Dead Man's Shoes
Joe Z Goes West
Published in March, 2012
"Are you calling me fat?" the rotund prisoner asks the inmate in the next cell. It's dirty and dark in the North Dakota jail, and soon Jean-Phillipe DeLaRoux Baptiste, better known as Froggy, will have problems that are bigger than his waistline, bigger than being jailed. Lynch mobs run rampant in the Wild West. The plague is taking lives. A mass murderer is on the loose. And that fellow he's talking to, he's no petty crook like Froggy. Injun Bill has killed men, and he aims to do it again. Now Bill wants a closer look at Froggy's shoes, and he's got his hands through the bars, yanking them off.
David Wolber intervenes before anyone gets hurt. The forty-year-old artistic director of the Performance Network Theatre (PNT) is directing a rehearsal of Dead Man's Shoes, the new Joseph Zettelmaier play set in the Wild West, circa 1883; it opens at PNT this month (see Events, March 8) after a run at the Williamston Theatre near Lansing, which is co-producing it with PNT. Now Wolber wants to see if the scene will be more effective performed closer to most of the audience, so the two actors work through it again downstage.
The actors are Aral Gribble--whom Zettelmaier calls "one of the funniest human beings" he knows--and Drew Parker, who imagines Injun Bill, and maybe himself, as a young Johnny Cash. They've had good times working together on other shows, and their camaraderie makes it easier for them to work off each other now. Before this first rehearsal in December, Gribble has memorized his lines, even though he knows those lines will change. By the end of that rehearsal, Parker, who spends his free time watching movies, listening to music, and reading stories that pull him into the play's Western milieu, is off book, too.
Zettelmaier, thirty-seven, wrote the play with them in mind. At auditions in Williamston and Ann Arbor, the pair read with the more than 200 actors who
competed for the two remaining slots. That let Wolber evaluate potential combinations, as well as how the two supporting actors handled the four roles each must play. There are many fine actors in Michigan's talent pool, and Wolber's decision was difficult. Finally, he cast Paul Hopper, who transformed effectively among a sheriff, a bartender and two other characters, and Maggie Meyer, who brought the right mix of defiance and fear to her central role as Martha, a struggling innkeeper.
On a winter evening early in 2011, at the opening night reception for another play at PNT, a group of people congregates around Joe Z, as the playwright is known. He tells the riveted group about an insane piece of American history he unearthed. Back in the day, the governor of Wyoming had the skin of a dead criminal made into shoes. "There's a play in this somewhere," promises Zettelmaier.
In the spring of 2011, actors read Dead Man's Shoes for the first time. The dark comedy about an outlaw out to avenge the defilement of his friend--his only friend, who is now a pair of shoes--unfolds before an audience of PNT's associate artists, board members, and invited guests.
Engrossed, the spectators wonder just how much Bill will risk for revenge and whom he'll hurt along the way. After the reading, audience members are invited to comment at a "talk-back." Someone says that with twelve scenes in the first act alone--including a jail, a cave, a church, and a brothel--Zettelmaier has written a movie script that can't be staged. But Milarch and Tony Caselli, artistic director of the Williamston Theatre and director of Zettelmaier's hit It Came from Mars, argue passionately on behalf of the play. David Wolber, artistic director of PNT, moderates. After the audience leaves, he says he wants to direct it. Caselli will serve as artistic director; later, PNT executive director Carla Milarch signs on as dramaturg.
At meetings in Williamston, Ann Arbor, and the scene shop at MSU, the production team figures out how to deal with the many locations. Taking their cue from the conventions of the period, actors will move a hand-painted scroll each time a scene changes, and a drawing will tell spectators where they are.
Everyone agrees the production can be boldly theatrical, a work that doesn't pretend it's anything but playacting. Although the team wants to create a world that isn't real, it has to be one that audiences can believe in, with its own reality: If a character bleeds, where do you hide the fake blood for the actor to release on cue? What sort of knives should a character carry? How can the theater make sure spectators know Froggy and Injun Bill are in different cells in the first scene? A wall won't do, since the next scene is set in a cave. The playful solution: placing a ladder between two sides of the stage will suggest bars and separate the space.
Rewrites continue throughout the weeks leading to the first public performance, even after it. After an early rehearsal, Zettelmaier, Wolber, Caselli, and Milarch ponder: Why does Froggy continue to follow Injun Bill when Bill tells him to get lost? Is it clear that the play is about redemption through friendship? Does a particular scene forward the action, or is it a showstopper?
That's when it gets uncomfortable. Caselli believes a scene in a tent for quarantined plague victims takes attention away from the main character, Injun Bill, who isn't in it. The scene has to go. Milarch is convinced the scene is important thematically. The discussion heats up, and four of the fastest minds in the Midwest shoot ideas back and forth. In addition to the roles they play on this project, the four are all professional actors and directors--all but Zettelmaier are producers as well--and they bring sophisticated perspectives to their understanding of plays. Director Wolber reserves judgment.
Zettelmaier reddens, visibly disturbed, but he's taking it all in. While the conversation continues around him, he rethinks the scene. He interrupts to offer a solution, a complex reconfiguration that strengthens the plot and heightens the theme. The artists at the table have worked together in various combinations many times before, and, though feelings are tender, there is trust here, too. Later, Milarch will give notes to Zettelmaier through Wolber, to minimize conflict. "The danger can be when everyone becomes so invested they can want to tell the story their way," she reflects. "That's when you have to know the difference between giving feedback...and dictating to the playwright."
Zettelmaier began as an actor and discovered a talent for playwriting while apprenticing at the Purple Rose in the late 1990s. He credits Wolber and Milarch with helping him develop into a nationally recognized artist--his plays have been produced in Michigan, Chicago, Florida, and California.
The next evening, Zettelmaier stays home, rewriting the scene, while Wolber works with the actors in the theater. They gather in the greenroom, a place where actors unwind that, in most theaters, isn't green. At Williamston, it's an open space on the second floor, with couches and a food area, surrounded by offices and dressing rooms. The first order of business? "Tape ball." The group makes a circle. The stage manager tosses a wad of paper covered with tape into the middle, and someone else reaches for it, hitting it up and toward someone else. The idea is to keep the ball in the air. Each time someone hits it, the group counts. The more hits before the ball falls to the ground, the higher the score. Participants aren't competing--the group wins each time its score improves. Each rehearsal begins with this exercise in collaboration.
At rehearsals, Wolber listens to ideas from everyone. He encourages actors to try whatever they like and shapes their performances by telling them when he likes something. After run-throughs, he gives the actors notes, usually small details that will make their performances tighter, and Caselli gives Wolber notes on the whole production.
As Wolber pulls it all together, adding and editing, the production becomes unified. Eventually, at technical rehearsals, light and sound cues are added, and at dress rehearsal actors begin to look like the characters.
Before the first public performance in Williamston, Drew Parker gets to the theater two hours early, just to reread the play--he says he wants "to really, really look at the words" one more time before the audience arrives. His left side hurts--"Every time I fall, I fall on it," he says. But that doesn't matter. A run is beginning that will inevitably end, and Parker is feeling nostalgic for the moment he is living right now. "I'm going to be really sad when this closes," he says.
While Parker feels an affinity to his character, Maggie Meyer wishes she could be more like her innkeeper. "I'm not as strong in forgiveness as Martha is," she says. Meyer has been struggling to go to the "dark place where Martha lives," and has felt a little nervous about transitional moments, which she is sometimes called on to narrate through song. Her confidence has grown, and she's ready.
Paul Hopper says he enjoys creating new characters who haven't lived on stage before and transforming from one to another--Zettelmaier rewrote each more than once to insure that the characters are noticeably different from each other.
It's not clear what's on Aral Gribble's mind. In his dressing room, door open, he sits in his underwear, lost in thought.
And then it's tape ball time, and suddenly, showtime. After some close calls in rehearsals, the actors are able to move the scroll from scene to scene. The audience laughs where the laugh lines are. It's going well!
Caselli invites the audience to stay for a post-show talk-back to help Wolber and his team know what's working and what still needs fixing. Caselli asks how many believe a governor would really make shoes from a dead man's skin. A substantial number are sure it could never happen. Would they have enjoyed the play more had they known that it did, perhaps through a lobby display? Some crave the history; others prefer the mystery. Everyone loves the scenery, which always let them know where the characters were.
The actors retire to the greenroom for Wolber's notes. Then, after midnight, when the audience, actors, and designers all have left, Zettelmaier, Caselli, and Wolber head down to the theater to evaluate. Caselli, full of energy, takes to the stage, demonstrating suggestions for improvement. He pushes an imaginary person against the scroll, suggesting that it would immobilize the character at a crucial moment. Soon, Zettelmaier and Wolber are on their feet, too. "If he does this," Wolber says, moving his hand. "If she does that," Zettelmaier says, moving in. They have reverted to the shorthand of actors, playing out prospective changes. Before they leave the stage, they have decided Zettelmaier will do more rewrites and Wolber will restage two scenes--a brothel scene will be sexier; another, which Milarch discussed with Wolber earlier, will be more dangerous. Zettelmaier goes home to work on yet another draft. The actors will master the new lines and action after public performances begin. That's part of the challenge and the fun of doing a new play.
Wolber works till the last moment, continuing to tweak Dead Man's Shoes through five previews and two additional rehearsals. On opening night in Williamston, he feels he's finally seeing the show as he wanted it to be. The spectators greet the production with a standing ovation.
[Originally published in March, 2012.]
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