‘Conviction’ on Its Way

A drama by Carey Crim that will begin its world premiere run at the Bay Street Theatre
Scott Schwartz, the director, and Carey Crim, the author of “Conviction,” at left, exchanged ideas with the cast during an early rehearsal in New York. Bill Hutchison and Elizabeth Reasor had their backs to the camera, while opposite them were Sarah Paulson, Daniel Burns, and Garret Dillahunt. Barry Gordin

    They came together in a rehearsal studio on 42nd Street in the Broadway district on May 5 to embark on an artistic journey.

    “Conviction,” a drama by Carey Crim that will begin its world premiere run at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Tuesday, was about to receive its first read through, the very first step in what would have to be an intense rehearsal period.

    Jessie Vacchiano, the production stage manager, had pulled two long tables together, and 15 people sat around them with Ms. Crim at the head. To her right was Scott Schwartz, the theater’s new artistic director, who is directing this first production of the season.

    That the rehearsal schedule was so short is necessitated by the realities of modern regional theater. Mr. Schwartz has assembled a cast with strong credits crossing over from theater to television and film. While theater may be an actor’s true love, it is the latter two that pay the bills.

    On Ms. Crim’s left were Garret Dillahunt, Sarah Paulson, and Daniel Burns. Mr. Dillahunt plays Tom Hodges, a popular high school teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student. Ms. Paulson plays his wife, Leigh, and Mr. Burns his son, Nicholas.

    Opposite the threesome sat Brian Hutchison and Elizabeth Reasor, cast as a couple who start the play as the Hodges family’s closest friends. Also at the table were designers, assistant stage managers, and another actor, Chloe Dirksen, Ms. Paulson’s understudy, who is scheduled to step in for one performance.

    Ms. Vacchiano handed out the scripts, and the actors began going page by page on their own, using bright yellow highlighters to mark out their lines.

    Surrounding the core group at the table were another 20 or so people, seated in a semicircle, including more designers, assistants, and some of the theater’s producing team. Co-producing “Conviction,” along with Bay Street, are Rubicon Theatre in California, Dead Posh Productions of London, and Canada’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

    Jessica Ford, the costume designer, pulled actors away from the table one at a time to take measurements. “Ladies and gentleman, we’re starting,” Ms. Vacchiano announced. Everyone took their seats.

    Within a day or two, Ms. Vacchiano will have marked the floor of the studio with spike tape to recreate the set design in real space. Set pieces will be brought in as needed to further the actors’ understanding of the actual playing space. Ms. Vacchiano will record every move the actors make during rehearsal in a prompt book. These recorded movements, called blocking, allow actors to know where their fellow thespians will be at all times. The prompt book, which becomes the production’s bible and roadmap, is a script where blocking as well as all the cues, from lights to music to sound, are marked. As revisions are made to the script, Ms. Vacchiano would record them, too.

    The actors will experiment with their movements onstage during the rehearsal process, with each variation recorded. Eventually, they will lock in on their blocking. It will be Ms. Dirksen’s responsibility, when she steps in to play the role as directed by Mr. Schwartz and recorded in Ms. Vacchiano’s prompt book.

    “Any process of creating new work in theater is a process of stepping into the unknown,” Mr. Schwartz told those assembled on May 5. “This process will be a journey of discovery. Right now, it is very exciting, but it is also mysterious. There are twists and turns, bumps in the road, that we can’t see now.”

    Ms. Crim spoke to the room about the impetus for creating “Conviction,” describing two cases that caught her eye in which a teacher was accused of having sexual relations with a teenage student. “How does that effect the family?” she asked. “What do you do when you don’t know?”

    “This is a play about relationships, and lives changed by a single event,” Mr. Schwartz added.

    Theater designers have a somewhat unique position in the arts, in that their work is both creative and practical. The most beautiful set or costume in the world is useless if the actors can’t enter and exit easily, or get a quick change done backstage in time for the next scene.

    The set designer spoke to the group next. Anna Louizos stood next to an illuminated scale model. “This is a thrust space. Sightlines are crucial,” said Ms. Louizos, who has been nominated twice for Tony Awards for her work on Broadway. “One of the visual images we talk about early on is, ‘This is a glass house.’ ” Ms. Louizos designed a naturalistic set that is, in essence, a skeleton of a house.

    While she would still do little nip-and-tucks, her journey with “Conviction” was almost complete by May 5, at least for this production. She began working on the design last September in consultation with Mr. Schwartz.

    Mr. Schwartz touched on the practical elements of the design. There are two aisles that run through the audience, right to the stage. “We may use the voms for exits.” Also, he told the group, the only upstage exit is stage left. “We have to keep this in mind as we block.”

    Ms. Ford, the costume designer, had already met with Mr. Schwartz “to make sure that I was at the right starting point,” she said. She stood by sketches she had done for the cast and explained her vision to the company. She stressed the realistic quality of the show. It is her goal that the costumes reflect the audience, in a sense. “These are real people in the suburbs,” she said.

    One scene from “Conviction” shows the two men coming home from a basketball game. “Can they be Bulls fans?” the costume designer asked, having a certain look in mind. Mr. Hutchison pointed out that “there is a mention of Cape May” in the play, far from Chicago.

    “Oh well. Go, Dragons!” Ms. Ford joked, making up a team name.

    “I was thinking of the transitions, and how we are going to make them,” she said later about that first reading. A quick change backstage during a play is a complicated maneuver. “You have to rehearse them in time. You choreograph it like you would a dance,” she said. Instead of using buttons and zippers, costume designers will frequently substitute Velcro.

    The sound designer’s job illustrates the combination of form and function in theater. Throughout the read-through that day, Bart Fassbender took notes, particularly focusing on the scene changes Ms. Crim wrote into the play. Music will cover the transitions from scene to scene, he said. The sound design, he said, is something you get a feel for during the rehearsal process, what will fit the mood and texture of the piece. One thing there won’t be are microphones for the actors. “There really aren’t any bad seats in the theater,” he said about Bay Street’s intimate house.

    “We want to focus on the different layers,” Mr. Schwartz said before the company took its first break. “We want to be honest. This is such an honest piece,” he said.

    The break done, Ms. Vacchiano reassembled the company around the table to begin the read through. She clicked her stopwatch. “Lights fade,” an assistant stage manager read. The actors began reading. They were on their way.
 

Taking a break from rehearsal, Bill Hutchison, Elizabeth Reasor, Sarah Paulson, the playwright Carey Crim, the director Scott Schwartz, and Daniel Burns and Garret Dillahunt, cast members, shared a light moment. Barry Gordin