by Loren Noveck · June 11, 2015
Cast photo | Julieta Cervantes
In the final days before audiences get to see any piece of theater, the production team moves into the actual performance space, the stage manager takes charge, and the tech rehearsals begin: the arduous, time-consuming process of introducing all the technical elements with all the human ones that actors, director, and playwright have been rehearsing for weeks: constructing light and sound cues, and choreographing the sequences in which they work together; figuring out if an actor has sufficient time for a costume change before her next entrance; making sure the crew can move the set pieces and there’s enough wing space to put them in when they come off. In those long days, there’s never enough time to get through the worklist; nine things are usually happening at once and with no sense of flow: the process moves by fits and starts, lingering over one thirty-second sequence and then skipping ahead sixteen pages in the script. And the mood can swing from euphoria to despair to utter boredom at a moment’s notice. It’s intricate, painstaking, often tedious, absolutely essential groundwork that lets the finished play look like magic—and the final goal is that none of this labor be visible to the audience.
Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 (the title refers to the typical schedule for a day of tech: twelve hours of call time, minus the two hours of breaks mandated by Actors Equity) turns that relationship on its head; it's an affectionate, thoughtful tribute to the non-public side of theater, and the nitty-gritty unglamorous work of it: the rhythms and guts and nuts and bolts that are usually only visible from the wrong side of the proscenium, as it were. It might feel like anthropological fieldwork to the uninitiated (though in a space as small as Soho Rep’s Walkerspace, with a creative team as packed with downtown theater luminaries, I imagine filling every house with fellow artists would not be a challenging task), but if you've ever worked a shift in a lighting booth or done three back-to-back ten-out-of-twelves only to get up on the fourth morning for a temp job, this show will speak to you in ways that are both delightfully and horrifyingly recognizable.
Washburn builds the world through an intriguing conceit that weaves together the onstage and backstage action. A tech rehearsal happens in three places at once: onstage, of course, but also at the “tech table” in the audience, where the designers and stage manager sit and work out their logistics, and backstage, where the crew is. In order to capture all three of these elements, a lot of the play is therefore not happening on the stage—and a lot of the action is also happening on the semiprivate broadcast channel of the headsets that the tech team (and usually only the tech team) wears. Here, the entire audience is provided with headsets, so the place proceeds in four different registers simultaneously, with the audience given essentially the vantage point of the stage manager, who is the person conducting the interplay among those realms. On the stage, the stage manager (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who gets the combination of mother hen and drill sergeant just right) stops and starts segments of the play that’s being teched, with a cast of five: a baroque drama involving at least two disparate time periods, a death at sea, Victorian-esque costumes, and creepy Gothic undertones. (There is no doubt that the tech is more entertaining for the weirdness of the play-within-a-play, with its glow-in-the-dark imps and bits of jaguar woven into the soundscape, but I did sometimes wish that play seemed a little more concrete.)
There’s the interactions among the cast and crew outside of the boundaries of the script-within-the-play, including, in addition to the actors, the director, the stage manager, the assistant stage manager, designers, and assistant director, which we can always hear and sometimes see (sometimes on the stage, sometimes in the aisles and other semi-visible spaces in the house): idle conversations about shows from their past during pauses; debates over whether costumes provide sufficient cleavage; the one actor who keeps stopping to interrogate the director about perceived flaws in the script (Thomas Jay Ryan, playing a downtown actor legendary for both his talent and his personality, strikes somewhere between unutterably pompous and utterly poignant).
Then there are two layers that are invisible but audible. First, we have the interplay at the tech table: stage manager plus costume, lighting, and sound designers, with the designers answering questions, negotiating points with the director, giving instructions to the stage manager—which is heard but unseen, voices coming from places behind the audience. (The stage manager is present and sometimes appears onstage; the designers are audio-only.) And finally, there’s the headset chatter, which the audience can hear even though the actors and director cannot, providing another level of running commentary that is sometimes apropos and sometimes purely an absurdist counterpoint.
This sounds like it should be confusing, or difficult to follow—and occasionally it is, but for the most part, all of the vignettes and code-switches are so clearly framed by Washburn and crisply directed by Les Waters that the murkiest part is what exactly is going on in the play-within-the-play. (Carla, the absent playwright, has been felled by the flu, for which many are a little bit grateful, some more secretly than others.)
As someone who’s put in the hours of far too many tech days, I thought Washburn got the texture of it absolutely right: the way actors snap in and out from half-attentive going-through-the-motions-while-fiddling-with-their-costumes to keen focus on random elements to emotional meltdown; the little flirtations and strange intimacies that creep over the company from sheer extended proximity; the pigheaded insistence on soldiering on no matter how much blood is gushing; the inane, sleep-deprived banter that springs up over the headset. There’s one moment that captures all the triumph of tech: perhaps ⅔ of the way through the play, where the stage manager gets her first chance to actually run an extended sequence of cues in real time, the elaborate light, sound, set, stagehand cues working together in a musical rhythm. Over the headset, she then casually reminds the rest of the crew that she studied rocket science in college. It’s a private moment of triumph that we the audience are allowed to eavesdrop on, and it’s beautiful.
The cast is packed full of wonderful actors: In addition to Ryan, the cast of the play-within-the-play includes Gibson Frazier as Ben, who feels like he might have turned down his only chance to make it big out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to a theater world that’s crumbling around him; David Ross as the younger actor who made the opposite choice and returns to the stage as the box-office draw; Sue Jean Kim as the ditzy-seeming ingenue who can still be pushed way too far; and Nina Hellman, the down-to-earth, grounded actress who finds time to do yoga on her breaks. Bruce McKenzie, as the director, is visibly mustering his reserves of patience and control when dealing with his actors, but lets just that little bit of insecurity creep through when talking to his designers (Rebecca Hart as costumes, Wendy Rich Stetston as lighting, and Bray Poor—also the production’s actual sound designer—as sound.)
At a few moments, particularly at the end, Washburn and Waters seem to be aiming for a level more transcendent and ethereal than the rest of the piece. I understand the impulse: There is, at its best, a magic to theater, a magic that’s felt by the company making the piece as they make it, and that will carry through to the audience. I’m not sure I felt that magic in those moments nearly as much as I did watching the sheer craft and craftiness of the rest of the play. It’s a wonderful evocation of the joy of craft, and a loving remembrance of some of the high- and lowlights of past days of downtown theater in New York. That’s mystique enough for me.