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Archive for February, 2008

My Personal Additions to the Encyclopedia Baracktannica 

As the title suggests, this is completely off the topic of Shakespeare, the American Shakespeare Center, and the tour. Fortunately, I am always a nerd, and in consequence, this is quite in keeping with the ‘True Confessions of a Shakespeare Nerd‘ promised by the blog’s full title. I have been known, in the past, to indulge in a couple off-topic posts regarding other passions of mine, simply because I don’t have another forum in which to write about it. In this particular case, I am specifically hoping that I can put my additions to the Obamified English Language here for the world, or perhaps the three people who read this blog, to see. And so that, should any of them appear elsewhere, I can say, ‘I thought of it independently!’ It is not likely that the words of this blog will spread like wildfire, so I may not be able to say, ‘I thought of it first!’ But I suppose one can dream. So use them, and go forth.

 The brief backstory (Barackstory?) is as follows: I was watching CNN yesterday morning, as I do far more often than may actually be healthy (oh Anderson Cooper, you sexy man), and heard in passing a story about new words being coined in reference to Mr. Barack Obama, such as ‘Obamazon,’ for ‘a passionate female Obama supporter.’ ‘That’s fantastic!’ thought I, ‘Now I have a name for my amorphous feeling that I would follow Obama even into the ranks of death!’

Now, I thought, it may be that the words were created in a spirit of support, or it may be that they were created to be somewhat pejorative of those who are roused into great fervor by Obama; but it is no new tactic for cynics to fancy that they are raising themselves above those who get excited by making depreciatory remarks about the latter. Nor is it any new tactic for the fervorous to claim these deprecations with pride (i.e. ‘Nerd’), knowing that it is bravery, and not stupidity, that allows us to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of being hopeful and impassioned. So whatever the spirit of its creation: I am an Obamazon, and proud.

I searched the term online, hoping to find its origin. The whole thing apparently started with an article in Slate by Chris Wilson entitled ‘Obamamotopoeia: The English Language, Obamified.’ There is a widget on that page which offers their Obamisms if you continue to click ‘More;’ some of my favourites include Barackstar, Barackupied, Barackryphal, Baractagon (An eight-sided Obama), and Obamage (Respect or reverence paid to Obama). Fantastic!

It was only a matter of time before I would come up with some of my own, almost against my will. Consider the situation in my brain:
1. I love words;
2. I am quite ferverous about Obama;
3. I have no life, as I am on tour, and thus spend undue time contemplating the above two points.

And thus, with nothing but reverence, affection, and the ability to laugh about that which I like most, we have:

Ellen’s Proposed Additions to the Encyclopedia Barracktannica

Obaminology – My proposed replacement for ‘Obamaisms’

Barackmeter – An instrument for measuring the atmospheric pressure of the winds of change.

Obamatar – A male Obamazon.

Obamrade – Fellow Obama supporter.

Baracktacular – Anything whose excellence is reminiscent of Obama, or his message. See also Barackcellence.

Barackcellence – Exceptionally high Obama quality.

Barackumentary – Compiled film of campaign footage.

Barackmobile – The spiffy car that Obama hides in the Barackcave.

Obammunism – The theory by which ‘every child is our problem, every child is our responsibility.’

Barackules – Hero whose ninth labour was to obtain the girdle of the Queen of the Obamazons. (You’ve got to be a real nerd to like this one.)

And my particular favourite:

Baracket’s Red Glare – 1. Fierce but delightful gleam in Obama’s eye when attacking (red) Republicans.
2. Small emendation to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ sung secretly by extreme Obamafans.

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Alternate Title: Death and Rebirth in Islamorada

Islamorada, Florida, February 8-9:

Words cannot express how fantastic, and how surreal, it was to be in the Florida Keys.

And so this concludes this particular blog post.

Ha ha! If I fooled you, you must have never seen the average length of my posts. Perhaps you stumbled onto this blog by accident, seeking information about Islamorada, and not the Shakespearean persiflage of a nerdy actor. You must also somehow have looked past the blog’s actual title. Furthermore, you must additionally be unable, for some reason, to see that there are paragraphs below the one that you are currently reading.

For an example of how fantastic and surreal it was, consider this: as I stood in a t-shirt and skirt on our hotel’s pier, overlooking the oddly placid ripples of the Atlantic, each tipped with moonlight, my Frave told me that the temperature was one degree Fahrenheit in Chicago. Meanwhile, it could not have been much less than eighty at night in Islamorada. People went swimming. At night. O brave new world, that has such temperatures in it!

If this is not a geographical reminder that life is not fair, I don’t know what is. My conversation with Melissa made me wish that I could find a tourist t-shirt reading:

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m in the Florida Keys For My Job While You are Freezing

Of course, said t-shirt would probably have cost about $45. The retribution to be paid (literally) for being in the Florida Keys was the exorbitant price-tag on everything. However, this is merely in accordance with Newton’s little known Eleventh Law, stating that prices increase in direct proportion to the appeal or positive attributes (“coolness”) of any given location.

The ASC drives to Islamorada

The above picture was taken on the drive in to Islamorada. Note the window reflection, above, and the scenic orange traffic barrel.

Our first performance was a 90-Minute Taming of the Shrew at a local high school. The auditorium spanned several postal codes, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the entirety of the house was equally as live as the stage; this meant that we had to project (or ‘resonate,’ as my Linklater training would posit) over the sound of at least five-hundred high school students just to hear ourselves. Nevertheless, we gave a solid show, though I often feel I have little to do with that in the 90-Minute Shrew, and the most distinctive thing I remember about the actual show was how delightful the outdoor cross-around was in the 90 degree sunshine. The student audience stood squarely between ‘rowdy and excited’ and ‘apathetic and lobotomized,’ which seemed lovely—until they all got up to leave as Hortensio and Lucentio gave their final lines, and we were left bowing to the retreating ends of the slower half of our audience. That feels about as bad as it sounds. However, it is merely in accordance with Newton’s little known Eighty-Seventh Law, that high school audiences are often appreciative in inverse proportion to their degree of being spoiled. And here we are talking about people who live in the Florida Keys. (With the exception of the fantastic Holton-Arms Academy, I’d take an inner city school over a suburban prep school any day.)

The true drama at that particular show was the death of a couple of inanimate objects that tour with us, for which this post gets its alternate title. Of these, the far more grievous was Chris Seiler’s bass, which snapped, apparently from the humidity. It was very tragic for the loss of the bass itself, though it also meant that we had to do with either an additional guitar on the bassline or (in places where this was moot) nothing at all. As we came out for the pre-show for the following show that evening, Chris announced to the audience, “Our band is called Bassless.” I suggested in an aside to Alisa that we should keep our original name but simply say that these performances are ‘Fancy Bred: Bassless.’ After all, we are always unplugged, and so can hardly aim for that as a variant to sell more of our non-existent albums. And our holiday variant, ‘Fancy Gingerbred,’ is not much needed outside of A Christmas Carol.

However, the alternate title promises Rebirth as well, and not in the sense that one day all broken instruments will be resurrected and joined with their melodious souls in the life of the world to come, but in a more immediate sense. Because that very evening, when we were setting up for Henry V, Chris, who is Stage Manager for that show, was talking to the very nice man who was one of our contacts at the venue. The man told Chris that he played guitar, and so Chris told him the Tragic Tale of his Snap-Necked Bass, and asked the man if he knew of anyone who could fix it. The man replied that HE was the only person on the island who did guitar repairs, but that he would be happy to do it as swiftly as we needed it! Chris apparently brought the bass its earthly saviour later that evening, and we had it by Sunday when we had to leave.

The few religious comparisons that I made in the previous paragraph are much due to the fact that it felt like miraculous providence that we should happen to find the one person in Islamorada who could help Chris and the bass within less than eight hours of the original horrific discovery. As we were setting up, I kept walking around saying, “It’s amazing. AMAZING,” rather as if I didn’t have any other words in my vocabulary.

The other object that died at the high school show in Islamorada was the more problematic of our two irons. This was, indeed, the iron that set off the terrifying ‘security system’ smoke alarms in Connecticut when Alisa was trying to clean it. It had long been a talisman of woe; it had been cleaned several times, but somehow it kept on accruing more black gunk and stealthily transferring this to our clothing. I spent AT LEAST a half an hour and used up the entirety of our supply of Iron-Off in trying to rid it of the black gunk prior to our high school show, but a few recalcitrant pieces of black sludge clung to the iron’s surface, like barnacles, or like Huckabee to the Republican nomination. In consequence, I decided that the iron finally needed to be replaced.

With a similarly speedy period for rebirth, I purchased a new iron at CVS that afternoon. Her name is Irona. I hope she will serve us well, as I feel somehow personally responsible for her. I gave the old iron to Paul to destroy, as I gathered that he would get even more pleasure out of it than I. At the last moment, Chris Johnston usurped the gradual destruction the iron was receiving at Paul’s hands, swinging it around by its cord and smashing it on the concrete. I tried to document it all with Paul’s camera, and though I did not get the ideal action shot of the iron airborne, lasso-style, in the hands of Mr. Johnston, I hope that someday those pictures will see the light of this blog.


Troublesome Iron R.I.P.
You may be smashed to pieces, but your black sludge remains indelibly imprinted on our clothing
(Picture a detail from ‘The Miracle at Sheffield’)

Our evening shows were at an outdoor amphitheatre, which, to me, took the best advantage of our temperate surroundings. Who wants to be indoors in the Florida Keys? Not me! And not just because the indoors were generally air-conditioned, and thus, in a cruel twist of fate, I was cold.

 The American Shakespeare Center in Islamorada

The amphitheatre. The humans pictured, left to right, are Raffi Barsoumian, Scot Carson, Aaron Hochhalter, Paul Reisman, Alisa Ledyard, and Evan Hoffmann. They may appear nearly indistinguishable, but after nine months of everyone wearing the same clothing, everyone is imminently recognisable from quite a long ways a way. (Anyone who can tell me what ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ sketch this is a reference to, you win an undisclosed prize.) Also pictured is the skeleton of our discovery space.

Sweet heaven, my captions are as long as my posts.

Of course, a disadvantage to the amphitheatre was that the audience was in the natural darkness of the Florida night, and they were also set back quite far from the stage by a large swash of grass. This made them terribly difficult to see and speak to, and somewhat confounds the American Shakespeare Center’s trademark ‘We do it with the lights on’ (I do not believe there were any efforts at revising this to ‘We do it on the grass in the dark’). However, these conditions also meant that we were able to witness the sun dip into the ocean behind the palm trees as we were loading in and setting up!


A view from the amphitheatre

 I love the spirit of performing outdoors, as it reminds me of the dear Publick Theatre in Boston. Unfortunately, along with balmy weather, and sunsets over bodies of water of varying size (Gulf of Mexico vs. the Charles River), there came the difficulty of being heard out of doors. I had so much fun with Henry V, which we performed on our first night at the amphitheatre. I was focusing on a helpful note that Aaron gave me for the Boy’s speech, and delighting in inhabiting Katherine (and the French) fully after my less-than-ideal experience a couple of nights prior. Mostly, however, it was exhilarating because the outdoors make a fantastic setting for a majority of the play. As the Boy, I could run around on the grass ‘backstage’ and kick things, which leant added spirit to all of those scenes. Meanwhile, the expanse of the surrounding night seemed to summon up both the freedom of a wide world and the terror of an encroaching army—yes, I am a nerd, but I am an actor because I have an over-active imagination, or perhaps vice versa.

However, the following day Aaron told me that I needed to be much louder, an act which he followed by a note to the entire company about volume. I should have realised that because I was having such fun, I was probably not focusing enough attention on projecting into the sound-eating monster of the outdoor space. Also, it had been so windy the previous evening that we had to tape the drapes to the pipes, to the other drapes, and to the floor. We did not have to tape them to the floor the second evening, which was fortunate especially since another drawback to the outdoor space was that we had to load in and load out for both shows.

Nevertheless, I projected at the top of my lungs, shall we say, for the second show, Taming of the Shrew. It was, in consequence, not the most fun Shrew for me; though the broader style chafes less at increased volume, it diminished the honesty which always slips in and out of my grasp in this show. Furthermore, the kind of job that I have in Shrew doesn’t have much place for the ‘deep emotional resonance’ style which can be a recompense of increasing volume, as I so verbosely discussed in my Treatise on Volume in Stage Acting.

It seemed that the majority of property on Islamorada was beachfront property, since the island appeared to be wide enough to accommodate only the road and the buildings on either side of it. This meant that our hotel was right on the water! Photographic evidence of this, and the prodigious number of palm trees, follows:




A view from our deck/balcony

Our rooms were suites, with a living room and a full kitchen, opening onto a communal deck. This meant that I didn’t even have to stay indoors to eat the food that I bought for myself at the grocery store! I ate salad, fruit, and hummus (not all at once) to my heart’s content, ruffled by the Florida breeze! People without itinerant lifestyles do not appreciate how fantastic it is to have a refrigerator, stove and microwave, nor do they appreciate the consequent joy of having as much or as little food, precisely when you want it, and the consequent joy of not eating preventatively and feeling fat all of the time. I was so excited at the grocery store, that I purchased things rather as if I were getting the last tub of mixed field greens off of the Titanic. 

Not that this stopped me from going with the larger part of the troupe to an outrageously expensive (for an actor) seafood buffet on our day off and eating myself into a kind of pain that I had not experienced since Christmas. There was less sushi than I hoped, but it was worth it. Other day-off activities included sea kayaking (it was a lot easier than my previous experience off the coast of Wales), a dip in the hotel pool, and that most perfect kind of vacation activity: exactly what you’d most like to do (talk to friends on the telephone, write, read, perform Shakespeare) but in a gorgeous environment.

But seriously, don’t hate me because my job took me to the Florida Keys. The whirligig of time brings round its revenges: we are now in the snow, in Ohio, and in February once more. Look you: Fortune is an excellent moral.


Islamorada R.I.P.
We may have ‘passed on,’ but you are the ‘better place’

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Sarasota, Florida, February 5-6:

Florida appears to me to be God’s geographical reminder that life is not fair. I had never been to Florida in the winter, and, being thus unprepared for the surprise of how warm it actually was, my first thought, as I stepped out of the van, was: “This is not FAIR.” It still seems to me unfathomable that, several days prior, when I was freezing in West Virginia, people in Florida were walking around in sandals and shorts. Furthermore, all seven winters I spent in Boston, with the Holy-Baby-Jesus-Wear-All-Maximum-Layers-of-Warmth wind whipping off the Atlantic and funnelling through the high-rise corridors, there were people in Florida walking around in sandals and shorts! It blows my tiny little mind.

In consequence, I could not shake the feeling that we had travelled in time, rather than in space. I would see signs for events happening in February, and think, ‘Wow, that sign is really old. How is it that they can possibly be so lax as to have signs for February up in June?’ It may seem illogical of me to find time travel more realistic than warm weather in the winter, but consider the following Syllogism of Ellen’s Life:

Cold = Misery
Winter = Cold,
or conversely:
Lack of Misery = Lack of Cold
Lack of Cold = Lack of Winter
and thus:
Lack of Misery = Lack of Winter

The only other time I’ve travelled to a significantly southern place in the middle of winter was when the first time I went to Bangladesh, but it makes a little more emotional sense when it’s halfway around the world, and everything else is different, too. Also, I didn’t have as much life experience with being cold at that point. Anyone who knows me, or anyone who doesn’t know me but has read blog posts such as those on Maine and upstate New York, will know that I spend 85% of my life being cold, and cold is consequently my primary adversary in life. I also spend about 0.023% of my life being actually hot, and so Florida’s trade-off of having really quite sticky summers seems like a perfectly decent price to pay for this lack of misery.

N.B. People who are frequently hot and consequently despise being hot are always telling me that being cold is better than being hot because you can always put more clothes on, whereas you cannot always take more clothes off. They do not understand. I am aware that this is probably true for them, but in the winter, it is physically impossible for me to put on enough clothes to be actually warm. This is not for a lack of trying, because I wear, on average, six or seven layers to go out of doors. That is not a hyperbolic number. I may be a freak, but that doesn’t make my perpetual coldness any less a fact.

Apropos of me being a freak, somewhere around one-half to three-quarters of the cast got sunburns on our first full day in Sarasota, and most have gotten some kind of colour since then. I avoided this, for the most part, by wearing SPF 50, as I do every day of my life. Now I appear even more white, by contrast, than I usually do. As I walked into a CVS in Islamorada (our subsequent stop), the nice woman at the counter said, “Now, I know you’re not from around here because you’re too white.” Thank you, Irish ancestry.

We performed in a large room with a constructed stage and chairs set up in a nice thrust, similar to the set-up we had in Orville and in Canton. The stage, and particularly the stairs attached to it, were a bit rickety; I noticed this most when I was lying on the ground as the dead version of the Boy in Henry V, and the ground shook like mad when Henry and his retinue came in for “I was not angry since I came to France.” It was both impressive and probably the most fun that I’ve had as a dead person, as usually the most exciting thing that happens is that I might get accidentally spit upon by Chris Seiler and his excellent diction.

N.B. Let us add that last sentence to our collection of Only a Life in the Theatre phrases.

We performed Henry V the first night, and Taming of the Shrew the second; both shows had absolutely fantastic and responsive audiences. Demographically, they were an interesting mix of college students and retirees, a logical conclusion of the surrounding population. (It may be a stereotype, but sweet biscuits, if I could retire to Florida, I would. But this is probably not a possibility, unless I end up doing some unforeseen and currently inconceivable thing with my life. I set much store by the saying that old actors don’t retire, they die.) The effect of having the audience less dominated by young people was, it seemed to me, that more people laughed at different kinds of things, especially in Henry. There was one particularly nice man who sat on the stage right side both times, and laughed at everything, including things that I do, and even things I did as Bianca, which shows him to be either brimming with good will or lacking in judgment, or possibly both.

It had been so nice to reach a level of comfort with Henry early in this half of the tour, but unfortunately, I think a few of us felt some of this ease had dissolved over the last fortnight of not doing the show. A highlight of the show for me was the Boy’s soliloquy, which I felt less poorly about than I usually do—probably aided by the fact that the generous audience laughed at all of the jokes.

However, the English Lesson scene, normally a point of comfort for me (as it’s almost identical to the way that Ginna and I did it in the Renaissance Run), was suddenly bizarre. I’ve been asked several times if I find acting in French to be difficult, and I have always responded that no, it doesn’t feel particularly more challenging. (Improvising in French would be more difficult, but fortunately, I’ve only had to do that once, and, come to think of it, it was easier than trying to improvise iambic pentameter.) But, in this performance, as I uttered my first phrase, my sentences suddenly felt like mere sounds. I went through most of the scene praying that my body knew the sounds well enough to continue, because my mind felt disconnected. My body’s memory pulled through, but it was probably my least favourite time I’ve ever done that scene, which is usually a high point for me.

Fortunately, the final wooing scene was especially good, though the talented Mr. Hoffmann, as Henry, has far more to do with that than I do. Ginna does such a beautiful job as Alice, and I have yet to acknowledge the brilliance of her taking the line “I do not know what is ‘baiser’ en Anglish” to the audience, because 99% of the time, a few people shout back, ‘To kiss!’ The first time Ginna did that was our December performance in the Blackfriars, but the fact that people respond no matter where we go demonstrates, in a nutshell, what is truly fantastic about the American Shakespeare Center.

Everyone had a lot of fun with the following evening’s Shrew, not the least of which was the audience; the show ran very long, but when I was on stage, I felt it was more due to people laughing at everything than lack of cue pick-ups. The most distinctive aspect of both of these shows for me personally was a particularly strong and joyful presence of my characters backstage. I can’t quite explain it, but what I remember most clearly was coming off stage after my first Bianca entrance and being SO EXCITED that I just got new jewellery. I can’t say honestly say I’ve ever been very excited about them before, in part because they are stupendously hideous. The gigantic lime-green necklace probably reads a little better from stage, but the Gremio bracelet, which is a sort of quasi-cloisonné double-headed tiger (a great name for a band, by the way), actually wins the Delightfully Ugly competition. I remember having a conversation with Jim in June in which I said that I preferred the slightly more tasteful rehearsal prop necklace and bracelets, but quickly followed it up with the assertion that BIANCA liked whichever ones Jim liked better, thus garnering a laugh from Jim. Today, this was truly a reality. I came backstage and literally jumped up and down and clapped my hands. Josh and Paul laughed at me, and laughed even harder when, having been still in Bianca mode, I knocked over one of the tall silver goblets with my incredibly wide petticoat. Poor Bianca, she’s a graceful girl trapped in a klutzy actor’s body. I clutched the offending petticoat and grinned an apology to the nearest person, conveniently Chris/Baptista. I was having too much fun to stop.

Our hotel was very nice, complete with outdoor pool, hot tub, and complimentary cookies, which were very exciting for some, but would have been more exciting for me had they been complimentary boxes of raisins. Other Sarasota events included a viewing of There Will Be Blood, which Dan and I had been trying to see since Fairmont; I scarcely breathed throughout the entire thing. Super Tuesday also happened everywhere else whilst we were in Sarasota; I scarcely breathed through that, either.

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New Martinsville, West Virginia, February 1-3:

Situated on the Ohio river and consequently nestled to the extreme north of West Virginia’s borders, New Martinsville lays claim to a number of titles in regards to this blog.

One of them is ‘New Martinsville: Town of the Twin Buffets,’ because the non-chain restaurants that I found were a surprisingly good Chinese buffet about two minutes from the hotel and a home-style buffet called Quinet’s, which is apparently a town tradition, and which I visited with Mssrs. Evan Hoffmann and Daniel Kennedy. Because the more that I am on tour, the more I get tired of chain restaurants, I ate myself into pain all three days of our visit. The hotel’s gym, which consisted of a treadmill that stopped working every two to three minutes (which rather made me wonder if it operated via cell phone reception), was consequently not on an inverse relationship with the area food, but I think this correlation only works for campuses.

N.B. For anyone wondering, ‘What is a life on tour really like?’ the above paragraph will probably give you a far more accurate view than anything in the rest of this post, and possibly in this entire blog.

New Martinsville’s other title is ‘Town of One and a Half Merchants’ which is probably a more distinctive title than the former. Some of you may be wondering whether this a rather bad idea for a sitcom, in which Antonio, being gay as a tangerine, adopts a scrappy little orphan boy, who may or may not be a girl in disguise. Some of you may be wondering if this is an effect of the troubled economy, in which the two Merchants you previously owned are now only worth one and a half. Some of you may be wondering when I am going to end this paragraph, because it is perfectly obvious what I mean! You win, though all two and a half of you will have to read on to get the full explanation.

We were set to perform Merchant of Venice for an area high school. We therefore woke an ungodly hour, loaded in first in rain and then down a long hallway, and started the show at around 10 AM. For those of you who may have forgotten, our staging of Merchant involves all eleven of us staying on stage during the entire show, seated on benches around the sides of the stage. So, when the principal was trying to signal to Chris Seiler to come off stage in order to talk with her during scene 2.3, Chris (as he narrates it) tried desperately to convey to her that exiting was not a possibility. But eventually he ceded, and shortly afterwards crept around to each of the benches to tell us that we would be pausing the show after this scene.

This would not have seemed quite so surreal with either of our other shows, in part because there would have been people backstage to receive the message, and in part because the fact that we never go backstage creates a spirit of continuity for the show that jars oddly at interruption. (We discovered this when, in our December performance at the Blackfriars, we had an intermission for the first time.) So, when we stopped after the scene, and everyone sat around in silence for a moment, Ginna, who was sitting next to me on the bench, leaned over and said, “Do you hear that sound? …That’s P.J. screaming.”

The principal came forward and announced that, as many of the students had predicted, they were indeed going to be going home. She announced that students would be dismissed by bus, and read off some of the bus numbers that were ready to depart. The performance would resume, and we would do as much as we could before the rest of the busses arrived.

Through all of her announcement, the sheer absurdity of our situation made me grin irrepressibly. There we all were, sitting around on stage, whilst the principal read off bus numbers so that the students could escape an impending catastrophe that I did not understand—after all, it was just raining, not snowing. I’m not sure why my natural response to this kind of adversity is profound amusement, but it has more to do with realising that worrying will get me nowhere than a lack of concern. Also, I should not, in honesty, underestimate my love of a great story, and perhaps my initial curiosity about the drama of not doing a show has brought this upon our heads.

DRAMA RUNDOWN

For those of you keeping score at home, we have logged one example of each of the following kinds of drama:
– 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.

WEST VIRGINIA HIGH SCHOOL SHOW COMPLETION RUNDOWN

And for those of you keeping tabs on this particular sport, the score is as follows:
– SHOWS COMPLETED: 3
– SHOWS NOT COMPLETED: 2
This means that we are only 3 for 5 with West Virginia High Schools, or perhaps that they are 3 for 5 with us. This is not a shameful score for other sports, but in the theatre, one rather expects to make it to the curtain call. This is not a good track record, West Virginia!

And now, back to the show—in more ways than one. We resumed the performance after the interruption, and made it through another four or five scenes, until the principal somehow communicated to Chris that we needed to stop. (In my mind, because she was always behind me, I see her making signs like a baseball coach, or perhaps communicating via semaphore.) Paul was eternally devastated by the fact that we were cut off right before the Arragon scene, after he had so painstakingly made the costume change, thus prompting him to suggest the following day that we do the Arragon scene first before running through the rest of the show.

We discovered that school had been cancelled due to flooding on many of the area roads, which were becoming increasingly dangerous as more rain fell. But before many of the kids were actually sent home, they were given lunch, and we were also invited to help ourselves to some of the cafeteria food. The kids all gave us rock star treatment as we squeezed into chairs at various tables with the students; I think 90% of the autographs I have signed in my life have been at high schools, where students often mistake us for people who are actually important. These kids were particularly fervent in their adoration, almost as if Shakespeare had played hard-to-get, and was thus more desirable.

One of the finest moments of the day, which was, let’s face it, already pretty distinctive, was when the principal stood in the middle of the dining hall and bellowed something to the effect of “We have guests here with us and you all are acting like a bunch of heathens!” (“You all are acting like a bunch of heathens” is definitely a direct quote.) I found it amusing chiefly because I thought they were actually quite well behaved, for high school students. Dan and I did our part to quietly confound authority during this announcement by poking each other like two children in the back seat of a car. I am not sure if the students with whom we were sitting were more amused or surprised.

The following day, we held a community workshop about Merchant of Venice, which was memorable chiefly because, when we asked for an audience response to part of a scene with Shylock, one of the gentlemen in attendance said that Shylock “was, as we say around here, fixin’ for a five-knuckle introduction.” Most of us agreed that this was the best assessment we had yet heard.

That evening, we performed Merchant at the old Lincoln theatre (est. 1920, yet another thing that happened in the decade in which I was born) in downtown New Martinsville, which was, by report, an old opera house, but reminded me in construction far more of a movie theatre. The reasons for this comparison are as follows: the house had a long shoebox shape, deeply overhung by the balcony; the stage was small, but very high in relation to the house; there was very little space directly backstage, though there were capacious dressing rooms underneath the stage, obviously also est. 1920; and, last, but not least, the acoustics were terrible.

Aaron wisely had us all do a sound-check beforehand, wherein I learned that I needed to feel as though I was screaming at the top of my lungs in order to be heard. I know this is a weakness of mine, stemming from my primary obsession/need for honesty within myself on stage, and my consequent desire to be able to just talk to the people on stage with me. Naturally, this does not mean that I don’t try as hard as I possibly can to be perfectly audible to the person in the last row, but I only hope that I can be honest and be audible to that last person, too. Many actors have articulated this as the challenge of being understood with equal honesty and clarity by the person in the last row and the person in the front row, but I think it goes further than that: one must have equal honesty for the last row and for one’s self. I think this is one of the greatest technical and emotional challenges in stage acting, precisely because it requires a blend of all of one’s technical and emotional skill. For example, I fell in love with Jennifer Garner as Roxane in Cyrano, which I saw from, literally, the second to last row of the top balcony, but my friend who was in the show said (with all due respect) that other friends of his who saw the show from the front rows felt that they could ‘see’ her acting. And God knows, I am a far lesser actress, and I have not yet figured it out.

I think one of the greatest challenges of touring is adapting to different spaces; spatially, I find this a delightful opportunity to be a Theatre Ninja, but vocally, the kind of challenge that takes up space in my brain where I’d rather be thinking only about the scene and what I need from others. For the first few scenes of this performance of Merchant, I felt as if I were speaking unnaturally loudly directly into people’s faces, and this unnaturalness subsequently seemed, from the inside, to infuse everything I did. But after a couple of scenes, the volume became natural, and, furthermore, the acting style fitting to that volume became natural, and I was able to delve deeper into the emotions in the words. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with “You see me Lord Bassanio where I stand;” I felt my body burning throughout the entire speech, which is one way I know I am connected to the deep current of the text. So, if we were performing in that space every evening, I would be used to the kind of honesty necessary in that space, and it would consequently feel natural from the start.

Because the deeper breaths and the increased resonance essentially give emotion fewer places to hide, more things are dredged up: it feels to me like the deep-sea trawling of acting. This fits into a certain style of acting, one that is no less honest, but which is, for lack of a better term, more ‘classical,’ or more ‘Shakespearean.’ I think it has a place in any Shakespeare performance, and if I attend a show, and in an entire performance an actor never goes down to the bottom of their body and pulls their heart out of their throat, when they have been given such poetry with which to do it, I feel a little cheated. But an entire performance of it is exhausting to watch, and then I’m always itching for them to just TALK to each other, for the love of heaven.

For example, the Edward II that many of us in the troupe saw at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. was mostly a whole lot of screaming (except for the man who played Mortimer, who talked occasionally in the second act). They were all very talented actors, but many of their performances verged on using, to my ear, the dread ‘Shakespeare Voice’ (odd especially for Marlowe), and I got the sense from most of the actors that they had been directed to project louder and louder for the new space, past a place that was honest for them. Though I abhor the Voice-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, a deep emotional resonance is a beautiful thing to hear, to see, and to experience, because it shows us something greater; but it is best when used to shape the journey by pointing out the largest emotional moments in the play, or at least, in a scene. An entire play of it is mush.

Throughout my personal journey in Shakespeare performance, which, while modest, actually comprises over one-half of my life, I have always oscillated between a desire for allowing the text to carry out the deepest emotional resonances in the body, and a desire for the text to be as plain, as simple, and as colloquial as possible. Within a year, or within a day, I will head one direction or the next; but in the end, I think the only answer can be that both are necessary, and only by the inclusion of both can the beauties and the virtues of both be seen to best advantage. The reason I, in honesty, dislike spaces in which I always need to use my top volume, is because variation is harder to achieve, not because I cannot be loud and honest, both. Variety is the spice of acting.

And now that my Treatise on Volume in Stage Acting has concluded, I can bring my verbosity round to other subjects, such as our actual performance of Merchant of Venice. Some of the fantastic kids from the previous day’s aborted show came to the evening’s performance, which was lovely. One posted a comment on my About Me page expressing his distress at not being able to see the rest of the show, and someone (probably one of our Merchandise/Development folks) reported that he was in attendance. This renewed my faith in both high school students, and the possibility of people actually coming to see your show when they say they will. (One reality of life, as an actor, is that many more people say they will come see your show than actually do.)

Two things remain distinctive about this performance for me. The first was that Dan, the Emperor of Comedy, was unprecedentedly hysterical as Launcelot Gobbo. His speech just gets better each time, though it was in his later scene with Jessica and Lorenzo in which he makes jokes about preparing to go in to dinner, that I was floored with laughter. After each of his jokes, he tucked his head down and made a funny little grin to himself, and it definitely belongs on the list of Top 25 Funniest Things I Have Ever Seen On Stage, if not in the Top 10. Like everything else on these lists, it does not communicate well. Sometimes I wonder if the things I find funniest are funniest because they are unique, and truly had to be experienced at that time. I always find myself trying to explain the genius (previously discussed on this blog) of Michael Aronov leaping across half of the stage in Mauritius, and the story is always about as funny as this sentence. Part of the beauty of Dan’s grin was that I was about two feet from him, and probably had the best view of anyone in the house, assuredly much better than the people way in the back of the telescope of a theatre space. But suffice it to say, I haemorrhaged laughter at Dan’s Gobbo antics, and had to think about something really depressing, like ‘President Huckabee,’ in order to stop.

The other memorable thing about this performance was that the audience, though I am sure they are all lovely people, laughed at every single one of Gratiano’s racist jabs in the courtroom scene, and then actually laughed when he ripped off Shylock’s yarmulke and spit on it. People always laugh at the first few digs, because it breaks the tension of the scene, but never, to my memory, have people laughed at him spitting on the yarmulke. I thought I was going to lose it.

Of course, I had already been pushed to my extreme, with the volume pulling up emotion, and furthermore, watching Chris/Shylock respond to the laughter that had greeted all of Gratiano’s previous anti-Semitic attacks. Chris, as Shylock, has this beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking way of taking in the laughter, as if it were, indeed, a courtroom of hundreds of people set against him. It always moves me, but the larger the laughter, the more terrified Shylock appears, and the greater my pity for him becomes. During this performance, when I have to stop him with “Tarry Jew, / The law hath yet another hold on you,” I am not proud to say that a tear had slipped from my eye; it was awkward because, of course, I had nowhere to hide, and knew that Shylock would see it, but I thought it better not to wipe it away, making it obvious to the entire courtroom and the audience.

So, when they laughed at Gratiano spitting on the yarmulke, it took everything I had not to start crying. It’s hard to watch actors delving into a cruelty dictated by the text, and it’s painful to get caught up in the emotion of the courtroom and deliver the heartless justice that was requested, because they are reminders of the places in all human beings where compassion disappears—but it is a sharper reminder when a whole roomful of people, under no compulsion from a playwright or a storyline, laugh at such misfortunes. But I did not weep, and, oddly enough, I felt that the rest of the scene, in which I try to get Bassanio’s ring, was the best it’s ever been—as if I had to make it extra light just in order to pull myself out of my horror and assume the role of Learned Doctor. I think this is a discovery that might help me with some of the changes I’m trying my best to implement.

West Virginia constituted a tough couple of weeks for me, and for many of us, and for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with our hosts and the kind reception we invariably receive. We were all excited to be heading into Florida’s warmer weather, and, God willing, cell phone reception!

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Buckhannon, West Virginia, January 29: 

Luckily, we had another performance of Merchant of Venice in Buckhannon. The theater was beautiful; it reminded me a little of the theater in which I did Romeo and Juliet in college, only with a larger stage, a smaller house, and more humane acoustics. So the similarities were basically age, and a balcony that curved all the way around the house from one side of the stage to the other, supported by columns that created side galleries below. (For those of you seeking another visual cue, both Paul and Scot employed different film references to say it reminded them of a 1950s courthouse.) Audience members were forbidden from sitting in the balcony because it can no longer support large amounts of weight. Whilst some part of me acknowledges this as a drawback, the other part of me finds it really exciting, though whether from my Romantic / Gothic love of old and crumbling buildings, or some residual spirit of Gladys from Tennessee Williams’ These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, I am not sure.

The audience was kind and attentive, if not the best of all time, but I confess I didn’t care about audience response nearly as much as having another crack at working on the changes. I knew, even prior to our previous performance of it, that the first show would be the hardest to get through, and that subsequent shows would slowly become easier—precisely because the difficulty stems from an unfamiliarity with certain aspects of a world whose every other feature has a long and often complicated history. I am pleased to say that I think this performance worked; I did an adequate job, and many of my castmates had truly fantastic shows.

As a matter of fact, so many people gave wonderful performances that I am sure I cannot do justice to recording them here. Raffi, as Morocco, had just about his best casket scene of all time, and executed his beat changes so quickly with “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves/As much as he deserves!/Pause there, Morocco” that, although I escaped actually laughing, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. (Lewis said to me, after seeing the show last October, “You were great, my dear, but the best part of the show was when the Moroccan prince said ‘This casket threatens!’” I have to agree with him.) Paul followed this up with an equally brilliant Arragon, really laying into one of the people on stage with the “barbarous multitudes” and then doing a swift change-up to “Why then, to thee, thou silver TREASURE house,” saying the word ‘treasure’ in a higher pitch. You will just have to trust me that it was honestly one of the funnier things I have ever heard and that I nearly lost it, because prose cannot render it in its full glory.

Paul also reached some new places with Lorenzo, getting visibly frustrated and spontaneously punching the floor at the end of “The man that hath no music in himself” speech. Alisa had an especially good balcony scene, I thought, and Scot made me tear up when he said, “He seeks my life” in the scene with Solanio and the jailer. Josh has been working in some pauses after “Will you stead me? Will you pleasure me?” in the first scene with Shylock, which are really hysterical. Chris, as Shylock, seemed to reason out his argument better than ever in the courtroom scene, and I almost felt at times as if he knew what I was doing, both of which made my job in the scene more difficult in a positive way. When I told him afterwards what an amazing show I thought he had, he said, “Yeah, I saw everyone else trying new things, so I thought I’d do it, too.” And it was so true: everyone, including the people I haven’t mentioned here, gave fresh performances which were full of discovery and life.

Meanwhile, other comparisons with our previous West Virginia stay, Fairmont, run as follows:
Dining Hall: Better in Buckhannon
Gym: Worse in Buckhannon (thus corroborating the supposition made in Fairmont about an inverse relationship between the quality of the dining hall and the quality of the gym, a better gym being required to work off the effects of poor health choices at the dining hall)
Cell Phone Reception: Still roaming, but more likely to cut a call off every twenty minutes than every twenty seconds
Hotel: Decidedly more quaint

 On our day off, Dan, Josh and Scot went skiing and snowboarding. I opted for the group outing to a local mall, it being more suitable to my intense hatred of cold, and that part of my personality which people in the nineteenth century would dub ‘a delicate constitution,’ and which my mom calls me being a ‘weenie.’

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Raffi Barsoumian as Lucentio, Ellen Adair as Bianca, Sticker as Itself

The above poster is from our week-long engagement at Fairmont, and is my favourite version of the many posters strewn about the campus. You know you’ve hit the big time when people put frowny stickers on your forehead. It’s even better than the drawn-on moustache or glasses, which only require a pen. I got a whole sticker!

This editorial comment was made prior to our arrival (or at least, prior to our first show, which is when I caught sight of it), and I think the ubiquity of the poster may have been what garnered the review. About halfway through the week, the poster’s prevalence made me suddenly wonder if anyone recognised either Raffi or myself, as we shuffled around campus. My supposition is that no one did. O fame, you fickle mistress: one day, everybody’s putting stickers on your forehead, the next day, you can’t get arrested.

Suffice it to say, this particular poster was rather the highlight of my week.

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Today, Bardolatry is sponsoring an opinion poll regarding the title of this post. Is it:
a.  A  play on ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral,’ unfortunately more apt than anything involving Andie MacDowell should be
b.  The beginning of a Paul Reisman joke (“Four shrews and a merchant walk into a bar…eh?”)
c.  A bad title and should be called ‘Piercing Eloquence Episode XXIV: Revenge of the 90-Minute Shrew’
d.  A mere excuse for Ellen to generate an opinion poll when she has been watching too much CNN, and worrying about the futility of her feeling that she would follow Barack Obama even into the ranks of death
As I’m not up to writing the code for an actual poll complete with radio buttons, I ask all three of you who read this blog to please post your vote as a comment.

Fairmont, West Virginia, January 20-28:

To quote my best-beloved Portia, I must be plain with you: I was not particularly enthused by the schedule for our week-long stay in Fairmont even before our vans had set wheel across the West Virginia border. I may not have been alone, because the schedule listed 85 million (hyperbole translator: 15) workshops that week, and some people (because of the kinds of workshops requested) had as many as seven or eight (actual figure). However, I knew I would have no more than two or three, and I always enjoy workshops, myself. No, my enthusiasm failed to reach a fever pitch because we were scheduled to do four 90-minute Taming of the Shrews. Granted, the weekend promised a full-length Shrew and a performance of Merchant of Venice (for those of you doing the math at home and wishing to vote e. Ellen can’t count, because that’s clearly five Shrews, you’ll just have to read more before you judge).

I have long discussed my dislike of the 90-Minute Shrew, which, in a continued spirit of candour, stems from a completely selfish motivation. I like being an actor because I like being in plays, and consequently I dislike the 90-Minute Shrew because the Bianca sub-plot is considerably cut. It’s like a bad dream of the sort where you’re back in high school only it isn’t really your high school, but instead I’m Bianca, but I’m not REALLY Bianca. And the now-you-say-it-now-you-don’t aspect of the cuts is probably bothersome for most of us, simply because it makes for an irregular Shrewniverse (oh no she didn’t).

However, let me be clear that one of these reasons is NOT because it is typically our high school show. Yes, they are generally at inhuman hours in the morning (a redundant phrase, in my case), but despite this, I have done five previous high school tours, precisely because it is God’s work in the vocation of theatre. I believe that high school audiences are actually the most important ones that we play for, and it is precisely because I want to try to communicate to high school students that it saddens me that Bianca must try to communicate with half her usual amount of lines.

Though I still was not excited about four days of getting up in the aforementioned ungodly morning hours in order to do Shrew Lite, I was prepared to change my mind when we were treated to a very nice dinner reception held for us by the college upon our arrival. (See my previous post, and the rest of this blog, for the intimate link between food and actors.) Indeed, the university administrators and professors who hosted the party were extremely friendly and engaging, and I ended up having great conversations with two professors of 18th and 19th century literature. I speculate that they were both kind enough to strike up conversation with me because I actually appear to be somewhat 18th and 19th century myself, a speculation that I brazenly make because they both told me so within roughly five minutes of introduction.

N.B. It is moments like these that make me feel like my claims of being from the nineteenth century are substantiated, and not merely a fever of my own brain. Brent Bussey, the at-home tour manager for the ASC, told me that Erik Curren, the very kind Director of Marketing, saw me during the pre-show for Christmas Carol and said, “She really looks like she walked out of a Jane Austen novel!” Thank you, Mr. Curren! Please tell that to theatres casting Pride and Prejudice nationwide! Or at least to those people who greet my assertions with that familiar look of amused incredulity. As Dave Barry would say, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. As a matter of fact, the more this tour teaches me about how I am wired as a human being, the more I feel that wiring comes from fairly early in the Industrial Revolution, and is thoroughly unlike the motherboards with which most people operate.

But I WOULD be making something up if I did not confess that the consecutive early-morning, truncated, high school shows did not begin to cast gloom over a substantial portion of the cast, though not because they were consecutive, early-morning, or truncated. Well, getting up before the weak winter sun may have had something to do with it; but I took pains to point out that I value high school shows precisely to emphasize that my judgment of the following conditions has no negative bias. Consider, if you will, the following run-down:

The Week of the 90-Minute Shrew

SHOW ONE: Five minutes before we were about to go on for pre-show, the fire alarm went off. One or two schools were already seated in the auditorium, so actors and audience alike put on coats and went down four flights of stairs to wait for the alarm to shut off. In the snow. After a few minutes, the alarms silenced, we trooped back up four flights of stairs, took off our jackets, and began the pre-show. Three-quarters of the way through “Love Comes to Town,” the fire alarm went off again. We put on our coats, went down four flights of stairs, and waited, once more, for the all-clear. Did I mention it was snowing? We went back up four flights of stairs, took off our coats, and then the alarm went off again. This time we were met by building personnel, who told us to stay in place should another alarm go off, because often times it’s triggered by sawdust in the shop. As one would assume that sawdust was a fairly common occurrence in the shop, one might therefore expect we could have been notified earlier; one might even hope that such a potentially-frequent problem might have cause for a permanent remedy. But by this time, the kids’ attention was completely scattered, the show was running late, and the last school had yet to arrive.

SHOW TWO: I cannot recall whether all of the schools arrived at the theatre late, or if it was merely the overwhelming majority. The effect of the substantial delay in the entrance of our audience, however, was that we did almost none of the pre-show and started, I think, fifteen minutes late.

SHOW THREE: Apparently the universe wanted to make up for our lack of pre-show the previous day, without actually allowing us to start a show within a quarter of an hour of the intended curtain. Over half of the audience had arrived by our second song, but as we finished all the Shrew pre-show songs and the last school had yet to arrive, our stage management and music directing powers (Evan and the Chrises) decided that we should play “Peace, Love and Understanding.” It ended; the school had still not arrived. So we played “London Calling.” And then “Losing my Religion.” And then “Fortunate Son.” Alisa suggested we do the Christmas Carol Mega-Mix, and though the absurdity factor was attractive to me, I cannot say it was my favourite thing about Christmas Carol. But the school finally arrived, the question was put to rest, and the show commenced. Twenty minutes late.

Now, I understand that teenagers are one of God’s most difficult substances to transport, but I have never known school shows to be so late, especially not three shows in a row. If something were such a statistical regularity (like, for instance, the existence of sawdust in the shop), one would THINK that the schools might take preventative measures, and leave a little earlier.

Furthermore, we might have been a little more cheerful about the delays if the kids had seemed excited to be there, or if they had seemed conscious. Let me stress again, I have seen a fair number of high school audiences, probably somewhere around two hundred, and I have never in my life seen ones quite as comatose as these. And let the record show that when we had feisty audiences, I said I preferred them to sleeping ones. What I’d like to add, now, is that I prefer audiences who are blatantly slumped over and sleeping to those who are awake and appear lobotomized. Because I was practically narcoleptic in high school, I understand; it had a lot more to do with being stationary and with getting up at 6 AM than it had to do with being bored. Consequently, even sleeping high school students don’t depress me the way that ones who stare back at me as if I were a television showing test patterns do. If you’re asleep, there is a logical explanation for why you don’t laugh at “What, with my tongue in your tail?” aided by the visual image of a Petruchio actually poised beneath a Katherine who is bending over. But if you are awake, there is no excuse.

Of course, my castmates and I refuse to ‘give up,’ ever, on a high school audience, in the hope that there are students who might be enjoying the show—but it was a hope, only. I couldn’t hear much of anyone enjoying themselves, and they didn’t look as though they recognized that we were speaking English.

All of this culminated in SHOW FOUR, which was cancelled due to a two-hour snow delay for all area schools. Naturally, we did not find this out until we had arrived and begun setting up things for the show, though the Ever-Astute Alisa had already ascertained that all area schools were on a two-hour delay and that we were unlikely to have a true conclusion to such the fantastic Week of the 90-Minute Shrew. And I finally experienced the drama of NOT doing a show, having had my curiosity piqued by stories about Georgetown, and having notched up the drama of doing a DIFFERENT show than planned the previous week. The answer is: it was not very dramatic, though perhaps the fact that it was 8 AM dulled my sense of drama.

We Are Crankypants

We were also, by that point, becoming cranky for various reasons that had nothing to do with shows, or the lack thereof. The dining hall buttered every vegetable that it saw within an inch of its life, and it never met a piece of meat that it didn’t fry (unless it was a hamburger). On the plus side, the campus gym was matched in excellence only by the gym in Canton, which was probably a necessity for the student body (no pun intended, really) to combat what was coming out of the dining hall. But the main issues were those of communications; some people couldn’t get internet at the hotel, the entire area was a ‘roaming’ area for my cell phone, and I got very little cell phone reception, of any sort, at the hotel. I got just enough to occasionally place a call, hear it ring, and sometimes talk for about fifteen seconds before the reception cut out—and that was if I did not move a muscle and breathed very shallowly. These are the kinds of things that one can easily shrug off for a day or two, but make everyone a crankypants during a week-long stay.

Shrew IV 

But our audience for our Taming of the Shrew on Saturday was fantastic, and included Dan’s lovely wife Alex, Scot’s equally-lovely wife Kate and daughter Ella, and a three-year-old boy with a fauxhawk who sat in the front row and laughed through the whole thing. I had so much fun during the entire show, as I always do after released from the seeming chains of the 90-Minute Shrew; my delight was not even substantially dampened by the two little flubs I made, both related to scenes or part of scenes cut during the 90-minute version. I quite simply forgot that I was supposed to give Raffi the ring before the Music/Latin Lesson scene for the delightful new business that we had only done once before at our Taming of the Shrew SURPRISE! the week before, in part because we rehearsed the bit beforehand with his own ring. Then I inserted an involuntary pause in the part of the See How Beastly She Doth Court Him scene that is cut in the 90-minute version, because I was (honestly) too busy thinking about how cute Lucentio was, and only realised I had a line just as Raffi tried to save me. He gets so many points for putting up with me.

I have to say that my three favourite parts of this show were all things that the audience could not hear to appreciate. Chris Johnston/Hortensio whispered to me during the Wedding Scene, “You wanna see my clef and two notes? My notes are the size of cantelope…!” And as we were backstage waiting to go on for the final scene, and Paul was doing some Paulesque antics with his Vincentio cane, Raffi whispered to me, “Sorry about my father,” at the identical moment that I whispered to him, “Your father’s a little weird sometimes.” My personal favourite was during the final scene, when Evan/Biondello comes around and pours us air out of a bottle into our wine glasses. During one of the week’s shows, I had said to Raffi/Lucentio, “This stuff goes straight to my head!” and in a similarly flirtatious Bianca spirit, I whispered to him, “I want to get SMASHED!” Raffi, God bless him, perfectly in character, said with great hesitation, “…Okay…” Let me say, it was beautiful to feel as if I could actually see Lucentio learning a bit more about his new wife, since normally I am prancing around with a whacker noodle or off-stage during these realizations.

Naturally, I don’t think of this as an inconsistency with Bianca’s character, since during the conversations that Ginna and I have as Kate and Bianca after we go off-stage because we think Petruchio is not coming for the wedding, we have often discussed going off to drink all of the wedding champagne as consolation. As a matter of fact, during this particular performance, Ginna mentioned what a great idea for a play it would be to show the scene with Kate and Bianca getting drunk on the wedding champagne and commiserating. I suggested that you could also have the parlour scene at the end of the play with Kate, Bianca, and the Widow, with interruptions as Grumio tries to get them to return to their husbands. The scene in which Kate initially ties Bianca up might also be amusing, though perhaps I think so simply because our backstage version usually is. I think it should probably be in prose; you could call it Katherine and Bianca Are Wed. What would be tough about this play would be the temptation (which some might view as ‘need’) to ‘say’ something with it, when I think the most interesting thing would be to have these women be human beings, rather than put some other spin on it. Perhaps I say this because I would bet five dollars (I’m an actor; that’s a lot) that almost anyone besides myself would be tempted to take the ‘Bianca is the real shrew’ tactic. Everyone I meet seems to espouse this view, no doubt because they think they are being So Original, whereas they are instead completely in line with every production I have ever seen, and 98% of the people to whom I speak. It wears me out.

The Merchant of Shame

It was fortunate that the Shrew was so much fun, because the following day’s Merchant was, in deep apology to the citizens of Fairmont, West Virginia, my least favourite Merchant performance of all time. Mostly, I was struggling with the alterations I was supposed to make in the show, which may have seemed minor from, say, a directorial point of view, but had a major impact on my internal journey. And walking around on stage without a clear sense of my journey felt kind of like walking around without a head: it was awful.

I was, in all honesty, happy with the beautiful show that we had by November, but am also, in all honesty, happy to be making these changes, since I see the strengths in both. But regardless of my intellectual opinion, it is one of the most difficult things I have done in my professional life. I said early in this contract that I would walk across a bed of hot coals on my knees for Jim Warren, and I absolutely stand by that, which is why I’m striving as best I can to knee my way over these hot coals. It’s unlike making changes during the rehearsal process because during rehearsal an emotional course hasn’t already made its way into the body. And for a role like Portia, where the work is (for me) more emotional than technical, it feels more like trying to un-know something, rather than merely making a change. I fear that this makes me an inferior actor, to have difficulty in turning on a dime, but the difficulty comes from the fact that I have to BELIEVE everything that I do: otherwise, I feel as if it is not worth doing.

Admittedly, the show may have been fine (though no one would mistake it for great), and I may have felt more like a bombed landscape than I seemed. Much of my dismay may have come from the stress of knowing that, as Jim said, I “drive the show,” and so am responsible for driving the changes. The fact that we hadn’t touched the show in an entire month didn’t help, either. I momentarily went up on a line in the first scene, and covered for it with only middling success; that moment when one’s brain draws a blank is just about the worst feeling in the world, and because I never in my life went up on anything before this contract, it additionally makes me feel like some kind of sham of my former, responsible self. In my defense, I went over all my lines three times that week, once the day before, and once that morning; also, I saved someone else who will remain nameless when he completely forgot a line; and Paul, as Aragon, said “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” rather than “shall get as much as he deserves,” when choosing the silver casket. But although Aragon said he chose the right casket, he still opened the silver one, and thus apparently lost because he was unable to distinguish the caskets; I bet my father’s will wanted to weed out those kinds of people, too.

The final blow to this performance was my awareness that I probably wasn’t speaking loudly enough, because the acoustics in the theatre were awful. The nature of the kinds of scenes in Shrew, the fact that I have about 15% of the lines in Shrew that I do in Merchant, and the fact that I’m wearing a corset in Merchant that constricts my breathing capacity by about 50%, all compound to make volume much harder to keep up in the latter show. I also know that one of my main weaknesses as an actor (I remember writing this on a questionnaire that ASC sent us prior to our arrival) is my tendency to let volume slip when I’m thinking really hard about anything else, such as, say, trying to change my character arc five months into the run of a show, or making sure I remember all 600 of my lines when we haven’t spoken it aloud together in a month. Never before have I felt that, were I a samurai, I would be honour-bound to kill myself for a performance, but this was the closest I’ve come.

I Am a Nerd

The best part of my week was Friday evening, when one of the professors, Deborah, whom I met at our lovely introductory dinner, invited me to her house to watch some Jane Austen movies, apropos of one of our conversations. Another of her fellow-English-professors, Maggy, came over, too, and we had a grand time talking, eating brie and bread, roasted chicken and potatoes, salad and strawberries, playing with their dogs, and watching, and occasionally mocking, a 1979 version of Pride and Prejudice.

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

That’s right. Some things never change. Like me writing Shakespeare Shrugged for every entry, for example.

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