In Process: The White Dress
Written by Deepali Gupta
Photography by Emma Pratte
November 2, 2017
I am a guest at the first rehearsal of The White Dress—a new play by Roger Mason, directed and choreographed by Adin Walker, which will be presented at The American Theatre of Actors from November 2nd through November 5th. The play follows Jonathan, a young person navigating their gender identity—with a vivid, dynamic ensemble accompanying and guiding him along. Everyone is on a journey; each character is navigating their own path to self-discovery.
It’s time to meet each other. The rest of the team, in the basement of the South Oxford Space, talks to Roger, who is in Los Angeles. He is on speaker, being passed from person to person on someone’s phone, which somehow makes him larger than life. He is infectiously enthusiastic. We all go around the room, introduce ourselves, share our pronouns, and share stories of our first encounters with our identities—as a room, we once threw up out of physical attraction, we were once called a racial slur immediately after learning about slavery, we once demanded the right to play the flute as a child.
They start with a read-through around the table—a new draft, with a few surprises in it. But it’s clear that this is a process that will really begin in the bodies of the actors. This process will begin with movement, with establishing a gestural vocabulary that will inform the text. They read the play without its stage directions—I have no script to consider, so I focus on the language itself and I close my eyes a few times. Expressions of love and recklessness run throughout—lines like “Remember when you didn’t give a damn?” stick with me. On identity— “Did you put them on? Then they’re yours.” We hear Charles Inniss (the sound designer) play a theme for Jonathan. Serafina Bush (the costume designer) shows us an array of wild and fabulous reference images. The square space between the rectangular tables is full of possibility.
The next time I’m in the room, they’ve spent almost a week with the piece. I walk in and Mayfield Brooks (the movement dramaturg) and Michelle Vergara Moore (playing Hazel, Jonathan’s mother) are working on a movement piece together. Mayfield tells Michelle that they are making a “score, pattern, structure.” They are working with a silk jacket. Mayfield works like the conductor of an orchestra—if conductors of orchestras gave their entire bodies to their performance.
With their own movements as well as their words, they encourage Michelle to follow her actions through to their natural conclusions—“Do that whole thing again, but have a pathway.” The philosophy of movement in this piece, as Adin describes it, is to explore how each character is “carrying the identities and signifiers that are inscribed onto their bodies.” Michelle is learning the language of her character’s body—they talk about the dance she is doing as if it is an internal monologue: there is a moment of remembering, there is a moment of release.
The rest of rehearsal is devoted to first attempts. Izzy Castaldi and Stanley Mathabane track their teenage characters’ relationship through a few different moments: they experiment with a sleepover scene, a nosebleed moment, a kiss where lips don’t touch. Adin wonders if the entire show could be done without using a single chair. They decide to try the scene at hand without chairs. This is the time to try things, after all—and I look forward to witnessing the decisions they make.
The White Dress is playing at The John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors on November 2 to November 5, 2017. Tickets can be purchased at thewhitedressplay.com/.