Making Best Friends of Strangers

Kristen Coury is the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Gulfshore Playhouse and the director of “The Lion in Winter.”

Making Best Friends of Strangers

Kristen Coury and the cast of “The Lion in Winter”

A little backstory, for those of you who were unaware. When it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic had come to Naples and that we had no choice but to shut down our operations, we were smack dab in the middle of rehearsal of The Lion in Winter. When we were hit by Hurricane Irma, we had to cancel our production of Paradise, which I was also set to direct, but in that case, we canceled it before rehearsals had even started. Never in my career have I had to cancel a production only halfway to opening night. What a heartache, especially given that we had a beautiful cast of actors in what was shaping up to be an incredible production that we hope we will be able to restage in the not-so-distant future.

We decided that for our next installment of Artful Distancing, it would be a great idea to feature some of our brilliant cast, namely Amy van Nostrand as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Jeffrey Binder as King Henry II, William Connell as Richard the Lionheart, and Max Singer as King Philip II of France. I thought it would be a good idea to give you the “inside scoop” into what goes on inside the rehearsal room, especially when one is working on a play about a time period over 800 years ago.

The very first thing we do is something called “The First Read.” This is a day when all the actors, the stage manager, and the director gather in the room together (in our case with the whole staff of Gulfshore Playhouse in attendance as well) and read the script out loud together. This is the first case of “making best friends of strangers.” I am always fascinated and delighted to watch as these actors who’ve never met each other quickly become confidants, supporters, sounding boards, and collaborators. They hop right in with wild abandon, into the script, into their roles, and into their relationships with each other. You don’t see this in every type of business. I’m sure part of it is that, besides the fact that they’re putting on the costumes of people who have familial or romantic relationships with one another, they’re all working out of town together. Our professional actors mostly come from New York, which means they’re living with people who were previously strangers, working with people who are new to them, and socializing with each other to boot.

After the first read, we jump right into what we call “Table Work.” Table work is several days of reading the script out loud, asking a TON of questions, and finding the answers. The answers aren’t always evident, especially when you’re talking about real people and not fictional characters. We all do a good deal of research beforehand, reading everything from articles to biographies. Our resident dramaturg, Audrey Zielenbach, does an incredible amount of research which helps us talk through the history, the intricacies, the relationships, and the true facts. We compare them to the details of the story in the play as written (because they aren’t always the same – creative license is often taken). And here, once again, the actors are asked to make best friends out of strangers, putting flesh on the bones, and truly becoming the real person that before only existed on the page. It is really important the actor likes his or her character. Even if the character dabbles in “dastardly deeds” or lies, cheats, steals, or murders, it is absolutely incumbent upon the actor to become a stalwart supporter of their character. Indeed, they must love the character they’re playing like they are their character’s mother, their father, their lover, and their best friend. We typically engage in table work for about four or five days. We try the scenes in different ways, make a variety of choices, fill in the blanks, and make firm decisions in the face of contrasting information. Keep in mind, in the case of The Lion in Winter, a play about the most powerful people in the world in 1183, there is a LOT of written history about these characters. Sometimes, it is up to us to decide whether to adopt or discard the “real” info in favor of making something that is written in the play stronger. And that’s okay. It’s our choice in the end. Our job is to make sure the play is as strong as it can be.

When table work is done, we commence “Blocking.” Blocking denotes decisions made about the placement of the actors in each scene. Some directors decide every movement, every picture and every relationship in advance. I actually prefer to block “organically”…moving through the scenes quickly at first, moving through the whole show in a few days, and generally letting actors follow their instincts, and decide for themselves whether to sit or stand, move to the window or the chaise, or put their arms around each other. Sometimes the choices are made for us by the script. Directions like “she exits” or “she goes to the kitchen to get the bread” are pretty non-negotiable (although I have, from time to time, found ways to ignore them too!).

Once initial blocking is in place, and we have an idea of the arc of the whole show on its feet, the fun begins. We start from the top of the play going piece by piece, line by line, and honing, crafting, revising, deepening, asking even more questions and finding more answers. Under normal circumstances, we will work our way to the end of the play, do a run-through, and start from the top again. Unfortunately, we only got ONE day of honing in before we had to send our actors back home to safety, amidst an impending quarantine.

So what you will see on Wednesday’s Artful Distancing is some discussion about the play itself, the period in which it is set, and the actual historical characters. All of this talk with our incredible actors and their characters will result in hearing some of the scenes read aloud. So this is a very special opportunity since the rehearsal period was never finished. When one day it graces our stage, you’ll be able to say you saw it in process and note the ways in which it will have evolved.

If you’d like to register for Artful Distancing – The Lion in Winter Unplugged, click here. Be sure to RSVP by 1:30 on Wednesday. Even if you can’t attend the actual session, if you RSVP, we’ll send you a link to watch it after the fact. I hope you enjoy!