The director (Shane Kenyon) in silhouette while actor Eva (Christine Vrem-Ydstie) waits on set in Theater Wit’s Midwest premiere of Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12. Photo credit: Charles Osgood
By Brynne Frauenhoffer
Upon entering the sunny rehearsal space for Theater Wit’s 10 OUT OF 12, I find two of everything: two stage managers at their duplicate tables; two directors alternately sitting back in pensive reflection, then hopping up to offer guidance; two sets of assistant directors noting their mentors’ every move. Watching the preparation of this ambitious play—which details, moment by moment, the process of a tech rehearsal—provides a double image of a singular experience.
Observing the play as a theatermaker, I find it hilariously familiar at every turn. The costume designs posted on the wall feature a spot-on rendition of punk/utilitarian stage manager blacks. Scripted banter about Funyuns, sandwich options, and unidentifiable snack foods spurs nostalgia for weeks spent scarfing down vending machine offerings in the darkness of the wings. (Playwright Anne Washburn shares that she often brings “a big bag of odd and often foreign snacks to leave about for general consumption” during the tech process of her plays.)
The authenticity of these details proves intensely bizarre while rehearsing a play about rehearsing. As Jeremy Wechsler laughingly states, “The meta qualities of the play are excitingly confusing to everyone involved.”
At first, the confusion makes it difficult to even figure out where to sit. Several chairs behind the (first) stage management table are designated for actors-playing-directors, who move among the audience throughout the show. Likewise, the mints, water, and Kleenex set up on a table in the audience are both stand-ins for props and usable, practical offerings for actors. When I get a chance to sit next to actor Adam Shalzi, he’s in character as the Assistant Director, who stays on book for the actors-playing-actors within the play—but the script Shamzi uses to follow along is his own binder for 10 OUT OF 12.
It takes me about an hour to decipher who is the actor-playing-stage manager and who is the stage manager for Theater Wit. At one point, the show-SM (Katie Klemme) calls a ten-minute break, and has to clarify that it’s an actual 10, not the 10 written into the script. Early in the day, the cast discusses how the actor-SM, played by Dado, will have to be placed apart from the show-SM, since they’ll often be calling different cues at the same time.
Complicating the process further is the incorporation of headsets that allow audiences to eavesdrop on technician chatter, which often overlaps with dialogue from the actors onstage and the production team in the house. What’s more, the designers in 10 OUT OF 12 are represented solely through pre-recorded voices (portrayed by Martha Lavey, Peter Sagal, John Mahoney, and Barbara Robertson) integrated into the headsets and speakers throughout the theater.
For audience members unfamiliar with the tech process, Wechsler anticipates that the adjustment to such an immersive piece will be fascinating in and of itself. “All of their preconceptions about what they should be seeing or watching or paying attention to are all going to be jostled around,” says Wechsler. “Is the person sweeping onstage important? Are the people talking to each other in my headset important? What about the two actors flirting in the back row? There’s a whole set of conscious choices and decisions the audience is going to have to make about how to watch the play, which is really going to push them through before the core conflict of the play emerges.”
At one point in the afternoon, it dawns on me that this tech-centered show must soon endure its own tech rehearsal.
“While it’s nominally a show about a show that is not yet finished, it is the most technically complicated thing we’ve ever done—I mean, there are thousands of cues,” Wechsler says. “For the first time, we’re having motivational conversations with my lighting designer where we have to talk about, ‘So, what IS the lighting designer trying to do at this moment? What effect is she trying to build within the play?’”
To authentically replicate what it looks like as a lighting designer builds a cue, the show’s designer (designed by Diane Fairchild, and voiced by Martha Lavey) first tried to build each cue and work backwards, but the sequence tended to appear too deliberate. Now, the designer builds the cue, deletes it, and tries to recreate each step from memory, recording every attempt.
“We have to tell the story entirely with the lights as we see her questing towards this look, because there’s no dialogue about it,” explains Wechsler. “But it has to be directed. Lights are not coming on and off at random. She’s coming up with kind of a look and flavor and feel for this scene.”
According to Wechsler, the technical process itself is the real star of the show, so rehearsing prior to tech (such as on the day I attended) proved more difficult than anticipated.
“It was like rehearsing a play missing a character,” he says, “and not just a communicative medium, but an actual thing that works with and foils and ennobles the performers in it.”
When I interviewed Wechsler, he was in the midst of tech week for 10 OUT OF 12 and shared some of the insights that this surreal step gave to him, such as ways in which actors behave while waiting between cues.
“I took a bunch of notes to start feeding back to the actors, like, ‘This is how you wait, you don’t wait like this, this is what you do,” says Wechsler. ‘“I watched you!’”
The actors too have found inspiration from living out the play’s premise in real time. When I observed rehearsal, Wechsler occasionally redirected the actor-playing-director, Shane Kenyon, in one of many confusingly meta moments. As the show progressed, it turned out that this relationship could go both ways.
“The Director, he’s spending most of his time in the house watching a tech, that’s his job,” says Wechsler. “And so at various points, Shane, because he’s sitting there thinking about directing this play, has come up and said, ‘Is it okay if Christine exits to the left? I think it’d be a clearer path,’ and I’m like, “It is a clearer path! Good job!’”
Another huge element of 10 OUT OF 12 is the play within it, of which Washburn’s script offers only occasional, fragmented glimpses. In Theater Wit’s production, these snippets include a bordello, a nightmarish picnic, shifts in time, and imp masks. Lest you judge the show based on these glances, Washburn warns, “It’s a play we don’t quite know enough about to judge.”
So much of the script is a mystery that Washburn leaves even the title unspoken. This allows individual companies, such as New York’s SoHo Rep, to put their own spin on the production and choose its title. Theater Wit settled on “The Dark Bough Softly Shifts the Light, A Distant Shore Cries the Night” when, according to Wechsler, a text message merged four potential ideas into one verbose winner.
With the creative freedom Washburn’s script allows, Theater Wit has created something like theatrical Easter eggs for audiences to discover. “We’ve had to make everything up from the title of the play, the autobiographical information, program proof—there’s all this stuff floating in the room to be discovered when coming in,” says Wechsler.
Wechsler aimed to evoke aesthetics specific to the Chicago theater scene in the development of “The Dark Bough (etc.).” “I took a lot of inspiration from Curious Theatre Branch,” says Wechsler, “and some of the old-school Trap Door, some of the old-school new-work theaters…it’s definitely meant to be an expressionistic and structurally experimental play.”
For each staging of 10 OUT OF 12, Anne Washburn has collaborated with companies to represent their respective communities through the script, in which she tweaks allusions to local companies and figures.
“Anne and I basically went through all the New York references and pulled apart what they meant in the downtown theater scene,” says Wechsler, “and then we had a long dinner and conversation and remapped those against Chicago theater history.”
Washburn’s father grew up in Chicago, and she spent time here working on Mr. Burns at Theater Wit in 2015, but for her, she says the city “largely remains a pleasing mystery.” Nonetheless, she reflects that 10 OUT OF 12 suits the spirit of Chicago’s theater community.
“Apart from swapping out locations…I haven’t made any other Chicago cultural adjustments,” Washburn says. “It’s ultimately a play about having a helpless passion for what you do and that’s a place where both [New York and Chicago] meet.”
There’s plenty of passion and helplessness in 10 OUT OF 12 as the actors and technicians navigate technical difficulties, artistic disagreements, romantic tensions, scheduling conflicts, and unadulterated boredom in pursuit of art.
“The idea is that this theater has bitten off a little more than they can chew, technically,” Wechsler elaborates. “They’re struggling to get through it, and get everything done in time for this opening. But I think the idea is if they can actually achieve all of this time, it would be an extraordinarily beautiful work. They just don’t know if they have the time to make it happen.” With a laugh, he adds, “In some respects, I may be projecting a little bit!”
10 OUT OF 12 has been described as a kind of love letter to creating theater, but as much as the play showcases and celebrates the enormous effort necessary to make plays happen, Wechsler points to the the broader concept of the story.
“In a larger sense, I really think it’s about how on earth can people actually—what are the mechanisms that people use to drive themselves to do things that seem near impossible?” he says. “We will build a world and populate it with characters who will live and die in the course of two hours! And we will do this over a period of four weeks!…When you actually pull apart how those group-collective activities go back, it’s kind of awe-inspiring.”
To reinforce this theme, Wechsler reached out to many artists outside of Theater Wit to collaborate on the show’s final moment, which I won’t spoil here. Through the incorporation of so many voices, Wechsler hopes to make clear that 10 OUT OF 12 is, in his words, “a celebration of collective action rather than of an individual triumph.”