Posts Tagged ‘Earl of Sandwich’

Sub-titled: “And the post is even longer, for a post, than the title is, for a title.”

Baltimore, Maryland, September 26-28:

It was a delight to stay in one theater for three days, and furthermore delightful to be able to perform our full repertory of Shrew, Merchant, and Henry—we’d yet to have a single performance of Henry! Personally, all three shows use very different parts of myself, and I venture to say that they employ very different parts of ourselves as a company, as well. Now that I am aware of, and so thankful for, the gift of each show, it feels a bit unbalanced to go without one of them. Like, say, a sandwich with only one piece of bread. Or Josh, with only 60% of his costume.

N.B. I know some people call a sandwich with only one piece of bread an ‘open faced sandwich.’ These are crazy people. What you have there is bread with stuff on it—often delicious, cf. beans on toast, but not a sandwich. How, I ask you, would the Earl of Sandwich have ridden out to hunt, or played cards, or whatever it was that necessitated this portable food, with an open-faced sandwich? Who can hold on to turkey? Or mustard? Or grilled cheese? Or, God forbid, banana peppers?

The campus of Loyola was absolutely gorgeous, a fact about which everyone in the troupe agreed, whether they were reaching this conclusion via the lawns, the architecture, or the college girls. The theatre was also lovely—nearly a thrust even before we added chairs to the sides of the stage, with an angled promontory like the bottom one-third of an octagon jutting out into the raked auditorium.

N.B. I am aware that ‘the bottom one-third of an octagon’ has a proper geometrical name, like rhombot or trapezeartistogram. However, I am geometrically-challenged, having not contemplated the rhombot since I was a freshman in high school. And furthermore, I only took math for ten years of my life, whilst I have been performing Shakespeare for twelve years of my life. There is a reason that I have striven so arduously to become a professional actor: I hate math.

And so for those of you who can actually follow the string of this post: Loyola was beautiful, and it was a pity, therefore, that the general Feistiness Per Capita (F.P.C.) was, I think, the lowest we have yet encountered. There were, of course, wonderful audience members who were exceptions to this rule, a couple of which I will note below. But in my first soliloquy in Henry V, I looked out into the audience and my gaze was met with, in general, such incomprehension that felt like I was speaking another language. And, I hasten to point out, that was not one of the scenes in which I speak French. 

It’s interesting how, once deprived of an audience reaction that has become commonplace, actors sometimes begin to wonder what is going wrong, when the spirit of the scenes, and perhaps even the delivery of some lines, are much the same as usual. And by ‘actors,’ I mean, ‘at least, I do.’  Then you can decide whether you think you have finally been discovered for the sham actor that you are and renounce the stage forever, or you can blame the audience for having been raised with insensible televisions, or you can forget about it and have fun with the show. Or all three, generally in that order, and sometimes in rapid succession.

Exceptions to Baltimore’s Low F.P.C.

1. Selfishly I will put my mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousin on this list, who came to see our performance of Merchant of Venice. My mother is a wonderful audience member, in part because, as my mother, she is indiscriminately tickled by anything I do, and in part because I have taught her that actors really like it when audience members chuckle aloud. I had to stifle my desire to lean over to Ginna whilst we sat at the side of the stage and whisper, ‘That one person in the whole audience who is laughing at everything is my mother.’ My grandmother and aunt are no less enthusiastic, if slightly less audible as chucklers. I am more scared when my grandmother attends a performance than anyone else on the planet, chiefly because she was an actress herself. But by the same token, I am more pleased when she says that she is proud of me than anyone else on the planet.

I thought Merchant was a pretty solid performance on the whole (more on the reason for this next), though I rather strained the Quality of Mercy because the previous day’s conversation had made me think about it more than was obviously healthy. And I learned that the courtroom scene is kind of like a train, and if I miss the train at Quality of Mercy, I’m stuck on the platform, yelling “Tarry a little, there is something else,” down the tracks of this over-extended metaphor.

2. A lovely middle-aged couple came to see, I think, all three shows, and always sat near the front. Thank you.

3. Also, man who sat on the house right aisle about 60% of the way towards the back of the theatre for all three shows, thank you.

4. A red-haired young man who sat on stage right during Taming of the Shrew. He came up during the pre-show, right when we were wheedling to our uttermost to get people to sit on stage, and I clapped and said, “Hooray! Thank you!” as he sat down. He smiled back at me, yet even in that moment I had no idea that he would be one of the best audience members of all time. He laughed at everything. He laughed at me as Bianca, for god’s sake, and I often feel like the Least Funny Person in the Show. He was sitting right next to the stage right entrance, so it was always possible to throw a grin or a line at him, in utter gratitude, when leaving the stage. By the end of the show, both Ginna and I confessed to having crushes on him.

I have never had a crush on an audience member before, but I suppose this is the kind of phenomenon that the American Shakespeare Center fosters—nay, creates. No doubt crushes on audience members were a part of original staging practices, and other attachments of similar foolishness or lack of basic information were dubbed as being like a ‘player’s fancy.’ This, perhaps, also lead to the great theatrical tradition of owners counselling their players not to ‘turn yourselves to harlotry for laughs, and employ the text as bawd.’

5. And lastly, but even more importantly than Red-Haired Stage Right Boy: this wonderful woman sat in the second row on the aisle for our performance of Merchant, and also on stage on the stage right for Shrew. She was lively and responsive, but most importantly, contributed to the birth of One of the Finest Moments of Theatre, Shakespearean or Otherwise, That I Have Ever Witnessed.

A little bit of back-story, here: the previous day, in Frederick, I overheard Aaron telling Chris Seiler to take parts of “Hath not a Jew eyes” to the audience. Chris was not overly enthusiastic about the idea, since the moment had always been very much in response to the spite dished out with utter commitment by Chris Johnston as Salerio. But Chris (Seiler) agreed to try it, nevertheless, as the amazing actor that he is. However, he did not take the speech to the audience that night, and, as I had completely forgotten the overheard conversation, I didn’t even think about it.

But in this scene, the following night, when Chris said, “And what is his reason? I am a Jew,” aforementioned Wonderful Woman gave a kind of surprised laugh, almost a simply responsive vocalization. Chris immediately wheeled on her, and delivered the first few lines directly to her. His action and response were absolutely stunning, and even more riveting was the simplicity with which he actually asked her, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? Organs? Dimensions…” He continued the speech, opening up new lines and new questions to other audience members, and it was so direct, and so honest, and yet so different than the scene’s previous incarnation. I felt thrilled, and awed, and chilled as in the presence of that divinity that appears in the most beautiful, and the most truly great, art.

The moment was superlatively striking for a number of reasons. One was the simplicity with which Chris, as Shylock, truly asked those questions. It was of a direct nature that a great many actors (myself probably included) do not achieve even when speaking to other actors in a scene, and which often gets even further abstracted, and made rhetorical, when the actors are speaking to audience members. I have always remarked with profound admiration Chris’s incredible ability to speak with specificity and simplicity on stage, but in this moment, this enviable faculty seemed doubly amplified.

It may have seemed amplified simply because of the stark difference in the scene. I personally love it when one of my fellow actors changes something in a scene (as long as it’s appropriate, a change born from a new but honest impulse) because it makes the entire scene seem more spontaneous and more real—as if we are all, suddenly, breathing cleaner air. It implants a desire to give a more honest response, which then receives another more honest response, and so on. It’s like the opposite of what I call the Empty Suitcase Effect: when I have to pretend that an empty suitcase is heavy, a kind of falsity infuses everything that I do, because I’m working so hard to show something that is false, rather than to be something that is true. Conversely, if the suitcase actually is heavy, I am given a gift of an actual, physical obstacle that will lend its truth to everything that I do. So, though I never thought I’d liken excellent actors to heavy suitcases, there it is:

excellent actors = heavy suitcases.

I think I admire actors who change things up a lot because I don’t think I’m one of them, though I am always striving to make new discoveries in each performance. But for myself, I don’t want to change something merely for the sake of changing something, but because I think this new idea might be better, more honest, and more communicative than a previous choice. Nevertheless, it’s rare that something so bold and so breathtaking as this change in Shylock’s speech occurs (unless it has been directed, which it had been, to a certain degree). It was as if a door in one’s living room had been opened to reveal a gorgeous, foreign, but heartsoul-famliar landscape full of mountains and rivers, where one had always thought there was the hallway to the kitchen.

It was also captivating because it was so immediate. Chris employed the reaction of that wonderful woman in the audience, and so it was utterly obvious to everyone in the theatre, even the audience members who hadn’t seen it before, as we had, that this was only going to happen in exactly this way this one time. I feel somewhat sappy, or cheesy, or corny, or at any rate related to some kind of food substance, to say so: but this moment demonstrated the spirit of theatre. It demonstrated the majesty of what we as actors try to do; it showed why theatre cannot be replaced with film and television, and what humanity we will lose should it be replaced. And it demonstrated exactly what the American Shakespeare Center, and companies like it, aim to do: to remind all of us that the fourth wall is a divisive fiction that is easily combusted, that we are all human beings in this one space together, in this one instant of time, and that this event—of which we are all necessary components—will never be repeated.

In Chris’s simplicity and responsiveness in this moment, I was reminded of another One of the Finest Moments of Theatre, Shakespearean or Otherwise, That I Have Ever Witnessed. When I was studying at Shakespeare and Company, I saw their production of Macbeth several times, because Dan McCleary, in the title role, was a complete revelation. His Macbeth was so simple, so clear, and so direct, so like Mr.-Macbeth-your-next-door-neighbour, that it literally changed the way I see acting, the theatre, and what I expect of myself. In one performance, when the witches disappear after their second meeting with the King, he asked “Where are they?” with such simplicity and honesty that a child in the audience responded, “They went that way!” pointing to the upstage entrance where the witches had exited. Dan/Macbeth turned around, looked at the now-empty entrance, turned back and said directly to the child, “No, they’ve gone.” And then without losing a beat, he continued: “Let this pernicious hour / Stand aye accursed in the calendar!” It was not only his response, but the fact that he had delivered the actual text (“Where are they?”) so honestly that the child believed he had lost either the actors or the witches, that impressed itself upon me. It remains one of the ten most life-changing performances I have seen in my young life.

And this moment was similarly impressive for me, all the more so because I was in the middle of the show myself. I always enjoy watching the other scenes, but I have never been so thankful that we sit on stage for the entire show: in a normal production, I would have not have witnessed this moment. I felt almost transfixed as I watched, while floods of emotion passed over me. And like the best of all heaviest suitcases, the intense honesty, immediacy and simplicity of Chris/Shylock in that moment made all of us feel more honest, more immediate, and more direct. I had to follow that moment, but I wasn’t even aware of it being a Tough Act to Follow, because we were all in it together—we were all the Tough Act. As a result, it was the best 3.2 I think we’ve ever had (I was practically weeping at the very top of the scene); I also noticed that both Josh and Raffi gave really amazing performances that night. It felt as if Chris inspired us all to bump it up a notch (or at least, until the Quality of Mercy, which, whilst not awful, dropped in a way quite unlike the gentle rain from heaven).

To be honest, after sitting there on the bench washed in awe, feeling like my eyes had been flung open, my skull, the banksafe of my chest flung open, my next thought was, ‘I do not deserve to be in a production with this man.’ I have worked with countless actors whom I respect and admire deeply, but most of the other truly revelatory moments I have witnessed on stage have generally been when I was in the audience. This may well be because a revelatory moment needs to be new, and so we’re more likely to see the brilliance of an moment if we haven’t seen it 80 times in rehearsal or in performance. Or perhaps when I’m in the midst of my own scene, I’m simply listening to what the other actor does in the way that one listens to another person to whom one has the responsibility of responding—that is, I take what they’re doing in the context of the play’s world, not in consideration of my fellow actor’s excellent art. Perhaps the fact that I was part of the audience in that scene allowed me to contextualise, and thus fully appreciate, what I was seeing.

But on the other hand, I was part of the show—even if I did not stand alongside such brilliance, I sat alongside it. I was part of that gorgeous event, and I cannot say how blest I feel to work with this group every day. And not only Chris Seiler and his Finest Moment of Theatre, though he occasioned my comprehension of how undeserving I feel of keeping such company. There is not a day that I don’t feel shamed by Josh’s honesty and emotional availability, by Raffi’s work ethic and specificity, by Ginna’s ease and beautiful colloquial simplicity, by Daniel’s brilliant physical comedy, by Alisa’s depth of spirit, wit, and amazing capacity for growth, by Scot’s enviable clarity, by Chris Johnston’s full and musical employment of the poetry, by Paul’s utter commitment to silliness, and last but certainly not least by Evan’s charismatic life and sparkling facility with text—which is not to say that each of these brilliant people do not possess all of these talents, and a hundred more. (Nor am I shamed by those excellent talents in any particular order, only I was compelled to put them in the linear vesture of a sentence.) And I am not, as Jim Warren would say, “blowing smoke up the skirt” of the collective company, and I am a little embarrassed to think that some of them might happen upon this effusion. But it would be dishonest for me not to mention the profound admiration I have for each person in this troupe of actors, when it is more a part of my daily life than anything else. When, in fact, it is the most constant thing amidst an ever-shifting backdrop of theatres, hotels, and highways, and the thorough distortion of time.


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