From first draft to final curtain
By Lance Vargas

As Jose Rivera watched the premiere of his play at the La Jolla Playhouse last Sunday night, he was witnessing the culmination of a project that began six years ago on a trip to Puerto Rico.

"When my father died and we buried him in Puerto Rico," said Rivera, "I spent a week down there with my mother's family and I spent a lot of time with my great aunt. She was complaining that her bed was haunted, and the ghost in her bed was her husband's mistress. The ghost would get in the bed and tell the old lady about all the sexual things she did with the husband. I found this fascinating."

Rivera's enamoration with his great aunt's seemingly mad confessions and the unrelenting aspects of spirituality and mysticism he experienced in Puerto Rican culture "took on a mind of its own," until he was finally moved to begin writing about it.

"Adoration of the Old Woman," a tale spun straight from the revelations of Rivera's great aunt - combined with a sub-plot about Puerto Rican independence - is the result.

Gathering the cast
Having been commissioned to write plays for La Jolla Playhouse during Des McAnuff's 1983-94 run as artistic director, Rivera wrote a play, "Cloud Tectonics," which premiered in 1995. He admitted he procrastinated on writing a second play until McAnuff returned in 2001 and came calling.

"When Des came back, he asked me, 'So what ever happened to that commission?' " Rivera remembered. "By that time, I did have an idea about what I wanted to do. So, once I started writing it, everything happened rather quickly."

From the Playhouse's commission and Rivera's visit to Puerto Rico sprang the genesis of "Adoration of the Old Woman." Rivera and the Playhouse began assembling a crew they felt would accurately execute the play as they wished for it to be performed. Among the first calls made at the end of 2001 was one to Jo Bonney, an Australian-born artist and director who directed one of Rivera's previous plays, "References to Salvadore Dali."

"Jose mentioned doing ('Adoration of the Old Woman') while we were doing 'References to Salvadore Dali,' " said Bonney. "Then, when the La Jolla Playhouse started getting serious about it and talked to him about finally doing it, Jose suggested that I get involved. It's kind of one of those incestuous little things where everyone knows each other in the theater scene."

The "incestuous little things" Bonney spoke of also led to the casting of several of the play's lead roles, among them, the "old woman" herself, Ivonne Coll.

"We already knew that there were some actors we wanted for three of the roles, even before we started," said Bonney, "People who had a history in Jose's plays or who we both knew very well and seemed to encompass everything we wanted in those characters. Particularly Ivonne Coll, because she has a long history of theater both in America and Puerto Rico. She is also very political and understands all the political aspects and history of Puerto Rico. She was the embodiment of this character and Jose had her in mind for the character even before I became involved."

A former Miss Puerto Rico and film, television and theater actress, Coll was the Puerto Rican authority during rehearsal. Her comments on the history, culture and politics of the island are vital to a play so fixated on Puerto Rican struggles and beliefs. Coll was also the only member of the cast who was raised in Puerto Rico. Among the other actors brought in early in the casting process were Rivera-favorite John Ortiz who plays Cheo, a young and fiery Puerto Rican nationalist, and Gary Perez as Ismael, a character who favors statehood for Puerto Rico.

The search to fill two remaining roles ended with the casting of Tamara Mello and Marisol Padilla Sanchez. Mello, who stars as the Old Woman's visiting great-granddaughter, is described by Bonney as looking "like she is 17 but has the skills of an older actress." Sanchez plays the ghost, Adoracion.

In casting Adoracion, Bonney, Rivera and Playhouse's Shirley Fishman were looking for an actor who not only had stunning beauty but also bore characteristics of an early 20th-century woman, free of a strong urban contemporary feel.

As casting was wrapping up, other positions were taking shape. Scenic designer Neil Patel, costume designer Emilio Sosa, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, sound designer Darron West, fight director Steve Rankin and Voice and dialect coach Eva Wielgat Barnes joined the crew for tech rehearsals.

Time to rehearse
Tech rehearsals are when the cast and crew of a play finally begin to rehearse in the actual theater where the play will be performed. The set is in place. The costumes have been made. The lighting is set, and the sound effects and score are often implemented to assist the actors with
cues.

While actors often learn their lines before tech rehearsal, it is in this period where the script is tinkered with and, as is often the case with a premiere, lines are either moved from one section of the script to another or added, removed and changed at the whim of the director or writer.

The changes can affect an actor's preparationfor a performance by adding
more details to remember.

"Sometimes you have to throw away entire ideas about who you thought this character was and replace them with new ones," said Mello. "It's a really interesting process."

The lighting and sound technicians are set up on tables positioned where audience members will sit on opening night. This helps open up communication between cast and crew. Once the play begins its run, the tables are removed and the equipment and technicians sit behind a glass window above the audience.

All of the play's lighting and sounds are saved to pre-determined settings arranged by the director and technicians. The sounds of frogs or a helicopter flying overhead or even the light of candles behind the stage can be triggered with the flick of a switch. The changing of light from a television's glow to a single lantern can be saved to a preset as well.

After the appropriate number of settings has been determined, they are given a number and, from that point further, to achieve that setting, the number is simply called out by the director or stage manager, Diana Moser. All of the settings are maintained by various computers and software that makes the early days of theatrical sound effects and lighting pale in comparison.

Complicating matters for "Adoration of the Old Woman" is the fact that the stage is a revolving set. The entire play is set on and around a small stage that rotates with particular scene changes.
The stage is built to represent the Old Woman's small house and, as scenes move from room to room, the stage revolves to keep the action facing forward. Just like lighting and sound, the revolving stage is set to move at a predetermined speed and revolution.

As technicians are coping with the nuances of a revolving set, lighting and sound, the actors have their hands full with script changes and other adjustments. Kinks are worked out of the script on a daily basis and nothing runs as smoothly as one might expect.

In a particular day, Bonney can instruct Coll to "throw some more cuss words into that line" or ask Sanchez to make a particular line, "sound more raunchy."

Seemingly simple aspects of the play are examined with great detail during tech rehearsals. Fifteen-minute dissertations between Bonney and Mello on the subject of where the actor should stand or the relevance of the word "no" debated by Bonney and Ortiz are some of the tiny details ironed out.

Even as certain members of the cast become frustrated over rewrites or difficult scenes, it is Bonney who must remain composed. A theatrical veteran, her coolness is a necessary example for some of the play's less-experienced performers.

"I am the last one who should get stressed because the actors are taking a lot on by doing a new play. Lines are being pulled out from underneath them all the time," said Bonney. "I feel that if I in any way lose it, it's not fair to the actors who are taking the brunt of the changes."

Even with the stress factor, there is a good bit of jocularity during tech rehearsals. Coll, whose centenarian character is ravaged with a crooked back and bad posture, is feeling the effects of her slouching.

"Next time, I am going to work lower back massages into my contract," she joked. "My body is going crazy doing the posture of this character. It's taking a toll on my lower back and my shoulders and my hips - and my everything!"

In the final week of tech rehearsal, the cast and crew begin previews. Previews are performances that occur the week before opening in front of a full theater. Changes are still occurring night-to-night and the cast receives feedback concerning what is or isn't working. Previews for "Adoration of the Old Woman" began on Sept. 17.

As previews continue, the director and cast consider the feedback and make necessary changes. At the Sept. 23 preview, in mid-performance, the revolving mechanism breaks, and the actors are forced to adjust. Mello and Ortiz are on stage when the error occurs and finish their scene unfazed, even though the audience was aware something unscripted had happened.

"It actually worked out fine. There was a moment of panic, but it subsided," joked Bonney.

Opening night
The days before opening night occurs, final adjustments and alterations to the script and stage direction are made. After the play opens for viewers and critics, all changes cease and the dialogue and performances are set in stone.

In the last hours before the play premiers, Bonney's only wish is to do justice to the script and playwright.

"Are we delivering the play that this playwright had hoped for?" she asked. "Is this what he envisioned? That's what we are all hoping for."

In spite of Bonney's concerns, the director is open-minded and excited about the play's final state.

"Opening night is a fun thing. It's when everyone can put all the work behind them and the actors can really own the show," she said. In the end, Bonney's concerns are rewarded with a standing ovation on opening night.