What does it take to make a Dance In Time?

by Adrienne Martini

Theater is like sausage and legislation: You don't want to see it being made.

Rehearsal can be an endless, ugly process, full of sensitive nerves and touchy subjects. Actors, directors, and heck, even technicians, grow as delicate as hothouse flowers, which wilt with the slightest change of conditions and grow straggly under undue stress. The knowledge that soon the curtain will rise and others will see what you have been working on is like a giant other shoe full of stress poised to finally fall.

I've had the dubious pleasure of being involved in countless such pressure-filled processes. In my experience—which includes seven years of summer stock, four years in college, and two years as a professional in Austin, Texas—it is tech week, the final seven days when all of the diverse elements come together, that finally causes the simmering relationships to either explode or meld. Tempers get shorter, as does the availability of sleep, decent food, and time spent with non-theater people.

The level of angst only increases with the size of the show. It is an exponential progression; add one more actor or prop and the

level of stress doubles. One tech incident, which I recall with a grimace and the urge to sob, involved an actor throwing six prop bottles of wine and all of his clothes at the light board operator, simply because the costume designer suggested a new quick clothing change that the actor just didn't want to deal with. Then, of course, the entire company had to endure three nail-biting days while the director looked for a new actor to replace the one he had to fire for the above tantrum. It was like living in a particularly gruesome Edgar Allen Poe story and marked the end of my patience with the process.

Thankfully, most companies are full of consummate professionals who would never do anything to jeopardize the success of the show as a whole. But there is always that level of finely tuned tension as the opening night slowly creeps closer. Some casts and crews melt down; some are the definition of grace under pressure.

The cast and crew of Clarence Brown Theatre's Dance In Time makes for a great case study. Over 20 actors (two of whom are children), 330 costumes, a massive set that does everything but tap dance, and a script with no actual dialogue could make any grown-up tear his or her hair out while screaming at whomever happens by. Perfect, I thought. This will give me the chance to wax nostalgic about rehearsals past and, hopefully, see a good cat-fight or shouting match. But the production team for this enormous undertaking left my more base instincts disappointed while renewing my faith in the magic of theater.

Largely, this can be chalked up to the steady hand of director L‡sl— Marton, a genial Hungarian whose company, the Vigszinhaus in Budapest, developed a show five years ago called …sszt‡nc, which CBT would name, after much debate and deliberation, Dance In Time. Marton, with his smooth face that belies his age and soft, accented voice, is like the eye in the center of a hurricane. Everyone swirls around this peaceful center and achieves a contact calm.

Which is not to say that there haven't been problems. The play is originally based on Ettore Scola's 1983 film Le Bal, which was in turn based on a French play, the rights for which were yanked out of CBT's hands just before rehearsals were due to start and after money had been laid out for trivial matters—like the set and Marton's trip to the States. After several trans-Atlantic faxes, phone calls, and ulcers, the contracts were finally inked.

It's easy, however, to understand such hesitation by the French. Why would an American audience care about the goings-on in Hungarian history? We are not a culture known for our concern with the plight of foreigners. I would wager that half of the theater-going population wouldn't recall that Hungary was ever under communist rule, much less recount the horror that almost all of Eastern Europe had to endure after the Iron Curtain fell.

But that does not seem to phase Marton. "If you think this show is only relevant in Europe, you are mistaken," he says. "Almost every family in America came from somewhere else, most from Europe. Well, here is your story, here are the lives from which you came."

And what a story this is. Dance In Time is set in a lonely hearts club, where men and women come to meet, dance, and drink coffee. The time period shifts around them, from the modern day to pre-war to post-communism. All of the story is told with movement and music, and is fairly easy to follow, even if you are not dance literate.

The cast, however, is made up primarily of actors, not dancers, which means that the first few weeks of rehearsal were full of teaching people how to move. Luckily, Johanna Bodor, a member of the Vigszinhaus ensemble who has played every female role in Dance, was able to travel with Marton to help this American cast learn the movement.

Bodor is working with the actors when I walk into a rehearsal during week six of the eight-week process. A couple, a tall blonde wearing impossibly high white pumps and a man in a blue polo shirt and jeans, are running through a waltz. The same 15-seconds of music keeps playing because Bodor is not quite satisfied with the way they are moving. "No! The man leads!" she says, in a soft-yet-urgent way. Bodor looks like every dancer I have ever met. She carries a water bottle, is wearing a loose pink jumpsuit that floats around her slight body, and moves as if her joints are filled with oil.

A tall, dark-haired male wanders across the stage, quietly running through an endless series of vocal warm-ups, which sound like an actor's call to worship. Several performers dance up and down a massive set of stairs up center. Eventually, these stairs will be surrounded by walls, which are currently stacked against the bare brick of the theater's walls. People stream behind the stairs; some carry cardboard boxes, some food, one pushes a bicycle, and most look as if they are trying to unravel a koan, probably the one about one hand clapping. Two women practice slapping each other in the wings of the theater.

Marton wanders Buddha-like through this chaotic space, with a coffee mug in one hand and a slight smile playing on his lips. He stops to chat with each group, answering questions and murmuring encouragement. Even he can't resist a quick trip down the stairs. Bodor is now coaching a tango. "Use the body of the man," she says. "Because you use him, you must give to him something after." The something is a delicate gesture across his cheek.

As the official start time for the rehearsal comes closer, actors stream into the theater's seats. Talk turns to knees and ankles, both of which have been under incredible stress the past few weeks. Lory Leigh Fedor, the stage manager—the taskmaster in charge of things like schedules, attendance, and, ultimately, the entire show once it opens—gathers the cast. She radiates self-assurance and confidence, despite the fact that she is trying to keep track of each actor, every prop and costume, and, in this rehearsal, she will be drafted to dance for a tardy actress.

After she gets the actors in one place and does a head count—a process that resembles a cowboy trying to wrangle cats—she announces that they will start at the beginning of the "Air Raid." This information sends everyone but Marton into a flurry of movement. Tables and chairs are flung on-stage, actors scatter like marbles to find their props, the skeleton crew pushes the stairs into the proper position. Call it a Chinese fire drill, but with less organization.

"Everybody ready?" Lory asks about 15 minutes later. She gets no response.

"I said, is everybody ready?"

"No, I'm not," a nervous, panicky woman's voice cries out.

"What are you missing?" Lory says this, then repeats is with more authority when she gets no answer.

"My purse." It's an admission of defeat, like this has happened many times before. Both women go off to find it.

Soon, the scene starts. You really have to suspend your disbelief in order to believe that this is an air raid taking place in an Eastern European coffee house. There are no signifiers, no walls, no costumes yet, and no lighting but some wan work lights. Props are missing and actors resort to mime. A cardboard box stands in for a record player, a suitcase for an accordion. There is no magic, just the simple act of people running on stage, trying to remember where their mark is and what they should have in their hands, while they attempt to actually perform. During this melé, a technician does the Cabbage Patch in the background, to music only he can hear.

Ten days later, the same scene has taken on a luster. The set now has walls, the actors now have props, and the crew now has sound and lights to contend with. It looks like an honest-to-Shaw show, and the air raid is downright scary, in a slightly overdramatic and kitschy way. There are still kinks to be worked out, and the first hour of rehearsal is spent trying to do just that.

During this scene, a large skylight must be flown back up into the grid, the space that houses all of the rigging for the theater, and a broken skylight must be flown in. The back walls, one of which has the stairs attached to it, must open and close like a clamshell on cue, despite the fact that these flats are heavy and awkward to deal with. The actors still have to scramble on-stage, arms laden with props, and plunk all of it down in the right place. Oh, and all of this happens in near-blackness, with only a strobe light to see by. To top it all off, the fake smoke keeps setting off the fire alarm.

Honestly, it's amazing that no one dies. Or bursts into tears. Or breaks part of the set—particularly after the same scene has been run through for the fourth time. This is the crux of tech week and the endless repetition and futzing with details can break even the heartiest spirit, which is what I had actually hoped to witness in the pits of my deep, black journalist's heart. Conflict breeds the best stories, if you listen to any J-school prof.

Through the whole process, Marton radiates a good-natured glow and Lory, while she looks like she could use a good nap and a hug, remains patient as she explains the order of cues for the fifth time. Bodor, during the quick breaks in the run, fussily and kindly adjusts the positions of the actors bodies. And the actors use this time to catch up on gossip, rub each other's backs, or catch up on some sleep.

No real fireworks, other than a small mental picture of how dynamic this would be when all of the finishing touches were in place and a spark of restored faith in the process. This is what every tech rehearsal should be, despite the fact that it doesn't make for a splashy story.