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

December 30, 2008

A View from the Trenches: APA Bobby Bangert discusses his involvement with the workshop of Dennis Smeal’s new play Meticulous Gentlemen.

Last week I had the privilege of spending some time observing a workshop of a new play written by the Arden’s literary manager, Dennis Smeal. Meticulous Gentlemen explores the complex relationship between two men, Gus and Tad, who unexpectedly reunite after more than two decades of estrangement.

One of the things that drew me to the Arden when considering this apprenticeship was the work the Arden does with new plays. As an aspiring writer and director, I jumped at the chance to see the process by which new work comes into being. Terry presided over the workshop, Dennis sitting opposite and watching, absorbing everything.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect, everyone bundled in sweaters and surrounded by poinsettias as the actors worked through lines about The Nutcracker, which plays in the background throughout the play’s action from start to finish. The music presents a unique technical and artistic challenge, in which the actors’ opinions proved useful. Ian, who played Tad, shared his dislike for music that imposes itself on an actor’s performance or an audience’s experience, as if dictating the way he should perform or an audience should feel. It was decided that the dynamic of the music would change throughout the reading, but the general goal was to have the music “dust the air,” in Terry’s words, highlighting the performances without overwhelming them. The exchange of opinions between actor, director, and playwright helped them to arrive at what worked for everyone, and, most importantly, for the play.

Fortunately, no one lacked opinions. On one occasion more than a half an hour was devoted to debating the merits of two words, in which Tad describes Gus as “guzzling, slurping”‘ and in that half an hour of discussion I was surprised to find the entire emotional content of the scene excavated and dismantled, then put back together. As the discussion progressed they found that those two words had drastically different implications to each of them, and that two simple words could change the whole scene. In the end, Dennis informed me that those words were cut, but the final outcome did not seem as important to me as the process by which they arrived there. It was inspiring the way every phrase and every note was crafted with such care and discernment, the same love with which Tchaikovsky must have composed his Nutcracker.

The end result was a reading of the newly revised play in which Arden staff members and other invited guests watched. Having read an earlier draft before the workshop and seeing some of the revisions throughout the week, it was a particularly rewarding experience for me to hear the changes and see the growth that had taken place over the past few days. By the time the Hallelujah chorus from The Messiah rang out over the final moments, it became clear that their work, both passionate and meticulous, had paid off.

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