Planting a garden

Throughout the first two weeks of rehearsals for The Autumn Garden, we’ve been working mostly on the blocking – figuring out how all twelve actors move around the set and what the overall shape of the play looks like. In the last few days we’ve started going back through the script, asking questions and talking about the characters.

Every line of Hellman’s text is packed with clues about what’s happened in the past and what’s happening offstage; now we have the fun job of finding all those clues and figuring out what they mean.

The main action of The Autumn Garden is the return of Nick Denery to the Gulf Coast home where he spent his summers as a young man. The script tells us that he shared those summers in the past with at least three of the characters in the show (Constance Tuckerman, Ned Crossman and Carrie Ellis), and that he hasn’t seen any of them since he left suddenly twenty-three years ago.

The play doesn’t tell us exactly what those relationships were like in the past or what’s been happening in the meantime, but Hellman does drop hints. One quick example:

When Nick first sees Carrie, he says that he didn’t expect to see her at the summer house and asks her “how come?” Those two words have opened the door to a conversation that’s lasted for over a week in rehearsals and may keep going until we open. Because of that question, we’ve dug into Carrie’s relationship with her wealthy mother-in-law (Mrs. Ellis), her twenty-five year old son (Frederick), and her long-absent and never mentioned husband. If Nick is surprised by Carrie’s presence here, he must know something about what was happening in Carrie’s life when he left twenty-three years ago. Once we started doing the math, a number of interesting possibilities started to emerge, and we’re deciding now which possibilities match up with other clues in the script.

Throughout this part of the rehearsal process we’re going through every page looking for these clues, and making decisions about what those clues mean to us.

I’ll try to mostly stay away from the obvious metaphors, but this really is like planting a garden – we can see the places where something will grow, we plant an idea or a question, we nurture it through rehearsals, and we hope it will grow and bloom into something beautiful and useful. I don’t know exactly what these seeds are at this point, and I don’t know what they will become, but I do know that they will become a part of the rich garden of characters and stories that Hellman first planted almost sixty years ago.

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