Actors Take 'Extraordinary Chambers' to the Stage

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Photo Source: Michael Lamont
There's preparing for a performance, and then there's growing with a play from its reading stages through its first full production. As David Wiener's five-hander "Extraordinary Chambers" gets its world premiere staging—currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles—it reunites three of its actors from its various readings.

François Chau, Kimiko Gelman, and Greg Watanabe, each with extensive theater and screen credits, play Cambodian characters visited by a Caucasian-American couple on a business trip—obviously with theatrical results. Pam MacKinnon directs.

Back Stage: For these readings, did they ask you to come in with an accent and learn the correct pronunciation of the Khmer and the French dialogue?

Greg Watanabe: Up to that point, there was nothing that was provided, like a dialect coach. [Kimiko and I] had done some research in Santa Ana [Calif.]. There's a Cambodian family center there. Someone there who is somewhat of a Cambodian-language expert helped us. He allowed us to record him. But through the development of the script, we didn't really concentrate very much on that. It was less performative than it was about development of the scenes and what was necessary.

Kimiko Gelman: But it was very helpful to talk to those people in the Cambodian [area], because the Khmer was written phonetically.

Watanabe: Yeah, and there's no standardized Anglicization of Khmer anywhere that I've looked. So it's really hard to research. Then it's a really tricky language. Even just the little bit of exposure I've had to it, it's got subtleties to it that just don't exist in English.

François Chau: I'm very lucky because Dr. Heng speaks French, and I speak French, so I didn't have to worry about that. And the Khmer is very hard. But the sound of it is a little bit familiar to me because I used to speak Vietnamese too. There are certain tonal things in it that are very similar. I hear somebody speak it and I know it's a little easier, I think. But wait till you hear me onstage, and judge me then.

Back Stage: In doing a reading, you don't know if you'll be cast in the play's premiere. But you put all this building your characters. Why do it?

Gelman: It's always exciting to do a reading of a new play with a wonderful playwright. I've had a lot of chances to do that in my career, including great playwrights who go on to write all kinds of different things. So, whenever I get a chance to do a reading of a deep, interesting character, I'm always on board.

Chau: I'm still kind of ambivalent about it. It's great, as an actor, to work on it, but I can't figure out if what I bring to the role as an actor, or to the scene, is going to help the playwright. Say, for example, the scene we're working on, sometimes the first look through it, you go, "That doesn't work, this doesn't make sense." So as an actor, you try to find a way to make it work. But then you go, "Well, if I make it work, then how is that going to serve the playwright?" because he's going to hear it and say, "Well, that makes sense." But you're still not sure if you're really helping him. If he takes it to another cast, and they come at it with a different approach, and they say, "This doesn't make any sense at all," then you go, "I guess this didn't help him." We made it work, but maybe the scene needed something else.

Back Stage: How do you work with a playwright to solve problems?

Chau: I would say, "What's better for you: if I try whatever approach to make it work, or if I do it the way it's written and you can hear how it is for you?"

Watanabe: Ultimately, even just saying, "This is problematic for me," "This is difficult for me," "I'm forced to make this leap logically or emotionally"—even just saying that out loud is helpful to the playwright, because then he sees, from the perspective of the actor within that character, potential problems. And then after that, it's outside of your hands as an actor. But it's really cool to be part of the developmental process.

Back Stage: You spend a lot of time working on the character for the reading. Then you get a different director at a different reading. Does it change every time you do it? Have you had to completely rethink the character?

Chau: When I started, I guess, different directors didn't really throw me. By the time I came on board, I think the play had already taken not its final shape, but you knew where it was going. Just for my character, I don't think it's changed. In terms of text it has changed. For the character itself, it's kind of weird. If you change, say, the director, you don't say, "Wait, I have to create a whole other thing." It sort of goes with you. It's not like I'm going to do a whole different play. It's the same thing, with a different approach. It's good to be with it from a certain point, to grow with it and get it to a point where you feel that's the character.

Gelman: My initial instincts about the character didn't change. My character has been pretty steady; well, the very first reading David was still working on the direction of the play. That was the very short reading; I think we had maybe two days of rehearsal. But from the Pacific Playwrights Festival on, the shape of my character and her journey, and [Greg's], has been pretty much the same. And the different directors, and they're all great, but what they do is nurture your instincts.

I think that's really accurate. Different directors provide a different perspective on moments, basically. And say for instance with one director, we'd talk about a monologue and we'd talk about the internal arc of what's happening, memory and how present you are in the space, and when you're storytelling, to what degree you're communicating directly, and in what case you're totally internal and not aware of them—all of that is really great exploration. No matter what place we end up going to, it all helps me as an actor experience that and go through that discussion and explore what the different possibilities are with that.