Archive for July, 2007

Rejected Title: Who is Ellen Playing, Anyway?

Reason for Rejection of Rejected Title: Now that we are working on Shakespearean text for nine hours a day, we have honed our abilities to find dirty double meanings in everything.

For those of you who don’t know, or have forgotten, the parts I’m granted in each of our plays, I thought I’d dash off a quick post in answer. The fact that it can be quick is attractive to me in terms of the prospect of actually finishing a post, and also, perhaps, the prospect of you reading it.

The Taming of the Shrew: Bianca; Joseph (Servant); and other unnamed servant

The Merchant of Venice: Portia

Henry V: Princess Katherine; the Boy

Now, for all of you who responded to this list with, “O, Bianca! What a great part!” (and you were no less than a dozen different people, so don’t feel particularly guilty), let me point out the following fact to you:

Number of lines Bianca has: 71

Number of lines Portia has: 588

And for a little bit more perspective–

Number of lines the Boy in Henry V has: 72

This is NOT to say that Bianca is not a great part, nor to infer that I equate greatness with number of lines–it’s only to say that I’m very excited that we’re starting our rehearsals of Merchant!


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Displaying my usual level of celebration of our independence from England,  I wrote the following with my Fourth of July sparkler:

If you cannot quite read it, it’s a piece of the famous first line of Henry V: “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest of invention.” As we are all responsible for knowing all of the choruses in Henry V, the third play in our repertory, they have oft been foremost in our minds (cf. “O, I’d like a little touch of Harry in the night!”). The fact that the utensil here is, in fact, fire, helped. 

It is brought to you by these additional sources: Mr. Paul Reisman and his camera, which has a ‘firework’ setting with a really long shutter speed, enabling me to write this out in a couple of seconds, and Mr. Evan Hoffmann and his Piercing Eloquence blog, from which I shamelessly stole it.

 This will probably not be the first time that I steal things from Evan’s blog, as all of us, including myself, can count on it to be much better stocked with news than this paltry thing. But that means that you can count on it for actual information, should you want it.

 I am well pleased that my celebration of this holiday afforded an opportunity for my Shakespeare Nerdiness, as I was forced to abandon my usual Fourth of July tradition. Normally, I wear black, but a lack of planning and the limitations on the amount of clothes we could bring meant I didn’t have full mourning attire.

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I arrived in Staunton, Virginia, on Sunday the 17th. I immediately placed myself in the debt of Jay McClure, the wonderful Associate Artistic Director, who picked me up at the train station.

 Facts about Staunton:

  • It has about 25,000 people;
  • It is impossible to really get around without a car;
  • There are a lot of trees, grass and pollen.

Facts about me, with regards to Staunton:

  • This is the smallest city I have yet lived in;
  • I could not drive a car, even if I owned one;
  • I am considering joining the circus as Allergy Girl. See the unceasing spout of her eyes! See her sneeze thirty consecutive times!


  • I feel like an absurd and perhaps vaguely unlikable City Girl, and await the obligatory scene in which I will become doused in mud, sometime after which I become slightly more easy-going.

This is NOT to say that I don’t like Staunton, because we’re right in the heart of the quite lovely downtown, and I find the city architecturally charming and the surrounding countryside beautiful, if full of allergens. Plus, they do have a Chinese restaurant, thus allaying the fears roused by the absence of Asian food mentioned in our Actor’s Handbook.

 But most importantly, Staunton is the home of the American Shakespeare Center, and the few experiences of the past weeks have made me feel as though I would gladly walk on my knees over a bed of hot coals or even, dare I say it, walk through an allergen-rich field of the Shenandoah Valley, to do these people service. The Artistic Director of the company, who is also directing our production of Taming of the Shrew, has pointed out that we are still, perhaps, in the honeymoon phases of this tour; I recognise that this may be the case, but it’s now been a luxurious honeymoon of a couple of weeks, and rehearsal still feels as much like lounging about in a hot tub sipping champagne as I can imagine rehearsal feeling like. But with fewer hot tubs and champagne, and more people leaping about and Elizabethan language. That’s my kind of honeymoon!

The reason this company is so much fun centers on their performance ethos: they are committed to original staging practices for Shakespeare’s plays, seeking to do, by my own definition, the plays themselves, not productions of the plays. The true spirit of the plays is much dependant upon the environment in which they were performed, and for which they were written. Many of these same original staging practices are at work at Shakespeare & Company, too (where I trained for a couple of summers, and which provides the basis for my own Ethos o’ Shakespeare), which is why I was so sympathetically attracted to this company to begin with.

 If Shakespeare’s actors and theatres had it, so do we. If they didn’t, we don’t either. (For the most part.) Elements of the Original Staging Practices include:

  • Universal Lighting. Or, as they say here, “We do it with the lights on.” The stage and the audience are lit in equal measure, and in the case of the ASC’s Blackfriars Theatre, from the same light source. This enables the actors to talk directly to audience members, and even to use them in a scene, as members of a court, an army, a confidant, an ally, an example, or the recipient of foolery. This appears the same to me as the importance of the Actor-Audience Relationship as stressed at Shakespeare & Company. Rather than constructing a pretence in which we all pretend that we are not in one big room together, the ASC encourages, to the greatest degree, the participation of the audience as part of the play. The result (from what I’ve seen of their resident shows) is that people laugh, clap and cheer as if they were being paid to do so.
  • The Primacy of Text. The ASC also calls this “Length,” by which they mean “We will not keep you here for three and a half hours.” Their plays generally run about two hours, brought to you in part by the Flying Scissors of cuts, but chiefly through maintaining continuous action on continuous text. If the actors are rarely employing pauses in their speeches and dialogue, and if the show is rarely inserting concept pieces like Friar Laurence’s Dream Ballet About His Fiancee Killed in the Cross-Fire of a Montague-Capulet Brawl (you laugh now, but I’ve actually seen this), Shakespeare plays rarely need to be so long as to cause posterior discomfort. This relates to Shakespeare & Company’s belief in acting on, and not around, the text.
  • No sets. This helps our friend “Length,” as no time is added in the changing from the court to the forest. Those pesky trees! Of course, in the beautiful Blackfriars, the theatre itself is a set, much as it is at the Globe in London. They also seat audience members right on the stage, along the sides, both on the road and at the Blackfriars, which appears to me to give actors a much more interesting and dynamic reference point of the type often supplied by set pieces. Stools or blocks are brought on stage for those spoiled characters who really have to sit down, or have a table. For this reason, in similar previous productions, friends of mine have referred to this as the Four Block Method of performing Shakespeare.
  • Doubling. We have twelve people in our touring troupe, and most resident casts have about the same number, so actors often play more than one part. Many people in our production of Henry V play about five parts, but, for example, Henry only plays Henry. It is estimated that there were roughly 12-16 actors in a Renaissance acting troupe.
  • Music. In Shakespeare’s day, there were probably musicians in addition to the acting company, but here, the actors play the instruments and sing the songs themselves, both during intermissions and a half-hour pre-show.  These songs are generally contemporary songs, not music from the Renaissance; the idea is for our contemporary audience to enjoy the entire evening in the same way Shakespeare’s audience’s would have enjoyed what they saw, not to specifically recreate what that evening would have been. By the same token:
  • Costumes. These were generally lavish in Shakespeare’s day, but not historically accurate. The costumes are generally lively to provide the colour and spice that we sometimes associate with set; sometimes the ASC has period or period-appropriate costuming, and sometimes it’s contemporary.

 Unoriginal Practices include:

  • Women. They cast actual women in the female roles instead of young boys. Thank God! Or I’d be out of a job.

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