Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings

Here’s something that folks don’t normally talk about: studying art can be extremely emotionally draining.

Investing one’s full self into anything is draining.  If you have a career which you are passionate about, you will go through phases of utter and complete investment (of course followed by “down time” to recover yourself in order to push for the next accomplishment… it’s inevitable; we can’t give 150% of ourselves at every single moment).

When your career is centered around dealing closely with bodies of artwork that you, personally, find meaningful, it means that every reading or encounter with that artwork has the potential to move you.  I’m not saying it will; simply that it might.  And when you are dealing with art on a daily basis from a critical perspective, there are some things you must read at certain times.  You can’t avoid it.

But, being a human being, you have a personal life outside of your work.  And sometimes your work and your personal life clash in an unpleasant way.  This is particularly upsetting when you may be going through an emotional crisis.  In his book Will and Me (a great read, by the way, for anyone who has a remote interest in Shakespeare geekery), Dominic Dromgoole admits that certain plays of Shakespeare tend to find him when he is emotionally available to them (he specifically mentions reading Hamlet after the death of his father).  This kind of personal connection to the work brings new revelation both about the piece in question and about one’s self.  Really, I can think of no better guide to the human spirit than my man Will.

Every time I have encountered a play of Shakespeare’s in this way, I have been absolutely

a shot I took of working in the hotel lobby while at CDC... sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do

a shot I took of working in the hotel lobby while at CDC… sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do

astounded at how accurately his characters behave in circumstances similar to mine.  I have continually wondered at how one man could encapsulate such a great spectrum of the human emotional experience (as, by the way, have countless other scholars – this is one of the arguments that the heated authorship debate is based in).  Whomever Will was, I can assure you that he knew things about living; he knew people, he knew pain, he knew heartache, he knew love, and he knew desire.

So how is it, then, that we are able to compose ourselves through whatever it is we’re dealing with and focus past it into the work that’s presented itself to us?  Certainly a degree of critical distance is helpful – if you can view the text before you as text rather than an emotional journey, it will help you to detach.  If you can focus on the minutiae of what’s going on rather than give a general reading, it can assist in this; when you’re looking at the mechanical functionings of something, it’s much more difficult to become attached to an artistic whole.

Put your theory glasses on.  Try and put the piece in context and then pull it out of context.  Deconstruct the art; really break it down into nuts and bolts.  Again, if you’re looking at pieces, it’s harder to become emotionally involved with it.

If you really can’t see past the big stuff, take a moment, walk away, deal with what you need to deal with (I find that journaling is generally good for this), then come back.  When you come back, make it business.  Change out of your pajamas if you have to (yes, I know, the cardinal sin of academia: working in real-people-pants while in your own home).  I find it’s a lot more difficult to invest emotionally while wearing pants.

Remember this: at the end of the day, this is your job.  You may love it, you may be devoted to it, it may overflow into many other aspects of your life, but it’s what pays the bills.  Show me an engineer that weeps over robots on a daily basis, think about how ridiculous that is, then remind yourself that getting caught up in your work (while very easy to do) is equally ridiculous.  It’s not sustainable, healthy, or good for you in any way.

….This does not, by the by, mean that I will be able to restrain myself from weeping every time I reach the end of King Lear.  It does, however, mean that I’ll at least acknowledge the ridiculousness, allow myself to be human, and eat more ice cream when I’m working on Lear.

Games People Play

I have a confession to make.

I play games with myself.

You know when you’re waiting for something or someone?  In those moments when you’re sitting in a stupid meeting that doesn’t really require your attention but does require that you at least look like you’re paying attention?  When you are sitting somewhere unexpectedly and forgot to bring a book or something else to do?

In those moments, to push aside the implacable boredom, I play one (or several) of the following games with myself:*

not sure if I've introduced you to the latest addition to my desk ornaments; mini Will!

not sure if I’ve introduced you to the latest addition to my desk ornaments; mini Will!

 1)   I list Shakespeare’s works in alphabetical order.  You would think that after years of doing this I would have the entire list memorized but, alas, my Swiss-cheese brain still requires kicking to churn forth these facts.  I do know them, just not always in alphabetical order.  I should make up a song or something a la the animaniacs…

 2)   Once I have that list (which, generally, I will write down as I go), I go through and try to recite the first line of each play.  Some of them I have down cold (“Two households both alike in dignity”; “when shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightening, or in rain?”; “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York”), but there are others that aren’t quite so famous.  Tell me the first line of Timon of Athens.  Go on.  Someday I’ll have them all committed to memory…

 3)   I will go through and recite (or at least call to mind) the most famous speech (or, sometimes, just a speech) from each play.  If I don’t know one, I make a mental note to learn one at some point in the near future.  Sometimes this resolution sticks better than others.  I do have a speech from most of the most famous plays at least, and some of the more obscure ones.  That ought to count for something.

 4)   If I’m feeling particularly perky, I will recite the last line of each play.  This one is significantly harder though, again, there are a few that will always stick with you (“The weight of these sad times we must obey, speak what we feel not what we ought to say, the oldest have borne most; we that are young will never see so much nor live so long”; “That’s all one, our play is done, and we’ll strive to please you everyday”; “When I make curtsey, bid me farewell”).

 So there you have it.  If, in the near future, you find yourself speaking to me and my eyes get kind of glazed over, you have a pretty good idea of what I may be doing in my head.  That or re-playing episodes of The Muppet Show, it’s kind of a 50/50 shot at this point depending on how brain dead I’m feeling from whatever research endeavor I’m currently working on.

*admittedly, I stole some of this from RSC director Dominic Dromgoogle and the methods he documents utilizing to pass the time as he traversed the English countryside while walking between London and Stratford in his memoir Will and Me.  It’s a clever little book and gave me a plethora of demonstrations of how I’m not nearly as nerdy about Shakespeare as I could be… so I promptly then became about 10% nerdier.  In any case, the book is very entertaining and I highly recommend that you check it out.

Grand Grand Guignol

This weekend past, I was treated to a night in Paris.   Nineteenth Century Paris, to be specific.  The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth NH (a venue about which I have previously expressed my enthusiasm) put on a night of short plays inspire by Grand Guignol.

The Grand Guignol was a theatrical styling which takes its name from its birthplace at the Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (a specific theatre in Paris;

original poster from the Grand Guignol

open from 1897-1962).  Grand Guignol (“Guignol” was the name of a Punch-and-Judy style puppet, so “Grand Guignol” literally means “Great Puppet-show”) is characterized by its realistic violence and horror, often featuring strongly sexual themes and violence done to women.  Live at the Grand Guignol, you could see disemboweling, tortures, rapes, murder, and all manner of senseless blood and violence.  Principle Playwright André de Lorde often judged the success of his plays based upon how many people in the audience fainted or vomited during a given performance.

The Players’ Ring produced a series of three one-acts which ranged from the shocking awful (and I mean that in the sense of value-judgment, not sublimity) to the titillating wonderful.  The first show, a new work entitled The Box, fell flat.  Its premise: a couple is unable to conceive.  He is abusive, eccentric, and more-than-a-little crazy.  She is a witch.  No, literally, with tea leaves and summoning and everything.  She summons the ghost of his dead father to halt what she perceives as a “curse upon his line”.  The ghost arrives, much to the horror of the husband, and ravages the wife onstage, then departs.  He, horrified at what she may have conceived during this encounter, kills her, then recites a line from Hamlet.

The acting was sub-par, the costuming was hilarious (the drowned father wore a full-head mask that looked like a particularly enthusiastic trick-or-treater rather than a being of horror), and the play had one fundamental problem: unless you’re actually going to have two actors doing the deed (alternately some sort of interpretive dance or something), don’t show sex onstage.  Everyone in the audience has done it, everyone has seen it, we’re going to notice if it’s even a little “off” and at that point all it looks like is awkward body palpitations.  This is especially true in a small house (which the Players’ Ring is) and ESPECIALLY true in three-quarter seating arrangement (which the Players’ Ring has).  This particular stage set-up, so wonderful for intimate theatre, leaves you no margin for fudge; the audience can see EVERYTHING (this will come into play later).  In the case of “sex”, it means we can see where you’re trying to cover your butts (literally).

My companions disagreed with me on this part.  One of them suggested that, during the rape, there were people laughing in the audience because they were uncomfortable.  And what was Grand Guignol if not theatre to make people uncomfortable?  That, to him, meant that the rape did its job.

…I just assumed they were laughing because what we were seeing was so utterly ridiculous.  Well.  We all have our opinions.

The second piece (entitled A Crime in the Madhouse) was an adaptation of an original Grand Guignol piece (entitled Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous).  It depicted a woman held improperly in a mad house by her asylum-owning ex husband.  She begs to be let out, or at least to a different room, because she says the neighboring lunatics have broken into her room at night.  The doctor says that this is impossible since once can’t even lift her head from a bed and the other is raging mad.  The woman persists.  The doctor says he will have her moved tomorrow, and that night the nurse will not leave her.  The nurse insists her place is at vigil beside the body of an inmate who recently died and, despite the doctor’s promptings, leaves the woman’s room periodically.

Famous image of an onstage lobotomy given during a GG performance

Sure enough, creepy next-door lunatics shamble into her room and pluck out her eyes with a knitting needle, leaving the woman to die and the nurse to irritatedly monologue over her body.

This one was creepy.  The girls playing the next-door lunatics (especially the paralysis victim) were so unpredictable and malicious that I still have to summon mental images of Ru Paul to protect me from their nightmarish forms.  The eyeball prop was utterly and wonderfully realistic, and the acting was spot-on.

The only problem in this play was, well, the space.  As mentioned above, a three-quarter house leaves nothing to the imagination.  In this case, since I was sitting on the side, it meant that I could see every move made by the girls during the eye-dashing.  While I of squeamish stomach was grateful to see the strings behind the curtain, I of fight-director illusionist definitely could have given some tips to let this go the extra mile.  Because believe me, if I hadn’t seen the switch and blood packets, it would have haunted me for a good long time.

The third play (another new work by E. Christopher Clark) was simply spectacular.  French farce devolved into hideous torture scene, this play really showed a sense of the audience’s levers and played upon them with delightful force.  The story was such: a man goes to see a doctor to receive vaccines for an up-and-coming business trip.  Turns out, the man and the nurse (also the doctor’s wife) have had an affair and the doctor is not a very good husband (always busy and away on business trips researching strange illnesses).  The nurse and man plot to kill the doctor and run away together.  The doctor, not a likeable dithering idiot as he is so good at pretending to be, overhears their plot through the walls, kills his wife, then slowly tortures the man to death onstage.  When through, the doctor has a drink of tea… the tea which the man had poisoned in an effort to kill the doctor.  Doc dies.   Curtain down.

The director knew exactly where to punch this.  Knowing that the second half of the vignette would be blood and gore (and knowing that the audience also knew this), he utilized the first half of the play to set up characters whom we loved.  The nurse and patient had adorable French accents and posed melodramatically at every opportunity they had.  The doctor played doddering American Fool to the nines.  A game ensued between director and audience: when would this go poorly, how poorly would it go, and when (exactly) would you need those ponchos in the splatter section?

The answer was “as suddenly as the doctor slit his wife’s throat and, by means of an air cannon and chocolate syrup, splattered blood over a third of the audience”.  Again, the only teensy problem with this show was the angles.  Since I was sitting on the side, I saw every one of the numerous bladders and squibs that the doctor utilized in torturing his victim.  I knew when he changed bladders, I know where the blood bladders were hidden, and as a result I knew when something awful was about to happen.

That lack of surprise meant that a great deal of the shock was taken away for me.  However, I was willing to overlook it because the actors and the direction were just so darned charming.

When the dust settled, we were left with three bloodied bodies onstage and the age-old question: how do we deal with this situation?  In the theatre (especially a small house), you have two options: carry them off, or blackout and have them walk off which, obviously, completely breaks the illusion you’ve worked so hard to create.

In addition, we were left with an important theatrical factor to recognize: what do we do now?  When a group of people has seen something horrible, even something “fake” horrible, there’s a great deal of tension in the theatre.  Cruelty and violence are hard to stomach and, even in our inured modern society, seeing it live still leaves us raw on the inside.  It can be very damaging to an audience to be suddenly jarred from something like this.  Don’t believe me?  Go see a production of Titus and tell me that you’re not feeling just a little queasy by the end of it (or, more likely, like you’ve been run over by the Bard Bus).  I dare you.

Grand Guignolrecognized this problem and dealt with it as Shakespeare did: with a classical jig!  The Early Modern Theatre capped off every performance (tragedy or comedy) with a full-cast song and dance number (often upbeat and exciting).  In a brilliant move on the part of the Players’

Wil Kempe dancing a jig to pipe and tabour

Ring, they took this cue and, just as we were left wondering “well shit, there are three bodies on the stage, what now?” the casts of each show skipped blithely onstage singing a happy ditty written by the brilliant Shel Silverstein (You’re Always Welcome at our House).

You can bet the entire audience was laughing by the end of the song, especially when the bodies onstage stood up (blood and all) and began singing along.  So simply did the Players’ Ring soothe our raw emotions and re-assure us that yes, it was alright to like this and no, no actors were harmed during the making of this play.

Unfortunately, this show has seen its run.  There are, however, several other late-night productions appearing at The Players’ Ring over the course of the next few weeks (including Mysterious Subtext Theatre, a take on MST3K, and Dungeons and Dragons Live! which is, as far as I can tell, exactly what it sounds like).  Check them out!

Is This the Beginning of Zombie Shakespeare?

I just got done with a dramaturgy session with my director for Measure for Measure (the show I’m dramaturging this year at Tufts and keep promising to fill you in on).  During the drive home, I was all prepared to write a nice long post about the process, how things are going, what a dramaturge actually does, etc.

…but then one of my friends posted this trailer on my facebook wall which clearly made it all but impossible to do anything but comment upon it.

I’m so egregiously excited that I’m having trouble formulating words.  Zombies?  Hamlet?  Spoof movies?  These are a few of my favorite things.  Add chocolate peanut butter, yarn, and shopping and you’d have a giant ball of Dani-crack.

I will begin with the following confession: I have seen nothing more about this film than this trailer.  I’ve done a small amount of research just to try and ground myself in some film-facts and figure out when it will be released to the general public (no answer as of now, by the way, much to my chagrin and dissatisfaction).

But based on what I’ve seen, I couldn’t be more excited if I tried.  A movie that deals with Shakespeare reverently but playfully?  A movie that makes fun of itself while simultaneously touting some good old fashioned Shakespearean values?  A movie that has the potential to be one of the most hilarious Shakes-scene of our times?

The film’s basic premise is that a group of indie film-makers want to make a version of Hamlet but lack the budget for a Kenneth Brannaugh-esque period piece.  Jokingly, they say the only thing they could make on their given budget is a B zombie film… so they solve their problem with a creative re-mix of both.  Midway through, their backer is found dead and so they become enrapt in a plot to cover up her death to ensure a green light for their film.  I’m sure that this causes plenty of outside complications as well, but I’m less concerned about those at the moment.

With the prospect of a zombie Hamlet, My mind immediately jumped to the possibility of the Norwegians being zombies led by a sort of lich-lord Fortinbras.  Denmark could almost literally become a prison due to high security measures set in place in order to prevent further zombie invasions and, upon the collapse of the court at the end, the zombie masses enter to find the corpses of the Denmarkian royalty.

The inclusion of zombies also problematizes death within the play.  What kind of outbreak are we dealing with?  Runners or Shamblers?  Nanovirus or witch doctors?  If nanovirus, then Claudius could well be made into an arch-villain having infected King Hamlet with the virus and making him patient zero of the outbreak.  Hamlet’s ghost could instead be a return of the shambling King as a sort of covert super-zombie come to wreck revenge upon the individual responsible for the attack.  If Witch Doctor induced, there could still be a measure of this creation-against-creator as King Hamlet would be unable to lift a hand against his Lord and Master now-King Cladius and thus must have his son act as agent.  Alternately, in a world where zombies are created by magic, ghosts become equally plausible.  King Hamlet could be a sort of revenant, requiring a flesh body to perform deeds upon the living and thus spurring his son to the task.

 This also complicates Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, as when he hears a rustling in the curtains of his mother’s bedchamber he could potentially believe it to be an undead foe and, thereby, shoot said foe in the head before it leapt out to attack.  Polonius becomes an unfortunate victim of the country’s political strife as opposed to the sacrificial lamb of Hamlet’s madness.

Ophelia’s death is similarly complicated, and the possibilities innate in a zombie-infested Denmark make richer her last scene in which she appears onstage having run mad.  Perhaps she has been bitten by her risen-from-the-dead father and her not-quite-a-zombie-yet fever is the cause of her madness.  Alternately, anyone can go crazy in the world of the zombie holocaust.  The uncaniness of the walking dead and the permeation of casual death into society will just do that to a person.

Also; what does this mean for Act V?  Does the royal court lay dead at the feet of the zombie invaders only to rise themselves as mindless brain-nommers?  Is Horatio the only human left alive in a world now peopled by the walking dead?

Since the film isn’t actually a zombie version of Hamlet but rather about the making of a zombie Hamlet, I don’t truly expect my questions to be answered.  I do, however, very much look forward to seeing it and firmly believe that I will have found a new go-to “bad day” movie.

…and if anyone has the money and inclination to actually direct a production of Hamlet set

“…Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”

during the zombie holocaust, please oh please oh please hire me.  I’ll do anything to be involved in that production.  I’ll even put myself on your line and audition to be a piece of meat… I mean… actor.  But mostly, I want to find a reason to have to research what kind of duel you would possibly be able to stage while the zombie hoards were shambling at your door.  Pistols won’t cut it due to the multiple touches, but I could definitely see claymores or battleaxes coming in handy and thereby the Princes being versed in their usage… or maybe bludgeoning weapons are the way to go since cricket bats are definitely a staple of the zombie genre.  That, however, would complicate the poison premise, but we could maybe make it work somehow…

The Weekend in Reviews

This weekend past, I had the good fortune to see three shows over the course of four nights.

Since I’m currently in conference-prep mode, I don’t have the time or sanity to do a full review of each of them, but I would like to say a little something about all of them.  So here’s the weekend in reviews!

Performed by Theater906 at Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts
Directed by Emily C.A. Snyder

For all intents and purposes, this was community theatre Shakespeare.  Now I’ve had some bad experiences with CTS, and some good ones… and I’m sorry to say that this show simply did not deliver.  It had potential; its primary focus was upon the idea of “castles built on sand”.  It was set on the seaside at some point between the world wars, and the title character’s hands (once steeped in blood) never washed clean.

There were a few major flaws with the production: 1) it treated its audience like idiots.  I don’t have a problem with “new” and “different” readings of these plays if they are firmly

The set for MacB. Pretty nice as sets go!

grounded in text and well dramaturged, I don’t even have a problem with a bit of textual manipulation, but if you’re going to do it trust your audience to follow along with you.  The conceit of “sand castles” was written into the program, presented in all the advertising material, and shown out in front of the theatre.  You don’t need to beat us over the head with it in an artsier-than-thou montage during the curtain call.  Have a little faith in the people who see your show.  2) There were some big, bold ideas that were presented in the performance (i.e. Duncan as an angel of death figure who came and retrieved the corpses of the dead, Lady M’s obsession with children, violence violence violence intersecting innocence), but they simply weren’t played ENOUGH.  If you’re going to do something big, go big or go home.  If you do it too small, your audience simply won’t follow you.  Because the director refused to commit to her grand choices, they simply read as half-hearted attempts to connect with a concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out.  3) Macbeth should never be played as Hamlet.  Yes, he runs mad.  Yes, his wife goes bonkers.  But Macbeth’s madness is a different madness than Hamlet’s.  It’s not as weak and bumbling, it has an innate strength and danger to it.  I don’t want to see the King of Scotland writhing on the floor because he killed one man.  Remember: MacB is a SOLDIER.  He’s killed before.  It’s not the act of murder that takes his sanity from him, but rather the sense of divine wrongness in the act of defying natural order.

On the whole, give this one a miss… unless you really feel like you need to get some wear out of your black beret and sunglasses.

Twelfth Night
Performed by the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre at Roots Café in Providence
Directed by Bob Colonna

My love for TRIST and Bob Colonna is no secret.  THIS is the kind of Community Theatre Shakespeare that gives me hope for humanity.

Colonna is masterful at taking a cast of amateur and quasi-professional actors and building them into an unstoppable force of Bardery.  In his Twelfth Night, he cut the text down to two hours, pumped up the volume, and created a rip-roaring evening of vaudevillian hilarity which had us grinning ear to ear.  Colonna’s actors don’t miss a beat, and are simply unstoppable in their boundless amounts of energy and enthusiasm.

Malvolio (front) reads the letter egged on by Sir Andrew, Fabiana, Sir Toby, and Maria

Moreover, Colonna’s textual coaching is unbeatable.  His actors punch the punches with enough force to leave you reeling.  They hit every note (in the case of his Feste with an astounding amount of beauty and power) and aren’t afraid to do things a little differently (doubtless this is a result of Colonna’s creativity with the text and direction).

Side-note: you can always tell when an actor is rehearsing for Sir Andrew Aguecheek because he runs around trying to figure out how to do the “backtrick”.  Someday I want to see someone out with a full back tuck handspring combination…

Unfortunately, I got to this show late in its run so you won’t be able to catch it.  However.  Colonna has promised me that he’s directing As you Like it to perform in June at Roger Williams memorial park.  I will post further details as soon as I know them… but when I do take my word on this: GO.  If you have to steal your neighbor’s donkey and abscond with the rent money to get to Providence, find a way to make it work.  Trust me; it will be worth it.

Romeo and Juliet
Performed by the Stoneham Theatre Company at the Stoneham Theatre
Directed by Weylin Symes

Yea, I know.  How many Romeo and Juliets can one person see in her lifetime?  This one was new and different because Stomeham coupled their adult company with their teen company so the adults played adults and the teens played teens.

As you can imagine, this presents a bit of a problem in terms of sheer experience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complex textually and, while I have seen transcendent teen Shakespeare, it is extremely rare.  To pull it off you need a creative director, a kick-ass text coach, and more than a little bit of luck.

Unfortunately, this production fell short on a few of those items.  While the teens did okay, there was an obvious discrepancy between their ability to speak and that of their older colleagues.  Moreover, the text was poorly cut.  Many bits of this play simply don’t read to a modern audience – the nurse’s long monologues at the beginning, the Queen Mab speech (unless you’re Michael Pennington, but really, who is?)… it needs some careful handling to really plow forward in a way that doesn’t lose its audience.  Unfortunately, whomever handled the text for Stoneham didn’t have a very deft hand with this.  The long bits were long and plodding, and important plot points (i.e. the friar’s letter going astray due to plague) were cut completely.

An old friend of mine (a fight director) held an axiom which I think is vital to dealing with a text as iconic as Romeo.  Here’s the problem: how often has your entire audience heard these things?  How can you even begin to think about putting your mouth around the words “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” without thinking about ALL THE OTHER FAMOUS ACTORS WHO HAVE DONE SO IN THE PAST.  It’s a Harold-Bloom-esque conundrum that plagues the modern actor about to set into any iconic role (Richard Plantagenet “now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York…”; Hamlet “To be, or not to be?  That is the question”; The Witches “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!”; etc…).  So here’s what you have to do: you have to assume that there is at least one person in that audience who has never had any contact with the text before and doesn’t know how the play ends.  You have to play to that person.  You have to craft a performance so that that person understands your story without any prior knowledge of what may be going on.

This play failed to do so.  They leaned too much upon the cultural capitol which they were mining to put butts in seats and, in doing so, did their entire production a disservice.

The fight direction, on the other hand, was downright amazing and some of the best violence I’ve seen onstage in a long time.  Bravo for that.

On the whole, it was a thought-provoking weekend.  Now here I go, back to conference prep mode; dive!  DIVE!