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TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies

Vermont Stage, 2012


The play follows a year in the lives of Sarah and James, two journalists who have dedicated their careers to documenting the tragedies of war. Both are highly committed to the conviction that their work can bring attention to global events and effect some positive change in world. Sarah has recently returned home to Brooklyn, injured from the effects of a surprise artillery attack by insurgents while on assignment in Iraq. James does his best to care for Sarah even though he suspects a love affair existed between Sarah and her Iraqi interpreter, Tarik, who was killed in the same recent attack. When Sarah and James’s old friend Richard visits with his new younger girlfriend, the lure of a safe and secure domestic life calls to James. Sarah is then forced to choose between her relationship with James and her commitment to her life’s work.


The majority of my time on the pre-rehearsal research was spent familiarizing myself with the lives of war correspondents and journalists. In recent years, such careers have gained a level of celebrity status with journalists like Kate Adie, Christiane Anampour, Marie Colvin, Anderson Cooper, and Sebastian Junger, to name just a few. I conducted significant research to familiarize myself with the lives of these individuals. My research tended to focus on Marie Colvin, since one of the central characters is a woman, and Colvin seemed to possess the same kind of conviction and dedication as the character of Sarah in Time Stands Still.


I follow the premise that most plays we direct are either about a main character (who succeeds or fails at a goal) or about a main relationship that changes (it either comes together or falls apart). Identifying and supporting one of these interpretations is important in guiding the action of the play. For Time Stands Still, it was important for me to make the play about a relationship. The conditions in the world of the play change drastically from a central couple who are together at the beginning of the play, to two people who have shared meaningful and significant years together but now accept that their individual needs have changed and they must go separate ways. One could argue that the play is about Sarah as a central character and her journey, but the relationship perspective allowed me to focus more deeply on both main characters and to drive the action through the sustained tension between James’s newly forming need to live a safe, domestic life in Brooklyn and Sarah’s profound sense of identity as a courageous journalist dedicated to making others aware of the ravages of war.


The work with actors throughout the rehearsal process allowed for deep character work on the psychological and emotional needs of the characters in these circumstances. I realized that the previous sentence could be applied to many plays, but I’ve found that once in the rehearsal process other considerations sometimes take precedent, depending on the play, the rehearsal conditions, and the collaborators. Sometimes we discover that the physical world of the play requires primary attention, or the physicality of the actors as character emerges as a focus point, or the timing for the blocking takes over. But Time Stand Still, with its modern naturalistic style offered a prime opportunity to focus most of our rehearsal time on the psychological landscape and motivations for the characters as a starting point for all other considerations of the production.


Once I understood the psychological needs of these characters and their motivations as human beings, it was exciting to collaborate on the scenic design. We started out by asking ourselves what kind of living space these characters would inhabit. The script is clear that the characters live in Brooklyn, and as journalists (Sarah being a photo-journalist), they would of course live a space that allowed for the developing and displaying of photos. The scenic designer and I shared hundreds of images we found of lofts and converted warehouses in Brooklyn. The challenge was to authentically recreate the style and feel of a converted warehouse in The Flynn Space, an intimate 130-seat theatre with a low grid. Spaciousness that one might feel in a loft was suggested by a minimal amount of key furniture pieces and by utilizing the far upstage area to create a functioning kitchen set against a large industrial window. That window became an important scenic element because we were able to light it from behind to depict different times of day, which elicited mood and atmosphere. We settled on a patch work of middle eastern style rugs to suggest world travel and the couple’s assignments in the middle east throughout their past. We set the rugs on the “cement” floor to underscore the feel of a converted industrial warehouse. One accent wall was painted a strong urban blue, a color that suggested both power and an eye toward contemporary home color trends. Because of the size of the small thrust space, we gave significant attention to detail. Props, set furniture, costume accessories and scenic décor had to be appropriate to scale and believable. 


I’ve directed two plays in The Flynn Space, and although I love the intimate size and feel of the venue, the lighting, due to a low grid is always a challenge. For this play, the lighting designer and I worked to suggest specific times of day, and we made use of the night scenes as opportunities to create a mood and atmosphere that supported the tension between the central characters. Conflict segments were played with characters in separately lit areas that at once read as night time in the loft, but subtly suggested the two characters were beginning to live in different, separate worlds. In this manner, we made use of the low grid because actors upper bodies and faces could be lit by lighting instruments that were closer to the actors’ bodies than in most theaters.


Costumes for the show called for contemporary clothing with a strong nod to current day New York City. Sarah and James are not trendy but at the same time, they live in Brooklyn, and they are not immune to making statements through their attire that reflect their socially progressive ideas and psychological need to project their relevance. The costume designer and I researched female war correspondents and settled on clothing informed by those women (as mentioned above, specifically Christiane Anampour and Marie Colvin). We similarly investigated male war reporters to influence the choices for the character of James. And we made sure to draw a distinction between James and his old friend Richard, who is more conservative and settled. However, by the end of the play we see that James has abandoned his “in the field journalist khakis” for the more domestic sweater and jeans look that we saw on Richard earlier in the play. We drew a vast distinction between Sarah’s somewhat masculine career war journalist look and Mandy’s trendy young New York professional attire.


Through a concentration on the naturalistic style and the central relationship, we were able to tease out the more complex issues in the play involving one’s sense of duty versus one’s need for safe domesticity. The play proposes profound questions about one’s purpose in life and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal comfort in the hope of changing the world for the better. The production was critically very well received.


My take away, in terms of my ongoing learning process, involves the end of the first act, which never worked in a manner that satisfied me. The sound and light cues that took us into the intermission were not punctuated as strongly as I would have liked. The music and light fade were subtle and synchronized but didn’t support the sharp emotional statement I was going for. My collaborators said, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” But to me, it was not fine. After the production was up and running I realized a better choice would have been to use a different sound cue, start the music for the end of the act as the lights were fading, allow the music to quickly build to a crescendo as actors exited in darkness, then bring the lights up in a zero count on an empty stage at the exact moment the music ends abruptly. I’m going to remember that for the next time I have a challenge getting out of Act I!

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