Behind the scenes with Square One Theatre’s director

"The Dining Room's" theatrical run was cut short due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

"The Dining Room's" theatrical run was cut short due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

Contributed photo

Square One Theatre Company in Stratford had just opened its production of A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” when the show came to an abrupt halt because of the coronavirus. According to the theater’s artistic director Tom Holehan, he’s planning on finishing the 30th season in the theater’s 31st season. “We’re planning on squeezing in ‘The Dining Room’ for the rest of its run followed by another play and finish the season with ‘Agnes of God’ for our 2020-2021 season,” said Holehan.

The amount of work that is involved in mounting a production like “The Dining Room” is substantial enough that Square One will leave the set intact. It is currently sitting silently on stage waiting for the cast to return. The successful director who has repeatedly earned rave reviews from this reviewer talked about the process of getting this show on the boards.

“First I read play after play and eventually select the plays I want to direct for the season,” said the director. He also described that when he reads plays, he envisions what they will look like on the stage. “I visualize the scenes and how they will unfold.” He also said that as he reads he sees the actors that have performed in many of his productions and pretty much knows which ones will fit which roles. “I’ll think to myself ‘Oh so and so would be perfect for this part.’ That doesn’t always happen and I usually have an open call for auditions each year, but for some shows like ‘The Dining Room’ I already knew who fit the roles. I call that ‘telephone casting’ because I just pick up the phone and ask if the actor is interested.”

What endears this director to his actors is that he is very mindful of the time, talent and commitment they offer. It all starts after he has the cast completed and they gather for the first time. It’s what is called a “table read.” That’s when this director passes around a calendar and asks the actors to fill in dates that they know they will not be available for rehearsal. “The hardest part of the rehearsal process is making the schedule,” said the director. He added that in addition to the cast members when everyone gets to introduce themselves to each other, the costume designer and crew are also present.

The next rehearsal is strictly for blocking, which is when the actors walk through the first act and changes are made as to where the optimum positioning takes place. Whether an actor stands upstage, downstage or center stage makes a world of difference. The director already has every movement blocked out, but he allows the actors with their keen sense of their roles to walk naturally through their paces before making any suggestions for change. “Actors have natural instincts when it comes to movement on stage. I make some comments, but more often than not, they get it right.”

This walk through is also when the director hands out the rehearsal schedule and contact sheets with actor information. The second time they meet is when they walk through the second act. “There’s no acting taking place during these sessions. The actors are on stage with script in hand, however many of them can’t wait to get into the lines, and start getting into character” said Holehan with a laugh.

From that point on, the director breaks rehearsals into scenes. I can’t bear to see actors sitting for hours waiting for their turn. I’ll call a scene in which two or three actors are onstage and avoid wasting actors’ time. The last rehearsals they all come together and go through the entire play. Rehearsals are Monday through Thursday, but not all scenes all the time.

Tom Holehan shared what he considers the most important things about directing. “You have to love the show. If you don’t, then don’t do it. It never works. You have to visualize it, research it, and know what you want to convey to the audience. In college, I learned that 90 percent of the work is done right if you have the right cast.”

“The Dining Room” is an actor’s dream because each actor gets to play multiple roles from children to adults. It is the late Gurney’s tribute to what he considered the vanishing White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) upper middle class culture. If you missed it opening weekend, see it at Square One next season.

Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: