"It's a very terrifying first day," says Old Times director Douglas Hodge (a Tony-winning actor for his portrayal of drag queen Albin in La Cage aux Folles) of his rehearsal room. Instead of easing his cast into the piece at hand, he instructs them to get on their feet and perform the entire show on set — no stopping allowed.
"The actors are always highly alarmed," he says, "but I think because I am an actor myself, I know that it is useful, and I know that they'll benefit from it, and I know that I would quite like someone to ask me to do that. There are things that perhaps if I were just a director, I'd think, 'Oh, God. I can't do that.'"
As the actors arrive at 10 AM on their first day — in this case, Oscar nominee Clive Owen, Eve Best and Kelly Reilly — Hodge says, "Alright, here's the set. Let's run the play. You can have your book in your hand if you want, but the only rule is that you don't stop."
He adds, "Generally, it's fascinating because all of their instincts are brilliant and to the fore, and it also reveals all the plans they have for their role. And, often, you spend three or four weeks then looking at those instincts and making choices about them and forming them up and coming back to something quite similar to what they first did, except they're much more sure of it, but [there is a] kind of wildness of just having to do that off the cuff… Also, throughout rehearsals then, you say, 'Well, you did it on the first day!'"
It's not his first time at the helm — he made his directorial debut at the Oxford Playhouse in 2004 with a double bill of Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and Other Pieces — but, this time, Hodge takes on Old Times, the story of a married couple visited by the wife's former roommate.
Pinter's voice, often facing a different interpretation by audiences, always felt "familiar" to Hodge. The two became friends after sharing the stage, and a dressing room, in a 1993 production of Pinter's No Man's Land. During that time, Hodge explained, Pinter crafted the role of Jake in Moonlight with Hodge in mind.
While the combination of Pinter and Hodge seemed like a no-brainer, Michael Arden (the director behind the acclaimed, reinvented revival of Spring Awakening) went into the first day of rehearsal telling his cast, "Just so everyone knows, I have no idea what I'm doing. All I know is that I want to tell an honest story. I want, for the first time on the stage, Deaf actors to play Deaf characters and for us to begin to figure out how we communicate with this bridge of language between us — not a wall, but a bridge."
He says, "We worked really hard and tried to develop a show [by] deciding which characters were Deaf and which were hearing and how to translate the show into ASL. It's just been one foot in front of the other, and here we are."
Arden and the cast of Spring Awakening never expected to be on Broadway earning raves a year-and-a-half ago when he first tossed the concept around with fiancé Andy Mientus (who plays Hanschen in the production) and soon thereafter began rehearsals in an abandoned church in Los Angeles.
"Actually," Arden admits, "the idea came from my husband-to-be, Andy Mientus, who said, 'You know, you should do Spring Awakening because it's about a group of people who are silenced and who are desperate for a voice. To be heard and understood, what better parallel than the Deaf community and culture, who have, for years, been trying to be understood… 'Then one piece began to fall into place after the other."
"My life took an unexpected turn when I walked into that audition room for Deaf West," Arden explains, "and I couldn't be happier at where it's gone." He now describes himself as "pretty fluent" in American Sign Language, the language of Spring Awakening.
In between the Los Angeles and Broadway engagements, Arden was off starring as Quasimodo in the world premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but, he says, "I think I have always wanted to be on the other side of the table. I tend to ask more questions than I should as an actor.
"But, more than anything, being an actor and having worked with so many directors I admire… It's my goal to help actors achieve their best work, and I think I speak the same language as actors, so I understand how they do it and I just love being able to create the playground in which they build their beautiful sandcastle… I'm blessed with a company of actors who are limitless in their abilities. So many people might see this as a company full of disabilities, but their disabilities are their abilities. To be able to give them a platform and a stage on which to do their work is… It's the most honoring thing that's ever happened to me."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)