Posts Tagged ‘shylock wins’

Washington, D.C., November 15:

Over generations of touring troupes at the American Shakespeare Center, Georgetown has acquired notoriety for being one of the least welcoming venues on the tour. And by ‘least welcoming’ I do not mean that they have set walls with broken glass around their perimeters, nor do they spit upon our actor gabardines as we pass; obviously, they’re still paying for us to come. Rather, they seem for the most part indifferent to our coming, thus leading to the occasional problems on past tours of not having set up a room for us to perform in, and a more frequent problem of not having dressing rooms. They have beautiful theatre spaces in the college (so I hear), but they often put our performance in a side room, and one year they stuck the troupe in a kind of warehouse room, with stuff strewn all about, and no seats set up. In protest, the actors that year simply left the haphazard boxes and other objects where they lay, set up chairs randomly around the space, and performed a kind of guerrilla theatre Twelfth Night.

As something like this is an actual breach of contract—if a theatre or a college is going to have us perform, they are required to give us a certain amount of clean playing space, with a certain amount of seats—and as there were a number of other issues which I do not think it most fit to write here, Aaron had been given clearance, should there be any breach of contract in our provisions this year, to turn right around and not do the show. (The ASC has continued to go, despite previous problems, because the actual professor who brings us in is a nice man, and furthermore a friend to the ASC.)  I confess, I harboured a little excitement about the possibility of us not doing the show. Not because I didn’t want to do the show; on the contrary, there’s perhaps nothing else on earth I’d rather be doing than Merchant of Venice. But rather, I simply thought it would be a dramatic turn of events: I am quite used to the drama of doing a show, but I am unacquainted with the drama of NOT doing a show.

We were held in suspense for some time even once we arrived on campus. Aaron told us we could stay in the vans whilst he wandered around looking for our contact or the performance space. Let it be a little indicative of Georgetown’s indifference that it took him at least 30 minutes to locate whichever of these things an intrepid Tour Manager needs to locate in order for us to begin load-in. The path for load-in itself was fairly lengthy, bending through an outdoor courtyard, and when, as we stepped out of the vans, it began to rain, the night seemed likely to become Dark and Stormy.

But we had a tidy room waiting for us, with chairs set up on all four sides, and our contact helped us rearrange them into our traditional thrust staging. The seats nevertheless numbered no more than 75, which makes it the smallest capacity we’ve played for by a sizeable margin. It was a blessing that we were performing Merchant, because the only sets of doors were set in the same wall, which does not provide much in the way of dynamics exits and entrances. Fortunately, we’re all on stage for the duration of the show! Problem solved. Naturally, we’re all theatre ninjas, and I’m sure we could’ve made even Henry work in the space. Granted, it would have required some major re-adaptations, because one of our two set elements (the red poles) would not have fit in the low ceiling of the room. Thus the battle between the red poles and the black boxes, famously chronicled in the True History of King Henry the Fifth, would have been seen as a full black-box domination.

As we were waiting in a room across the hallway for pre-show to begin (there were no mirrors and the doors locked behind us if we closed them, but it beats changing in the hallway!), Chris Johnston came in from the foyer with a bouquet of flowers and handed them to me. I was about as surprised as I would have been had I thought Chris himself to be the spontaneous originator of the flowers, and perhaps moreso, because I at least knew that Chris was going to be at the show. But I was not expecting anyone to come to the show, much less send me flowers.

The card attached had only my name and a quote from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” I immediately had suspicions about who might be sweet enough, stealthy enough, and Wordsworth-enthusiast enough to come to the play out of the blue, but I wasn’t sure. For one thing, none of the applicable people, as far as I knew, lived in Washington D.C. Secondly, I admit I’ve been a bit of a Romantic Poet floozy—not, alas, in the same manner as Claire Clairmont, but insofar as I have shared my love for Romantic poets with so many friends that the inclusion of a Wordsworth quote does not narrow the possibilities down as much as one might suppose.

But when I went into the performance room for the pre-show speech, and saw my friend Aaron Devine sitting in the audience, I grinned irrepressibly. I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 2005, chiefly because shortly thereafter he travelled around Central and South America for about a year and a half, and had only returned to the U.S. this past summer. As far as I knew, he was living in Minnesota—which he is, but he was making a tour of places on the east coast where he used to live, including good ole Boston and Washington D.C.! It was a true delight to see him, all the more so because it was a complete and utter surprise.

And so, children, the moral of the story is: never wish for the drama of NOT doing a show, because you never know if that’s when a friend that you haven’t seen in two years might drop in unexpectedly and bring you flowers.

I suppose the moral could also be: if you are so desperately in need of variation in life that you would even contemplate not-doing your favourite thing in the world, the universe may send you a far more pleasant, and thoroughly surprising, variation.

I think the first one might be more of a hard-and-fast rule than the second.

Fortunately for my friend Aaron, who had travelled so far, with such sweet scheming, I think we had a good show. Evan’s lovely mother was also in the audience, as were some of Raffi’s friends. The audience also sported a couple of people who were so heartily responsive that I assumed they were actors from a past tour (they were not), and a little girl who kept on standing on her chair to gain a better vantage-point and conferring with her father on points of the play. I loved that the intimacy that we generally share with the people on-stage we were able to share with the entire audience, because we were in this room about the size of many stages on which we’ve performed. I love Black Box Shakespeare, as an actor and as an audience member, because it allows for a greater merging of the audience’s experience and the actors’ experience: each is immersed in the other. Naturally, this is the heart of Elizabethan theatre, and, I think, what companies like the American Shakespeare Center aim to achieve. But, for example, when I saw Coriolanus from the third balcony in the Globe in London, I did not feel immersed in a thing, and consequently I went down and stood in the pit. And as much as I, on tour, strive to reach the last person sitting in the last row in some of the cavernous theatres we’ve performed in, it always feels more like striving than it does simply letting them in.

So we spent the show exploring the gift of the small space, making our performances smaller and subtler in the confidence that the back row was only three rows away. In Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, I think Fred Kimball (though I’m not certain and don’t want to falsely attribute) talks about how wonderful Shakespeare on film can be, because the actor can speak no louder than he needs to allow the potency of the words to affect him. Of course, though this was a concept that moved me, it would be deadly on stage, and I find the idea of doing Shakespeare on film—without an audience—an odd and somewhat barren prospect. However, when the audience is so near that consciousness of the self is equal to consciousness of the audience, we became able to speak simply to ourselves and at the same time be speaking to them, too.

The evening was not free, however, from the Hijinks of Irregular Repertory, as we hadn’t done Merchant in a couple of weeks. As I have mentioned before, I say a number of quite similar things in the courtroom scene; one line is “Why this bond is forfeit” and the VERY NEXT LINE is “Why then thus it is.” During this performance, I said “Why then thus it is” instead of “Why this bond is forfeit,” and immediately froze, because the words that my body knew to follow “Why then thus it is” were not the lines about the bond. Consequently, I made something up. I’m fairly certain I said, “A pound of flesh is here awarded to Shylock—a pound of flesh to be by him cut off nearest the merchant’s heart,” because, thank God, the latter phrase is written on the bond and I knew it was part of the line, and was subsequently able to get back on track. My impression of how I felt whilst saying that, however, was, “Ah…um….Shylock wins!” It couldn’t have been so bad, though, because my friend Aaron did not notice, and Alisa said she only noticed because normally I call him ‘the Jew’ in that line and not ‘Shylock.’ In point of fact, I do call him ‘Shylock’ in the line immediately previous, but it was comforting to know that, when forced to improvise, I clearly think of him as ‘Shylock,’ and not ‘the Jew.’

But all in all, it was a success, and may go down in Touring Troupe history as one of the more positive Georgetown experiences—it was certainly a great experience for me. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and told me that it was the most believable she had ever seen the love story between Bassanio and Portia, and that she liked my performance better than Judi Dench’s. I find this absolutely impossible to believe, as Judi Dench is, as a matter of fact, either superhuman or semi-divine, but even as a lie it is flattering to be compared to an actress whom I worship. It was like the time when someone asked me for my autograph after a performance of Arms and the Man, saying, “Now that I have Paula Plum’s autograph, I want yours, too.” Both times I almost died. In a Keatsian, ‘no yet still steadfast, still unchangeable’ let-me-die-now-while-it’s-good way. Thank you, Georgetown, for giving us a beautiful performance space.

 A NOTE FROM THE PRODUCERS: We apologise to anyone frightened by the rampant alliteration in the title. For anyone frightened by references to Romantic poets, we apologise for paragraphs 6 and 14 and, let’s face it, Ellen’s entire existence. Thank you.


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