Two parallel lines, composed of 22 student actors and eight professional thespians, stomped across the wooden floor of the Paramount’s Studio Seven. Backs straight, arms rigid, the players plodded briskly after the line leaders, two members of the New York-based theater group SITI Company.
“Watch them. See how they do it,” Gian-Murray Gianino, a SITI member himself, told the students before the beginning of the exercise, which had them practicing various pronounced entrances to the practice space. “Throw yourself into it.”
Throughout the semester, Emerson students have been working with SITI, under the direction of company co-founder Anne Bogart, to create the new musical Café Variations. The show, an ArtsEmerson, Emerson Stage, and SITI join production that premieres Friday in the Cutler Majestic Theatre, has been exposing the students to Bogart’s approaches to theater and rehearsal.
The play combines music by the famed Gershwin brothers with scenes from previously-written works by SITI playwright and theater historian Charles Mee. Bogart described the show in an interview as a “love letter from SITI Company to Chuck.” The two are close professionally and personally — she’s frequently directed his work, and they performed each other’s wedding ceremonies.
She hopes for the musical’s four movements, each set in a café, to function as both self-contained pieces and a cohesive story about the interplay between the sexes. Stinging lines between and about lovers (“A man is a vibrator with a wallet”) build to all-out brawls — before erupting once again into sensuous dances underscored by the Gershwins’ romantic melodies.
One of Bogart’s focal points in creating the work is the concept of “fractals” — how parts of one person can be manifested in diverse ways and in different people.
“It’s the idea that I’m a little bit a part of you, and you’re a little bit a part of me. You haven’t even met Stowe over there,” she said, nodding to sound designer Stowe Nelson, “but he probably has parts of you.”
To depict this, each of the 10 “characters” has three manifestations portrayed by different actors. Melody Madarasz, who plays “Lucia A,” said that when the cast list was first posted, the roles were identified simply as qualities — hers (and the other Lucias’) was “suspicious.”
“It’s something I’ve never really done before,” the junior musical theater major said. The characters were given little back story, so having that one word to focus on, she said, helped her imagine Lucia’s motivations and where she needed to go.
Despite the unconventional approach, Bogart said, at its core the play is a simple story.
“There is a super-narrative that goes something like this: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,” she said.
Bogart had been working on the idea for Café Variations when Rob Orchard, executive director of ArtsEmerson, approached her about bringing a work to Emerson. At the time, Orchard said, he was in talks with the Gershwin estates about reintroducing the songwriters’ work to a new audience. Bogart had been planning to use works from the public domain but was thrilled about the chance to include the iconic pieces, for which normally she wouldn’t be able to secure the rights.
“[Café Variations] seemed, as I was imagining it, romantic. And I don’t always do romantic work,” she said. “[The Gershwins’ music] seemed, gosh, ideal in its unembarrassed romanticism.”
The show’s storytelling method wasn’t the only unfamiliar exposure for many of the young actors. Working with SITI also meant tackling the company’s signature training methods, Viewpoints and Suzuki. Viewpoints, originally a choreography technique that Bogart co-adapted to acting, encourages actors to improvise and explore the time and space around them. Suzuki, meanwhile, is a physically intensive method in which actors adopt strenuous poses, often while reciting lines, to get in touch with their bodies and voices.
SITI’s famed work preceded the company’s arrival at Emerson. When it was first announced that Bogart would be heading a production for Emerson Stage, some worried that the organization’s usual mission — to showcase student talent — would be overshadowed.
“I heard a lot about it,” Bogart said. “I have not felt that from the students ... I could be living in a false paradise.”
For Madarasz, those concerns mostly evaporated when Bogart came to Emerson last semester to hold a workshop for musical theater majors (which turned out to be the audition for the show).
“She’s so kind and perceptive,” said Madarasz. “You can’t help but want to have a conversation with her at all times.”
Orchard said that he is confident that Bogart, who teaches at Columbia and has worked at a number of universities, is making full use of the students’ talents.
“Students are functioning as professionals at every stage,” he said. “Nothing has been compromised.”
Behind the scenes, too, the work has been different than in previous Emerson Stage productions. Tierra Bonser, one of the show’s assistant dramaturgs, said the show has been an opportunity to work on artistic restraint. There’s less of a filter when students have control, but on this piece she’s had to reflect to ensure that her work meets the vision of each of the three companies who are bringing Café Variations to life.
“Sometimes an excess of creativity isn’t your best bet,” the senior performing arts major said.
Bonser, who was the dramaturg for Emerson Stage’s The Golden Age last year, said she appreciated the chance to be around the professionals as they take the lead this time around.
“I just have the benefit of soaking it up,” she said. “What’s wrong with a back seat when Anne Bogart is driving the car?”
Café Variations runs April 13 to 22. For opening weekend, tickets are $10 for the Emerson community. Tickets are $25 to $75 for general audiences.
Correction: A previous version of the story said the show opens "tonight." The story was posted April 12, but the show premieres April 13.