“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” Spring 2003
By Charles Dickens
Adapted for the stage by David Edgar
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Oliver
Two hundred and forty pages of text. Twelve hours of material. One hundred and fifty characters. Twenty-four actors. Approximately seven characters per actor. Forty-one masks. Twenty-one songs. Five months. It was under these circumstances that Studio IV, the graduating class of 2003, undertook the epic task of mounting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s widely lauded production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”
At first glance, five months may seem like a lot of time – never mind the fact that our class did four other fully realized productions while we rehearsed for this one; that is what makes NCSA so exciting in the first place.
Because “Nickleby” is as vast in scope as it is, and because funding for the arts in this country is not what it should be, we came to the realization rather quickly that everything in the show would be done by the actors. Outside of the lights, costumes and set design, almost everything remaining was done by the actors onstage. We became the wind, the rain, a stagecoach, a runaway carriage and every grimy urchin and staunch aristocrat Charles Dickens’ imagination could lend breath to.
So, on a crisp fall day, with a dream in our hearts and a great deal of fear in our eyes, we began with the words. Collectively, after our first read-through we all knew it could be done, but how? In acting class, School of Drama Dean Gerald Freedman is always telling us to get to the “how.” However in this case, we would all need to get there a little bit faster than normal. The development process of “Nickleby” was a bit like becoming an onion: Rather than peeling away the skin layer by layer, we put on our skin layer by layer. We began with the words and soon after we followed with the masks and the movement.
It is my belief that individually we logged at least 96 hours in front of the mirrors working with the masks. If you haven’t worked with masks before, the truncated description of the process goes something like this: Put a mask on, stare into a mirror and wait for an impulse. We had 41 masks specially designed for us, and we had to share them all. We developed elaborate charts tracking each mask as they traveled from character to character throughout the eight hours of the show. How can one mask be used for two characters? Back to the onion metaphor.
Robert Francesconi, our director and mask instructor, began the mask work the same way that we do in class: in front of the mirror. As each mask was “auditioned,” each began to react differently on each actor. Some masks were “dead” in that they never registered any response from an actor. However, when the right mask was put on, it immediately began to elicit physical reactions from the actor. ’Sconi, as we call him, would make suggestions to simplify the movement or distill an impulse down to a precise gesture.
Mask work gives you the freedom to release yourself into a character that appears in the mirror in front of you. It makes suggestions about itself to you, and you make suggestions about yourself to it. Together you begin to develop a physical and mental life for what will become a collective you, or character, onstage. A person emerges as you begin to codify your physical life into a series of specific gestures that immediately register with the audience. The final layer was adding a costume piece to visually solidify the character for the actor and the audience. As the character came to life within the actor, each mask registered a different appearance on the outside according to what was happening within him or her. It is a magical day indeed when you look around at a stage full of people wearing masks, and looking back at you aren’t masks but people.
At the end of the day it seemed as though we only rehearsed for moments and that our time performing the piece was even less than that. After spending hours getting to know them, our masks and characters slid on and off like the perfect pair of gloves.
As I stood on the stage at our final performance, singing the last chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” with the faces of audience members, faculty and peers staring down at us, I couldn’t help but realize that this was the best production I would ever be in. Sure there may be higher budgets, turbans, or floating staircases in my future, but never again will I be given the time to put so much of myself into one project.
At a School where the most frequent complaint is that there isn’t enough time to do it all, only in retrospect do you realize that time is one of the greatest gifts of the program. Time to fail, to invest, to develop, to succeed, to discover and most importantly, time to process.
Mr. Hill is a directing graduate of the UNCSA School of Drama Class of 2003. He is presently the assistant dean and general manager of the UNCSA School of Dance. Before joining his alma mater, he worked for The Producing Office (Kevin McCollum & Jeffrey Seller), producers of “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “De La Guarda,” and Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme.”