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Photograph by Katrina Van Winkle

Arts and Craft: The cast of 'Dinner with Friends': at top, David Lear; middle, from left: Jan Freifeld, Cynthia Abrams, Clark Miller, and Al Liner; bottom: Christina O'Reilly and Corisa Aaronson.

In the Zone

In Loading Zone, actors are doin' it for themselves

By Davina Baum

Corisa Aaronson is sitting in one corner of a small room in the Lincoln Arts Center, stretching her limbs and emitting deep, yogalike ha's. Clark Miller is pacing about the room, looking slightly worried. David Lear--wiry and monklike in a skullcap--is tasked, as director, with getting his actors motivated this evening. He has Miller and another actor, Jan Freifeld, engage in a warmup exercise that involves them trading barbs.

The first run is stilted, awkward. Lear stops them, pushing them to get into character. The second run is more naturalistic; the two are riffing off the characters they are playing in the Donald Margulies play Dinner with Friends, taking digs at each other about their relationships with their wives. It's clear they know their alter egos pretty deeply.

Next, Aaronson and Cynthia Abrams perform the exercise. Lear is clearly happy with the results, and he gets Aaronson and Miller started on Scene 2, Act I, in which Miller, playing Tom, surprises his wife, Beth (played by Aaronson), at home after her return from a dinner party with their best friends. Tom realizes that Beth has told their friends about their breakup, something he had wanted them to do together.

The actors work and rework their lines, with Lear stopping them, working through the emotions, studying their gestures, their timing, their voices. After two hours, they've made it through about half the scene.

As Al Liner, the show's stage manager, puts it: "There is no end result; it's all about the process."

Loading Zone is Corisa Aaronson, Cynthia Abrams, Christina O'Reilly, David Lear, and Al Liner. Jan Freifeld and Clark Miller are joining the group for this production. The group emerged from Aaronson, Lear, and Liner working together at Studio Be, Lennie Dean's now-defunct theatrical studio and acting school. The impulse to perfect their craft has kept the group together almost three years, workshopping two days a week. The performance of Dinner with Friends--running Nov. 7 through Dec. 13--is presented almost as a side thought.

"About a year ago," Lear says, sitting with Aaronson, O'Reilly, Liner, and me at Wolf's Coffee in downtown Santa Rosa, "Corisa came in with Dinner with Friends, and I thought that it was a great piece to work on in the shop. . . . We worked on it off and on for a year and one night Al said we should do this [for the public]. It's not like we took this play on to present it to the public, not at all; that's not the focus. It emerged out of our work with it."

The players are so intensely involved in working their craft, it seems to come as a surprise to them that an audience may have an interest in looking in. But, as O'Reilly notes, "Performing is craft also, because you don't know what you've done or what you've got until you perform. It's a chance to take all the work that we've done and put it in front of an audience and see how deep it goes and what the effect is."

A smart audience will want to look in on this craftcentric group. In this rehearsal--a full month before the play goes up--the actors immediately draw their audience (me, as well as Liner, Freifeld, Abrams, and O'Reilly, sitting on the side) in. Their characters, Tom and Beth, are truly alive--emotional beings, separate from Aaronson and Miller's real lives.

As the couple fight, Lear suggests that they pick up the cadence. As the fight crescendos and they're nailing it, Liner is sitting on the sidelines, pumping his fist, and Lear is hovering over the actors. They are transcending their lines; they are really speaking to each other.

This depth of character comes in part from the luxury of time, according to the members. Instead of the typical market-driven theater group, which has a season and a production calendar, Loading Zone has the freedom to do what it wants, when it wants.

"I don't see our group having an outcome," asserts Lear, who seems to have been labeled the highly respected grumpy iconoclast of the group. "Loading Zone is a gymnasium where we work out our craft, hone it, and try on new techniques, combine them, and by combining them, we come out with something that is exciting, serious, that makes us nervous."

Liner--who acts as the goofy, personable foil to Lear's gravitas--adds that the play went through many experimental stages; originally he and Lear were going to each do both male parts. "The whole thing was, 'Let's do this and practice our craft.' It's never been about, 'Let's try and pull in an audience.' We're doing it for ourselves."

Dinner with Friends is not an obscure, arty play; it's entirely accessible. It's about you, it's about your friends and your relationships--how they fall apart, how they stick together. It's even been made into a film, starring Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell. In choosing a mainstream play to mount, Loading Zone wasn't trying to make any statements; it was "right for [them] at the time," as Lear says, "because of some of the work we were doing in technique. It dealt with the aspect of human nature that we were actually working on. . . . The more we worked on it, the deeper we went.

"We telescoped further and further in, we started freeforming the things we were finding out about it, and then we go back to the written word. It might be mainstream, but it depends what people do with it that makes it different and takes it above mainstream pop stuff."

The quintet, who all have various full-time or part-time day jobs, have worked elsewhere in the county's theater scene--Aaronson at Cinnabar and Liner and Lear at Actors Theatre. Their impulse with Loading Zone comes largely from the need to break free from restrictions--artistic, market, or just personal.

"That's why I'm a part of Loading Zone," says Lear, "because it offers me the opportunity to do the kind of work I want to do, the kind of work that wouldn't necessarily be acceptable in other theaters in the county. This is where I can try out my ideas and see if they work or not." Their ideas run the gamut, and the group casts a wide net in their theatrical methods.

With the time the group allows themselves, and their commitment to craft, it behooves Loading Zone to explore all sides of the characters, using different techniques. Jerzy Grotowski is a favorite. The Polish director trained actors to focus away from themselves and used very active movement. The arrival of Christina O'Reilly into the Loading Zone group brought the inclusion of "authentic movement"--a dance technique, really, "where you let yourself go" says Lear. The combination of these methods and others allowed for further exploration of the characters.

The members are careful not to disparage other local theater companies, but they stress that Loading Zone is fundamentally different. Liner notes that "[in] a lot of other theater companies, because of the short period of time, you have just enough time to learn your lines and go stand where you have to stand. But if you really are going to connect as a human being and be real, I have to hear what you're saying. Not only the words, but what you mean. So we are really studying all that stuff."

Says O'Reilly, "There's an embodiment, there's a dimensionality that happens in the characters. . . . You can go very deep into the characters because it's taken all that time to integrate fully into each person, it's not just something that's a cloak."

Liner came into Loading Zone with a very inside-out method of acting, and he says that working through all the different methods has made him a better actor. In rehearsal, Lear stops the actors often, forcing them to verbalize how they, as their characters, are feeling at that moment, and how they should be physicalizing their emotions.

The group isn't out to best all the other theater groups in the area; they don't see themselves as competitors. As each member often stresses, they are there to hone their craft and do their best. Each comes to Loading Zone with different goals beyond craft. Liner, for example, is more interested in film than theater. O'Reilly is writing plays. "The outcome, though, for all of us together is delving into our crafts," says Liner. "That's the unifying factor. How that comes to fruition for each of us might be different, but we all still go headfirst into our craft."


The Loading Zone production of 'Dinner with Friends' runs Nov. 7 through Dec. 13, Thursday-Saturday, at 8pm, and Sun, Nov. 30, at 2pm. Lincoln Arts Center, Studio 208, 709 Davis St., Santa Rosa. $15-$18. 707.765.4843.

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From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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