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Thompson has attended every rehearsal, where they
often explain how they visualized a particular scene.
"It's good to be around," Simpson, a UNC creative
writing professor, said. "New plays really do take a lot of
fiddling with and tinkering with. A lot of times something
better will come out by accidental interpretation."
During the grueling four-week rehearsal period, there's
plenty of time for fiddling around with the play and with
in the play as the Red Clay Ramblers improvise on the
Imagine a typical rehearsal session midway between
the initial discussions of what motivates each actor and
the first technical rehearsal, complete with lights and
The Red Clay Ramblers, who specialize in old-timey
music, gather around a piano beside the stage and prac
tice the same song for an hour. Director David Rotenberg
sits on the steps in an aisle, chewing gum and watching
intently. Choreographer Laurie Boyd pirouettes in a cor
ner of the stage, or rather, on the deck of the steamboat
Alexander Scott, and actress Kee Strong slips on a hoop
skirt over shorts. Stage manager Kimberly Kearsley
doesn't have any stage hands yet and ends up lugging
most of the Aleck Scott's cargo across the stage.
From 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., with a two-hour dinner break,
the 19-member cast usually rehearses with the crew. It's
exhausting and invigorating at the same time.
When a non-singing scene claims center stage, musical
numbers are practiced in the lobby, utilizing almost all of
the available space.
As stage manager, Kimberly Kearsley coordinates all
the technical aspects of the show, from handling the de
mands of the director and designers to giving the cues for
UNC Photo Lab
observed the young Samuel Clemens played by John Daggan.
n r V if
Kee Strong portrays Florence Williker, who sparks a
romantic interest in the young Samuel Clemens.
lights and sound effects. Kearsley also makes sure that
everything involving the actors is ship-shape at work and
at the actors' house, where the out-of-towners live. "It's a
basic psychology," she said, "As long as somebody knows
that somebody else cares and is willing to help."
In addition, Kearsley makes the daily schedule, times
the scenes and oversees the prompt book. "Everything is
in pencil," she said. "Sometimes it never gets inked in."
Laurie Boyd, while choreographing her first Carolina
production, has been concentrating on "roughing in" the
movement. She aims for the overall effect, instead of do
ing one part over and over again before moving in.
"There's nothing quite iike the stage
for the immediate relationship be
tween yourself and the audience:
portrays two roles
"Even if they're unsure, I can tell if the form is
working," she said. After the form is down-pat, then Boyd
can concentrate on the details if the actors' hands are
in the right place, if heads are turning at the same time
and if they all have their legs raised the right height,
"If you rehease that much, that thorough, that often,
when opening night comes, you don't have junk in the
way, and don't have nerves that come from fear," said
Strong, a third-year graduate student whose husband Ken
is also in the play.
"It's fun and enjoyable. Strong said. "But there's a
sense of 'business is business "
Simpson and Thompson are grateful for the sugges
tions that the actors offer as they understand their char
acters better. "We had Twain saying, 'Yeah but he
wouldn't have said that." Simpson said, "Harper automa
tically changed it to 'yes "
"If s a good thing they care. These are the people who
are going to sell this material, make it work."
The actors had different ways of approaching their
roles, ranging from painstaking research to just plain
Ellen Crawford, who has two roles, was a last-minute
replacement when the original actress broke her arm, so
she hardly had a chance to prepare before rehearsals
started. "Mostly I just packed," she said. "Then I ran out
and bought a copy of Life on the Mississippi and discov
ered that none of my characters were in it."
One of her characters, a New Orleans voodoo queen
named Marie Laveau, was a real person whom Simpson
and Thompson inserted to spice up the shenanigans.
Crawford researched her and the subject of voodoo, even
learning Louisiana's Cajun dialect with the help of fellow
cast member David Romero.
Crawford, who played the world's oldest living nun in
Broadway's "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really
Reflect UP?" also portrays a femme fatale, the first
woman to treat Sam like a man.
By inspecting costume plates, Crawford gained insight
into the chivalry of the hoop-skirt era. "I realize why men
hold open doors for women and pull out chairs for
them," she said. "Back then there was no other way to
navigate, no way you could do it yourself."
Carolina faculty member Patricia Barnett, a PRC
veteran, remembered Twain's steamboating stories but
hit a snag with the hoop skirt. "It's a little like wearing a
harness," she said.
Playing a proper matron, she's made two discoveries:
"If you walk pigeon-toed you can make the hoop skirt
sway," she said, "and if they pitched the music at the
bass-baritone level, I could sing."
And what about a singing Mark Twain? That's almost
as incredible as a singing James Harper, who grabbed one
of the four non-singing roles in the Broadway revival of
West Side Story.
"My agent and casting director said, 'Oh, come in and
audition for Mark Twain. You don't have to sing too
much. It's just a play with music " Harper said. "Then I
find out it's a musical."
, Harper read Twain's autobiography in order to charac
terize a man who is legendary as a character. But Harper
said, "Some of that stuff doesn't help when you're doing
a musical fantasy version. I just think, 'This is how James
Harper would do something. How would Mark Twain
Harper doesn't lose himself in the character to the
point of thinking that he really is Twain when he's on
stage. "Irs your own intelligence that brings" life to the
character," he says. "I am the one listening to the beat of
the music because I have to sing to it."
Sam Clemens is played by former Carolina graduate
student John Daggan, but Daggan didn't expect to return
to UNC so quickly. "Usually they cast a student in the
roles I would play," Daggan said. "I've got one of those
faces that is ageless. I'm 28 playing a 16-year-old."
Daggan has never been to the Mississippi, but from
looking at picture books, he could probably pilot a
steamboat down the river. He's not just aimlessly spin
ning the wheel around. It gives the actor a reality to hold
onto. If if s real for the actor, it's real for the audience.
For his first play at Lenoir-Rhyne, Daggan came with
his lines memorized, which he said, "infinitely disgusted
the rest of the class and appalled the director." He has
not done that since so he will not get a certain reading
stuck in his mind.
Author Thompson is tripling as the banjo player for the
Red Clay Ramblers and pilot Horace Bixby, but he would
have been content to sit in the audience and watch his
Yet Bixby was a character that Thompson "looked
after" during the writing process. "With a little bit of
luck, I was looking out for him enough so that by being
myself, I'll be Bixby," Thompson said. "I haven't done
anything except say my lines the same way I have in
every theatrical thing I've ever been in'
. Although Mel Johnson, Jr., who plays the roustabout
Coe, was m Eubie! for a year and a half he was excited to
get back to the creativity of regional theatre and the thrill
of a new piece.
"You're putting your stamp on it and don't have to
conform to anybody's views of how they played the
character," Johnson said.
The only problem is the shortness of the two-week run.
"After two weeks, you're coming to some kinds of reali
zations," Johnson said. "You've barely scratched the sur
face. That last day, something will come to you, and
you'll say, 'God, I wish I could try that again tomorrow "
"There's nothing quite like the stage for the immediate
relationship between yourself and the audience," Ellen
Crawford said. "Thaf s what makes it not as easy as pre
tending in your basement in your Mom's clothes."
Karen Rosen is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel.