This post is by Keiko Suda, playing the role of Judy in Balm in Gilead. This post contains strong language, but so does the play.
“Shit, that was me.” I lost count of how many times I uttered that phrase during the rehearsal process for Balm in Gilead. The scene would be cracking, life onstage would be vibrant, then everything in the café would grind to a halt. Silence. Then, “shit, that was me.” The realization that the screeching on the record player was caused by my dropped line made me feel embarrassed at first, and for a perpetual over-analyzer like myself it would have been easy for me to get all up in my head about it, feeling like I was less prepared than everyone else, letting folks down, slowing down the process, etc. But a) Mr. Wilson, like his characters, just doesn’t have time for that kind of overindulgence, and b) five seconds later, the “shit, that was me” is coming out of someone else’s mouth too. Why is this relevant? Because the technical demands of this play are extraordinarily rigorous. In fact, daunting. The first time I read the play before rehearsals started, my confusion was so uncomfortable and disorienting that I had to put the play down half way through. I had no idea who was talking to whom or what they were even talking about. Mr. Wilson had turned me into an idiot. But really, that can be quite a good thing. I’m not used to entering a rehearsal process with no choices, let alone no fucking idea who I am even talking to. But welcoming, allowing, humoring, and working through that disorientation allowed for an unexpected fecundity (I love that word, it’s so sexy and dirty at the same time, like fucking someone on your period). Let me explain.
The pace, rhythm and musicality of the text are so exacting that a missed cue or an overindulgent pause can throw off the rhythm of the play, and with 23 people on stage, that can be magnified in a horrifying way. The mental focus required of the actor simply to execute the technical requirements of this play is enormous. But at the same time, Mr. Wilson created this vast canvas for improvisation. He might offer one line as insight into a two-hour conversation. These types of lines pepper the script. “Spices and things.” “She can just kiss it.” “Who you calling a whore?” On first inspection the written text is full of disjointed, undeveloped conversations. But in rehearsal these statements become invitations, captivating invitations, to explore the territory between two characters. Improvisation in the context and service of a scripted story.
At first, I would utter “shit that was me” because my cues were so baffling, but later, as we were deeper into rehearsal, I found that it would come because I was so caught up in the organic improvisation happening in the moment, that I would simply miss a cue. And finally, as the ensemble because more proficient at balancing the technical demands and the creative possibilities inherent in the play, we never heard it again. It is this integrated whole created as an ensemble that we hope to present to our audiences.
Be sure to buy your tickets for Balm in Gilead to hear Wilson’s complex language in action.