Thursday, January 30, 2014

Looks Aren't Everything?

A recent question has spurred today's blog post: How did you handle the doubling in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

I directed that show in 2012 using the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique, and that is always the number one question I'm asked.  Because large casts mean larger budgets in order to pay for them, many theatre companies understandably try to figure out clever ways to double up on roles to keep costs down.  Since my partner, Andy Kirtland, was directing The Two Gentlemen of Verona in rep with my Midsummer, we narrowed the casting down to nine actors to use for both shows.  Nine versatile actors.  We also added the extra challenge of giving each actor, at least, two different tracks (one track of characters for one performance and another track of different characters for the next one) each.  Some actors had three tracks.

Here's my answer to the doubling question:
Demetrius/Snout/Mustard Seed

The first four tracks are obvious and each character in the track are similar.  For instance: Theseus and Oberon are both kings, so any actor playing that track would need to be able to carry a sense of regalness throughout.  However, finding actors who can play romantic love interests, obedient fairies, and slapstick comedic mechanicals all in the same show can be difficult.

Since MSND and TGV are comedies, the first aspect we looked for in casting was: Is this person funny?  Obviously, because of the variety of roles we needed each and every actor to be comedic, including the 'lovers.'  As an actress myself, I always try to find a moment in every part I play that has a comic element, and romantic lead characters can tend to be a bit boring if they're constantly being 'romantic' and never find funny moments.  We needed actors who could speak Shakespeare's words well, be funny, be versatile, have great attitudes, and could perform in the Unrehearsed technique.

Doubling the lovers with the mechanicals and the fairies was a risk because it would mean many quick changes as well as being extremely physically demanding.  These particular tracks were the most physical ones with the actors either being incredibly active on stage or backstage changing with no rest.  The Unrehearsed Technique doesn't allow for characters to just stand on stage speaking.  "Suit the action to the word" is one of the cornerstones on which this technique is based.  Even if you're not the one speaking on stage, there's an incredibly good chance you're following stage directions that another character is giving you in his/her text.

After the shows, I had many audience members tell me they had never found the lovers scenes funny before until now, and that they so enjoyed seeing the lovers as the ridiculous fairies and as the fun mechanicals.  That's what is so wonderful about Unrehearsed shows: they take the stuffiness out of the shows.  The lovers ARE funny.  They're insane.  One example: in Act II, Scene II when Hermia and Lysander decide to go to sleep in the woods, Lysander is trying to get into Hermia's pants but Hermia keeps telling him to lie further away from her.  Frustrated, but consenting he finally says:

LysAmen, amen, to that faire prayer, say I, 
And then end life, when I end loyalty:
Heere is my bed, sleepe give thee all his rest. 

Following the 'action to the word' rule, Lysander is far away on his bed for "Heere is my bed".  However, following the "thee/you" rule of being closer to the person for 'thee/thou', Lysander flies to Hermia for "sleepe give thee all his rest."  The back and forth leading up to that line as well as the physical gymnastics required for Lysander to fly from one side of the stage to the other in the incredibly short amount of time to say this one line is hilarious!

We were blessed with an awesome turnout of wonderful actors for our auditions, and as any director knows: casting is so difficult, especially when you're trying to get a blend of different types/characteristics.  I, personally, love to see beautiful actors and actresses not be afraid to be funny.  Being funny doesn't make someone less attractive or less of a leading character.  In fact, I think it makes them more interesting.  You don't have to make weird faces or do toilet humor to be funny.  You just need to find the ridiculousness in life sometimes and not worry about how it makes you look.  Taking yourself too seriously is unhealthy, and frankly boring.  Having a sense of humor lasts forever.  Can we honestly say that about outward appearances?

-Elizabeth Ruelas

Monday, January 27, 2014

Code Breaking

There is a documentary in the works claiming to have found a geometric cipher in the text of Shakespeare’s First Folio that lead to some sort of treasure.  I really don’t know what to make of this, if it is intended in anyway to be taken seriously.  As an entertainment and a distraction it could be fun.

This idea has occurred to me in the past as a great idea for a thriller à la The DaVinci Code.  Somewhere embedded in the different printings of the 1623 First Folio, there is a code that connects the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, the English crown, the money pit in Eastern Canada, the secret identity of Prospero’s island and the secret society stemming from the medieval theater guilds dedicating their lives to protecting the knowledge that would completely unsettle the governments of Europe et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…

In an online discussion, someone compared the kind of work that Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project (USP) does to breaking a code that Shakespeare embedded in his text.  That is not quite the case.  When we say that Shakespeare left clues in the text, we are not speaking about those kinds of clues.  There isn’t anything hidden in the text, it is rather a method of identifying what stares everyone in the face as acting cues for the actors and not as grammatical errors.

For example: end stops.  In the Folio, end stops mark the end of a rhetorical thought, not necessarily (but not excluding) the grammatical end of a sentence.  A period is not a question mark is not an exclamation point; these all denote a differing tone on which a thought ends.  This does not mean that each tone is always the same specific tone for each period, question mark and exclamation point in the canon, but they are to be treated differently from each other.  Yet, depending on an editor’s interpretation – or on an interpretation that an editor has seen on stage – these can be changed quite frequently from one edition of a play to another.  Does the original period that became an exclamation point tell us some hidden secret about the deeper truth of the play? No, but it does tell us that the line was intended to have less emphasis than its improvement. 

That I just wrote ‘that the line was intended…’ does not mean that the intention was attributed directly to Shakespeare.  What I mean is that it was a period, and any change from that was imposed for any number of reasons –some of which may be good and valid- from the intended, the original (or the closest-to original) punctuation.  Any changes occurring between Shakespeare’s pen and the printing press were made by contemporary professionals with a vested interest in the production of the work and who had an ear for the spoken language of the time.  This is why I give them more weight than changes made by a modern editor.

This is also not to say that we can tell exactly what was intended by these punctuations, spellings, and lineation.  Patrick Tucker, when confronted with questions from his actors about what to do with the pauses, changes in thoughts and specific changes in the way a character’s text is written responds that he doesn’t know the answer, making the choice is the actor’s job.  The fact is that the signposts are there for the actors to interpret in the moment, in reaction to what is happening between everyone in the space and the space itself without the interference of a director, editor or someone else removed from the actual performance. 

To give an idea of the kind of acting clues I am referring to, let’s compare Orlando’s opening words to As You Like It, first from the First Folio* and then from Arden.

As I remember Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed me by will, but poore a thousand
Crownes, and as thou saist, charged my bro-
ther on his blessing to breed mee well: and
there begins my sadnesse: My brother Jacques he keepes                        5
at schoole, and report speakes goldenly of his profit:
for my part, he keeps me rustically at home, or (to speak
more properly) stais me heere at home unkept: for call
you that keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that dif-
fers not from the stalling of an Oxe?                                                            10


As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed my by will but poor a thousand crowns,
and, as thou sayst, charged my brother on his bless-
ing to breed me well; and there begins my sadness.
My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and report                                    5
speaks goldenly of his profit: for my part he keeps
me rustically at home, or, to speak more properly,
stays me here at home unkept; for call you that
keeping for a gentleman of my birth, that differs
not from the stalling of an ox?                                                                        10

In the Folio, Orlando’s first thought runs for 10 lines.  The punctuation frames the journey this rather long idea takes, and helps the actor to breathe while driving through Orlando’s lament.  This thought changes direction and runs together the separate ideas concerning money, Orlando’s situation and the comparison to his brother’s.  It ends with a question.  The spelling and capitalization give some indication of stresses that help both the actor and the audience follow what is being said.  An actor can interpret these as notes on the character written into the lines.  The evidence that this is the case, and not a jumble of erratic mistakes collected between the pen and the printing house is that in performance these clues work.

In the Arden, the punctuation and spelling is much more regular.  The period in line 4 comes at a logical and grammatically appropriate place.  This frames Orlando’s thoughts in a different way.  That is not to say incorrectly, only differently.  It is an imposition to the text put there by someone far removed from the performance of the piece.  This needs to be taken into consideration by the actor.  This cleaning up removes a suggestion, which could be ignored by the actor, but it takes away the choice and a possible source of inspiration and influence.

In performance, should an actor choose to use the punctuation from the Arden text in the same manner as he would treat the punctuation from the Folio, it will still work to help frame the thoughts.  The result would be a slower and less dynamic performance since the purpose of the punctuation is to drive to the end stops, and colons and semi-colons demark different ‘gear-shifts’ in thinking which are to be externalized by the actor.  The more end stops, the more potential for longer pauses.  The less ‘;’ and ‘:’ the more measured the performance becomes.  Again, not incorrect, only different.

When a character’s lines are seen in cue script form, there are other clues that can be seen more clearly and quickly interpreted by actors than in a standardized full-text script.  A shift from measured, full lines of poetry to erratic lineation with lots of short or long lines or mixtures of them says something about a character’s state of mind, and that shift in speech patterns informs the actor that something is happening.   The actress playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing will notice that although very witty and verbose for the first half of her cue script, she is suddenly faced with short lines for the rest of the play.  Something important happens.  It turns out this shift occurs after Beatrice and Benedick admit that they love each other.  Simple enough.  The Beatrice at the beginning of the play is not the same as the Beatrice at the end, and the fact that the change is shown in the lines tells the actress that this change must be externalized as well.

These are the kind of ‘clues’ original practices seek out.  There is nothing that is not there for the casual reader to see, nor for an actor to use to advantage in performance, should they choose.  And that choice is the important thing for actors.  In unrehearsed performances USP exploits these cues across the board so that the production is unified, with all the actors in the same play.  Four hundred years of productions across the globe have shown us that there are other valid, successful ways of putting Shakespeare on the stage and screen.  Knowing how to read a script using these cues and clues offer the actor another tool in her toolbox.  To remove the possibilities offered by the Folio by cleaning up the texts removes this option from her preparation and interpretation of a role.

While the idea of some hidden code in the text is intriguing, that’s not what we are trying to get at.  In all honesty, I’m looking forward to this documentary.  It promises to be an entertaining afternoon of television.  The ‘code’ that USP and other OP proponents look for promises an entertaining afternoon of theatre.  Please experience the difference.

*I am comparing The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare Comedies, Histories & Tragedies in Modern Type, ed. Neil Freeman with Arden’s 1975 As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham.

-Andy Kirtland

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

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Suit the Action...

When I auditioned for my very first Unrehearsed show back in 2005, I was asked to cold read a monologue from Taming of the Shrew.  I stood there and delivered the lines beautifully and pronounced every word correctly.  Then the director told me to do it again, but this time "suit the action to the word and the word to the action."  I took a moment to look over the lines and then proceeded to do so.  This time during the monologue, I had gotten down on my hands and knees several times, galloped, fallen over, and re-enacted the story I was telling with such vigor that I was exhausted and sweaty by the end of it.  Then it dawned on me that is exactly what this particular character would have done and exactly what they would have felt by doing the same.  This character had just had an incredibly long and stressful journey, had witnessed the most amazing events, and was now telling the tale to their fellow house servant.

Here is the monologue (from the First Folio):

  Gru. Tell thou the tale: but hadst thou not crost me,
thou shouldst haue heard how her horse fel and she vn-
der her horse: thou shouldst haue heard in how miery a
place, how she was bemoil'd, how hee left her with the
horse vpon her, how he beat me because her horse stum-
bled, how she waded through the durt to plucke him off
me: how he swore, how she prai'd, that neuer prai'd be-
fore: how I cried, how the horses ranne away, how her
bridle was burst: how I lost my crupper, with manie
things of worthy memorie, which now shall die in obli-
uion, and thou returne vnexperienc'd to thy graue.

I was cast in the play a short time later (in two tracks: Bianca for some performances and Grumio for the rest), and couldn't wait to begin the process of learning how to use the text to tell the story, which is what the Unrehearsed Technique is all about.

Can you imagine the difference if someone came up to you and told you Grumio's story just standing there or if they acted the entire tale out?  The same words would be spoken, but would the same result be felt?  Would it change the delivery of Curtis' next line?

(also from the First Folio):

  Cur. By this reckning he is more shrew than she.

I remember one fellow actor's advice to another actor who was playing Curtis in this scene: "Just get on stage and hold on!"

-Elizabeth Ruelas

Monday, January 13, 2014

What We Do and Why We Do It

The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project is currently based in Pittsburgh, PA.  We are dedicated to performing and exploring the works of William Shakespeare using the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique that we learned from Demitra Papadinis at the New England Shakespeare Festival, and influenced by the work of Patrick Tucker and the Original Shakespeare Company.

When William Shakespeare composed his plays, the theatre was popular entertainment. His plays were in direct competition with bear baiting, gambling and brothels just up the street, and sometimes in the same building.  Live theatre had to entertain, and offer something new everyday to keep people coming back.  For this reason, Shakespeare’s company and the others working in London at the time, presented a different play every day (Sundays excluded), up to 12 different plays every two weeks, and hardly ever repeated the same play two days in a row.  A new play was introduced into the repertoire about every two weeks, and plays could go months without being repeated. 

At the time performers did not receive entire copies of the scripts they performed.  This was done for a myriad of economic and practical reasons.  Copyright did not exist, and there was nothing keeping an unhappy actor from taking his entire copy of Hamlet down the street and passing it off as his own.  It also took Shakespeare and the scribes at the Globe long enough to write Hamlet out longhand once, why take the time and expense to do it for Guard #2?  Paper and ink were expensive and used sparingly.  Each actor only received his cue script (his ‘roll’) containing the last three or four words of their cue line, their lines, their entrances and exits and very important stage directions. 

With a different play every day, theatres beginning to fill a few hours before the performance and with limited daylight hours in which to perform, when did Shakespeare’s actors have time to rehearse?  They didn’t; at least not in the way we perceive of it today.  They would take the time before the performance to practice any dances, fights or specific bits of choreography and special effects, but there would not be time to run through a play in its entirety.  In order that the actors would know how to stage themselves during the play, the playwrights of the time would write directions and clues into the scripts.

Short lines, capital letters, variant spellings were all clues for an actor.  The punctuation helped to form thoughts, point to inflections, and let an actor know what was going on with his character.  All of these devices are seen throughout the Folio and Quarto printings of Shakespeare’s plays.  Many of these clues have been erased over the past 400 years in attempts to regularize the text for a reading audience, and to make it clearer as poetry.  They have been seen as printing house errors, or mistakes made from ‘foul copies’ and memorial reconstructions of the plays.  While not every variant found in these early printings came directly from William Shakespeare, they were at least made by his contemporaries, and in practice are remarkably useful as clues for actors.

After hundreds of years of performance, it is obvious that the works of William Shakespeare can be prepared and performed in any number ways to a great deal of artistic and critical success.  The Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique that we employ is just that, a technique.  It is not the only one out there, nor is it the only one that we use in our careers as performers.  But it is the lens through which we explore the works of William Shakespeare, and it colors the opinions that will be expressed in this blog.

We are not interested in creating museum pieces.  This technique is used to create connections to our modern audiences through working in a manner for which we believe the text was originally written.  We are not interested in ‘authenticity.’  That term is too loose, and only serves to confuse the real aim of any theatrical event, which is to entertain (on any number of levels).  The only thing that matters is what happens in the space between the performers and the audience through the craft of theatre.  Not what happened 400 years ago.  That is an academic endeavor, and we are embarking upon a practical one.

We are not interested in questions of authorship.  One reason being that we have yet to see any convincing argument that someone other than the actor / playwright William Shakespeare (and his direct collaborators) wrote the plays.  Our concern is with how a modern audience encounters the text in performance, and its original intention takes a back seat to the immediacy of the live event.

We are open to discussing Shakespeare, with all that his name has become associated with in our modern culture.  Our emphasis is on performance, since that is why these texts were originally constructed.  Most of all, we look forward to being an important contributor to the conversation about Shakespeare in the modern world, and of course, see you at one of our productions.

-Andy Kirtland