On the side of the gods

Five things I learned about the stage from Antigone

Speaking truth to power has consequences.

Speaking truth to power has consequences.

Antigone plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at KOLT Run Creations at the California Stage, 2509 R Street; (916) 454-1500; http://koltruncreations.com; $15. Through May 28.

Egypt. Libya. Yemen. Bahrain. Syria. Guantánamo.

Let the Chorus explain: “When you are on the side of the gods against the tyrant, of Man against the State, of purity against corruption—when, in short, your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she will have to play hers through to the end.”

Sooner or later, someone will always stand up to brute and brutal power, and it’s usually the least likely person. Shopkeeper. Student. Taxi driver. Young woman. Antigone.

Two months ago, while Egypt deposed a dictator, this critic set out to do something new: follow a production from audition to opening night, and see what I could learn. KOLT Run Creations was planning to stage Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone, and the principals agreed to let me watch; I’ve been studying and writing about theater for 30 years, but alas, I’ve never been in a play. And I did learn a lot, but let’s stick to five big ones.

Auditions matter. The company had already cast both Antigone (Kelley Ogden, one of the company’s co-founders) and Creon (Patrick Murphy, a KOLT Run artistic associate); the pillars were set. But there are nine other roles in Antigone, and during a long, cold afternoon of auditions, close to two dozen actors give it a go.

Director and KOLT Run co-founder Lisa Thew knows what she wants: a Chorus with “mature wisdom.”

“The Chorus shouldn’t be extreme at all. Not flippant or harsh,” she said. In addition, Thew wanted to cast a Haemon who was “down-to-earth” as a contrast to Antigone’s preoccupation with big ideas, and she wanted an Ismene who was “beautiful, an ingénue, but not whiny or one-dimensional.”

It’s quickly apparent—within a matter of seconds, really—whether the auditioning actor is a contender for the role. Auditions matter, because they reveal quickly what you don’t want to see in a character. But there were a couple of moments when an actor earned a part, and it was a tiny bit of stage magic.

Viola Spolin and Robert Edmond Jones. The former is often referred to as the “mother of American improv” and the latter was a famous set designer, but that’s just the tips of their twin icebergs.

Spolin’s “Theater Games” are actual games that actors play to develop skills, and Thew uses them liberally. Among Spolin’s suggestions that Thew made use of were an early walk-through in which the actors were encouraged to “integrate the text with the physical.”

“I won’t stop you or say no to what you’re doing,” she told them at an early rehearsal. “I want this to be organic. I’ll observe and will use this to inform the blocking. Don’t say no to yourself. Have fun, play and be free.”

That’s a level of trust and respect that I’d bet makes actors grateful. Thew took copious notes on this walk-through, but speaking as a critic, it was surprisingly good, if raw.

Jones wrote several books about the theater, the most famous of which is The Dramatic Imagination, and KOLT Run uses it like a text. He was a proponent of using the set, the props and the lighting all as art to make it easier for the actors to do their jobs—and for the audience to be drawn into something that is not part of the mundane. The setting isn’t just a background; it’s a real place in which anything can happen.

There’s more than one way to make art on stage. With Jones serving as a sort of Virgil for their journey through the political underworld of Thebes, the KOLT Run team met early with the artists who would transform the stage into a world. Nastassya Ferns, the production designer, had envisioned a city in ruins.

“Junk meets war,” she said, as she passed around color swatches and sketches. “It’s a destroyed environment, with ripped-down, torn propaganda posters. The war ended yesterday.”

She described it as “Metropolis meets Wall Street, with some video-game elements.”

KOLT Run would also be using a guest artist, the metal sculptor Kristen Hoard, to do some commissioned pieces for the set. Rather than imitate traditional Greek columns, they’d be going for something more stark and timeless, reflective of the death of institutions.

In short, just the kind of art that Jones would want to see gracing a stage.

Take the time and do it right. The fifth thing I learned about theater is that it might be done quickly, but it’s better to take the time to do it right. KOLT Run uses a six-week production schedule—five weeks of rehearsal and a tech week—but the actual work on the production started months before.

Then there’s the time sink. At one point, I asked a number of local theatrical people how they do it: five three- or four-hour rehearsals a week, plus a job? Not only did I get exhausted—and I wasn’t doing the work—I also got sick.

The answer is, quite simply, artists do what the art demands. They sacrifice—hobbies, rest, regular meals—for what they love and believe in.

It keeps them on the side of the gods, however dangerous that might be.