Posts Tagged ‘touring theatre’

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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Augusta, Georgia, February 12:

Travelling one state northwards into weather more reminiscent of April than June, we settled in Augusta to give a performance of Taming of the Shrew in a gorgeous theatre that we all agreed we would like to pack into the cargo van and take with us. (Of course, this would require a cargo van with interior capabilities even greater than that of Mr. Weasley’s old Ford Anglia, may it continue to roam the Forbidden Forest in peace.) Fortunately for you, I can dispense with the one thousand, or perhaps one-thousand-five-hundred words (knowing me) of description and provide you with a couple of pictures:

Pictured are an out-of-focus Paul Reisman and Chris Seiler (Digital cameras are fantastic, but at least one in every twenty pictures is out of focus, which never happened with my old manual camera. It shames me a little.)

Pictured, left to right, are Chris Seiler, the now-nameless but kind gentleman who worked at the theatre, Aaron Hochhalter, and Ginna Hoben.

A full stage is hiding behind the curtains and discovery space, but we chose just to use the front thrust, as it is so ideally suited to our thrust-staging ethos. The stage floor that you see there is actual hardwood. How they keep it in such good shape, I have no idea. A season low in tap-dancing musicals would probably be a start.

The show itself was fun and lively, because, as Ginna and I both agreed, it felt ‘good to be back’ after the performances in the noisy high school auditorium and the amphitheatre, in which we all had to project within an inch of our lungs’ lives. It was a lovely audience; Josh’s parents were there to see it again, as I recall they were also there to see it at the Holton Arms Academy.

However, I confess that the most distinctive thing that I recall about the entire show was something that happened backstage. Before we were about to enter for the second time in the Wedding Scene, after Katherine and Petruchio have been married, Ginna was holding the Flounder, as she usually does. A couple of people, most likely Josh and Paul, were taunting her, and she whacked one of them, most likely Paul, with the Flounder. Then she spun around to the semi-circle of people who simply happened to be gathering for the entrance in a way that seemed say, “Who else wants to give it a shot? C’mon! I’ll take you all on!” It was just about the funniest thing I had seen since Dan’s little grin as Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant in New Martinsville, West Virginia, and, naturally, shares with all things I find truly hysterical the key attribute of not being particularly amusing in the re-telling.

Part of the reason I found it so humorous was that her moves reminded me of some kind of combat video game, and led me thus to imagine the character selector, with a little video game Kate posing in her bridal regalia while the player scrolled through the list of possible weapons (bouquet, super-soaker, walker, etc.) before selecting [Flounder]. And no, you do not need to tell me that my brain makes bizarre cognitive leaps. I am sufficiently aware of the oddity, especially since I do not think I have ever actually played any kind of fighting video game. Maybe the Flounder made me think of that Kingdom Hearts video game that my dear friend and roommate Briana used to play.

Suffice it to say, all I really I remember is clinging to a nearby ladder for support as I heaved with silent laugher, whilst Ginna kept pointing her finger at me and saying, “Don’t make me laugh! Don’t!”

After our performance, our lovely hosts took us ‘out’ to dinner at our hotel, which was fantastic. I have three words for you: goat cheese grits. Unless, of course, you hyphenate goat-cheese, in which case I have two words for you. This dinner will also live in my memory as taking place on the evening of the Potomac Primaries (or ‘Crabcake Primaries,’ as Jon Stewart showed a clip of someone saying, thus proving that not only actors have a food fixation), because when I discovered the results I ran into the other room, exclaiming, “Obama swept!” and literally leaping into the air. This is distinctive mostly because Paul said it was the fastest he had ever seen me move.

All of us at dinner at the Partridge Inn. The goat cheese grits have not yet arrived.
Visible, clockwise from the back of Alisa’s beautiful red head: Raffi Barsoumian, Scot Carson, Paul Reisman, Josh Carpenter, Chris Johnston, Dan Kennedy, Chris Seiler.

I wished that we were performing in Augusta for a week, rather than a day, in part because of the beautiful performing space and our kind hosts, but also because the hotel was AMAZING. It is tied in my estimation with the Belmont Inn in Abbeville, SC, and may even exceed my admiration of the Belmont for being larger and fancier, with a better breakfast (three words: regular cheese grits) and workout facilities. Both, however, captured my heart by being not merely old-fashioned, but Genuinely Old Hotels; my nineteenth-century soul was charmed.

But anyone, whether they are misplaced from the nineteenth century or not, would be impressed by this suite:

Although they are not pictured, there are TWO walk-in closets in this suite. The discovery of that fact actually began to make me feel moderately guilty, because I happened to have a room to myself whilst we were in Augusta, and this meant that there were only .5 people per walk-in closet. But no more than sixty seconds after I had taken these pictures in exultation, Paul (the housing coordinator) called me up to say that Dan and Scot had accidentally been put into a room with only one bed, and asked if I could switch rooms. Naturally, I did, so this was my room instead:


I actually preferred this room, because it had that ineffable quality which makes me wish that I could simply hole myself up and try to write Great Things. (Picture, if you will, a typewriter on the above desk.) The only other room that has spoken to me in this manner was a room in a B&B in Derry, Northern Ireland; that room had the decided advantage of being in Ireland, this had the advantage of having a veranda:

And because we were in Georgia, it was actually warm enough to sit outside and write. Both days that we were there it was partially overcast, but that kind of thick, protean grey with clouds that hang like ripe fruit and enrich the colour of green on the earth. You can probably tell that I like this kind of weather, and when it is paired with 70-80 degree temperatures, you are absolutely right. It is, as a matter of fact, my favourite kind of weather, simply because it resonates with me on some inexpressible level, in the way that the hotel room made me want to write. It may be that its rarity has something to do with its value in my estimation, since in a place like Boston, you get no more than two to four days like this a year, in late April and early May. But for whatever reason, I’d take the emotion of spring-like clouds that seem almost to give way to warm rain over the placid smile of a cloudless sky any day. If this is anything like Georgia usually is during the winter, I am going to winter in Georgia and not Florida in the unlikely event that I am ever financially comfortable enough to do so.

I love Georgia in the winter

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Alternate Title: Death and Rebirth in Islamorada

Islamorada, Florida, February 8-9:

Words cannot express how fantastic, and how surreal, it was to be in the Florida Keys.

And so this concludes this particular blog post.

Ha ha! If I fooled you, you must have never seen the average length of my posts. Perhaps you stumbled onto this blog by accident, seeking information about Islamorada, and not the Shakespearean persiflage of a nerdy actor. You must also somehow have looked past the blog’s actual title. Furthermore, you must additionally be unable, for some reason, to see that there are paragraphs below the one that you are currently reading.

For an example of how fantastic and surreal it was, consider this: as I stood in a t-shirt and skirt on our hotel’s pier, overlooking the oddly placid ripples of the Atlantic, each tipped with moonlight, my Frave told me that the temperature was one degree Fahrenheit in Chicago. Meanwhile, it could not have been much less than eighty at night in Islamorada. People went swimming. At night. O brave new world, that has such temperatures in it!

If this is not a geographical reminder that life is not fair, I don’t know what is. My conversation with Melissa made me wish that I could find a tourist t-shirt reading:

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m in the Florida Keys For My Job While You are Freezing

Of course, said t-shirt would probably have cost about $45. The retribution to be paid (literally) for being in the Florida Keys was the exorbitant price-tag on everything. However, this is merely in accordance with Newton’s little known Eleventh Law, stating that prices increase in direct proportion to the appeal or positive attributes (“coolness”) of any given location.

The ASC drives to Islamorada

The above picture was taken on the drive in to Islamorada. Note the window reflection, above, and the scenic orange traffic barrel.

Our first performance was a 90-Minute Taming of the Shrew at a local high school. The auditorium spanned several postal codes, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the entirety of the house was equally as live as the stage; this meant that we had to project (or ‘resonate,’ as my Linklater training would posit) over the sound of at least five-hundred high school students just to hear ourselves. Nevertheless, we gave a solid show, though I often feel I have little to do with that in the 90-Minute Shrew, and the most distinctive thing I remember about the actual show was how delightful the outdoor cross-around was in the 90 degree sunshine. The student audience stood squarely between ‘rowdy and excited’ and ‘apathetic and lobotomized,’ which seemed lovely—until they all got up to leave as Hortensio and Lucentio gave their final lines, and we were left bowing to the retreating ends of the slower half of our audience. That feels about as bad as it sounds. However, it is merely in accordance with Newton’s little known Eighty-Seventh Law, that high school audiences are often appreciative in inverse proportion to their degree of being spoiled. And here we are talking about people who live in the Florida Keys. (With the exception of the fantastic Holton-Arms Academy, I’d take an inner city school over a suburban prep school any day.)

The true drama at that particular show was the death of a couple of inanimate objects that tour with us, for which this post gets its alternate title. Of these, the far more grievous was Chris Seiler’s bass, which snapped, apparently from the humidity. It was very tragic for the loss of the bass itself, though it also meant that we had to do with either an additional guitar on the bassline or (in places where this was moot) nothing at all. As we came out for the pre-show for the following show that evening, Chris announced to the audience, “Our band is called Bassless.” I suggested in an aside to Alisa that we should keep our original name but simply say that these performances are ‘Fancy Bred: Bassless.’ After all, we are always unplugged, and so can hardly aim for that as a variant to sell more of our non-existent albums. And our holiday variant, ‘Fancy Gingerbred,’ is not much needed outside of A Christmas Carol.

However, the alternate title promises Rebirth as well, and not in the sense that one day all broken instruments will be resurrected and joined with their melodious souls in the life of the world to come, but in a more immediate sense. Because that very evening, when we were setting up for Henry V, Chris, who is Stage Manager for that show, was talking to the very nice man who was one of our contacts at the venue. The man told Chris that he played guitar, and so Chris told him the Tragic Tale of his Snap-Necked Bass, and asked the man if he knew of anyone who could fix it. The man replied that HE was the only person on the island who did guitar repairs, but that he would be happy to do it as swiftly as we needed it! Chris apparently brought the bass its earthly saviour later that evening, and we had it by Sunday when we had to leave.

The few religious comparisons that I made in the previous paragraph are much due to the fact that it felt like miraculous providence that we should happen to find the one person in Islamorada who could help Chris and the bass within less than eight hours of the original horrific discovery. As we were setting up, I kept walking around saying, “It’s amazing. AMAZING,” rather as if I didn’t have any other words in my vocabulary.

The other object that died at the high school show in Islamorada was the more problematic of our two irons. This was, indeed, the iron that set off the terrifying ‘security system’ smoke alarms in Connecticut when Alisa was trying to clean it. It had long been a talisman of woe; it had been cleaned several times, but somehow it kept on accruing more black gunk and stealthily transferring this to our clothing. I spent AT LEAST a half an hour and used up the entirety of our supply of Iron-Off in trying to rid it of the black gunk prior to our high school show, but a few recalcitrant pieces of black sludge clung to the iron’s surface, like barnacles, or like Huckabee to the Republican nomination. In consequence, I decided that the iron finally needed to be replaced.

With a similarly speedy period for rebirth, I purchased a new iron at CVS that afternoon. Her name is Irona. I hope she will serve us well, as I feel somehow personally responsible for her. I gave the old iron to Paul to destroy, as I gathered that he would get even more pleasure out of it than I. At the last moment, Chris Johnston usurped the gradual destruction the iron was receiving at Paul’s hands, swinging it around by its cord and smashing it on the concrete. I tried to document it all with Paul’s camera, and though I did not get the ideal action shot of the iron airborne, lasso-style, in the hands of Mr. Johnston, I hope that someday those pictures will see the light of this blog.

Troublesome Iron R.I.P.
You may be smashed to pieces, but your black sludge remains indelibly imprinted on our clothing
(Picture a detail from ‘The Miracle at Sheffield’)

Our evening shows were at an outdoor amphitheatre, which, to me, took the best advantage of our temperate surroundings. Who wants to be indoors in the Florida Keys? Not me! And not just because the indoors were generally air-conditioned, and thus, in a cruel twist of fate, I was cold.

 The American Shakespeare Center in Islamorada

The amphitheatre. The humans pictured, left to right, are Raffi Barsoumian, Scot Carson, Aaron Hochhalter, Paul Reisman, Alisa Ledyard, and Evan Hoffmann. They may appear nearly indistinguishable, but after nine months of everyone wearing the same clothing, everyone is imminently recognisable from quite a long ways a way. (Anyone who can tell me what ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ sketch this is a reference to, you win an undisclosed prize.) Also pictured is the skeleton of our discovery space.

Sweet heaven, my captions are as long as my posts.

Of course, a disadvantage to the amphitheatre was that the audience was in the natural darkness of the Florida night, and they were also set back quite far from the stage by a large swash of grass. This made them terribly difficult to see and speak to, and somewhat confounds the American Shakespeare Center’s trademark ‘We do it with the lights on’ (I do not believe there were any efforts at revising this to ‘We do it on the grass in the dark’). However, these conditions also meant that we were able to witness the sun dip into the ocean behind the palm trees as we were loading in and setting up!

A view from the amphitheatre

 I love the spirit of performing outdoors, as it reminds me of the dear Publick Theatre in Boston. Unfortunately, along with balmy weather, and sunsets over bodies of water of varying size (Gulf of Mexico vs. the Charles River), there came the difficulty of being heard out of doors. I had so much fun with Henry V, which we performed on our first night at the amphitheatre. I was focusing on a helpful note that Aaron gave me for the Boy’s speech, and delighting in inhabiting Katherine (and the French) fully after my less-than-ideal experience a couple of nights prior. Mostly, however, it was exhilarating because the outdoors make a fantastic setting for a majority of the play. As the Boy, I could run around on the grass ‘backstage’ and kick things, which leant added spirit to all of those scenes. Meanwhile, the expanse of the surrounding night seemed to summon up both the freedom of a wide world and the terror of an encroaching army—yes, I am a nerd, but I am an actor because I have an over-active imagination, or perhaps vice versa.

However, the following day Aaron told me that I needed to be much louder, an act which he followed by a note to the entire company about volume. I should have realised that because I was having such fun, I was probably not focusing enough attention on projecting into the sound-eating monster of the outdoor space. Also, it had been so windy the previous evening that we had to tape the drapes to the pipes, to the other drapes, and to the floor. We did not have to tape them to the floor the second evening, which was fortunate especially since another drawback to the outdoor space was that we had to load in and load out for both shows.

Nevertheless, I projected at the top of my lungs, shall we say, for the second show, Taming of the Shrew. It was, in consequence, not the most fun Shrew for me; though the broader style chafes less at increased volume, it diminished the honesty which always slips in and out of my grasp in this show. Furthermore, the kind of job that I have in Shrew doesn’t have much place for the ‘deep emotional resonance’ style which can be a recompense of increasing volume, as I so verbosely discussed in my Treatise on Volume in Stage Acting.

It seemed that the majority of property on Islamorada was beachfront property, since the island appeared to be wide enough to accommodate only the road and the buildings on either side of it. This meant that our hotel was right on the water! Photographic evidence of this, and the prodigious number of palm trees, follows:

A view from our deck/balcony

Our rooms were suites, with a living room and a full kitchen, opening onto a communal deck. This meant that I didn’t even have to stay indoors to eat the food that I bought for myself at the grocery store! I ate salad, fruit, and hummus (not all at once) to my heart’s content, ruffled by the Florida breeze! People without itinerant lifestyles do not appreciate how fantastic it is to have a refrigerator, stove and microwave, nor do they appreciate the consequent joy of having as much or as little food, precisely when you want it, and the consequent joy of not eating preventatively and feeling fat all of the time. I was so excited at the grocery store, that I purchased things rather as if I were getting the last tub of mixed field greens off of the Titanic. 

Not that this stopped me from going with the larger part of the troupe to an outrageously expensive (for an actor) seafood buffet on our day off and eating myself into a kind of pain that I had not experienced since Christmas. There was less sushi than I hoped, but it was worth it. Other day-off activities included sea kayaking (it was a lot easier than my previous experience off the coast of Wales), a dip in the hotel pool, and that most perfect kind of vacation activity: exactly what you’d most like to do (talk to friends on the telephone, write, read, perform Shakespeare) but in a gorgeous environment.

But seriously, don’t hate me because my job took me to the Florida Keys. The whirligig of time brings round its revenges: we are now in the snow, in Ohio, and in February once more. Look you: Fortune is an excellent moral.

Islamorada R.I.P.
We may have ‘passed on,’ but you are the ‘better place’

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Sarasota, Florida, February 5-6:

Florida appears to me to be God’s geographical reminder that life is not fair. I had never been to Florida in the winter, and, being thus unprepared for the surprise of how warm it actually was, my first thought, as I stepped out of the van, was: “This is not FAIR.” It still seems to me unfathomable that, several days prior, when I was freezing in West Virginia, people in Florida were walking around in sandals and shorts. Furthermore, all seven winters I spent in Boston, with the Holy-Baby-Jesus-Wear-All-Maximum-Layers-of-Warmth wind whipping off the Atlantic and funnelling through the high-rise corridors, there were people in Florida walking around in sandals and shorts! It blows my tiny little mind.

In consequence, I could not shake the feeling that we had travelled in time, rather than in space. I would see signs for events happening in February, and think, ‘Wow, that sign is really old. How is it that they can possibly be so lax as to have signs for February up in June?’ It may seem illogical of me to find time travel more realistic than warm weather in the winter, but consider the following Syllogism of Ellen’s Life:

Cold = Misery
Winter = Cold,
or conversely:
Lack of Misery = Lack of Cold
Lack of Cold = Lack of Winter
and thus:
Lack of Misery = Lack of Winter

The only other time I’ve travelled to a significantly southern place in the middle of winter was when the first time I went to Bangladesh, but it makes a little more emotional sense when it’s halfway around the world, and everything else is different, too. Also, I didn’t have as much life experience with being cold at that point. Anyone who knows me, or anyone who doesn’t know me but has read blog posts such as those on Maine and upstate New York, will know that I spend 85% of my life being cold, and cold is consequently my primary adversary in life. I also spend about 0.023% of my life being actually hot, and so Florida’s trade-off of having really quite sticky summers seems like a perfectly decent price to pay for this lack of misery.

N.B. People who are frequently hot and consequently despise being hot are always telling me that being cold is better than being hot because you can always put more clothes on, whereas you cannot always take more clothes off. They do not understand. I am aware that this is probably true for them, but in the winter, it is physically impossible for me to put on enough clothes to be actually warm. This is not for a lack of trying, because I wear, on average, six or seven layers to go out of doors. That is not a hyperbolic number. I may be a freak, but that doesn’t make my perpetual coldness any less a fact.

Apropos of me being a freak, somewhere around one-half to three-quarters of the cast got sunburns on our first full day in Sarasota, and most have gotten some kind of colour since then. I avoided this, for the most part, by wearing SPF 50, as I do every day of my life. Now I appear even more white, by contrast, than I usually do. As I walked into a CVS in Islamorada (our subsequent stop), the nice woman at the counter said, “Now, I know you’re not from around here because you’re too white.” Thank you, Irish ancestry.

We performed in a large room with a constructed stage and chairs set up in a nice thrust, similar to the set-up we had in Orville and in Canton. The stage, and particularly the stairs attached to it, were a bit rickety; I noticed this most when I was lying on the ground as the dead version of the Boy in Henry V, and the ground shook like mad when Henry and his retinue came in for “I was not angry since I came to France.” It was both impressive and probably the most fun that I’ve had as a dead person, as usually the most exciting thing that happens is that I might get accidentally spit upon by Chris Seiler and his excellent diction.

N.B. Let us add that last sentence to our collection of Only a Life in the Theatre phrases.

We performed Henry V the first night, and Taming of the Shrew the second; both shows had absolutely fantastic and responsive audiences. Demographically, they were an interesting mix of college students and retirees, a logical conclusion of the surrounding population. (It may be a stereotype, but sweet biscuits, if I could retire to Florida, I would. But this is probably not a possibility, unless I end up doing some unforeseen and currently inconceivable thing with my life. I set much store by the saying that old actors don’t retire, they die.) The effect of having the audience less dominated by young people was, it seemed to me, that more people laughed at different kinds of things, especially in Henry. There was one particularly nice man who sat on the stage right side both times, and laughed at everything, including things that I do, and even things I did as Bianca, which shows him to be either brimming with good will or lacking in judgment, or possibly both.

It had been so nice to reach a level of comfort with Henry early in this half of the tour, but unfortunately, I think a few of us felt some of this ease had dissolved over the last fortnight of not doing the show. A highlight of the show for me was the Boy’s soliloquy, which I felt less poorly about than I usually do—probably aided by the fact that the generous audience laughed at all of the jokes.

However, the English Lesson scene, normally a point of comfort for me (as it’s almost identical to the way that Ginna and I did it in the Renaissance Run), was suddenly bizarre. I’ve been asked several times if I find acting in French to be difficult, and I have always responded that no, it doesn’t feel particularly more challenging. (Improvising in French would be more difficult, but fortunately, I’ve only had to do that once, and, come to think of it, it was easier than trying to improvise iambic pentameter.) But, in this performance, as I uttered my first phrase, my sentences suddenly felt like mere sounds. I went through most of the scene praying that my body knew the sounds well enough to continue, because my mind felt disconnected. My body’s memory pulled through, but it was probably my least favourite time I’ve ever done that scene, which is usually a high point for me.

Fortunately, the final wooing scene was especially good, though the talented Mr. Hoffmann, as Henry, has far more to do with that than I do. Ginna does such a beautiful job as Alice, and I have yet to acknowledge the brilliance of her taking the line “I do not know what is ‘baiser’ en Anglish” to the audience, because 99% of the time, a few people shout back, ‘To kiss!’ The first time Ginna did that was our December performance in the Blackfriars, but the fact that people respond no matter where we go demonstrates, in a nutshell, what is truly fantastic about the American Shakespeare Center.

Everyone had a lot of fun with the following evening’s Shrew, not the least of which was the audience; the show ran very long, but when I was on stage, I felt it was more due to people laughing at everything than lack of cue pick-ups. The most distinctive aspect of both of these shows for me personally was a particularly strong and joyful presence of my characters backstage. I can’t quite explain it, but what I remember most clearly was coming off stage after my first Bianca entrance and being SO EXCITED that I just got new jewellery. I can’t say honestly say I’ve ever been very excited about them before, in part because they are stupendously hideous. The gigantic lime-green necklace probably reads a little better from stage, but the Gremio bracelet, which is a sort of quasi-cloisonné double-headed tiger (a great name for a band, by the way), actually wins the Delightfully Ugly competition. I remember having a conversation with Jim in June in which I said that I preferred the slightly more tasteful rehearsal prop necklace and bracelets, but quickly followed it up with the assertion that BIANCA liked whichever ones Jim liked better, thus garnering a laugh from Jim. Today, this was truly a reality. I came backstage and literally jumped up and down and clapped my hands. Josh and Paul laughed at me, and laughed even harder when, having been still in Bianca mode, I knocked over one of the tall silver goblets with my incredibly wide petticoat. Poor Bianca, she’s a graceful girl trapped in a klutzy actor’s body. I clutched the offending petticoat and grinned an apology to the nearest person, conveniently Chris/Baptista. I was having too much fun to stop.

Our hotel was very nice, complete with outdoor pool, hot tub, and complimentary cookies, which were very exciting for some, but would have been more exciting for me had they been complimentary boxes of raisins. Other Sarasota events included a viewing of There Will Be Blood, which Dan and I had been trying to see since Fairmont; I scarcely breathed throughout the entire thing. Super Tuesday also happened everywhere else whilst we were in Sarasota; I scarcely breathed through that, either.

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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.


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.


And for those of you keeping tabs on this particular sport, the score is as follows:
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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