Back to School with “The History Boys”

September 2, 2009

By Matt Rosenbaum: Assistant Director for The History Boys.

The full cast of Arden Theatre’s The History Boys got together for the first time tonight to read through the play for a smattering of staff members, board members, and Sylvan Society donors and longtime friends. This was the first time we had all 12 actors in the same room, but we’ve already been rehearsing this play for a week.

It’s been “back to school,” as Irwin, a teacher with decidedly forward-thinking methods, says in the opening scene, set a good 15 years later than the majority of the play.

The History Boys is truly a pageant – a mix of poetry, song, history and pastiche. As befitting this multi-faceted piece, our boys and their two main teachers have spent the last week speaking French, making harmony, sharing poetry, and recounting history.

Some of the highlights of our own General Studies class up in the rehearsal hall: World War I, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Brief Encounter, Gracie Fields, the Pet Shop Boys, the English school system, and a rousing sing-along of “Twist and Shout”, unplugged (in a first of what I hope will be many “sharing sessions.” our Timms – Jonathan Silver – strummed the guitar and sang).

We’ve also worked on our dialects. It’s not enough to sound vaguely British – particularly not with an authentic Brit – David Howey as the prickly, priggish Headmaster – among the cast. Yet thanks to our esteemed dialect coach Hazel Bowers, each actor could make a presentation to the whole group on one of a variety of topics (Henry VIII! Rugby!) all the while using an authentic Yorkshire brogue.

We also had a visit from a real-life former History Boy. Robin Kirk, husband of the Arden’s rock star marketing director Beth Yeagle, went through many of the same experiences in life that Dakin, Posner, Rudge and the others go through in the play. His talk was illuminating, and not only because it was over a pint, as Robin would say.

And, of course, we have been consumed by dramaturgy. The role of a dramaturg varies from show to show, but for Americans doing an Alan Bennett play, it’s been research, research, research. The History Boys glossary, as prepared by dramaturg Sarah Ollove, is as thick as the script, and just as essential. The film clips, power points, and one-on-one conferences with each actor have also proved invaluable.

As assistant director, my role in this process is essentially to support the director and the rest of the production team and the cast. In some ways I feel a bit like Scripps, the most observant of the history boys – and the play’s primary narrator of past events. It often seems as if Scripps lives vicariously through the escapades of other characters, particularly his best friend Dakin. This week it’s been my pleasure to live vicariously through the history boys. I’ve learned French, heard music, sat in on dramaturgy and dialect work…and gotten Terry Nolen at least 5 venti coffees (milk, no sugar). Don’t worry about me, though. Whenever I go out for him, he pays for both of our beverages.

It’s my distinct honor to be part of the process, and to share it with our blog readers. Stay tuned for more updates. Class is still in session.

One Response

  1. Steve says:

    Hey Matt,
    Thanks for the insights and keep the words coming through the long days and nights of rehearsal, tech, previews, etc.
    Steve H.

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