BWW BLOG #2: IN THE TALL GRASS Author Paul Kalburgi Crosses the Pond for Dallas Documentary
British Playwright Paul Kalburgi blogs for BWW about making his Texas debut with In The Tall Grass at Bishop Arts Theatre Center.
OUT OF TRAGEDY COMES SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL
Stage manager Liz brews a fresh pot of coffee and sets out a box of delicious blueberry muffins, alongside the tin of cookies I brought from Spain in anticipation of our first rehearsal. I have prepared a photo pack of images relating to the play to share with the cast, which I shuffle into chronological order, before selecting a few ice-breaker games and warm-up exercises to lead the cast in. I think we're good to go.
With all seven actors present and introductions out of the way, Liz provides a tour of the Bishop Arts Theatre Center. After identifying the green room and dressing rooms, we finally step foot on the stage of the beautifully intimate proscenium arch theatre that will be our home for the rest of the month. We spread out across the stage floor, as I ask the actors to imagine it as a world map and to stand on a country anywhere in the world that holds a special memory or feeling. I share a story of my wedding on the Greek Island of Santorini, and threw a ball of wool (or "yarn" as my American company were quick to inform me!), across the Atlantic Ocean to Kyndra Mack, the actor who will be playing the roles of Ursula, Sahara and Toni-Michelle in, In the Tall Grass. Seven stories later and this worldwide web of yarn has instantly connected us. The company is extremely giving and share personal stories of love, loss, and dreams. Over the next few weeks, we will need to work closely to tell this deeply personal story on stage and there is already a beautiful energy being felt within the space.
We return to the rehearsal room and prepare for our first table read of the script. It's been over a year since the R&D workshop period of the play and so much has been re-written and added to this draft, so I was somewhat apprehensive to hear the words off the page again. However, I was quickly reassured. Casting this play remotely from Madrid certainly had its challenges, and there was the unexpected pressure of having to re-cast a role just two weeks prior to the start of rehearsals, nevertheless... I am in no doubt I have been blessed with a truly exceptional cast who all have an instant connection to the text and the multiple roles they have been cast to play.
Three days in, and we have blocked the majority of the first act. Despite Rodney Dobbs having almost finished construction of his stunning set on the stage below, I am very keen for us to remain in the rehearsal room for the first week, allowing the cast to focus solely on the world of the play without the distraction of the vacant auditorium and thought of playing to an audience. Teresa Colman Wash, Artistic Director at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center joins us one evening as we stumble through a run of act one. Even though we have simply been working to lock-down the blocking and stage directions so far, the cast is already deep into their roles and working incredibly hard. It's a difficult play to 'just read' and even at this stage emotions are running high. At one point, both Teresa and myself were brought to the brink of tears as the cast rehearsed the scene in which a communion is held for our absent protagonist, Shade Schuler. Teresa took to Twitter that evening, calling the play "a masterpiece!" - I felt very proud. Something very special took place that evening and I can't wait to share that feeling with our audiences.
As a playwright, I love immersive writing, and where possible I always feel compelled to write 'in situ'. Previously this has meant sitting in the café of a North London park during a brutal British winter, writing the script for my verbatim play The Countess, a welfare scandal dubbed 'stranger than fiction'. I have taken myself off to Las Vegas for a week and written the book and lyrics for a musical while sitting in casinos and strip clubs. For In The Tall Grass, my process has included returning to key locations throughout both Dallas and Atlanta, and this is a vital part of my process that I wanted to include the cast in, to further inform their work. So, for the following evening's rehearsal, our location was a little different.
We arrived at the vacant field in the Dallas Medical District where Schuler's body was discovered, in the Summer of 2015. There is something deeply spiritual about this location for me, and I hoped that taking the cast there at dusk, as the scene is set, would further connect them to the text. Coated with bug spray, we rehearsed the scene with in this eerily calm location with the warm rays of the setting sun on our skin. Next, we moved on to Reverchon Park in Oak Lawn, where we blocked scenes for act two's community vigil. We were working on the exact spot where trans allies and advocates, including myself and cast member Shannon Walker, gathered almost two years ago to remember the life of Shade Schuler; and all of the other transwomen of color and gender non-conforming people murdered in 2015. I hope you will join us to say their names at a performance of In The Tall Grass.
The cast is almost all off-book for act one now and making great progress with act two. We will move on to the stage this week and begin to drill down into the text, as well as introducing costume, props, and video projection elements. Catch my final post next week, when I'll talk our final week of rehearsals, as we prepare for opening night.