Theatre of NOTE has dedicated itself to providing “a stimulating environment for new playwrights” in Los Angeles since 1981, according to its own online written history. But while there is no “P” for “playwrights” in the company’s original NOTE acronym, there is an “E” for “ensemble” — NOTE originally stood for “New One-Act Theatre Ensemble.”
This season, NOTE returns to the company’s ensemble roots by developing Hot Cat — an original work inspired by Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — under the guidance of Theatre Movement Bazaar’s Tina Kronis (director/choreographer) and Richard Alger (writer).
NOTE first built itself though an annual one-act play festival. The one-acts and late-night productions quickly led to an active ensemble looking for a home to create more work. Full-length plays and seasons of shows followed.
Functioning without an artistic director, NOTE has created an artistic and management committee served by five company members and one alternate who select final projects from a slate voted on by the membership. This rotating body of leadership changes every two years to give the company new voices driving the artistic vision.
Four members of Hot Cat’s six-person cast (and two swings) — Crystal Diaz, David Guerra, David LM McIntyre and Justin Okin — offer some insight into the TMB creative process as NOTE returns to more ensemble-driven productions.
As a member of the artistic and management committee, McIntyre first proposed the possible collaboration after working with TMB on its recent production of Track 3 (which is heading to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer). McIntyre knew there might be challenges working with TMB, but he was banking on the thrills those challenges can lead to.
“One of the things [Kronis] emphasizes in performance is restrained presence,” says McIntyre. “There are all these things happening — emotions — but they are bubbling under the surface. There’s a potentiality that something’s going to happen, and [she] knows how gripping that can be.”
Okin, who covers the challenging position of male swing, chimes in on the TMB process that creates completely new, complicated movement and text performance within the pressure cooker of a finite rehearsal process.
“They kinda give themselves an uphill battle,” he says. “Forget everything that you were taught about making choices and being an actor. In some ways you’re patting your head and rubbing your stomach; and it’s actually quite a lot harder than it sounds.”
The first week of rehearsals involved such activities as performing for each other, attempting physical challenges and experimenting with gestures. There was no script used in rehearsal for almost a week. The actors describe Kronis as leading the ensemble in not just exploring movement but themselves.
“They set a very level playing field in the beginning for us to get to know each other,” says Guerra. “It opens up that vulnerability so we can really examine ourselves and see ourselves as people.”
The physical work continued even with the introduction of script pages, in some ways intensifying the process as text was added to detailed movement sequences. The actors came to realize that many of the things done during the first week that seemed rudimentary were actually building the story and relationships — even without their full awareness of it. This organic process of discovery gives Crystal Diaz, who plays the role of Maggie, even more appreciation for the TMB process as well as her role in it.
“I feel like I have a great deal of ownership of my part,” says Diaz. “[Kronis will] extract or simplify things but it’s all based off our creation. That’s part of what really excited me when we talked about bringing them to work with us. It feels curated by our company and for our company. We were all very much involved in creating these movements.”
Very little time was spent on what a traditional process might call “table work.” The actors recall one actual table read, but every subsequent discussion and dissection of text and character motivation happened on their feet, drawing solutions and inspiration from what the actors would naturally try to do through their bodies.
The trademark specificity of TMB’s staging also creates specific challenges for the busy actors outside of rehearsals, such as the necessity to simply stay healthy by eating well and getting enough sleep. The actors find themselves needing more time than usual to prepare both mentally and physically before rehearsal starts. There are specific movement notes as well as textual notes to process each day. And the pressure is on if an actor doesn’t get it right, because it’s not about letting down a director or yourself — it’s about letting down the entire ensemble.
“And what amazes me is that [Kronis] is incredibly efficient,” says Guerra. “She knows exactly how to make those four hours count. She’s listening to us as well as looking at the movement.”
Once a dues-paying membership company, NOTE abandoned that policy years ago and replaced monetary dues with required work hours for members. All casting for shows occurs from within the company, unless a role demands a particular type that the company cannot fulfill. Colorblind casting is common and supports the ensemble dynamic of Cat.
McIntyre is particularly excited that 2013 presents a slate of NOTE shows that lean heavily toward the ensemble side of the casting spectrum. Cat is followed immediately by Avery Crozier’s Eat the Runt and later in the year by Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls by Naomi Iizuka.
With the script for Cat set and movement tweaks still happening since the first preview, the actors feel it’s still evolving. And, although they all recognize the shared qualities with Williams’ original script, working with Alger’s deconstructed text has exposed new insights into the sexual tension and familial power-plays of the family drama.
“The characters we’re doing are definitely not the characters I thought,” says Guerra, who plays Brick. “But they’re still identifiable.”
Okin is particularly struck at how minor characters from the original, like Gooper and May, can have such detailed and interesting arcs in this version.
“In this play they’re just so colorful and funny,” says Okin. “It’s just a different life for those characters.”
NOTE boasts a true black box theater with painted brick walls pressing in on a simple striped back wall. Various props along the perimeter suggest the possible character of a room while sparse furniture elements leave most of the stage empty with plenty of room for play. According to Okin, the theater itself also inspired Alger to shape the mood of the script, creating it for the physical space as well as the cast.
”I think for me, working in our space like this…no raked stage, no flats,” says Guerra, arms stretched out in the openness. “It’s pretty awesome to be in Theatre of NOTE’s space and use it like this.”
The team knows the experience with TMB will likely reverberate into future productions and non-TMB processes.
“I can’t even think of something that resembles working like this…that integrates so much of the story into the physical aspect. It’s a style, not a dance,” says Diaz. “I think this [experience] will help me use my body more…accepting a character into my body and not just the intellectual side of learning lines and thinking about character.”
As final rehearsals keep whittling away at the marble stone holding the final piece captive, the actors begin to fidget as the rehearsal hour approaches. They need to start preparing.
“It requires that all of us trust that if we make our contribution, the piece as a whole will be told,” says McIntyre. “[Kronis] talks a lot about how you tune up the orchestra, but the violin doesn’t play the entire piece. The violin plays its piece and that’s how you get the full piece.”
“And then you don’t even necessarily hear the violin specifically,” adds Okin. “What you’re hearing is the whole ensemble.”
Hot Cat, Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood 90028. Opens Friday. Thu – Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Through June 1. Tickets: $25/$20. www.theatreofnote.com. 323-856-8611.
**All Hot Cat production photos by Darrett Sanders.