Director Liesl Tommy rehearses the Curran cast of Danai Gurira's riveting play about resilience and hope.
On February 10th the Curran cast of ECLIPSED gathered for the first time at the Baryshnikov Studios on West 37th Street in New York City for its first table-read. The cast and crew and a few visiting members of the Curran’s San Francisco staff formed a circle on the fourth floor rehearsal space to introduce themselves before Wally Hays, the Curran’s Deputy Director, welcomed us all and the play’s director, Liesl Tommy, told us how moved she was to be embarking on this latest iteration of Danai Gurira’s deeply affecting play about five extraordinary women who are brought together because of the war in their homeland of Liberia. The cast - Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Akosua Busia, Ayesha Jordan, Adeola Role, and Stacey Sargeant - took their places around the table and thrilled us with their quiet intensity as they mined the play’s hope and humor and resilience.
By the end of the week, they were up on their feet running the play as Tommy led them to dig deeper and deeper into their characters and they began to find the seam in that dramatic ore that they continued to mine. Tommy sat at a table with a music stand before her on which she placed the text of the play. She closely followed the action coming alive before her, observed her own blocking of the play, and simultaneously took lots of notes as if she were both the professor and her own student.
ECLIPSED began its New York life at the Public Theater before moving to Broadway and the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis was there that morning to observe. It was interesting to observe him observing the actresses work as his empathy brilliantly played out on his broad and expressive face. Every great artistic director is also a good audience member and Eustis was grimacing and grinning and quietly groaning along with all the dramatic beats in each scene that was being played in the rehearsal hall that day. “I find it quite moving to witness the rebirth of these characters and this play,” he whispered to me. “Rehearsal halls are magical spaces in that sense.”
“I find it quite moving to witness the rebirth of these characters and this play. Rehearsal halls are magical spaces in that sense.” -Oskar Eustis
During a break in the rehearsal I asked Tommy about that magic. I wondered if rehearsal spaces were sacred or just the opposite of sacred. “Is a rehearsal experience a spiritual one or is it instead deeply carnal?” I asked her.
She knowingly smiled. “It’s both. The best way I can describe is that I do a lot of back-to-back shows. I open a show and then I start a rehearsal on another one. I could be on the verge of a nervous breakdown from exhaustion - as often happens - and then I walk into a rehearsal hall. I begin to look at the research on the walls. And I begin to look at the actors. It’s almost like a high from a drug - just the idea of it all as I see how much work has to be done. It’s all so thrilling and the exhaustion disappears. I feed off of it. The work is rejuvenating.”
Tommy is certainly able to compartmentalize. Does she consider such compartmentalization itself an artistic endeavor on her part? “Yes,” she said that Friday morning, her exhausted little giggle attempting to be a rejuvenated laugh as it lingered a bit while she contemplated the concept. “Before I came here this morning I was working on MACBETH because that is the show I am going to do after I put ECLIPSED in,” she said, referencing the show she is about to start rehearsing for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.. “This afternoon I go into the final rehearsal for KID VICTORY the musical by John Kander down at The Vineyard Theatre. There’s this thing that happens where you have to train your brain not to have a stray thought about other shows because the creative process is so much about allowing images and ideas to flow. It’s very counterintuitive to compartmentalize. But it is just what my life is right now.”
"It’s almost like a high from a drug - just the idea of it all as I see how much work has to be done. It’s all so thrilling and the exhaustion disappears. I feed off of it. The work is rejuvenating.” -Liesl Tommy
“I know you’ve trained yourself to compartmentalize in your creative process but is there ever a confluence that breaks through the compartmentalization so that some epiphany in Kid Victory could feed or inform something in ECLIPSED?” I asked.
“What’s interesting,” she admitted, “is that KID VICTORY is a musical about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the trauma that has caused it. That overlaps with this,” she said, pointing at the ECLIPSED rehearsal hall and the collection of props and marked-out spaces on the floor. “And my concept for MACBETH takes place in postcolonial Africa and that overlaps with this too. So one really does inform the other.”
As far as recreating ECLIPSED, does she feel protective about what she had created before or is she thrilled by this new cast and each actor’s new discovery in each part and the new colors they all bring to their parts? “It’s very exciting,” she said. “Although structurally we are bringing the Broadway production to the Curran - all of the staging is the same and all of the transitions are the same - but it is only natural for these actresses to bring their own new and special and fresh impulses to it.”
The Curran is proud to bring ECLIPSED to the Bay Area for a strictly limited engagement March 7-19.