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Scenes have started to emerge. Yaël continued to start each day with physical exercises, now running them together in a long unbroken chain. So many specific images have emerged, and they flowed together at such length (about 45 minutes), that it was more accurate to say that the physical exercises are the show. Unlike other directors I’ve worked with, Yaël needs to see each moment working emotionally and visually, at every step in the process. The process resembles molding clay, laboriously. Sometimes the pot would spin out of control and have to be junked, at other times the results could be sublime. In one work-through session early in the week, I jotted down each image, numbering them as they streamed by me. I counted up to 14 sequences, by turns intricate, violent, ritualistic.
I tried to keep my eye on storytelling. When are we starting to tell a story
with a beginning, middle, and end? When are we being told the same information too many times, whether in repetitive lines of dialogue, or hearing something and then seeing a visual analog? During this process, I was reminded of a core principle: theatre is both a visual and aural medium, but when it’s both at the same time, it can become merely an illustrative rather than an imaginative process. Instead of the audience member being prompted to fill in the gaps with their mind, they can easily get ahead of the story, and the magic dissipates. Yaël seemed to be searching for that unique blend of words and images that served to intensify both. It’s a very mysterious, almost alchemical process, the same that Sophocles and Shakespeare had to master. Rehearsing a show is always incredibly humbling. You always have to return to the elementals of the storytelling.
Yaël was most concerned with the question of how to frame the central episode. The Salomé story is a very simple one, really more of a fairy tale: at Herod’s birthday feast, she danced, and he was so moved that he promised her anything in the world. Salomé asked for the head of John the Baptist, and Herod, who had given his word, was obligated to fulfill her request. That’s it, a slim story, with no plot reversals. She dances. Herod promises. She asks. He does. But what has so fascinated people about the Salomé story is all of the questions it raises: Why did she ask for the head of John the Baptist? What did her dance look like? Who was this mysterious woman? That is the story we are trying to tell.
Yaël has hatched a framing narrative for the story, one that picks up after the traumatic events the night of Herod’s feast. Pilate, who is a character in our play, is interrogating Salomé, and he wants to know answers to the same questions that we do. All of the physical exercises so far in the process had been devoted to creating the atmosphere of ancient Judaea. It is a place of untold secrets, of devout ritual, of Roman occupiers, a world where a holy man like John the Baptist can suddenly appear in the desert and unleash a mass movement. It is a world where Salomé, even though she’s a princess, the stepdaughter of Herod, would have been punished severely for her crime.
In addition to the movement exercises, Yaël also introduced scenes between Pilate and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish priests of the Temple, an aristocratic caste who existed historically, and often get blamed for collaborating with the Romans. Yaël is trying to paint a more nuanced picture of ancient Middle Eastern politics, but in week 2 we were not sure where or how these scenes fit into the world we were creating.
Late Sunday afternoon, something extraordinary happened. Yaël stayed late in the room the night before, trying to create a physical vocabulary to allow all these stories to exist in the same world. The cast walked into a changed space, one with all the familiar materials (bowls, ladders, tables, chariots) they’d grown used to, but in a new configuration. Slowly, Yaël started them talking, almost doing a “linethrough” (a runthrough without blocking, of just the text). The entire cast stood in a circle, listening to each other. Then, they started to move, falling into the blocking. Yaël would snap her fingers, cuing different scenes, in a brand new order. The Pilate scenes with the Sanhedrin suddenly, miraculously, seem to fit. Moreover, the actors have started to listen to each other, to witness the material collectively. We didn’t yet have the dance, and we didn’t have the ending nailed down. But we were telling the story.
Photo by Ruthie Rado.