A Breathtaking Adventure: Puzzles, Weapons, and Blood in the Titus Rehearsal Room

Cordelia MillerFirst, the vitals: My name is Cordelia Miller and I’m Cal Shakes’ stage management intern for Titus Andronicus; first preview June 1, opening June 4. The events in my life leading me to the rehearsal room of Titus are why this experience will stay with me many years from now, no matter what career I end up choosing.

Eight years ago, I attended my first Cal Shakes show: George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, directed by Lillian Groag. Since then, I have attended 26 shows and been a subscriber for seven years. To say it’s been surreal participating in the rehearsals for Titus is an understatement. Before I was an actor, I was an avid theatergoer, so being introduced to actors I have applauded on stages for more than 10 years is a humbling experience. I am still in awe when I watch their processes. People like Jim Carpenter, Stacy Ross, Anna Bullard, Dan Hiatt, Delia MacDougall, Nick Pelczar, Liam Vincent—all Bay Area gems I’ve probably seen in more than 200 shows combined. I get to know young actors still in school for their craft as well as actors from Los Angeles, the Midwest, and New York. I have only seen productions directed by Joel Sass, Titus’ director, twice, but both made a sincerely lasting impression: Pericles, which still tops my list as one of the most unequivocally beautiful productions of any Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen; and, of course, Macbeth, which will never leave my mind because of its unrelenting ability to make me terrified for my life (and for most of the poor, sad characters). Now I get to watch Joel mold and shape this world he has envisioned for us, with the entire rehearsal room filled with people I have respected since before I even knew I wanted to be a part of this world. Now I get to be a part of it. It’s a breathtaking adventure, watching all this magic unfold before me.

I joined rehearsals on Monday, May 9 and it’s been a whirlwind ever since. I help set up every morning, making coffee, filling water pitchers, opening windows, and sharpening pencils (school supplies have always been my vice). I sit in on production meetings, which I get immense pleasure from. During rehearsal, I began mostly being on book (the person responsible for threading through the rehearsal text and prompting actors with their lines), helping set up and strike scenes, cleaning some awesome weapons (be jealous) and doing various bits of paperwork for Laxmi, our incredible stage manager.

It’s been a bit like watching a puzzle being built without knowing what the picture on the box looks like. I wasn’t here for the first day, so I’ve been re-creating the world in which Titus takes place from the scraps I discover in rehearsal along the way. The first thing I saw, before I even arrived, was the set model: Immediately I felt the sense of antiquity and the fierce, stark atmosphere that this immensely violent play lives in. When I arrived in the rehearsal room, one of the first things I noticed were the costume renderings on the wall, which helped define the moving pieces of this board game a little more. But the key that really glued everything together and cemented it in my mind was the sound. The first time I saw the opening scene, Laxmi turned on the music and I’ll never forget how I felt: I just knew. I knew exactly where we were, I knew what time, I knew what this environment meant to each of the characters—it was because of that sound that I was able to fit all the pieces together. Plus, the opening scene does exactly what Joel said it would: It’s the pilot that sets up the rest of the miniseries. Seeing that for the first time really informed the other parts as well. I can’t wait to see everyone in costume—the renderings are breathtaking.

How much I’m learning and the experience I’m amassing should be illegal. I’m working alongside complete professionals; I feel something like a voyeur. Lynne Soffer, our vocal/text coach, and Philippa Kelly, our dramaturg, are both so open, giving, and willing to teach that it’s all I can do to soak up every bit of information they provide. There almost aren’t words for how exciting it is to watch the scene stopping and starting with notes from Joel, then watch the same scene take on a totally different, vibrant life. As a stage manager, I get to look up to Peter and Laxmi, who never falter or show any signs of stress or weakness—they’re warriors and fabulous role models. Every task set in front of them is manageable and can be completed. I’ve been keeping a list of things I want to do as a stage manager (mostly modeled after the way they do things, and how silly it was of me to not be doing them before now!). As an actor, I love learning the dos and don’ts, how different actors learn their lines and use their props, rehearsal costumes, and set pieces; how each actor goes about learning each bit of the script, from the simple physical task of entering a scene to the mountainous emotional task of portraying murder, death, unimaginable loss. As a writer, I am intrigued by the intricate life of checking different quartos for alternate lines, substituting and changing as our world requires, keeping track of every word; as a director, my ears are pricked for the language and tone Joel uses to communicate with the actors to create this masterpiece; I love the sense of teamwork as everyone works together to create a living, breathing, work of art.

There is definitely excitement growing within me like a snowball as we hurtle towards tech. I feel like I started yesterday, and already, less than 72 hours from now, we’ll be at the Bruns, lighting and costuming and fighting it out. I hope to write another blog during tech, which may be a slightly insane thing to do…

Cordelia and the Titus blood test!Lastly (and I wanted to keep this until the end because it’s such a wonderful closer), the tagline for this play is “It’s about bloody time.” Naturally, there’s a hefty amount of stage blood. Naturally, it would come up in a production meeting that it needs to be tested before it’s used. Naturally, I vehemently volunteered to be the testee. I mean, come on, what is cooler than trying out several different types of edible/non-edible/goopy/runny/viscous/chunky/gelatinous (enough adjectives? They were all true for at least one type I encountered) blood? So, OK, the inner eight-year-old-boy reared his little head inside of me. But really, it’s been one of the most hilariously awesome things I’ve done—and a great many people think it’s very strange how much I enjoy it… but I do…

Until next time…!

(Click here for more information on Titus.)

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