Our process is off to a thrilling start.

Jason’s Swampoodle Day 1
10th January 2011
The Swampoodle actors prove their mettle on the imagination gridiron
12th January 2011

Jason McCool on first day of development – taken from his travel blog:

I knew I’d be overestimating the likelihood of my waking up early enough to run after jetlag and a 5-hour nap, so I forsook my planned run with MJ this morning and slept until an hour prior to our call time of 10am, which I’m still ever-so-slightly “feeling” as 5am. (Come March, this marathon idea may or may not happen.) After a Tesco-sponsored breakfast, MJ and I venture out to the rehearsal space, and quickly realize that a) this is longer than the 15 minutes we were expecting the walk to take and b) it is really muddy out here.

We get to the enormous Castletown House and a security guard takes us on our way. The group has just started physical warmups led by Jo and it’s really ice to have our first significant work be focused on physical awareness. After 30 minutes of stretching and kneading, we individually answer questions Jo has dreamed up for us: what do we love in theater, what do we hate, what frustrates us, what have we always wanted to do but haven’t ever been asked to do, etc., then we read our responses in a sort of free rambling monologue. Apart from the two new faces, the Irish actors Carl and Claire, most of the American actors know each other already, at least tangentially. Still, the responses help to set our knowledge of each other’s energy; it’s all positive and open, and one person makes a comment along the lines of “this energy that is in this room right now, is the energy that I want to carry with me in performance.”

Continuing on with work like this, we take lunch – without sandwich bags, my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches congeal in a giant lump in my 20 cent plastic Tesco bag – and the latter half of the day begins with dramaturgical exercises: dozens of newspaper articles, research pieces, and photographs on the Swampoodle area, stretching from its beginnings in the Irish famine of the 1850s are set before us, and we are instructed to select pieces which resonate, stick them up on the walls with gum tack, and explain what we liked about them. Everyone finds individually relevant and compelling stories, many of which are funny; the arcane newspaper writing style uses gratuitous quotation marks (the culprits give the cops “da bluff!”) and the characters are colorful. There are lists and lists of names representing lives and stories, the specific details of which we can only imagine. Many of the newspaper stories highlight the lawlessness, violence and widespread chaos of the neighborhood and time period, but I choose a simple daily journal by a mother, ca. 1911, recounting relatively ordinary events like the a first Communion and the opening of a store. There’s a photograph of this family, decked out in Sunday finery, and as I point to the characters I tell of a strongly felt kinship with my own ancestors of this period, who I know only from blank census records and indistinct expressions in dim, distant photographs.

We continue on with improvisations, tasked with creating a collective piece made under specific character instructions, and although I find it difficult at times, a few compelling moments spring forth. This is a uniformly solid and talented group of artists, and it’s so refreshing to be back at square one in a rehearsal room, where anything seems possible for the future of this piece. It’s clear that though thorough research has been undertaken, the production team is just as open to finding out what the specific nature our Swampoodle will take. Next, we’re placed into smaller groups and work out mostly abstract renderings of some of the stories from the clippings, and its fun to see the radically different ways groups interpret them, especially given specific “styles” – ours was “ice hockey” – a reference to the Uline Auditorium (aka Washington Coliseum, where we will perform the piece in May. (See the shots I took outside it last Saturday night on in my Swampoodle pool on Flickr.) We conclude with easy readings of other stories from the texts, and we’re all playing with acting while music, microphone sound effects, and a standing lamp, are toyed with – all is a bit trippy and loads of fun at the end of the first rehearsal day.

After posting my Day 1 entry, I initially have some difficulty finding my way out of the giant estate, but am eventually helped by a friendly security guard. I walk in the direction of the small lodges where the cast has gathered for food and revelry, and on the long walk I take a number of photos of the vast grounds falling under a light, refreshing evening mist. Though it’s dark, my camera is able to pick up quite a lot of the light and the sky looks just as orange in the shots as it did in real life. Everything here – indoors, outdoors – smells earthy, especially at night, and it’s usually having to do with burning peat or burning wood.

At the small lodge, the cast bonds further over food and wine and a calming fire, and we seem to all be aware that experiences in the theater aren’t always this interesting or special. I insist on dissolving Rachel’s modesty by playing her Deep River album off my iPhone, and we all talk on sofas and comfy chairs. It’s the end of a satisfying and productive first day, and our process is off to a thrilling start.

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