Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me?

Among my myriad of other tasks, I am currently doing some assembly work on my syllabus for my intro to acting class.

This is a bizarre experience in a lot of ways because it makes me harken back to many disparate but not unrelated periods of my life: when I was a wide-eyed but arrogant college freshman taking my first semester of classes, when I was a wide-eyed but talented youth taking my first acting classes, when I was a wide-eyed but optimistic young actor pounding pavement and auditioning to land parts that would surely, one day, make me famous.

…Oh how far have I come.

I do have high hopes for the potential of this course (as well as a few realistic ones which are probably nearer the mark for the actual effect that I can have on students of varying degrees of seriousness over the course of one semester).  Mostly what this has made me do is spend time going back to basics, remembering what it’s like to be new at something (which, as a dear mentor once told me, is the key to success at any level; she called it “beginner’s mind”), and thinking very seriously about if I could only instill one thing upon an absolute beginner student of acting, what would that be?

I am reasonably sure that this is the oldest shot I have of me performing without digging through embarrassing summer-camp things... this is The Laramie Project, 2003

I am reasonably sure that this is the oldest shot I have of me performing without digging through embarrassing summer-camp albums… this is The Laramie Project, 2003

I’ve come up with some answers (which I will leave unsaid in this forum, at least until I test their efficacy in the classroom).  I’ve also come up with some things that I wish someone had told me when I was first starting out (which I am much more inclined to share since they may or may not make it into my classroom given the fact that most of my early experience was in conservatory-setting rather than the non-major-friendly theatre department which, as you may imagine, is a completely different beast).  As it turns out, those things are pretty applicable to things outside of acting and so are also pretty relevant to the general blogosphere…

Always have confidence.  Your confidence, more than most other things about you, will attract the auditioner’s eye.  Be very careful not to confuse confidence with arrogance, however; it’s a very fine line.  One is attractive; the other is repulsive.

Make eye contact, shake hands firmly, know where your business cards are, smile, and be polite no matter who you think you may be talking to or how rude that person may be to you.  These things will make them want to work with you and, if they want to work with you, a myriad of other sins can be overlooked.

Life is too short to work with people who make you miserable and the power of networking is strong.  If you yourself are someone who is well liked (and, if you follow the above rules, why wouldn’t you be?), you will always find somewhere to land.  It may not be where you thought you’d land, but I promise it will be better for your sanity.

Protect your physical well-being.  If a director asks you to perform something that you feel is unsafe, say something and stick to your guns.  Your health is not worth a job no matter how many lines you have (especially if they’re not paying you).

Burning bridges is always a bad idea.  You never know where you’ll end up and who will be there with you.  Save yourself the awkward situation down the road and learn to execute grace and class as expediently as possible.

Theatre is an extremely high-stress profession that involves late nights, emotional intensity, tough and frugal living, and the necessity to disconnect yourself from your own ego.  The sooner you understand how these things may effect you and how you deal with them the better off you will be in the long-run.  If you can’t do any one of these things, you may want to reconsider your life choices.

Just because you aren’t a full-time theatre professional doesn’t mean theatre can’t be a part of your life.

It’s okay to wind up somewhere you hadn’t planned on being.  It’s okay to decide that this isn’t the path for you.  It’s okay to start over for any number of reasons.  You aren’t letting anyone down (including yourself) and you haven’t lost anything by it.

The sooner you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own emotions, the better you will be onstage.  Acting isn’t a profession for the insecure.  You will be asked to be ugly, you will be told you are fat, you will be given unflattering things to wear.  If you aren’t completely comfortable doing this in front of large audiences of strangers multiple times a week, you won’t be able to do your job.

Good acting requires unending tenacity, insurmountable bravery, and unquellable curiosity.  Never give up, bounce back like rubber, always be willing to try things.

Not everything will work for you but that doesn’t mean that nothing will.

another early shot (you can tell because of how bloody high my parry is)... I want to say this is 2003/2004.

another early shot (you can tell because of how bloody high my parry is)… I want to say this is 2003/2004.

Strive for perfection, but realize that it is unattainable.  That doesn’t mean you should stop trying, just that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you realize that you didn’t quite manage it.  A true artist is never satisfied.

There will always be someone better than you.  There will always be someone prettier than you.  The trick is to figure out what you bring to the table that no one else can (…and if that fails to remember that talent and beauty are subjective but ice cream is not).

And on that note, I think I’ll go back to figuring out how much reading to assign.

Yūgen

In Nōh drama (an ancient Japanese style heavily laden with chanting and slow rhythmic dance), the desired effect of a piece is termed yūgen.  Sometimes, yūgen is translated as “grace” or “a mysterious sense of beauty”, but honestly it’s just easier to try and wrap your head around the concept of yūgen than to find a good way to define or translate it.

Yūgen, when achieved, is supposedly a symptom of “refined elegance” that properly executed Nōh brings with it.  Attempting to understand it is today’s metaphor for attempting to prepare for the comprehensive exams.

the book fort is growing

the book fort is growing

You don’t really know what comps are, despite knowing what comps are (just like yūgen).  Even when you think you may understand it, explaining it to someone else is extremely difficult and you find yourself resorting to all kinds of crazy metaphors (…i.e. this post).  While it may perhaps relate to something completely outside of its realm (comps prep relates to athletics like yūgen relates to comps prep), you can never truly pin down entirely what it is.  When you think you have achieved it, you can only understand that by a true inner calm and a self-assurance that you have done well.  While others may, by gazing from the outside in, observe the process within you, only you can be completely assured that you have truly done it.

Actors study for decades to achieve yūgen.  I have studied for decades to reach the comprehensive exams.  Japanese acting teachers are notoriously abusive in their training techniques; as is the world of academia (especially since the old guard had to walk fifteen miles uphill both ways in the snow to retrieve their library books and, of course, speak fifteen languages so thereby don’t need translations of foreign-language passages in their texts).  Japanese theatre is a man’s tradition (women were banned from the stage until the later part of the twentieth century, and even now there are extremely few female performers of the traditional theatre types; Nōh and Bunraku especially; Kabuki has a bit more).  Academia is still very much an old boys’ club.  Dressing in drag is discouraged in either setting (once they let ladies onto the stage, it took care of a lot of anxieties about what onstage cross-dressing meant for Japanese gender identity… and as much as I LOVE Ru Paul, somehow I don’t think she’d make the appropriate kind of splash if she showed up in full regalia to lecture “Theatre History 101”).

Appreciative audiences often sleep through Nōh productions (the desired

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

a better/alternate shot of the book fort

viewing state is the place between wakefulness and dream, so this activity, unlike in the Western theatre, is not at all discouraged).  Sometimes I take naps on books (especially if they’re not particularly engaging, or alternatively too mentally taxing).

Achieving yūgen is essentially achieving a divine state.  I can imagine that completing comps will feel the same way.  I only wish that there would be an ensuing audience to give me a GIANT round of applause while I take a triumphant bow when I turn in the final portion of the exam.

I am officially one month away from my test.  I think I’ve finally defeated the six-day stress headache that made me slow way down last week to accommodate the ailment (…though I won’t say that too loudly in case the headache-from-hell hears).

…let’s try to achieve some nirvana, shall we?

Not-so Mortal Kombat

Alright, folks.

I don’t usually get fight directorly in this forum, but a recent resurgence of interest in this portion of my life/training has caused certain issues to be high on my mind.  This, in conjunction with seeing a few cringe-worthy safety issues onstage recently, has made me feel like a few things need to be said.

First and foremost: hire a fight director.  If you don’t think you need a fight director, I can almost guarantee that you do.  Does anyone do any of the following things in your production: slap someone, fall to the ground, faint or otherwise slide out of a chair, drop to his knees, carry someone, come into direct physical contact in any way with another actor, point a gun at someone, use a gun period, pick up a weapon with the intent to use it on another actor, actually use the weapon on another actor, tie someone to a chair, do something to an actor tied to a chair?  If any of these things happen, YOU NEED A FIGHT DIRECTOR.

Just this week, I saw a show in which there were several faints, slaps, and physical bits.  The program didn’t list an FD working on the project which led me to believe that perhaps the director had some fight training (which is often the case).  The slaps and faints looked okay in my book, so besides being slightly grumpy that an FD was out of work I didn’t much mind.

It only made my hackles rise when, in the second act, there was a long drawn out torture scene involving contact gut punches, poorly executed slaps, and (most disturbingly) the use of a heavy-duty wire cutter applied to an actor’s fingers.  The victim was tied to a chair and the aggressor held his hand down while hovering with the weapon.  The victim’s fingers were BETWEEN THE BLADES of the REAL wire cutters.  Despite this being in a frozen tableau, it seriously made me squirm in a “I, as a professional FD, am worried for the safety of these actors” way rather than a “good audience member suspends disbelief” way.

I really can’t stress this enough: weapons are weapons.  It doesn’t matter if the weapon is a found weapon, a nonconventional weapon, or a weapon you may think is “safe” (dulled-down razor, etc.).  If you pick up an object and intend it to do harm to another living thing, that object becomes a weapon.  This is why self-defense classes recommend keeping a heavy duty Maglite by your bed in case of home invasion.  Just because you’re not using a sword, gun, or knife does NOT MEAN you are not involved in a weapon combat sequence.

Directors, stage managers, actors: there are ways to keep yourself (and your company)

my own recent object lesson in safety with weapons: bull whip practice is better with eye protection, folks.

my own recent object lesson in safety with weapons: bull whip practice is better with eye protection, folks.

from getting sued by the union.  There are ways to keep yourself (and your actors) safe from any mishap, no matter how unlikely seeming.  There are theatre professionals who can help make your violence good, believable, and a lot more brutal than it would look if you were “just doing it”.  When people “just do it”, they necessarily pull punches.  Most individuals simply aren’t comfortable hitting another person full-force in the face.  Thus, your attacks will look stilted, awkward, and frankly sloppy and counter to your artistic intentions.

At the risk of giving up industry secrets, budget concerns are not a factor here.  Thing one: it is a LOT cheaper to hire an FD for a few hours than to deal with the legal and insurance fees innate in actually harming an actor working on your project.  Thing two: there are many FDs who have students who, while perhaps lacking in experience, do not lack in training.  These students will likely be happy to work on your project for no more payment than a resume byline and some good networking.  While you won’t get the name-brand association that comes with a fully-fledged FD and you won’t get the complex violence experience/background someone like that can bring to the table, you will definitely get a safe show for your actors, and something much better coordinated than anything that came out of an untrained head.

If you are an actor working on a project and think that your safety may be compromised, SAY SOMETHING.  Too many actors are willing to do anything to make the show go on.  This is your HEALTH, your physical WELL-BEING that you are gambling with.  If that doesn’t matter to you, consider the age-old axiom of “your body is your instrument”.  You will not be able to do the same kind of work in the short-term (or even the long-term maybe) if your eardrum is blown out by a full-force contact slap, or you receive a giant powder burn on your face from an improperly used stage revolver (true stories, unfortunately, and ones that happens more often than you would think).  You would never stay at a desk job where your coworkers physically abuse you and you come home with injuries every day, why would you stay in an acting job that does the same because your employer (for whatever reason) doesn’t want to hire a safety expert?

Suffering for the sake of art is one thing, putting your life and limb at risk for a show which you probably aren’t even being paid to do is another.  Theatre is a collaborative process and the more talented individuals who execute it, the better that the theatre in general becomes.  Why wouldn’t we want to keep each other safe and healthy when doing projects together?

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.

Bacchanalia

This weekend is a weekend full of theatre and I can’t feel better about it!

We kicked things off last night with The Bacchae at club Oberon.

There are a few fundamental issues in presenting Greek theatre to a contemporary audience.  I have been known to argue that Greek tragedy is actually unperformable in the United States today (for further thoughts on this or to participate in this argument, buy me a drink sometime).  This production was one of those rare gems of exception – if you absolutely have to perform Greek tragedy, you should perform it like this.

The environment at Oberon (and the immersive dance-club stage space) sets the tone for interaction.  There’s not anywhere to hide from Dionysus’ maenads and you are caught up in the ritual just as much as the one sacrificial audience plant whom Dionysus makes his own in the play’s beginning.  Audience members are crowned with ivy and given drums to play as they enter the space and are subsequently invited to participate fully in the ritual they are about to witness.

Because of this, the long chorus speeches become exhilarating.  The maenads bop and weave through the audience, menacing and caressing, inviting you to be a part of their world for a time.  There is no passive listening (which is the death of long speeches).  These interludes, alienating on a tradition stage, thus become a point of access for the audience.

Another thing that this production has working in its favor is the traditional Oberon performance length (ninety minutes).  By trimming the wordy Greekness of this down to a palatable length, The Bacchae doesn’t have the opportunity to lose its audience.  You’re either caught up in the flow of the action, or you’re drinking at the bar (sometimes both but there is no in between).

The one thing I would have liked to see tweaked slightly is the token use of

Poster for Arlington Shakespeare in the park; yes, apparently there is still a theatre company that uses posters

Poster for Arlington Shakespeare in the park; yes, apparently there is still a theatre company that uses posters

masks.  In this production.  As each character is introduced, he enters wearing a “Greek-style”* mask.  The mask is removed before each character speaks, done away with, and never seen again.  The trouble I have with this convention is its uselessness.  If it was meant as a nod at Greek theatrical practice (we do know that in the Greek theatre all characters wore masks), that’s wonderful, but if you’re just going to wear it to do away with it you may as well not wear it and save your costumer the time and expense of acquiring it.  I would have liked to see the masks return at the end and create a sort of “framing device” for the piece.  Just as Dionysus is introduced wearing his full pan horns which are then dispatched with only to be seen at the play’s very end, the beautiful masks should have made a re-appearance.

As to the non-traditional staging elements demanded by the performance space at Oberon, historically they’re not actually all that non-traditional.  We can’t say overmuch for certain about Greek theatre, but we do know that the Greek theatrical space consisted of a stage area (scholars debate about whether this was a raised platform or not) and an orchestra where the chorus performed (again, HUGE debates about the shape and size of the orchestra).  The floor plan of Club Oberon is essentially this.  There is a stage (which, at Oberon, is a raised platform) and a dance floor in front of it (for the purposes of our Greek analogy, this can serve as an orchestra).  Of course, in Greece we have no record of the audience mingling with the chorus (as happens at Oberon), but since I can now check “be kissed by Dionysus” off my bucket list, I can definitely overlook this breach in historical protocol.

The Bacchae is, unfortunately, done.  They closed last night (I know, I know, I need to get to things earlier in their run).

HOWEVER!

Here’s a list of things I’m going to be seeing in the near future that HAVEN’T closed.  I can’t vouch for their quality yet, of course, but if you want to get some theatre in this summer you have plenty of options:

Caucasian Chalk Circle by Apollinaire Theatre Company – free, in the park.  Hitting this tonight.

Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost at Shakespeare and Company – making my yearly pilgrimage to Lennox tomorrow which, incidentally, is the last performance of Richard though Love’s Labour’s runs a bit longer.

Much Ado About Nothing presented by Arts Art Hours in Lynne Woods — I have some friends in the cast and I love this show, so I really can’t see it being bad.  It’s a strolling production.  Outside.  That at least should be interesting.

Romeo and Juliet by Arlington Center for the Arts – free, outside Shakespeare; can’t get more pleasant than that.  Only one performance though so if you are interested, you should check it out.

Psycho Beach Party by Counter-productions theatre —  it’s a contemporary piece but has a really interesting name… and I have a friend who keeps saying I should go.  So I’m going.

Cinderella by Boston Opera Collaborative — they say that this piece is being performed “authentically” i.e. true to period style.  We’ll see about that… either way, great for comps!

Why Torture is Wrong and the People who Love them by Titanic Theatre Project – sometimes you just need some Christopher Durang to bring levity to a situation.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all theatre happening in Boston right now, just some things that are on my calendar.  Stay cool!!

 *I put this in quotation marks because there’s no real way for us to ascertain authentic Greek-style masks; none are extant and the flaws of relying on pottery paintings as historiographical evidence have often been expounded upon by scholars.  As such, the masks were certainly what you as a modern playgoer with some idea of Greek theatrical practice, would expect to see… but I can’t really call them “authentic”.

My Life with a Fight Director

In an effort to bring you non-comps related material, here are some anecdotes about  how my crazy, beautiful life has some wonderful adventures in it.  Enjoy!

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been slowly re-integrating pieces of my life that I had taken a long break from. Primarily due to the efforts of a certain individual who, as is my wont, shall remain nameless in order to protect the innocent, I’ve been rediscovering the wonderful world of fight choreography.

Staged violence is a strange and interesting thing. Part dance, part illusion, it’s something that caught my attention at a young age and has held it since. Because knowing how to execute even the most rudimentary stage combat is not something that everyone knows how to do, the individual who has even a modicum of training is often the person in the room most qualified in the art. I’ve been that person many times (though, while I wouldn’t call my experience “exhaustive”, I definitely fall into the category of “someone who knows things” rather than “someone with a modicum of training”).

Hanging out with fight directors is a special pastime in its own right. We come from diverse

very recent picture of me fighting (as part of my now award-winning film!)

very recent picture of me fighting (as part of my now award-winning film!)

backgrounds as movement artists: martial artists, fencers, the few and far between dancer (this is my particular gateway). What we share in common is an interest in safety, an interest in illusion, and an interest in making cool stage pictures. What this means effectively is that talking shop happens often and can be just the thing for making the poor diners at the next table have the most unforgettable date of their lives.

When I was still working out of New York, I remember one particular lunch during which I was meeting with an FD to talk about a project. The topic of “found weapons” came up and he took a moment, picked up his fork, then proceeded to rattle off a list of about twenty-five ways he could injure, kill, or otherwise subdue various patrons with said implement of food-shoveling.

Recently, such gems as “it was my first lynching” and “this was my first school shooting” have been texted or otherwise uttered to me.

In the past month, I’ve been (literally) swept off my feet mid conversation several times because my partner wanted to take a moment and demonstrate a technique we had just been discussing (…being a responsible partner, he makes sure to check if there’s a soft landing place if he intends to take me to the ground, but the most common stage combat throw actually works better with somewhere firm to land so that particular instance was on concrete).

This series of encounters led to me having to think about (and voice) one evening: “Oh, just FYI, please don’t throw me tonight – I have an injury I’m healing.” Because, you know, everyone should check in with themselves when they know who they are dining with on a given evening and ensure that they are physically up to the task.

We’ve discussed eye gouges over hummus and coffee.

Very old picture of me fighting (circa 2005)

Very old picture of me fighting (circa 2005)

We’ve also had lengthy talks about blood and how neither of us particularly care for working with it. I’m reasonably certain that the other café patrons thought we had a Dexter-mobile outside.

Perhaps the most amusing of these instances was a late-night encounter with Tufts Campus security. We were reviewing grappling techniques and take-downs on the big, soft lawn at midnight (because, well, that’s what you do when you’re not otherwise gainfully employed). We realized through this process that there were, in fact, several security-mobiles circling. We managed to behave ourselves like normal people while being hit with the headlights, and ironically enough it wasn’t until we were sitting and yapping at each other about historical fencing manuals that an officer actually approached us. Luckily we’re nicely dressed, intelligent people so it wasn’t much of an issue at that juncture.

My point today is this: if you, in your travels, are searching for a little adventure and variety in your social life, I highly suggest befriending a stage combatant (or, if you’re really looking for some spunk, an FD). We’re cuddly people with good stories to tell and you never know when you may need to not kick someone’s ass.

Breaching the Breech

Earlier this week, I was able to attend a reading of Much Ado About Nothing presented by the Hub theatre company at Boston’s own Trident booksellers.

I’ve come to be wary of staged readings of Shakespeare.  By and large, I think that this forum works better for the tragedies (the comedies often rely upon too much physical humor/movement to make land in a staged reading, and the histories are already confusing enough without mixing in the complications of double-casting and no costumes).  For that, this was an enjoyable and low-key evening of theatre.

One thing that really got me thinking was the casting of a lady Leonato.  I’ve seen this trend developing lately (Actor’s Shakespeare Project cast a lady Duke of Milan in their Two Gents earlier this year).  We’ve seen in recent years (and I will blame this majorly on Julie Taymor) many female Prosperos, but to see this trend of making Shakespeare’s august noble characters in positions of power who are volleying politics by marrying off their daughters turned into women begs some complications that have to be re-examined.

Let me start off by saying that this has nothing to do with the quality of the acting.  So far, every august Lady I’ve seen in these roles has been fantastic.  But there are a few innate gender issues that you simply can’t escape when you have a woman playing a man’s role in this way.

I will limit my discussion here to Leonato because expanding it would get us into too-long-to-blog territory.

Even when we modernize Much Ado, was have to deal with a few dramaturgical truths.  Any “modernized” production of Shakespeare still needs to face the text because, well, you can’t ignore it.  If you ignore the text, why are you doing Shakespeare?

Dramaturgical truth the first: We’re in a world that has defined gender relationships.  This is made true by Beatrice’s show-stopping speech in Act Four.  She laments that she is powerless in her situation due to her gender.  As such, even if we drag the show into

In case you're not sick of these shots yet; Rosalind and Touchstone from As You Like It... TALK about gender issues

In case you’re not sick of these shots yet; Rosalind and Touchstone from As You Like It… TALK about gender issues

“modern” or semi-modern times, we must still be in a universe with distinct gender boundaries.

Dramaturgical truth the second: We’re in a world where marrying someone is a play for political power.  We know this because of Leonato coaching Hero before the dance (“Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer”).  For that matter, we’re in a world with a very defined social hierarchy dealing with characters who have title and standing (A Prince, the Count Claudio, etc.).  Leonato is a part of this world; as a wealthy landowner he can host the Prince and his entourage and even seems to have some standing amongst them.  However, he is not blind to the opportunities which may present themselves while the Prince is a guest in his household.  Marrying his daughter to the Prince would do wonders for Leonato’s social standing and, while he’s not a cut-throat social climber like (for instance) Lord Capulet, he does have an awareness of society around him.

Dramaturgical truth the third: Gender relations and transgresses upon them make up a large portion of this play’s plot.  While we are dealing with wedding and wooing, the play’s major conflict also consists of Hero’s supposed trespass against her duties as a good daughter.  It is a very different scene when she and Beatrice are the only women onstage attacked and defended by the men around them than it is if Leonato becomes Leonata.  In the first case, we clearly see the gender divide that Beatrice laments in the scene to follow.  In the second, we wonder why it is that Beatrice can’t fight the gender roles just as Leonata did and assert her own authority.  In this way, giving Leonato a sex change very clearly negates Shakespeare’s text.  It gives us a world that no longer makes sense, a world that fights the text itself.  Unless a director can find some way to extratextually justify Beatrice’s speech, an audience is left wondering what the big deal is.  And, honestly, any play which needs to make extratextual additions or clarifications is edging into shooting Horatio territory.

Dramaturgical truth the fourth: By making Leonato a woman, we are left with a few historical heritage questions.  Though it’s true that a woman who had become a widower would have been allowed to keep her husband’s estate and have some power over running it, pretty much any man who came along could have found some way to run rampant over her power there and disenfranchise her.  In Much Ado, we have several examples of power hungry men who have everything to gain from Leonata’s estate (the most ready example is Don John the Bastard who could just as easily have ruined everyone’s plans by semi-force-wedding Leonata as he did with his elaborate bed-trick scheme… also: the wedding would have been more permanent).  By making Leonato a woman, it leaves unnecessary loose ends.  Does Leonata end up with Don Pedro at the end (it’s the easiest solution to Benedick’s closing suggestion of “get thee a wife”)?  This director made that particular choice, but that particular choice has its own complications.  What does that mean to the government of Messina?  What does that mean to Leonato’s estate?  Has Claudio then, thereby, inadvertently become much more than he deserves by wedding Hero?  Does this mean that Don John is going to now target Leonato’s line in the obviously ensuing war since Leonato, Hero, and Claudio now stand between himself and his brother’s kingdom?

I think, at this juncture, I’ve sufficiently proven my point.  Cross-gendered casting is not something to be taken lightly (even if you have an awesome cast!).  In the event that you would like to proceed with something like this, make sure you also have an awesome dramaturge to help you think through these issues before you give some poor theatre scholar a headache.  If you don’t have an awesome dramaturge, I happen to know one (hint: it’s me).

This is only the first in a series of readings that Hub is putting on this summer at Trident.  They’re calling the series Beer+bard and despite my over-thinky nit-picks, I do highly recommend that you check them out.  The next is going to be Henry IV i on June 17th at 7PM; come hungry for food and Shakespeare!

Training Montage

I am still not dead; my life has just been consumed by prep for comps.

And it’s not even June yet.

I wanted to sit down and write some solid reviews of all the theatre I saw last week (Punk Rock by Zeitgeist, an unsettling portrayal of school violence and bullying; From Denmark with Love by Vaquero Playground, a romp through Hamlet mashed with Bond films which doesn’t close until Monday so you should totally go see it, the next installment of the RPG-inspired New Hampshire based improv show; and Richard III by Seven Stages Shakespeare read in the parking lot of Throwback brewery… yes, they are brilliant and

my live-updated character map of Richard III that I kept to help my roomate follow the story.  A great exercise and I was impressed with my own memory!

my live-updated character map of Richard III that I kept to help my roomate follow the story. A great exercise and I was impressed with my own memory!

this reading was a truly wonderful way to spend Memorial day).  Last week was pretty amazing.

Really, what I’ve got knocking around in my head right now is a bunch of information about Greek theatre, a bunch of speculation about Greek theatre, and the threads of plots from several random plays because I’ve been catching up on all the things I was supposed to read as a good theatre person and have never gotten around to for one reason or another.  The other day, I fell asleep while reading Aristophanes’ Clouds which led to some interesting dreams (… if you’ve never read it, I think the humor translates reasonably well and if nothing else, you could read it with an eye towards what these dreams might possibly have been).  Last night, I dreamt about dancing and Argentine Tango while discussing the Spanish Golden Age (which is doubly interesting because, at least for the moment, my knowledge of Spanish Golden Age is limited at best).  I’m awaiting a dream similar to one described to me by a senior colleague that he experienced while he was in his own comps process.  It was essentially a Mortal Kombat style mash-up battle dream in which he was fighting some famous Japanese performers in a historiographically accurate Greek theatre.  He valiantly defeated his nemesis by loudly declaring that some details of this theatre were not, actually, backed by firm evidence.

When you’re studying for this exam, it consumes your life.  Everything I do or say now is somehow related to comps (and, if it’s not, I feel like I’m wasting my time).  My social interactions are only valuable to me if they include some discussion of theatre.  As demonstrated by the previous paragraph, even my naps/dreams have become an arena in which to study and process information.

I am, essentially, becoming a theatre history machine.

If this were a training montage, Marvin Carlson would be yelling obscenities at me while I ran up and down flights of stairs reciting dates, facts, and figures from memory.  Cut to me paging through tomes with a highlighter, viciously attacking certain sections as I daringly attempt to stuff that information into my mind.  Smash cut to me sitting in a theatre watching a play while information scrolls past the side of the screen Sherlock-style and I attempt to situate this both within its historical context and within the context of contemporary American theatre.  Then cross-reference that to how it may have been approached during an era entirely unrelated to either of those things.

Shot from the reading; not the best but you get the idea

Shot from the reading; not the best but you get the idea

This process is something that I am actually enjoying despite the life-consuming nature of it.  I am learning a vast amount and most of what I’m learning are things that I’ve been assumed to have known all along.  In a lot of ways, the comps process is a certain amount of “destiny fulfilling”.  If we want to take it to the ultimate geeky extreme (and, really, who doesn’t?) it’s the process of becoming the chosen one.  We’re on Dagobah being trained by the great Yodas of our time to bring balance to the academy.  We’re growing into those shiny shiny robes that they let us wear to our hooding ceremonies.  We’re crafting of ourselves something that won’t embarrass our home institutions when we walk around with their names in our byline.

…and if I look at it that way, I can’t be too upset when I fall on my face a few times.  Luke did too, after all, and he grew up to defeat the Empire.