Behind the Curtain: “Nicholas Nickleby”
Orlando Shakespeare Theater has been anticipating the start of Nicholas Nickleby for at least a year or more. In August, I began as one of four Stage Management Apprentices for this season, so I’ve only just begun to see what the hype has been about. I haven’t read much Dickens, and only previously understood that the production will be the largest ever in the history of our Theater. To paint the picture: we have one stage manager, six assistant stage managers (1 Equity, 4 Orlando Shakes apprentices, and 1 UCF Student), two directors, and 27 actors in rehearsal daily. Add on a full production staff and the various shops and administrative staff and we’ve got more than 75 people (math is hard) working hard on this production! The set design is intricate and beautiful, encompassing the entirety of the Margeson Theatre. And the costumes; we have one whole wall in our main rehearsal space covered in costume plates. There are over 200 designs and some actors have more than 10 different costumes to change in and out of throughout the show. Only being about two weeks into rehearsal, it already feels like we’ve accomplished so much!
Stage management prep began a week before rehearsals, although one of the other ASMs and I started some paperwork a week before that to get ahead. With some of our stage management team balancing Orlando Shakes’ holiday production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play as well, the (wo)man power during the normal prep week was limited. Despite the challenges of prep week, when it came time for the first rehearsal, the 50 or so informational packets, 4 call boards, and 2 rehearsal spaces were as ready as could be for the Nickleby company.
A typical Nickleby rehearsal day is 9 ½ hours long with a one and a half hour break. Stage management arrives at least 30 minutes prior to rehearsal to prepare coffee (most importantly!) and the rehearsal halls (setting temperatures, props, and rehearsal furniture). We work in two separate rehearsal spaces, which is incredibly convenient when working on multiple things at one time, but is also a challenge. All of our rehearsal props and costumes are kept in one hall and have to be tracked back and forth for each rehearsal block. Because the times are usually back-to-back, we have to prepare at the top of the day and/or on a break for multiple scenes. Sometimes we forget things, which happens, but we are fortunate to be working with a creative cast and pair of directors who can push through obstacles and improvise while a real prop is being retrieved.
Because of the size of this show, there are a lot of things for stage management to keep track of. Before beginning rehearsals, we assigned responsibilities that each ASM would specifically focus on throughout the rehearsal period. Paige and I are working on Costumes, Rachel is on rehearsal furniture and shifts, Grace is on props, and Micah is on script updates and understudies. Paige and I have been preparing documents that will track which actor is which character during which scene and where any quick changes take place. (There are a ton of these, many happening between about 5 lines of dialogue! We’ve already had to change around some actors/characters to accommodate quick changes.) This tracking will greatly help the wardrobe team once we get into tech. Rachel had to organize the pulling of rehearsal furniture based on the scenic design. Of course, as the creative process goes on, new pieces are added and removed. Props has been quite an undertaking; the script only indicates so much before the actors jump into the characters and discover that a certain prop would benefit them. For example, our actor playing Newman Noggs requested a flask to drink from throughout the show after learning that he may be an alcoholic. Our Costume Designer also rendered many of the characters with props, so that gave us something to go off of.
We’ve made it through almost two full weeks of rehearsals. Out of 5 acts, we’ve completely blocked 1 and 2 (which makes up all of Part I), and have begun to block some of Acts 3 and 4. We’ve had one rough run through of both Acts 1 and 2. Putting the pieces together has been another challenge that we’re learning to conquer. We make a point as a stage management team to communicate what goes on in the different rehearsal spaces, but having not witnessed every scene before a rough run through, we don’t always know how each one is tied together in the flow of the show. Another challenge has been dealing with some sickness. Our Acting Interns are doing double duty with Nickleby rehearsals and Wonderful Life performances, so a few of them have come down with a cold. We’ve had one director, two ASMs, and a few other actors with colds as well. I suppose that’s just what happens when you get 30+ new people around each other daily working on a repertory production, on top of Florida’s bipolar weather in the winter months. Needless to say, we keep pushing through and work around these challenges. Aside from that, after just two weeks, the company is quite strong. They have already begun to bond as friends outside of rehearsals. The cast is so enthusiastic to be a part of this project, which makes working with them that much more enjoyable.
One of my favorite parts of being an assistant stage manager is listening to the discussions between the directors and actors about the characters and the play as a whole. I’ve heard an interesting discussion about how the title describes this as “The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby“, but it’s really a journey for all of the characters involved. The audience unfamiliar with the plot should know that this is definitely an ensemble cast and story. Certainly, the core of the plot is following Nicholas’ life, but the tale wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the colorful, distinct characters that Dickens has created for Nicholas to meet. The actors are passionately discovering these characters (some of them have 3 or 4 principals in the show). I am constantly finding myself impressed with this talented team of people; I look forward to the progress we will continue to make and to the opening of both parts of this epic production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby!