Sunday, December 13, 2015

NRTC: Year 1...and Beyond!

Just over a year ago, on 19 November 2014, The New Renaissance Theatre Company was officially incorporated as a non-profit corporation. In that year, we have accomplished quite a bit: 

The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project’s tour grew from two performances to six, and we performed in five new locations, including taking the show on the road to Baltimore, MD where we were seen at the Inner Harbor, and at Artscape. At home in Pittsburgh, we began a relationship with Allegheny Parks, allowing us to reach audiences all over Allegheny County.  

Behind the scenes, we have come to realize how the (sometimes unforeseen) small, yet crucial day-to-day tasks of running a theatre company are adding up. Networking through social media and events, blogging, looking for and obtaining insurance and other legal necessities, finding venues and willing partners and donors, fundraising and creating programs to educate performers and students are all fortunately beginning to pay off. We are extremely lucky to have added three outstanding and committed board members, whose talents and enthusiasm are an amazing addition to the administration of the company. Because of their skills and initiatives, NRTC will be able to grow faster and in a sustainable way to ensure that we are around for years to come. 

Of course, none of what we do would be possible without the growing support of our generous donors and the tireless efforts of our actors, who, with each performance, undoubtedly, embark on the most difficult task they will ever be asked to perform in front of an audience.  

At this time, as we are striding the blast between this year and the next, we must also look to the future. In 2016, The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project will continue to grow. Ambitiously, we are adding a second show to our summer tour, performing A Midsommer Night’s Dreame and The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet in rep. We are expanding from six to 12 performances and planning on returning to Baltimore. There are the possibilities of other performances and workshops in and around Pittsburgh as well as out-of-state. We will launch an Indie-gogo campaign to raise money and awareness of NRTC and USP. Our budget is increasing for the third year in a row, and we will be in a great position to invest in the theatre’s future. 

All of this is great for us and this may sound like so much horn-honking and back patting – but, yes it is. Go us! We are not ashamed to say that we are proud about what our hard work and passion has accomplished in this short period of time, or that we are excited about our future. But as always, our focus is on the audience and how you experience theatre and how it can be a meaningful part of your life.  

So what do our accomplishments mean for you? 

As the New Renaissance Theatre Company grows, we will be able to offer more opportunities for local artists and students. The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project is unique not only in Pittsburgh or the USA, but also in the world. Very few theatre companies attempt the type of work we do, or approach the text with the research and attention to detail that our productions demand. Most importantly, in order to bring our historically informed practices to life, we depend on brave, talented actors whom we seek, and will continue to seek (and find), in Pittsburgh. NRTC celebrates local and locally grown talent, and actively seeks ways to keep them in Pittsburgh, which is a benefit to the theatre community at large. As our visibility grows at home and abroad, we will become a resource for the city and, indeed, the region. By increasing our physical footprint through more and farther-flung performances and workshops, and increasing our presence online, NRTC will have the ability to reach more people who may not normally have direct access to quality, professional theatre on a regular basis. We can act as a gateway to the incredible arts scene that thrives and grows in Pittsburgh. 

In the next few weeks many people will begin to make New Year Resolutions. It could be said that NRTC’s is to move onwards and upwards, but we are striving to do that all the time. We promise to continue the hard work on our end in the coming year and making The New Renaissance Theatre Company a theatre that not only we are proud of, but one that you, our friends, fans and followers can be proud of, too. 

Thank you, and Happy Holidays!  
-Andy Kirtland, Managing Director of The New Renaissance Theatre Company (which produces The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Letting Shakespeare Do the Work for You

One of my favorite things to say to actors new to the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique (Historically Informed Practice) is that “Shakespeare does all the work for you.”  Trust the text, the words and the punctuation.  Don’t try to add subtext or backstory that’s not there.  It’s not necessary.  Unfortunately, it takes a true leap of faith for many actors to let go of their standard way of performing and trust the technique.  Shakespeare wrote during a time where actors barely rehearsed the plays.  They performed a different play every day - 6 days a week, added a new play every two weeks and had over 80 plays a year in their repertoire.  So, he and the other playwrights of the time wrote important stage directions and character clues right into the text, which actors of the day already knew how to use.  400 years later, this technique is still working.

Our Managing Director Andy Kirtland shares this story of when he played Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors for The New England Shakespeare Festival (NESF) several years ago: “I made the choice to be sad on the line 'I never saw my father in my life.' I thought it was good. But the less than gentle note I received was that 1) that isn't anywhere in the text, and 2) nobody cares. Even worse, I came to realize that it injects a note that is distracting to the general tone of the scene. Everything worked much better when I just said the line and the story continued on. It drove home that these techniques are not about me, the actor. They are about the story and the audience. Like so much in life it is not about you, and when the focus is on others, everything is so much better.”
It is difficult to believe that a group of actors who barely know each other will learn their parts on their own, will only receive their lines and the last few words of their cues, will not receive any blocking notes from the director, will not know who will be saying their cue lines or when, and the first time the entire show will be performed will be in front of the audience.  Then, magically, that first show happens and everything falls into place!  I confess that I was incredibly scared before my very first Unrehearsed show.  I was Bianca in Taming of the Shrew for NESF years ago, and during that very first scene that I watched from the wings – I saw it happen: a group of incredibly talented actors who received the best technique training from NESF’s founder & producing artistic director Demitra Papadinis brought this comedy to life without any rehearsal…and it worked beautifully!  It just took trusting the technique and our fellow actors.
Sometimes during text sessions, certain actors will ask me questions about subtext or the magic ‘if’ or how their character feels about so-and-so.  These are modern technique questions that have nothing to do with Shakespeare.  In fact, they were invented centuries after Shakespeare wrote his plays.  And don’t even get me started on Freud and the Bard.  I try to bring the actors back to what their character actually says and use the word choices that the playwright gives them to their advantage.  Don’t worry about what your character had for breakfast or if they were bottle-fed.  Concentrate on what’s happening now in the play and don’t anticipate what’s going to happen in a few scenes, which are basic acting notes that we all still get today.  Learn the technique, trust it, use it to the best of your ability and don’t over think it.  After all, Shakespeare has already done all the work for you.
-Elizabeth Ruelas, Artistic Director of The New Renaissance Theatre Company (which produces The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project)

Monday, October 12, 2015

The USP Book Review II

Another year of reading, research and performance has brought about another look at books that have influenced my thinking, or that I just find interesting. Finding books specifically that touch upon Historically Informed Practices can be difficult, but I am grateful to Kim Carrell who has pointed me in the direction of some new scholarship. Those books will get a look soon. For now, here are some other books that may be of interest to our fans, friends and followers. Enjoy, and as always, your thoughts are welcome as well.

Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, Tiffany Stern, Oxford, 2000
            Tiffany Stern earns her reputation as a leading light in theatre history with this book. It contains some of the most interesting scholarship and insight into the rehearsal practices of early modern English theatre. Her arguments seem stronger for the time after the interregnum, but of course there is more evidence and anecdotes for that period. Unlike Shakespeare in Parts, there is little practical information about how the environment that produced the plays could be reproduced, or simulated – and indeed (especially in the sections on the 18th century theatres) there seems to be a stronger argument for a rehearsal period and process more like the one theatres enjoy today.
            What struck me as most interesting is the extrapolation that can be made between the ways scripts were brought to stage in the Restoration and after and the way those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries may have been produced in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres. During the Restoration, there were obviously more hands involved in changing the script, most notably the theatre Managers and Prompters – even the literati of higher society were solicited for their advice by playwrights and the theatre producers. Changes were made after the first performance, and many times actors made their own improvements. However, through all this, the playwright’s name stayed intact on the script, despite the amount of input by others. Some prologues and epilogues brag about the additions or deletions as well as the names and titles of those who made them. Many of the texts that we have today are not the texts as they were performed on stage, but as the playwright intended. Others are the performance texts.
The way that Stern lays out the history, along with the fact that many producers claimed (correctly or not) at least some tradition from the earlier stage, it is possible to make the argument that the plays that we have from Shakespeare underwent the same kind or similar journey from pen to stage. It is possible that there is no “Ur-Hamlet” with a ghost shouting “Hamlet, Revenge” like a fish wife as the apocryphal tale has it. It may have come during the performance of the same texts that we read today, only it did not survive in print.
            This is an interesting read, but it is not the easiest book to go through unless you have a great interest in the depth of theatre history. This is not a book to gloss over, but would be an indispensable resource for any research paper. It is a great addition to any library, and the bibliography holds a vast of wealth for further reading.

Easy Guide to Shakespeare, Fall River Press, 2014
            This book is the exact opposite of Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan. This is a light book, an easy read, with a little breadth and even less depth, but this is a fun read. It is great for people to get an introduction or a quick refresher for certain plays or to the playwright and some of the stories and theories about him and his work. There are chapters entitled “Famous Shakespeare Haters,” and it prefaces its chapter about possible other writers with the advice that “[i]f you see anyone in real life making these arguments, do not try to argue with them. Back away, slowly.”

How to Teach your Children Shakespeare, by Ken Ludwig, Crown Publishers, 2013
            In this book, playwright Ken Ludwig goes over how he introduced his children to Shakespeare, and how he got them to memorize some well-known monologues. Glossing over the memorization lessons, he has some nice insight into the plays he introduces. This is the first, and so far only, convincing argument I have come across that sheds any light on any possible merits of Twelfth Night. I have never found this a particularly interesting play outside of the Malvolio storyline, neither deep and searching or very funny.  Ludwig’s book is an interesting read, and if you have children whom you would like to get interested in the language of the Bard, How to Teach your Children Shakespeare is a great place to start.

The Quality of Mercy, by Peter Brook, Nick Hern Books Ltd., 2013
            This short read is a collection of musings by one of the most influential theatre directors of the twentieth century, and one that I greatly admire. That being said, this falls short of everything I have read by Brook up until this point. It is a love letter to Shakespeare, Bardology -not at its worst (that will come a little farther down in this blog) but that does nothing to further understanding or appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays. We know that Peter Brook loves Shakespeare, and that he is very good at directing those plays. His other books ‘The Empty Space,’ ‘The Shifting Point’ and ‘The Open Door’ are much more moving, inspirational and important. It hurts to say, but you can give this one a miss. Its only real value is if you are a lover of Brook, or a lover of Shakespeare with the need of knowing how much other people love Shakespeare.

Shakespeare the Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Books, 1998
            The Bible of Bardology. The title of this tome says it all. This is a love fest, mostly between Bloom and his favorite characters: Hamlet and Falstaff. The premise of the book is that Hamlet and Falstaff are the pinnacle of creation, the greatest characters ever penned and the first time in the history of English literature (or to read Bloom, indeed, the history of the universe) that real, complex, soulful people –human beings- are represented in art. This argument can be made for Hamlet, but Falstaff?
            The only explanation is that Falstaff is a popular character, and the only way to explain his popularity to make out that some huge universal Truth lies somewhere in the character that defines us all as the human race. That is not the case, but Bloom tries his hardest to make it so. Falstaff is a great character, but he is far from perfect. His popularity at the time was due to timely lampooning, Shakespeare’s language, and the actor’s portrayal. Any insight that Falstaff makes can be found elsewhere in the cannon. Bloom seems to feel himself as a Falstaffian character and therefore makes much of him.
            Some useful insights peppered throughout this (literally) heavy book are scarred by the fact that there are unnecessary references throughout to Hamlet and Falstaff. Even his compliments to other characters are undercut and back-handed like a jealous high school cheerleader. (One of my favorite drinking games is to read about a play that has nothing to do with Hamlet or Falstaff and drink every time one of them is mentioned superfluously. There are few chapters that I can make it through in one go.)
            Unfortunately, the tone of this book and its unashamedly worshipful view of Shakespeare are popular conceits that need to be overcome. Because of his place in American literary society, Bloom’s book is read, and appreciated, and accepted as popular theory because it lionizes Shakespeare. When researching plays, I do read it to know what resistance I will face and how best to address it. While others may not have the unexplainable crush on Falstaff that Bloom does, the pillar upon which the author sets the plays, the characters and the words is one that many look up to. The book is one of opinions, and it is from a literary point of view. There is very little, if any, practical information for theatre practitioners, in the book –its value is literary, but everyone serious about Shakespeare’s plays must read this book if for no other reason than to understand why it is important to approach Shakespeare as a real person and his plays as things to be out of the hands of academics and put into the hands of players.
            Bloom makes a case for Shakespeare showing us what it is to be human, but is unable to do that for Shakespeare himself. More’s the pity.

- Andy Kirtland, Managing Director of The New Renaissance Theatre Company, which produces The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Monday, September 7, 2015

Propping up an Unrehearsed Show

“Nothing succeeds like excess.” – Oscar Wilde
I do adore Mr. Wilde, but his famous quote just wouldn’t work for an Unrehearsed Cue Script Performance (or as it’s otherwise known: Historically Informed Practice).  For our Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project shows, we pare down the excess to the vital by using only Shakespeare’s text as our guide.  We prefer to let the words and the actions that ensue from them tell the story instead of attempting to exert a gasp from the audience with our sets, lighting and props.  In the sixteenth century, the acting troupes needed to travel light (just like us) so adding props for props sake was an unnecessary task. 
As the director of Unrehearsed productions, it is currently one of my jobs to comb through the script and find which props are actually mentioned.  Those are the props we use.  On the occasions when we do have a designer, we have requested that they read the script for this same purpose.  It’s astonishing to some people how few props are mentioned in the text, and, unfortunately, certain designers feel that they must add props since that’s what they did the last time they worked on the same play.  To which I say: this is not a typical production.  If the playwright wanted all of these extra props or special effects in this scene, he would have written them in.  Trust the text. 
I should say that I have added props for reasons other than what’s in the text.  Usually, it’s for the actor’s comfort.  For one production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the actress playing Titania was supposed to sleep on a very hard, wooden surface, so I asked that a special pillow be added for her.  There’s no pillow mentioned in the text, but having to ‘sleep’ on stage for pages of text on that unforgiving wooden floor would have caused neck or back pain. 
I’ve also been known to add a bit with a kazoo to cover a super-fast costume change backstage.  Since our cast usually consists of 9 to 11 actors playing many parts, the costume changes can be numerous and quick.  So, to stall for a few moments during the show, I’ll have a certain character dance across stage while playing the kazoo.  It entertains the audience and keeps the action moving and the actors backstage can get into their new costume quickly and make their entrance on time.  I did this recently in our production of Much adoe about Nothing, when the Prince and Don John had to leave a scene and quickly come back on (almost instantaneously) in the next scene as part of Dogberry’s Watch.  Dogberry had a special entrance in which he/she would march onstage playing the kazoo and call the Watch on using it.  Even though that prop wasn’t necessary to the text, it was necessary for the smooth running of the show, and the audience enjoyed it.
For our rehearsed productions that our New Renaissance Theatre Company will produce, we hope to have the money to afford the sets, props and lighting that is called for in the script.  However, we aspire to stay true to our Unrehearsed roots and only use what is vital to tell the story that the playwright has written.  When the director’s vision supersedes the playwright’s intent, then that’s a different story and not part of our mission. 
We want to succeed using the integral.  But that’s not as good of a quote.
-Elizabeth Ruelas, Artistic Director of The New Renaissance Theatre Company (which produces The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

MISSION: New Renaissance

One of the reasons that we formed The New Renaissance Theatre Company was to enable us to expand our mission. While we will still produce The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, we wanted to broaden the scope of what we, and our ensemble, can offer our audience. Here is our new mission statement:

“The New Renaissance Theatre Company illuminates the joy and passion captured in the best of live theatre by connecting the classic to the contemporary through ensemble-based development and performance.”

What does NRTC’s mission mean for our theatre craftsmen and our audience? Let us break it down. 

The New Renaissance Theatre Company…
We chose this name because we are highly influenced by English Renaissance theatre, by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There were companies that could work quickly and make a high-quality product. They were business-minded, operating in such a way as to make membership in the group advantageous to the actors. We want to offer a creative home to our company members, some sense of stability so that they are not working job-to-job as so many journeymen actors do today. We seek a flexibility to produce a greater number of performances, quickly in a variety of places. We want to build an aesthetic that makes NRTC different and unique from other live theatres. 

To highlight, to point out, to underline, to illustrate and to celebrate.
The word invokes the search for knowledge, for light. The illuminati. Fire. 

…the joy and passion…
Many theatres companies have a Mission (capital M) to focus on certain kinds of plays or a specific type of playwright. What we search for is the joy that comes from creating, seeing and participating in a live theatrical event. The joy of performing a great role, of being a part of a moment that will live only in a memory that will amplify the feeling over time. The joy of sharing that moment.

Passion is the extremity of emotion. Theatre is interesting when it is peopled with passionate characters who feel and experience everything on a deeper level than we do in our daily lives. These are the types of personages we will bring to our stage. 

…captured in the best of…
Because this is what great theatre does. These emotions, experiences, this passion and joy are offered up to the audience every day. They are inherent in the script, and cannot choose but to be conjured by actors. This is why we still watch Œdipus, Shakespeare, Wilde and countless others who have held the stage for hundreds of years. They are the best, and we will celebrate their works while seeking new plays that do the same for our contemporary audience, and will continue to do so for future generations. 

…live theatre…
Theatre offers honesty.
Television, film and other visual media offer manipulation.  You see what a director wants you to see, you hear what she wants you to hear all when and how she wants it to happen.  We revel in the twists and turns of a good movie.

In a play, we rejoice when we are ahead of the characters, when we are included in everything that is going on. We can look at the main action or absorb ourselves in the scenery and costumes. We can close our eyes and let the language wash over us, if we choose.  Not everyone in the theatre necessarily sees the same play, but the experience is shared. If something goes wrong such as a line or entrance is missed, a wardrobe malfunction or outside there is an outside distraction, then everyone on stage and off knows that it happens. It cannot be edited out. These rough patches do not make bad theatre, but they make up what is unique and important about Theatre. It is shared. It is immediate. It is rough. It is honest. 

Any attempt to hide the warts of a performance is false, a lie, and the audience realizes it. They may not know it at the time, but if one examines an unsatisfactory memory of a play, one will probably find that it comes down to the actors or the production was not being honest with the audience.

The New Renaissance Theatre Company will always be honest.

Live Theatre also presupposes audience participation.  This does not mean that the audience talks, gets on stage or becomes a part of the show –although these are options and can only occur in the theatre – but they must be prepared to fill in the blanks and to use their imaginations.  The productions show the dots, but the audience must connect them. A good story does not always have a moral or a meaning. They do not need to say something. It is our job to tell the story, not to dictate a meaning or to teach some universal Truth. The individual is responsible for what she takes away from a performance. At the very least, it should be an enjoyable evening.

A mentally active audience is one of the reasons that shows have an intermission: to give the audience a rest. There is no intermission in a three-hour movie, because the viewer is not working, he is receiving information. A play that runs more than 90 minutes almost requires an intermission for the viewer because he has been processing information, choosing what to watch and listen to. He has been interpreting and connecting the dots. It is hard work. As Brecht said, the audience should not “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom.”

We want to cultivate this kind of audience. If theatre-goers have become lazy, it is the fault of the theatres for not making them work harder. We will challenge our audience to be active because we believe that they can fulfill their role in live theatre. The pay off will be that they will get the theatre from us that they deserve and that we are capable of delivering. 

…by connecting the classic to the contemporary…
Live theatre is not a museum.  There is no point of performing something old for a new audience. Everything must be contemporary. The classics are just that, something from our past that speaks to us today. 

We are inspired by the classics, but they are not our product. We will not twist them to our own ends, but we will share important stories and characters. We will also discover new plays and playwrights and stories that have this understanding and that will continue this tradition of communality that always has been at the heart of theatre. 

…through ensemble-based…
Theatre is an ensemble. It is communal and collective. Actors need a writer, they need an audience, they need each other. The plays we choose will exploit the ensemble’s strengths. 

We will create a group of actors, working consistently together who will develop our own aesthetic and vocabulary. This will create an efficient work environment for our performers, and decrease the time needed for rehearsals. Our theatre craftsmen will be able to maintain, and grow a standard of excellence that is unobtainable when actors and directors are endlessly cycled in for every performance.  It will give the audience a reliable standard whereby to judge our work as well as a consistent roster of performers to follow and with whom to identify. They will be able to form a bond with local actors playing good roles in great plays, and not being relegated to supporting roles or the background for out-of-town talent with little to no connection to the audience. The ensemble will be a source of pride to Pittsburgh, showcasing the best of the city’s immense talent, while at the same time being a badge of honor for those who can call this ensemble their artistic home – a badge that will be recognized across the country and beyond.

It is not enough to do a reading, or staged reading or salon series. Playwrights need to see their work on stage, performed with a level of professionalism that can show weaknesses and strengths in their work.

New works deserve to be seen and judged on a stage. During the Renaissance, new works were performed for an audience in the same way as established plays. 

The ensemble will also develop its own aesthetic by working on a range of plays by different authors in disparate genres using our own techniques to come up with our own way of working. Schools of acting, many of which are the basis for most theatre training today grew around and from personalities producing theatre at a certain time with certain actors for a certain audience. They worked then and there, but there is no reason to believe that they will be as effective in our time with our actors for our audience. Our way of working must be developed, it must evolve and it must be fluid. What the different forms of our creative process will be cannot be predicted, but we demand the time and resources to be able to grow it organically. The results will inevitably be something unique and priceless for our company and our audience. 
 …and performance.
Performance is the be-all and end-all, the alpha and omega, the raison d’être for any theatre, for theatre simply does not exist without it. Our goal is not to create a little academe of actors and to create theories to be studied, or to show off for each other. Everything builds to a performance for an audience. The quicker and more efficient we prepare, the more performances we can give. Each performance is a miracle because it gives us the gift of fulfilling our dreams to create and share stories, to express ourselves for the benefit of others and to participate in a meaningful way in society, culture and community. The act of attending performances touches many primal things inside of us that we cannot begin to understand or comprehend. We understand its importance in our DNA, and despite a world that is ever shifting, there is some deep need in the essence of what it is to be human that performance fills. Through our productions, The New Renaissance Theatre Company will fulfill that need. 

-Andy Kirtland, Managing Director of The New Renaissance Theatre Company

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Beginning: Abandoning the “Actor” – Guest Post by Alisa Cullison

I think many people familiar with the theater would agree that the theater is a beast of its own kind. It is loving, it is aggressive, it is kind, it is challenging, it says yes, it says no, it holds you close, it squashes you, it lifts you up, it pulls and pushes and tugs and stomps and hugs and encourages and tickles you in ways you have never felt before. Theater is alive and breathing. It is not for the faint-hearted. If you are an Actor, you may get eaten by the theater. And if you manage to wash your Actor Hands of the theater, your hands will inevitably ache to get dirty again.

In college, I studied how to be an Actor: classes, workshops, long nights and short rehearsal processes. Method and anti-method methods. Types and being the wrong type. I became well-acquainted with my Actor Anxiety and started wondering if that’s the fuel that Real Actors use to get jobs and make a name for themselves. Moving to New York to pound pavement didn’t sound inspiring; it sounded awful. “This can’t be what it means to be an Actor! It simply can’t!” I thought. Something wasn’t quite right.

And so I took a few years’ hiatus from the stage to go to grad school to get a Master of Education. (I remained active on the edges of the theater world by teaching kids’ acting classes and performing improv comedy. It was like washing my hands of the theater, but not using soap!) This spring, after a peculiarly refreshing semester teaching Shakespeare to young people, something mysteriously changed in me and I felt it was the time to be an Actor again. It was time to begin again, to begin in the middle, to get dirt under my fingernails.

A dear friend and colleague of mine, Tonya Lynn, told me about the Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project. She had performed with USP several times and spoke so highly of the project, the people involved, and of how much fun it was. My Actor Interest was piqued.

At my audition for USP, I read a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and chased Adam Rutledge around a gymnasium, using my Actor Legs to jump over a table for added effect. Fun stuff! At the weekend-long cue-script technique workshop, I took notes and devoured as much of the technique as my hungry Actor Mind could stomach. Inspiring! At my one-on-one text session with our director, Elizabeth Ruelas, I examined the lines my characters speak with my Actor Eyes and used my Actor Fine Motor Skills to take notes in the margins. Scholarly! “I’ve still got it!” I thought. “Everything in my Actor Toolbox is still working! No rust here!”

But is that really it? Is that really what I’ve been feeling: the rust being shaken off the tried and tested Actor Tools?

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve worked on building my cue-script scroll and creating a costume plot to track my quick changes, I’ve found myself reflecting upon the previous version of my Actor Self, the version whose batteries were charged by anxiety and competition and whose actions consisted mainly of blindly grappling in the dark for false inspiration and lofty standards. I realized: None of that old Actor Self is actually present in this project. Every person who I have met in USP is not an Actor. They act, yes, but they also collaborate, and create, and imagine, and try, and fail, and work, and play. (Some of them even live and work in New York!) They have no fear, and they are free -- freer than I thought possible in the theater.

I think the thing that changed in me during my hiatus from being an Actor was the lens through which I viewed theater. I used to view theater in the way it had been described to me so often during my training: a beast lurking in the dark corner waiting for an Actor to try to dance with it as it reveled in the atmospheric tension that came from not knowing if the Actor is fearful or fearless. However, over the last few years of not being an Actor, but rather a teacher, I have observed how young people interact with that beast in the corner. They don’t fear how the beast will react to them being in the same room. Instead, they march right up to the beast, plant their feet, and start pulling its fur. They make theater whatever they want it to be; they explore theater not as Actors, but as artists. They turn the beast into clay and mold it, shape it, manipulate and own it as something unique and fun. Kids have fun with theater, because they don’t know or care otherwise.

When describing the Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project to colleagues or friends, their faces would turn a grayish shade and exclaim how terrifying this project sounds. Politely, I would casually agree with their sentiment, but truthfully I never felt that fear. In fact, I have been embracing and even welcoming the challenge.

And so now, at the beginning of this project, I have abandoned my Actor Self because she is not needed here. Now I am not a Thing to be defined, because that’s limiting. I prefer to be a theater artist -- lowercase, unassuming, malleable, artist.

-Alisa Cullison, The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Working Out With USP

We recently held our 2-Day workshop for our cast members of Much adoe about Nothing. We hold these intensive workshops before our productions because it refreshes our vets who may have been out of the loop for a while, it introduces our way of working to our new-comers and it is the only time until we have our technical rehearsal that everyone will be together: this is their opportunity to bond as a cast.

Eleven hours is really no time at all considering how much time is usually spent in the rehearsal hall, but it does wonders for an unrehearsed cast. Not only is this where they get their first impressions of what the performance will be like, but this also their time to see what the audience sees, and to watch how our technique works from the perspective of an audience member. This is their only time to hear each other’s voices as they give stage directions. Here is where their chemistry is discovered and nurtured. This is when they discover how to connect with their fellow actors and to keep their eyes and ears open while they are working from the text in real time. They are learning to walk, talk, act, think, read, listen and watch all at the same time.

It is always encouraging to see actors understand how well what seem to be completely arbitrary directions tell a story. Even those who come with solidly formed ideas about what should happen in a given scene or on stage in general come away with something new, even if it is a new question. The queries arising from our workshops are always interesting and compelling.  Actors have great questions, and the comments and feedback created by this work give us a chance to better explain the technique and refine how we discuss what it is we do.

Great moments of creativity and immediacy grow once actors trust the rules of the technique. It is amazing how the characters and scenes become relevant and how much more the audience invests in them. This particular workshop gave us moments of people slithering across the stage like a snake, a lively debate about exactly what ‘it’ meant in a scene, a stuffed lion portraying the cutest Julius Caesar that anyone has ever seen and a demonstration of the limits of mugging.

The end of the workshop is almost like Christmas when the cast members receive their packets with their cue scripts and track information. Now they have opened their presents, and are at home playing with them before bringing their homework to their text sessions over the coming weeks. Now the hard work begins, but while everyone is going over their lines on their own, they have a much better idea about what their work will look like on stage.

As we move forward, we hope to make these intensive workshops a more frequent occurrence, open to anyone who is interested in approaching Shakespeare from a new direction. We look forward to seeing you there.

-Andy Kirtland, Managing Director
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Thursday, April 30, 2015

From Unrehearsed to Rehearsed and Back

How do you teach an actor to listen to their scene partner? How to you teach an actor to be ‘in the moment’ on stage? How do you cure an actor of stage fright? The answer to all of these questions to me is to simply have the actor perform using the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique.

Now, I’m not saying it’s this magical style of performance that will make great actors out of anyone who does it.  What I am saying is that this technique relies so much on each actor truly listening to each other – not just for their cue lines (since each actor is only given their lines and the last few words of their cue) but also for stage directions that other actors may throw out at them that are in their lines.  Your attention and focus has to be 100% on what is going on onstage.  Plus, you have to trust in the technique and in each other for it to truly work.  If an actor slips into old habits of acting that aren’t the technique, it takes the audience and the fellow actors out of the performance and ceases to be the style that everyone has been working so hard to develop.
As a professional actress, having performed in several Unrehearsed shows, it’s helped me greatly with my listening and focus when I’m in a Rehearsed production, too.  It’s also helped me with my preparation.  The Unrehearsed technique is truly grounded in the text.  We don’t add superfluous subtext because Shakespeare didn’t use it.  ‘Subtext’ is a relatively new invention for actors.  When I’m handed my part in a Rehearsed show, I thoroughly read it over and over again to derive my character choices from what the playwright has given me in the text – much like how we teach our actors to do in one of our Unrehearsed productions.
Another aspect of performing Unrehearsed is trust.  If you have your scroll in your hand, are surrounded by professional troupe members and have a reliable Prompter on stage – you know you are in safe hands.  We only rehearse the fights, songs and dances, so all of the regular blocking comes ‘in the moment’ on stage.  The performer knows what he/she will be doing, but has no idea what the other performers may do.  Each actor has to listen very carefully to each other for directions that are spoken on stage by their fellow actors.  Fortunately, we cast actors who can trust each other to go along with whatever gets thrown at them on stage.  It’s such an exciting, thrilling and exhausting performance technique, which is not for the faint of heart.
Several actors who have worked with USP have told us afterwards that learning this technique has helped them in several ways when they’ve done Rehearsed projects from being braver on stage to delving into the text in more detail to even using a scroll when understudying!  We love that we are helping to prepare these already talented actors for what we have coming for them as well as for the opportunities that they will encounter in other productions.
See you at the show!
-Elizabeth Ruelas, Artistic Director
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Monday, March 23, 2015

Original Practice?

The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project performs using the unrehearsed cue script technique. We work from cue scripts that are based upon the First Folio printing of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623. Because we choose to approach our performances in a manner that we believe to be comparable to the manner that Shakespeare’s own actors may have used, our model falls under the umbrella term “Original Practices.” Lately, although we have used this term ourselves, questions have arisen: what does “Original Practice” mean, and what value do “Original Practices” have?

There are many aspects of the term “Original Practice:” architecture, costumes, pronunciation, production, etc. This blanket phrase covers so much, it almost has no meaning, except to denote theatrical practices as we imagine they may have been. The truth is that no one knows exactly what “original” theatre architecture, costumes, pronunciation or production methods were. The best we can do is conjecture – and in some cases, we can get very close. But let us not fool ourselves we will ever get it “right.” Anything we do today is merely a modern interpretation.

If that is the case, then what value do “Original Practices” have? If the aim is to recreate an authentic (another fuzzy word) Elizabethan theatrical experience, then they mean nothing but living archaeology. Living history has its place, but that place is not in a theatre. Should a theatre get absolutely everything historically correct (which may in some cases meaning breaking several laws concerning alcohol and/or solicitation), there will always be a missing factor: the audience. No matter how accurate the theatre, the actors, the costumes, the accents are, the performance will never have an Elizabethan audience with Elizabethan morals and an Elizabethan understanding of the world and its place in the cosmos. This is a sheer impossibility.

Everybody’s work should be “original” or else what is the point? What we do is “original.” Other companies in Chicago and Portland that work from the same theories as we do have different audiences than we have in Pittsburgh. The case can be made that we are looking for some sort of historical accuracy in our productions, but what would that matter? We do not create museum exhibitions. We create live theatre for a live audience, not an imaginary historical gathering.

So how would USP describe what we do? We acknowledge that our working practice is based on historical theories regarding the production of theatre during the time that William Shakespeare worked. We work from cue scripts that are designed to give the performer the most pertinent information needed for performance of the role in the most economical way possible. We include our surroundings and audience as much as possible (not to be confused with audience participation, although that is sometimes used). We tell the story without telling the audience what to think or feel about it. Our goal is to bring our shows as close to the audience as possible and to give them an experience that can only be had at a live theatrical production.

Our process has evolved, and will continue to do so as we see how the audience and our actors relate to the approach and the performance. It will adjust as much as necessary to remain relevant to our audience. By stamping a method with any label, especially one with such connotations as “Original Practice,” we suggest something finished and complete. This also supposed that the audience is frozen into certain attitudes, which is another impossibility. As performers our methods must be fluid, and we must be willing to let go of ways of working that we may have held dear if they no longer serve the audience. This does not mean playing to the lowest common denominator (but there is always room for it), but it does mean respecting the audience, challenging them when necessary and always remembering that the performance is for them and not us.

The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project’s practices make our productions unique. As we grow, those practices will have to evolve to fulfill our mission, and as they change they will certainly get farther from what many people consider to be “Original Practices.” Nevertheless, everything we do will always be “original.”

-Andy Kirtland
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Labour of Love, or There and Back Again

I have triumphantly returned from Lyon after illustrating how approaching the text of Love’s Labour’s Lost as one of Shakespeare’s actors would have done, through a cue script, reveals directions from the playwright that affect the performance of a role. At the outset of the journey, it was unclear if my presence at La Société Fraçaise Shakespeare’s 2015 conference would be a possibility. Luckily, everything worked out well.

For this trek to Europe, I was fortunate to fly on Turkish Airlines, a decision that had two immediate consequences. First of all, this particular international company does not fly out of Pittsburgh, compelling an extra leg of my trip from the Steel City to The Big Apple, adding a day of travel on both ends. Secondly, being Turkish Airlines, in order to get to Lyon, France, I would need to take a layover just down the road a piece in Istanbul. Rather than spend 13 hours in the airport between flights home, I was able to extend my layover, and have a day in a city that I had long longed to visit. The paper and the trip were shaping up nicely.

Mother Nature, however, did not want to cooperate. The day before I was to leave Pittsburgh, my bus to New York City was cancelled as New Jersey was placed under a travel ban in anticipation of the record-breaking snow that was to bury Manhattan. After a bit of very stressful scampering, I booked a seat on the only train, and in fact the only mode of transportation between Pittsburgh and New York, that would get me to JFK International Airport in time for my flight – if that flight should even take off the following afternoon.

Upon arriving in New York City, the snowstorm was painfully evident by the lack of debilitating snow. There was more snowfall in Pittsburgh that morning, the major part of the weather deciding to head north to Boston. Still, the question of delays hung in the air. The flight I had booked was the only flight I could take that would get me to Lyon in time for the conference.

That evening was spent with friends and watching a rehearsal for a staged reading of one of USP’s Artistic Director Elizabeth Ruelas’ plays. Arising from the couch early the next morning, I made my way to the airport where everything went off without a hitch. I was in the air for more than nine hours to Istanbul for a three-hour layover before a three-hour flight to Lyon. Thirty minutes on a train and ten minutes on the thoroughly efficient metro later, I was checking into my hotel.

Not succumbing to jet lag, I decided to take in Lyon’s spectacular Roman ruins. There are two theatres on the hill of Vieux Lyon, one being the oldest Roman theatre in Gaul. The excellent museum on sight was free that day, so I was able to take in quite a bit before heading back to the hotel to nervously rehearse my presentation. Presentations we rehearse, but Shakespeare, no. As the last speaker of the day and the only performer on the agenda, a persistent question nagged me: am I going last because they think I’ll be entertaining, or because nobody sits through the entire conference? My stomach was in knots, filled with butterflies or kittens, whichever metaphor you prefer.

The following morning, I arrived early giving myself plenty of time to get lost. The conference was held on the Déscartes campus of the École Normale Superieur, and when I reached the room, it was locked. The receptionist informed me that the room was reserved from 9:30, which was curious because all the materials for the conference listed 9:00 as the start time. I had difficulty using my computer while traveling. Had I missed an important email while I was in transit?  I began seeing students moving in the right direction, and heard mention of a conference and speakers, so I followed. I must have arrived just a bit too early. It’s still better than the alternative.

More topics were addressed than I thought would have been in a conference devoted to reading Love’s Labour’s Lost. Speakers came from the UK, Scotland (a transplant from Pittsburgh), Norway, France and of course the USA (me). I was the only one not connected to some institution. Would I be taken seriously? Would I be understood? Would anybody care? These were the questions that occupied my mind while the other speakers took their turns, causing me to miss a good amount of their presentations.

It turns out that the answer to all of my questions and worries was ‘yes.’ The program was running 20 minutes behind schedule when I took the stage. While preparing it struck me that I was not reading a paper, but giving a presentation. During my time, I mixed things up by presenting from in front of the large desk at the front of the room and not reading directly from my paper, but using it more as an outline. As difficult as it was due to nerves and adrenaline, I tried to speak slowly. Most of the attendees were students, and English was their second language. A majority of the presentations were in English, so I hope that we were understood.

I was able to explain how Shakespeare was able to direct his actors through cue scripts, how shifts between verse and prose alert the actors to a change on stage, how pronouns direct blocking and how a couple of important rules of staging Shakespeare without rehearsals effect the performance and the interpretations of roles. My paper was greeted with some very welcomed comments and questions when I was finished although the conference went over time. I also know for a fact that some of the students who had been checking out fishing videos on Facebook throughout the conference ended the day by checking out USP’s page - a very encouraging sign.

The entire experience left me wanting to do more conferences. They are a great way to keep in touch with what is going on in the world of Shakespeare, and to spread USP’s name and methods. I am grateful to La Société Française Shakespeare for the opportunity and all of their help and support. A big thank you goes out to the presenters for their time, talent and knowledge. To read ‘An Unrehearsed Cue Script Perspective on Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ and the other papers presented at Lyon and at the second part of the conference taking place on February 13 and 14 in Paris, visit La Société Française Shakespeare’s website in March (

After leaving my hotel the next morning, I wandered around in search of a post office only to find that it was closed on Saturdays. Then I got off at the wrong stop on the metro before waiting for half an hour at the wrong stop for the train to the airport. Thankfully, I made it on time.

That evening and the next day were spent in Istanbul, and while having absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare I still enjoyed an amazing time there.

The ten-hour sleepless flight back to the USA the next day was punctuated with three crying infants going off every 20 minutes. We arrived in JFK on time, however, the city and airport were in the grips of another snowstorm fear. Upon landing, I was notified that my bus, scheduled to leave 5 hours later, was again cancelled. Between sitting on the tarmac for two hours and a slow A Train to the Port Authority, I missed the last bus to Pittsburgh for the evening. Instead, the night was spent on a very generous friend’s futon before getting the only train from New York City to Pittsburgh the next day.

I spent 9 hours of my birthday on the train catching some much needed rest, before arriving home at 8pm, only 14 hours later than originally intended. Thankfully I was greeted by my much-relieved wife for a lovely birthday dinner.

This entire trip amounted to over 45 hours in transit, 2 trains, 4 planes, 3 cities, 3 languages (4 if you count the people in Turkey who thought I was German) and one great experience sharing USP with a completely new audience and sparking interest in the process.

Ah - the distances we go for Shakespeare, and the experiences he gives in return.

-Andy Kirtland
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

My traveling companion Balzac is ready to go!

Signage for the seminar

The view of Lyon from Vieux Lyon

Feels like you're there, doesn't it?

I've waited a long time for this picture, so have those people on the bench.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Much adoe and Me

As we at USP prepare for our upcoming tour of Much adoe about Nothing, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on why this is such a special play for me.  It wasn’t the first Shakespeare play I read.  That was Romeo and Juliet.  It wasn’t the first Shakespeare play I saw.  That was The Comedy of Errors.  It wasn’t the first Shakespeare play I was in or even the first Unrehearsed production I was in.  Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew, respectively.  However, Much adoe… is a Shakespeare play that I am very passionate about and, therefore, of which I am very protective.
My first brush with this comedy was when I was an undergrad.  It was to be one of the first plays of the upcoming fall/winter season and I desperately wanted to play Beatrice.  All of that wonderful wit and not suffering fools coupled with such charm?  Yes, please.  So, I spent the entire summer before auditions studying the script on my own.  Just me and my Schmidt Lexicons (you Shakespeare-philes know what I’m talking about).  I prepared completely and was ready!  Then a few days before the auditions, I was in a horrific car accident.  Against recommendations, I pulled myself out of bed and showed up at the audition complete with bandages and pain killers.  I was not going to be deterred from doing my audition monologue and let all those months of preparation go to waste.  Forgetting all pain when I was on stage, like all actors do, I did scene after scene that the director requested.  Then I came home and collapsed.  A couple of days later, a fellow actress in the drama department called me.  I was in a bit of a pain killer haze so I don’t remember everything she said until I heard the word “Congratulations.”  “For what?” I said.  “Well…you’re Beatrice.” She said, surprised.  Apparently, the casting sheet had been up for a day or so, but due to my injuries I hadn’t gone to school to check.  I burst into tears over the phone.  Tears of joy, release, and gratitude that all of my hard work had paid off even though I was hobbling around the stage.  A few months later, the pain killers and bandages were gone and I was playing a part I had set my heart on and worked so hard to get.
Years later, I was cast as Beatrice in Much adoe… in an Unrehearsed production with The New England Shakespeare Festival (my fourth year with them).  It was supposed to be just one performance for me this time since I wasn’t sure I would be able to do the entire tour since I had other show obligations in NYC.  But, after the wonderful actor playing Benedick called me after the show and said “Let’s do the tour!” – I checked with my director in NYC who was able to work out the schedule so I could go.  Little did I know that this tour would change my life, forever.  My first day there, I met a very funny and very charming man named Andy Kirtland.  He was a vet actor with The New England Shakespeare Festival, like me, except he had been with them longer and just happened to perform on the tours that I wasn’t on.  After years working for the same company, this was our first meeting.  We instantly fell in love – not just romantically, but with each other’s talent and humor (Andy played Dogberry).  Shortly after the tour, we moved in together and were married a few years after that.  During that time, we have worked together on many, many occasions – either as actors, director/actor, co-teachers, co-producers, etc. and realized how well we work together due to our mutual respect and enjoyment of theatre and each other.  Even fellow artistic directors have commented on our awesome working relationship.  We decided to work together on a full-time basis doing theatre that we love and are passionate about, so in 2012 we founded The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project and have taught, directed and produced some wonderful theatre so far (and will continue to do so).
This year, we are doing our first tour with USP.  As Artistic Director, I chose to do Much adoe about Nothing this time to celebrate this play that I have been passionate about and very close to for years as well as to celebrate the play that brought my husband/partner/best friend and me together.  It’s going to be one hell of a show!

-Elizabeth Ruelas
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Friday, January 9, 2015

USP Is Going to France

At the end of the month, I will represent The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project at La Société Française Shakespeare’s 2015 conference in Lyon, France. The topic of this year’s gathering is “Reading Love’s Labour’s Lost.” In the interest of full disclosure, this is not one of my favorite plays penned by Mr. Shakespeare, and my interest in this opportunity lies in the chance to explain our way of working to a new audience.

This international conversation about Love’s Labour’s Lost, the sister convention of the larger one to be held in Paris on 15 February, will host speakers from France, Norway, the UK and me (the only speaker from the USA in Lyon). A vast array of approaches and perspectives of the play will be covered. The topics range from very esoteric philosophic takes on the comedy to performance-based approaches of exploration. I have the honor of being the final presenter of the day.

My paper, An Unrehearsed Perspective on Love’s Labour’s Lost, focuses on the role of Berowne. By examining parts of the cue script that the Berowne-actor would receive, I demonstrate how Shakespeare wrote stage direction into his texts as well as plot and situational information and suggestions for how his actors may play their role(s). There is a great amount of information to condense into a 20-minute presentation. My exploration is limited to the cues that appear in the actor’s cue script, changes and shifts in the way Berowne speaks (or in the way the text appears in cue script form) and the ways in which they mirror and direct changes in the character. I explain the first two basic rules of performing the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique and demonstrate how they can affect a reading of the script. To find out what those rules are and to make an interesting discovery or two about the role of Berowne, you will have to wait for La Société Française Shakespeare to publish my paper on its official website.

On a personal note, I am looking forward to spending what limited time I have in Lyon, France’s second city. Lyon has hundreds of years of history to explore in a very small amount of time. In regard to history, I will be turning an extended layover in Turkey into one day in Istanbul, a city I have longed to visit. On this trip, I will be in the air for about as much time as I will be free in Lyon and Istanbul, but I will make the most of my time in these amazing cities.

Above all, I plan to take every advantage offered by La Société Française Shakespeare and the connections I make in Lyon. Over the past year, USP has put a great effort into expanding our presence online and enhancing our local visibility in Pittsburgh. With the presentation of this paper we will put our first footprint in European soil.

-Andy Kirtland
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project