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Posts Tagged ‘Merchant of Venice’

Disclaimer: More on some of the objects in the title than others. In fact, the only thing you can really count on is persiflage.

Jefferson City, Missouri, March 6:

I remember feeling less ill by the time we drove to Missouri, because I also remember being irate. The latter condition was due to the March 4th primaries having taken place on the day previous (when we performed Taming of the Shrew in Monmouth, Illinois) to our drive date. Even at the time I knew I was unreasonably grumpy about their outcome, as I went around kicking inanimate objects; who am I, I thought to myself, to have put up with seven years of Bush Bullshit, to the point where the mere shapes of his face incite a kind of Pavlovian response of fury, to be so cross about the outcome of a primary between two people I basically like? But it was still good for me that we spent those days in two states that voted for Obama. I would be unlikely to vent my rage on anything besides hotel rubbish bins, anyway, but I was probably happier as a result of our location.

We performed Merchant of Venice for an audience of which about half was a sizeable group of home-schooled high school students, arrayed in the finest dress. I know that sounds like the kind of thing that would happen in a Wacky Actor Dream, but they were actually all wearing ball gowns. Except for the boys, who wore the dressed-up-high-school-male equivalent. They were a wonderful audience in every way, which helped assuage our insecurities stemming from the fact that they looked considerably nicer than we did. And I don’t think there are even any apocryphal Equity rules about performing for an audience that looks nicer than you do, anyway, as I’m told there are for performing for an audience smaller in number than the cast. Probably, in Shakespeare’s day, people sitting on the gallant stools were more spectacularly arrayed than the cast, so we were lucky to have this historical and humbling experience. (The English Major can justify ANYTHING! Especially if it means giving scope to more verbiage.)

It was an excellent show (you, dear reader, no doubt think I don’t remember it, but I do); I recall that Josh, Raffi and Chris Johnston all gave outstanding performances. Chris Seiler was also even more excellent than usual, and he sets himself a high bar in that regard. He was trying out a lot of new things in the Courtroom Scene, and he brought me along with him to such a degree that I muffed up the pause in “Tarry a little…there is something else” that we’ve worked approximately 85,000 times in fight calls across the country. This line comes right after Shylock lunges at Antonio with the knife, and the pause is worked in so that a) Bassanio can do his action hero “NOOOO” as he slides in front of Antonio, b) Gratiano and Salerio can apprehend Shylock and relocate him to a more non-Antonio locale on the floor upstage and c) Shylock can vocally express his frustration at being pulled away from the object of his goal 0.7 seconds before he was finally about to achieve it. In this particular performance, however, I was so tied up in the emotion of the moment that I simply yelled, “Tarry a little there is something else!” right on top of items a, b, and c. I am by no means proud that this happened, because whilst I believe it is the purpose of our vocations as actors to BE in the emotional place of our characters, it’s our JOB to make sure the technical moments are clean. (Aforementioned dear reader may, however, be able to level at my affection for the elements of an actor’s work according to my description.) However, I blame Chris Seiler. If he hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t have gotten so riled up.

After the show, we had a talkback, for which there were fewer attendees than people in the cast. (If there’s an Equity rule about that, this is the moment when I confess that it’s really all in the realm of the theoretical as the tour is completely non-union.) Our formally-bedecked home-schooled friends could not stay for the talkback, thus dispossessing us of a significant portion of the audience in one fell Shakespeare-coined swoop. They shook hands with us, however, as we sat down on stage for the talkback, offering us thanks and kind compliments; it felt kind of like being in the receiving line at a wedding, though I have to qualify my simile by noting that I have only ever been in the receiving line at a wedding on a TV show, so maybe it bears no resemblance to that actual experience.

Me in a receiving line in Showtime's Brotherhood

Here is a picture of me in a wedding receiving line in Showtime’s ‘Brotherhood.” I shamelssly stole this picture from my own website.

I spoke to one very kind home-schooled young woman who looked extraordinarily like the lovely girl who played the lead in the recent PBS Northanger Abbey, and I told her so; afterwards, one of the chaperones told me that it was a little unknown kindness that I had a conversation with the girl, since her mother had just died. It broke my heart to realise; I wish I had a greater thing to give her. I imagine this is the sort of thing that happens to actual important people, like our currently-campaigning politicians, all the time—they meet people so briefly, but their stories can truly stick with them. I couldn’t tell you a single question that was asked of us at the following talkback, but I remember that girl so clearly—I don’t even know her name—but I think of her, and hope the best for her. The world: life: it is too broad a thing for the mind to swallow.

In Entertainment News (as if, indeed, a blog about touring is anything else), the motel in which we were staying also owned a movie theatre, and we could get vouchers to go to films for free. The selection was not extensive, but I think we all took advantage of it at some point. Raffi surprised everyone by actually liking I Am Legend, which was not showing the night I opted to go to our home theatre. A group of us, instead, went to a movie theatre a considerable distance away to see 10,000 BC, or whatever it was called, and I rather wonder what possessed us. Well, I know: I was lured by promise of beasts and battles and was instead horrified by extraneous amounts of stupid love story, which was absurd to the point of actual laughter. The movie was only saved from being the worst movie I’ve ever seen by the fact that I saw Van Helsing in college, lured at that time by the promise of relevance to some points of interest to the English Romantics. Let it speak for 10,000 that I am not sure which of the purported enticements for these two movies was the more misguided, and Van Helsing was so awful that I left the theatre vowing to my friends that they simply MUST have meant it as some kind of farce, because no one intentionally makes a movie that terrible. My friends pointed out that I needed to see more movies for bad-movie context, but sweet biscuits, if it wasn’t a farce I think I rather need to see FEWER.

In Food News, Dan and I went to a Chinese Restaurant that we thought was going to be unpleasant and then was actually quite good. We lit upon it because it was the only thing in downtown Jefferson City that we found open after (I think) nine.

For talking about food as often as I do, I make a poor food critic. It’s a good thing I have something else in line a career. ‘Timely Blogger’ surely isn’t one of them, either, but I think that post is even less lucrative than that of ‘Actor.’

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Indianapolis, Indiana, February 25 – March 2:

The Piercing Eloquence troupe spent a week in Indianapolis, but I did very little exploring of the state’s capital, chiefly because I partly grew up in Indiana, and my father still lives in Bloomington. That’s right: I may originally be from Philadelphia, I may have spent the last seven years of my life in Boston, and I may currently reside in a series of hotel rooms, but this itinerant actor is part-Hoosier.

N.B. For those of you who don’t know, or cannot extrapolate, a ‘Hoosier’ is a person from Indiana. I recall having a conversation with Aaron, our tour manager, back in December, in which he expressed doubt that people from Indiana actually called themselves Hoosiers, and probably called themselves ‘Indianians’ instead. “They certainly called themselves Hoosiers when I lived there,” I said, and the proposition of ‘Indianians’ probably gives you an idea as to why. What the kind people of Indiana never revealed to me is the origin of the word ‘Hoosier.’ I reject the cheap ‘Whoo’s-yer daddy’ derivation. Dave Barry says it is from the sound that pigs make when they sneeze, which is as compelling an explanation as I have found.

Discussion Questions
1. Is the name for people from your state a little awkward? ‘New Yorker’ is fine, as is ‘Californian,’ ‘Floridian,’ ‘Oregonian,’ ‘Virginian’ and others. But Pennsylvanian is not a whole lot better than Indianian. Is that what we call ourselves?! I feel as though I’ve rarely heard it actually applied. Which brings me to our next discussion question:
2. With Massachusettsian under consideration (whch I KNOW I’ve never heard), is ‘Masshole’ actually the state-recognised term?

So I spent more time exploring the hour’s drive between Indianapolis and Bloomington whenever I could, in order to visit my papa. It is quite a disorienting experience to be an itinerant actor and, at the same time, be in a house generally associated with Christmas vacation and the occasional summer, but also just about the best thing in the world. It’s just particularly difficult to go back to hotel rooms afterwards. It was unspeakably wonderful to see my papa, and Pravina, and I also got to visit with my high school friends Devin and Gwyn (I hadn’t seen Gwyn in over two years, because she’d been in China)! My dearest Frave, who is called ‘Melissa’ by most people, also came down from Chicago over the weekend with her husband and his parents, and I got to play with her for most of Saturday. In essence, it was the best week I’ve had on tour!

But, that being said, I’m not quite sure what the Indianapolis ‘touring’ experience was like, since it was more of a ‘home’ experience for me. It may have been similar experience for Evan, who is originally from Indiana; though I lived in Indiana a little longer than he did, he can actually claim to be a Hoosier by birth. Dan, Evan, and Chris Johnston also had wives/fiancées/girlfriends (respectively) visit them in Indy, so I think it was a special venue for a number of people in the troupe.

The theater that we performed in for most of the week was quite nice, and every day I meant to bring my camera to take some pictures, and every day I forgot, like the sharp-minded genius that I am (I remember having my first ‘senior moment’ in, quite literally, pre-school). It was essentially a thrust stage, but on a curved semi-circle rather than a rectangle; the first row was positioned right at the lip of the stage, making it easy to speak directly to audience members. Furthermore, the rows of seats were on a very steep rake, so that it was possible to make connections with audience members seated in the very last row. I imagine that the steep rake also made for clear viewing from the audience’s perspective, regardless of the seat. Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is to compare its format to that of an ancient Greek semi-circular amphitheatre, only, naturally, indoors, as we were not in Islamorada anymore. Toto.

In the attempt to make my Les Bardolatables-sized posts on week-long venues slightly more digestible, I will continue the tradition, as with Canton and Fairmont, of using headings for the separate shows.

90-Minute Taming of the Shrew Vol. I

Apparently, I am at the point in the tour where shows blend together and I can’t remember anything remarkable about them. Such is the case for this 90-Minute Shrew. I have a recollection of it happening, but that’s about all. The fact that the show took place prior to noon and consequently I was not truly awake may have something to do with it.

Merchant of Venice Courtroom Workshop

I became Verbosity XTreme in discussing this workshop, the question-and-answer that followed, and the nature of criticism in our society. Thus, in an unprecedented move, I have created a separate blog post about this workshop, to clean up the post on our week in Indianapolis a bit, which God and yourself can witness, needs cleaning. You may find it here, or you may also scroll down. Don’t let my wordiness scare you away from it, as it is actually a far more interesting post (in my opinion) than the usual endless recital of theatre spaces and eating establishments. However, if you are terrified by wordiness, you have probably already made your cursor run away, screaming in its little pointy manner, to lolcats or some suitable antidote. MANY WORDZ ABOUT SHAKSPER, I HAS DEM.

Henry V, Vol. I

My father, who is coincidentally also Henry the Fifth in our familial line, came to see our Thursday Henry V along with our family friend John. Another John who teaches at the Folklore Department with my father was also in attendance with his wife, though they had no idea that I was in the show; they are simply fans of the American Shakespeare Center, having seen a show at the Blackfriars, and so sought out an opportunity to see the company in their home state! Evan also had about fifteen family members attending. I use ‘about’ as genuine approximation, not as a licence for exaggeration, because I believe there were actually an upwards of a dozen Hoffmann family members in the audience, including many (as Evan reports it) who had never seen him act before.

Happily for Evan’s family and my father, I thought it was a good performance. Evan sounded like he was on fire as I listened from backstage. I really enjoy listening to Henry, in part because it’s still a bit of a novelty since we do it less often, and also because it’s really my favourite Shakespeare play. I love it because it has a little bit of everything in it, so I’m not forced to chose a comedy or tragedy as my Absolute Favourite. Additionally, it holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Shakespeare play to which I was ever exposed. In case I have not narrated this story on this blog before, the very same Henry the Fifth in attendance that evening took me to see the Kenneth Branagh film version when I was seven years old. I loved it so much that I made my parents take me to see it again. Four more times. I also wrote to the movie theatre asking for one of the movie posters when they were finished with it. They granted my request, as I imagine they did not have too many other seven-year-olds clamouring for them. I still own the poster, which is quite battered and torn, and bears childish writing at the bottom which reads, ‘I SAW HENRY V FIVE TIMES.’

This is why I am weird. You have my parents to blame. And/or thank, should you be in the rare predicament of needing a Shakespeare Nerd.

In any case, I had a good show: I continued to be less-ashamed of the Boy’s soliloquy, as I had in Alabama. I was able to capitalise on parts of the amphitheatre-space, scrambling up into the seating, and borrowing someone’s program to hide behind. In the English Lesson scene, Ginna and I got the dress twisted around the wrong way when I was putting it on; it’s only happened once before, but fortunately it HAD happened once before, and so I already had the experience of improvising French for the problem, and could pull out the same sentence. As I have discussed before, I take a secret delight in small obstacles of that sort, because they keep me on my toes. Meanwhile, the person that I used for ‘de ande’ at the end of the scene had a nice ring on, and I said, ‘Ooo!’ The Le Fer scene was one of the most fun ever; everything went well until the final wooing scene, which  I thought was simply not at its best. Ginna, however, was surprised to learn this afterwards, and I admitted that because I felt it hadn’t been going optimally, I decided to change some things up.

After the show, we had to drive straight to Kokomo, Indiana; originally, we were going to be performing in Kokomo, and in her generosity our contact incorporated the high school show we were originally supposed to have there into our contract. So we stayed for about seven hours (again, approximate and not hyperbolic figure) in a hotel in Kokomo in order to be fresh and ready for the following morning’s:

90-Minute Taming of the Shrew, Vol. II

This was a historic performance because Evan thought he got some kind of food poisoning and was nearly incapacitated. He had spent the entire night evacuating his stomach, and was only capable of lying down in utter surrender or sitting with an expression on his face that looked as though someone was treading on his intestines, which may actually be a kind assessment of the pain. Ginna served as the stage manager for the show, bless her heart; Evan roused himself to play the Lord in the Induction, and then the one, the only, World’s Most Omniscient Tour Manager Aaron Hochhalter went on as Biondello. Here is a picture of him in the Biondello costume:

He that has the two fair daughters, is't he you mean?

You can see how excited he is! Biondello has few enough lines that Aaron was able to stow the script in his pocket whenever he went on stage and perform off-book. It was pretty amazing to see him mimic the Biondello Surfer Dude physicality. I stood unabashedly in the wings (and ergo possibly in view of the people seated on stage) and watched whenever I could. Aaron took a modest, just-doing-my-job attitude about the whole endeavour, consequently leaving me, I speculate, to balance the universal energy by finding it really exciting. Because you know this means it’s time for another

DRAMA RUNDOWN!

As of this performance, we have the following notches on our collective Drama Belt, which much be very large indeed to encompass the entire cast:
– The drama of thinking we might not do a show, but in the end performing as planned;
– The drama of doing a different show than the one we were planning to do;
– The drama of not doing a show;
– The drama of doing one-half of a show;
– The drama of doing a show with the World’s Most Omniscient Tour Manager stepping into a role vacated by a deathly ill actor.

After the show, the kind folks at IU-Kokomo provided us with a sandwich buffet lunch, which we all enjoyed. Except for the man whose stomach was in a vise.

Henry V, Vol. II Part B The Sequel Revenge of Black Boxes and Red Poles

My father came to see Henry again, this time accompanied by Pravina; Frave (‘Melissa’), her husband Peter, and his parents Ken and Laura were also there. We had a larger audience, though we’d had a nice house on Thursday, too. I personally did not have as good of a show, except for the final wooing scene, which I thought was better. My father said he did not notice a difference in quality, only the natural variation that occurs if actors are trying to be honest and responsive, which just goes to show that actors’ perception of their work is probably out of proportion to the visible difference to audience members.

It was a kind of wonky-mouthed show, however, albeit not in a way that audience members could discern. There was one gentleman in the third or fourth row who was following along in the script, so he may have noticed; on the other hand, so many things are consciously cut or vary from edition to edition, that these tiny blunders may have not even seemed to be as such to someone following a full version of the script. A number of people simply slipped out a different word by accident (for example, the ever-excellent Chris Seiler as Fluellen said “his prawls and his prabbles and his indigestions,” instead of “indignations,” which almost made me laugh as the dead body of the Boy and consequently bring new meaning to the term ‘corpsing’); once, I heard from backstage a couple of lines seamlessly dropped from the middle of a speech; I accidentally said ‘nails’ instead of ‘mails’ the time that Ginna/Alice is supposed to correct me (but she, the excellent actor that she is, simply didn’t correct me, and didn’t even bat an eye).

The English Lesson scene ended quite nicely, however. There were a great number of children in the audience, and several seated in the curved front row. The young boy whom I first approached when naming body parts started to ascend to the stage when I took his hand, which was so charming that I was sorry to cut his stage time short with “Oh, mais non, merci!” In the centre of the first row sat the kind professor whom I’d met at the Merchant workshop, and had told me that he and his young daughter would do bits from the scene before she went to bed. As I came around, I saw that he was lifting his daughter up, so I made sure to get to her and pointed to her beautiful sparkly shoes by the time I got to ‘de foote.’ I had promised her father on Tuesday that I would be more than happy to meet her after the show, which I did. She is, by all appearances, younger than I was when I first saw Branagh’s Henry V, which bodes well for the future of Shakespeare Nerds. It’s nice to see that there are always a few children are being messed up in the same manner that I was. If I have in any way helped water the seed of Shakespeare in her young mind, that it might one day bloom into the kind of blind nostalgic adoration that most people of my generation associated with ‘Thundercats,’ I can die in peace. Now, before I outlive Keats!

Also on the plus side, Evan gave a particularly good Crispin’s Day speech. Sometimes it’s really hard not to cry, and I have to remind myself to try to be brave and manly. Even people who don’t love it with blind nostalgic adoration admit to weeping because it’s such a beautiful speech, and I think it’s doubly difficult for me.

Another odd thing about the performance was that the folks at the venue decided they wanted an intermission. We don’t normally have an intermission on the road, though we will when we return for our residency in the Blackfriars, a fact which I am not anticipating with glee. Unless I have to go to the bathroom or change a costume, I hate intermissions. It makes it very easy for the spirit of the play to break, and I cherish remaining within its energy, whether I am on or off the stage. And unless I have to go the bathroom, I don’t like intermissions as an audience member either. Of course they’re necessary: there are concessions to be vended and merchandise to be hawked. But most of the time, I would just rather that the play continue.

Merchant of Venice

I woke up the following morning with the ‘food poisoning’ that Evan had, which is the reason that I phrased it ambiguously as ‘Evan thought he got some kind of food poisoning,’ and also the reason that I was able to discuss the pain in such specific terms. Four of us in the troupe have had a similar affliction by this point, albeit with slight variations in symptoms, which makes me believe that it is probably the flu, and not a rash of food poisoning from evenly spaced dining establishments. My version was also accompanied by fever, chills and dizziness, so I think flu is a safe bet, especially since, as Katherine, I kissed Henry/Evan a couple of times on Thursday night, when his flu was probably incubating.

And so, in this state, I had to do Merchant of Venice. Fortunately, I think my worst day was the Monday following, because when I woke up on that Sunday my first thought was ‘O no, not today!’ and my second thought was a command to my body: ‘Not today, body. Wait about five hours, and you can be as sick as you want.’ Because not going on was not an option, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, there is no one to go on for any of the women, as much as I know Aaron wants to play Portia. Secondly, a whole slew of people I knew were coming to the show: my father, Pravina, Melissa, Peter, Ken, Laura, two of my best friends from high school: Devin and Gwyn, the mother of another of my best friends, Lynn (mentioned in the last post) and her friend, family friends John, Karen, her boyfriend Jim, the entire McDowell family including another old old friend of mine, Michael, and Robert Neal, the man who directed me in my very first Shakespeare play. That is eighteen people. I had to do the show, despite my body.

As I get sick at least a couple of times a year, and I have been doing shows back-to-back-to-back-to-etc. without any breaks since I graduated college, I have amassed a small amount of experience in doing shows whilst sick. Even earlier this year, I had a comparatively tame cold whilst we were in Sheffield, Massachusetts, but I only did Shrew and Henry under its influence. Being able to go backstage is always helpful; I did a performance of Midsummer once in which I almost threw up on Lysander’s face when anointing his eyes, and was only able to hold on until I went backstage. But of course, we don’t go backstage during our production of Merchant. Ha ha!

On the positive side, I would much rather be onstage with a flu than with a sore throat which mangles my voice. There were about four performances of Diary of Anne Frank in which I actually sounded like a frog, and you can’t leave the stage for that one, either. A voice distorted by illness is a real obstacle, because every time I speak I am reminded that I am not well. The key, in my experience, to performing when sick is to think: ‘The character is not sick.’ It is either a testament to my faith in the presence of the character, or, more scientifically, the testament to how faith is capable of affecting the body, that I’ve found this works pretty well. I don’t believe that one can delay illness indefinitely by forcing your mind to reject your body’s messages; that is, I believe that illness IS in the body, not just in the mind. But the body will do a job required of it, so long you allow yourself to crash afterwards.

Consequently, I only felt real waves of nausea pass over me when I was sitting on the benches during other scenes, and only then did I feel considerable chills or the painful sensitivity of skin that accompanies flu. I’ll be honest and say that there were a few moments, sitting on stage, when I was so cold that I thought my blood would congeal if I didn’t move. However, once I stood up to do a scene, I felt my consciousness enveloped by the circumstance of the play, as if anything extraneous had been burned up in my fever. I simply didn’t have the extra energy to waste on anything but doing the show. My awareness may not have been at its best, but I think I had a good show; and my modest, young experience tells me that lack of awareness as to my own performance (coupled, naturally, with vital awareness of the scene and your partners) may yield some of the best performances.

On the other hand, I would not classify it as my very best performance, but in that it was not a mess it was a kind of success. I was also struggling to make sure I kept my volume up, because Aaron told me that my lowest volume is consistently difficult to hear. I confess I’d been taking advantage of what I thought was an acoustically easy space by using my lowest volume in intimate moments, because variety is the spice of acting. Apparently, I misjudged the space. It shames me that I have this problem: it shames me so utterly that I’m not sure why I write about it. I suppose it is because I am committed to honestly reporting the trials of this particular actor, since I cannot speak for any other. But I was able to keep volume up, as Aaron said afterwards that there were no problems.

Many of my castmates did not think it was our best show, however, because we were distracted by a woman with two very young children sitting in the first row. The woman had also sat in the front row with one of the children for the previous evening’s Henry, and you would think she would have learned that it was difficult to control her child during the show. I didn’t notice him too often during Henry, because I didn’t spend the entire show onstage; he stood up and started talking at the beginning of my Boy soliloquy, but I just acknowledged him, his mother made him sit down, and I didn’t think about it again. During Merchant, I found them not to be too distracting when I was doing a scene, because I had to bend all my thought on being a healthy Portia. But when I was sitting on the sides watching the other scenes, I take no compunction to say that they were infuriating. You have to recall, of course, that from the sides of the stage we were effectively watching the action of the other scenes against the backdrop of these squirming children, and so people in the centre of the audience, directly behind them, may not have had the same view. But I’m certain that people on the side could see them, too, because they were doing things like putting their hands and legs ON THE STAGE (which was, as I said before, within hands-and-legs length of the first row), flopping around, and throwing around a water bottle.

I am not faulting their behaviour as children, because both boys had to be less than five years old. Some five-year-olds can watch two hours of Shakespeare in a well-behaved manner, like Scot’s adorable daughter Ella, or the daughter of the professor who came to see Henry V, or my niece Carly, who sat through a Twelfth Night I did in college with great delight when she was only THREE. But not all children can do this, and it is the responsibility of the parent to know whether or not your child can handle it. And then it is the responsibility of the parent NOT TO SIT IN THE FRONT ROW. I’m willing to make allowances: maybe the mother was a student, maybe she had to see these shows, maybe she couldn’t find a babysitter. But for the love of all that’s holy, when you have seen that your child behaves like a four-year-old, being, after all, four years old, and cannot sit quietly for two hours, DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT ROW. Because when you leave to take both children to the bathroom—TWICE—you have to walk in front of everybody in the entire theatre. The woman and the two children returned from the bathroom the second time during Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, so Chris was speaking into the audience whilst the two children dawdled and were dragged down the amphitheatre-style stairs. Of course, as a proud devotee of the American Shakespeare Center aesthetic, I’m a firm believer in acknowledging whatever is going on in the house, but I don’t know quite how you’re supposed to acknowledge that and stay within such a vitally serious moment as that. Chris dealt with it admirably, but I was completely incensed. As you can no doubt tell, since here I am, three weeks later, writing two gargantuan paragraphs about it.

Other things that I recall about the show include two of the suitors that Ginna chose. She chose the perfect man, right in the front row, for the French Lord, M. Le Bon; when she pointed him out, he made a gesture as brushing hair away from both of this temples and gave me a kind of Gilderoy-Lockhart grin. I walked the length of the stage towards him before I responded, “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.” I gave his hair-tossing gesture back to him on the line “He is every man in no man:” I always love it when the audience gives me something very specific to play with. Then, Ginna picked my best friend from High School, Devin, as the German suitor. I know I couldn’t help but smile for an instant, rather than immediately give way to the standard shock-and-indignation that accompanies the proposal of such a drunk. Every time I have had male friends come to a performance of Merchant, Ginna has managed to pick them as one of the suitors, despite the fact that I have never told her to pick any of them, or even that they are attending. I suppose it is because they look like nice chaps, being, after all, nice chaps.

A rather terrifying moment occurred when Raffi, as the Duke, fell as he descended from what we see as presiding over the courtroom, but may be put in more plain terms as sitting on a chair on two tables on a pile of slippery money. I did not see the actual event, as I was picking up Shylock’s yarmulke at the time, but I felt my inattention all the more acutely when I said “I humbly do desire your grace of pardon.” Raffi/Duke was fine by that point, but it didn’t stop me from running over to him like a fool and consequently scrambling up the blocking for the ring business at the end of that scene, which, with all due respect, is some of the most awkward blocking in the show. Or maybe I just always feel like Mr. (Miss) Awkward at the time because of the nature of the scene.

Afterwards, I greeted all eighteen people who had come to the show on my behalf. I began by announcing to them that I probably shouldn’t hug them, lest they get my Martian Death Flu, but ended up hugging everyone anyway. (If any of you got the Martian Death Flu in a timely manner after this hug, please post your blame as a comment.) I was much happier to see everyone than I could muster the strength to express, as my flu tried to reclaim its lost time. My father, hugging me as I felt the energy in my body going into utter collapse, said quietly to me that it was “a triumph.” He meant that it was a triumph to have simply survived through the show, which it was.

The rest of the cast was picked up from the hotel in limousines and taken out to dinner by a gentleman whose company handles some aspect of audience services or public relations for the ASC. It was a lovely time, by all accounts, but I was glad that I was able to dine on Sprite alone and sit slumped in the company of family and friends. I had been looking forward to this week far more than our sojourn in Florida, and I would have traded a wilderness of limousines to stay near a kind of home for a few more days. But as it was, I and my flu had a few more hotel rooms in a few more strip-mall suburbs to visit instead.

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Today’s title brought to you by Bardolatry’s Department of Redundancy Department!  This is a companion post to the longer (yes, longer) post on our entire week in Indianapolis.

We performed the Courtroom Scene from Merchant of Venice in an actual courtroom, followed by a discussion led by a panel of professors from different departments in IUPUI. Here is a picture of us trying desperately to work out some of the blocking in the fifteen minutes we had before everyone came in.

Uh...which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?

Pictured (l-r): Scot Carson, Ellen Adair, Evan Hoffmann, Chris Seiler, Chris Johnston. Photo credit goes to Alisa Ledyard, whose feet you see pictured in the bottom of the frame. I am not wearing my barrister wig in this photograph, a fact about which I am slightly grateful. I have never seen myself in it (since I put it on and take it off on stage), and I am apprehensive that I might find it comical. At the very least, I might be reminded of my favourite Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch of all time, in which John Cleese sings, “If I were not a barrister / Something else I’d like to be! / If I were not a barrister, / An engine driver, me! / With a chuffa chuff chuff…” I’d like to see what Shylock would say to THAT.

If you think I look a little apprehensive in this picture, you are right. If you do not think I look a little apprehensive, you are wrong, or perhaps, to give you the benefit of the doubt, apprehension is difficult to discern in the tiny pixels that make up my face. For most of my acting life, which is also most of my life, I have revelled in situations that mix things up and require me to think on my feet; however, in most of my acting life, I have never gone up on lines. However, in the history of performances of this scene, I have gone up and said a different line two distinct times, and once (in one of the dress rehearsals in Staunton) I misinterpreted a silence as a cue, and skipped a few lines of text. You must realize accounts for about 50% of the times I have forgotten a line IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Experience has taught me that I can deal with these situations, but experience has also taught me that I want to avoid the descending elevator it installs within my stomach. The reason that this scene accounts for a significant percentage of lifetime line-flubs, as I have discussed many times, is that I have a whole lot of lines in this scene that are very similar; usually, one line does not easily substitute for another, because there is an unalterable progression of the scene. Consequently, I feel as though I really remember which line is which in this scene with the aid of my placement on stage (for any curious non-actor parties, blocking has a lot to do with ‘how we remember all those lines’). So, to give a long paragraph a thesis sentence, I was afraid that fly-by-the-seat-of-my-barrister-robe blocking might make me mix up one of my ‘Therefores’ or ‘Why thens’ or ‘Tarrys.’

But the scene went off without a hitch, if it lacked the emotional weight of the rest of the play behind it. I was pleased that I was even able to take advantage of some of the differences of the courtroom space with some fly-by-the-seat-of-my-barrister-robe blocking. Professors of English, Law and Religious Studies illuminated different points of the scene afterwards in brief lectures, which were, and I am not just paying them typing service here, fascinating.

Then, the panel opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to ask questions; to our regret, most people asked questions of us, the actors, rather than the professors, when really, we wanted to hear the professors speak some more. A man in a red plaid shirt raised his hand and then rapped out, “I have three questions for Portia.
“1. Why do you disguise yourself and lie to the judge about coming from Bellario? You step into a court of law and the first thing you do is lie.
“2. Why do you tell Shylock that he has a case, and then push him to do something else? Isn’t that a poor bargaining tactic?
“3. Why do you stick that last law upon Shylock, when you’ve already got him walking out of the courtroom?”

I took a deep breath and said, “I could spend all evening answering those questions, but I’ll try to be as brief as I can.” In essence, I answered that:
 1. Though I have a long and complicated backstory for myself about my relationship to Bellario, I had to impersonate a man because women would not have been allowed into the court. Furthermore, I do have an arrangement with him, so I am coming from him in a sense, if not spatially; lastly, I had to say that he sent me because he was the doctor (lawyer) meant to settle the case, so only he would have the authority to hand the case over to me;
2. I try to show Shylock kindness and come in on his side in the hopes that this tactic will encourage him to be merciful. Perhaps, I think, if this man has previously been entreated in anger, he has simply responded in kind. I don’t want to condemn him; I want him to let himself off by letting Antonio off, too. I beg him multiple times, fairly late into the scene, to be merciful. But I enter with a kind of naïve hope bred of my privileged background, and end up getting embroiled in the courtroom’s atmosphere of hate, and get caught up in it myself. There are two levels: the higher level of mercy, and the level of law. If he agrees to ascend to the level of mercy, he too receives mercy; since he demands the law, I stick the law to him. Think ‘blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ (Though, as the Law professor points out, the law condemns Shylock to death but contains within it a provision in which the Duke can grant mercy, which he does. I also ask Antonio “What mercy can you render him?” after the Duke spares his life.)
3. I enter with the knowledge of the law that if an alien (i.e. a Jew) seeks the life of a citizen of Venice, the latter gets one-half of his goods, the other half goes the state, and the Duke determines whether or not the offender lives or dies. This is also why I wait until Shylock is literally about to kill Antonio to condemn him. But the famous bit about only being able to take a pound of flesh, without shedding a drop of blood, is something that (as I figure it) I can’t piece together until I actually see the wording of the bond. So that’s something I come up with in the moment. But the law which appears second in the scene is the inevitable law that I’ve been heading for from the moment that Shylock refuses mercy, and says “I crave the law.” That’s the law he gets.

I hope the above paragraph makes some student writing an English paper on the courtroom scene very happy.

Naturally, my response didn’t come out quite so cleanly, in part because between questions two and three the gentleman in the plaid shirt and one of the professors engaged in at least a literal minute (though it seemed like about five) of back-and-forth Portia-bashing, to the tune of things like ‘You really trick Shylock—you come in preaching mercy, and then you nail him.’ I said, “There was a third question; would you like me to answer it, or would you prefer to discuss it amongst yourselves?” Acknowledging the slight comedy of the situation actually relaxed me slightly, though there may have been an element of strain in my smile.

I spoke to the professor afterwards (quite a kind man), and shared with him my frustration that it seems everyone, from people like Harold Bloom and Judi Dench to anyone who has ever seen, read, or heard rumours about Merchant of Venice, decides to hate on Portia. I am by no means defending the racism and anti-Semitism at the core of the society that formed her; I think it wearies me because aforementioned ‘everyone’ always seems to think they are so CLEVER for villianising (I know I made up that word, but why should Shakespeare have all the fun) Portia, and victimising Shylock. It’s not that they don’t have a point, I’m just tired of everyone thinking their point is so original, when no one is really saying anything to the contrary.

It’s similar to the education I received in American History throughout grade school, in which everyone was busy telling me, from age six to age seventeen, that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and spent comparatively little time talking about what he was actually trying to do in terms of human rights. And it’s not unrelated to why I loathe and hate feminist literary criticism, at least in regards to the periods I predominantly studied in college. Why in the world spend an entire essay proving that Percy Shelley had a view of women as different from men, when he was part of a society which viewed women as unequal? I find it lazy, because the argument is pre-fabricated, and also because these kind of perspective attacks always receive pats on the back. The authors of such criticism can become smug, because they know they have an inviolate position. One cannot argue against the fact that, for example, Byron objectified women; not only is it nearly self-evident, but to argue against them is to expose oneself to the risk of being thought to defend sexism, or something ridiculous of the sort. As a woman, I’m spared that particular conundrum, but the phenomenon is widespread.

I think it is a symptom of the greater-than-usual obsession with celebrity-bashing in our society, from people making millions on pictures of Britney Spears wrecking herself at speeds more aptly associated with planes than trains, to historians knocking ‘heroes’ off their pedestals to make sure they get tenure, to the insistence of perfectly intelligent people that Shakespeare was not, in fact, Shakespeare. (You knew I’d bring it back around somehow.) Everyone’s so busy knocking people down that they don’t appear to realise that no one’s building them up anymore, and they’re swinging at the air. And in regards to Shakespeare’s characters, who are no less immune to this phenomenon, I want to say, ‘That’s right, Shakespeare was creating real, complex human beings, with flaws as well as virtues. But that makes them no less worthy of our love than our criticism.’ As a society, we weigh so much more on the side of criticism, because praise puts us in a vulnerable position. I find it to be clothed in the same cowardice as pessimism; it takes bravery to hope, it takes strength to accept ambiguity. Naturally, Shakespeare himself embraces ambiguity quite well. One of my favourite Shakespeare quotes is from All’s Well That Ends Well: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together. Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.” Oh man, do I love those ‘problem plays.’ The more contradictory Shakespeare is, the more I love him.

Later, when I was telling my papa and Pravina about the questions asked of me by the man in the plaid shirt, Pravina said, “It’s funny that he attacked you as if you were really Portia.” What is perhaps additionally funny was that I was not sensitive to that as an issue at the time, and I think it is because, flaws and all, I love my characters more than myself.

I was not surprised to learn that the man in the plaid shirt was actually a trial judge. I was surprised to learn, several weeks later, that he had flown in from somewhere in the southwest of the United States for this very event.

On another note, as we took our position in the jury box after the scene to hear the panel’s discussion, I saw someone sitting towards the back of the courtroom who looked extraordinarily like Robert Neal, an actor who was with the Indiana Shakespeare Company when both myself and the ISC were living in Bloomington. (I have continued to live, only elsewhere; the ISC has ceased to live.) I fixed the gentleman with such a persistent stare that I almost swore he noticed it, but I was trying to figure out whether or not it was, in fact, Robert Neal, one of the best Hamlets and best Petruchios I have ever seen. I got excited when he raised his hand to speak in response to a question about how often Merchant is produced, and why it hasn’t been shown in Indianapolis in recent memory—as soon as he spoke, I knew it was him, regardless of the fact that the first words out of his mouth were “Well, I’m an actor…”

As soon as the workshop was over, I bolted to intercept him. I asked him if he remembered me, giving my full name. His face lit up and he confessed that he hadn’t recognised me at all—but then, why should he expect that a girl that he directed in Julius Caesar when she was twelve years old should necessarily have become a professional Shakespearean actor and have come touring back through Indiana? In addition to acting, he teaches part-time at area universities (every actor needs another job), and just happened to be teaching a course at IUPUI this semester. A couple of my compatriots had even led a workshop in his class the previous evening! So, Robert Neal, this verbose blog post is for you. If you hadn’t been part of the team that made me part of the Indiana Shakespeare Junior Company, and directed me in my very first Shakespeare play, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

I played Julius Caesar, by the way. Thus initiating a long tradition of me impersonating men in theatrical situations. Just like Portia.

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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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Huntsville, Alabama, February 14-16:

One of the problems with God’s Geographical Reminder That Life is Not Fair (otherwise known as Florida) is the question of why bad weather happens to good people. We drove into a cold front as we moved west, so that when we emerged from the vans in Huntsville, Alabama, the temperature hovered around freezing, and our correspondent attitude hovered around despair. We had not travelled significantly to the north from our previous venue in Georgia, so it was not only a harsh thirty-forty degree drop in temperatures, but a thoroughly unexpected one. “What have we done to deserve this?” wailed Alisa. “We’re good people! Why are we being punished?”

The key is to remember that Florida is a reminder that life is not fair, not a lesson that those who live in Florida are God’s chosen people. It would be even easier, in response, to ascribe to the Elizabethan worldview that everyone travels on Fortune’s wheel (as I pointed out at the end of my post in Islamorada) simply because what goes up must come down, not as retribution for personal behaviour. This argument appears to fall through slightly when you consider that there are plenty of people who get to stay in Florida all winter long, until you remember: hurricanes.

The most distinctive thing about our stay in Huntsville, however, was the fantastic audience. (Also, the University had a great gym.) In addition to a healthy showing from the university student population, the Huntsville Literary Association, which has been bringing the American Shakespeare Center to Huntsville since Shakespeare was a child, populates the audience with a large age range of people. I’ve generally found that a demographically mixed audience is a more responsive audience, because SOMEONE finds all of the jokes funny, which leads to more responsive behaviour overall. (Conversely, our least responsive audiences to date were homogenously comprised of West Virginian high schoolers.) And the responses are not always what one might think: while the college students certainly whooped, the most raucous of audience members were probably the older women in the Literary Association. Bless their hearts.

The performance space abided by the old platform-in-the-middle-of-a-multi-purpose-room set-up made popular by such venues as Orrville, Ohio, Canton, New York, and, most recently, Sarasota, Florida (another place with a slightly more severe, but pleasantly large, demographic spread). The benefit of this arrangement is that it provides us with a true thrust stage rather than a couple of rows of seats in a proscenium theater, though this also means that no audience members are within arm’s harassment. The disadvantage is that these stages have proven to be somewhat hazardous. In Sarasota, there were a number of sharp edges and protruding staples to the platforms; in Canton, the image of Paul/Grumio wiping out during the Wedding Scene is indelibly etched on my memory; and in Huntsville, two pieces of the stage actually slid apart during the middle of a scene, creating an impromptu trap. (The ghost of Marley could not be reached for comment.) The quick-thinking (and amply strong) Mr. Evan Hoffmann leapt off the stage at the end of the scene and shoved the platform back into place. I am glad he was on stage to deal with the problem, because the image of myself, in my petticoat and three-inch high heels, straining fruitlessly against the offending platform, is more comical than the mental-image projectionist in my head can deal with.

Because indeed, we performed Taming of the Shrew on our first night there, which was also Valentine’s Day. This was either fortuitous or good planning, since Shrew is definitely our most Valentine-appropriate show. One could not say the same of all interpretations of Shrew, but ours is definitely more of your romantic comedy, they-hate-each-other-so-much-at-the-beginning-you-know-they’ll-be-kissing-by-the-end-You’ve-Got-Mail variety. With whacker noodles! The audience was the largest this evening, perhaps owing to the holiday, but also due to an enthusiastic high school group who came in to see the show.

The two things I recall about this show are:
1. It was the best delivery I ever gave of “Is it for him that you do envy me so?” and it actually got a huge laugh, thus, I am concluding, expending my entire allotment of laughs for that line;
2. For some reason, when Ginna/Kate threw down the hat in the final scene, it went sliding off the stage. I can’t recall if some other hat-propelling agency was involved, but the extreme journey of the hat added a great deal to the lines that Alisa and I have following. (“What a foolish duty call you THIS?”) Ginna gracefully descended from the stage during her speech to retrieve the hat during her speech, with perfect improvisational skill.

Our Henry V and Merchant of Venice which followed on the next two consecutive nights were equally excellent shows, fed by the superlative audiences—though slightly smaller, they still filled the room, both in terms of occupied seats and generous energy. I remember even fewer distinctive things about these performances than I do our performance of Shrew, in part because they were simply, to my recollection, a couple of the best shows we’ve had. All I really remember about Henry was that afterwards Aaron told me it was the best he had ever seen the Boy’s soliloquy, which made me very happy. I, too, had been feeling less ashamed by it than usual that evening, and I really value Aaron’s opinion.

One specific thing I remember about Merchant was that Ginna picked a very cute boy in a hat on stage-right as the German, and I felt slightly poorly for picking on him later as the “lewd interpreter;” but he gave me no choice, because he had laughed and clapped much louder than anyone else at Ginna’s consistently-brilliant “Why, shall we turn to men?”

I also felt that the Quality of Mercy was perhaps the best it had ever been, or perhaps merely revitalised by my attempts to use a slightly different treatment of the text. As I have discussed before, I think the two main treatments of Shakespearean text are styles I might call ‘simplicity and reasoning’ and ‘deep emotional resonance,’ and I think employment of both makes for the best performance. Naturally, most lines and moments are a blend of the two, but the pull of the extremes of these two styles is always compelling when I see it in other performances. It floors me both when an actor allows his body and the words to be conduit for pure emotion, and when an actor tosses off lines like “What’s the matter?” or “I will go” with colloquial simplicity, and the true power rests in having both. This is perhaps too many words spent on a concept that is not terribly sophisticated: in essence, if everything has equal weight (or, conversely, equal lightness), eventually, nothing is heard. It is certainly too many words spent on the topic of the Quality of Mercy, Huntsville Version; quite simply, I have always approached the speech as one with a greater percentage of ‘deep emotional resonance’ than ‘simplicity and reasoning,’ but this evening it came out slightly favouring ‘simplicity and reasoning’ at something like 55-45%. This pleased me, because I’ve been feeling recently that I need a larger percentage of it in my work, and that it is the dominant texture in most truly great classical work that I’ve seen (and that I see, daily, from my castmates).

Huntsville leisure activities included a viewing of Atonement, my first visit to a Steak & Shake since high school (in my mind’s scrapbook, I recall a photograph of me after a performance of The Boyfriend looking rather as though my milkshake had been spiked), and Dan and Ellen’s Two Attempts and One Successful Visit to a Thai Restaurant. The Shakespearean actor is a simple beast: it rises, it seeks food, it performs Shakespeare, and it goes to sleep. Some breeds, also, watch too much CNN.

The kind people at the Huntsville Literary Association held a dinner for us after our performance of Henry on Friday night; it was delicious. Everyone was very friendly, but one woman lamented to me that I’d only had two scenes, but that I’d done such a good job with the French. I told her that I had five scenes as the Boy (six if you count the “Kill the boys and the luggage” scene), and she gazed at me for a moment before she said, “That was you?” Ha HA! Success.

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New Martinsville, West Virginia, February 1-3:

Situated on the Ohio river and consequently nestled to the extreme north of West Virginia’s borders, New Martinsville lays claim to a number of titles in regards to this blog.

One of them is ‘New Martinsville: Town of the Twin Buffets,’ because the non-chain restaurants that I found were a surprisingly good Chinese buffet about two minutes from the hotel and a home-style buffet called Quinet’s, which is apparently a town tradition, and which I visited with Mssrs. Evan Hoffmann and Daniel Kennedy. Because the more that I am on tour, the more I get tired of chain restaurants, I ate myself into pain all three days of our visit. The hotel’s gym, which consisted of a treadmill that stopped working every two to three minutes (which rather made me wonder if it operated via cell phone reception), was consequently not on an inverse relationship with the area food, but I think this correlation only works for campuses.

N.B. For anyone wondering, ‘What is a life on tour really like?’ the above paragraph will probably give you a far more accurate view than anything in the rest of this post, and possibly in this entire blog.

New Martinsville’s other title is ‘Town of One and a Half Merchants’ which is probably a more distinctive title than the former. Some of you may be wondering whether this a rather bad idea for a sitcom, in which Antonio, being gay as a tangerine, adopts a scrappy little orphan boy, who may or may not be a girl in disguise. Some of you may be wondering if this is an effect of the troubled economy, in which the two Merchants you previously owned are now only worth one and a half. Some of you may be wondering when I am going to end this paragraph, because it is perfectly obvious what I mean! You win, though all two and a half of you will have to read on to get the full explanation.

We were set to perform Merchant of Venice for an area high school. We therefore woke an ungodly hour, loaded in first in rain and then down a long hallway, and started the show at around 10 AM. For those of you who may have forgotten, our staging of Merchant involves all eleven of us staying on stage during the entire show, seated on benches around the sides of the stage. So, when the principal was trying to signal to Chris Seiler to come off stage in order to talk with her during scene 2.3, Chris (as he narrates it) tried desperately to convey to her that exiting was not a possibility. But eventually he ceded, and shortly afterwards crept around to each of the benches to tell us that we would be pausing the show after this scene.

This would not have seemed quite so surreal with either of our other shows, in part because there would have been people backstage to receive the message, and in part because the fact that we never go backstage creates a spirit of continuity for the show that jars oddly at interruption. (We discovered this when, in our December performance at the Blackfriars, we had an intermission for the first time.) So, when we stopped after the scene, and everyone sat around in silence for a moment, Ginna, who was sitting next to me on the bench, leaned over and said, “Do you hear that sound? …That’s P.J. screaming.”

The principal came forward and announced that, as many of the students had predicted, they were indeed going to be going home. She announced that students would be dismissed by bus, and read off some of the bus numbers that were ready to depart. The performance would resume, and we would do as much as we could before the rest of the busses arrived.

Through all of her announcement, the sheer absurdity of our situation made me grin irrepressibly. There we all were, sitting around on stage, whilst the principal read off bus numbers so that the students could escape an impending catastrophe that I did not understand—after all, it was just raining, not snowing. I’m not sure why my natural response to this kind of adversity is profound amusement, but it has more to do with realising that worrying will get me nowhere than a lack of concern. Also, I should not, in honesty, underestimate my love of a great story, and perhaps my initial curiosity about the drama of not doing a show has brought this upon our heads.

DRAMA RUNDOWN

For those of you keeping score at home, we have logged one example of each of the following kinds of drama:
– The drama of thinking we might not do a show, but in the end performing as planned;
– The drama of doing a different show than the one we were planning to do;
– The drama of not doing a show;
– The drama of doing one-half of a show.

WEST VIRGINIA HIGH SCHOOL SHOW COMPLETION RUNDOWN

And for those of you keeping tabs on this particular sport, the score is as follows:
– SHOWS COMPLETED: 3
– SHOWS NOT COMPLETED: 2
This means that we are only 3 for 5 with West Virginia High Schools, or perhaps that they are 3 for 5 with us. This is not a shameful score for other sports, but in the theatre, one rather expects to make it to the curtain call. This is not a good track record, West Virginia!

And now, back to the show—in more ways than one. We resumed the performance after the interruption, and made it through another four or five scenes, until the principal somehow communicated to Chris that we needed to stop. (In my mind, because she was always behind me, I see her making signs like a baseball coach, or perhaps communicating via semaphore.) Paul was eternally devastated by the fact that we were cut off right before the Arragon scene, after he had so painstakingly made the costume change, thus prompting him to suggest the following day that we do the Arragon scene first before running through the rest of the show.

We discovered that school had been cancelled due to flooding on many of the area roads, which were becoming increasingly dangerous as more rain fell. But before many of the kids were actually sent home, they were given lunch, and we were also invited to help ourselves to some of the cafeteria food. The kids all gave us rock star treatment as we squeezed into chairs at various tables with the students; I think 90% of the autographs I have signed in my life have been at high schools, where students often mistake us for people who are actually important. These kids were particularly fervent in their adoration, almost as if Shakespeare had played hard-to-get, and was thus more desirable.

One of the finest moments of the day, which was, let’s face it, already pretty distinctive, was when the principal stood in the middle of the dining hall and bellowed something to the effect of “We have guests here with us and you all are acting like a bunch of heathens!” (“You all are acting like a bunch of heathens” is definitely a direct quote.) I found it amusing chiefly because I thought they were actually quite well behaved, for high school students. Dan and I did our part to quietly confound authority during this announcement by poking each other like two children in the back seat of a car. I am not sure if the students with whom we were sitting were more amused or surprised.

The following day, we held a community workshop about Merchant of Venice, which was memorable chiefly because, when we asked for an audience response to part of a scene with Shylock, one of the gentlemen in attendance said that Shylock “was, as we say around here, fixin’ for a five-knuckle introduction.” Most of us agreed that this was the best assessment we had yet heard.

That evening, we performed Merchant at the old Lincoln theatre (est. 1920, yet another thing that happened in the decade in which I was born) in downtown New Martinsville, which was, by report, an old opera house, but reminded me in construction far more of a movie theatre. The reasons for this comparison are as follows: the house had a long shoebox shape, deeply overhung by the balcony; the stage was small, but very high in relation to the house; there was very little space directly backstage, though there were capacious dressing rooms underneath the stage, obviously also est. 1920; and, last, but not least, the acoustics were terrible.

Aaron wisely had us all do a sound-check beforehand, wherein I learned that I needed to feel as though I was screaming at the top of my lungs in order to be heard. I know this is a weakness of mine, stemming from my primary obsession/need for honesty within myself on stage, and my consequent desire to be able to just talk to the people on stage with me. Naturally, this does not mean that I don’t try as hard as I possibly can to be perfectly audible to the person in the last row, but I only hope that I can be honest and be audible to that last person, too. Many actors have articulated this as the challenge of being understood with equal honesty and clarity by the person in the last row and the person in the front row, but I think it goes further than that: one must have equal honesty for the last row and for one’s self. I think this is one of the greatest technical and emotional challenges in stage acting, precisely because it requires a blend of all of one’s technical and emotional skill. For example, I fell in love with Jennifer Garner as Roxane in Cyrano, which I saw from, literally, the second to last row of the top balcony, but my friend who was in the show said (with all due respect) that other friends of his who saw the show from the front rows felt that they could ‘see’ her acting. And God knows, I am a far lesser actress, and I have not yet figured it out.

I think one of the greatest challenges of touring is adapting to different spaces; spatially, I find this a delightful opportunity to be a Theatre Ninja, but vocally, the kind of challenge that takes up space in my brain where I’d rather be thinking only about the scene and what I need from others. For the first few scenes of this performance of Merchant, I felt as if I were speaking unnaturally loudly directly into people’s faces, and this unnaturalness subsequently seemed, from the inside, to infuse everything I did. But after a couple of scenes, the volume became natural, and, furthermore, the acting style fitting to that volume became natural, and I was able to delve deeper into the emotions in the words. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with “You see me Lord Bassanio where I stand;” I felt my body burning throughout the entire speech, which is one way I know I am connected to the deep current of the text. So, if we were performing in that space every evening, I would be used to the kind of honesty necessary in that space, and it would consequently feel natural from the start.

Because the deeper breaths and the increased resonance essentially give emotion fewer places to hide, more things are dredged up: it feels to me like the deep-sea trawling of acting. This fits into a certain style of acting, one that is no less honest, but which is, for lack of a better term, more ‘classical,’ or more ‘Shakespearean.’ I think it has a place in any Shakespeare performance, and if I attend a show, and in an entire performance an actor never goes down to the bottom of their body and pulls their heart out of their throat, when they have been given such poetry with which to do it, I feel a little cheated. But an entire performance of it is exhausting to watch, and then I’m always itching for them to just TALK to each other, for the love of heaven.

For example, the Edward II that many of us in the troupe saw at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. was mostly a whole lot of screaming (except for the man who played Mortimer, who talked occasionally in the second act). They were all very talented actors, but many of their performances verged on using, to my ear, the dread ‘Shakespeare Voice’ (odd especially for Marlowe), and I got the sense from most of the actors that they had been directed to project louder and louder for the new space, past a place that was honest for them. Though I abhor the Voice-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, a deep emotional resonance is a beautiful thing to hear, to see, and to experience, because it shows us something greater; but it is best when used to shape the journey by pointing out the largest emotional moments in the play, or at least, in a scene. An entire play of it is mush.

Throughout my personal journey in Shakespeare performance, which, while modest, actually comprises over one-half of my life, I have always oscillated between a desire for allowing the text to carry out the deepest emotional resonances in the body, and a desire for the text to be as plain, as simple, and as colloquial as possible. Within a year, or within a day, I will head one direction or the next; but in the end, I think the only answer can be that both are necessary, and only by the inclusion of both can the beauties and the virtues of both be seen to best advantage. The reason I, in honesty, dislike spaces in which I always need to use my top volume, is because variation is harder to achieve, not because I cannot be loud and honest, both. Variety is the spice of acting.

And now that my Treatise on Volume in Stage Acting has concluded, I can bring my verbosity round to other subjects, such as our actual performance of Merchant of Venice. Some of the fantastic kids from the previous day’s aborted show came to the evening’s performance, which was lovely. One posted a comment on my About Me page expressing his distress at not being able to see the rest of the show, and someone (probably one of our Merchandise/Development folks) reported that he was in attendance. This renewed my faith in both high school students, and the possibility of people actually coming to see your show when they say they will. (One reality of life, as an actor, is that many more people say they will come see your show than actually do.)

Two things remain distinctive about this performance for me. The first was that Dan, the Emperor of Comedy, was unprecedentedly hysterical as Launcelot Gobbo. His speech just gets better each time, though it was in his later scene with Jessica and Lorenzo in which he makes jokes about preparing to go in to dinner, that I was floored with laughter. After each of his jokes, he tucked his head down and made a funny little grin to himself, and it definitely belongs on the list of Top 25 Funniest Things I Have Ever Seen On Stage, if not in the Top 10. Like everything else on these lists, it does not communicate well. Sometimes I wonder if the things I find funniest are funniest because they are unique, and truly had to be experienced at that time. I always find myself trying to explain the genius (previously discussed on this blog) of Michael Aronov leaping across half of the stage in Mauritius, and the story is always about as funny as this sentence. Part of the beauty of Dan’s grin was that I was about two feet from him, and probably had the best view of anyone in the house, assuredly much better than the people way in the back of the telescope of a theatre space. But suffice it to say, I haemorrhaged laughter at Dan’s Gobbo antics, and had to think about something really depressing, like ‘President Huckabee,’ in order to stop.

The other memorable thing about this performance was that the audience, though I am sure they are all lovely people, laughed at every single one of Gratiano’s racist jabs in the courtroom scene, and then actually laughed when he ripped off Shylock’s yarmulke and spit on it. People always laugh at the first few digs, because it breaks the tension of the scene, but never, to my memory, have people laughed at him spitting on the yarmulke. I thought I was going to lose it.

Of course, I had already been pushed to my extreme, with the volume pulling up emotion, and furthermore, watching Chris/Shylock respond to the laughter that had greeted all of Gratiano’s previous anti-Semitic attacks. Chris, as Shylock, has this beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking way of taking in the laughter, as if it were, indeed, a courtroom of hundreds of people set against him. It always moves me, but the larger the laughter, the more terrified Shylock appears, and the greater my pity for him becomes. During this performance, when I have to stop him with “Tarry Jew, / The law hath yet another hold on you,” I am not proud to say that a tear had slipped from my eye; it was awkward because, of course, I had nowhere to hide, and knew that Shylock would see it, but I thought it better not to wipe it away, making it obvious to the entire courtroom and the audience.

So, when they laughed at Gratiano spitting on the yarmulke, it took everything I had not to start crying. It’s hard to watch actors delving into a cruelty dictated by the text, and it’s painful to get caught up in the emotion of the courtroom and deliver the heartless justice that was requested, because they are reminders of the places in all human beings where compassion disappears—but it is a sharper reminder when a whole roomful of people, under no compulsion from a playwright or a storyline, laugh at such misfortunes. But I did not weep, and, oddly enough, I felt that the rest of the scene, in which I try to get Bassanio’s ring, was the best it’s ever been—as if I had to make it extra light just in order to pull myself out of my horror and assume the role of Learned Doctor. I think this is a discovery that might help me with some of the changes I’m trying my best to implement.

West Virginia constituted a tough couple of weeks for me, and for many of us, and for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with our hosts and the kind reception we invariably receive. We were all excited to be heading into Florida’s warmer weather, and, God willing, cell phone reception!

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Buckhannon, West Virginia, January 29: 

Luckily, we had another performance of Merchant of Venice in Buckhannon. The theater was beautiful; it reminded me a little of the theater in which I did Romeo and Juliet in college, only with a larger stage, a smaller house, and more humane acoustics. So the similarities were basically age, and a balcony that curved all the way around the house from one side of the stage to the other, supported by columns that created side galleries below. (For those of you seeking another visual cue, both Paul and Scot employed different film references to say it reminded them of a 1950s courthouse.) Audience members were forbidden from sitting in the balcony because it can no longer support large amounts of weight. Whilst some part of me acknowledges this as a drawback, the other part of me finds it really exciting, though whether from my Romantic / Gothic love of old and crumbling buildings, or some residual spirit of Gladys from Tennessee Williams’ These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch, I am not sure.

The audience was kind and attentive, if not the best of all time, but I confess I didn’t care about audience response nearly as much as having another crack at working on the changes. I knew, even prior to our previous performance of it, that the first show would be the hardest to get through, and that subsequent shows would slowly become easier—precisely because the difficulty stems from an unfamiliarity with certain aspects of a world whose every other feature has a long and often complicated history. I am pleased to say that I think this performance worked; I did an adequate job, and many of my castmates had truly fantastic shows.

As a matter of fact, so many people gave wonderful performances that I am sure I cannot do justice to recording them here. Raffi, as Morocco, had just about his best casket scene of all time, and executed his beat changes so quickly with “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves/As much as he deserves!/Pause there, Morocco” that, although I escaped actually laughing, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. (Lewis said to me, after seeing the show last October, “You were great, my dear, but the best part of the show was when the Moroccan prince said ‘This casket threatens!’” I have to agree with him.) Paul followed this up with an equally brilliant Arragon, really laying into one of the people on stage with the “barbarous multitudes” and then doing a swift change-up to “Why then, to thee, thou silver TREASURE house,” saying the word ‘treasure’ in a higher pitch. You will just have to trust me that it was honestly one of the funnier things I have ever heard and that I nearly lost it, because prose cannot render it in its full glory.

Paul also reached some new places with Lorenzo, getting visibly frustrated and spontaneously punching the floor at the end of “The man that hath no music in himself” speech. Alisa had an especially good balcony scene, I thought, and Scot made me tear up when he said, “He seeks my life” in the scene with Solanio and the jailer. Josh has been working in some pauses after “Will you stead me? Will you pleasure me?” in the first scene with Shylock, which are really hysterical. Chris, as Shylock, seemed to reason out his argument better than ever in the courtroom scene, and I almost felt at times as if he knew what I was doing, both of which made my job in the scene more difficult in a positive way. When I told him afterwards what an amazing show I thought he had, he said, “Yeah, I saw everyone else trying new things, so I thought I’d do it, too.” And it was so true: everyone, including the people I haven’t mentioned here, gave fresh performances which were full of discovery and life.

Meanwhile, other comparisons with our previous West Virginia stay, Fairmont, run as follows:
Dining Hall: Better in Buckhannon
Gym: Worse in Buckhannon (thus corroborating the supposition made in Fairmont about an inverse relationship between the quality of the dining hall and the quality of the gym, a better gym being required to work off the effects of poor health choices at the dining hall)
Cell Phone Reception: Still roaming, but more likely to cut a call off every twenty minutes than every twenty seconds
Hotel: Decidedly more quaint

 On our day off, Dan, Josh and Scot went skiing and snowboarding. I opted for the group outing to a local mall, it being more suitable to my intense hatred of cold, and that part of my personality which people in the nineteenth century would dub ‘a delicate constitution,’ and which my mom calls me being a ‘weenie.’

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