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Archive for January, 2008

Warrentown, Virginia, January 16:

We kicked off the second half of our tour with three day trips within a couple hours’ drive of Staunton. All three performances were slated to be Henry V, which is statistically dissimilar to the general bookings for the three shows; in the fall, Taming of the Shrew seemed to account for roughly 45-50% of our shows, Merchant of Venice for 35-40% and Henry V for 10-20%. (Those numbers may not quite add up, but straining all of my mathematic faculties upon the problem, I have come to the conclusion that some numbers within those ranges probably do.) In preparation for our Henry trifecta, we did an Italian run-through (an extreme speed-through with blocking) of the play earlier in the week, yielding the verbal gems, ‘He that shall see this day, and live old age / Will yearly on the vigil fist his neighbors’ and ‘Here, uncle Exeter, fill this glove with clowns.’ In short, we were prepared!

As our vans were pulling into the driveway at the theatre in Warrentown, Josh said, “That sign says, ‘Tonight: Taming of the Shrew.’”

There were two Pinteresque beats of silence in the car.

Then came the crackle of the walkie-talkie, and Evan’s voice, from the other van, asked, “Did anybody see that sign?”

(For full appreciation of this dialogue, recall that Josh plays Petruchio, and Evan plays Henry.)

“Well, Ellen, here’s that drama you wanted at Georgetown,” said Ginna.

A well-placed phone call ascertained that we were, in fact, expected to do Taming of the Shrew. Subsequent emotions were as follows:

DESPAIR that we had not packed all of the instruments needed for Shrew; followed by INCREDIBLE IMPROVISATION by rockstars Chris and Chris;

RELIEF that we had packed costumes for all three shows, despite the best efforts of some of the troupe members to dissuade Aaron, the World’s Most Omniscient Tour Manager, who was bent on this course of action; followed by SPECULATION about how in the world we would’ve done Shrew with only the Henry costumes;

HAIR ANXIETY from Ginna that she had not washed her hair or brought the necessary accoutrements to achieve her Kate Hair; and, HAIR RESIGNATION from me, as I had packed all of my hair away flat to my head as I have to do for Henry, and wouldn’t be able to change it to Bianca hair without a shower and some gel. (As I have stated previously, my hair is the master in our relationship.) Alisa, Ginna and I also shared a moment about the fact that we were all three sporting the kind of undergarments we wear for Henry, and not for Shrew. I am not certain if any of the boys had this same problem.

DENIAL, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, and finally ACCEPTANCE of the death of that evening’s Henry; or perhaps merely ACCEPTANCE, followed several weeks later by ATTEMPTS TO INCORPORATE INTO THIS BLOG WHAT I LEARNED IN PSYCHOLOGY 101 IN COLLEGE.

Paul very much wanted to take a picture of a drooping Evan next to the sign announcing Taming of the Shrew, followed by a picture of Paul and Josh popping up from behind the sign ‘like muppets’ (those were his very words). But as Paul did not take the picture, and since I am the verbal co-Historian to Paul’s pictorial Historian, I must be responsible to record the idea of the picture here. Thus finally putting an answer to how many words a theoretical but untaken picture is worth: approximately 42.

Instead, when we were running “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for music call, Evan sang:

You can’t always do the play you want
No, you can’t always do the play you want
I said, you can’t always do the play you want
But if you try sometimes
You might do Shrew
Oh yeah, always doin’ Shrew
And sometimes Merchant

I died from laughing, and am only here because the custodians of the afterlife sent me back, that I might finish my earthly business of recording this event.

It was not, perhaps, the best Shrew ever, but it was notable to me because it was the first time that we tried out a new piece of business in the Latin/Music Lesson scene, in which Lucentio presents Bianca with a ring. Raffi thought of it some time ago, because he is a continually inventive actor, whom, consequently, I could not admire more; however, we were unable to figure out what I should do with the ring, since I should neither put it on at that point in the story, nor do I have any pockets. (The front of my dress is also a little too loose to use it for storage. Believe me: I tried it, and the ring got lost in my voluminous petticoat.) Anyway, we talked about it with Jim and realised that I could simply give the ring back to him, not as a refusal, but because Licio is watching. So, though we had not expected to try it out that evening, we did! Though it ended up affecting me a little differently in the moment than it did when we had practiced, I hope it stays, because it charges up the rest of the scene, and, for me, the rest of the play.

In the end, our ability to do a different show than the one for which we had been mentally preparing amounted to a kind of triumph. Josh pointed out that it makes us more like touring companies of old, who would have performed whatever the lord of the house requested (“Can you play the Murder of Gonzago?”). And, he said, it was nice to know that if someone said, ‘We will give you $10,000 to do Henry the Fifth right now,’ we would be tired, but we would be able to do it. Naturally, we couldn’t do one hundred different plays, as they might have done in Shakespeare’s day (“Can you play the Murder of Gonzago?” “Uh, no, my lord. How about the Taming of the Shrew?” “O, vengeance!”), and so our Shakespeare On Demand capabilities are somewhat limited. But something in this may explain why, for months, I have been having a recurring dream in which we are suddenly supposed to do Romeo and Juliet, which is a difficult but not thoroughly ludicrous proposition for my brain to make, since I have played Juliet, in some capacity, thrice. Perhaps the most disturbing thing that this dream says about my brain is that I generally end up just dreaming, in extraordinary clarity, about whole chunks of Romeo and Juliet text.

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Setting new records for belatedness (which I almost want to dub ‘belatedry’ in order to, though verbal similarity, create a theme for this blog), I will chronicle a few things that I remember about the last couple of shows of the first leg of the tour, which was over two months ago. Though I recently posted about the Georgetown show, what I wrote about that show has been waiting around in a state of near-completion in my computer since early December, failing to see the light of the internet because a) we had twelve shows of Christmas Carol per week; b) we no longer have internet at the houses; and c) I spent most of my New Year’s vacation out of the country. In consequence, we have a list:

What I Remember About our Pre-Thanksgiving Shows

Fredericksburg, Virginia, November 17:
– On the way to the venue, one of our vans was permitted to pass, whilst the second passenger van and the cargo van were forced to wait as no less than twenty people riding horses merged onto the road. Because the school in which we were performing was also apparently hosting some kind of horse-related event, the latter two-thirds of our vans were stuck behind the horses the entire rest of the way to our joint destination. I was in the first van, and consequently lack the second-and-third-van perspective that would render this account as excellent as it should be.
– The space was about as different from Georgetown as it could possibly be, in that it was cavernous. I clearly remember one lone person sitting all the way in the back, and to the side, for one of the shows, and wondering what could possibly possess someone to decide to watch a show from a different postal code when the tickets were general admission.
– During the afternoon Merchant of Venice, Chris Seiler was so heartbreaking during the courtroom scene that, in simply responding, I felt my own performance achieve a higher level—like being able to turn my amp to eleven. Afterwards, Chris revealed that he was unhappy with his performance, which makes him about as crazy as he is talented.
– During our evening performance of Henry V, Ginna, Alisa and I danced across the back of the stage during the pre-show song “Fortunate Son.” I am not sure if the boys playing the song noticed or not, but the audience certainly did, because they laughed considerably. I could add some revisionary history to this event (enough time has passed, after all), and claim that we danced across the stage because we thought it would be a nice reassurance to the audience that there are, in fact, women in the show, since none of us appear in Henry’s pre-show. However, it was the culmination of about a month of us dancing backstage to the Henry songs. Ginna began the tradition when we were in Sheffield, Massachusetts, doing a little skipping dance to “Fortunate Son.” The very location of this historic occasion can be viewed in the picture The Miracle at Sheffield.

Bethesda, Maryland, November 19:
– We had a full-length performance of Taming of the Shrew at an all-girls’ high school. These girls were AMAZING. They laughed at all the dirty jokes in the text, even the ones college students and adults (two different categories) never get.
– However, because it was an all-girls high school, I had absolutely no one in the audience to flirt with as Bianca. And NO, this is not mere vanity; I actually have two directed moments in which I’m supposed to flirt with people on certain lines (you can read about a great instance of this in my post on Blacksburg). I was not personally pleased by the dreamy business I came up with in order to cover those moments, and consequently learned how important it is to my journey that I get to flirt with audience members. What does it mean, after all, if I say “I never yet beheld that special face / That I could fancy more than any other” when the only boys in our Shrew universe are the ones on stage? And though I have absolutely nothing against the idea of women fancying women, I don’t think Shakespeare intended for Bianca to swing that way. The women are all cross-dressers, but I think men have the handle on the repressed homosexuality market in Shakespeare. I imagine the absence of actresses made the idea of girl-on-girl action less exciting to Elizabethan playwrights, since it would be, like any other conceivable pairing, still two men.

N.B. Not merely a life in the theatre, but only a life with the American Shakespeare Center, can give occasion to such phrases as, ‘I learned how important it is to my journey that I get to flirt with audience members.’ God bless it.

– My mother and my aunt Jan came to this performance, and were brave enough to sit on stage. Hurrah! My mom actually cried SO much from laughing SO hard that she went through two pieces of Kleenex. I’ve raised her well. As my mother and my aunt are not only women but family members, their presence didn’t help Bianca’s All-Female Audience Conundrum much.

N.B. Also, only a life with the American Shakespeare Center would force one to even conceive of a type of “Would You Rather…” question about whether or not you would flirt with a family member in the audience if they were the only gender-appropriate person available.

Conclusion: By applying the scientific method to the question of the relationship between bardolatry and belatedry, we find that the more distant in time a topic, the more likely the author is to bring her semi-topical ramblings to somewhat bizarre suppositions. As a final piece of evidence, I cite this very conclusion, written by something who has not written anything resembling a lab report since roughly the year 2000.

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Washington, D.C., November 15:

Over generations of touring troupes at the American Shakespeare Center, Georgetown has acquired notoriety for being one of the least welcoming venues on the tour. And by ‘least welcoming’ I do not mean that they have set walls with broken glass around their perimeters, nor do they spit upon our actor gabardines as we pass; obviously, they’re still paying for us to come. Rather, they seem for the most part indifferent to our coming, thus leading to the occasional problems on past tours of not having set up a room for us to perform in, and a more frequent problem of not having dressing rooms. They have beautiful theatre spaces in the college (so I hear), but they often put our performance in a side room, and one year they stuck the troupe in a kind of warehouse room, with stuff strewn all about, and no seats set up. In protest, the actors that year simply left the haphazard boxes and other objects where they lay, set up chairs randomly around the space, and performed a kind of guerrilla theatre Twelfth Night.

As something like this is an actual breach of contract—if a theatre or a college is going to have us perform, they are required to give us a certain amount of clean playing space, with a certain amount of seats—and as there were a number of other issues which I do not think it most fit to write here, Aaron had been given clearance, should there be any breach of contract in our provisions this year, to turn right around and not do the show. (The ASC has continued to go, despite previous problems, because the actual professor who brings us in is a nice man, and furthermore a friend to the ASC.)  I confess, I harboured a little excitement about the possibility of us not doing the show. Not because I didn’t want to do the show; on the contrary, there’s perhaps nothing else on earth I’d rather be doing than Merchant of Venice. But rather, I simply thought it would be a dramatic turn of events: I am quite used to the drama of doing a show, but I am unacquainted with the drama of NOT doing a show.

We were held in suspense for some time even once we arrived on campus. Aaron told us we could stay in the vans whilst he wandered around looking for our contact or the performance space. Let it be a little indicative of Georgetown’s indifference that it took him at least 30 minutes to locate whichever of these things an intrepid Tour Manager needs to locate in order for us to begin load-in. The path for load-in itself was fairly lengthy, bending through an outdoor courtyard, and when, as we stepped out of the vans, it began to rain, the night seemed likely to become Dark and Stormy.

But we had a tidy room waiting for us, with chairs set up on all four sides, and our contact helped us rearrange them into our traditional thrust staging. The seats nevertheless numbered no more than 75, which makes it the smallest capacity we’ve played for by a sizeable margin. It was a blessing that we were performing Merchant, because the only sets of doors were set in the same wall, which does not provide much in the way of dynamics exits and entrances. Fortunately, we’re all on stage for the duration of the show! Problem solved. Naturally, we’re all theatre ninjas, and I’m sure we could’ve made even Henry work in the space. Granted, it would have required some major re-adaptations, because one of our two set elements (the red poles) would not have fit in the low ceiling of the room. Thus the battle between the red poles and the black boxes, famously chronicled in the True History of King Henry the Fifth, would have been seen as a full black-box domination.

As we were waiting in a room across the hallway for pre-show to begin (there were no mirrors and the doors locked behind us if we closed them, but it beats changing in the hallway!), Chris Johnston came in from the foyer with a bouquet of flowers and handed them to me. I was about as surprised as I would have been had I thought Chris himself to be the spontaneous originator of the flowers, and perhaps moreso, because I at least knew that Chris was going to be at the show. But I was not expecting anyone to come to the show, much less send me flowers.

The card attached had only my name and a quote from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” I immediately had suspicions about who might be sweet enough, stealthy enough, and Wordsworth-enthusiast enough to come to the play out of the blue, but I wasn’t sure. For one thing, none of the applicable people, as far as I knew, lived in Washington D.C. Secondly, I admit I’ve been a bit of a Romantic Poet floozy—not, alas, in the same manner as Claire Clairmont, but insofar as I have shared my love for Romantic poets with so many friends that the inclusion of a Wordsworth quote does not narrow the possibilities down as much as one might suppose.

But when I went into the performance room for the pre-show speech, and saw my friend Aaron Devine sitting in the audience, I grinned irrepressibly. I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 2005, chiefly because shortly thereafter he travelled around Central and South America for about a year and a half, and had only returned to the U.S. this past summer. As far as I knew, he was living in Minnesota—which he is, but he was making a tour of places on the east coast where he used to live, including good ole Boston and Washington D.C.! It was a true delight to see him, all the more so because it was a complete and utter surprise.

And so, children, the moral of the story is: never wish for the drama of NOT doing a show, because you never know if that’s when a friend that you haven’t seen in two years might drop in unexpectedly and bring you flowers.

I suppose the moral could also be: if you are so desperately in need of variation in life that you would even contemplate not-doing your favourite thing in the world, the universe may send you a far more pleasant, and thoroughly surprising, variation.

I think the first one might be more of a hard-and-fast rule than the second.

Fortunately for my friend Aaron, who had travelled so far, with such sweet scheming, I think we had a good show. Evan’s lovely mother was also in the audience, as were some of Raffi’s friends. The audience also sported a couple of people who were so heartily responsive that I assumed they were actors from a past tour (they were not), and a little girl who kept on standing on her chair to gain a better vantage-point and conferring with her father on points of the play. I loved that the intimacy that we generally share with the people on-stage we were able to share with the entire audience, because we were in this room about the size of many stages on which we’ve performed. I love Black Box Shakespeare, as an actor and as an audience member, because it allows for a greater merging of the audience’s experience and the actors’ experience: each is immersed in the other. Naturally, this is the heart of Elizabethan theatre, and, I think, what companies like the American Shakespeare Center aim to achieve. But, for example, when I saw Coriolanus from the third balcony in the Globe in London, I did not feel immersed in a thing, and consequently I went down and stood in the pit. And as much as I, on tour, strive to reach the last person sitting in the last row in some of the cavernous theatres we’ve performed in, it always feels more like striving than it does simply letting them in.

So we spent the show exploring the gift of the small space, making our performances smaller and subtler in the confidence that the back row was only three rows away. In Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, I think Fred Kimball (though I’m not certain and don’t want to falsely attribute) talks about how wonderful Shakespeare on film can be, because the actor can speak no louder than he needs to allow the potency of the words to affect him. Of course, though this was a concept that moved me, it would be deadly on stage, and I find the idea of doing Shakespeare on film—without an audience—an odd and somewhat barren prospect. However, when the audience is so near that consciousness of the self is equal to consciousness of the audience, we became able to speak simply to ourselves and at the same time be speaking to them, too.

The evening was not free, however, from the Hijinks of Irregular Repertory, as we hadn’t done Merchant in a couple of weeks. As I have mentioned before, I say a number of quite similar things in the courtroom scene; one line is “Why this bond is forfeit” and the VERY NEXT LINE is “Why then thus it is.” During this performance, I said “Why then thus it is” instead of “Why this bond is forfeit,” and immediately froze, because the words that my body knew to follow “Why then thus it is” were not the lines about the bond. Consequently, I made something up. I’m fairly certain I said, “A pound of flesh is here awarded to Shylock—a pound of flesh to be by him cut off nearest the merchant’s heart,” because, thank God, the latter phrase is written on the bond and I knew it was part of the line, and was subsequently able to get back on track. My impression of how I felt whilst saying that, however, was, “Ah…um….Shylock wins!” It couldn’t have been so bad, though, because my friend Aaron did not notice, and Alisa said she only noticed because normally I call him ‘the Jew’ in that line and not ‘Shylock.’ In point of fact, I do call him ‘Shylock’ in the line immediately previous, but it was comforting to know that, when forced to improvise, I clearly think of him as ‘Shylock,’ and not ‘the Jew.’

But all in all, it was a success, and may go down in Touring Troupe history as one of the more positive Georgetown experiences—it was certainly a great experience for me. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and told me that it was the most believable she had ever seen the love story between Bassanio and Portia, and that she liked my performance better than Judi Dench’s. I find this absolutely impossible to believe, as Judi Dench is, as a matter of fact, either superhuman or semi-divine, but even as a lie it is flattering to be compared to an actress whom I worship. It was like the time when someone asked me for my autograph after a performance of Arms and the Man, saying, “Now that I have Paula Plum’s autograph, I want yours, too.” Both times I almost died. In a Keatsian, ‘no yet still steadfast, still unchangeable’ let-me-die-now-while-it’s-good way. Thank you, Georgetown, for giving us a beautiful performance space.

 A NOTE FROM THE PRODUCERS: We apologise to anyone frightened by the rampant alliteration in the title. For anyone frightened by references to Romantic poets, we apologise for paragraphs 6 and 14 and, let’s face it, Ellen’s entire existence. Thank you.

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