by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
For four days last week, the Fichandler Stage was the creative hub of a movement workshop for our upcoming production of Bertolt Brecht’s epic drama, Mother Courage and Her Children.
Participants included Valerie Accetta (Assistant Professor, University of Alabama, Birmingham), Ali Angelone (Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota), Jonathan Becker (Associate Professor, Ball State University), Marie Boyette (Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut), Jamie Cheatham (Artistic Director, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Parkside), Robb Hunter (DC Fight Director, Adjunct Professor, American University, Catholic University), Kevin Inouye (Adjunct Faculty, William and Mary University), Maggie Marlin-Hess (Assistant Professor, Missouri State University) Penny Ayn Mass (Assistant Professor, Texas Christian University), Cara Rawlings (Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech University), Drew Richardson (VCU MFA Theater Pedagogy Student; graduate of LaCoq Institute, Paris), Darrell Rushton (Associate Professor of Theater, Frostburg State University), Kelley Shoger (Alexander Institute, Charlottesville, Virginia) and Brad Willcuts (VCU MFA Theater Pedagogy student).
I caught up with David Leong at the end of the workshop to talk about one of my all-time favorite parts of theater – process.
What attracted you to Mother Courage and Her Children?
Molly's such a great collaborator. Her motto is 'the best idea wins.' That's hands down why I love to work with her. She's always looking for the best and she's going to challenge the people around her but she does it in a very respectable way so you feel comfortable reaching beyond your norm and that's why she gets great people to work with her.
Mother Courage is an iconic, epic piece of theater and it’s frightening too. It’s intimidating. I'm most challenged by things where I don't know the answer. I'm not sure what to do with it - to me that's more interesting than anything else. And those challenges don't really come up. You know, if you're lucky, they come up maybe one out of ten shows.
What was the impetus behind the workshop?
Molly called me up and she said "I want you to help me create this world - help me create the movement vocabulary for this play." So I started going through the script in terms of physical staging necessities and marking all the places where there were opportunities or questions - for example, the time and place changes in each of the twelve scenes - it poses a big challenge. I said how about if we workshop this and she said that's a great idea so then I started thinking about who are the best people to do this.
How did you assemble the people you brought in to help you develop the movement?
I'm the Theater Chair of the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University and we have, probably, the country's best graduate MFA program in theater pedagogy - the art of teaching. I put a call out and got great people - from Equity actors to musical theater directors and choreographers - all older students and teachers in different areas. They all have the same language because they all trained under me. Some of them went to school together. A number of them have been my assistants on various shows across the U.S. so they all sort of know each other. And what great talent. I've done a lot of shows and I’ll tell you the energy in this workshop was amazing.
So what happens during a workshop and what did you discover?
I joked with the company when we started – Let's do a piece of devised theater and call it Mother Courage – and that's kind of what this was. I broke them into teams and gave them a scene or musical number and said "I want five different versions" and, basically, we were creating the vocabulary in order to say 'Ah, that's a good way to shift time and place.' Maybe that's a freeze frame. Maybe this one's done through a tableau. For each idea that's a keeper, that is the germ of the idea that we're going to approach in rehearsal. Every single moment in the show or major question, scene or song - I think there were about 35-40 - we were able to come up with the answer for all but three of them. So that's pretty good. I didn't worry about choreographing specific steps or staging it; just the look that we're going for. So when we get the real actors together we have the idea that we’ll grow from.
What work will you be doing between now and when rehearsals start in January.
I'm hoping to have another workshop in December. Once all the music is set, I need to dig in to make sure the ideas we have are going to work for the music. As well as the set design. And then I'll choreograph it beat by beat, as well as the transitions. It's my job to shift the scene so once I have the music in front of me and once I know where all the scenery is, it's like, I have the idea but it's out of focus and in the workshop – that’s when I'll bring it into focus.