The Ten-Day Musical
How one Western professor pulls a musical together the span of two weeks
Written by Christina Becker
Mark Kuntz, a Western theater professor, follows one of his actors, Jacki Campbell, into the Douglas Underground Theatre early one morning about a week before opening night of the brand new a cappella musical, “Family Game Night.”
The work lights are on in the theater, illuminating the black floor and an incomplete set. A circular, multi-colored structure sits in the middle of the stage. Bright pink spike tape marks where new set pieces will stand once they are finished. The stage is set to look like a giant Twister spinner, with different colored shapes, hands, feet and a spinner.
“Good morning, Heather,” Mark says as the woman Mark and Jacki are waiting for arrives.
“Good morning, Mark,” Heather says. She is a voice instructor at Western who took on the role of Trixie, the mother, after the original actor backed out of the production a few days into rehearsal.
Pulling together a musical is hard work. In addition to casting actors, hiring a tech crew and rehearsing, sets have to be built, costumes sewn, props found and kinks smoothed out. On Broadway, the time between the first rehearsal and the first preview is about six to eight weeks, according to Playbill. Within that time, actors are expected to work only seven hours out of every day, per the Actors Equity Association rules.
The process Mark has come up with is radically different. The actors are given 10 rehearsals, two dress rehearsals and two tech rehearsals. The first ten days culminated right before fall quarter began. After that, the show took a hiatus, giving the actors time to acclimate to their student schedules. Periodic scene rehearsals took place to polish different aspects of the show.
Mark has used this process for more than 30 productions, from plays to major musicals. He wanted to break the standard rehearsal process that is often comprised of working late five days a week for two months at a time.
“It started from a selfishness of wanting to be a good father and realizing that if I rehearsed during the day while my kids were at school, then I could be a father at night,” Mark says.
For Eryn McVay, who played the role of Kayla, this was the first time she worked on a show in this way. Waking up at 6 a.m. every day to spend nine hours at rehearsal and coming out the other end loving acting proved to her that this is what she wants do with her life.
This process has left her feeling more prepared than she has for any other show. The intensity has allowed her to really get to know the show and her character, she says.
“The actors like it a lot because they learn really quickly, and the intensity of the process creates really great stuff,” Mark says.
“What scene do you guys want to work?” Mark asks Heather and Jacki. After they all decide on a scene to practice, Heather snaps into character. “How could you?” she sneers.
“That was pretty good for a cold Monday morning. You just kind of whipped it up there, girl,” Mark tells Heather afterward, impressed at the intensity she produces.
Auditions for “Family Game Night” were held in May. At auditions, Eryn sang “Green Finch and Linnett Bird” from Sweeney Todd. She selected that song because the audition poster requested everyone sing 16 bars from a Sondheim show, and she wanted to receive a soprano part. Eryn knew most of the people at the audition, which calmed her nerves.
Robert Frederiksenought the process was tougher than a normal audition. Like Eryn, he chose a song from Sweeney Todd: “Nothing’s Going to Harm You.” Generally, at auditions, actors are expected to sing and perform a monologue or read lines from the script. At Mark’s auditions, the actors were asked to tell a story instead. While Eryn wasn’t too worried about that, Robert felt stressed. He knew he needed to get a reaction from the panel if he was to get the part. “I knew I needed to make them laugh or make them cry,” he says.
Robert eventually decided to tell a story about a trick he played on a friend of his, successfully making the panel laugh.
Callbacks were the next day. Like most musical callbacks, everyone who received a callback learned one of the songs from the show. But at Mark’s callback, the actors were left to their own devices, Eryn recalls. They were split into groups. One group ran scenes and the other group was handed sheet music and told to practice the song on their own. “It was difficult, but fun,” Eryn says.
About three days later, Eryn was served a shock. She did not get the role of Connie, like she was hoping for. Instead she would be playing Kayla Mitchell, a 15-year-old girl with schizophrenia. This role would prove to be much more difficult for Eryn to tackle.
Robert received the news saying he got the part of Michael while playing video games with a friend. He threw the controller down in excitement over this role.
After that, they were handed their scripts and a score and told to “know their shit” when rehearsals started in September.
This demanded a lot of self-discipline, Robert said, but it also allowed the actors to have a summer break since they were able to work on their parts on their schedule. Robert set daily alarms for himself, so that he would remember to practice.
For Eryn, part of what makes this show so difficult is the complexity of her character. Her role requires she put herself in a darker place so that she can tell the story as honestly as possible, Eryn says. Between her role and this process, Eryn has to trust herself, her costars and Mark. There is a lot of love in the room, Eryn shares. Mark understands actors and knows what makes a performance outstanding, she says. They are allowed to make mistakes and to create tension.
“Mark always says, ‘I have an idea. Maybe it sucks, but it’s rehearsal, so let’s try it out,’” Eryn laughs.
“See what happens,” Mark tells Heather, prompting her to experiment by taking a ring from Jacki’s hand when their characters fight over it. “It’s just rehearsal, do it wrong.”
Heather and Jacki run the scene again. “That was more interesting. I like that better. Did you like that?” he asks the pair.
“Yeah,” Heather and Jacki reply.
“I didn’t like my step back. It felt a little funny to do that,” Jacki tells Mark. Mark agrees.
“One more time, just to see what happens,” Mark says.
“How could you do this to my son?” Heather demands as she slips back into character.
The actors are nervous before opening night, Robert shares, but not due to lack of preparation. This is a brand new show, and they have no way of knowing how the audience will react — and as the first performance of this show, it would serve as a baseline for future performances.
“Once we made it through the first act of the first night, we knew that things couldn’t go wrong,” Robert says. “Night after night, things just kept clicking more and more easily, and I wouldn’t have asked for a better group of actors, technicians and directors to have helped me along the way.”
The show opens on a Thursday night in October. The audience surrounds the stage of the DUG Theatre, a giant Twister board in the center. The actors walk on stage and begin a stylized dance beneath dramatic lights. After the song ends, bright lights wash the stage as actors deliver their lines and move into the next song. There is no background music, only wine glasses to set different notes and hand instruments like finger cymbals and triangles played by the actors as they sing a cappella.
The show moves quickly. The pacing, dances, lines and costumes are sharp. Dreamlike sequences that represent what it is like inside of Kayla’s head are separated from other scenes with blue and red light and avant-garde dances that place the audience into her psychosis. The intimate setting of the DUG Theatre creates a feeling of closeness to the characters, like the audience is suffering along with them.
The plot twists and turns from revelation to revelation, much like the game Twister, with all six actors on stage the entire time.
“People have asked me what my favorite show I’ve worked on is, and hands down, “Family Game Night” is number one,” Robert says. “The amount of support, pushing, drive for success and respect among all of us and the work we’ve put in is unfathomable.”
The scene improves each time the actors run it. The characters’ motivation starts to shine through as they examine the subtext with Mark’s guidance and gently probing questions.
“Do you think she does the math and goes ‘So that’s what he did with the money I gave him?’” Mark asks Heather of her character Trixie.
“My instinct is in the moment. That all she’s thinking is how to get her baby out of jail,” Heather tells Mark. “I just feel like I’m desperate to get him out.”
“It might be worth it for you to think about, when it’s from Luke, the subtext is ‘This is what he did with the $300-whatever,” Mark says. Then turning to Jacki, “And another thing for you to think about is it’s not easy. You want the ring, but I think you are conflicted about it. So part of your decision is are you conflicted at all?”
Jacki nods, taking in what Mark suggests.
“I think she is wrapped up in emotion,” she replies.
“It occurs to me that it could be pretty compelling if the math happens between the two of you,” Mark turns to Heather. “And you initiate it. Okay that’s all stuff for you to think about. Let’s go to the next scene.”