Back in the Saddle

Being back home from the big dig means a lot of things:

1)   I am back at my desk! I love my desk. I missed my desk. I can’t believe how quickly I became accustomed to my current work set-up, but I simply wouldn’t want it any other way and I so dearly missed having it. I missed the sunlight; I missed my giant window; I missed the comfy chair; I missed my dual monitor and raised laptop setup; I missed my external keyboard and mouse; I missed my giant external hard drive; and I missed not having to move everything around on a whim. So glad to be

In the course of my unpacking, this happened.  Because for me this is normal.

In the course of my unpacking, this happened. Because for me this is normal.

back sitting in one location when I’m working!

2)   Man oh man do I have so many e-mails to answer. I’m about caught up on all the things now; but it was dicey there for a few days. It’s incredible the amount of backlog you can build up, even when working triage between archive trips.

 3)   I might have gone a little theatre-nutty and accepted about a half dozen reviews in my first two days being back. This week I’ll be reviewing one show; next week I’ll be reviewing a different show and seeing a third show just for the sake of seeing theater… and I have a few more on the horizon coming up. I’m so happy that it’s theatre season again; and I’m so stoked to be back in the reviewers’ saddle (though I will admit, it was nice to see a show or two without a notebook in my hand while I was in New York!).

4)   I have so many pre-semester errands to accomplish. Some of them are amusing. Some of them are not. Luckily I timed my return such that I’d have a few precious days on campus before the hoards descend in multitudes. Picking up a parking pass for the semester is SO much easier when you can sneak in and out without anyone else being there. By the time the undergrads arrive back on campus, lines at campus security wind up being out the door and around the block (no joke) and I’m simply too ridiculously busy to spend two hours waiting for the privilege to hand them my money. Also: when campus is empty, I can use the quad for whip practice. Not so much once everyone returns from summer break.

5)   I have once more managed to fill this semester with exciting things. I’m TAing one class in the department and teaching a second. I am teaching my stage combat class again to the kids at Charlestown, and teaching my OSHER class again to my delightful continuing adult ed. students. I’m also fight directing at least two projects (with more on the horizon), finishing edits on a chapter for publication, continuing my work as an independent contract writer, and continuing my work with the Folger. Oh and writing a dissertation. And that’s just what I’m doing on the work front… My personal projects and leisure activities continue at a similar pace.

6)   Now I have to set order to the INSANE amount of stuff I documented over the

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I'm missing this view....

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I’m missing this view….

course of five weeks at some of the biggest archives in the country. I’m making progress, and the trip definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things that I really needed to consider over the course of this dissertation process. Also: it was fun to paw through archival material (if a bit frustrating sometimes).

7)   Back to running here means back to hill training. New York is very flat…. My neighborhood not so much. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess?

 Back to the grind!

Is the Raven Growing Hoarse?

Alright so listen. Sleep No More ain’t what it used to be.

I’ve been to the McKittrick Hotel three times now. The first was during its supposed short-term run WAAAYYY back in the spring of 2011. It was one of the most epic theatre experiences of my life; so creepy, so moving, so very creative. It was so awesome that I knew I had to take my best beloved to see it as soon as I could.

Turns out “as soon as I could” had to wait a few years; but we got there in the summer of

A shot from our 2012 trip; this was taken over drinks at Gallow Green

A shot from our 2012 trip; this was taken over drinks at Gallow Green

2012; just as Gallow Green (the rooftop bar addition) was opening up. He loved it; I loved it; we had a blast.

This trip, we knew that we had to go back in and see it again. There are just so many permutations of adventure to go through and so much to do inside the hotel. I hadn’t tasted nearly enough of the candy, and who knows? Maybe we could get a glimpse of the elusive sixth floor? He hadn’t had a one-on-one yet, and I knew I wanted to see more of the story. So the other evening we went.

I’m sorry to say that this once-epic experience has definitely gone downhill since it first opened; and not because the performers aren’t spectacular (they are) or the immersive environment isn’t receiving the care and attention it needs to stay immersive (it is); but rather because the crowds of people who attend the show are no longer respectful of the environment, the experience, or even fellow audience members.

For those who are unfamiliar, go check out my review of the first performance I saw to get cozy with the concepts that I’m about to discuss.

Never before have I seen so many half-masked/unmasked people wandering the halls of the McKittrick. While I hadn’t witnessed this phenomenon in previous visits, these days guests seem to think that the “wear your mask at all times” rule doesn’t apply to them. Additionally, I heard more cross-chatter from guests than I have in previous years. Try as you might to whisper, when there’s no talking allowed in the hotel, a human voice really carries.

Worst of all was the way that the guests behaved to each other. There was so much pushing, shoving, and other attempts to get to “the front” that I gave up even trying to follow performers about midway through the performance. The now famed “one on one” aspects of the performance seem to be a much sought after prize and McKittrick guests are willing to fight to be chosen. Several times, I experienced being shoved away from a performer so that someone could get in front of me in hopes of being selected for a one-on-one. Several other times I was standing in a mostly-empty room surveying a performer from a respectful distance when new arrivals would push past me to stand between me and the performer leaving the performer without enough playing space and me with a frustrated shoulder-chip.

I find this to be really sad. Sleep No More was a true pinnacle of theatrical experience for me, and to have it so ruined by others was a shame not just for me but also for the thespians who work so hard to keep this show running.

I think part of the problem is a real “hands off” attitude from the proprietors of the McKittrick. In an effort to keep the experience mysterious, Punchdrunk’s employees are notoriously tight-lipped about how to behave while inside the hotel. I understand that appreciating the experience is up to the individual, but a set of “official/unofficial” rules and regulations about how to treat other guests (and, by the way, the performers) would go a long way, I think, towards curbing the problems which led to my extremely negative experience of the piece.

I hate to say it, but if this kind of behavior continues from the guests, Sleep No More is going to very quickly lose interest for turned-off patrons who don’t want to literally fight to see the show.

In an effort to rehabilitate the Sleep No More audience, I offer unto the internet a few pointers about how to comport yourself while inside the McKittrick. I’ve crafted these with one thing in mind: that if we can help each other have the best possible experience, we can all enjoy the show for years to come.

1)   Spatial Awareness: while the SNM mask definitely cuts off your peripheral vision and creates a feeling of being alone in the scene, try to be aware of who is around you and how long they’ve been standing there. If you walk into a room with others already in it, try not to block their view (they were there first, after all!). Also, keep some sense of where your neighbors are when watching a scene. The actors can move pretty quickly sometimes, and you may have to duck out of the way to avoid legs, arms, or flying objects. You want to make certain that you have some space to do so, and that you’re leaving such space for those around you.

2)   Respectful Following Distance: even though part of the “shtick” is to be a part of the scene, you still want to give the actors enough space to do their thing. They need to be able to move around, get to the props they need, and even meet up with scene partners sometimes. Try to leave them enough room to perform when you pause to observe them. If you happen upon other McKittrick guests with a performer, don’t just assume that the space between the guest and performer is a “free spot” to stand; you might have just walked into the space that the guest specifically made for the performer to perform. Stand behind other patrons as much as you can, and try not to breathe down anyone’s neck.

3)   Right of Way: following performers around the hotel is definitely part of the fun; but if you see that there are guests already following an actor, try to trail along at the back of the pack rather than push to the front. The people who follow most closely have probably been following the character for some time and have a vested interest in the story that is unfolding; there’s room for everyone, but you wouldn’t want to scoop another patron on seeing the story that they’ve put so much time and investment into. This is doubly true if you’re a slow walker, or if you’re in a group. The actors move quickly and it can be easy to lose them without a vested effort; don’t block someone else from following through on what they’re trying to do. Fall into the herd and start following as well! As others peel away, you can have your turn at the front of the pack.

4)   Don’t “Game the System”: especially with the blog-o-sphere so active with how to get this one-on-one, or how to achieve that goal inside the hotel, it’s easy to go in with a desire to “win” the “game”. This attitude will only make you disappointed if you, for some reason, fail to accomplish what you set your mind to (which could easily happen depending upon so many different factors outside of your control). This experience is meant to be savored; not graded. Remember why you fell in love with the show in the first place and try to let the experience wash over you. Competitive drive will not only ruin your experience, but also that of those around you since it will make you more likely to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that deprive other guests of a good time. The point is not to “win”. The point is to enjoy.

5)   Trust: Trust that Punchdrunk has something in mind when they request that you not talk or take your mask off during the performance. If these rules seems “stupid” or “bad”, try to dig beneath that instinct and ask yourself why you find them to be so. If you grow nervous or scared, either embrace it as part of the experience or take a break in the bar for a while (the ushers, I’m told, are very good at helping you find it if you need it for this reason). Taking your mask off or speaking breaks the environment for others who, by the way, paid the same ticket price you did. Don’t allow your negative experience to ripple out. Also, trust that the actors see and take note of you, even if they don’t acknowledge your presence (they’re not supposed to, after all). Yes, there will be one person chosen from a crowd for a one-on-one; you do not need to make yourself the most “obvious” choice.

Courtesy of Dogs in Sleep No More Masks; http://dogsinsleepnomoremasks.tumblr.com

Courtesy of Dogs in Sleep No More Masks; http://dogsinsleepnomoremasks.tumblr.com

The actors are quite good at realizing who has been there for a while, and who has developed a sort of “rapport” with them. Attempting to push the issue is obnoxious.

When Punchdrunk uses the phrase “fortune favors the bold”, they mean that you should be brave, explore, and see what you can find in the hotel. They also mean that if, should an actor offer you a one-on-one or some individual attention, you should take them up on it. They do not mean “push your way to the front of every pack”; they do not mean “do your best to be everywhere all at once”.

Relax, have fun, and enjoy the show. That’s the best way to keep your behavior from preventing others from doing the same.

The Tempest

Since taking a post as a theatre reviewer with New England Theatre Geek, it’s not very often that I get to see a show without a pen and reviewer notebook in hand. It’s also not very often that I get to see a show with no obligation to come home and write a poignant yet witty review about it. So I find it a wee bit hilarious that the first time I’ve been out to see a show I wasn’t reviewing in some time, I immediately came home with the urge to write about it.

I’ve been waiting for the A.R.T.’s production of The Tempest since they announced their season last year. You heard me correctly; it’s been over a year that I’ve been champing at the bit for a chance to see this show. Last night, the man and I finally made it out to experience the magic and it was well worth the wait.

As a child, I spent a lot of time hanging out with magicians. As a kid, one Saturday a month was devoted to a road trip to the not-so-local local chapter of the Society of Young Magicians. There, myself and a couple of other like-minded individuals (including my brother who was the one who got us all into this mess in the first place) would sit at the knees of local magicians and learn magic tricks. It seemed commonplace to me to come home with playing cards tucked in various surreptitious pockets of my clothing (because it was a favorite game to reverse pick-pocket cards onto other people without them noticing… and actually, a great exercise in prestidigitation for the developing table magician), to look for jackets with giant pockets or loose lining in which more pockets could be sewn, to figure out whether it would be doves or rabbits that were the chosen animal of the house and, thereby, the focus of the next big trick. Eventually, we grew old enough to join the real society and because of this childhood influence, I have a soft spot for magicians and a fascination with magic in general. Despite the fact that I can’t do a card trick to save my life (trust me, I’ve tried), I am a long-standing card-carrying member of the Society of American Magicians.

Magic… plus Shakespeare. It’s a theme that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time. Would one distract from the other? Would people come to see this show just because of its famous producer (Teller of Las Vegas fame)? Would it rub up against all of my traditionalist sensibilities?

Apparently, add some Tom Waits into the mix and you get veritable alchemy.

The show I saw onstage last night was definitive for me in a way that no show has been since I had the opportunity to see the McKellon Lear at the RSC in 2007. The Tempest is a show with problems: music, which is always a challenge since there are no melody notations left from Shakespeare’s songs; long and rambling courtly scenes that if done improperly will just drag on and on and dull your audience into the same slumber that Ariel visits upon the hapless mariners; an ingénue that’s nearly impossible to play; and spirits of all types which appear and disappear seemingly at the whim of the playwright.

Prospero (Tom Nelis)  and Ariel (Nate Dendy) conjuring the storm.  Photo courtesy of the Smith Center/Geri Kody

Prospero (Tom Nelis) and Ariel (Nate Dendy) conjuring the storm. Photo courtesy of the Smith Center/Geri Kody

I’ve seen good productions of The Tempest before, but they all pale in comparison to what’s onstage at the A.R.T. right now. “Inhuman” gains new meaning, as does “American” representations of England’s playwright laureate.

There’s a sense of danger on Prospero’s island, and magic lurks in every corner. Ariel is ever-present/absent, seen and unseen, all-powerful and completely subjugated. The music is part of the island (literally and figuratively) and comes from a band that looks like it could have bubbled forth from the sea itself. The director was not afraid to cut the text; a necessity to keep the long scenes short and the short scenes pithy. Instead of losing content, this gave the show more room to explore what it clearly set out to do: re-add the “magic” back to this late Romance in a way that I don’t think the stage will see again.

Since my dissertation deals so heavily with American Shakespeare and since that project has taken so much out of me lately, I was exhilarated to be so thrilled by a landmark production right in my backyard. Enchanted by Teller’s tale, I can say with some certainty that this energy was just what I needed to get me through the current busy-times slump.

I wish I could tell you to go see it, but every show is sold out. Standing room tickets are available on the day-of performance at the A.R.T. Box office. The Tempest closes on June 15th, so if any of what I’ve said intrigues you, don’t wait for the storm to pass.

Sweet Sweet Parsing

So have you guys seen the article about Parsing is Such Sweet Sorrow that’s been going around lately?

It was brought to my attention by a mentor of mine and I have a few colorful things to say about the project.

Let me start here: Yes!  Computers are useful!  And yes!  Digital humanities has some really exciting applications, even in the field of theatre!  You might think that this is a really simple thing to say/discover, but please let me take a moment to tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in on where I’ve heard theatre scholars of varying levels say either directly or indirectly “the digital humanities have no holding on my field.”  WRONG.  Computers are great at certain things that can make all of our lives easier.  They’re awesome at searching things, they’re fantastic at pattern recognition, they can find and share information across the world faster than you can say “speed of light” (…unless you’re on dial-up for some god forsaken reason in which case I’m so very sorry for you).

So well and truly: I think that Emma Pierson, the researcher who put together this project, is onto something really important: using computers with theatre!

That said, the findings aren’t anything new.  Heck, I could have told you exactly what she told you with her fancy charts and graphs without even boning up on my Romeo and Juliet (…though I will admit, my ability to quote Shakespeare from memory has been referenced in casual conversation as “inhuman” and “more than any healthy human being should really know”).

I took issue with a few metrics used in this study.  First and foremost, the length of the plays weren’t taken into consideration.  Placing Romeo and Juliet (a play of  24,535 words) on the same graph as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (16,511 words) without re-jiggering some appropriate metrics creates a skewed representation of the data (the average length of a play for Shakespeare, by the by, is 22,595 words which is the approximate length of Richard II… give or take a couple hundred words).  So while this data isn’t technically wrong, creating comparisons between these plays without figuring percentages of lines rather than number of lines creates a false sense of what’s actually going on here.  We can’t compare if there’s no real basis for comparison, and unfortunately Pierson has presented data that lives in its own world.  She’s just put those worlds side by side on the same axis and color-coded it to make it look cohesive.  It’s really not.

Pierson begins to unpack this data and postulates that the plays with the most connected lovers are also those with strong women.  I’m not certain we can really draw that conclusion from the limited sample size utilized in this study.  There are a few very notable strong women who are completely left out: Rosalind, Julia, Imogen, and Helen come to mind immediately.  What happens if we add the Princess of France and Rosaline from Love’s Labour’s Lost to this mix?  I think that will pretty well throw a monkey wrench in the entire operation considering the lovers in LLL hardly ever interact.  Or how about Isabella from Measure for Measure?  Can we even call her a “lover”?  She’s certainly a strong female Shakespearean lead… and she definitely ends up married at the end of her play… so what do we make of her?

I’m a huge fan of crafting visualizations like this to create conclusive and interactive data about things which were previously opinion based and, subsequently, inconclusive.  My large issue with the “Parsing” project is that it has so many holes.  Certainly it begins some new brainwaves, which is always good, but I’d love to see this information a bit more thoroughly teased out.  Honestly, I’d love to have the opportunity to get my hands dirty with it.  What could we find out from a study like this if we didn’t cherry-pick our plays?  I’m not sure, but I’d really like to find out.

At the end of the day, this is the important take-away: computers are only bound by our puny human brains.  Imagination is what will be the limiting variable in any study; even ones which utilize advanced technology to create neat little bar graphs.

For the Children

As you may or may not recall, I’ve just come off a project at the Charlestown Working Theatre.  It has been my pleasure to fight direct their Advanced Youth Ensemble’s production of Macbeth.  The show opens on Saturday the first and runs weekends through the ninth (for more information, check out the CWT website).  This production has given me the opportunity to think about a great many things (not the least of which being “What’s the best way to kill a child, but not the infant he’s carrying, onstage?”; “How badass are the Banquos?”; and “If I were the King of Scotland, what would my signature broadsword move be?”).  One of the more poignant issues came up the other day in rehearsal, and I’d like to take a moment to discuss it.

This show is a production with teens.  The cast is (mostly) aged 13-18.  CWT plays host to several youth programs for children of varying ages and it’s truly a family place.  As a result, the director mentioned to me that she has been asked by parents if this show is appropriate for their younger children.

Alright, look.  Macbeth is a violent show that deals with adult themes.  Depending on the production company and the director’s imagination, sometimes the show is more violent than other times.  This version of Macbeth happens to be “bloodless” (by this I mean that, while murders are staged, we are not using blood or gore effects) and the violence is relatively straightforward (the murders are “clean” without being psychotic or sociopathic; the murderers take no apparent relish in their task but rather perform it as a duty).  Honestly, I think that this Macbeth is extremely appropriate for children of a certain age.

 

Me working with the cast.  Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Me working with the Macbeth cast (specifically Macbeth and Young Siward). Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson

Because bad things do happen in the world; and sometimes they happen to good people.  There isn’t a single news channel that wouldn’t show coverage similar to what we’re producing onstage.  This world is not always a safe place to be, and coming to terms with that is a part of growing up.

We go to the theatre to be transformed.  The old adage that philosophers unto ancient times have touted is that good theatre is meant to educate and entertain.  What better way to teach your children about violence than to expose them to violent acts in a safe space, where no one will really get hurt, and where the consequences are reversible?  Will young children feel disturbed by what they see in Macbeth?  I hope so.  If you can witness these kind of deeds without feeling some kind of stirring in your gut, then I don’t think you’re fit for humanity.  But what a teaching moment for them; what a place to learn is a theatre.

Besides which, there’s nothing we are showing that they can’t see in to even greater extreme on television, in movies, or in video games.  Did you know that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985?  I’ve seen enough faceless murder victims on the big screen to know that killing isn’t a thing Hollywood takes seriously.  Blood, gore, assault… these are issues which we should be discussing with our children.  And, luckily, they are issues which Shakespeare takes seriously.  I think that Macbeth is a learning opportunity.  It’s an outlet for conversation about some BIG TOUGH issues which are and are not pieces of our daily lives.  Because, let’s face it, even though we are confronted with depictions of violence on an almost-daily basis, how often do we talk about it?

So I encourage you to take the opportunity that theatre has presented.  Teach your children about violence in a meaningful way in hopes that they can come to respect it and, in turn, realize how impactful it can be.  And, hey, maybe come see Macbeth.  Just to find out what that signature move I invented might be.

Robin’ Hearts

Yesterday was my birthday.

To celebrate I did many things.  One of them was to see theatre.  We went to go see the A.R.T.’s production of The Heart of Robin Hood.

I wanted to see it because it sounded like fun.  I mean, it’s a play.  About Robin Hood.  How could this not be interesting?

It turned out to be much more than I expected.  Yes, yes, there was talent onstage (both in the acting and execution of the show), the writing was good, and the sundry list of things you expect from professional theatre was all fulfilled with gusto.  Let’s talk about how this show went above and beyond expectations:

First of all, the set design.  I’ve never before seen a set that was more enveloping, more

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

appropriate, or more useful to the production.  From the moment I walked in to the theatre, I had absolutely no doubt that I was in Sherwood Forest.  Above this, every single little piece of the set was used for something (generally many somethings) in an unexpected and creative way throughout the course of the production.  The set was so wedded to the show that I had a hard time conceiving of how this could have possibly been rehearsed without it.  If you go for not other reason, go to see how set design can influence and effect a production.  Sets: not just pretty ways to decorate a room.

But it wasn’t just the set that made the set.  The lighting design for this production was so spot-on and wonderful that it was noteworthy.  Lighting design is an often-unacknowledged portion of the show as, generally, great lighting design is invisible and awful lighting design is nauseating.  In Robin Hood, the lighting was simply magical and almost cinematic in its magnitude.  It integrated seamlessly into the beautiful production, while simultaneously adding unending value to the story.  I often found myself wishing that my life could be lit the way Björn Helgason lit Sherwood.  Please?

Now let’s talk about the dramaturgy.  It’s not like Robin Hood is a new concept by any stretch of the term.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in most cases, Robin Hood is a trite cliché that should probably not be relied upon to add value to anything.  The A.R.T. production proved that you can teach an old outlaw new tricks.  At every turn, the production subverted your Robin Hood expectations while simultaneously remaining true to the story we all know and love.  Additionally, the program notes were well-written and lain out so as to give a glimpse into the playwright and designers’ dramaturgical processes.  Here was pertinent, interesting information about the show that you were about to see made accessible for a theatre (or Robin Hood) novice.  Dramaturgy at its finest.  Bravo.

And, for our superficial moment of the review, let’s talk about the bodies onstage.  This was an extremely physical show that constantly put the human form on display.  Following in the footsteps of the A.R.T.’s now-Broadway smash sensation Pippin, Robin Hood integrated physical performance and acrobatic athletics to create stunning visual tableau with bodies to match the already-lovely presence of the space.  What this means without jargon: well-muscled men in tight leather pants and open-front vests performing feats of strength for your amusement.  By way of a birthday surprise, this didn’t go amiss (it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to see, but who wouldn’t take six-pack abs and leather to gaze adoringly at from the comfort of Sherwood?).  Lest you fear that this show is all-fluff and no-stuff, let me assure you that the acting prowess of these gentlemen matches their physical abilities and you will not be left to work hard in suspending your disbelief.  These guys are triple threats: acting, dancing, and (get ready for it) singing.  Yup.  They can come serenade me by my window any day of the week.

Oh yea, there’s a whole female empowerment story arc (Marion dresses as a boy and goes to pal around in the woods for a while), and a few of the scenes are essentially modern-text renditions of As you Like it.  For once, this homage didn’t make me angry; the playwright acknowledged it in his production notes, the actors did it justice, and I was happy to have snuck in some surprise Bard on my birthday.  Fun fact: Prince John’s last line is almost verbatim Malvolio’s last line from Twelfth Night.  Because who doesn’t like declaring revenge to the court before making a dramatic exit?

So really; if you have even a half interest in any of the things mentioned in this review (or circuses, ducks, bluegrass music, or stage combat), grab a ticket and go see.  Even better: take your kids.  They’ll love it and it’ll make you feel better about squealing like an over-excited toddler when the good guys start to throw down.

 

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/william_shakespeare.html and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of biographyonline.net which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.

 

The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

The Summer of Love

Thanks to Joss Wheedon, it’s been a Much Ado summer.  Without any intention of collecting an exclusive list of Much Ados in the New England area, I’ve personally seen four productions so far (two full productions, the film, and one staged reading).  Since I don’t have any more on the docket (unless something unexpected pops up, which it might), I thought I might take a moment to make some general observations about the play from my privileged Much Ado-steeped dramaturgical brain while the shows were fresh in my mind.  I suppose this could also serve as a basic primer for theatre makers looking to create a production of Much Ado and not looking to hire a dramaturge (big mistake, but the benefits of having someone around to serve that role are fodder for another post).

1)   The most hard and fast rule about producing Much Ado About Nothing is that your Beatrice and Benedick ABSOLUTELY have to work.  They essentially carry the production and without them, you’re sunk.  I’ve seen some tolerably good performances this summer, but none that were well matched (one show had a strong Beatrice and a weak Benedick, another show vice versa, etc.).  These actors need to be charming and deep.  The audience needs to love them despite their quirks.  They need to be experts with the language.  They need to have chemistry with each other.  Lining up these factors is nearly as difficult as convincing the stars to align (especially in the world of amateur theatre where your talent pool is your talent pool and there’s not much you can do about it), but vital to the health of your production.  Trust me, this will make or break your show.

2)   The part of Hero is perhaps the most difficult part in the show to play (Claudio and Dogberry make close seconds).  Honestly, one of the strongest performances of Hero I’ve ever seen was performed by a dressmaker’s dummy passed around to various cast members when Hero herself needed to be.  There’s a danger of making Hero too ingénue.  She absolutely has to be sweet and pretty and obedient, but she has some fire in her that, if allowed to come out, will add dimension to your production.  Think about the gulling of Beatrice; Hero is both smart and saucy (she demonstrates this as well in the ball scene when she sasses the masked Prince).  A further point of caution: if her part is cut too severely, she comes off as nothing but an airy fairy sugar-spun object.  Careful with this one.

3)   Dogberry is extremely difficult to make read to a modern audience.  If he’s played too smart, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played with too much status, he doesn’t make sense.  If he’s played by someone who does not have an absolutely command of the language, he doesn’t make sense.  Dogberry and the watch need to come off as well-meaning, sweet, regular guys whose logic sometimes doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most important thing to remember is that Dogberry is striving, with every fiber of his being, to have status he just doesn’t know how to make it work.  He’s trying, by virtue of “being is becoming”, to make himself into a real leader and a true soldier… he just can’t quite get there.

4)   The third-act wedding scene needs to be a punch in the gut bordering

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don't have anything else to put here

some really cool shots of books I took this summer because I don’t have anything else to put here

on melodrama.  This scene changes the entire tide of the production.  Suddenly we go from a rollicking comedy to something which (if ended prematurely) could more resemble a classic tragedy.  You really need to set this change of pace up for an audience and draw them into the mood.  Claudio really needs to manhandle Hero.  Hero really needs to have a reason to faint and look dead.  Beatrice really needs to have a reason to be weeping into the next scene.  These are strong, dynamic characters capable of extreme emotional manipulation and extreme emotional reaction; if this is not expressed, your production suddenly no longer has purpose.  The entire second half doesn’t have a reason to exist, and (most importantly), my favorite scene in the canon falls flat.  If there’s no real given reason for Beatrice’s famous utterance, the audience just won’t buy it.

5)   Speaking of duels, if you choose to modernize your production make sure the gender and status dynamics still make sense.  See my previous post on this point.

6)   Another note about status: the Prince needs to have an easy sort of control over every situation he’s placed in.  Though a guest in Leonato’s house (and in act four certainly emotionally indebted to Leonato), he is still the Prince.  Despite anything which may be happening (including, as he believes, the death of Leonato’s daughter which is at least in part his fault), he must maintain that status.  This is particularly important because modern American audiences do not understand status.  If you work hard through the course of your production to create status, any chink will make the entire illusion crumble.  Don’t give the audience a reason not to buy into your world.

7)   For god’s sake can someone please come up with a creative solution to Don John?  I have yet to see anyone in the role who doesn’t make me think of Keanu (though granted, Sean Maher’s performance came close to banishing this image – he was pretty sexy).  Textually, he’s a problem.  He’s obviously brooding and quiet, angry with his brother and ready to revel in any misfortune that he can cause because of this.  But is there any way to make this into a villain that we love to hate?  I’m so sick of stoic-faced Princes who turn into whining, petulant grumps in the presence of their henchmen only to plot a revenge which they obviously take no joy in.  Someone, please, fix this and invite me to your show so I can stop wondering if anyone will get the Prince a surfboard.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of things I see, just bits which tackle some of the play’s bigger issues.  If you’re planning a production and are looking for a dramaturge, I highly encourage you to contact me.  I always love to participate in crafting good Shakespeare and this play has a special place in my heart.

And now, back to the comps grind.

Epic Theatre

My oh my the amount of theatre I saw this weekend!  So much theatre that I might not get to write reviews of everything; but here’s another to add to the collection.

Saturday, I got out to see Apollinaire’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.  For those who have never seen Apollinaire before, they’re a really great company (their Uncle Vanya this year past was truly wonderful and made me, a formerly dubious audience of Soviet theatre, a true Chekhov believer).  As far as I can tell, they prefer to produce “strolling” productions (that is, shows which take place in literally different locations so that the audience has to move with the action in order to observe it).  For Caucasian Chalk Circle, this particular aesthetic fed in exceedingly well with Brecht’s piece.

Bertold Brecht was a German playwright who changed the face of theatre as we know it.  After writing some extremely influential pieces (including Mother Courage and her Children and Threepenny Opera), he fled Germany and the imminent Nazi occupation.  After a veritable tour of Northern Europe, he came to land in the United States for a time.  During this time, Brecht was unsure about his future, unsure whether he would ever seen Germany again, and unsure whether his plays would ever be performed once more in his native language.  Still, he wrote plays in German.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of those plays.

Brecht is perhaps most famous for his grand contribution to the development of

View of the Tobin from Mary O'Malley Park.... it's a little industrial

View of the Tobin from Mary O’Malley Park…. it’s a little industrial

the theatrical form known as “epic theatre”.  Epic theatre is a modern style developed in reaction to naturalism and its most salient goal is for an audience to have constant awareness that it is witnessing a play in production rather than any slice of reality.  To achieve this, epic theatre utilizes imbedded elements such as narrators, storytellers, and song; technical attributes such as screens, projections, and fully lit houses; and performance traditions such as actors playing multiple characters, and actors moving sets and changing costumes in full view of the audience.  The effect of estranging an audience from the play’s action is something which Brecht calls “Verfremdungseffekt” and is often translated as “alienation”.

In light of this, Apollinaire’s show is precisely in keeping with the Brechtian tradition.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is a free, open-air production which springs up in Mary O’Malley park as quickly and ephemerally as its pre-show music (…mostly this pre-show music seemed to be generated by the assembled flock of musicians being bored together and so we were treated to impromptu renditions of Johnny Cash standards on an accordion).  As such, the audience can see every single string.  The actors move the sets between locations and unabashedly set them up/take them down as necessary.  The stagehands flit about in full view of the assembly as they assist with costumes and props.  The storyteller asks audience members to follow her from location to location between acts.  A chalkboard acts as a makeshift screen and announces the title of each act.  I think it is safe to say that Apollinaire succinctly and gracefully captured the spirit of epic theatre.

The set for act two... and the river.  The sunset I didn't quite manage to capture but trust me, it's also worth the trip.

The set for act two… and the river. The sunset I didn’t quite manage to capture but trust me, it’s also worth the trip.

The assembly was rock solid.  There wasn’t a weak performance amongst the lot.  Despite Brecht’s insistence that an audience not overly empathize with his characters, it was hard to maintain the appropriate Brechtian distance due to the power of Courtland Jones’ Grushna and the charmingness of Mauro Canepa’s Simon.  I can only hope that their Spanish-cast counterparts (the show is performed in English/Spanish on alternating nights) bring as much punch to the story.

Apollinaire performs Chalk Circle sans its prologue.  While this is a common practice, it is one which scholars have debated for years since the prologue frames the tale within an external story.  The prologue sets the scene in post-WWII Soviet Union and depicts two communes arguing over a piece of land.  In order to further enlighten the dispute, one commune decides to perform an old folk tale for the other.  Arkadi Cheidze, the story-teller/singer, brings his band of minstrels to do so and the play commences.

Does it change the meaning of this piece to have that framework surrounding it?  It would certainly have answered my big question as I walked away (“what are we to take from this play?”).  I leave that for you to ponder and encourage you, with all the force of my internet-power, to go see this show.  It’s a great night out, and it’s free, so you really have no excuse.

As a coda to this verse, let me take a moment to expound upon how much I love open-air theatre and most especially initiatives like this one.  Free quality theatre in the park is truly a service to society.  Looking around the audience, I was struck by how many people there looked like “normal people”; we were just an assembly of neighbors come to watch a play.  Pretensions were out the window as we sat on picnic blankets and towels, huddled close around the storytellers.  For me, theatre doesn’t get much more wholesome than this.  Call me a romantic, but I’m a firm believer in this sort of initiative because of its equalizing power and would like to assert that it is pieces like this which will ensure future audiences for the general theatrical community.

Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through this week and closes on July 27th.  There is one more Spanish performance on Friday the 26th.  For more information, visit Apollinaire’s website.

The Love Boat Goes to Verona

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending opening night of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston common.

After last year’s middling Coriolanus, I didn’t have high hopes for this (…that may also be the comps brain talking since I’m not sure I could work up the energy to have high hopes about anything right now).  Especially after reading that the concept was “rat pack”.  I just wasn’t sure things would work out; Two Gents is a notoriously difficult play to make read to a modern audience, Shakespeare on the Common is notoriously not the sum of its parts for whatever reason, and Boston weather patterns make outdoor evening theatre a gamble at best.

But somehow, despite all this, the cosmos aligned and it was truly a production worth seeing!

Jenna Augen’s Julia was absolutely adorable (even in the face of a tragic act-one kerfluffle in which Mimi Bilinski, her Lucetta, failed to come onstage at her cue and left poor Augen to live out the actor’s nightmare: scrambling to cover for a co-star while under the pressure of rhymed iambic pentameter).  She had some sauce and spice and a decidedly different take on the Act V reversal (which I won’t ruin for you since I want to encourage you to go see the show).

our blanket: a still-life.

our blanket: a still-life.

Rimo Airaldi’s Speed and Larry Coen’s Launce were a comic duo that actually made sense.  They played the jokes to a T and, despite any misgivings I had about an older more august Speed, I was quickly charmed into their clutches.

Rick Park’s Duke of Milan is the best I’ve ever seen.  His portrayal of an incensed father in III.i (the scene during which Valentine is outcast) was real enough that I truly believed he would kill Valentine (Andrew Burnap) if given half the chance.  And this, my friends, caused dramaturgical magic.  Because the threat of death was so real, Burnap was able to launch into the most transcendent rendition of the “what light is light” speech that I have ever heard.  I, the notorious curmudgeon, was moved to tears and could only be revivified by the liberal application of the annual CSC signature Ben and Jerry’s sundae (this year’s creation: the Crabbe Bag…. Eat one.  You won’t regret it.).

In terms of the concept, it worked a lot better than I expected it to.  The outlaws in the woods became Wild West clowns/menaces and Act V devolved into a road-runner style farcical chase complete with door-swinging and dance-hiding.  Because of this, the general tone of disingenuousness led to a ready acceptance of the notoriously hard to stage Act V reversal.  Well done, CSC.  Well done.

I have only two complaints.  The first is that there was no fight director or violence coordinator billed in the program while I certainly saw some onstage violence.  If you need to understand the importance of this, let me guide you self-promotionally to the following youtube interview with some people who know what they are talking about in this regard.

The second is that in order to serve the concept, the director chose to include a liberal amount of extra-textual music numbers.  Julia burst out with “fever”, Launce sang “ain’t that a kick in the head?”, etc.  These music numbers, though well executed, slowed the pace of the first act to a crawl.  It would have served just as well to include half the number of musical interludes and I think it would have kept the audience more engaged not to be bursting into non-Shakespeare song every ten to fifteen minutes.

As I said, on the whole this was a very good rendition of a hard-to-perform piece.  If nothing else, it’s a free evening of entertainment, the common is beautiful this time of year, and you can enjoy your own picnic libations with some good company while waiting for curtain.

Though if you, like me, get the sudden urge to fox trot when any of the rat pack tunes are played by a live jazz band, be prepared to bring some dancing shoes.