“To LONDON!” In a cavernous, almost empty, and very echo-y warehouse space in the South Boston Waterfront District on September 14th, 24 voices thundered that phrase in unison for the first time. It was about hour 4 of our first rehearsal, and Spiro had just finished his first “pencil sketch” of the opening scene. It was the perfect way to begin our work on this text.
The first rehearsal always has its own energy – equal parts nerves and excitement. As the cast was looking at the lovely costume renderings by Rafael and listening to assistant costume designer Kathleen Doyle discuss their plans, Spiro turned to me and said, “I’m directing Nicholas Nickleby!” with both joy and awe heavy in his voice.
And as we’ve settled into the space and the world we’re creating, that joy and awe still peek their heads out. Sometimes it comes from the text, like when the entire echo-filled room of 30+ people went silent to hear a small exchange between Smike and Nicholas, and sometimes it arrives when the entire company is screaming with laughter (thank you, Larry Coen as Young Wackford!)
Of course, there have been challenges. Some actors are still finding out that they are playing a new role in rehearsal. Sadly, Peter Carey has been unable to sway Spiro’s mind, and the role of the Stableboy has not been brought back in. (Keep trying, Peter!) This is my favorite part of the rehearsal process. After all the preparations, all the pieces being rearranged and sorted through for the hundreth time, now the play is suddenly bursting and breathing with life. Moments are beginning to be delved into, characters are beginning to form, and suddenly Nicholas Nickleby is here and now.
An excerpt from the Stage Manager’s report after the first rehearsal of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby:
We’re on our way! The meet ‘n’ greet at the top of rehearsal introduced our stellar cast to our brilliant staff and the myriad policies and procedures in place at the theatre. Moving right along into our designer presentations, Janie Howland was first up and she whetted all appetites for the real deal with her model and pictures of the set. Next up was costumes and Rafael’s radiant associate Kathleen Doyle was on hand in his stead to go over the warp and the weft of the costume design scheme for the show. And if all of this was not fun enough, dialect coach Amelia Broome joined us for a few delightful moments to say “hello” and introduce herself to the cast.
To round out the talking portion of the day, Spiro spoke for a bit about the play now we’re all here together on a road that leads all of the way back to 1980, when it was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then he got right down to assigning narration lines at the top of the show as he began staging. We got to page 11 by the end of the day.
Here we are – three weeks from the first rehearsal. And while this is the part of the process that many people generally think of as the beginning, it is not. For example, most people probably don’t realize how far in advance the design team begins working on a show. Our team has been furiously working for months now to create the Victorian world of …Nicholas Nickleby.
The “Crummles Company” section of the play-where Nicholas and Smike join a troupe of actors and find success and much happiness-is truly a love letter from Dickens to the theatre. And in many ways, this section of the play has helped to focus the vision of our production: a company of actors here at The Lyric Stage Company presenting the play of Nicholas Nickleby to you-and perhaps even with you.
Beginning there, our designers tackled the challenge of how to bring 1830s London to The Lyric. Janie Howland, whose work has been seen in such favorites as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Urinetown, has almost finished the scenic design already. Janie has been working with using different textures (wood, brick, cobblestones) and creating various levels and spaces that can take our audience to London of the mid-1800s and beyond. From the cold and northern county of Yorkshire to the slums of London’s East End, from the tired and work stage in Portsmouth to the very fashionable Opera, we needed a world that would allow us to quickly transform our locations while still giving us the feel of each individual world. At the same time, we hope to bring the audience into each location immediately and completely. This design does not end where the line of the stage does . . .
Our fabulous costume designer Rafael Jaen has been researching and sketching costume pieces all summer. When going over some preliminary ideas in a meeting with Spiro and me, Rafael told us he was “illustrating” this play more so than designing it. This idea of illustrating this play-filling in key moments completely while leaving certain details and other moments to your imagination-resonated very strongly with me. Now of course, this does not mean that you will see people half-dressed on-stage. However, when one is playing a starving young resident at Dotheboys Hall, perhaps just a few key pieces, such as a hat and gloves or a scarf, will allow the actor to transform into this young boy. Rafael also spoke of focusing on the silhouettes from the period, once again giving a strong, clear outline while allowing each audience member the freedom to fill in some of the smaller details with their own interpretations and imaginations.