If you wandered by Wright Hall’s Main Theater last Thursday night, you would hear an eclectic combination of high noted operas, soulful gospels and many, many scales of arpeggios. Was the choir practicing into all hours of the night?
No, it was the cast of Come Hell and High Water rehearsing the new play under the direction of winter quarter’s Granada Artist-in-Residence, Dominique Serrand.
Serrand took on the dual challenge of not only directing an innovative and inspiring play, but is also creating it simultaneously.
Despite his recent migration to the UC Davis campus, Come Hell and High Water has been an ambition of Serrand’s for quite some time.
“I’m just pursuing a journey that I started a long time ago in my career,” Serrand said.
While working with the students of UC Davis, Serrand is also directing a simultaneous production of the show that will premiere in Minneapolis. For this dual production, preparation has been crucial to the formation of the show.
“I started about a year and a half ago among other productions,” Serrand said. “I was workshopping with a few of my partners – I work with a team. I workshopped it twice just to see where it wanted to go, wrote a couple drafts with [partner] Steve Epp, and now we’re doing some kind of long distance internet connection where I send him cuts and changes and we rewrite, him being across country on stage in Baltimore.”
If that does not sound complicated enough, Thursday’s rehearsal was the first actual performance they have ever done – ever.
“This is the first rehearsal where we are actually doing a production of it as well as workshopping,” Serrand said. “It’s at an advanced state, where we actually try and do it in front of an audience. [It’s] still not done, but we’re about a third of way there.”
For throwing a show together with a new cast in a new city in just 10 short weeks, Serrand is surreally calm about the whole experience.
“This is a very comfortable amount of time because if you look at traditional productions, the rehearsal is between four and a half to five weeks,” Serrand explained.
If you include the three weeks of prep work before the quarter started, Serrand has plenty of time to work with. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything always goes according to plan.
“This is always the case. You get in the room and suddenly you’re with real people with real personalities,” Serrand said. “They are no longer a figure of imagination. Some things get confirmed and some things get thrown out the door, that’s part of the process.”
Part of that early prep included deciding what kind of play Come Hell and High Water was going to be.
“Creating it as I go along, I have loosely based it on a novella from William Faulkner, Old Man. Since of course [that’s] literature, it’s not a play. So I’m integrating a lot of other disciplines. I’m really interested in other forms other than texts. I’ve directed operas but I’m interested in combining everything.”
The musical aspect of the production was one of the more difficult tasks the director had to face.
“The music is the most daunting aspect because we are all not professional singers. We’re mostly actors and so we’re dealing with musical material which is quite difficult,” Serrand said.
He has incorporated many different genres and styles of music into the story.
“The musical material is all a source material that exists from gospel to country to opera. It’s very diverse and that was part of the desire, to touch on the eclecticism culture of the delta of Mississippi, which was such a great birth of all genres in America.”
Perhaps the reason that music has such a crucial part in this production is because Serrand is so interested with the role music plays in a theater forum.
“I’ve never directed a musical but I’m fascinated with what music can do and what it can bring to theater when it’s live, ” Serrand explained. “The dynamics it creates and its rhythms versus human voice, which is equally important.”
The human element is particularly imperative to this performance, as it does need to teach as well as function. Serrand said that despite the rare opportunity of being able to develop this production, he has not lost sight of his purpose here at UC Davis.
“My job is to get [the students] to go through a professional journey which they should be exposed to before they go searching for it,” Serrand said. “It’s a dual apprenticeship program, it’s for people with other areas of interests. Their expertise can be very valuable to me.”
This arbitrary method of teaching while learning has served this production exceedingly well.
“[Teaching at a graduate level] is great because you have a mix of people who have a freshness, who haven’t quite learned all of it and it’s a great balance,” Serrand said. “Families function well when there’s multiplicity of generations in one room.”
The students working in the production appreciate his knowledge and expertise – even if it means rehearsing well into the night.
“He’s very thorough, we’ve been moving at a very slow pace,” said Alejandro Torres, who has a part in the play. “His vision is clear and he knows exactly what he wants. It’s a devised work and so he incorporates different things. And it’s more challenging because he has high expectations.”
Serrand’s teaching methods have definitely left a unique impression upon his students, leaving them with techniques they will use for the rest of their professional careers.
“He knows what he wants in terms of scenery, or acting, and he knows how he wants you to act,” his assistant director, Jenna Seid said. “He draws that out of you. He’ll go into the text and he’ll figure out another way to approach that you wouldn’t normally think of, and then its like oh!”
Come Hell or High Water opens on March 3.
BRITTANY PEARLMAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.