The Art of Sustaining a Play

Spring Awakening opened at Rarig April 14.

Nickalas Tabbert

 

James Kennedy called out stretching maneuvers before his fellow cast members, preparing for their performance of Spring Awakening that evening.  The mood was light then, but all would become serious in a little over an hour.

University of Minnesota actors usually perform a show for one or two weeks.  But with Spring Awakening, they have learned how to sustain themselves mentally and physically through a four-week run.

The play will conclude its run at the Rarig Center this weekend, and the actors are doing all they can to sustain themselves for the final push. They have to remain healthy and physically fit like an athlete.  Instead of running sprints or lifting weights, they warm up their voices and stretch nearly every part of their body for the physically demanding scenes of the play.

“You can see if an athlete isn’t taking care of themselves,” said Jenna Frankenfield, one of the actors.  “It’s the same with this show.”

Precautions, precautions

There are a number of precautionary measures taken to perform at a high level, mainly avoiding sickness at all costs. 

“If you see someone is sick, run the other way,” said cast member Laura Hickey. 

Some members of the cast and production team were sick prior to the show opening, but aside from the occasional case of allergies, are healthy now.

“You have to make sure you’re healthy so the show is healthy,” said cast member Cat Brindisi.  She also said it’s important to keep a rhythm. 

Frankenfield said bodies are in constant motion throughout the entire show, even when performers are offstage. 

“There is no downtime,” she said. 

If not jumping around or stretching, actors are keeping their voices warm and mentally preparing for their next scene.

Injuries are unavoidable, Hickey said, because live performances require an all-out effort in every aspect.

Before each performance, actors who engage in physical interaction with other cast members through jumps, flips and “fights,” spend 15 to 20 minutes working on proper techniques to reduce injury.

 “All the actors are really aware of each other and each other’s bodies” said Kennedy, who plays Robert and is the dance captain for the play.  “A push could really hurt them, so we need to make sure everyone is connected and on the same page.”

 Kennedy said he focuses on stretching rather than just warming the body because it is more rewarding in the long run.

“If you go run laps before the show, you’re going to cool back down.  Deep stretching is much more sustainable.”

Sing in the shower

The actors constantly have to work to sustain their voices, Frankenfield said.  Vocal warm-ups are not included as a group activity in the preshow routine along with stretching and mental preparation, but are equally important.

Each actor does a series of scales and other exercises to protect their voices before performing.  Brindisi said she warms up in the shower and in the car on her way to the theater.

The girls have made a habit of singing the first song together back stage.

“In professional acting, you’re on your own,” Brindisi said.  “It’s an added bonus to warm up together.”

 In other productions that span less time, Kennedy said actors can have a mentality to push themselves hard to make it through a performance run.  But Spring Awakening is different because of the number of shows.

“You can’t just keep pushing,” he said.  “The question is how you sustain your voice over a period of time”

Learn how to bring the intensity

Keeping the same intensity is a challenge for the actors during the 20-show span.  For James Detmar, one of two veteran actors in Spring Awakening, it’s part of the job.

“You have to believe everyone else is going to be bringing their best game each night,” he said.  “If you miss something, it’s unacceptable.”

Detmar said preparatory measures are learned over time.  Even the smallest details, like coming to rehearsal cleanly shaven, need to reflect how the show will run so the directors can see if any changes are necessary.

Certain things, like appearance, aren’t always understood by the younger actors, and the older actors don’t always remember to inform them, Detmar said.  But it is important for actors to come away from a performance knowing what they learned to make them a better actor for their next role.

“You have to learn how to prepare yourself,” he said.  “Am I drinking enough water? Am I getting enough rest? Do I look at the script after two days off?  You have to ask yourself what do I need to do to make that happen.”

Kennedy said he has learned from his elders how to handle those types of situations.

“It’s fun when little things go wrong because you have to adapt.”

A different kind of play calling

Backstage is a different story.  While actors are working with choreographer Carl Flink to make necessary performance changes, stage managers backstage are trying to replicate their role exactly each night.

“We provide the least amount of resistance as possible so actors can worry about acting,” said Rex Davenport, a member of the stage running crew.

Everything is laid out so the actors and stage crew know where everything is to reduce time and confusion.

Production manager Tiffany Orr said the show has actually become easier with each performance. 

“You become hyper-aware if anything is wrong,” she said.  “I don’t have to look back at the book anymore because I’ve memorized the movements.”

Orr is in charge of calling many of the cues for the play, and has written down notes of changes to make her job easier.  After each show, she makes a performance report that addresses any issues.

Director Peter Rothstein also makes comments for Orr to make notes. 

Keeping the show “fresh” for the audience is one of the most important aspects of sustainability for an actor.  If a scene is thrown off due to timing or an unexpected factor – like a table breaking in a performance in an earlier performance –determining the reality of the situation and how to adapt to it on stage is crucial, Detmar said. 

“If the blocking changes, don’t try to replicate it to a ‘T’,” he said.   “It’s dishonest, and the audience can feel that disconnection.”