Arden Professional Apprentices, A View from the Trenches: Episode Three

March 12, 2009

A View from the Trenches: APA Katherine discusses her experience as Assistant Stage Manager for My Name Is Asher Lev.

My Name Is Asher Lev has its final performance this Sunday evening. From what I hear from former apprentices, >pharm the final week of a show’s run – particularly shows that, like mine, run in the Arcadia for 8 or 9 weeks at a time -tend to have the assistant stage managers humming “The Final Countdown” between quick-changes. And while I feel that perhaps it is about time to let go and move on to other pursuits within my apprenticeship, I don’t think it will be at all easy for me to say goodbye to this extraordinary group of people, whom I have been honored to work alongside telling this story night after night.

I first read Chaim Potok’s novel when I was fourteen. In my opinion, it’s the perfect age to discover this story. I was hopelessly nerdy as a kid, to the point where when the recommended reading material (in this case, Potok’s The Chosen) wasn’t on the shelf, I simply moved on to the next title in line. I’m pretty sure I might have held off on reading it until I had finished all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but once I did finally open to the first page, I was hooked. Asher’s struggle to define himself – as an artist, as a son, as an individual – resonated strongly with me, at a time in my life when I was first beginning to explore the conflict between the person my parents wanted me to become, and my realization that their dreams for me were not necessarily my own. Although the book is set within a Brooklyn Hasidic Jewish community – a world that could not, at least on the surface, been more different than my Irish Catholic upbringing in an Albany suburb – it is, at its core, a family story much like my own. I would have been hard-pressed at the time to tell you why, but the truth is, I read and re-read Asher six or seven times that year. It was a time in my life where I began to ask myself what it was that I was passionate about, what motivated and inspired me. Not only that, but it was at this age when I finally began to see my parents as imperfect beings, and had to start that journey towards accepting and loving them as people, flawed and human, even when I didn’t agree with them. It all fits neatly into context now, of course – although at the time, I’m sure I couldn’t have explained why the story resonated with me the way that it did. I just felt somehow connected to this character, and felt an overwhelming sense of recognition as I read Chaim’s words on the page and Identified my own, previously unknown emotions, articulated in front of me as clear as if I’d written the words myself.

Fast-forward to age twenty-two, lounging around my college dorm room in my sweatpants and nervously trying to prepare for my first “real” job interview, typing “Arden Theatre Company” into Google and trying to ascertain whether or not this was a place I could see myself being happy. While, to be honest, the job description, the salary, and the promise of health insurance were pretty big factors in deciding to apply, my heart skipped a beat when I saw that Asher was on the docket for the next season. (In fact, both Asher and Candide – two stories I have long loved – were hugely thrilling to me artistically. Of course, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get the job that I spent several months trying not to dwell on how very much I wanted to work on those two shows, consequently bringing up none of this during either of my interviews and stammering out something like “Next season? Looks neat!” It’s a wonder I was hired at all).

Of course, as it turned out, I was hired. And I knew that each apprentice would be assigned one show to work on as an assistant to the stage manager (in addition to the multitude of other duties we are assigned in all areas of the building). And although I’d be hard pressed to say why, exactly… I had a good gut feeling about Asher Lev. Next thing you know, I’m in a design meeting with Dan Conway and Thom Weaver; then taping out the stage floor with stage manager Alec Ferrell, and then, whaddya know – I’m shaking hands with Adena Potok (widow of Chaim Potok and artistic consultant), and meeting the cast and creative team who would be bringing the story to life.

I wish I had the words to fully explain the rehearsal process. Thanks to the generosity of the Edgerton Foundation, we had five weeks of rehearsal for Asher, and it made all the difference in the world. In a shorter amount of time, I am certain it would have been more focused upon “we just need to finish – even if it’s not perfect, it’ll be done.” What we did, instead, was make wild and sprawling discoveries every day. Personal stories from everyone’s childhoods would be interspersed with period details from dramaturg Michele Volansky, quietly taking notes in a corner. Actor Karl Miller would ask questions about Asher’s character, motivations, or word choice, to adaptor/director Aaron Posner – more often than not ending in a heated argument or philosophical debate, but also admittedly a much stronger script. With the help of Arden Drama School students Orin and Cooper (as well as their parents!) – the actors were able to rehearse their scenes with actual small children, and could observe firsthand how kids behave, talk, walk, and draw. Adam Heller and Gabra Zackman, complete strangers to each other at the beginning of the process, grew to become close friends, invariably strengthening the onstage relationship between Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev. We added props and subtracted them again; I ran countless times between the rehearsal hall and the photocopier with more and more revised scripts; we celebrated Channukah together with Adena’s famous latkes. And what startled me the most were the moments where my opinions would be asked. Not always, certainly. But how wonderful to find I had a voice in the room, and could share my own stories, and could contribute in a tangible way. Certainly not always the case, as any assistant stage manager will tell you. Certainly not expected, that anyone would really care what the shiksa from upstate New York had to say.

Nearly eighty-some-odd performances later, it’s a radically different script from when I first read it. It’s in many ways a different show with each different audience. The actors still are finding nuances within these words they have now long committed to memory, and that playful spirit still sneaks in at unexpected moments, allowing them to make new discoveries nightly.

I am, frankly, someone who usually has zero sympathy for actors (and please, please understand that I don’t mean to sound like a callous, horrible person when I say this. I say this because I come from a costume background, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a costume designer who doesn’t have a few horror stories about actors who can be divas or jerks; I say this because no matter how many hours the actors are working, trust me, I see what goes on backstage, and the technical staff is always working more). And I was initially terrified of the notion of spending nine weeks with these unknown actors, in much the same way as I was terrified of the first day of kindergarten. Partly due to the question “Are these people up to the challenge of this material, nine times a week for nine weeks?”…but, okay, also,”…and will anybody be nice to me?” And in yet another unexpected surprise, I have found myself amidst something wonderful and rare – not only are they good actors, but they are also quite good people, and that has made all the difference. The sense they have helped instill in me is that I am a critical component to the show as a whole, that we all function as one unit in telling this story. We all work together – not “for” anyone else. On those days when I just want to hit the snooze button, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If I’m having a lousy day in the box office, set build, or any other of the thousand tasks I could be doing on a typical “apprentice day,” I look forward to the time where I can drop out of my life and into the story. And to be able to come to work and get paid to help three smart, funny, and talented actors tell a story I’ve long loved, bolstered by my eminently capable stage manager Alec – well, then, I think I’m just about the luckiest apprentice of them all.

I understand, of course, that all things need to come to an end, and change is almost always a good thing. I am looking forward to some elements of the show closing – getting a night off, for one! – and I am hoping for some new and exciting projects to tackle that I simply couldn’t take on due to the time demands of running nine shows a week. I do know, though, that the Arden will seem a little strange to me without the comfort of the same familiar, wonderful group of people that have been a part of my life for the past three months. Somewhere in between tracking script changes and changing over the laundry, I have made some unexpected and true friends, and it is my hope that in sharing this story with our audience, Asher Lev has had an impact in an unexpected and true way as well.

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