are best avoided and eventually explodes when Gus asks him how many times he has read the paper.
Vickers’ voice is deep and powerful enough to shake the foundations of the Courthouse. Without yelling, he fills the room with his threats and frustrated remarks: “You’ll get a swipe round your earhole!” And we believed it! The pair compliments each other well. For every powerful line that Vickers delivers, Anthes intrigues us with his quick and subtle movements.
During Gus’ questioning period, he wonders why no one ever complains about the noise. He taps the wall to see if they have been soundproofed and can’t tell if they are. At first, Anthes slowly leaned back against the wall, travelled his hand up above his head and softly knocked a couple times. He drew out a pause as he considered what he was hearing, and with a despondent look, showed us that his search was inconclusive. Yet, Wilson asked him to consider his search in a more hurried manner, as if he were, “a dog on a fresh scent.”
Anthes quickly digested this and made the transformation, quickly leaning back and knocking sharply, coming back immediately with the same conclusion. Only this time, this earned a small giggle from the company. In the end, Wilson decided that the slower, drawn-out search works best.
The two actors are clearly enjoying playing with each other and with the script. Anthes playfully slaps his own face when he realizes “I’ve lost my line,” which gets a laugh from the group. Meanwhile the cartridge of Vickers’ gun falls out while he polishes it, making a sudden crashing sound, and with that more laughter ensues.
As Anthes focuses on the puzzle of who cleans up the rooms after they’ve finished, Wilson asked him to consider Pinter’s lines as written, specifically, “She didn’t half spread.” Vickers urges Anthes to consider the potential horror of that image. He helped Anthes to dissect the scene and to think about how absolutely gory and brutal their experience must have been, to leave such a vibrant imprint on them both. By the next run, Anthes had brought a brand new dynamic to the lines, transporting us imaginatively to the barbarous scene. It is fascinating to see how Wilson’s prediction is coming true and Anthes is learning valuable lessons working with Vickers. Even though he is the senior of the pair, Vickers is always gracious and patient which makes for a comfortable dynamic.
Near the end of our visit Vickers exclaims, “it’s a lot of fun!” — and we can tell that it really is. The process is riddled with shifts in atmosphere, from the tense moments that Vickers, Anthes, and Wilson are developing, to the hilarious moments both scripted and not scripted. We are eagerly waiting to see more of the rehearsal process.
Robert Herr and Tyler Morris write:
Danielle Wilson sure knows how to get everyone feeling together and connected in a small space. Upon arriving in the Flexspace of the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre we are greeted by the cast for the first time. William Vickers is warm and welcoming to us, introducing himself as Billy, and seems just as excited as we are to be there. Colin Anthes is happy to see some smiling faces and is excited to show us the work they have done so far. The rehearsal space is a room just big enough for the cast, Wilson, stage manager Nicole Titus, and us two visitors; it is meant to be roughly the same size as the performance space. We have some sunlight pouring in through the windows and the tattered blinds, which illuminates the room well. After we have gotten settled the work starts from the moment in the play where they left off in their second rehearsal.
While Wilson has a lot of knowledge about Pinter and has worked with his plays before, this is the first Pinter piece that both Anthes and Vickers are performing in professionally, and their first time working together. The two work so well as a duo, though, that it made us believe that they were long-time collaborators. The youthful energy that Anthes offers as he plays Gus is astonishing, making Gus a naive young man who we can’t stop watching. He creates intensity in the simple act of picking up an envelope, and never ceases to create humour out of Gus’ incompetence. Vickers’ energy while performing Ben is amazing and is a performance that we were honored to witness in this rehearsal. Vickers carefully plans out his performance, breaking down detail by detail every action or line. The room felt charged as we watched the argument between Ben and Gus over the phrase “light the kettle.” The two are performing with ease, creating a space where wit is flying and the trademark Pinter rhythm is alive and well.
Anthes and Vickers finish the 3-4 page portion of the play they are working on, and Wilson steps in give some direction. She starts with some simple clarifications about what she wants from the dialogue – faster or slower, more emphasis on a certain portion, and so forth – and then gets down to the actors’ blocking. Both performers are great at receiving direction; they put her suggestionsinto action immediately, changing a reaction by Gus’ from shock to disgust, or Ben’s disapproval to disbelief. Vickers has a bit of a mentor-like moment with Anthes as we watch them figure out what Gus is thinking when he says “I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Anthes takes the advice and applies it without resistance; he seems grateful for the advice. The actors make a fantastic duo as they exchange freely about choices they are making.
They then run the play from the beginning to a scene where an envelope is pushed under the door. It is great run and they are now ready to take on more of the play. Before continuing, we all take a break. Vickers tells of a story about a production he saw years ago which had some extreme pauses in it – there was no dialogue for the first 25 minutes! His tale has everyone in the room laughing and having a great time.
Wilson starts the rehearsal again and they begin with a section they have not rehearsed before; they are new to their characters’ motivations in this scene. Wilson pulls out an iPad and has Anthes and Vickers record their dialogue so that they can plan out the blocking without having to speak. This is a technique that Wilson uses in her rehearsals and in our classes at Brock to help the actors get the text into their bodies. Every time Anthes and Vickers start performing this scene against the recording they make discoveries and put them into action. By the time they have done three takes with this exercise, they have the blocking for the scene roughly memorized and ready to do more on it in a future session. At the end of the four-hour rehearsal the actors seem happy with the progress they’ve made.
In conversation with Wilson at the end of the rehearsal, she talks about how grateful she is for her cast and how willing they are to play. She also reminds us that the performance space will only be slightly bigger than the tiny one they are rehearsing in. Everything outside seems so much larger after being in that tiny room! This builds our excitement for more visits to the rehearsals and for the performances themselves.
“Governments… don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking… that’s against their interests… They want obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept [it]” (George Carlin).
Mark Harrigan, Robert Herr, Kevin Langendyk, and Tyler Morris write: Don’t be fooled by the title — The Dumb Waiter is not a show to be taken lightly. Stolen Theatre Collective’s upcoming production of Harold Pinter’s 1958 play will give its audiences quite a lot to think about. We wanted to know exactly what was in store for us, so we took opportunity to talk with Danielle Wilson, Stolen Theatre Collective’s artistic director (and a lecturer in our department), and asked her a number of questions. While she maintains that she wants to leave room for the audience to make their own conclusions, she was able to provide us with some interesting insights into her motivation for staging this play.
Wilson has always loved Pinter’s work — especially The Dumb Waiter, which she first read in university. Pinter was born in 1930 in east London, and started writing plays in the late 1950s. His first play to be performed, The Birthday Party, was widely deemed a failure; The Dumb Waiter was first performed in 1959 and has become one of his better-known early works. Pinter went on to write more than 30 plays in his long career; he died in 2008.
While Pinter’s writing style was unique, the influence of Samuel Beckett is clearly evident. Some tried to label Pinter as a member of the Theatre of the Absurd; however, others credit him with creating a new style, Comedy of Menace. This refers to situations in which Pinter’s characters frequently find themselves, in which an unknown person or force acts upon them; the comedy comes from how the characters react.
For those wondering at home, The Dumb Waiter tells the story of two hit men who are waiting for a job in a basement room, and attempt to pass the time. The older man, Ben, reads the paper, while the younger, Gus, asks an ever-increasing amount of questions. The questions range from inquiries about the room they are staying in, the proper phrasing of “light the kettle,” and the nature of the organization the men work for. The routine is interrupted by the intrusion of the titular dumb waiter in the wall, which delivers a mounting number of orders for food, which the two men are woefully unable to provide. The men continue to argue until the play reaches its dramatic conclusion. The play presents many questions which it never fully answers. The audience is left to ponder the circumstances which led to Ben and Gus’ job, the fate of the two men, and what everything ultimately means.
To Wilson, The Dumb Waiter is “not the type of play you want to mess around with” so we can expect few alterations to the script (Pinter fans rejoice!). Once in the theatre, Wilson wants to give the audience the feeling that they are caged in. Thus she and lighting and set designer Nigel Scott are creating a “room within a room” configuration at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre. “I don’t want this to be a comfortable experience for the audience,” Wilson says; she wants spectators to leave asking questions and constantly thinking. All in all Wilson wants to make the audience feel like a “fly on the wall” — that tense feeling of watching and waiting, not knowing when or where something might happen.
When we asked her why she chose to stage this play now, Wilson mentioned several motivations. She sees the content still hitting home with audiences today: “I think it has a lot of political resonance.” She mentioned the George Carlin quote we included at the beginning of this blog, which she feels relates to the play’s characters. We discussed how the play resonates with Foucault’s theories about docile bodies, and how she aims to get people thinking about their own civil obedience and the lengths they might go to uphold it.
Wilson’s acting team are eager to start rehearsals. William Vickers, who has performed in more than twenty Shaw Festival seasons, will play Ben, and recent DART graduate Colin B. Anthes will play Gus; it will be interesting to see and hear what Anthes learns from this veteran of the stage. Most of us either know or know of Anthes, and are curious and excited to see how the two will work together.
As the meeting was winding down, there was still one question in everyone’s mind — what’s the set going to look like? Within the claustrophobic space, how is the feeling of Comedy of Menace going to be conveyed? Wilson reached into her folder and slowly slid the design into view. “Are those pallets?,” we all asked almost simultaneously — and yes, they were. Scott’s three-dimensional rendering had us peering into a room made almost entirely of industrial shipping pallets, otherwise known as skids. The design was made possible with the help of some local Niagara wineries, who donated the pallets (they are usually burned or destroyed). The pallets will help to bring to life the surreal, creepy feeling that Wilson and Scott are hoping to create. As the audience arrives in the space, Wilson and Scott plan to shine light through the pallets to create a slatted effect, as if the light were coming through blinds that are partly closed. The one thing that we have not yet seen is the design for the actual dumb waiter; while the design is finished, it was not added to the rendering. Wilson says that when the dumb waiter is travelling up and down, they hope to have a light travel with it.
One thing is for sure — Wilson has definitely piqued our interest. We will be following rehearsals fervently to see how Vickers and Anthes work together, and how the relationship between them grows. We are interested to see them balance the comedy of the play with the underlying political menace. As well, we will be keeping an eye on the development of the set and we can hopefully get a sneak peak as it is being built. We look forward to watching the show progress and can only expect good things.
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