Further Reading

Further Reading


Renascence The Musical

Renascence is the story of a few years in the life of a young Edna St. Vincent Millay. But this is no bio-drama, rather it is a theatrical exploration by six contemporary and singular theatre practitioners (the cast!) of what it means to be an artist and a person-and if one can be both-using Millay's poetry, and select but heightened facts about her life, as the means of that exploration.  Think of it as Six Actors In Search of a Poem.

There are several ways we structured our production in service of this idea. For starters, we did not cast age-appropriate actors, but skewed younger. Millay heralded the cultural/sexual revolution that was the Jazz Age almost a decade before its arrival. We wanted our cast to have the same feeling of "tomorrow" that Millay's words had when she wrote them. In addition, we searched for actors who defy easy categorization, i.e. who don't fit easily into any so-called "type." Millay had to create her own category because no one like her existed before she did. We wanted actors who face that same challenge, and gave them an opportunity to create their own categories through their performances in Renascence.

From a costume perspective, we went full on contemporary but curated. We told our costume designer (the wonderful Ásta Bennie Hostetter) to study the portraits of interestingly attired, ordinary New Yorkers captured by legendary New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, and then to create outfits that each actor might wear to catch Bill Cunningham's eye. These outfits reflected the actor as much if not more than the character s/he was portraying.

To forge the bond among our company, we created space for them to talk. We set the topic for their first conversation on day one of rehearsal, asking them to share their dreams, what they perceived as the obstacles to those dreams, and how they intended to overcome those obstacles. We then-and this was crucial!-left the room. We cleared it of everyone but the six actors and gave them 20 minutes to talk. They seemed wary… but when we knocked on the door to give them a two-minute warning that their time was almost up, they pleaded for more time. After that, there was no need to guide their discussions. We'd leave the room and let them have at it for 20 minutes. We never-this was also crucial!-asked about or unpacked those discussions. Sometimes we'd hear raucous laughter coming through the door; sometimes, when we re-entered the rehearsal hall, it was clear that tears had been shed. Whatever happened in that room, the intimacy that developed among our six actors was evident during every moment of every performance.

Which leads me to performance style: playful but honest. The show is frankly theatrical, and the actors' transformations from one role to another (not to mention their interactions with the audience at the top of Act II) are fun for cast and audience alike. That shouldn't veer into performances that are directed at the audience for its approval. No: each of these artists has a dream, knows each other's dreams, and understands the challenges each actor faces in living her/his dream. They hold each other's dreams during this exploration, in the hopes that, by the end of it, each will have found the faith and fortitude to hold the dream for her/himself, and make that dream come true.

It's crucial that there is space in the rehearsal process for Millay's poems to be analyzed and discussed. Those early days of rehearsal, when music is being taught, is an ideal time to do this. For example, while the actress that plays Mother is learning "Lament," the actor that plays Father can be exploring "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," together with the director. We had a separate space we called "Poetry Corner" (yes, we made a sign). Our dramaturge, Dr. Stephanie Prugh, became a poetry expert to explain the difference between a ballad and a sonnet, what the word "tetrametric" means, etc. Co-director Jack Cummings and I were careful to facilitate these conversations so that the information presented was in service of making each poem actable (as opposed to purely academic analysis). The bulk of the exploration focused on where the poem and its language, theme and arc resonated with the actor charged with performing that poem on stage. For the poems that involved more than one actor ("Travel," for example, involves the entire cast), the whole gang gathered in Poetry Corner. These conversations were deeply personal, and not just from the actors' perspective: the entire team would open itself up to Millay's wisdom and her wounds. Focusing on the poems as objects outside ourselves prevented these sessions from feeling like therapy. And the actors welcomed the intellectual engagement, because so often they are told stand here, move there and don't ask why. We urged our actors to ask why. And who, what, where, when, how.

We staged our show so that all actors were visible at all times, until the last few scenes of Act II when three of our actors discreetly exited so they could make the reveal of Act III happen. We built a stage over the first few rows of the audience, flanked by stairs. We did not seat audience members in the seats on either side of the stage, but used those seats for actors to sit in during parts of the play, i.e. Father's isolation from the family. Watching the actors watch each other was part of the joy of the show. Renascence is constructed so that every actor has her/his moment(s) to dazzle. Given the bond our cast formed, there was no competition, only support as they witnessed each other's gifts.

The expression I hear most often to describe Renascence is "sui generis," meaning "of its own kind." These notes are intended to convey a sense of how we achieved that; they are by no means prescriptive. Your sui generis needn't look like ours. Use Millay's words (plus my words and Carmel's music) but find your own poem! Because it isn't just Six Actors In Search of a Poem, it's the entire company: creative team, stage management, designers, crew, musicians, house staff. If everyone is searching, trust me, what you discover will be glorious.

"Renascence" The Poem

The decision to end our story with a 25-minute performance of the poem "Renascence" was one we didn't know would work until we got the show in front of an audience.

It worked.

It was never our intention that the audience would understand every word of the poem. We've been analyzing it since 2013, and I wouldn't say we understand every word. In fact, "Renascence" is in many ways the most complex poem in the show, which is interesting because it is one of Millay's earliest poems. It is also one of the only purely metaphysical poems Millay wrote. Many of the poems she's known for, e.g. "First Fig," are akin to Dorothy Parker, albeit much more literary. But "Renascence" is a meditation, a hallucination, a search for/discovery of God (which can mean art, nature, love… whatever gets you through the hard times). We were gratified that many audience members were in tears through much of it, especially in the poem's final, numinous moments. They took the journey, even if some of the language washed over them. This is a credit to the power of Millay's poem and Carmel's music-but it's also a reflection of our effectiveness at theatricalizing it. Here are some of the things we did that helped us. You may use these or any other techniques to render your version of "Renascence."

Our music director taught the actors the entire score up to "Renascence" before teaching them Carmel's setting of the poem, because the music in "Renascence" is largely variations on themes used throughout the show, and familiarity with the score will help actors learn it faster. We also spent several sessions in Poetry Corner reading and discussing "Renascence." (See "Author's Note: Renascence The Musical"). When we started staging the show, we divided our days so that mornings were spent staging Act I and Act II scenes (in chronological order), and after lunch we'd work on "Renascence" (staged out of sequence by our choreographer, Scott Rink, then fitted together). The last hour or so was usually devoted to music brush up, for "Renascence" and other songs.

Our six singing actors were not dancers, per se, but in effect they formed a dance troupe. Scott did a brilliant job of physicalizing Millay's poem without turning it into a game of charades, i.e. moments so literal as to be obvious, reductive or goofy. Each of our cast moved differently, but together they learned how to move and breathe as one. Their individual need to answer the questions posed in the poem-forged in our discussions-activated their performances so they weren't presenting the poem to an audience; rather they were taking a journey they had to take to come to grips with their own souls.

It's crucial that the director and choreographer (and by extension the cast) understand the specific storytelling beats in "Renascence." It can feel like the narrator is dying over and over again, and then being resurrected over and over again, but closer examination of the text will bring the clarity needed to see this is not the case. The narrator begins the poem feeling the smallness of the world around her; she wants to see what is beyond, but when she does, what she sees is horrific in the extreme; she can't look away so she yearns to die so as not to see more horror; she does not die, but is pushed into the ground by the weight of her newfound knowledge; she is relieved to not be able to see the pain she had witnessed, and death comes as the ultimate relief; once dead, it occurs to the narrator the myriad splendors, large and small, she'll miss by not being alive; this realization grows in intensity and specificity until she yearns to be alive again; she begs for a miracle to bring her back to life; the miracle takes some time to manifest; she is astonished, humbled and overjoyed to be resurrected; she knows that whatever horror she might see, she will also see God wherever she looks; she is warned what happens when people live a soulless life.

From a staging perspective, we made the unexpected choice to move the audience from one part of the theatre (the house) to another (the stage), but we realize that is not possible in all venues (or desirable to all creative teams). The stage direction describes our Act III set as "… a surround of blue sky with soft clouds, and a circular green grass playing space on stage surrounded by chairs," and then characterizes it is as "… bright like a child's playroom, but formalized in a way that invites ritual; this is where creativity meets spirituality." The transition from the environment of deprivation and austerity in which the story has unfolded during the first two acts into the limitlessness of an artist's imagination can be achieved simply by changing the set. But make it a big change, i.e. think "Loveland" from Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies. The world we've been looking at/living in should transform completely. Don't rush this change: it's crucial that the audience have a sonic break before the onslaught of words that is "Renascence." An emotional break, too: those last scenes of Act II are powerful, and the audience is in a vulnerable place, exactly where we want them to be in order to need the epiphany that occurs at the climax of Act III. This isn't to suggest there be a second intermission: No! Don't shatter the mood! Our reveal happened rather quickly with the rise of the curtain, but it took a few minutes to move our audience, which provided our break. If you're not moving your audience, consider elongating the reveal (See "Appendix A"). Let the audience see the world transforming from a world of "no" into a world where anything is possible. There is beautiful music to cover this transition, so let it be leisurely and give the audience a chance to reset its ears for what's to come, which is, after all, the raison d'être of the show.

Though it is our intention that Renascence The Musical be first and foremost a personal exploration for the artists involved (as opposed to a Wikipedia page about Edna St. Vincent Millay), it's worth noting that the climax of her legendary poem (written when she was 19!) and the climax of our show is a resurrection. In a sense, Millay, her parents, her sisters, her lovers, all who touched her and all she touched, come alive again at every performance of this poem. That is also one of the themes of the show: great artists sometimes break the hearts of those they love in service of a creation that immortalizes those same people-if not literally, then spiritually. If this sounds mystical, it is intended to. I've created many pieces for the theatre, and watched thousands more (literally), but I've not experienced a spiritual quest dramatized this way before. I am changed as a person because of it-reborn, in fact, which is what the word "renascence" means. I hope you can say the same after you find your "Renascence."

Dick Scanlan
April, 2019