by Ned Devere (@edevere17)
[Read part 1 here.]
4. The sheet’s the thing
I needed a framework, an organised structure for breaking down Evan Dara’s play Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins into its fixed and variable components. The solution was a large table, a gridded spreadsheet with time on the vertical axis. The play’s dialogue running line by line down the long page. Columns for each actor and the as-yet-unknown number of parts.
It works like this. Time on the piano roll runs up from the bottom but the idea is the same.
Instead of 88 keys, eight actors. Why eight? Because you have to start somewhere, and Dara wanted the smallest workable cast. Seven felt too small, and busier actors would have less transition time between characters. Transitions mattered. Most of them take place on the stage, visible to the audience. A conventional play has a 1:1 ratio of parts to actors. Mose’s ratio would be more like 9:1. This was choreography as well as casting.
The gender split was another initial condition. Mose had two girlfriends (not simultaneously), while most of the other characters were men or nonspecific. I’d need all the men I could get, but I wanted to include a woman who wasn’t a girlfriend. A cast of nine would have made the job easier and given the Swirl more heft, but the task was to see whether eight was enough. I set up the spreadsheet for five men and three women.
5. Nuts and bolts
A small slice of the filled-in sheet, early in Act One:
To the right of the text is the Piano Roll, each of the eight actors in a colour-coded column. The Roll indicates who is active in the scene at any moment. The coloured squares at the left identify which actor has been assigned the character speaking that line. To the right of the Roll are columns for all the characters, also indicating the assignments. Spoiler: the final tally was 68.
Some characters have to be men or women, others can be either. For instance, most of the police are women because the men are busy causing all the trouble. Recurring characters have to retain the same actor. Allow time for transitions and movement. Distribute the lines as evenly as possible. With all these balls in the air, start at the first unassigned line. Decide which available actor should speak it. Colour it in, and any others tied to it. Move to the next. Repeat. It wasn’t always that linear, but that was the process.
One tricky spot was the Bob Problem. It was important that none of my decisions changed the play in any material way, but in this borderline case, serendipity made a virtue of necessity.
Bob1 and Bob2 work cleanup in a restaurant kitchen. Bob Weaver is the cook. The restaurant’s owner is present, as is Mose. That’s all five male actors. Then Bob2 is sacked, to be replaced by Bob3. What to do? The actor given the boot as Bob2 has to return as Bob3, there isn’t anyone else. Specify a prop disguise? Not my call. But did I really have a problem? As I interpret the Bobs, they signify an imposed perception of the working underclass who serve the fortunate from behind doors, out of sight. They are indistinct and replaceable, with little external identity. If you’re not attentive they might even look alike. It will rest with Actor 7 to differentiate Bob3 from Bob2, but any confusion enhances the message. Bullet dodged.
6. Production Guide, if not yet production
MOSEGUIDE.XLSX, row 2141: BLACKOUT
Mose was now a stageable play with a cast of eight. I transferred the spreadsheet’s new information back into the original script. Sent a proof to ED. A bit of back-and-forthing over details, then at last: the Production Guide for Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins by Evan Dara. In progress no more.
What will happen to Mose & Co in a Covid-filled future? What’s past is prologue. My 16th-century pseudonym lived through times of plague when the theatres were closed. His work survived. Mose Eakins belongs on a stage in front of an audience. He’ll get there. Hold onto your hat.
Production Guide inquiries: aurora148.com