The first week of “read throughs” for Laredo Theater Guild International’s production of Beauty and the Beast the Broadway Musical took place inside the black box of the Vidal M. Treviño School of Communications and Fine Arts on the Nixon High School campus.
A black box is a room much smaller than what you expect your typical theater stage to look like. It’s an open, undefined space that allows actors the ability to use their instincts and imagination as they move while speaking their lines. Acting is not speech-making. It requires movement.
The black box allows an actor to use spatial instincts when speaking their lines and to react to the other actors. It allows them the freedom to move where and when it feels right. It’s hard to imagine that you are in an enchanted castle if you’re practicing in what looks like a modern day kitchen. It also helps the director and the production team to best make use of the movements and actions the actors create.
What appeared to be the complete cast filled many of the gray cushioned seats in the risers along three of the four walls of the acting space. The main floor of the box was cleared. Along the fourth wall assistant stage managers Javier Sanchez and Ryan Duncan, co-producers Linda Howland and Karen Mejia, and co-directors Vernon Carrol and Daniel Castillo sat at a long white table.
Sanchez and Duncan had before them two stacks of scripts that would be distributed to the cast for use during rehearsals and until they would go “off book” to rehearse with lines memorized.
There is always an introduction to the introduction.
Co-director Vernon Carroll is an excellent teacher. At every stage of the production, he calmly, clearly, and respectfully introduces and explains to everyone assembled what each step will be, as well as what he expects from all cast members. His stentorian tone resonates with a blend of authority, power, and a fine zesting of humor. He addresses every member of the cast as if they have never been in a production before, greatly easing the anxiety of those for whom this is their very first production. It is a testament to the patience and professionalism of the veteran actors who sit through Carroll’s talks.
With each meeting Carroll layers in a lesson – and quite often more than just one. He gently introduces the first-time performer to the traditions, norms, and etiquette of theater, all the while reminding them of the discipline the art requires. He does so bluntly, telling them, “If you argue with the stage manager, you’re wrong.”
He makes it clear that theater at its core is a collaboration of equals; that no one is a diva or a prima donna, that no one role or position is greater or less than another. In the theater, equality equals success. He tells them that a great performance is the result of the hard work and discipline of all the cast and crew working together with respect for the traditions of theater, which for centuries has been – and is – the glue that allows respect and congenial collaboration to thrive.
The announcement is made for the cast to stand and form lines to pick up scripts, and they do so in a clustered, ordered mass. Every cast member signs a form denoting receipt of script. Cast members also have to sign in every time they come to rehearsals, a matter of attendance, but also a way to track the hours of students who are parlaying their experience in the musical into lab or practicum hours for degree work.
The friendly banter begins to die out. Cast members make their way back to their seats.
Carroll announces that the cast will be reading through the script together, that the entire ensemble will be reading the songs together chorally. There’s a method to his madness. The cast has not practiced the songs, and even though some – if not many – may know the tunes, he’d like to keep everyone on even footing by having everyone read. This has the added benefit of keeping cast members engaged and alert while the script is being read instead of allowing boredom or fatigue to set in.
The idea is a winner. Once the song starts and everyone begins to read together, spontaneous laughter breaks out and continues in a joyful, choral symphony. This is, after all, Beauty and the Beast they’re reading. There’s nothing like a rousing read-a-long of Gaston’s song. There’s something transcendent about watching a roomful of people reading lines in unison, something tribal and communal – a throwback to the choruses of ancient Greece.
Even as it grows late and fatigue begins to set in, there are bursts of energy with each spoken musical number.
Between songs there is dialogue, and it is the first time that the main cast gets to read their parts — Carolina Lozano as Belle; Roel Rivera as Maurice; Geofrey Blomquist as Gaston; Adrian Tristan as LeFou; John Maxstadt as Cogsworth; Erin Perez as Lumière; Allie Howland as Babette; Kelly Hinojosa as Mrs. Potts; Nicholas Quiroga as Chip; Dana Crabtree as Madame D. G. Bouche; and Kenneth Duncan as Monsieur D’Arque.
When the actors begin to read the first spoken lines of the play, a silence falls as they find their voices and become their characters. A few struggle to find their mouth-hold around the words and the cadence that creates the heartbeat of their character.
A lesson in acting is a lesson in the language of theater and in communication both facially and physically.
There are snippets of Carroll’s theater wisdom — “The first readings are to find out how the story is told;” “If we get it cast just right – half of our work is done;” and “Find out what you are saying, and what you want in return.”
After a break he brings the group together to read the last sung lines. The first read-through is finished. Carroll ends it with “Bah humbug!” to the laughter of everyone.
There is always a beginning — an empty canvas or a blank page ready to be filled. This blank page is people, most of them strangers who have taken the first step on their collective journey to tell a story. There is hard work ahead of them, sacrifice, and many long nights that will tax both mind and body. There will be magic.
The LTGI production of the Broadway musical opens July 13 at 8 p.m. at LCC’S Guadalupe and Lilia Martinez Fine Arts Center Theater. Additional 8 p.m. performances are scheduled for July 14, 15, 20, 21, and 22. Matinees are set for July 16 and 23 at 3 p.m. General admission tickets are $20 and student and senior tickets are discounted to $15. For further information go to www.laredotheaterguild.org
(At this writing, the role of Beast had not yet been cast. It went to David Smestuen.)