Posts Tagged ‘piercing eloquence troupe’

Burlington, Vermont, October 9:

Our performance of Merchant of Venice was an interesting one (at least for us, the actors on stage—it would be unfair to make assumptions for the audience), because we actually hadn’t done the show in a couple of weeks, though it had been approaching stability at that time. My personal experience of the show was a war (or at least a tug-of-war) between my head and my body: because the last time we performed the show, it had reached a point where I could truly drop into my body and turn off my mind, the substantial part of me felt that was a possibility, and kept striving for it. On the other hand, it had been two weeks since we’d done the show, and it really wasn’t in my body anymore. Hijinks ensue!

The worst of these were the kinds of flubs of which I never would have believed myself capable, when once I lived in the cloistered state of Running the Same Show Five (or Six) Nights a Week. I had always joked that I was going to get the ‘Come, Nerissa,’ lines mixed up—I have three lines that begin with ‘Come, Nerissa’—and now my fondest hope is only that it will never happen again. The first time I said, “Come, sirrah,” instead, and had to correct myself; not the End of the World, but as I sat down, my mind was berating my body, “Come, Nerissa, sirrah go before” over and over again. The upshot of this was that when I got to the second Come Nerissa in a later scene, all I could think of was “Come-Nerissa-sirrah-go-before.” Nor was the correct line on the tip of my tongue; it rather felt that it was loitering somewhere in the neighbourhood of my toes. So I simply picked up the casket and moved it, which is the action that usually accompanies aforesaid absent text. All the angels and saints bless Ginna Hoben, who completely saved me by coming in with her next line. I was thoroughly ashamed as I sat down, but was thankful that it wasn’t an actual Elizabethan audience, who would have been expecting a couplet at the end of the scene, and would have recognised well that “Come, come Nerissa…!” and “Bassanio, Lord Love, if thy will it be” do not a closing couplet make. Then they would have thrown potatoes at me, or eggs, or maybe live chickens. Of course, this would have to have been when I came back on stage for the next entrance, since if I were performing for an Elizabethan audience, I would not be sitting on the side of the stage during the other scenes.

What I would like to say in my defense is this: I went over all of my lines that morning. I even paced around my hotel rooms in rough blocking patterns. And yet, more times than I could count on my two hands, I really had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth next. Fortunately, my body does know the show well enough, that on all of these occasions save one, I actually said the next thing. And, granted, that next line that issued from my mouth was often very spontaneous, very new, and one naturally feels more fully the immediacy of what one says when not quite sure what this Theoretical One will say next.

And so, the best part was that the show was certainly fresh. Both Ginna and I agreed that the stakes seemed much higher that evening than, perhaps, they ever had been previously. It was certainly the best Morocco Casket Scene I’d ever had (I was terrified out of my mind), and I was significantly more wound up whilst Arragon, and, especially, Bassanio, chose caskets. It also may have been the best Courtroom Scene yet, which did a great deal to change the opinion that I had about a third of the way into the show (namely: This is my worst Merchant ever). I thought a great number of the company had exceptional shows by the end; one of the really beautiful things about being on stage the whole time is the way in which electricity can run from one scene into the next, and it may be that my sense of heightened stakes came from someone else’s energy, or that it fed the energy of the next scene. Evan brought a real spark into the show by jumping off stage and hitting on a girl in the front row on the line, “Nay, but I bar tonight: you shall not judge me by what we do tonight,” rather than going for Josh’s belt buckle. It’s brilliant either way, but it was new, fresh, and full of joy, and furthermore, we as actors get to witness the invention of our colleagues. I remarked to Ginna after the show that I’m sorry I don’t get to sit on stage during Shrew and Henry, so that I can see the work that everyone else does. Nerdy? Why yes. But that’s in the title, my friends. You knew what you were getting in for when you started to read. If the general paragraph size didn’t already speak for itself.

The audience was large in number but quieter in response, yet seemed to be listening and engaged. We had a total of three Merchant workshops in two days, and the third class, particularly, was especially astute (though they probably benefited slightly from having seen the show the night before). The workshops are about racism in The Merchant of Venice, but at the end of the classes, some of the students asked really excellent questions about interpretation and acting; I most easily recall those that were asked of me, such as “What were you thinking at the end of the courtroom scene?” and “How do you justify the ring business in the last act?” (short answer: “I’m still working on that”). Furthermore, the illustrious Josh Carpenter, in the phrase-creating tradition of Shakespeare himself, coined a term in the third workshop: the soul fart. As in, when Gratiano says “Here comes Lorenzo and his infidel!” we might become uncomfortable, thinking, “Whose soul farted in here?”


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Powhattan, Virginia, September 30-31:

What was supposed to be a two-hour drive became a five-hour inch-forward through a traffic jam. I avoided any irritation, myself, by sleeping as though I had been drugged, though I retained some awareness of the valiant driver (Mr. Aaron Hochhalter) and skilled navigator (Ms. Ginna Hoben) doing all of the re-routing and swearing that the job required. When we finally saw the Days Inn, its sign rising majestically above the strip mall, but could not figure out how to actually get around said strip mall to the hotel, Raffi started singing, “C-e-l-e-brate good times COME ON.” It remains, to this hour, unspeakably funny to me, though I grant that I had the benefit of one who had not truly experienced five hours of supreme traffic-related annoyance.

We performed two shows of Taming of the Shrew at Powhattan High School, the first of which is known as “the Battle for the Stage” and “the Great Whacker Noodle Massacre” by alternate historians. Whacker noodles, for those of you unacquainted with these august objects, are foam tubes used in our production of Shrew largely for masters to beat their uncooperative servants, or for servants to beat other uncooperative servants. As we demonstrate in the pre-show, they do not really hurt, provided that the blow is not aimed in a delicate place (“Stay away from the 8×10,” said Jim, referring to the headshot area, “And the 3×3,” added Ginna, referring to the line “Away, you three-inch fool!” and subsequent jests). We hand them out for the front rows of the audience, to hold them, but Chris and Chris also inform the audience that they may hit the actors if they’d like.

Like all great historic battles, in which one soldier or commander turns to another and says something that will prove oddly prescient or bittersweet by the end of the day, this story has a prologue. Alisa and I were standing backstage, as we are the Whacker Noodle Wenches, and were listening to the pre-show. At one point, Chris Johnston says, “There’s something that makes actors very sad,” in response to which Chris Seiler holds up his two blue whacker noodles under weepy eyes. Johnston comments, “Those are some long tears, my friend.” I find this funnier every time I hear it. And on this fateful day, I said to Alisa, “You know, I think the ‘long tears’ are my favourite part of the whole pre-show.”

In brief, the high school students had the highest F.P.C. we’ve yet encountered, achieving units of whoopage comparable to the Sumatra earthquake on the Richter Scale. Allow me to be upfront: I vastly prefer this kind of high school audience to its alternative, the Sleeping High School Audience. Perhaps the most disturbing is the Awake But Staring Ahead with the Recognition of the Undead High School Audience. But when a High School Audience is feisty, I hardly feel we can take all the credit; at least one-third of their feistiness is due to the fact that we are neither their teachers nor a video, and one-third of their feistiness is due to the fact that they are teenagers. The remaining one-third, in this case, was perhaps largely inspired by the fact that they were told they could hit the actors. After two kids ran into the middle of the stage to whack Lucentio and Tranio with their pants around their ankles, I think all bets were off.

Let me be clear: I was never actually hit, nor do I really have enough lines in the 90-minute version to have to contend vocally with audibly rambunctious audience. I noted to Ginna, after the Kate/Bianca Bound scene, “It’s a little intense out there,” and that was about the utmost of my experience until the Five Kissing Poses of Lucentio and Bianca scene in the fourth act. But High School kids always scream when they see people kissing, and it didn’t even particularly surprise me that they were yelling things like “Get a room!” (I think I remember, pretty clearly, a high school kid telling Peter and Anne in Diary of Anne Frank to get a room, and thinking, ‘How have you not grasped the central concept that we are all stuck in an attic?’)  However, I felt poorly for the actors who were actually talking whilst we were kissing, or whilst really anything else was going on. A lot of whacker noodle blows were received by the company, but I think the knowledge that those were pulling focus, more than that there were blows at all, was distressing to many.

The true tragedy was that a couple of the whacker noodles were snuck all the way into the middle of the auditorium. When we realised that we were missing a couple of them by the end of the show, Evan (because he is charismatic and his surfer dude Biondello always wins over the audience, especially high school ones) and Alisa (because the whacker noodles are her prop children) went out on stage to plead for their return. I didn’t see what was going on, but I heard Evan saying, “C’mon, we need them back,” about ten times, and Alisa repeating, “We can’t get more because it’s not pool season anymore!” When the noodles were slowly restored, it became obvious why their homecoming had been so hesitant. They were maimed, and, in a couple cases, completely vivisected. Specifically one of the blue noodles. And when Alisa mourned, “Now there won’t be any more long tears,” I had to mourn with her.

But, as is often the case, recalcitrant high school students can be the most noticeable, but they are not representative of the whole, or even the majority, of the student body. In my opinion, whatever their faults, redemption for them came about ten-fold. Our second audience was perhaps the best Shrew audience we’ve had yet—student or adult. They were excited, responsive, and, it seemed to me, utterly wrapped up in the story. (I think the fact that we told them to hold the whacker noodles, but made no mention of hitting the actors, may have helped.)

I thought Ginna had a really amazing show the second day, whenever I was lucky enough to be on stage to witness it. I hope I am divulging any confidence when I write here that she later commented that the students were really with her, perhaps because they identified with her rebellion. And at the end, she said, it felt as though she was betraying them. When in the final speech she said, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” she heard a girl say, “Sike!” But I think that speech has never been so clear, and so urgent, and I think that they were simply very giving as audience members—no matter the gift. From my own experience, these two audiences are the only ones in which every single person that Bianca flirted with waved back. In Baltimore, I recall, the boy that I waved to actually turned his head, assuming that I was waving at the person beside him.

But even more heart-warming than this was a student named Amanda Walker, who came to us before the show on the second day with an entire bag full of whacker noodles that had been at her grandmother’s house. Amazing! Amanda, and her friend (I think?) Samantha also wrote us a letter of appreciation, delivered to us after the second show. Amanda Walker of Powhattan High School, we love you. I wish I had your address to write you a thank-you card. But for the time being, we’ve simply rechristened Gremio’s walker, which we always dubbed “Walker Texas Ranger” to the “Amanda Walker.” And that’s the kind of elegant and dignified memorial one can receive in the theatre.

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Sterling, Virginia, September 29:

Our second-ever performance of Henry the Fifth saw an improvement over its predecessor at Loyola. We were all a little less frantic, if that’s possible in a production with so many costume changes, and as I looked out at the audience, I did not feel as though I was speaking another language. Unless, of course, I was.

The stage was fairly small, which meant that we had to alter the battle sequence slightly. The non-combatants (Pistol, the Boy, and Mr. Paul Reisman as the drummer) scooted off stage as quickly as possible, eliminating Pistol’s crucial pickpocketing-of-the-French-soldiers, and my less crucial holy-wow-look-at-King-Henry-kick-some-French-derriere-gaze-of-awe.

The placement of our set, otherwise known as six black boxes, was also thrown into jeopardy by the small space. Evan had the idea of moving the furthest-downstage box off the stage into the front of the auditorium for the English Night scene, which worked very well. Or, at least until the wooing scene in the final act. When he realised that the box onto which he usually ‘vaulted’ had been removed, the split-second glance before he decided to leap all the way off stage was priceless. (Afterwards, Evan said, “It’s fitting that it was my idea to move the boxes, and I’m the one who was messed up by it.”) Fortunately, Princess Katharine found him all the more charming for being all the more flustered. But she opted for sitting on the upstage rather than downstage box this time around. That’s the kind of crazy blocking gymnastics one has to do as a Theatre Ninja.

We had a fair amount of cell phone interruptions during this performance, which made me think that we should revert to the one time in the Merchant pre-show in which first Raffi, and, two minutes later, Alisa told everyone to turn their cell phones off, on pain of derision. (Or rather, “The Most Important Thing I Could Possibly Tell You Is TO TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE thank you.”) Alisa has a much more excellent account of Rude Cell Phone Man at this performance of Henry on her blog; it excels in part because she was stationed in the theatre lobby at the time, and in part because Alisa’s manner of telling a story makes me laugh until I cry. I only noticed the Cell Phone Perpetrator once, during the Crispin’s Day Scene; I glared in the general direction for a minute, but, as the only unarmed person on the entire stage, I left the menacing to Scot, who was doing an admirable job.

Speaking of the Crispin’s Day Scene, Evan told me afterwards that he noticed a few men in the audience mouthing not just the famous lines but the entirety of the speech along with him. He said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” right along with a man who was sitting on stage, to the left. Now, this can go either way; I was once in a production of Macb*th that performed for a few classes of 5th graders (don’t ask) and the entirety of the audience recited aloud “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” along with my friend Mr. Risher Reddick. That was a little unnerving, at least for me, and I was witnessing it from behind the metal supply closet ‘backstage.’ But Evan said he loved it, and I agree that it’s a particularly powerful moment in which to be literally sharing the words with the audience—because the Crispin Day speech is all about this particular group of people being thrown together at this time, in this place. That’s theatre! Plus, you know your soldiers are really with you when they know your speech. This might also help me with the Quality of Mercy, which I have recently become aware may also boast a fair amount of simultaneous audience recitations. I will say, “Therefore Jew: / Though justice be thy plea, consider this: / That everyone thinks mercy is so great / They’re mouthing all these words along with me.” Case closed.

After the show, we went to the Hoffmann house (because Evan’s parents live nearby) for the best dinner we had in weeks. Evan’s parents were more kind, gracious, and hospitable than we truly deserved, as we simply scarfed down the make-your-own salad, lasagne, and 87 different sundae combinations as if it were our job. Which it kind of is. Being an actor and being starving go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly; like cookies and milk; like turkey and stuffing; like hummus and pita. You will notice these are all food similes—that is not a coincidence. Evan has a picture of a few of us (pictured are Mr. Paul Reisman, Ms. Ginna Hoben, and, I believe, Mr. Josh Carpenter in retreat) either smiling or groaning under the weight of all that delicious food on his Piercing Eloquence Blog; he also has posted a few pictures of us at Loyola.

We were staying at the second most beautiful hotel yet (after the Belmont Inn), so it was unfortunate that we were only there for a night. When we walked into our room, I suggested that we commute to Staunton from the hotel. Paul did not hear me, because was already locked in an amorous gaze with the gigantic flat-screen TV. It seemed like a 478-inch television, which is the only kind of estimation I can give, being much better at hyperbole than actual real-life size measurements.

The thing that ultimately made parting from the television and the pillows bearable was the fact that the staff was a bit bungling, or at least, not speaking to one another. Paul went to register us for a late check-out time, but they had already lost the photocopy of the sheet with all of our names and room numbers on it. So they made another copy. The following noon, we were accosted by staff warning us that if we didn’t check out, we would be charged. Paul went down and explained, but no one had either of the previous two photocopies, any recognition or acknowledgement that this arrangement had been made, or, apparently, two hospitality-trained brain cells to knock together. They solved the problem by making a third photocopy of our room sheet. I proposed that the staff worked there because they liked the aesthetics and the complimentary apples, not because they were particularly committed to hotel management.

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

Baltimore, Maryland, September 26-28:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exceptions to Baltimore’s Low F.P.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

excellent actors = heavy suitcases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frederick, Maryland, September 25:

We performed Merchant of Venice for a mid-sized audience that was large-sized in enthusiasm. I think they may have had the most feistiness per capita (hereinafter referred to as F.P.C., in units of ‘whoopage’) of any adult audience so far. We knew we were in for a fun time as early as the pre-show speech. When Evan employed the usual fundraising analogy, illustrating that ticket sales only cover 60% of the theatre’s operating budget by asking the audience to imagine Josh (or, in the speech, usually, “Josh Here”) being forced to perform in only 60% of his costume, someone shouted out, “Nice!” which was followed by several whoops and sporadic applause. Josh smiled gamely; it’s not an easy job having every girl aged 14-40 (and perhaps younger and older) in the audience in love with him, but by God he gets up every morning and faces the task.

The stage itself was long and very shallow, with the result that we were not actually able to bring people on stage with us, as we needed the narrow sides for the actor benches.  (For more on our staging of Merchant of Venice, see my post about Orrville, Ohio.) This also necessitated some altering of our thrust blocking, which a few of us agreed after the show had kept us in our heads from time to time. But Aaron once again thought it was a good show, and as I continually insist that Mr. Hochhalter is Omniscient and All-Seeing, this proves that we as actors generally have no way to gauge our own performances. Unless we do something really obvious like trip over ourselves, or throw up on stage. Both of which I have done at various times in my on-stage life, and I promise you, neither of those are nearly as bad as feeling ‘kind of off.’ For you may blame the uneven boards of the stage or the cooking at ‘Bob the Chef’s,’ but nothing shields you from the self-blame and self-hatred of the Kind of Off Performance.

A very nice girl asked Chris Seiler (Shylock) and I questions after the show in the interests of writing an article for a school publication. Amongst other things, she asked me if I was nervous to do “The quality of mercy is not strained,” because, as she pointed out, she had to memorise it when she was in High School and she was sure there were always a number of people in the audience who were reciting it along with me, as she herself had done that evening. I think I said that it’s not often that a woman gets the famous To-be-or-not-to-be speech in the play, so I hadn’t much thought about it, though that was partially code for ‘I wasn’t very nervous about it before, but I sure am now.’

The Quality of Mercy does indeed have a kind of here-comes-the-big-one aspect to it, far more so than the only other comparably famous speech I have had so far, namely “O Romeo, Romeo, why the hell you gotta be called Romeo?” And I was never aware of any nervousness about that line, in part because a quarter of the world thinks it’s ‘where art thou Romeo’ and not ‘wherefore art thou Romeo,’ and another quarter of the world thinks ‘wherefore’ means ‘where,’ so I mostly focused on trying to clear up the meaning. Also I split up the text like it was my job, or at least like I never went to Shakespeare and Company. Also I have played Juliet three times.

 She also asked me what my least favourite part of touring was, to which I promptly replied, “Eating fast food.” But I was thoroughly stumped by her question, “What are the best and worst parts about playing Portia?” I sat on the edge of the stage, apparently waiting for someone to come by and either close my mouth or place the answer in it. We put the question aside and came back to it at the end, but I still didn’t have a good answer. The relationship between an actor and a character is, in my experience, too complex, and, I fear, too delicate for that kind of judgment. Some kind of superstitious foreboding makes me quail from even writing more here—laugh at me, if you will. So simply blathered about how much I love Portia and how much I love her spirit, and ended by saying that there is no worst thing, because the most problematic thing is the most difficult, and the most difficult is the most interesting, and the most interesting is the best. That’s why I love doing Merchant of Venice—no one is wholly good or bad, and every situation is mired in complexity. And that’s also why, when Paul and I were making up our Dream Tour Seasons, I said that my ideal tour would be the ‘problem play’ season: Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That Ends Well. C’mon! That would be so much fun!  But probably difficult to book.

On the whole, however, the ‘interview’ made me feel, inaccurately and only for a moment, famous. These feelings were perhaps alleviated by the fact that our (unisex) dressing room was a little L-shaped nook outside of the Ladies’ loo, and we were assailed in various states of undress from either side until a sign was put on the door and some prohibitive duct tape was put at the top of the stairs. As we left for the stage, ducking underneath the tape, Ginna whispered to me, “Now we know why it’s called ‘duck’ tape.” Ahh, the glamour of the theatre! I laughed a great deal, in part because I love Ginna and in part because I still get a little twinge of nervousness before a performance of Merchant. But Aaron Hochhalter, All-Seeing and Omniscient, said we were beginning to hit our stride with this show, and despite my continual self-criticism, I somewhat agreed.

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I have recently uploaded an ‘avatar’ for myself, after it seemed that WordPress so frequently recommended it. I am not sure when and where this avatar will be visible, but I thought I might explain what the picture is, in the chance that anyone sees it. I must say upfront that this explanation of an avatar will fall far short of the Hindu epics in length, poetry, and number of times that someone jumps from India to Sri Lanka.

The picture is a selection from the front of the programs for the Piercing Eloquence Tour, which haply is also a picture of myself and Mr. Raffi Barsoumian, in the roles of Bianca and Lucentio, respectively. (Though we might switch roles for the afamed ‘Halloween Show.’) Apparently, we won out over pictures of more important people in the season (Shylock, King Henry) by virtue of the fact that the folks at the American Shakespeare Center decided that, for a change, they would like to have a love-related picture on the cover, rather than an angry guy with a sharp weapon (Shylock, King Henry). Granted, Shylock and King Henry are on the posters for their respective individual plays, and Taming of the Shrew has a picture of Petruchio and Flounder, looking happy, and Kate, looking cross.

My mother forwarded to me a poster from our Baltimore venue, as she attended a show there (more on this soon) and had been pestering them for information beforehand. Here it is:

Raffi Barsoumian as Lucentio and Ellen Adair as Bianca

Possible titles for this picture include:
1. The Piercing Eloquence Tour does Gustav Klimt
2. Team Bentivoli (Lucentio’s last name is Bentivoli.)
3. Mailbox #1 (Due to our alphabetical precedence—Ellen Adair and Raffi Barsoumian—the two of us share a mailbox in the basement of the Blackfriars.)
4. Lucentio and Bianca’s 90-Minute Shrew Revenge
5. Ellen sucks at titling things, which is why she always named her poems by number, giving them expressive and informative titles such as #1078, and which is also why this picture wisely remains untitled

Discussion Questions. How does the relation of an avatar, as in a god residing in a human being, resonate with the spirit of a character living in an actor’s body? What does it say about this relationship if an actor chooses a picture of their character as their own avatar? And to what degree does the asking of said questions prove the author to be rating herself even a little too cool in calling herself a ‘Shakespeare Nerd’? Cite specific examples.

As long as we’re on the subject of pictures, my friend Zak, who is generally better at knowing what is going on with me than I am, found another Piercing Eloquence group picture, along with some others, posted on Alisa’s website. You will have to visit it to see the picture, because Alisa’s caption for the photograph made me laugh so hard it hurt. In short, it is a caption befitting Alisa’s typical wit, which I love so much that you should visit her blog anyway. In defence of my pictured self, someone said, “Let’s all take a picture sitting around this table,” and I was the first one to obey, and apparently the only one to take the suggestion literally.

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Or, “All the Things You Never Knew Were Part of a Shakespeare Festival” 

Orrville, Ohio, September 21-22:

Our stay in Orrville was sandwiched between a mammoth drive on either end; fortunately, my talent for sleeping in cars is unrivalled by any man, woman or child I have yet encountered. If only there were an Olympic Sleeping Team, I’d be on my way to Beijing next year. I think I may actually be better at sleeping than anything else, so it is unfortunate for myself and the teenage boys of the world that is not generally esteemed a useful skill.

The people at this venue were perhaps the most generous and hospitable of the many kind and courteous hosts we’ve encountered so far. As I understand it, the American Shakespeare Center has been coming here for quite some time, and so the ‘Shakespeare Festival’ (as the sign proclaimed us) is a highly-anticipated event.

For example, a man who owns a local pizza parlour called “The Batcave” apparently makes the troupe pizza every year, and we were no exception. It looked so delicious, I actually had some, which is against my general policy—aptly named the No Pizza Policy. Said pizza-bearing gentleman was described by Chris Johnston as looking like Albert Einstein, a comparison apparently claimed by the man himself, as he signed his letter announcing the subsequent arrival of the pizzas “aka Albert Einstein.” I found him to actually resemble Mark Twain far more than Albert Einstein, though I grant that those two historical personages are not entirely dissimilar in appearance.

We were also given a welcome gift basket with t-shirts, pens, chapstick, chip clips and hand sanitizer—in short, everything an actor on the road needs. The hand sanitizer is also dressed in a little protective vest, apparently a kind of battle armour in the ongoing warfare against 99.9% of the world’s germs. The protective vest also featured a clip at the bottom, and the image of the illustrious Mr. Aaron Hochhalter demonstrating the supreme usefulness of having hand sanitizer clipped to one’s belt loop (“You see that the sanitizer, pointing downwards, is even in the most convenient orientation”) is one that I hope will remain with me for the rest of my life.

On the first day of the ‘Shakespeare Festival,’ we performed a 90-minute Shrew for area high schoolers (see my post On Tour(ing) for more perspective on the 90-minute Shrew), which was followed by three concurrent ‘Shakespeare on Your Feet’ workshops. We had about 40 high school kids in ours, which I think has set the bar for insanity in workshops. They were bright kids, though, and it was a lot of fun. That evening, we had a full production of Taming of the Shrew, and the following evening we performed Merchant of Venice.

The generosity of the audiences did much to make this one of my favourite venues so far, because we were actually performing in a gymnasium. I chiefly dislike performing in gyms for the poor lighting and the absolutely awful acoustics, not because I feel it’s an inappropriate backdrop for a show. They set it up nicely: we had a spacious stage area, roughly two or three feet off the ground, with a backdrop that masked the basketball hoop behind it, and the chairs were arranged with three rows on either side of the stage and an uncounted number of rows the length of the entire gym. I assumed that we probably wouldn’t get so many audience members to necessitate the use of row 27 underneath the opposite basketball hoop, but I was wrong. The gym was packed for both shows!

And I thought both shows went decently. I felt slightly aware of how loudly I needed to speak in the echoing gym, which kept me in my head a little more than I’d like. This especially happens in more intimate moments, in which I sometimes get the impression that I’m yelling at the top of my lungs. Nothing says ‘romance’ like being six inches from someone and yelling sweet nothings in their face.

Also, because we had audience on the floor on the sides, rather than on the raised stage with us, we had to change the configuration for Merchant. None of the actors ever leave the stage during this production (and for those of you who are wondering, no, this is not an original staging practice); instead, we ‘exit’ by sitting on benches on the stage left, right, and upstage. These benches are interspersed with the integral on-stage or thrust parts of the audience. However, had we set up these benches on stage in Orrville, we would have been sitting above the audience for the whole show, thus blocking their view fully and completely. So, instead, we put the benches on the floor with the audience (with the exception of the upstage benches). This certainly changed the energy of the show, in a manner that seemed for the worse to me until we reached the courtroom scene; however, Aaron said it was the best that the show had ever been because the energy had really opened up. I realised, of course, in retrospect, that I perhaps felt worse because I was giving more of my energy away, rather than keeping some of it confined within our normal ‘box’ of actors and immediate audience.

And speaking of aforementioned actors-staying-on-stage-for-the-whole-show situation, Ginna nearly passed out during the courtroom scene, for lack of water, and for an excess of costume. (We put our judge robes and silly barrister wigs on top of sweaters, dresses, and ultimately corsets.) Ginna was trying to be brave and not take a clandestine water-bottle on stage, but I suppose that ends the opera singer drinking in the midst of her aria debate.

We had talkbacks after both shows, which was especially lovely because these audiences were so kind. A moment of great drama occurred when a visiting friend of Alisa’s (Alisa, Chris, and Ginna are all Ohio natives) gave her a box of homemade cookies during the talkback and they were partially spilled all over the floor in the hand-off. I was so moved that I leapt to my feet, crying, “O! Tragedy! Pathos! Forget The Merchant of Venice, that’s heartbreaking!” I am aware that I am ridiculous, and I suppose at that point, the entire audience may also have reached that awareness, had they not been distracted by the Great Cookie Tragedy of aught-seven. As we are actors, we ate the fallen cookies with the kind of acceptance and sympathy befitting people of our trade, who must learn to accept and sympathise in order to embody other human beings, and also who spend a certain portion of their life starving.

In recreational news, I played my first-ever game of laser tag. I absolutely loved it, and our team won, much thanks to Mssrs. Daniel Kennedy and Evan Hoffmann, and little thanks to me. I prophesied that I would be the lowest scorer, a fate that I escaped only because we suspect Scot’s gun was not working properly, a fact which all of my friends were too tactful to mention when they congratulated me for escaping my self-prophecy.

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