From the Field

“Describe the Night” in Houston while Hurricane Harvey Raged – a first hand account of directing under pressure by Giovanna Sardelli

 

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Describe the Night on the Alley’s Marquee 
photo: Giovanna Sardelli

On Tuesday I began packing my bags, which was unexpected since I had arrived in Houston, TX only a week earlier to begin rehearsals on the World Premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s Describe The Night. Hurricane Harvey had been raging since Saturday and on Tuesday we’d taken advantage of a brief break in the near constant rain to walk down to the Alley Theatre. What greeted us was a heartbreaking sight of waist high floodwater and an alarm sounding from a door that had been breached and from which water was pouring into the theater. We were completely unprepared for what greeted us because only a block away there had been no visible flooding.

It had been a whirlwind of a week, as it always is when you launch a new play in a new city. We were already acutely aware of the brief rehearsal period we had for this epic play when the weather reports started rolling in and there was talk of cancelling rehearsal for a day or two. On Friday, when the magnitude of Harvey was clear, rehearsal was cancelled for Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, rehearsal was cancelled until Tuesday. On Tuesday, rehearsal was cancelled…indefinitely.

There is nothing like being stuck in a hotel during a hurricane for cast bonding.  I mean, avoid it if possible and stick to theater games and trust exercises, but if it is unavoidable, then know you’re really going to see the kind of people with whom you are working. It turned out, I was with people who are as generous and thoughtful as they are talented. Over the weekend, everyone had volunteered at least one day at the Red Cross shelter near the hotel.

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Downtown Houston after Harvey      photo: Giovanna Sardelli

 

Wednesday, when the hurricane had passed and we were left with a taunting, trickling rain, Rajiv and I, along with cast member Stephen Stocking, decided to take a walk down to the Alley to see how bad the damage was.  The Alley building itself looked like a critical care patient with tubes sticking out of every orifice – pumping out water and guck. Standing in front of the building we saw Ten Eyck Swackhamer, Dean Gladdon, Butch Mach, and Ray Inkel (the General Manager, Managing Director, Board President, and Production Manager respectively). Standing amidst all that devastation, they told us that they had already secured an alternate performance space at the University of Houston and that the show would be opening on schedule. How in the world had they had time to make all that happen while also dealing with their own personal hurricane related issues?! We were shocked and grateful beyond belief. Forgive the hyperbole, but it truly felt like a miracle that the show would be happening at all.

Now the fun began. We had one day to redesign the show from a theater in the round performance to a thrust stage. We lost all of our automation and several of our larger set items. The Alley itself lost all of their props to flood damage. Anything that had been preserved for our show was carried down 16 flights of stairs because there wasn’t any electricity to run the elevators. Tim Mackabee, our set designer was in tech for another show so we spent his dinner break on a phone conference making the necessary changes. Lap Chi Chu, lighting designer, had to do a completely different plot since we now had to rely on what the University could provide.

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Jeffrey Bean as Isaac, Todd Waite as Nikolai,and Liv Rooth as Yevgenia in Alley Theatre’s World Premiere of Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph. Photo: Lynn Lane.

As many of the costume pieces were locked in a building to which we no longer had access, Amy Clark had to get creative since the color palette had to be altered completely.

I have never created in such a frenzy and with such a desire to make sure we delivered a product that was worthy of all this extra time, energy, and the investment from the theater. We couldn’t get our entire cast back together until the Saturday of that week because one person had wisely left town with her one-month old son, another was without power, and it took another a day to figure out a route to travel that avoided all the flooded road ways.

We moved our rehearsals to the 55th floor of an empty office building that became the temporary rehearsal hall and costume shop for the Alley. 8 days later, we went into tech.

I’ve directed under pressure – or at least I thought I had – but nothing like this. It was utterly exhausting, overwhelming at times, but always exhilarating. When we presented our one and only run thru prior to tech, it was for a staff of people whom we all knew were creating art in the midst of some serious personal issues. We were blown away by their dedication and their support. We were all galvanized into action.

The circumstances from Harvey forced us all to ask what was absolutely essential to the story telling.  What was the absolute best way to maximize the time we had? How do I most empower the actors to tell this remarkable and challenging story while I honor that we are moving at a pace that makes summer stock seem luxurious?

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Jason Babinsky as Vova in Alley Theatre’s World Premiere of Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph.    Photo:  Lynn Lane.

Something beautiful was born from all that chaos. We have a production about which we are all proud and that we believe is extraordinary, regardless of the circumstances under which it was created.

We have forged new, deep friendships, and I have a profound respect and admiration for the staff and supporters of the Alley Theater.  Additionally, I have gained perspective about what constitutes a tragedy or a crisis when putting on a show -if it ain’t a hurricane, it isn’t worthy of the worry.

To quote an African Proverb: Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. While I’ve left Houston, my thoughts and prayers are with the people for whom the devastation from Harvey is something they will deal with for a long time to come. I am grateful that we could provide audiences with a measure of distraction and that I have left Houston with more skills than with which I arrived.

NOTE: Describe the Night can be seen next in NYC in a limited engagement at Atlantic Theater Company;  performances begin November 10, 2017 through Sunday, December 24, 2017.

Sardelli   Giovanna Sardelli has staged Rajiv Joseph’s Off-Broadway world premieres of Huck & Holden, Animals Out of Paper, All This Intimacy and The Leopard and The Fox, as well as the world premiere of Archduke at The Mark Taper Forum and the West Coast premiere of Guards at the Taj at The Geffen Playhouse, which received the 2017 Ovation  Award for Best Production of a Play. 

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