Aside from the omission of a frantic midnight run for pizza, Anne Washburn’s “10 Out of 12” is an excruciatingly detailed and totally realistic rendering of an all-night technical rehearsal at some small, unnamed downtown theater. Les Waters (a.d. of the Actors Theater of Louisville), wrangles the 14-person ensemble at downtown’s Soho Rep with a sure hand and a keen sense of irony. The busy tech crew, who live (and die a little) for this night, are terribly earnest. The actors, mere chess pieces at tech, are terribly bored. The unfocused director is terribly disengaged. And the whole thing is terribly funny.
Playwrights are superfluous at technical rehearsals, when the director, the stage manager, and the designers labor at integrating the elements of performance and design into a seamless production fit to begin performances. The playwright isn’t even in the theater at tonight’s rehearsal, and the director (played with world-weary cynicism by Bruce McKenzie) wryly asks of no one in particular, “With the playwright gone, where’s that little nimbus of panic and criticism right over by my right shoulder? How am I to know that I’m getting everything very subtly wrong?”
The mysterious creative process that goes on during tech night constitutes its own backstage drama, and over the years that Washburn attended rehearsals of her own plays, she took notes that eventually became “10 Out of 12.” (The title refers to the ten-hour limit that Equity actors are allowed to work in any 12-hour period.)
Someone here had the bright idea to give each audience member a headset, so we can simultaneously follow the action onstage and the backstage clamor and clatter among designers and their technical crew. As often happens in real life, channels are sometimes inadvertently left open, so behind the hushed tones of a designer modulating the sound level of a jaguar’s jungle roar we can make out the voices of a couple of techies scrutinizing the contents of a sandwich.
The actors are a particular joy to watch as they deal with the mind-numbing boredom of standing around for hours on end while the sound designer agonizes over how to get more bottom to a thunder cue. The two actresses in this play are costumed in gigantic hoop skirts, so pretty Eva (Sue Jean Kim) and sophisticated Siget (Nina Hellman) can swirl and twirl to pass the time. Idle hands (and minds) being the Devil’s workshop, terminally bored thesps might also start a flirtation. Or a fight.
The only actor who could screw up everything is a pompous “artiste” like Paul, a brooding if slightly ridiculous presence played in high satiric style by Thomas Jay Ryan. Arguing for the purity of his art, Paul goes rogue, challenging both playwright and director by trying to rewrite a scene to reveal a “more evocative truth shifting beneath the surface of the narrative.”
Under Les Waters’ helming, the rehearsal chaos gradually resolves itself into a rich mosaic of disembodied voices speaking the same language, singing the same song, and dancing the same dance. And it’s left to Paul to speak for all of them of a time “when we were young … and raw and inexperienced and didn’t know what we were doing,” but somehow emerged from tech with a sense of unity and pride.
Call it mass hypnosis or call it magic. Those who survive tech rehearsal are indeed what Paul calls “heroes … heroes of art.”