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Posts Tagged ‘Byron’

Ellen’s News in Brief

This is a historical sub-title, it being the first time the words ‘Ellen’ and ‘brief’ appear in the same sentence without a negative between them.

This fall, I was in a production of Henry IV, Part One at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. It was an absolute delight, from start to finish, and I’m not just saying that here because this is theoretically a public forum. I have wanted to play Lady Percy for a long time, and have in fact held her up as a part I’d rather play than some more famous Shakespearean heroines who have a great deal more text.

The director (Paul Barnes) was wonderful: gentle, encouraging, helpful, welcoming of collaboration but also firm in challenging me to think in new ways. I had fantastic fun in rehearsals, and then continued to have fun playing in performances with my Hotspur, who is approximately 857 times better than Ethan Hawke was in the Lincoln Center version. He possesses a colloquial grace with the text that I can only dream of in my nerdy Shakespearean dreams.

This is perhaps one of the best production photos I think I’ve ever been a part of:

 

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur

 I am pictured here threatening to break Hotspur’s little finger. I think much of its brilliance may be attributed to Mr. Jones, which is a not inaccurate representation of the scene as a whole.

The following is a picture I find amusing in part because it looks like the Gossip Girl version of Kate and Hotspur. The other half of my amusement I derive from the fact that I look like I’m saying something catty and David appears scandalised, when I was of the (perhaps mistaken) opinion that most of this scene was consisted of Hotspur saying something catty and Kate being scandalised. Consequently, I am not sure when in the text this picture falls, outside of it being part of the Glendower scene in Wales.

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur, Act Two

Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur, Act Two

The entire cast was wonderful, both as performers and as people with whom to spend an autumn. We had good times in the Folger housing, nine people in one kitchen notwithstanding, and it was rather exciting to spend the fall of 2008 on Capitol Hill. I could quite literally see the Capitol building from my bedroom window. On election night, we were buffeted from crowded bar to crowded bar along Pennsylvania Avenue, before finally settling slightly farther away in the standby of theatrical folk, Tunnicliffs. The bottle of champagne I purchased tasted no less sweet, the Obama shirt I was wearing was no less nerdy. We did not, unfortunately, storm the White House gates with others, since we had a student matinee the following morning, and our own political drama to enact. Throughout the run, comparisons with varying elements of our current and recent political history were rampant, and our production even got mentioned in Newsweek for that reason. Pretty spiffy! It was entirely Newsweek’s loss that they did not include the picture of Hotspur’s Little Finger in Peril.

As I type these words, I am in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the beginning of rehearsals for the world premiere of a play entitled The Yellow Leaf at the Pioneer Theatre Company. The Yellow Leaf is an absolutely gorgeous play (in my ever-humble opinion) about Byron, the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont and Dr. Polidori, centred around the summer of 1816 they spent in Switzerland. I am playing Mary Shelley, most famous as the author of Frankenstein, least famous for being the wife of the man I wrote my senior thesis on in college. For anyone who knows me, or for anyone misguided enough to have read this blog closely and discerned all the references to Romantic poets, this is outrageously exciting for me. I took four classes with focus on the English Romantics in college, one of which was actually entitled ‘Byron and the Shelleys,’ a passion which culminated in writing a big old paper about metapoetry through self-representation in Shelley and Keats. (If anyone ever foolishly doubted the veracity of the nerdiness promised in this blog’s subtitle, now is the time to cease your false advertising lawsuit.) I am continually indebted to a professor of mine, Andrew Stauffer, who is now teaching at the University of Virginia, for making me the Romantic Poet Nerd I am today. My Shakespeare-related nerdiness is someone else’s fault. I’m not sure who, exactly, but by god if I ever apprehend the responsible party, there will be a great reckoning to pay.

In any case, for me, playing Mary Shelley is, on a Scale of Excitement from one to ten, about fourteen-and-a-half. I found out about this play from the call-board in the Equity building in New York in late June, soon after ending my contract with the American Shakespeare Center. I think I actually leapt backwards with surprise when I saw that there was a play with a breakdown listing the attributes of George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin (Shelley), etc., because I remember sheepishly mumbling something to the startled gentleman looking at the posting next to me.

However, I could not make the EPA because I was going to be in Oregon for my grandmother’s eighty-fifth birthday. Rather than submit to complete despair, I decided to at least email the artistic director of the theatre company in supplication, in the hopes that he would be sympathetic to my Nerdy Romantic plight because he is also, not-so-coincidentally, the author of the play. I didn’t really think that this would result in getting an audition, since I am certain that artistic directors are similarly pestered every day of their lives, I just knew that I would not forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to pursue an audition.

Fortunately for me, Charles Morey, author of the beautiful Yellow Leaf and artistic director of the Pioneer Theatre Company, is about the nicest person I have ever emailed, and actually paid attention to me. It may have been my threat to intentionally sail into stormy waters, thus drowning in the same manner as Shelley. Regardless, he told me I could send my headshot and resume along to him, and extended the challenge to identify the allusion of the title. I did both. (The title comes from Byron’s “On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Thank you, Professor Stauffer. Byron may also have been alluding to a line from Macb*th. Thank you, unapprehended felon.) I wrote to Mr. Morey that I hoped he would not hold it against me if I’d misidentified it, but that if I got it right, I would get some kind of reward, like ice cream. Or an audition.

My ability to go to the auditions was slightly complicated by being in Washington DC at the time they were held, but, to double my fortune, the wonderful Mr. Paul Barnes is well known to the wonderful Mr. Chuck Morey (and vice versa), the former having worked at the latter’s theater frequently. So, I was able to skip out of rehearsal for a day and dash up to New York (that’s ten hours on a Megabus, my friends) on the callback day. Of course I hadn’t actually MET Mr. Morey, or the director, Geoffrey Sherman, or the casting director, so I felt the audition had a kind of Hail Mary quality (yes, that’s actually a football reference, not a Mary Shelley reference, though I suppose it is also a Catholic reference). But as always, I was simply infused with the sense that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my own power.

But I was triply fortunate, overwhelmingly lucky, and now I get to be Mary Shelley. It is quite literally a dream come true. I remember saying to a friend of mine on graduation, as, despite my English Major, I never intended to do anything but become an actor, “Well, what I’m really fit to do now is play Mary Shelley in a play about Byron and the Shelleys.”

This also marks the first time my name is in the title of an article on Playbill. Of course, I’m not being so audacious as to assume there will be a second time, which is why this is perhaps doubly exciting. But how about this? Thorstad, Kelly, Adair Are Brit Lit Trio of Yellow Leaf Premiere at Pioneer in January 2009 ! I love how it makes it sound like I am actually important, when really no one besides my parents are more likely to see the show because of my inclusion in the article’s title.

Rehearsals thus far have been about as wonderful as I imagined, which is saying quite a lot. I feel, at this point, that I could not possibly have asked for a more wonderful, talented, and friendly group–director and cast–to work on this paramount of all productions. I will wait to deal with the fall-out of having achieved my life’s purpose at this relatively early age. For now, I’m thrilled.

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 Sub-title: Also, it snowed.

Sub-sub-title: Also, we had these Shakespeare plays we did.

Dayton, Ohio, February 21-22:

On the American Shakespeare Center On Tour Weather Map, we can see the vans moving up here while this front of snowy misery moves down from the artic north like the Assyrian coming down like a wolf on the fold and smashes into the poor actors in their frail caravan. Do you see this, Jeff? It’s really a mess in here, where all this green is swirling around. And over here, on the What References to Romantic Poets is Ellen Making TODAY Bulletin, we can see that said Assyrian is from George Gordon, Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” Back to you.

We had avoided much in the way of accumulating snow on tour (and, to a certain extent, in Staunton, with the exception of the snowfall that lead to the Great Snow Seige of the Beverley Houses), including in roughly parallel states that we have travelled to since our stay in Ohio. Thus, an animal bred in captivity on tour would believe that it only really snowed in Ohio, provided it had an understanding of geographical concepts such as states. I found snow to be a major set-back on tour, because neither of my two pairs of shoes are equipped for it; it’s hard to pack snow boots, or other snow attire, into the Teeny Tiny Travel Suitcase. Chris and Alisa, natives of Ohio (as is Ginna), lamented the fact that the group now has an image of Ohio’s winters as being distinctively miserable, which might make people cranky about Ohio. But I am not cranky about Ohio because it was a Kingdom of Ice and Snow. I am cranky because of Ohio’s showing in the primaries. Thankfully, I was several states away by the time those rolled around, and so couldn’t even think about going around the streets saying, “Come ON, people!” On the negative side, Obama was in Dayton THE DAY after we left. O cruel fate.

The image rendered in the opening weather map is fairly accurate, except that snow isn’t green in real life: we hit a snow storm as we were driving up from Alabama, which naturally made for a difficult drive. Before the weather complications, however, we came across one of the most fantastic examples of Highway Irony I have ever witnessed, about sixty miles south of Louisville on I-65. On one side of the highway, a large black billboard proclaimed: HELL IS REAL. Directly opposite, an equally large billboard advertised the ADULT SUPERSTORE sitting directly beneath it. Dan noticed it initially, and since I could not get my camera out in time, he suggested I put it in my blog. So here it is! Immortalised for all time. Provided that the internet goes on for all time, and does not eventually implode from all the unweight of the staggering numbers of unprinted words accumulating daily into an impalpable entity.

The University of Dayton is so pretty, especially when it's not snowing

I did not take this picture of the University of Dayton, as is evidenced by the fact that it is clearly green in this photo, and not submersed in snow. But the campus was so pretty, I wanted to supply a picture. Photo credit goes to this random website. Although I imagine they also did not take the picture themselves.

The University of Dayton’s theater is as lovely as its campus (which is, as is evidenced above, quite lovely): the distinguishing feature of its standard (but very nice) proscenium theater was an orchestra pit that moved up and down the length of the story between the stage and loading dock/dressing rooms. I label this distinguishing because a) it meant we did not have to carry all of our set pieces up the stairs; b) the kind gentleman and tech student moved it up and down by means of a long metal pole inserted in the floor, so that, as he stood grasping the pole as it descended or rose, he looked something like Gandalf (having made reference to Harry Potter a couple of posts ago, my Nerdom is now complete); and c) riding on it was equally as cool, as it reminded me of the scene in Gladiator where Maximus and Commodus ascend into the Coliseum on a platform (okay, maybe my Nerdom is complete now). Naturally, all this truly proves is that I am Easily Amused, which my yearbook mentor in Middle School suggested were the actual words behind my intitials.

Our first night, we performed Taming of the Shrew. My greatest memory of this performance was that it was one of the best Kate/Bianca Bound scenes ever, in my opinion. Much of this had to do with the pre-beat between Ginna and myself, which was so feisty and amusing (to jog my memory in future years, I will call it the Modern Dance/I’m Going to Get Your Nose pre-beat) that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to stop laughing in order to enter. Another benefit was that the knot around my hands slipped a bit within the first few lines of the scene to a position that actually hurt slightly when Kate pulled on it. I wish I could figure out how to do that every time, because I always prefer not acting when possible (i.e. the Heavy Suitcase proposition).

We had a Merchant of Venice the following night, and it was not the best Merchant (nor the worst); sometimes, after a particularly excellent show like the one we had in Huntsville, it feels a little lacklustre for simply being average. For the first half of the show (which is a little lighter for me), I couldn’t shake the feeling that, quite simply, this was not the first time I was speaking these lines, and that it wasn’t the first time my castmates were speaking the lines either. This sensation happens very rarely to me (it happened a little more often during Christmas Carol‘s twelve show weeks), and it always makes me feel poorly. The only truly distinctive thing I recall about the performance was that Ginna’s parents and some of her friends attended.

But what made Dayton truly memorable were the fantastic students that we met. We were treated in a princely manner by the University, who provided for us a vat of trail mix and a fruit assortment of a size generally associated with pictures of cornucopias. But EVEN NICER was getting to meet the theatre and tech students thus conscripted to help us, who were kind enough to perform tasks beneath their abilities, i.e. lugging the cart with snacks, focusing lights, elevating the pit like Gandalf, etc. We usually have someone who helps us with these things at the theatres, but usually it is a singular tech director, not a squadron of students.

Some of these students came to our shows (and sat on stage), but others had shows themselves the two evenings that we were there, but were hanging out in the theatre beforehand. In this manner, I re-met (it’s the best way I can describe it) a woman named Rebecca who went to my High School, though she was a Freshman the year after I graduated! We met only a couple of months before, when we were both part of the Bloomington High School North Alumni Cabaret over the New Year’s break; she organised a comedy sketch for everyone to open the show, and I did a scene from As You Like It with the amazing actress and my oldest friend, Lynn Downey. Rebecca was one of the students in the simultaneous shows at Dayton, but whether or not people in that predicament could see the show was of less importance to us than the fact that we actually got to converse with students from the university, which is far more of a rarity than one might expect.

As I have named these the ‘True Confessions’ of a life on tour, I must continue my commitment to honesty, at the risk of losing all the glamour (ha) that adheres to the title ‘Shakespeare Nerd:’ when I envisioned touring from town to town, I envisioned a lot more parties. Perhaps this misconception was fuelled in the summer by Chris Johnston’s insistence to our handsome representatives at the merchandise table that they were responsible for finding out where ‘the parties’ were. Consequently, I assumed that there were, in fact, parties. After all, Mr. Johnston had been on tour the year before, and must, I reasoned, have some prior knowledge. Now, I am sure that parties do exist on the campuses we visited, I just haven’t heard about any in all of our months of touring. I am open to the possibility that people found out about parties last year, or that a couple people this year have found parties and I have not heard about them, since I make a poor wingman, as I am not, after all, a man.

So you have to understand how Monumental an Event it was that Evan overheard a couple of the theatre students talking about a party and asked if we could crash. As kind souls to whom I shall be eternally grateful, they welcomed Evan’s suggestion, and Evan, Dan, Raffi, Paul, Josh and I went over to the campus house after the show. All of the people at the party were great fun, with witty conversation, good dance moves, and beer games I had never seen before. Theatre students! They just don’t make anything else like ‘em. It was so great to go to a party with such fun people and feel like a normal human being, that I lost all track of time; at one point, Evan came up to me and said, “We probably ought to go soon.” “Why?” I responded. “Because it’s 4:30 in the morning,” he said. Ah.

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