Archive for the ‘The Way of the American Shakespeare Center’ Category

Oh Boy!

Renaissance Boy: The above picture of the Boy was taken by Mr. Paul Reisman backstage during the Renaissance Run of Henry V.

This week, our serialised blog continues on the topic of rehearsal tools used by the ASC. In addition to paraphrasing, we’re also responsible for knowing all of our lines prior to the start of rehearsal. Naturally, this generally facilitates our ability to put up three Shakespeare plays in twelve weeks, but specifically it’s needed because we hit the ground running/are thrown into the deep end/are tossed into a vat of stock cliches with a Renaissance Run.

 The Renaissance Run is so-named because it’s based upon the conjectured process for putting up a play in Shakespeare’s own time.  I am not an absolute expert on this topic, so please blame me and not the ASC if I’ve pieced together any of these facts incorrectly. Because Elizabethan-Jacobean acting troupes would put on as many as 100 different plays in a year, working a new play into the repertoire was probably a speedy affair. Moreover, there were no directors, though I suppose it’s possible that the theatre’s owners or the playwright, if part of the company, may have been consulted to contribute their opinions. Of course, a playwright like Shakespeare is a director, even from the grave, because there is so much direction embedded in the text, both in terms of action (such as grabbing hold of someone, or kneeling) and in terms of emotional journey.

In our Renaissance Runs (shortened to ‘Ren Runs’ by that same human tendency to abbreviate common phrases that has brought Boston’s entire transporation system to be known by a single letter), the troupe stages the play in one and a half days of rehearsal without any kind of director.  Each rehearsal process begins with a full day of Ren Run Prep, and then in the afternoon of the second day we perform the play for the director, the company staff, and any other folk (such as the actors in the current Resident Troupe) who are kind enough to attend. Obviously, it’s important that we be off-book, so as to be able to do the entire play on the second day of rehearsal! Of course, if we do forget a line, we may ask for it by calling ‘prithee.’ But under the correction of bragging may it be spoken, I’m happy that I never needed to do that during a Ren Run!

My odds were improved by the fact that we didn’t actually have a Ren Run for Shrew, as we were joined a week late by the wonderful and talented Mr. Raffi Barsoumian, and we would have lacked a Lucentio without him. During the Ren Run of Merchant, we experienced a power outage just when Bassanio was about to go on the Casket Game-Show (‘You may pick this washer & dryer set, or the wife that’s behind door number three’), which was somewhat of an issue in our basement rehearsal hall. My immediate reaction as Portia was, I think, a sophisticated and Elizabethan ‘woo-hoo’ to find myself in the dark with Bassanio, quickly followed by general confusion. Somebody made a joke about ‘We do it with the lights off’ (see Universal Lighting), whilst some of our friends in the Resident Troupe urged us to go on, as it is, after all, very Shakespearean to ‘hear’ rather than ‘see’ a play. But when we recommenced by the light of a few people’s Shakespearean mobile phones the voice of our director called out ‘This isn’t doing me any good if I can’t see it!’ As the general consensus was that we would not be able to Continue Living in a state of Ren Run Interruptus, we moved everything up to the upper lobby, which had the advantage of windows, and some dim daylight. Personally, the sense of adversity overcome—that nor hail nor snow nor power outages could stop the Shakespeare–was especially satisfying.

Personally, I LOVE the experience of the Renaissance Run. It requires the actor to make a choice swiftly and decisively, and within this requirement I found absolute freedom.  It is thoroughly liberating to worry about nothing except for my personal connection to the text, and to know that my response to this spontaneously constructed world, whatever it may be, is correct by virtue of its honesty. The experience seems to me to be the quintessence of acting: I must listen sharply, and honestly, but I have no other responsibility. This is not to say that the benefit of a director is a hindrance, for the final shows are no doubt more excellent than our ramshackle telling of the story, but it brings to light the naked play, and the bare heart of our profession in it. I think perhaps I sometimes lose sight of this simplicity. And without doubt, the activity of preparing for and performing in Renaissance Runs is one of pure joy: it feels more like playing than anything I have done since I actually was a young child. It feels to me that giddy, that unfettered, that fresh.

The mixed blessing of starting a rehearsal process with a Ren Run is that it acquaints the actor intimately with their preferred interpretation of a text, the closest connection to a character. It has often proved a useful reference point, because ‘what I did in the Ren Run’ is easier to remember, when asked to summon it up, than ‘what I thought about this before we started rehearsal.’ But once the choices have been made, parting from them can be painful. We get to do everything absolutely the way we would like, down to costuming ourselves (see Boy, above), and I confess I’ve found myself missing things I got to do in the Ren Run. For a simple example, our fantastic director for Henry, Giles Block, told us in advance that we ought to learn all of the Choruses, because we’d all be doing them. We do all have a part in some Choruses, but I really miss the lines in  the 2nd and 3rd Chorus that I got to do in the Ren Run—not that they should be mine, nor that I begrudge them now to the talented actors who have them instead. I just learned what fun it was to speak those lines!

 Suffice it to say, I find the Ren Runs an experience of such unadulterated delight and absolute fun, that I would give my right hand/my firstborn child/my full store of stock cliches to be part, someday, of ASC’s Renaissance Season—where they put up full productions with a little more rehearsal time, but in just the same manner!


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As we are now halfway through the rehearsal process for our third play, Henry V, it has become abundantly clear that I am a bit late to give any kind of timely account of our rehearsal process. So instead, I’ll address a couple of rehearsal tools that are special (if not unique) to the American Shakespeare Center, which may prove for more concise and consequently less tedious reading on your part. Because even if I were capable of making a post about each day’s rehearsal, who in the world would want to read it? One of my fellow troupe members (Mr. Josh Carpenter) wittily opines that the only truthful answer he can ever come up with to the question, “How was rehearsal?” is “Moderately productive.” Which our illustrious tour manager (Mr. Aaron Hochhalter) aptly rephrased as “We didn’t get a lot done, but we didn’t get nothing done, either.”

And rephrasing is the Rehearsal Tool subject of the day, only here it is rephrased as ‘paraphrasing.’ Before we begin rehearsal, we are expected to have all of our lines paraphrased. But, as we shall see, I think that paraphrasing should really be called by the fake word ‘synonymising,’ as long as we’re in the business of making language precise. Because a paraphrase of a line might go something like this:

The taming-school? What, is there such a place?The school to make someone more docile? What, does a place like that exist?

 Instead, we’re supposed to replace each word in our lines with its closest synonym, without altering the syntax. So, my actual paraphrase for this line of mine in Shrew was:

The mastery-academy? Why, exists there so-named a location?

The point of this exercise (as I take it) is not only to make us intimately acquainted with the meaning of each of our lines prior to the start of rehearsals, but also to appreciate why Shakespeare chose each word. And, most usually, to discover with some frustration that there is no word so perfect for the object, situation and emotion as the one Shakespeare used. It’s extraordinarily useful in gaining a knowledge of the kinds of words my characters use, and what cues Shakespeare is giving the actor in the very word choice.

For example, it’s important to note that Portia is using the metaphors of the courts of law in her very first scene in the play. So, “The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree,” is not the same as “The mind may construct rules for the spirit, but a fiesty disposition bounds over a dull pronouncement.” And naturally, so much emotion lives in the sounds of words, so all the sharp sounds in “You give your wife too unkind a cause of grief” is completely lost in the laughable “You bestow on your spouse an extremely unfriendly reason for misery.”

We then shared our paraphrases during the table talk for Taming of the Shrew and Henry V; we would read through the scene with our paraphrased lines, and then read through Shakespeare’s text with special attention to the cues he’s giving the actors in the natural scansion of the lines. We all paraphrased our lines for Merchant (which took about a month for me), but we didn’t end up going over them in rehearsal–but the work had been done, and that’s where the greatest usefulness comes in!

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

 Facts about Staunton:

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

Facts about me, with regards to Staunton:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 Unoriginal Practices include:

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

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