Cody Nickell is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Artistic Associate. He will be blogging every Tuesday throughout the 2014-2015 Season.
I love to cook. And my favorite kind of cooking is an all day, many process, complex flavor adventure in the kitchen. And more times than not, I like to add a little piece of an untried recipe or untested technique into the mix. The results vary, and sometimes things look a little mangled at the end, but almost every time the gastronomical results are very gratifying, even if the aesthetics are a little off. I don’t often have the opportunity to get into this kind of culinary odyssey, but yesterday was my day off, and it seemed like a good time.
The morning yesterday was spent at the beach with Kate and it was lovely. Some restorative horizon gazing, some paddle boarding to get the blood and mind flowing, and some sun to burn away all the dark shadows accumulated over the last week. While Kate and I were in the water at one point we were talking about the menu for the rest of the day and out of nowhere I said I wanted to bake a savory meat pie. She asked what kind, and I said I wasn’t sure, and she said, “A something-or-other pie?” Actually, in the native dialect (native to my wife and I), it came out sumpineruhther pie. And I was like, “Yes. We have to make that.”
The idea was we would go home and look at the ingredients already at the house and figure out what we would have to get to actually put a savory pie together. Then we would go to the store and see what veggies and meats looked best and put sumpineruhther together.
So we did. Braised beef short ribs, carrot, onions, yukon gold potatoes, peas, and a sauce reduction of red wine, vegetable stock, celery, onions, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, jalapeños, and carrots. This was all encased in a hot water crust and then baked to pie perfection. And then we ate it. And it was just what I had wanted it to be…
I am blazing no new ground in attempting to use cooking metaphors to describe the process of making theatre. I have probably employed it before in this blog, and I certainly am borrowing and stealing from many great theatrical minds before me. But there is a reason it is so often drawn upon to try to elucidate the finer points of the theatrical craft. We head into tech this week, where we add all the physical elements to the show that the actors and I have been working on over the past weeks. This is where the show really comes together. What I did yesterday in my kitchen is worth looking at as I head into this week ahead.
A little about tech. For months now, as director of The Mountaintop, I have been in contact with my design team. This contact has been almost exclusively over the phone, with the exception of Jennifer Bronsted, our resident costume designer. In these discussions, we talk about all the possibilities for how the show might look and feel and sound. We have some clear guidelines that are given to us by the script, but we also have some leeway about how to best make it all come to life. So between us, we come up with a plan for how all of this might work. Please read that last sentence again, paying special attention to the word “might.”
So then all the designers go off and independently try to come up with their portion of the whole. Costumes, sets, lights, sounds, and in this play’s case, projections. While that is happening, I start the process of casting the play, and then of course rehearsing the play.
And now we are all caught up to where we are this week. Tech week. All the designers are here now, the actors have put together wonderful performances, and it is our job to put all of those pieces together this week. So far, I have intentionally tried to stay away from the obvious cooking metaphors, but we have reached the point in the blog where I will pull out all of my heavy handed kitchen mitts and go to town.
My job this week as a director is very similar to my job yesterday in the kitchen, and really even my job from the time we dreamed up the idea of sumpineruhther pie. I have to take all the ideas, the various building blocks, ingredients, and cook and blend them together this week, not overcooking any particular portion, making sure the correct time is given to the rising of a certain piece, and that the temperature of this bit is just right, handling all the beautiful flavors delicately so they don’t get lost in an unrecognizable stew. I use my past experience, the advice and considerable knowledge of my designers, the beautiful work and instincts of my actors, and a little bit of kitchen karma (as my mother likes to call it) to put all this together. And just like yesterday when making sumpineruhther pie, there are some pieces to the recipe that I have not tried before, and have to be willing to make a few mistakes to get it right ultimately.
Yesterday, the main piece of the recipe that I had not encountered was the hot water crust. And as with anything in baking, prior experience is always helpful. It ended up turning out tasting wonderfully, but I would like another pass or two to get the overall look of sumpineruhther pie a little nicer. The ingredient in this production that I have not encountered before are projections, and I am going to have to trust my kitchen karma to aid me in this journey. Of course I have a brilliant projection designer with loads of experience, plus a whole week to try various things to get it right, so the analogy is not quite apt, but you get the idea.
Holding something in my head, like the idea for sumpineruhther pie, and then going on the journey to bring it to the table is so similar to holding the idea for a production in my head and bringing it to the stage. I know it is not a coincidence that the type of cooking I like to do and the type of creative and professional work I have surrounded myself with for well over half of my life have many crossover points where I can learn about one from doing the other. And I encourage you to go out and make a sumpineruhther pie. It is a lot of fun, and part of the name suggests that you are winging it, throwing caution to the wind, abandoning a recipe in favor of more free-form cooking. This is how I like to do it. On stage and off.
Broavo, Cody! Can’t wait to savor the final product October 2nd!
Well, Cody, I attended my first preview Thursday night and Mountaintop was amazing. It was so much more than I had ever expected. Intense, poignant and occasionally funny. Heart-wrenching, contemplative and so, so relevant. I know it takes a village; thank you for YOUR part in making this production so wonderful. I will add it to my short list of plays that have stayed with me for decades……among them, “Fences” and “Sideman”, and now, ” The Mountaintop”.