Monday, January 20, 2014

Getting Hooked

I often answer the question, ‘why do you work this way?’ with the broad, historical definition about the working conditions and economics of Shakespeare’s theatre, but that’s rather dry and academic.  I hardly ever address the more important reasons, the personal reasons why I find this method so inspiring, and like everything that has to do with theatre, it is the immediate answer to what is happening now that matters.  So here are two experiences that help to explain why I advocate this style.

All actors working for the New England Shakespeare Festival must attend a 12-hour workshop with the rest of the cast, taught by Demitra Papadinis.  This not only teaches the basic mechanics of the technique, but it is the only time that the entire group will be called together before the performance, which is usually a month (or more) away.  My first workshop was in the Spring of 2002 at Demi’s house in central New Hampshire.  It was a sunny, cool day outside, and fifteen of us were sitting around her small studio space.  We would go through scenes, demonstrating various rules of the technique, and then comment on our attempts. 

I played the Gentlewoman in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene with two other men in the roles of Lady and the Doctor.  There were subtle things in this text: a slight (or maybe not-so-slight) Scottish accent written for the Gentlewoman; a masked stage direction at the end of the scene; unwritten stage directions throughout when common sense is applied to the words.  We went through it twice, and when we sat down, I was shaking.  I didn’t understand why.  The Gentlewoman has only a few lines and nothing of great importance to do.  Yet the effect that this had on me was visceral, and it touched me in a way that no method or system ever did.  The power that came across – and we were not in full-out ‘Shakespeare’ mode, this was a gentle staged reading, script in hand – surprised me.  I was tired.  This was not Lear in his storm.  This was not Othello in a rage.  This was not Juliet in love.  This was a waiting woman, watching her mistress sleep walk.  This experience imprinted on my mind what this technique could do for an actor.

What can it do for an audience?  I can talk about many experiences and chats that I’ve had with audience members, first-timers and returning patrons, that express great enthusiasm and admiration for the work that is done through this technique, but my favorite is a story of observation. 

That first year with NESF we presented As You Like It.  I was an intern, and as such, I did not perform in every show.  Those shows I was not in front of the audience, I was behind them handing out programs, videotaping the performance and selling t-shirts and rubber ducks.  We performed 6 days a week for 3 weeks that season, and each Tuesday we played in tiny Cate Park in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee.  Our performances started in the late afternoon and the setting sun was part of the entertainment.  So that the audience could see us, and we could see to read our cue scripts, we used lights reminiscent of floodlights used for DIY construction to light the playing area.  Around the middle of the second act of our first performance, we blew a fuse, and had to continue in the dark.  Actors who were not in the scene, or did not have a prop, would stand behind the actors onstage holding camp lanterns to illuminate the action.  The audience stayed for the rest of the play

During the performance the second week it began to rain part way through the second act.  But again the audience stayed.  Everyone crowded around the park’s sizable gazebo, leaving about a 10’ x 10’ playing space.  The audience who did not make it under cover either braved the wet under the surrounding trees or held up umbrellas.  Actors who were offstage stood around in the crowd and made entrances from where they stood, stepping back into the audience for their exits.  Some actors who couldn’t make it through in time delivered their lines from the audience.  Since the play ends with a wedding, it was as if the entire audience was invited!

The third Tuesday, I did not perform, but manned the concessions table.  That day was perfect.  The weather was beautiful, if not hot and humid.  The park was packed to capacity with an audience possibly double that at each of the first two performances.  It was difficult to get around to hand out programs.  The lights stayed on.  The sky did not open up, and the show went on without a hitch.  I learned while talking to the audience later, that some of the returning patrons were a group of 12 year-olds from a summer camp further up the lake.  They came each week to see the show – to see As You Like It. 

I cannot imagine any other circumstances where 12 year-old kids would return to watch the same play, one by Shakespeare nonetheless, week after week.  There must be something in this for an audience that modern rehearsed productions cannot give them.  This struck me immediately as a unique communion with this amorphous blob that we actors are taught sits out in the darkness when we perform: this mass, ‘the Public,’ that comes to sit quietly and appreciate the art.  We are taught to deal with the audience on our own terms as performers, not to include them in our calculations of performance.  We create a show, and they are something to be added later, the last ingredient, the last cast member.  What a difference it makes for the audience to be part of the in-the-moment creation of the show and not an afterthought of the producers.

I could follow these musings down the rabbit hole, but this is enough to illustrate my point that the power, energy and charisma of this technique is something that one as an actor or an audience member will not find anywhere else.  It takes theatre back to what it does best, which is what makes it so unique and important: communion.  Theatre is the only media that offers communion between the actors, between the actors and the text, between the actors and the audience, and between audience members.  Theatre is an event.  I do this, because I think every play should on some level be an event like this.

- Andy Kirtland

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