Ellen’s News in Brief

This is a historical sub-title, it being the first time the words ‘Ellen’ and ‘brief’ appear in the same sentence without a negative between them.

This fall, I was in a production of Henry IV, Part One at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. It was an absolute delight, from start to finish, and I’m not just saying that here because this is theoretically a public forum. I have wanted to play Lady Percy for a long time, and have in fact held her up as a part I’d rather play than some more famous Shakespearean heroines who have a great deal more text.

The director (Paul Barnes) was wonderful: gentle, encouraging, helpful, welcoming of collaboration but also firm in challenging me to think in new ways. I had fantastic fun in rehearsals, and then continued to have fun playing in performances with my Hotspur, who is approximately 857 times better than Ethan Hawke was in the Lincoln Center version. He possesses a colloquial grace with the text that I can only dream of in my nerdy Shakespearean dreams.

This is perhaps one of the best production photos I think I’ve ever been a part of:


Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur

 I am pictured here threatening to break Hotspur’s little finger. I think much of its brilliance may be attributed to Mr. Jones, which is a not inaccurate representation of the scene as a whole.

The following is a picture I find amusing in part because it looks like the Gossip Girl version of Kate and Hotspur. The other half of my amusement I derive from the fact that I look like I’m saying something catty and David appears scandalised, when I was of the (perhaps mistaken) opinion that most of this scene was consisted of Hotspur saying something catty and Kate being scandalised. Consequently, I am not sure when in the text this picture falls, outside of it being part of the Glendower scene in Wales.

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur, Act Two

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur, Act Two

The entire cast was wonderful, both as performers and as people with whom to spend an autumn. We had good times in the Folger housing, nine people in one kitchen notwithstanding, and it was rather exciting to spend the fall of 2008 on Capitol Hill. I could quite literally see the Capitol building from my bedroom window. On election night, we were buffeted from crowded bar to crowded bar along Pennsylvania Avenue, before finally settling slightly farther away in the standby of theatrical folk, Tunnicliffs. The bottle of champagne I purchased tasted no less sweet, the Obama shirt I was wearing was no less nerdy. We did not, unfortunately, storm the White House gates with others, since we had a student matinee the following morning, and our own political drama to enact. Throughout the run, comparisons with varying elements of our current and recent political history were rampant, and our production even got mentioned in Newsweek for that reason. Pretty spiffy! It was entirely Newsweek’s loss that they did not include the picture of Hotspur’s Little Finger in Peril.

As I type these words, I am in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the beginning of rehearsals for the world premiere of a play entitled The Yellow Leaf at the Pioneer Theatre Company. The Yellow Leaf is an absolutely gorgeous play (in my ever-humble opinion) about Byron, the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont and Dr. Polidori, centred around the summer of 1816 they spent in Switzerland. I am playing Mary Shelley, most famous as the author of Frankenstein, least famous for being the wife of the man I wrote my senior thesis on in college. For anyone who knows me, or for anyone misguided enough to have read this blog closely and discerned all the references to Romantic poets, this is outrageously exciting for me. I took four classes with focus on the English Romantics in college, one of which was actually entitled ‘Byron and the Shelleys,’ a passion which culminated in writing a big old paper about metapoetry through self-representation in Shelley and Keats. (If anyone ever foolishly doubted the veracity of the nerdiness promised in this blog’s subtitle, now is the time to cease your false advertising lawsuit.) I am continually indebted to a professor of mine, Andrew Stauffer, who is now teaching at the University of Virginia, for making me the Romantic Poet Nerd I am today. My Shakespeare-related nerdiness is someone else’s fault. I’m not sure who, exactly, but by god if I ever apprehend the responsible party, there will be a great reckoning to pay.

In any case, for me, playing Mary Shelley is, on a Scale of Excitement from one to ten, about fourteen-and-a-half. I found out about this play from the call-board in the Equity building in New York in late June, soon after ending my contract with the American Shakespeare Center. I think I actually leapt backwards with surprise when I saw that there was a play with a breakdown listing the attributes of George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin (Shelley), etc., because I remember sheepishly mumbling something to the startled gentleman looking at the posting next to me.

However, I could not make the EPA because I was going to be in Oregon for my grandmother’s eighty-fifth birthday. Rather than submit to complete despair, I decided to at least email the artistic director of the theatre company in supplication, in the hopes that he would be sympathetic to my Nerdy Romantic plight because he is also, not-so-coincidentally, the author of the play. I didn’t really think that this would result in getting an audition, since I am certain that artistic directors are similarly pestered every day of their lives, I just knew that I would not forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to pursue an audition.

Fortunately for me, Charles Morey, author of the beautiful Yellow Leaf and artistic director of the Pioneer Theatre Company, is about the nicest person I have ever emailed, and actually paid attention to me. It may have been my threat to intentionally sail into stormy waters, thus drowning in the same manner as Shelley. Regardless, he told me I could send my headshot and resume along to him, and extended the challenge to identify the allusion of the title. I did both. (The title comes from Byron’s “On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Thank you, Professor Stauffer. Byron may also have been alluding to a line from Macb*th. Thank you, unapprehended felon.) I wrote to Mr. Morey that I hoped he would not hold it against me if I’d misidentified it, but that if I got it right, I would get some kind of reward, like ice cream. Or an audition.

My ability to go to the auditions was slightly complicated by being in Washington DC at the time they were held, but, to double my fortune, the wonderful Mr. Paul Barnes is well known to the wonderful Mr. Chuck Morey (and vice versa), the former having worked at the latter’s theater frequently. So, I was able to skip out of rehearsal for a day and dash up to New York (that’s ten hours on a Megabus, my friends) on the callback day. Of course I hadn’t actually MET Mr. Morey, or the director, Geoffrey Sherman, or the casting director, so I felt the audition had a kind of Hail Mary quality (yes, that’s actually a football reference, not a Mary Shelley reference, though I suppose it is also a Catholic reference). But as always, I was simply infused with the sense that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my own power.

But I was triply fortunate, overwhelmingly lucky, and now I get to be Mary Shelley. It is quite literally a dream come true. I remember saying to a friend of mine on graduation, as, despite my English Major, I never intended to do anything but become an actor, “Well, what I’m really fit to do now is play Mary Shelley in a play about Byron and the Shelleys.”

This also marks the first time my name is in the title of an article on Playbill. Of course, I’m not being so audacious as to assume there will be a second time, which is why this is perhaps doubly exciting. But how about this? Thorstad, Kelly, Adair Are Brit Lit Trio of Yellow Leaf Premiere at Pioneer in January 2009 ! I love how it makes it sound like I am actually important, when really no one besides my parents are more likely to see the show because of my inclusion in the article’s title.

Rehearsals thus far have been about as wonderful as I imagined, which is saying quite a lot. I feel, at this point, that I could not possibly have asked for a more wonderful, talented, and friendly group–director and cast–to work on this paramount of all productions. I will wait to deal with the fall-out of having achieved my life’s purpose at this relatively early age. For now, I’m thrilled.

BONUS ACTIVITY: In honour of the final, belated, and final belated post about my tour, make a list of the things that are mentioned that make actors happy and the things that make actors sad. Feel free to illustrate your favourites. Or do an interpretive dance.

Rockville, Maryland, March 24-26:

The Piercing Eloquence troupe wrapped up its tour in fine style at Montgomery College, where, coincidentally, Sasha Olinick, one of the fine actors in the American Shakespeare Center’s Summer/Fall season works. Sasha’s Feste in Twelfth Night is AWESOME, all the moreso because his completely-different Cornwall in King Lear and Elbow/Barnadine in Measure for Measure also rock. Go see Twelfth Night right now. No, literally, go right now. …No, don’t actually go right now.

N.B. I know the meaning of the word ‘literally,’ but this literally/actually joke is a private shout-out to the rest of the Piercing Eloquence tour on this, the much-belated final chronicle of the tour.

Our stay at Montgomery College was fantastic because they treated us like kings, or at least dukes. They gave us presents, they had fruit platters in the dressing room, and, most importantly, they put us up in a FANTASTIC hotel. It was not, perhaps, my personal favourite, because the Belmont Inn in South Carolina and the Partridge Inn in Georgia get style points for being from the nineteenth century, and the place in the Florida Keys (La Siesta?) gets style points for having eighty-five palm trees and an ocean. However, these suites in Gaithersburg were certainly luxurious. Everyone got their own bedroom, and the bedrooms shared a living room/kitchen. Having a kitchen is just about the most blessed thing one can imagine after having been on tour more or less since September, precisely at the moment that even the sight of the bizarre architectural façade of a Bob Evans makes one want to barf.

Here are some pictures of my suite:

They have WILLIAM MORRIS prints on the wall! Ten points: the most reasonable thing a hotel can do if denied the advantage of being from the nineteenth century. The hotel also had one of the best hotel fitness rooms we saw on tour, and a happy hour with free wine, beer, and food, most notably hummus, one of my two and a half favourite food items. So you could go to the gym and then drink wine with increased justification! Heaven. Sheffield visited Ginna whilst we were here; Evan stayed with Jacki; Scot celebrated his birthday by trying to hide the fact that it was his birthday from the rest of us; everyone was happy.

Despite the fact that these were our last shows on the road, I remember fairly little about them, especially compared with the previous shows in Virginia Beach and in Minnesota. The auditorium had a central seating area that was a good five or six feet lower than areas along the side and in the back of the auditorium, which were roughly the same height as the stage. In explaining it this way, I suddenly realise that it’s the same basic format of the Blackfriars, only without seating along the sides and in the back of the stage, and larger in square footage, if not in number of seats. An odd wall came down from the ceiling in front of the seating area in the back, which we were told made it very difficult to hear. So, once again, we had to resonate in each other’s faces, but thankfully it would be the last time, at least for these shows: in addition to being the most beautiful theatre I’ve ever been in, the Blackfriars also has just about the World’s Best Acoustics.

The only distinctive things I recall about our performance of Taming of the Shrew would appear to not bespeak the best of the audience, so I have to place a disclaimer that I think it was a very friendly and attentive audience, and a good show. I was still having a lot of fun exploring the icing on Bianca’s physicality, to continue to borrow the metaphor from Gremio’s line “My cake is dough.”

However, during my first scene as Bianca (which I unofficially think of as the “Will you any wife?” scene, after yet another Gremio line), a woman’s cell phone went off. It was doubly unfortunate for her that she was sitting in one of the seats onstage, and perhaps trebly unfortunate that there is a fairly lengthy portion of the pre-show in which Chris Seiler beats Chris Johnston with a whacker noodle for being on his cell phone. (“I’ll call you back in five minutes!” WHACK “I’ll call you back in fifteen minutes!” WHACK “I’ll call you back after the show…and tell you what a wonderful time I just had!”) The Use of Cell Phones is also what makes actors Very Sad, as is evidenced by the whacker noodle ‘long tears’ made famous in The Great Whacker Noodle Massacre and Its Redemption.

The cell-phone started going off in the middle of my line, but as that line is very much in the business of being demur and making my books and instruments my company, it didn’t even occur to me to lay the whacker noodle into the cell phone perpetrator. God and my fellow troupe members know, I’ve got no aversion to adding text to justify spur-of-the-moment bizarre occurances, but not if it would break character. So I just stopped, and stared at the woman with the tuneful shoulderbag, using the default response taught to me by Diego Arciniegas of the Publick Theatre in Boston, still one of my favourite directors of all time, as a way to deal with the airplanes, helicopters and sirens that sometimes appear in Sidley Park, Syracuse, Italy, or Elizabethan London if your theater is outdoors in the middle of a city. Just stop, counselled Diego. And stare. And he was right, as he was in so many things. Audiences respond to actors staring at an airplane as though the actors had reinvented the wheel, or perhaps even the airplane.

Of course, it’s a little different when you’re staring at an animate object no less than five feet away, and that animate object is desperately tearing through her shoulderbag whilst the inanimate object inside the bag starts to go through the second cycle of its ringtone. My ever-resourceful Papa/the ever-resourceful Mr. Seiler, having also had some prior experience with slugging Mr. Johnston during the pre-show for having a fictional cell phone, borrowed a whacker noodle from her neighbour and gave the girl one solid Whack of Remonstrance.

The cell phone, being inanimate and insensible, continued to ring. Or, more accurately, melodically beep.

Mr. Seiler, dismayed either that the woman still was unable to locate the cell phone in her bag or that the whacker noodle did not have the same effect on real cell phones that it did on the fictional one in the pre-show, decided to press on. The only problem was that, instead of going over to Gremio to be ‘enticed’ by the truly hideous quasi-cloisonné double-headed tiger bracelet, I had cross downstage to counter Baptisa’s whacker noodle initiative. Somehow, we all sorted ourselves out, and the scene continued; I couldn’t even tell you what was left out, or if anything was, but I think the audience was as distracted as we were and probably did not notice that anything had gone wrong. …Aside from a cell phone going off for what seemed to me to be about a minute, and probably seemed to be about eighty-five minutes to the girl who possessed it.

The only other thing I remember about this Shrew was the voluminous number of people who decided to visit the bathroom during the scene where Raffi and I are waiting to make an entrance from the back of the house. When someone random passes through the lobby of any given theater whilst I’m waiting there, which is a common occurrence when we perform on college campuses, I always give them a huge wave and a slightly farcical grin. I found that the best defence was a good offence as far as receiving looks for being dressed in a huge blue-and-pink paisley dress, or as a boy, depending upon the show that has me waiting in the lobby. But whenever it’s actual audience members, I always feel awkward. It’s a mixture of ‘I see you care deeply enough about our show to visit the bathroom 10 minutes before the end’ and ‘So, howzabout that suspension of disbelief?’

Our final Merchant of Venice on the road was not what I would have wished our final Merchant of Venice on the road to be, in order to provide a nice close to this narrative. But I suppose humans feel the need for narrative so strongly precisely because our lives, in most cases, lack a good structural narrative. In the interest of preserving the narrative of my last post, I kept this fact apart, but now it must out: after our last performance of Merchant in Virginia Beach, which had been so revelatory for me on so many counts, Aaron announced that the show had run about quite a few minutes over its best running time. I don’t recall the actual figure by this point, but it was some horrendous amount like ten minutes, and as the character with the most lines in the show I was probably responsible for a healthy (or unhealthy) percentage of that. The upshot of this fact was that we were asked to tighten up our cues as much as humanly possible, and the upshot of that request was that I spent the final show on the road thinking predominantly about picking up cues and eliminating any hairbreadth of a pause.

I by no means believe in pause-ridden Shakespeare, but, on the other hand, I have enough faith in myself in a person who likes to Move the Text that I stopped thinking about it, and that was obviously the place I had gotten to in Virginia Beach. And I appreciate that perhaps the show in Maryland was better than its immediate predecessor for the audience, but I felt straitjacketed simply by having to think very hard about something other than telling the story—it’s precisely the same reason why the first show in an any acoustically difficult space was trying for me, because I always had to keep part of my mind on this utterly technical point.

I know I strive, as an actor, to reach a point where I am no longer thinking—perhaps we all do, though in working with this troupe of actors for an entire year I was able to glean enough to speculate this may not be everyone’s goal. But I think I came to the point of being halfway-decent, as an actor, when I learned how to shut off as much of my thinking brain as possible and just be a little stupid. (My eternal thanks to Dennis Krausnick of Shakespeare and Company for leading me to that point.) And in order to do what I think is my best work, I need to not-think about verse, and not-think about text work, and not-think about pacing. And, even in my modesty, I think I did that many times within this season. But it didn’t happen with the Merchant at Montgomery College.

But Aaron was happy with the show, which is more important than the skewed opinion of my internal judge. Afterwards, he announced with some triumph that the show was back to its original length, and asked us if we noticed the difference. Ginna, I recall, thought it was a great show, but Josh made some comment about feeling as though he was in his head, with which I more than sympathised.

We had what amounted to a day off in between the two performances, when only a couple of people had a workshop in the morning. (I participated in an interesting workshop about direction in which both Ginna and I agreed that we were very glad we don’t do the darker and more violent Kate/Bianca Bound scene that we tried as a redirection.) I decided to go into D.C. to go to a museum, and, perhaps to the shame of my Art-Historian mother, was taken with a desire to go to the Air and Space Museum over an art museum.

I took three astronomy courses in college and am consequently a kind of dilettante astronomer, my current efforts being constrained to reading relevant newspaper articles with interest, possessing a proclivity to the Air and Space Museum, and reading physics-for-the-masses books like The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. These are tasks well-befitting my abilities, as none of them involve math. But I found the Air and Space museum less enchanting than it had been for me at, say, age eight, and narrated to one of my dear Astronomy professors from B.U. that my mind would have rather preferred more Space and less Air, however my lungs might feel about the matter.

That evening, I had dinner with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, the self-same who were proud witnesses of One of the Finest Moments of Theatre, Shakespearean or Otherwise, That I Have Ever Seen. We went to a Chinese restaurant, under the false impression that they had Dim Sum all day. It was no matter, because Dan and I went to get Dim Sum the following morning, and I think I ate enough Dim Sum to have sufficed for the previous evening, and perhaps the following evening, as well.

Here is a picture taken after our final performance. We have our hands in the ‘Fancy Bred’ circle that we would do prior to some performances. Points go to Head Historian Paul for the orchestration of this photo, which as you can possibly infer, involved a ladder. When he first asked for a ladder I thought he was going to try to do a re-creation of the 1987 Henry V picture of the first production that led to the formation of Shenandoah Shakespeare, later the American Shakespeare Center. I am glad that he did not, because no one would have been able to recreate the leather shirt on the esteemed Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, FEDADOM, and the smiley unbearded face of Jim Warren. (This photo is by the rehearsal hall in the Blackfriars, and if you, dear reader, go on a guided tour of the theatre, you can see this picture yourself.)

As I look at this photograph, it seems to me as if the unseen photographer is saying to Alisa, ‘Give me sexy, baby,’ and to Ginna ‘Give me cool, baby, work it,’ and to me ‘Give me overcompensation for the fact that you’re sad the final show on the road wasn’t the experience you hoped, yeah.’ I do not mean to put overcompensation on anyone else’s smile, but knowing that Josh confessed to a similar opinion of the show, I do wonder about the fact that we’re almost the smiliest ones in the photograph. Besides Dan. But Dan is smiley because he’s one of the best people on earth.

Clockwise from lower left: Paul Reisman, Ellen Adair, Josh Carpenter, Chris Seiler, Alisa Ledyard, Evan Hoffmann, Ginna Hoben, Scot Carson, Chris Johnston, Raffi Barsoumian, Daniel Kennedy

Piercing Eloquence 2007-2008

I couldn’t ask for a more talented group of actors to roam the east half of the U.S. in three vans with. Thank you.

…where at least I know I’m free!
An’ I won’t—forget—the man that wrote
To give that life to me!

Sweet lord, I can’t say I’ve ever so much as thought about the song I’m happily doctoring since about fifth grade, when we were compelled to intone it during Music Class. I belted it out without thinking about the words, but, on the other hand, at least Clinton was elected to office in the same year.

Meanwhile, I apologise to all involved for letting the title get the better of me. It will be part of an exposé: When Bad Titles Happen to Good People. Shakespeare, please don’t make your bones encloased roll over in your grave. Sweet readers, please don’t hate me for all time.

Virginia Beach, Virginia, March 21-22:

We were scheduled for two performances of Merchant of Venice in a single day, which certainly seemed a formidable undertaking. Not only did that mean (for me) riding that particular emotional roller coaster twice, a fate that repertory usually spares us, but it also meant that all eleven of us would be sitting on stage for four and half hours, complete with the carefully-planned hydration/bathroom trips that entails. Also, the first show was a school matinee, and consequently we had to get up at 6 AM, an arrangement that agrees with my body about as much as would the systematic removal of my toenails. I’d much prefer to have a 2 PM and 8 PM show, without much of a break in between, than a workday that goes from 7:30 AM to 11:30 PM. Even if I use all my free time in the middle for a nap, said nap never amounts to more than an hour and a half.

On the other hand, I do get to Make Believe for my job.

Still, precisely because I care about the quality of this Make Believe, I could never, not even at the end of our run of an entire year, ‘relax’ about Merchant. It is precisely because I am so thankful for my profession that I believe the act of putting on a play is always to be revered; holy things must be kept holy. If this mindset makes me appear like a worrier, so be it.

Because, as soon as I saw the space in which we were performing, my worrying amplified. To eleven. It was huge. It wasn’t merely that there were, oh, say, fifteen hundred seats, but that there were THREE LEVELS. If you think I’m exaggerating, there is available photographic documentation of this theatre, the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, on their main website. I know my opinions/weaknesses have been hashed over in great detail in previous posts, but according to my tastes, this space was too large for a truly effective production of anything smaller than 42nd Street. Regardless of my beliefs regarding intimacy in staging Shakespearean theatre (brief version: I think it’s key), I was downright terrified of keeping my vocal level up for that size of a theatre, and for two shows’ worth of lines—amounting to about 1200, where Portia is concerned.

From what I recall of the morning show, it was not my favourite performance of all time. Then again, with aforementioned early rising/toenail removal comparison, I don’t think ‘morning show’ and ‘favourite performance’ could occur in the same sentence without a negative between them. I remember that Aaron said my vocal level was decent, an assessment I strove for with greater purpose than any press-night endeavour, but it has to be said that I felt like I was yelling in everyone’s face all of the time.

That evening, however, I felt like the show bloomed. I was used to the necessary volume level from the morning, so it simply felt like an invitation to make the text run deeper, rather than something I needed to continually keep in mind.  This happily confirmed my earlier speculation that the really difficult thing about maintaining honesty whilst adjusting to a large space has to do with FAMILIARITY with the size of the work, not some intrinsic inability to have honesty and resonate it, too. Further than that, I felt as though I simply exploded out of the text, and stood outside of all my verse work, allowing anything to happen. I don’t recall making a conscious decision, but suddenly, I took a breath at the line ending if the sense needed one, and didn’t take one if the sense didn’t need one, and allowed myself some space if the sense needed space, which meant that many lines seemed to issue out of me in new and unexpected ways.

I’ve had a long and complicated history with verse breathing since I was originally taught only to breathe on punctuation at age twelve; I had a brief period whilst doing All’s Well That Ends Well a couple of years ago when I thought Line-End-Breathing and I were going to have a messy break up, but at the end of this year, I’ve been through a variety of thoughts on the subject, and I think Line-End-Breathing and I are in for a good, long, healthy relationship. Part of this was confirmed by sitting in on rehearsals for the Summer/Fall season’s production of Twelfth Night (it’s running right now, and it’s the best Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen, so go buy your tickets), directed by the brilliant Rob Clare. Rob really encouraged the actors to allow the breath in the line breaks to inspire new thoughts, and it was beautiful to watch in rehearsal, and makes for a beautiful show now.

N.B. Best line break I’ve seen in my life: “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition” with Dan McCleary as Macbeth at Shakespeare and Company. I’ve mentioned Mr. McCleary before, in One of The Finest Moments of Theatre, Shakespearean or Otherwise, That I Have Ever Witnessed. What can I say? Dan McCleary, wherever you are, that performance changed my life.

I also sat in on a few rehearsals of Measure for Measure with the different-but-also-wonderful Patrick Tucker, who, amongst other things, believes strongly in driving the thought through to the end stops. This goes with line end breathing as does jelly with peanut butter, and attending the two rehearsal processes was about the best seminar in verse one could hope for, especially for free.

STUDIO AUDIENCE (in unison): You are a nerd!

It’s in the title, baby. So though brevity may be the soul of wit, digression is the soul of this blog: I think I was truly able to own the choice to respect the verse endings by utterly breaking free of it for one performance. It’s not even that I ignored the line endings; I just didn’t think about them. And I think, ultimately, it made my treatment of Portia’s verse that much freer within its form. Here’s my final word on line end breathing: sometimes I take a huge breath to really let the next thought in; sometimes, I take a regular breath; sometimes, I take a breath so small that ideally no one even knows I took a breath. It’s always useful to have ‘inspiration,’ but treating it mechanically can start to sound just that: mechanical. Just like anything in verse work, or anything in acting, or anything in life, variety is the spice thereof.

Another lovely thing that happened during the evening performance in Virginia Beach was that I felt as though the final scene worked, for the first time. The puzzle piece that finally made its slow descent into my dull brain was: audience contact. I don’t often have the urge to say ‘duh,’ but I certainly feel that this is an appropriate situation in which to use it. When we altered some of the blocking in the final scene in January in order to fix some traffic jams, a cross of mine changed from going all the way upstage to all the way downstage. What it took me two months to realise was that there I was, on the lip of the stage, in a position to share things with the audience that no one else on stage could see. And something clicked in my brain when I looked out at the faces within view (i.e. not the second balcony) and saw people absolutely grinning with delight. It seemed as if they couldn’t WAIT to see what I was going to say to Bassanio about the ring; it looked like they were taking more delight in being ‘in the know’ about my Balthazar Identity than, in honesty, I ever had. And their happy, anticipatory energy came over me in waves, and without even thinking of what I was doing, I grinned back at them, secretly. This created a ripple of laughter, but one woman in the second row, I think I’ll never forget her for as long as I live, gave an outright guffaw; I winked at her in return, and it was as if our complicity was sealed.

It embarrasses me how long it continually takes me to learn things I already know. The fact that the audience is your best friend is on page one of the philosophies of both the American Shakespeare Center and Shakespeare and Company, but somehow, in the long and (admittedly) tortured history of rehearsals of this scene, I had forgotten to USE that fact. And that’s what is so brilliant about audience contact; it really does go both ways. It’s so obvious that audiences have more fun when they are aware that, because the Lights Are On, and because we’re directly addressing them, they are part of the action, but it also means that we, the actors, receive more energy.

I think people are not sufficiently aware that, even when the auditorium is darkened, the energy of a given audience is a palpable tide that laps onto the stage. I often wonder if people might alter their playgoing behaviour if they knew that actors go backstage and discuss the audience (“wow, they’re really quiet out there” vs. “wow, they’re even laughing at ME, which shows they have no discretion”) with the daily regularity that I imagine people in farming communities discussed the weather in days of yore. How much more responsive audiences become when they know actors and other audience members can see them suggests that this kind of social consciousness does alter behaviour, even when what they’re doing, in either instance, is having a play presented to them. I can’t express how thankful I am to all of those Merchant audiences, for lending me their joy, and teaching me how to make the joy live within the scene.

So I personally felt that I wrested victory from the jaws of a two-balconied theatre. Not only was I able to fill the space to at least a reasonable degree, but I made breakthroughs in terms of verse work and audience contact. Could it get any better? Not even with the inclusion of chocolate frozen yogurt, my friend. There is a post-script to this story, but I am going to leave it until the show the postscript affected, so I can leave this love letter to the American Shakespeare Center on the high note the beloved deserves. God bless line endings. God bless the ASC. God bless audience contact, and God bless wonderful audiences themselves.

Fairmont, Minnesota, March 15:

We performed at the Fairmont Opera House, which has the dubious honour of being the (I can safely say) penultimate example of any variety of the Drama of Not Doing a Show. This particular strain of Drama is the same we experienced in Kokomo, Indiana, and the same (albeit with advance notice) that constituted our final Drama, when our Illustrious Tour Manager went on for Evan in Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice during our residency, so that Evan could go to his brother’s wedding. This, the Final Drama, was more dramatic insofar as Aaron performed off-book, and we were all slightly in suspense as to whether or not he would say “You look not well, Signior Bassanio,” (instead of ‘Antonio’), which he did both times we rehearsed the scene. It was less dramatic insofar as Aaron knew he was going to be going on for Evan in those performances since last June.

But in Minnesota, our beloved Chris Seiler fell ill with what he interpreted to be some kind of food poisoning. I believe it was the same Martian Death Flu that wracked Evan and me in Indiana (for the doubtful amongst you, ‘Evan and me’ is correct grammar in this case), because we were all eating the same cereal in the dining hall in Duluth. It would make far more sense that we would get the flu in waves, and food poisoning simultaneously. But regardless of the cause, Chris was incapacitated—I seem to remember him lying behind a table in the backstage area huddled under a blanket that had initially hung as decoration on the wall—Aaron had to go on as Baptista and the Page, and we can log a second example of The drama of doing a show with the World’s Most Omniscient Tour Manager stepping into a role vacated by a deathly ill actor. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture this time.

Of course, Aaron could not play the seventy-three different musical instruments that Mr. Seiler commands, so a fair amount of negotiating was needed for the pre-show music. Alisa went on for her fiancée for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” having (I believe) never played ukulele before. It was certainly a Dramatic moment for those of us backstage, because, without Chris Seiler there, Chris Johnston forgot when he usually comes in, and so Johnston and Alisa played the intro for at least three times as long as it is usually played. I think Alisa considers this one of the more shameful moments of her entire tour, but in all honesty it wasn’t bad, and likely, people who had never heard our version of the song before didn’t even notice anything was awry. Plus, it afforded Alisa this following gem of information: it is much easier for men to play the ukulele than women. (Recall that the instrument is held at chest height.)

The show itself went well, with Aaron performing book-in-hand; as we were walking through scenes with him beforehand, it was surprising how little I actually knew of Baptista’s traffic pattern, but could only say things like, ‘Well, he usually ends up here by this point.’ I think Aaron got a lot of that kind of direction, because much of the blocking ended up being completely different. But I love having to make adjustments on the fly, because it makes all choices, old and new, absolutely truthful.

There was no convenient place to watch from backstage, especially as audience members were seated along the sides of the stage in usual ASC fashion. Nevertheless, Aaron made me laugh so hard I practically cried on two separate occasions. The first was when Raffi and I were waiting to make our entrance in the Vincentio/Pedant Confrontation scene, and we heard Aaron say, “What, is the man LYEWnatic?” from the house. Not only did Aaron milk the liquid ‘u’ in ‘lunatic’ for all it was worth, he upped the pitch of this syllable about an octave above both his normal speaking voice and the pitch of Seiler’s usual delivery. Like all of life’s funniest things, not even one-eighteenth of the humour is translated in the retelling, but all I have to say is that it was a good thing that Raffi and I always make that entrance laughing, because if I’d needed to enter weeping, there would have been nothing I could do. I think Raffi was in a similar state, which makes the hilarity all that more impressive, focused actor that he always is.

The second extreme moment of comedy came at the curtain call, which we had all neglected to talk through with Aaron. In consequence, as we all walked to our curtain call marks singing ‘Hit me with your best shot baby etc.’ Aaron kind of shuffled around, looking for a logical opening in the formation. Then, when just Alisa usually sings ‘Fire awaaaay!’ at the end, Aaron continued singing with her, perhaps because he was distracted by not knowing where to go, or perhaps because he also legitimately did not how much the rest of the cast usually sings. Either way, there’s something about someone simultaneously singing ‘fire away’ and shuffling backwards in the most tentative manner that derives true humour from its paradox.

The audience was kind and receptive, if not as young and rowdy as some of our college-aged groups. I overheard someone who worked at the venue speaking to our stressed tour manager about making sure that the show wasn’t too suggestive, because the audience base was fairly conservative. I recall Aaron replying, “We’ll do what we can, but when Shakespeare writes ‘What, with my tongue in your tail?’ there’s not a lot of leeway.” Aaron was more gracious than I probably would have been under the circumstances, because people getting huffy when Shakespeare is a little dirty really gets my pumpkin pants in a knot. If you play the text, it will not be clean. I’ve seen enough scandalised English teachers on enough high school Shakespeare tours, and it makes me furious that, of all things, the people purporting to TEACH Shakespeare apparently don’t read it closely enough to see that the dick joke is as basic an element of Elizabethan theatre as is the iamb. But I digress, especially since, at the Fairmont Opera House, both audience and staff alike were very friendly and seemed to enjoy the show. As a matter of fact, the venue hosts get extra super bonus points for laying out an entire table of food for us backstage. They will live forever in our hearts, having lived briefly in our stomachs.

It was Raffi’s birthday the night we stayed in Fairmont; unfortunately, we had to rise very early the following morning, because we had the first of two full drive days to get all the way back to Virginia. This did not stop most of us from having a few drinks at the hotel bar, the upshot of which was that, in the morning, Raffi was so late that he met the vans at the gas station across the street. This is only worth noting because Raffi has been unofficially voted Most Likely to Arrive Early to Anything of the Piercing Eloquence Troupe, and so the sight of him wheeling his suitcase across the median may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Unfortunately, none of us had any way of knowing that one of our vans was going to get stuck in the car wash next door, with the garage-style-door literally halfway down on the hood. If we had, we could have let Raffi have another fifteen minutes of sleep. O, touring! The situation comedy of a life on the road is often more situation than comedy.

A Word from Our Sponsors

Today’s post is made possible by the wifi supplied by the megabus en route from New York to Philadelphia. Thank you, megabus! You are a beacon of free wireless connectivity in a dark ocean of secure networks. Now, if you could only work on not keeping your buses at a temperature set for penguin habitation.

Before scaling our way up Minnesota to Duluth, we stopped in Minneapolis for several days when performances we were going to have in Iowa fell through. It was wonderful to be in a large city again, and it was also wonderful to have a visit with my friend Aaron, who, in the world of Bardolatry the Blog, famously showed up at a performance of Merchant in Washington D.C. without any forewarning.

Brief reviews of things I visited in Minneapolis, in no order whatsoever:
– The Guthrie’s production of Jane Eyre: Perfectly competent, but not as electrifying as I would have hoped from either the Guthrie (previously unknown to me in more than reputation) and Jane Eyre (previously known to me). The actors were acting to the back walls of the theatre and not to the other actors on stage, at least from the perspective of someone who sitting three-quarters of the way to the back wall of the theatre.
– The Guthrie, as a piece of architecture: Five Stars for Spiffiness, One Star for Ease of Use.
– The Minneapolis Institute of Art: Fantastic! (Though Dan disagreed.) A wealth of art without being too overwhelming. Special notes go to the ‘Period Rooms,’ from Tudor England to French Ballroom to Colonial American, and to a painting by the rather obscure artist Thomas Chambers, about whom my mother is currently publishing a book. I have rarely been so proud of myself as I was this time for recognising an artist’s style from across the room.
– Dim Sum Restaurant Across the Street from our Hotel (not the actual name): Five Stars for Yumminess, Five Stars for Ease of Use.
– The Mall of America: Despite my best intentions to be unswayed by the fact that it’s just a mall, only really big, I got caught up in the mallesque grandeur and actually purchased three items of clothing, thus straining my turquoise Teeny Tiny Travel Suitcase to its uttermost. In my defense, this made for five total items of clothing purchased in the last year, and that’s coming from a woman who owns (in boxes in another state) over forty skirts.
– The Paul Bunyan Ride in the Mall of America: Okay if you hide behind my friend Aaron on the log chute to avoid getting wet. If you are aquaphobic, like myself, I would not attempt it without said friend Aaron or a reasonable substitute.
– The Loring Pasta Bar: Four Stars for Yumminess, Seven Stars (out of Five) for Interior Decoration. No, really, this restaurant is one of the most fantastical interiors I have seen in my life and I have lived in Istanbul, Turkey, and Oxford, England, and visited a good many other places. You can take a look at some pictures on their website, but none of them do it justice. I want to LIVE in this restaurant: the plants, trees, twinkly lights, layers of walls that cut to exposed brick, balconies, vaulted ceiling, curtains, checkerboard floors, and general décor remind me more of Alice in Wonderland than anything I have seen this side of waking. Also I saw a man there who looked like Yeats, but that is purely coincidental and I do not expect, if I ever get to live in the Pasta Bar, that this man will necessarily be included.
– My friend Aaron: Five Stars. It is good to have friends. Touring will teach you that, if naught else.

Duluth, Minnesota, March 13:

The question (dear reader) that has no doubt been gnawing at your mind since you realised that we’d be travelling to the United States’ Arctic North is: Did it snow when we were in Duluth? I am pleased to say that yes, it did, and looked quite beautiful falling through the pines, thus giving us a the proper visual Duluthian experience (this may not be the adjective for ‘of or pertaining to Duluth,’ but I’ve given up worrying about it with deference to the more seriously problematic place name adjectives discussed in my post on Indianapolis).

I sincerely hope, however, that the question of whether or not I was cold was not also fretting your consciousness, as you should know that OF COURSE I was cold. I am cold when I stay for too long on the back porch of the Bev House at night in May. However, I was not that Holy Mary Mother of God Please Make It Stop level of cold (my dear friend Lewis also called this Sweet Baby Jesus Wear All Possible Layers of Warmth level of cold), because we brought a warm front along with us from Missouri, rendering the daytime temperature somewhere in the mid-twenties. My friend Aaron will witness that not a day before we arrived in Minneapolis, the temperatures were certainly in the below-ten region. Those are certainly the kinds of temperatures (and I have known them, in Boston) at which my brain molecules apparently stop bumping around and I lose all coherent thought. Think of it, if you will, as the Absolute Zero of my intelligence.

Just when you think I can’t get any nerdier, I do.

The college at which we were performing was architecturally dominated by a large stone castle-like building that sat impressively atop the hill of the campus grounds. As we rounded the driveway to the college, it looked like Hogwarts or a grey-stone version of the meadow façade of Christ Church at Oxford (which, let’s face it, are nearly the same thing, since parts of Christ Church were used in the Harry Potter films…and, just when you think I can’t get any nerdier, I do). I regret to say that once next to it, it looked more like some kind of Disneyland castle; something about the extreme irregularity and chunkiness of the stone looked more like ‘Hey, let’s build this to make it look like a castle!’ than ‘Hey, let’s build a castle!’ —always an important distinction amongst castle-builders. ‘Method’ castle-builders are quite peeved whenever anyone mentions the story about the famous old architect who said to his young co-worker, “My dear boy, why not just make it look like a castle?”

(Ten Ellen Points to anyone who names the story to which I’m making reference—God knows enough different people have quoted it to me in my life that it must be common knowledge. Ellen Points are redeemable for overly large stuffed animals in the afterlife.)

The auditorium in which we performed was in the castle-like building, and I would guess it usually serves as more of a music hall than theatrical space. The only way offstage was through two doors in the wood-panelled stage left and stage right walls, and the stage was so wide that our pipe-and-drape system could not actually stretch its full length. This left a small gap between the door and the start of the draped ‘backstage,’ so that in order to make any entrances, one had to employ that physicality dreaded by many an actor, the Neutral Walk. I ended up staying in this backstage area for most of the show—especially on the road, I enjoyed listening to and ‘staying with’ the show—but the thought of the Neutral Walk proved more annoying than the actual execution of it. Though I’m not sure how Neutral I really was in those three-inch turquoise high heels.

Though the auditorium was fairly large with a moderate rake, the performance was made more intimate by the fact that the stage was only a step or two above the area preceding the front row, and the step ran along the entire length of the stage. This meant that it was very easy for people to pull things out into the audience, and a few people used the area between the stage and the front row as an alternate acting space.

It was an important show for me personally, because it was the show in which I took the first steps towards the work that finally made Bianca coalesce for me, or, in slightly more moderate terms, finished the Bianca cake by finally putting the icing on. This metaphor is apt not only because of my history with food metaphors, but also because these finishing touches are inspired by that which may be seen as cloyingly sweet. Here’s what I realised: Bianca should be more like a Disney Princess, and to that end, I began watching some clips from that endless font of time expenditure, YouTube, and incorporating Disney Princess Gesture into the part.

Of course, what really made me realise this were my fellow actors, and, in particular, Mr. Raffi Barsoumian. He did such brilliant physical work in all three shows, but in watching his physical work on Lucentio, I thought that perhaps I would feel better about place in the unique world of our Shrew if I tried to be more the girl version of Raffi’s Lucentio. For a long time this, and my fantastic dress, led me to a kind of 1950s housewife physicality that was certainly appropriate, but didn’t feel to me to be quite enough to fully integrate me into the world of physical specificity brought to the show by people like Dan, Evan, Alisa, Paul, and Raffi. Part of my struggle with Bianca, too, for the entire year, had been seeking ways in which to make the Daddy’s Girl comedic bits come from a positive, rather than a negative choice. I had no interest in employing any of our society’s stupid cheerleader/spoiled rich girl physical templates, in part because I feel there ought to be something more timeless about Bianca—she says “Old fashions please me best,” after all, and I couldn’t agree more with THAT.

The Disney Princess idea came to me in a flash, and I’m so happy with it; though they’re maybe a bit cloying and absurd when we watch them as adults, they are basically sweet, well-intentioned girls. And taking notes from their physicalities was a fun process. Watch Sleeping Beauty: her arms are always held out a RIDICULOUSLY long way from her sides. And I think it was ultimately effective; when we returned to the Blackfriars, Jim gave me the note, “Wow! You seem so much more comfortable in Bianca’s body.” (Yes, I DO love Jim so much that I have unwittingly memorised every nice thing he’s said to me.) And just think: it only took me nine months of doing the show to make it work. Bianca had the same gestation period as a true human baby! I think Portia sprung out of my forehead, Athena-style, during the Ren Run, which has caused all the more complications thereafter.

I also spoke to two very nice sisters who saw Shrew in the spring—both are aspiring actresses and came up to talk to me while I was at that infamous theatrical hangout, the Stonewall Jackson bar—and they were very particular about loving the little gestures that I used. It was flattering in part because I really used them to please myself and to blend in with the play’s world better, not because I thought anybody except for perhaps the show’s director might notice them, when there is such fantastic physical comedy going on elsewhere on stage. I told the young women that I never thought anyone noticed, but they said they both remarked together that I used the ‘Glinda Foot,’ because apparently Glinda in Wicked cocks out her foot in the same manner. I’ve never seen Wicked, but from what I know of it, I think the Glinda-Bianca comparison may be generally apt, and furthermore, if it’s good enough for Kristin Chenoweth, it’s surely good enough for me.

Meanwhile, back in Duluth, Minnesota: the only other distinctive quality of the college campus that I recall was the fact that both sufficient visitor parking and the dining hall were so difficult to find that it almost seemed they trying to hide their dining hall from enemy detection. Note to enemy spies: THE DINING HALL IS NOT WORTH INFILTRATING. The cereal was the most consistently edible offering.

More Words on More Belatedness:

I do not currently have any internet connection, and so must steal the odd wireless signal from the ether in order to get anything done at all. As the internet is also required, in this age, for any amount of job- and house-seeking, my internet time is hugely pressed. It’s nearly impossible to function in today’s society without the internet, and living without access is more frustrating than this sometime-luddite would like to confess. In any case, I actually have a few posts waiting in my computer to be brought to the internet’s light, and will make an effort to get those up sometime before the presidential elections.

Disclaimer: More on some of the objects in the title than others. In fact, the only thing you can really count on is persiflage.

Jefferson City, Missouri, March 6:

I remember feeling less ill by the time we drove to Missouri, because I also remember being irate. The latter condition was due to the March 4th primaries having taken place on the day previous (when we performed Taming of the Shrew in Monmouth, Illinois) to our drive date. Even at the time I knew I was unreasonably grumpy about their outcome, as I went around kicking inanimate objects; who am I, I thought to myself, to have put up with seven years of Bush Bullshit, to the point where the mere shapes of his face incite a kind of Pavlovian response of fury, to be so cross about the outcome of a primary between two people I basically like? But it was still good for me that we spent those days in two states that voted for Obama. I would be unlikely to vent my rage on anything besides hotel rubbish bins, anyway, but I was probably happier as a result of our location.

We performed Merchant of Venice for an audience of which about half was a sizeable group of home-schooled high school students, arrayed in the finest dress. I know that sounds like the kind of thing that would happen in a Wacky Actor Dream, but they were actually all wearing ball gowns. Except for the boys, who wore the dressed-up-high-school-male equivalent. They were a wonderful audience in every way, which helped assuage our insecurities stemming from the fact that they looked considerably nicer than we did. And I don’t think there are even any apocryphal Equity rules about performing for an audience that looks nicer than you do, anyway, as I’m told there are for performing for an audience smaller in number than the cast. Probably, in Shakespeare’s day, people sitting on the gallant stools were more spectacularly arrayed than the cast, so we were lucky to have this historical and humbling experience. (The English Major can justify ANYTHING! Especially if it means giving scope to more verbiage.)

It was an excellent show (you, dear reader, no doubt think I don’t remember it, but I do); I recall that Josh, Raffi and Chris Johnston all gave outstanding performances. Chris Seiler was also even more excellent than usual, and he sets himself a high bar in that regard. He was trying out a lot of new things in the Courtroom Scene, and he brought me along with him to such a degree that I muffed up the pause in “Tarry a little…there is something else” that we’ve worked approximately 85,000 times in fight calls across the country. This line comes right after Shylock lunges at Antonio with the knife, and the pause is worked in so that a) Bassanio can do his action hero “NOOOO” as he slides in front of Antonio, b) Gratiano and Salerio can apprehend Shylock and relocate him to a more non-Antonio locale on the floor upstage and c) Shylock can vocally express his frustration at being pulled away from the object of his goal 0.7 seconds before he was finally about to achieve it. In this particular performance, however, I was so tied up in the emotion of the moment that I simply yelled, “Tarry a little there is something else!” right on top of items a, b, and c. I am by no means proud that this happened, because whilst I believe it is the purpose of our vocations as actors to BE in the emotional place of our characters, it’s our JOB to make sure the technical moments are clean. (Aforementioned dear reader may, however, be able to level at my affection for the elements of an actor’s work according to my description.) However, I blame Chris Seiler. If he hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t have gotten so riled up.

After the show, we had a talkback, for which there were fewer attendees than people in the cast. (If there’s an Equity rule about that, this is the moment when I confess that it’s really all in the realm of the theoretical as the tour is completely non-union.) Our formally-bedecked home-schooled friends could not stay for the talkback, thus dispossessing us of a significant portion of the audience in one fell Shakespeare-coined swoop. They shook hands with us, however, as we sat down on stage for the talkback, offering us thanks and kind compliments; it felt kind of like being in the receiving line at a wedding, though I have to qualify my simile by noting that I have only ever been in the receiving line at a wedding on a TV show, so maybe it bears no resemblance to that actual experience.

Me in a receiving line in Showtime's Brotherhood

Here is a picture of me in a wedding receiving line in Showtime’s ‘Brotherhood.” I shamelssly stole this picture from my own website.

I spoke to one very kind home-schooled young woman who looked extraordinarily like the lovely girl who played the lead in the recent PBS Northanger Abbey, and I told her so; afterwards, one of the chaperones told me that it was a little unknown kindness that I had a conversation with the girl, since her mother had just died. It broke my heart to realise; I wish I had a greater thing to give her. I imagine this is the sort of thing that happens to actual important people, like our currently-campaigning politicians, all the time—they meet people so briefly, but their stories can truly stick with them. I couldn’t tell you a single question that was asked of us at the following talkback, but I remember that girl so clearly—I don’t even know her name—but I think of her, and hope the best for her. The world: life: it is too broad a thing for the mind to swallow.

In Entertainment News (as if, indeed, a blog about touring is anything else), the motel in which we were staying also owned a movie theatre, and we could get vouchers to go to films for free. The selection was not extensive, but I think we all took advantage of it at some point. Raffi surprised everyone by actually liking I Am Legend, which was not showing the night I opted to go to our home theatre. A group of us, instead, went to a movie theatre a considerable distance away to see 10,000 BC, or whatever it was called, and I rather wonder what possessed us. Well, I know: I was lured by promise of beasts and battles and was instead horrified by extraneous amounts of stupid love story, which was absurd to the point of actual laughter. The movie was only saved from being the worst movie I’ve ever seen by the fact that I saw Van Helsing in college, lured at that time by the promise of relevance to some points of interest to the English Romantics. Let it speak for 10,000 that I am not sure which of the purported enticements for these two movies was the more misguided, and Van Helsing was so awful that I left the theatre vowing to my friends that they simply MUST have meant it as some kind of farce, because no one intentionally makes a movie that terrible. My friends pointed out that I needed to see more movies for bad-movie context, but sweet biscuits, if it wasn’t a farce I think I rather need to see FEWER.

In Food News, Dan and I went to a Chinese Restaurant that we thought was going to be unpleasant and then was actually quite good. We lit upon it because it was the only thing in downtown Jefferson City that we found open after (I think) nine.

For talking about food as often as I do, I make a poor food critic. It’s a good thing I have something else in line a career. ‘Timely Blogger’ surely isn’t one of them, either, but I think that post is even less lucrative than that of ‘Actor.’

Unprecedented Brevity After an Unprecedented Break in Posting

Monmouth, Illinois, March 4:

It would have been appropriate for us to perform Henry V in Monmouth, because Henry, as the Crown Prince of Wales, was known as ‘Harry of Monmouth.’ I think he is also referred to as simply ‘Monmouth’ a couple of times in the Henry IVs. But in a familiar twist of fate, albeit without the element of surprise, we were slated to perform Taming of the Shrew instead. I am proud to say, however, that it could hardly pass without a few Nerdy Shakespearean quips, despite my own flu-induced reticence; someone, as we drove into town (I believe it was Chris Seiler) said over the walkie-talkie, “There’s the river with salmons in it!” (in reference to lines that Fluellen has about Monmouth).

Here are two things I remember about Monmouth, of the Illinois variety:
1. I was sick;
2. It smelled like burned pigs.

The existence of the former of these two memorable facts accounts for the brevity of the list. I was quite delirious on our first day there, and felt a bit queasy for a few days afterwards. Anyone who has read a single post of mine has probably drawn the conclusion that the thing I like best, after Shakespeare, is food. You may not be wrong. Consequently, I almost failed to recognise myself in that I had an utterly negative interest in food for about four days, and ate nothing more than yogurt. I actually had bad dreams in which highly-unappetising-at-the-time foods such as eggs (which I never really love) and salad (which is a normal staple of my diet) would prance around and taunt me. And I still don’t really want to hear about curry, which I had on the night prior to my feverous Merchant in Indianapolis.

The second fact was due to a pig/pork (or pig to pork) processing plant in the town. The smell was a little more intense near our hotel than it was near the theatre, but was fairly pervasive. I was of the opinion that the smell it generated resembled more of a fake-cheese-product smell than that normally associated with any kind of pork or bacon. I assume residents of the town cease to notice it, but we found it pretty nauseating, and not only those of us plagued in their dreams by food.

The theatre space appeared to be a renovated chapel, fully equipped with regular theatre seating and lighting and a balcony, alongside its original stained glass windows and inlaid wood in the ceiling. I find the energies of theatres and of churches to be sympathetic, which I say because I believe theatre is about spiritual truth, not ‘pretend.’ The elements of the church’s architecture made it one of the most beautiful spaces we performed in, and it was also probably the most acoustically live space we saw on tour. Everyone wins! Except for the pigs.

I remember next to nothing about the show (see item 1 on the above list) except for that we had a high school group attending, who sat in the first couple of rows. The majority of these students were girls, and as early as the pre-show Alisa noted that they were laughing at EVERYTHING the boys did. By this point in the tour, we the female troupe members are quite familiar with this phenomenon of girls laughing at boys simply because they are cute. Of course, the boys in the troupe deserve laughter, whether you are using cuteness or comedy as your area of judgment, and I would far prefer that the audience is laughing than that they are not, regardless of their motivation. It just means a different kind of show for the women. Afterwards, one of the men in our troupe said something to the effect of ‘Alisa had an interesting analysis of the audience’—but any woman who has ever performed for high school students knows this is not analysis, but fact.

The other thing I remember about the show is that there was a man sitting in the second row centre who looked like a combination of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, in the best possible way. He was wearing a bow tie. I wanted to be his friend.

We had a Shrew workshop immediately following the show, which of course meant that the people who worked most hard during the show (Ginna, Josh, Scot) had to lead the correspondent workshop. God love them, because the idea of leading a workshop after Merchant sounds exhausting. I remember nothing about the workshop, and you can guess why! If you guessed item 1 on the above list, that is a well-informed, well-precedented guess, but no: I don’t remember anything about it because I was loading out the set and costumes at the time.

A Note on the Month-Long Gap Between Posts, and the Absurdly Outdated Information Now Contained Herein

For those of you who have already pestered me about it, please cease your cajolery. I am well aware of my lapse, but am finding it as hard to keep up with it now that we’re back in performance at the Blackfriars as I did when we were doing A Christmas Carol in December. (You will notice there are few posts for that month.) I had a routine on the road that made me moderately productive, if still belated. As that routine was ‘not having a life,’ my inability to be anything less than verbose was not severely checked by lack of time.  I will try to see if I can both have a life and write, despite my many hypotheses that you can either live life, or think about it, but not both at once.

Indianapolis, Indiana, February 25 – March 2:

The Piercing Eloquence troupe spent a week in Indianapolis, but I did very little exploring of the state’s capital, chiefly because I partly grew up in Indiana, and my father still lives in Bloomington. That’s right: I may originally be from Philadelphia, I may have spent the last seven years of my life in Boston, and I may currently reside in a series of hotel rooms, but this itinerant actor is part-Hoosier.

N.B. For those of you who don’t know, or cannot extrapolate, a ‘Hoosier’ is a person from Indiana. I recall having a conversation with Aaron, our tour manager, back in December, in which he expressed doubt that people from Indiana actually called themselves Hoosiers, and probably called themselves ‘Indianians’ instead. “They certainly called themselves Hoosiers when I lived there,” I said, and the proposition of ‘Indianians’ probably gives you an idea as to why. What the kind people of Indiana never revealed to me is the origin of the word ‘Hoosier.’ I reject the cheap ‘Whoo’s-yer daddy’ derivation. Dave Barry says it is from the sound that pigs make when they sneeze, which is as compelling an explanation as I have found.

Discussion Questions
1. Is the name for people from your state a little awkward? ‘New Yorker’ is fine, as is ‘Californian,’ ‘Floridian,’ ‘Oregonian,’ ‘Virginian’ and others. But Pennsylvanian is not a whole lot better than Indianian. Is that what we call ourselves?! I feel as though I’ve rarely heard it actually applied. Which brings me to our next discussion question:
2. With Massachusettsian under consideration (whch I KNOW I’ve never heard), is ‘Masshole’ actually the state-recognised term?

So I spent more time exploring the hour’s drive between Indianapolis and Bloomington whenever I could, in order to visit my papa. It is quite a disorienting experience to be an itinerant actor and, at the same time, be in a house generally associated with Christmas vacation and the occasional summer, but also just about the best thing in the world. It’s just particularly difficult to go back to hotel rooms afterwards. It was unspeakably wonderful to see my papa, and Pravina, and I also got to visit with my high school friends Devin and Gwyn (I hadn’t seen Gwyn in over two years, because she’d been in China)! My dearest Frave, who is called ‘Melissa’ by most people, also came down from Chicago over the weekend with her husband and his parents, and I got to play with her for most of Saturday. In essence, it was the best week I’ve had on tour!

But, that being said, I’m not quite sure what the Indianapolis ‘touring’ experience was like, since it was more of a ‘home’ experience for me. It may have been similar experience for Evan, who is originally from Indiana; though I lived in Indiana a little longer than he did, he can actually claim to be a Hoosier by birth. Dan, Evan, and Chris Johnston also had wives/fiancées/girlfriends (respectively) visit them in Indy, so I think it was a special venue for a number of people in the troupe.

The theater that we performed in for most of the week was quite nice, and every day I meant to bring my camera to take some pictures, and every day I forgot, like the sharp-minded genius that I am (I remember having my first ‘senior moment’ in, quite literally, pre-school). It was essentially a thrust stage, but on a curved semi-circle rather than a rectangle; the first row was positioned right at the lip of the stage, making it easy to speak directly to audience members. Furthermore, the rows of seats were on a very steep rake, so that it was possible to make connections with audience members seated in the very last row. I imagine that the steep rake also made for clear viewing from the audience’s perspective, regardless of the seat. Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is to compare its format to that of an ancient Greek semi-circular amphitheatre, only, naturally, indoors, as we were not in Islamorada anymore. Toto.

In the attempt to make my Les Bardolatables-sized posts on week-long venues slightly more digestible, I will continue the tradition, as with Canton and Fairmont, of using headings for the separate shows.

90-Minute Taming of the Shrew Vol. I

Apparently, I am at the point in the tour where shows blend together and I can’t remember anything remarkable about them. Such is the case for this 90-Minute Shrew. I have a recollection of it happening, but that’s about all. The fact that the show took place prior to noon and consequently I was not truly awake may have something to do with it.

Merchant of Venice Courtroom Workshop

I became Verbosity XTreme in discussing this workshop, the question-and-answer that followed, and the nature of criticism in our society. Thus, in an unprecedented move, I have created a separate blog post about this workshop, to clean up the post on our week in Indianapolis a bit, which God and yourself can witness, needs cleaning. You may find it here, or you may also scroll down. Don’t let my wordiness scare you away from it, as it is actually a far more interesting post (in my opinion) than the usual endless recital of theatre spaces and eating establishments. However, if you are terrified by wordiness, you have probably already made your cursor run away, screaming in its little pointy manner, to lolcats or some suitable antidote. MANY WORDZ ABOUT SHAKSPER, I HAS DEM.

Henry V, Vol. I

My father, who is coincidentally also Henry the Fifth in our familial line, came to see our Thursday Henry V along with our family friend John. Another John who teaches at the Folklore Department with my father was also in attendance with his wife, though they had no idea that I was in the show; they are simply fans of the American Shakespeare Center, having seen a show at the Blackfriars, and so sought out an opportunity to see the company in their home state! Evan also had about fifteen family members attending. I use ‘about’ as genuine approximation, not as a licence for exaggeration, because I believe there were actually an upwards of a dozen Hoffmann family members in the audience, including many (as Evan reports it) who had never seen him act before.

Happily for Evan’s family and my father, I thought it was a good performance. Evan sounded like he was on fire as I listened from backstage. I really enjoy listening to Henry, in part because it’s still a bit of a novelty since we do it less often, and also because it’s really my favourite Shakespeare play. I love it because it has a little bit of everything in it, so I’m not forced to chose a comedy or tragedy as my Absolute Favourite. Additionally, it holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Shakespeare play to which I was ever exposed. In case I have not narrated this story on this blog before, the very same Henry the Fifth in attendance that evening took me to see the Kenneth Branagh film version when I was seven years old. I loved it so much that I made my parents take me to see it again. Four more times. I also wrote to the movie theatre asking for one of the movie posters when they were finished with it. They granted my request, as I imagine they did not have too many other seven-year-olds clamouring for them. I still own the poster, which is quite battered and torn, and bears childish writing at the bottom which reads, ‘I SAW HENRY V FIVE TIMES.’

This is why I am weird. You have my parents to blame. And/or thank, should you be in the rare predicament of needing a Shakespeare Nerd.

In any case, I had a good show: I continued to be less-ashamed of the Boy’s soliloquy, as I had in Alabama. I was able to capitalise on parts of the amphitheatre-space, scrambling up into the seating, and borrowing someone’s program to hide behind. In the English Lesson scene, Ginna and I got the dress twisted around the wrong way when I was putting it on; it’s only happened once before, but fortunately it HAD happened once before, and so I already had the experience of improvising French for the problem, and could pull out the same sentence. As I have discussed before, I take a secret delight in small obstacles of that sort, because they keep me on my toes. Meanwhile, the person that I used for ‘de ande’ at the end of the scene had a nice ring on, and I said, ‘Ooo!’ The Le Fer scene was one of the most fun ever; everything went well until the final wooing scene, which  I thought was simply not at its best. Ginna, however, was surprised to learn this afterwards, and I admitted that because I felt it hadn’t been going optimally, I decided to change some things up.

After the show, we had to drive straight to Kokomo, Indiana; originally, we were going to be performing in Kokomo, and in her generosity our contact incorporated the high school show we were originally supposed to have there into our contract. So we stayed for about seven hours (again, approximate and not hyperbolic figure) in a hotel in Kokomo in order to be fresh and ready for the following morning’s:

90-Minute Taming of the Shrew, Vol. II

This was a historic performance because Evan thought he got some kind of food poisoning and was nearly incapacitated. He had spent the entire night evacuating his stomach, and was only capable of lying down in utter surrender or sitting with an expression on his face that looked as though someone was treading on his intestines, which may actually be a kind assessment of the pain. Ginna served as the stage manager for the show, bless her heart; Evan roused himself to play the Lord in the Induction, and then the one, the only, World’s Most Omniscient Tour Manager Aaron Hochhalter went on as Biondello. Here is a picture of him in the Biondello costume:

He that has the two fair daughters, is't he you mean?

You can see how excited he is! Biondello has few enough lines that Aaron was able to stow the script in his pocket whenever he went on stage and perform off-book. It was pretty amazing to see him mimic the Biondello Surfer Dude physicality. I stood unabashedly in the wings (and ergo possibly in view of the people seated on stage) and watched whenever I could. Aaron took a modest, just-doing-my-job attitude about the whole endeavour, consequently leaving me, I speculate, to balance the universal energy by finding it really exciting. Because you know this means it’s time for another


As of this performance, we have the following notches on our collective Drama Belt, which much be very large indeed to encompass the entire cast:
– The drama of thinking we might not do a show, but in the end performing as planned;
– The drama of doing a different show than the one we were planning to do;
– The drama of not doing a show;
– The drama of doing one-half of a show;
– The drama of doing a show with the World’s Most Omniscient Tour Manager stepping into a role vacated by a deathly ill actor.

After the show, the kind folks at IU-Kokomo provided us with a sandwich buffet lunch, which we all enjoyed. Except for the man whose stomach was in a vise.

Henry V, Vol. II Part B The Sequel Revenge of Black Boxes and Red Poles

My father came to see Henry again, this time accompanied by Pravina; Frave (‘Melissa’), her husband Peter, and his parents Ken and Laura were also there. We had a larger audience, though we’d had a nice house on Thursday, too. I personally did not have as good of a show, except for the final wooing scene, which I thought was better. My father said he did not notice a difference in quality, only the natural variation that occurs if actors are trying to be honest and responsive, which just goes to show that actors’ perception of their work is probably out of proportion to the visible difference to audience members.

It was a kind of wonky-mouthed show, however, albeit not in a way that audience members could discern. There was one gentleman in the third or fourth row who was following along in the script, so he may have noticed; on the other hand, so many things are consciously cut or vary from edition to edition, that these tiny blunders may have not even seemed to be as such to someone following a full version of the script. A number of people simply slipped out a different word by accident (for example, the ever-excellent Chris Seiler as Fluellen said “his prawls and his prabbles and his indigestions,” instead of “indignations,” which almost made me laugh as the dead body of the Boy and consequently bring new meaning to the term ‘corpsing’); once, I heard from backstage a couple of lines seamlessly dropped from the middle of a speech; I accidentally said ‘nails’ instead of ‘mails’ the time that Ginna/Alice is supposed to correct me (but she, the excellent actor that she is, simply didn’t correct me, and didn’t even bat an eye).

The English Lesson scene ended quite nicely, however. There were a great number of children in the audience, and several seated in the curved front row. The young boy whom I first approached when naming body parts started to ascend to the stage when I took his hand, which was so charming that I was sorry to cut his stage time short with “Oh, mais non, merci!” In the centre of the first row sat the kind professor whom I’d met at the Merchant workshop, and had told me that he and his young daughter would do bits from the scene before she went to bed. As I came around, I saw that he was lifting his daughter up, so I made sure to get to her and pointed to her beautiful sparkly shoes by the time I got to ‘de foote.’ I had promised her father on Tuesday that I would be more than happy to meet her after the show, which I did. She is, by all appearances, younger than I was when I first saw Branagh’s Henry V, which bodes well for the future of Shakespeare Nerds. It’s nice to see that there are always a few children are being messed up in the same manner that I was. If I have in any way helped water the seed of Shakespeare in her young mind, that it might one day bloom into the kind of blind nostalgic adoration that most people of my generation associated with ‘Thundercats,’ I can die in peace. Now, before I outlive Keats!

Also on the plus side, Evan gave a particularly good Crispin’s Day speech. Sometimes it’s really hard not to cry, and I have to remind myself to try to be brave and manly. Even people who don’t love it with blind nostalgic adoration admit to weeping because it’s such a beautiful speech, and I think it’s doubly difficult for me.

Another odd thing about the performance was that the folks at the venue decided they wanted an intermission. We don’t normally have an intermission on the road, though we will when we return for our residency in the Blackfriars, a fact which I am not anticipating with glee. Unless I have to go to the bathroom or change a costume, I hate intermissions. It makes it very easy for the spirit of the play to break, and I cherish remaining within its energy, whether I am on or off the stage. And unless I have to go the bathroom, I don’t like intermissions as an audience member either. Of course they’re necessary: there are concessions to be vended and merchandise to be hawked. But most of the time, I would just rather that the play continue.

Merchant of Venice

I woke up the following morning with the ‘food poisoning’ that Evan had, which is the reason that I phrased it ambiguously as ‘Evan thought he got some kind of food poisoning,’ and also the reason that I was able to discuss the pain in such specific terms. Four of us in the troupe have had a similar affliction by this point, albeit with slight variations in symptoms, which makes me believe that it is probably the flu, and not a rash of food poisoning from evenly spaced dining establishments. My version was also accompanied by fever, chills and dizziness, so I think flu is a safe bet, especially since, as Katherine, I kissed Henry/Evan a couple of times on Thursday night, when his flu was probably incubating.

And so, in this state, I had to do Merchant of Venice. Fortunately, I think my worst day was the Monday following, because when I woke up on that Sunday my first thought was ‘O no, not today!’ and my second thought was a command to my body: ‘Not today, body. Wait about five hours, and you can be as sick as you want.’ Because not going on was not an option, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, there is no one to go on for any of the women, as much as I know Aaron wants to play Portia. Secondly, a whole slew of people I knew were coming to the show: my father, Pravina, Melissa, Peter, Ken, Laura, two of my best friends from high school: Devin and Gwyn, the mother of another of my best friends, Lynn (mentioned in the last post) and her friend, family friends John, Karen, her boyfriend Jim, the entire McDowell family including another old old friend of mine, Michael, and Robert Neal, the man who directed me in my very first Shakespeare play. That is eighteen people. I had to do the show, despite my body.

As I get sick at least a couple of times a year, and I have been doing shows back-to-back-to-back-to-etc. without any breaks since I graduated college, I have amassed a small amount of experience in doing shows whilst sick. Even earlier this year, I had a comparatively tame cold whilst we were in Sheffield, Massachusetts, but I only did Shrew and Henry under its influence. Being able to go backstage is always helpful; I did a performance of Midsummer once in which I almost threw up on Lysander’s face when anointing his eyes, and was only able to hold on until I went backstage. But of course, we don’t go backstage during our production of Merchant. Ha ha!

On the positive side, I would much rather be onstage with a flu than with a sore throat which mangles my voice. There were about four performances of Diary of Anne Frank in which I actually sounded like a frog, and you can’t leave the stage for that one, either. A voice distorted by illness is a real obstacle, because every time I speak I am reminded that I am not well. The key, in my experience, to performing when sick is to think: ‘The character is not sick.’ It is either a testament to my faith in the presence of the character, or, more scientifically, the testament to how faith is capable of affecting the body, that I’ve found this works pretty well. I don’t believe that one can delay illness indefinitely by forcing your mind to reject your body’s messages; that is, I believe that illness IS in the body, not just in the mind. But the body will do a job required of it, so long you allow yourself to crash afterwards.

Consequently, I only felt real waves of nausea pass over me when I was sitting on the benches during other scenes, and only then did I feel considerable chills or the painful sensitivity of skin that accompanies flu. I’ll be honest and say that there were a few moments, sitting on stage, when I was so cold that I thought my blood would congeal if I didn’t move. However, once I stood up to do a scene, I felt my consciousness enveloped by the circumstance of the play, as if anything extraneous had been burned up in my fever. I simply didn’t have the extra energy to waste on anything but doing the show. My awareness may not have been at its best, but I think I had a good show; and my modest, young experience tells me that lack of awareness as to my own performance (coupled, naturally, with vital awareness of the scene and your partners) may yield some of the best performances.

On the other hand, I would not classify it as my very best performance, but in that it was not a mess it was a kind of success. I was also struggling to make sure I kept my volume up, because Aaron told me that my lowest volume is consistently difficult to hear. I confess I’d been taking advantage of what I thought was an acoustically easy space by using my lowest volume in intimate moments, because variety is the spice of acting. Apparently, I misjudged the space. It shames me that I have this problem: it shames me so utterly that I’m not sure why I write about it. I suppose it is because I am committed to honestly reporting the trials of this particular actor, since I cannot speak for any other. But I was able to keep volume up, as Aaron said afterwards that there were no problems.

Many of my castmates did not think it was our best show, however, because we were distracted by a woman with two very young children sitting in the first row. The woman had also sat in the front row with one of the children for the previous evening’s Henry, and you would think she would have learned that it was difficult to control her child during the show. I didn’t notice him too often during Henry, because I didn’t spend the entire show onstage; he stood up and started talking at the beginning of my Boy soliloquy, but I just acknowledged him, his mother made him sit down, and I didn’t think about it again. During Merchant, I found them not to be too distracting when I was doing a scene, because I had to bend all my thought on being a healthy Portia. But when I was sitting on the sides watching the other scenes, I take no compunction to say that they were infuriating. You have to recall, of course, that from the sides of the stage we were effectively watching the action of the other scenes against the backdrop of these squirming children, and so people in the centre of the audience, directly behind them, may not have had the same view. But I’m certain that people on the side could see them, too, because they were doing things like putting their hands and legs ON THE STAGE (which was, as I said before, within hands-and-legs length of the first row), flopping around, and throwing around a water bottle.

I am not faulting their behaviour as children, because both boys had to be less than five years old. Some five-year-olds can watch two hours of Shakespeare in a well-behaved manner, like Scot’s adorable daughter Ella, or the daughter of the professor who came to see Henry V, or my niece Carly, who sat through a Twelfth Night I did in college with great delight when she was only THREE. But not all children can do this, and it is the responsibility of the parent to know whether or not your child can handle it. And then it is the responsibility of the parent NOT TO SIT IN THE FRONT ROW. I’m willing to make allowances: maybe the mother was a student, maybe she had to see these shows, maybe she couldn’t find a babysitter. But for the love of all that’s holy, when you have seen that your child behaves like a four-year-old, being, after all, four years old, and cannot sit quietly for two hours, DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT ROW. Because when you leave to take both children to the bathroom—TWICE—you have to walk in front of everybody in the entire theatre. The woman and the two children returned from the bathroom the second time during Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, so Chris was speaking into the audience whilst the two children dawdled and were dragged down the amphitheatre-style stairs. Of course, as a proud devotee of the American Shakespeare Center aesthetic, I’m a firm believer in acknowledging whatever is going on in the house, but I don’t know quite how you’re supposed to acknowledge that and stay within such a vitally serious moment as that. Chris dealt with it admirably, but I was completely incensed. As you can no doubt tell, since here I am, three weeks later, writing two gargantuan paragraphs about it.

Other things that I recall about the show include two of the suitors that Ginna chose. She chose the perfect man, right in the front row, for the French Lord, M. Le Bon; when she pointed him out, he made a gesture as brushing hair away from both of this temples and gave me a kind of Gilderoy-Lockhart grin. I walked the length of the stage towards him before I responded, “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.” I gave his hair-tossing gesture back to him on the line “He is every man in no man:” I always love it when the audience gives me something very specific to play with. Then, Ginna picked my best friend from High School, Devin, as the German suitor. I know I couldn’t help but smile for an instant, rather than immediately give way to the standard shock-and-indignation that accompanies the proposal of such a drunk. Every time I have had male friends come to a performance of Merchant, Ginna has managed to pick them as one of the suitors, despite the fact that I have never told her to pick any of them, or even that they are attending. I suppose it is because they look like nice chaps, being, after all, nice chaps.

A rather terrifying moment occurred when Raffi, as the Duke, fell as he descended from what we see as presiding over the courtroom, but may be put in more plain terms as sitting on a chair on two tables on a pile of slippery money. I did not see the actual event, as I was picking up Shylock’s yarmulke at the time, but I felt my inattention all the more acutely when I said “I humbly do desire your grace of pardon.” Raffi/Duke was fine by that point, but it didn’t stop me from running over to him like a fool and consequently scrambling up the blocking for the ring business at the end of that scene, which, with all due respect, is some of the most awkward blocking in the show. Or maybe I just always feel like Mr. (Miss) Awkward at the time because of the nature of the scene.

Afterwards, I greeted all eighteen people who had come to the show on my behalf. I began by announcing to them that I probably shouldn’t hug them, lest they get my Martian Death Flu, but ended up hugging everyone anyway. (If any of you got the Martian Death Flu in a timely manner after this hug, please post your blame as a comment.) I was much happier to see everyone than I could muster the strength to express, as my flu tried to reclaim its lost time. My father, hugging me as I felt the energy in my body going into utter collapse, said quietly to me that it was “a triumph.” He meant that it was a triumph to have simply survived through the show, which it was.

The rest of the cast was picked up from the hotel in limousines and taken out to dinner by a gentleman whose company handles some aspect of audience services or public relations for the ASC. It was a lovely time, by all accounts, but I was glad that I was able to dine on Sprite alone and sit slumped in the company of family and friends. I had been looking forward to this week far more than our sojourn in Florida, and I would have traded a wilderness of limousines to stay near a kind of home for a few more days. But as it was, I and my flu had a few more hotel rooms in a few more strip-mall suburbs to visit instead.

Today’s title brought to you by Bardolatry’s Department of Redundancy Department!  This is a companion post to the longer (yes, longer) post on our entire week in Indianapolis.

We performed the Courtroom Scene from Merchant of Venice in an actual courtroom, followed by a discussion led by a panel of professors from different departments in IUPUI. Here is a picture of us trying desperately to work out some of the blocking in the fifteen minutes we had before everyone came in.

Uh...which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?

Pictured (l-r): Scot Carson, Ellen Adair, Evan Hoffmann, Chris Seiler, Chris Johnston. Photo credit goes to Alisa Ledyard, whose feet you see pictured in the bottom of the frame. I am not wearing my barrister wig in this photograph, a fact about which I am slightly grateful. I have never seen myself in it (since I put it on and take it off on stage), and I am apprehensive that I might find it comical. At the very least, I might be reminded of my favourite Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch of all time, in which John Cleese sings, “If I were not a barrister / Something else I’d like to be! / If I were not a barrister, / An engine driver, me! / With a chuffa chuff chuff…” I’d like to see what Shylock would say to THAT.

If you think I look a little apprehensive in this picture, you are right. If you do not think I look a little apprehensive, you are wrong, or perhaps, to give you the benefit of the doubt, apprehension is difficult to discern in the tiny pixels that make up my face. For most of my acting life, which is also most of my life, I have revelled in situations that mix things up and require me to think on my feet; however, in most of my acting life, I have never gone up on lines. However, in the history of performances of this scene, I have gone up and said a different line two distinct times, and once (in one of the dress rehearsals in Staunton) I misinterpreted a silence as a cue, and skipped a few lines of text. You must realize accounts for about 50% of the times I have forgotten a line IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Experience has taught me that I can deal with these situations, but experience has also taught me that I want to avoid the descending elevator it installs within my stomach. The reason that this scene accounts for a significant percentage of lifetime line-flubs, as I have discussed many times, is that I have a whole lot of lines in this scene that are very similar; usually, one line does not easily substitute for another, because there is an unalterable progression of the scene. Consequently, I feel as though I really remember which line is which in this scene with the aid of my placement on stage (for any curious non-actor parties, blocking has a lot to do with ‘how we remember all those lines’). So, to give a long paragraph a thesis sentence, I was afraid that fly-by-the-seat-of-my-barrister-robe blocking might make me mix up one of my ‘Therefores’ or ‘Why thens’ or ‘Tarrys.’

But the scene went off without a hitch, if it lacked the emotional weight of the rest of the play behind it. I was pleased that I was even able to take advantage of some of the differences of the courtroom space with some fly-by-the-seat-of-my-barrister-robe blocking. Professors of English, Law and Religious Studies illuminated different points of the scene afterwards in brief lectures, which were, and I am not just paying them typing service here, fascinating.

Then, the panel opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to ask questions; to our regret, most people asked questions of us, the actors, rather than the professors, when really, we wanted to hear the professors speak some more. A man in a red plaid shirt raised his hand and then rapped out, “I have three questions for Portia.
“1. Why do you disguise yourself and lie to the judge about coming from Bellario? You step into a court of law and the first thing you do is lie.
“2. Why do you tell Shylock that he has a case, and then push him to do something else? Isn’t that a poor bargaining tactic?
“3. Why do you stick that last law upon Shylock, when you’ve already got him walking out of the courtroom?”

I took a deep breath and said, “I could spend all evening answering those questions, but I’ll try to be as brief as I can.” In essence, I answered that:
 1. Though I have a long and complicated backstory for myself about my relationship to Bellario, I had to impersonate a man because women would not have been allowed into the court. Furthermore, I do have an arrangement with him, so I am coming from him in a sense, if not spatially; lastly, I had to say that he sent me because he was the doctor (lawyer) meant to settle the case, so only he would have the authority to hand the case over to me;
2. I try to show Shylock kindness and come in on his side in the hopes that this tactic will encourage him to be merciful. Perhaps, I think, if this man has previously been entreated in anger, he has simply responded in kind. I don’t want to condemn him; I want him to let himself off by letting Antonio off, too. I beg him multiple times, fairly late into the scene, to be merciful. But I enter with a kind of naïve hope bred of my privileged background, and end up getting embroiled in the courtroom’s atmosphere of hate, and get caught up in it myself. There are two levels: the higher level of mercy, and the level of law. If he agrees to ascend to the level of mercy, he too receives mercy; since he demands the law, I stick the law to him. Think ‘blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ (Though, as the Law professor points out, the law condemns Shylock to death but contains within it a provision in which the Duke can grant mercy, which he does. I also ask Antonio “What mercy can you render him?” after the Duke spares his life.)
3. I enter with the knowledge of the law that if an alien (i.e. a Jew) seeks the life of a citizen of Venice, the latter gets one-half of his goods, the other half goes the state, and the Duke determines whether or not the offender lives or dies. This is also why I wait until Shylock is literally about to kill Antonio to condemn him. But the famous bit about only being able to take a pound of flesh, without shedding a drop of blood, is something that (as I figure it) I can’t piece together until I actually see the wording of the bond. So that’s something I come up with in the moment. But the law which appears second in the scene is the inevitable law that I’ve been heading for from the moment that Shylock refuses mercy, and says “I crave the law.” That’s the law he gets.

I hope the above paragraph makes some student writing an English paper on the courtroom scene very happy.

Naturally, my response didn’t come out quite so cleanly, in part because between questions two and three the gentleman in the plaid shirt and one of the professors engaged in at least a literal minute (though it seemed like about five) of back-and-forth Portia-bashing, to the tune of things like ‘You really trick Shylock—you come in preaching mercy, and then you nail him.’ I said, “There was a third question; would you like me to answer it, or would you prefer to discuss it amongst yourselves?” Acknowledging the slight comedy of the situation actually relaxed me slightly, though there may have been an element of strain in my smile.

I spoke to the professor afterwards (quite a kind man), and shared with him my frustration that it seems everyone, from people like Harold Bloom and Judi Dench to anyone who has ever seen, read, or heard rumours about Merchant of Venice, decides to hate on Portia. I am by no means defending the racism and anti-Semitism at the core of the society that formed her; I think it wearies me because aforementioned ‘everyone’ always seems to think they are so CLEVER for villianising (I know I made up that word, but why should Shakespeare have all the fun) Portia, and victimising Shylock. It’s not that they don’t have a point, I’m just tired of everyone thinking their point is so original, when no one is really saying anything to the contrary.

It’s similar to the education I received in American History throughout grade school, in which everyone was busy telling me, from age six to age seventeen, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and spent comparatively little time talking about what he was actually trying to do in terms of human rights. And it’s not unrelated to why I loathe and hate feminist literary criticism, at least in regards to the periods I predominantly studied in college. Why in the world spend an entire essay proving that Percy Shelley had a view of women as different from men, when he was part of a society which viewed women as unequal? I find it lazy, because the argument is pre-fabricated, and also because these kind of perspective attacks always receive pats on the back. The authors of such criticism can become smug, because they know they have an inviolate position. One cannot argue against the fact that, for example, Byron objectified women; not only is it nearly self-evident, but to argue against them is to expose oneself to the risk of being thought to defend sexism, or something ridiculous of the sort. As a woman, I’m spared that particular conundrum, but the phenomenon is widespread.

I think it is a symptom of the greater-than-usual obsession with celebrity-bashing in our society, from people making millions on pictures of Britney Spears wrecking herself at speeds more aptly associated with planes than trains, to historians knocking ‘heroes’ off their pedestals to make sure they get tenure, to the insistence of perfectly intelligent people that Shakespeare was not, in fact, Shakespeare. (You knew I’d bring it back around somehow.) Everyone’s so busy knocking people down that they don’t appear to realise that no one’s building them up anymore, and they’re swinging at the air. And in regards to Shakespeare’s characters, who are no less immune to this phenomenon, I want to say, ‘That’s right, Shakespeare was creating real, complex human beings, with flaws as well as virtues. But that makes them no less worthy of our love than our criticism.’ As a society, we weigh so much more on the side of criticism, because praise puts us in a vulnerable position. I find it to be clothed in the same cowardice as pessimism; it takes bravery to hope, it takes strength to accept ambiguity. Naturally, Shakespeare himself embraces ambiguity quite well. One of my favourite Shakespeare quotes is from All’s Well That Ends Well: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.” Oh man, do I love those ‘problem plays.’ The more contradictory Shakespeare is, the more I love him.

Later, when I was telling my papa and Pravina about the questions asked of me by the man in the plaid shirt, Pravina said, “It’s funny that he attacked you as if you were really Portia.” What is perhaps additionally funny was that I was not sensitive to that as an issue at the time, and I think it is because, flaws and all, I love my characters more than myself.

I was not surprised to learn that the man in the plaid shirt was actually a trial judge. I was surprised to learn, several weeks later, that he had flown in from somewhere in the southwest of the United States for this very event.

On another note, as we took our position in the jury box after the scene to hear the panel’s discussion, I saw someone sitting towards the back of the courtroom who looked extraordinarily like Robert Neal, an actor who was with the Indiana Shakespeare Company when both myself and the ISC were living in Bloomington. (I have continued to live, only elsewhere; the ISC has ceased to live.) I fixed the gentleman with such a persistent stare that I almost swore he noticed it, but I was trying to figure out whether or not it was, in fact, Robert Neal, one of the best Hamlets and best Petruchios I have ever seen. I got excited when he raised his hand to speak in response to a question about how often Merchant is produced, and why it hasn’t been shown in Indianapolis in recent memory—as soon as he spoke, I knew it was him, regardless of the fact that the first words out of his mouth were “Well, I’m an actor…”

As soon as the workshop was over, I bolted to intercept him. I asked him if he remembered me, giving my full name. His face lit up and he confessed that he hadn’t recognised me at all—but then, why should he expect that a girl that he directed in Julius Caesar when she was twelve years old should necessarily have become a professional Shakespearean actor and have come touring back through Indiana? In addition to acting, he teaches part-time at area universities (every actor needs another job), and just happened to be teaching a course at IUPUI this semester. A couple of my compatriots had even led a workshop in his class the previous evening! So, Robert Neal, this verbose blog post is for you. If you hadn’t been part of the team that made me part of the Indiana Shakespeare Junior Company, and directed me in my very first Shakespeare play, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

I played Julius Caesar, by the way. Thus initiating a long tradition of me impersonating men in theatrical situations. Just like Portia.

We Go to a Party!

 Sub-title: Also, it snowed.

Sub-sub-title: Also, we had these Shakespeare plays we did.

Dayton, Ohio, February 21-22:

On the American Shakespeare Center On Tour Weather Map, we can see the vans moving up here while this front of snowy misery moves down from the artic north like the Assyrian coming down like a wolf on the fold and smashes into the poor actors in their frail caravan. Do you see this, Jeff? It’s really a mess in here, where all this green is swirling around. And over here, on the What References to Romantic Poets is Ellen Making TODAY Bulletin, we can see that said Assyrian is from George Gordon, Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” Back to you.

We had avoided much in the way of accumulating snow on tour (and, to a certain extent, in Staunton, with the exception of the snowfall that lead to the Great Snow Seige of the Beverley Houses), including in roughly parallel states that we have travelled to since our stay in Ohio. Thus, an animal bred in captivity on tour would believe that it only really snowed in Ohio, provided it had an understanding of geographical concepts such as states. I found snow to be a major set-back on tour, because neither of my two pairs of shoes are equipped for it; it’s hard to pack snow boots, or other snow attire, into the Teeny Tiny Travel Suitcase. Chris and Alisa, natives of Ohio (as is Ginna), lamented the fact that the group now has an image of Ohio’s winters as being distinctively miserable, which might make people cranky about Ohio. But I am not cranky about Ohio because it was a Kingdom of Ice and Snow. I am cranky because of Ohio’s showing in the primaries. Thankfully, I was several states away by the time those rolled around, and so couldn’t even think about going around the streets saying, “Come ON, people!” On the negative side, Obama was in Dayton THE DAY after we left. O cruel fate.

The image rendered in the opening weather map is fairly accurate, except that snow isn’t green in real life: we hit a snow storm as we were driving up from Alabama, which naturally made for a difficult drive. Before the weather complications, however, we came across one of the most fantastic examples of Highway Irony I have ever witnessed, about sixty miles south of Louisville on I-65. On one side of the highway, a large black billboard proclaimed: HELL IS REAL. Directly opposite, an equally large billboard advertised the ADULT SUPERSTORE sitting directly beneath it. Dan noticed it initially, and since I could not get my camera out in time, he suggested I put it in my blog. So here it is! Immortalised for all time. Provided that the internet goes on for all time, and does not eventually implode from all the unweight of the staggering numbers of unprinted words accumulating daily into an impalpable entity.

The University of Dayton is so pretty, especially when it's not snowing

I did not take this picture of the University of Dayton, as is evidenced by the fact that it is clearly green in this photo, and not submersed in snow. But the campus was so pretty, I wanted to supply a picture. Photo credit goes to this random website. Although I imagine they also did not take the picture themselves.

The University of Dayton’s theater is as lovely as its campus (which is, as is evidenced above, quite lovely): the distinguishing feature of its standard (but very nice) proscenium theater was an orchestra pit that moved up and down the length of the story between the stage and loading dock/dressing rooms. I label this distinguishing because a) it meant we did not have to carry all of our set pieces up the stairs; b) the kind gentleman and tech student moved it up and down by means of a long metal pole inserted in the floor, so that, as he stood grasping the pole as it descended or rose, he looked something like Gandalf (having made reference to Harry Potter a couple of posts ago, my Nerdom is now complete); and c) riding on it was equally as cool, as it reminded me of the scene in Gladiator where Maximus and Commodus ascend into the Coliseum on a platform (okay, maybe my Nerdom is complete now). Naturally, all this truly proves is that I am Easily Amused, which my yearbook mentor in Middle School suggested were the actual words behind my intitials.

Our first night, we performed Taming of the Shrew. My greatest memory of this performance was that it was one of the best Kate/Bianca Bound scenes ever, in my opinion. Much of this had to do with the pre-beat between Ginna and myself, which was so feisty and amusing (to jog my memory in future years, I will call it the Modern Dance/I’m Going to Get Your Nose pre-beat) that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to stop laughing in order to enter. Another benefit was that the knot around my hands slipped a bit within the first few lines of the scene to a position that actually hurt slightly when Kate pulled on it. I wish I could figure out how to do that every time, because I always prefer not acting when possible (i.e. the Heavy Suitcase proposition).

We had a Merchant of Venice the following night, and it was not the best Merchant (nor the worst); sometimes, after a particularly excellent show like the one we had in Huntsville, it feels a little lacklustre for simply being average. For the first half of the show (which is a little lighter for me), I couldn’t shake the feeling that, quite simply, this was not the first time I was speaking these lines, and that it wasn’t the first time my castmates were speaking the lines either. This sensation happens very rarely to me (it happened a little more often during Christmas Carol‘s twelve show weeks), and it always makes me feel poorly. The only truly distinctive thing I recall about the performance was that Ginna’s parents and some of her friends attended.

But what made Dayton truly memorable were the fantastic students that we met. We were treated in a princely manner by the University, who provided for us a vat of trail mix and a fruit assortment of a size generally associated with pictures of cornucopias. But EVEN NICER was getting to meet the theatre and tech students thus conscripted to help us, who were kind enough to perform tasks beneath their abilities, i.e. lugging the cart with snacks, focusing lights, elevating the pit like Gandalf, etc. We usually have someone who helps us with these things at the theatres, but usually it is a singular tech director, not a squadron of students.

Some of these students came to our shows (and sat on stage), but others had shows themselves the two evenings that we were there, but were hanging out in the theatre beforehand. In this manner, I re-met (it’s the best way I can describe it) a woman named Rebecca who went to my High School, though she was a Freshman the year after I graduated! We met only a couple of months before, when we were both part of the Bloomington High School North Alumni Cabaret over the New Year’s break; she organised a comedy sketch for everyone to open the show, and I did a scene from As You Like It with the amazing actress and my oldest friend, Lynn Downey. Rebecca was one of the students in the simultaneous shows at Dayton, but whether or not people in that predicament could see the show was of less importance to us than the fact that we actually got to converse with students from the university, which is far more of a rarity than one might expect.

As I have named these the ‘True Confessions’ of a life on tour, I must continue my commitment to honesty, at the risk of losing all the glamour (ha) that adheres to the title ‘Shakespeare Nerd:’ when I envisioned touring from town to town, I envisioned a lot more parties. Perhaps this misconception was fuelled in the summer by Chris Johnston’s insistence to our handsome representatives at the merchandise table that they were responsible for finding out where ‘the parties’ were. Consequently, I assumed that there were, in fact, parties. After all, Mr. Johnston had been on tour the year before, and must, I reasoned, have some prior knowledge. Now, I am sure that parties do exist on the campuses we visited, I just haven’t heard about any in all of our months of touring. I am open to the possibility that people found out about parties last year, or that a couple people this year have found parties and I have not heard about them, since I make a poor wingman, as I am not, after all, a man.

So you have to understand how Monumental an Event it was that Evan overheard a couple of the theatre students talking about a party and asked if we could crash. As kind souls to whom I shall be eternally grateful, they welcomed Evan’s suggestion, and Evan, Dan, Raffi, Paul, Josh and I went over to the campus house after the show. All of the people at the party were great fun, with witty conversation, good dance moves, and beer games I had never seen before. Theatre students! They just don’t make anything else like ‘em. It was so great to go to a party with such fun people and feel like a normal human being, that I lost all track of time; at one point, Evan came up to me and said, “We probably ought to go soon.” “Why?” I responded. “Because it’s 4:30 in the morning,” he said. Ah.