Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

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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