Sketches from Rehearsal in The Dining Room – Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Today I played a middle-aged sister, a six-year-old daughter, an Irish maid, a frustrated Masters’ student, and an elderly grandmother. And that’s just Act 1. We did a run-through today, and now I’m questioning my ‘transition’ strategy; how to jump from playing one character to the next in just a few moments. Physical cues are a big part of it – the way I hold my spine, the weight of my feet, my walk…and breath! Even as I write this, I’m wondering if I’ve fully considered breath. Surely an elderly woman breathes differently from a small child? And costume, of course—thank goodness for our diligent designer. Casual clothes make me stand and behave very differently than, say, a starched maid’s uniform. After the run-through today, I’m realizing I need to work on a strategy for shaking off characters too, how to clear one scene out of my head to prepare for the next. Otherwise, I’m going to be late for my entrance in scene 16 again…
We (the cast, director and assistant director and stage-management team) talk a lot about our own families in the rehearsal hall. More than is usual, I think. Each scene brings up anecdotes and observation from our own life, our relationships with partners, parents, siblings, the way we were disciplined as children, the way we argue with relatives, the way we grieve or prepare for loss. I am grateful for this: everyone’s contributions are helping me understand scenes and characters from stages of life I have yet to reach, or eras of the past I can’t remember.
Some of us have been reading Tad Friend’s autobiography, “Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor,” because while I believe everyone can recognize themselves and their family’s features and flaws in The Dining Room, many of the characters (and the playwright) come from a distinctly privileged, New England background. Some of the stories and vocabulary (how often do most people use “propitiate” in a sentence?) in the play are echoed in Mr. Friend’s book: stories of diminishing wealth passed down through generations; of servants that were part of the family but not quite; patriarchs with strongly valued traditions and etiquette, who struggle with sensitivity and emotion. Big drinkers. Pride. Deeply felt but unspoken love, sometimes expressed in passing along heirlooms, like a dining room table and chairs.
My parents didn’t have a dining room. To quote the play, “We ate in the kitchen.” Nor do I have one now, in my small Toronto apartment (again the show echoes: “Does Debbie want a dining room? In a condo? In Denver?”) But my grandmother’s dining room was the seat of family tradition when I was a kid. There was an oriental rug on the floor, a huge china cabinet against the wall, an oak sideboard filled with cutlery and crystal glasses. There was a rubbing of St. George on the wall, and two big sliding doors overlooking her garden. The table was dark, glossy, and big. With the extra leaves in, it could seat ten. In The Dining Room, there’s a scene where a character crawls beneath her table and is shocked to discover “it’s all just wood …just a couple of big wide boards.” I remember crawling under my grandmother’s table when I was small, during a holiday dinner. I remember seeing everyone’s knees, mum and dad, my aunts and uncles, brothers and sister, my grandma at the head of the table. I felt absolutely safe. Grandma and that room have been gone for 16 years, but I can perfectly remember how the room smelled – candles, and varnish, and wax, and wood.
The Dining Room goes on stage Feb 5. Directed by Joseph Ziegler and featuring Derek Boyes, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Brenda Robins and Sarah Wilson.