Archive for August, 2008

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

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

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

Virginia Beach, Virginia, March 21-22:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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