Ten years older

In 2000, Eclipse Theatre Company chose Lillian Hellman as our featured playwright. We explored the roots of the Hubbard family in Another Part of the Forest, Hellman’s political voice in Watch on the Rhine, and her adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark.

The Autumn Garden was, of course, on the short list of plays under consideration that season. It was a script that many of us felt a strong connection to, and one that I felt a strong itch to direct. But I knew I wasn’t ready to tell the stories of mature relationships and self-reflection that Hellman weaves together in this beautiful play. I wasn’t the only one: I remember a few ensemble members saying that it would be a great choice – if only we were ten years older.

And now here we are, almost ten years later, with the opportunity to continue our journey with Lillian Hellman. We’re all a little older, a little more mature, and a little more ready to tell this story.

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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.

Friday blog rescue

Yes, it’s a little more urgent this morning than the usual photo, but I’ll start with that: this is from our upcoming production of Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden.

Chuck Spencer and Millie Hurley in The Autumn Garden

Chuck Spencer and Millie Hurley in The Autumn Garden

We’ve been in rehearsals for two weeks now, and it’s been months since my last visit to the blogosphere. I’m adding the dramaturgical research for The Autumn Garden and hoping to get back into the swing of regular posts, videos and photos in the coming days.

There’s a richness to this script that runs deeper than almost any play I’ve worked on – even the Hellman productions in 2000, which were filled with complex characters and intricate plots. As we’ve been exploring The Autumn Garden, we’ve found that every line gives a hint about the history and off-stage lives of the twelve characters who collide in a summer resort on the Gulf Coast in 1949.

We’re asking questions and filling in details now, and I’ll be back soon with updates from the process.