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March 6, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: wrap

Another show over. The inevitable letdown is compensated for, somewhat, by the opportunity to shave my chin again.

I have attempted, in the past, to write up a wrap for the shows I’ve been in, so I’ll do that for this one, but with the warning that they probably won’t be very interesting, as I didn’t find Polonius very interesting, a fact which will probably come up as I write. But we’ll start with positives, right?

The Positives

  • On the whole, I think it was a good production with a strong cast. In truth, I can never really tell—nobody is likely to tell me the whole thing stinks, are they? And Hamlet is very much a show about a single character, and if you don’t like that actor’s interpretation (and I have the impression that some people did and some didn’t, which isn’t terribly surprising) you’re not going to enjoy the show very much. And of course I never got to see the thing, what with being in it. But as far as I could tell from listening, it’s a strong cast and a good show.
  • While it was not as social a group as some, possibly not unconnected with the building not allowing alcohol, the cast got along quite well. I had previously worked with three of my castmates (and the stage manager) and met a dozen new people, and don’t dislike any of ’em. I am particularly happy about working (again) with our Ophelia, who it turns out lives a few blocks from my house; we shared rides a few times and became (I hope) friends, which is nice. It also helps that I thought she was fantastic in the role, with lots of interesting and surprising choices and real vocal fluency with the verse. I have been lucky, in the last couple of shows, to have shared scenes with female actors that I thought were genuinely excellent. Not that the rest of the cast wasn’t excellent, but in terms of dialogue, Polonius uses other people mostly as straight men, does a bit with Antic Hamlet, and has actual real dialogue only with Ophelia.
  • We sold nearly as many tickets as we could have, given the limits of the space. We had one performance that was sparsely attended (on a Thursday), but the last four performances were essentially sold-out. As far as my personal ticket-sales are concerned, two friends from out of state came to see the thing, which made me very happy, and another couple of local-ish friends I hadn’t seen in years came, which was also lovely. I have never been in shows that sold out so far in advance before, and it actually felt a little odd. I felt that I should stop trying to publicize the show, as anyone who decided to see it at the last minute would have been shut out. I would guess that over the 8 performances, we had somewhere between 300 and 350 in the seats total, in a room that held a crowded 50. And while those numbers are small enough that word-of-mouth wouldn’t have influenced them much, the opening weekend’s technical disasters at least didn’t keep people away from the rest of the run.
  • As for my Polonius, I got the laughs I feel the text deserved. The other aspect of my performance I’m proud of was Polonius’ses’s relationship to Laertes and Ophelia—as we discussed here in the Tohu Bohu, I think it’s helpful to the Hamlet story to contrast his fatherlessness (and more generally his broken relationships with everyone around him) with the other family. Ophelia and Laertes have a loving father, if an incompetent and largely useless one. It doesn’t help them, in the end, but at least Polonius is acting out of an attempt, however misguided and doomed, to protect his children.

    I’m also kinda proud that we did a lot of that relationship with physical business—Polonius fixing Laertes’ tie before he speaks to the King, or mussing his hair as he pronounces the interminable advice. Polonius smoothing his affrighted daughter hair, or patting her arm as she braces herself to see her mentally ill ex. If I can flatter myself to have any particular field of ability, it is in some combination of the intellect and the voice. I find the invention of physical business inspiring and intimidating, and while I don’t think I did anything remarkable, I did like what I did.

The Negatives

  • The technical end of the show was a disaster on the first weekend, and there were some significant problems on the third and fourth shows as well. While the second half of the run had no major sound or lighting problems (no more than I would expect anywhere I have worked, and nothing that I would expect the audience to be aware of) I was not able to relax and trust the tech. That made even the last performances less enjoyable than they might have been, and made me extremely grouchy about the first few performances. The Player’s Speech was performed in the dark, as often as not, and portions of my own dialogue were occasionally drowned out by interscene music that was supposed to fade but didn’t. There were reasons and constraints and so forth, and I really oughtn’t whine, but it did substantially take away from my enjoyment of the performances.

    I had got used to working with largish amateur companies, with substantial infrastructure and support. This group is essentially the passion project of one woman. There are positive aspects to that, but there are substantial drawbacks as well. There were things that just didn’t work as efficiently or smoothly as they might have done at other places. Primarily, of course, that played out in the tech, but there were other aspects where having a large crew of regular volunteers or a substantial budget or even secure storage space would have been helpful.

  • I never really got the whole scenic design vision. I just didn’t. Sometimes I don’t. I didn’t hate it, but I never really got what it was about.
  • As for my own work, which is really what I should be talking about rather than whinging about other people’s, I’m afraid I never found Polonius very interesting. As Gentle Readers may have noticed. My Best Reader said Polonius was in my wheelhouse, and I teed off on it, which is nice of her to say and better than whiffing of course, but not a challenge. I don’t know if this is properly speaking a negative, but it’s not really a positive—unlike Malvolio or Buckingham, I never felt like I had a breakthrough about my interpretation of the character. Or that I needed one. Also, my little scriffly beard was uncomfortable and stupid-looking, and I had to keep it for weeks and weeks.

Another one to tack on to the list of positives was that I really like the Play Playlist List I came up with (it’s possible there are new Gentle Readers who are unaware of my tradition of making a playlist of about an hour of music on some theme related to the show, as a sort of Opening Night gift for the cast and crew; this may have been the sixteenth such, although I lost count at some point) and which I will detail below.

These Few Precepts:

  1. “Everything Possible”, The Flirtations
  2. “Cruel To Be Kind”, Nick Lowe
  3. “Don’t Put It In Your Mouth”, Uncle Bonsai
  4. “Missionary Man”, Eurythmics
  5. “Garden Of Earthly Delights”, XTC
  6. “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love”, Cats & Jammers
  7. “Tell Her About It”, Billy Joel
  8. “Blues In The Night”, Peggy Lee
  9. “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts”, Dar Williams
  10. “You Can’t Hurry Love”, Diana Ross & The Supremes
  11. “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover”, Simon & Garfunkel
  12. “Faut pas faire de la peine à Jean”, Joe Dassin
  13. “All in Together”, Professor Elemental
  14. “In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle”, They Might Be Giants
  15. “Prince Charming”, Jim’s Big Ego
  16. “Ver Es Hot”, The Klezmatics
  17. “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of”, The Human League
  18. “Respect Yourself”, The Selecter
  19. “Let It Be”, Paul McCartney
  20. “Too Many Fish In The Sea”, The Commitments
  21. “Try A Little Tenderness”, Otis Redding

…and that’s probably enough about Hamlet. I fully plan to take a longish break from theater, and thus from theater-blogging, now. I hope to return to Ecclesiastes and perhaps even find some sort of way to express my feelings about Our Only President and the rest of our federal government. And baseball will start soon! And there are books and music and other things that I hope will come to mind. And I’ll take requests, too, if there’s something you want me to rant about. Let me know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 3, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: six down, two to go

I have two more performances as Polonius this weekend, and then it’s all over. I am, as usual, experiencing both a powerful yearning for the whole thing to be over so that I can get some rest, and a fierce desire to have a few more cracks at it now that the thing is starting to play properly. We had many fewer technical problems in the last show or two, so that’s all right. And I feel a bit looser in some of my scenes, a bit more able to work the rhythms within the lines. I don’t know what it would be like after thirty performances, but I think twelve would be nice. Except that I do want my evenings back. The reading of LotR has stalled, just when my kids met Treebeard.

I have not printed a plot for this one. I’m not sure why. The plot, in the way that I use the term and have occasionally, at least, heard other actors use it, is a printed list, kept backstage, of my entrances: where I’m coming in, what I’m wearing, and most important what I’m carrying. I can also use it as a sort of list to check my props before the show, whether as in some shows they are preset on stage, or whether they are on a props table for me to bring them on with me. There’s nothing preset in this production, so I just check the props table. For my first entrance, in costume A, I bring on an envelope addressed to Old Norway; for the second, still in costume A, I have no hand props; for the third, I am in costume B and have a book; for the fourth, still in costume B, I have the packet of letters; for the fifth, still in costume B, I have a handful of pamphlets; for the sixth, I am in costume C and have a pocket-handkerchief and a book (the same one from earlier); then I wear costume C and have no hand props for the rest of the show. The plot would essentially have that information, but in a legible format, possibly with page numbers for the entrances. And I might put the list of things to check at the top of each act, depending on the play and its needs. This one is fairly simple, but the props are mostly important, with lines about them and everything. Well, this is the last weekend, so I won’t print one now. I hope I haven’t just cursed myself to forgetting something.

I do—here’s a minor anecdote about props, anyway. When I enter at the start of II,ii I have Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia not in my hand but hidden in a pocket. The letters are torn out of a small hip-pocket notebook that we see him scribbling in back in I,ii, so they fit nicely in any of that jacket’s three inside pockets (I have eleven pockets altogether, I believe, in my Act Two costume, and ladies I am not gloating). I developed a small bit out of checking one pocket first and then another before finding the packet, and largely amused myself by varying which pocket they actually were in. I caught our Claudius one night off-guard, when they weren’t in the pocket I had gone to the night before, and he thought for a moment that I had actually left them off-stage. That amused me, too. Then on Saturday night, I actually did have trouble remembering where the letters were and then getting them out of the pocket, which was much less amusing for me. Tonight I will be less adventuresome, I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 21, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: The run begins

Hamlet has opened; we’ve done three of our eight performances. I haven’t written about it for quite a while, it seems, partly of course because tech week leaves me with very few spoons available for the blog, and partly I suppose because as we get closer to opening I found I had little to say. Polonius doesn’t so much have a character arc—I suppose that’s not true, but it’s a very simple one, at least the way I’m playing it: he more or less keeps his head above water until he has the bright idea to loose his daughter on Hamlet, and when that goes poorly it’s pretty much continuous panic until slain. I don’t think I’ve learned anything new about the character from doing full runs.

Anyway, we’ve opened. I’m not sure what to write about it. The first performance was a technical nightmare; the second had many technical problems; the third was more in keeping with the sort of thing I have experienced elsewhere. With luck (and more to the point, with hard work by other people in between now and Thursday) there will be no repetition for the catastrophes or even the cock-ups, and it will all become an amusing story in the telling. I’m not ready to tell it yet, though, and it wouldn’t be amusing if I did.

I will say that I’ve changed my mind a bit about the play. Not about its quality, mind you. If anything I like it even more than I did three months ago. It’s an amazing, beautiful, terrifying play. No, just as a matter of interpretation, I feel now that it’s a stronger play if it is interpreted as a battle between Hamlet and Claudius. That is, there are two major ways to look at the Elsinore of the play: either Hamlet is a lone innocent in a cesspool or Claudius is a unique villain. In the past, I’ve tended to the former, but now I think the latter makes for a better experience. Not that everybody else is pure and good, just that they are victims of Claudius’ manipulation in the service of his ambition, greed and lust. They bear no particular ill-will toward Hamlet, except when pushed to it by the King. In the end, when Hamlet kills Claudius, it is (in this view) really achieving something. Emphasizing the corruption of the rest of the court diffuses that, I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 6, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: that which that

Among the Polonius bits I have had trouble memorizing correctly, the word choices that are giving me the most trouble are which and that. Just to start with, let me say that I do not believe in the phony rule that restrictive which is ungrammatical. But it turns out that when I am memorizing, it is harder for me to remember restrictive which; I correct it (or rather, say, “correct” it, for this effect defective comes by cause) in my mind. There are three of them:

  • I,iii: Think yourself a baby That you have taken these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling.
  • I,iii: . In few, Ophelia Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers, Not of that dye which their investments show, But mere implorators of unholy suits, Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds The better to beguile.
  • II,i: . This must be known, which, being kept close, might move More grief to hide than hate to utter love.

And another that may not be restrictive—in truth, one of the reasons I don’t believe in the rule against restrictive which is that I don’t altogether believe in the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses

  • II,ii: A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.

And there are restrictive thats.

  • II,i: This is the very ecstasy of love, Whose violent property fordoes itself And leads the will to desperate undertakings As oft as any passions under heaven That does afflict our natures.
  • II,ii: I mean the matter that you read, my lord.
  • II,ii: Hath there been such a time, I would fain know that, That I have positively said “’Tis so,” When it proved otherwise?

Not the last one has the that-that, which is currently deprecated as style, tho’ there is no grammatical problem. Also deprecated, as I learned it, was that to refer to humans, as in this line:

    II,ii: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

…which I have difficulty remembering is not who. Or this line that I have difficulty remembering. One or the other.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 2, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: wrong side

We are at two-and-a-half weeks now—or, as I try to think of it, we have the rest of this week (if the snow doesn’t force us to cancel tonight) and next week, and then the following week is tech week. So we’re getting close.

My performance is largely in place. There are a few places where I still need to get the exact words correctly into my memory, and there are a couple of minor blocking issues to fine-tune, but we’re at the point where I am getting the note to pick up my cues faster, which for me is usually a sign that I’ve got my interpretation down and have got just a tad too comfortable with it. So that’s all right.

Speaking of blocking—I’ll tell this anecdote, I suppose, from the beginning of III,i. The stage directions have the court entering together: King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Lords. There are some thirty lines between the King and Queen and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then everyone but the King, Queen, Polonius and Ophelia exit. Or exeunt. Anyway, for those thirty lines, Polonius and Ophelia are there, but silent. I am about to “loose my daughter on” the mad Prince; she has a bundle of letters to return to him.

Our Ophelia (who, I should say, is quite good, and particularly good for this small space, being very natural and detailed, very watchable in her smaller moments as well as powerful in the mad scene) has been emphasizing Ophelia’s fear at this point—this follows on II,I and I have been so affrighted. As we began running this scene properly, she and I would spend most of that introductory silent time with some byplay. She would come in hesitantly, I would calm her, she would be still for a bit and then make to bolt from the room, I would prevent her and shush her again, she would take out one of the letters and start re-reading it, I would put it back in the packet, etc. All fairly low-key, so as not to pull focus from the main thing going on, which is the interrogation of R&G.

So. We’re doing that, and we get a note that we need to be doing something during that section. And we look at each other, and we figure, OK, it’s not big enough. And the next time we run the scene, we do it a little bigger, and we get the same note. And the actor and I talk about it, and we’re really uncomfortable going bigger at that point (we don’t mention it, but both characters would be trying to avoid the King’s attention at that moment) but it’s clear that what we’re doing is not playing from the seats. Sigh. Frustration. Perplexity.

The next day, I was venting my frustration and perplexity to my Best Reader (to be clear, my frustration was not with the director, who was reporting that what we were doing didn’t play, but with it not playing; it would be much worse (tho’ less frustrating in the short term, as I would be unaware) if it didn’t play and the director didn’t notice) and she asked: Is it the blocking?

No, I said. Or… maybe yes. I mean, we were completely visible slightly left of center stage, but you know, when there’s something happening on stage that isn’t playing properly to the house, sometimes it’s the blocking. So I asked our director if we could try coming in the other side and staying stage right, instead of stage left. This actually, as it turned out, put us further from center stage, pushed us in fact almost to the very edge of the playing area. And it worked! We did the same thing we had been doing on the other side of the stage, and this time the director liked it!

Blocking is amazing. I don’t think visually, really—as an actor I am primarily focused on language and sound, and while I try to work with physical movement, stance and gesture and business and such, I don’t (and can’t) keep an image of the stage in my head. And if I did, I don’t think I could read the composition of it, if you know what I mean. I am able, somehow, occasionally, to recognize really good blocking when I see it (or am blocked in it), and I can spot when the blocking is bad (boring or distracting), but can’t read it. Or do it. While I know it’s so, it’s still hard for me to believe how much changing the blocking works to help the storytelling.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: Notes

I continue to not write much about Polonius, I know. It’s not terribly interesting work, honestly. It’s going fine, just not terribly interesting. I mean, our Hamlet and our Ophelia are doing interesting work and all, but Polonius is Polonius.

We had a sort of stagger-through last night, our first time running the whole thing (mostly) off-book. It took forever, as that rehearsal tends to do, and then at eleven o’clock at night we gathered for notes. It was, um, late.

I wonder if there are better and worse methods for giving actors notes. I mean, there are drawbacks to all of them. For a rehearsal like last night’s, when we are all exhausted and dull-brained, it seems foolish and counter-productive to stay late and give notes. On the other hand, giving notes at the beginning of the next rehearsal isn’t really good, either—for one thing, there may be a different subset of the cast called at the beginning of the rehearsal, and for another, it’s difficult enough to remember (or decipher) a note a couple of hours after taking it. It may be surprising to people who haven’t done community theater how often a director will say something like ‘I have written down here: Horatio down TOUCH. Does that make sense?’ and eventually they figure out what it was that she wanted him to do or not do. Trying it the next day is a lot more difficult.

Some directors don’t take or give notes at all until very, very late in the process, preferring to stop scenes right away with their suggestions and ideas. That is probably my preference, but there are drawbacks to that, too—it’s important to get a sense of how scenes flow (and how they flow together) that can be difficult if we’re doing too much starting and stopping.

I have had some directors attempt the technique where notes are emailed to the cast the next day; this has all of the disadvantages of the next day with several additional disadvantages (the director doesn’t have the cast’s help deciphering notes, for one thing). The huge advantage is that it doesn’t take up rehearsal time, which is an incredibly valuable resource; there is a corresponding disadvantage that it takes up the director’s time outside of rehearsal, which is usually a valuable and scarce resource as well.

One issue as well is that I often find it helpful to hear the notes given to other cast members, so a really efficient system isn’t actually as good for me. I’m not talking about the notes like ‘I think the important word in that line is him’ but often if the director is giving other actors notes about pacing or cheating out to stage left or focus, there’s useful information there for me, if not about what I am doing myself then about what the director thinks, about theater generally or our storytelling. Or even about the director’s methods of communication—I could have saved myself a lot of upset during certain shows if I had known at the beginning that the director had a habit of sounding like she was barely holding in her furious contempt for the talentless stupidity of the actors she had cast when she was, in fact, just trying to work quickly. I’m not likely to work for her again, it’s true, but I was only able to figure out the communication problem when it involved another actor and not me.

And another concern, particularly in a show such as Hamlet, is that the lead actor often gets as many notes as the rest of the cast put together, and sometimes the notes are of a different nature. There’s a legitimate tension between the rest of the actors not really wanting to spend their time sitting through those and yet not really wanting the lead actor to get Star Treatment, getting his or her notes in private audience with the director. I mean, everyone understands (I hope) that it’s a play about Hamlet, and yet—at least in the amateur theater that is all I know to talk about—part of what we are doing this whole thing for is a sense of camaraderie and, well, community.

And all of those options about when to give notes and how to give notes are of course less important that what and how many notes to give. Actors being different one to another (similar in that way to real people) and reacting differently to different styles and amounts of notes makes it difficult, I imagine, but there is also time management involved, and communication issues and so forth. Listing every possible improvement is often counterproductive, but ignoring problems may not make them go away, either.

Essentially, directing is difficult, and I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 6, 2017

Polonius Production Diary: Time Passes

I’m not sure one could legitimately call this a diary at this point. If I were a more comfortable tweeter I might have blurted out short rehearsal reports each day, detailing such things as my falling dead in a terrible position and then lying half on one side cursing myself for ten dead minutes whilst Hamlet berated Gertrude and my muscles, such as they are, cramped and died. Or my in-character refusal to sit down until the King gestures for me to, which coupled with my furious refusal to allow Laertes to sit down as well as a sharp-eyed Cornelius adapting to court etiquette meant that the whole court remained upstanding until the King noticed about two pages later. And the poor actor was just trying to get through a longish bit without calling line.

The rehearsal process proceeds apace. It’s a long stretch—community theaters often have something like 8 weeks of rehearsal, and we are five weeks in and have six weeks yet to go. I’m not altogether sure what to think about that. The rehearsals don’t seem to have been particularly inefficient, although as our Director is all the way at the do-what-you-feel-like-doing end of the blocking spectrum we have naturally gone down a few dead ends. I like her and all, and there’s nothing wrong at all with that end of the spectrum, tho’ of course it isn’t exactly where I live by choice. I do not, in general, trust my instincts, or at least not all of them, and often enough my instincts contradict each other, or are utterly different from one night’s rehearsal to the next. In the end, something gets the Director to say ’keep that’ and we do.

Oh, here’s a bit—in II,ii (which is several scenes, actually, and goes on forever) when Polonius re-enters, Hamlet is talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Here’s the text:

Enter Polonius.
POLONIUS Well be with you, gentlemen.
HAMLET Hark you, Guildenstern, and you too—at
each ear a hearer! That great baby you see there is
not yet out of his swaddling clouts.
ROSENCRANTZ Haply he is the second time come to
them, for they say an old man is twice a child.
HAMLET I will prophesy he comes to tell me of the
players; mark it.—You say right, sir, a Monday
morning, ’twas then indeed.
POLONIUS My lord, I have news to tell you.

Do you see the problem? Polonius enters and speaks, then stands aside for the exchange between Hamlet and R&G, and then interrupts the Prince. He is either too patient, or not patient enough, and the convention that Polonius cannot hear what the audience clearly does is strained by it. There are fifteen seconds or so to be got through, whilst Hamlet whispers with his friends, during which Polonius does… what? That was my problem. And I answered it (so far) the way I am like to answer such questions, with physical comedy. My idea was that I would come in with a handful of playbills or flyers for the Players, and immediately drop them on the floor. That gives me fifteen seconds to gather them up and then present them to Hamlet as my news.

I tried it for the first time this week and it seems work. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 21, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: Between II,i and II,ii

I didn’t write up Polonius' scenes before we got to rehearsing them, so as I bull on through, you’re getting a combination of my first thoughts and the results of starting to rehearse. I’ve got as far as II,ii on this blog, and haven’t really talked about it.

I guess before I start on the scene, though, I’ll say—Hamlet is theatrically wonderful in how it orders scenes to play with (and mostly thwart) the audience’s expectations, but it does mean that what happens offstage sometimes makes very little logistical sense. As an example—Polonius is told by Hamlet that he is coming to the Queen’s closet by-and-by at the end of III,ii; he goes to the King in III,iii to briefly tell him so (the whole interaction is ten lines) and then III,iv starts in the Queen’s closet with Polonius saying He will come straight. He has a sixty line head start on Hamlet leaving the King, but is less than ten lines into the scene before Hamlet comes—does he walk so slow? That’s plausible, I suppose, but then Hamlet thinks, for a moment, that the King (who he left at the end of III,iii) is behind the arras, having passed him on the way, I suppose? None of it matters theatrically, mind you, but it means that the actors have to either concoct an unlikely stories for themselves or be willing to ignore the difficulty.

This is particularly acute with Hamlet’s madness. We first hear about it at the end of Act One when Hamlet says he may perchance put an antic disposition on; we don’t really hear anything else about the plan. In the next scene (II,i) we hear about Hamlet’s madness but don’t see it; it appears to be describing the first appearance of Mad Hamlet, to Ophelia alone. At the end of that scene, Polonius takes Ophelia to talk to the King and tell him the bad news; at the beginning of the next scene enough time has passed that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived, having been sent for specifically in reaction to Hamlet’s transformation. Then Polonius enters to tell the King the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy—he clearly has not yet done so, whatever his plans at the end of II,i. That scene is delayed in the middle by Voltemand and Cornelius (cut in our production) and theatrically plays with further delays due to Polonius’ verbiage, before any mention of the actual symptoms (which appear, by the way, to be getting worse since II,i). Then after those three successive scenes of people talking about Hamlet’s madness the audience is ready for Mad Hamlet. This is marvelous stuff. But just the same, it does mean that my choices for Polonius have to be informed by a certain inconsistency.

Clearly in II,i Polonius is surprised to hear that Hamlet is mad; clearly in II,ii everybody has been talking about it for some time (well, some indeterminate time, if R&G were in Wittenberg when they were sent for, it might be a week; if they were in Copenhagen they could be there later in the day) without him. At the end of II,i Polonius says go we to the King but it seems that they do not. There is a delay. In between the scenes Polonius has made some decisions: (a) he will delay telling the King about Hamlet’s madness and the Hamlet-Ophelia liaison, and (2) when he does tell the King, he will present documentary evidence rather than eyewitness testimony.

Why? Well, it’s possible to create some explanatory filler: while Ophelia is talking to her father, Hamlet is exhibiting his antic disposition elsewhere, possibly in front of the King himself. One could imagine Polonius dragging Ophelia into the audience chamber and finding Hamlet in there already, doing his antic shtick. Ophelia breaking down, Polonius backing out. A change in plans. It doesn’t necessarily matter.The audience won’t know. What I have to do is make the next scene work. For me, that means emphasizing how scared Polonius is at this point, and his instinct to delay. I’ll go into the details in another post.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 14, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: Jephthah!

A thing that came up last night as we were working II,ii: Does Polonius know the Jephthah story? Here are the lines in question, which are in Hamlet’s mad scene:

HAMLET:      O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
POLONIUS     What a treasure had he, my lord?
HAMLET     Why, One fair daughter, and no more, The which he lovèd passing well.
POLONIUS     [aside] Still on my daughter.
HAMLET     Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?
POLONIUS     If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.
HAMLET     Nay, that follows not.
POLONIUS     What follows then, my lord?
HAMLET     Why, As by lot, God wot and then, you know, It came to pass, as most like it was—the first row of the pious chanson will show you more, for look where my abridgment comes.

Hamlet is specifically referring to a song:

I have read that many years ago,
When Jephthah, judge of Israel,
Had one fair daughter and no more,
Whom he loved passing well;
As by lot, God wot,
It came to pass, most like it was,
Great wars there should be,
And who should be the chief but he, but he.

And more generally referring to Judges 11.

It seems to me that Polonius doesn’t know the song—he doesn’t know what follows, in the sense of the next line of the song. That makes sense to me, and is fine: it is proper for old age to not know popular lyrics. But would Polonius know the Scripture? Today, I would call it an obscure story, as obscure as, oh, the rape of Dinah—not as obscure as Ehud the Lefty and Fat King Eglon, but not as well-known as Judith or Sampson. I certainly would not casually throw in a reference to Jephthah’s daughter in conversation without explanation. But that was a different time, and Polonius is (or was) a sharp sort of a man, if pretty strongly anti-clerical. It’s hard for me to accept that he wouldn’t know the Jephthah story.

And yet, he doesn’t react to being called Jephthah anywhere near strongly enough. I mean, when Hamlet calls him Jephtah, he doesn’t immediately flip out. He doesn’t make his aside recognizing that it’s another reference to his daughter until Hamlet uses the word daughter, and even then he accepts the name and seems to accept identifying Ophelia with Jephthah’s daughter. All of that makes sense if Hamlet has completely baffled Polonius by the reference, but not so much if Polonius is even dimly aware of the outlines of the Jephthah story.

I’m going to have to figure out how to play the scene at some point, so I’ll have to make a decision. Our Director has advised me to try it each way and see what feels right (she’s that sort of director, about which more anon) which is all well and good, but maybe some of y’all can help, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 12, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: mouth

I have been thinking, over the weekend, about Polonius’ mouth.

I mean, about his voice and his character, but specifically about his mouth. How he holds his jaw, his lips, where his voice comes from. I haven’t been playing with it at rehearsals yet, but I have to decide something at some point.

Polonius is old, he is described as old by other characters, and he mentions it himself more than once. I myself am middle-aged, not yet fifty. I am not even technically old enough to be the father of the actress playing Ophelia, although she plays younger than her actual age. I need to play older than mine, though, to make it work, and that’s not something I usually do. Well, and Selsdon, but that was farce, and a proscenium besides. I don’t think we want Polonius to shuffle and limp, if only to the whole play doesn’t come to a halt waiting for me to get where I’m going. My hair is already grey (and I will color my beard and mustache to match—do any of y’all have any recommendations? Ben Nye v. Mehron?) and my face is not smooth. The main tool that I’m going to have is my voice; I will need to age that enough to be the subject of jokes.

My initial thought, actually, was to play Polonius as a stroke survivor, with one corner of the mouth permanently pulled down. That leads to a little mumbling and loss of volume, which is kinda character-y but not really much fun for the audiences, is it? That’s the sort of plausible self-indulgence that gets right up my nose—and, to carry on from the last note, distracts from the story the play is telling. I’m not saying it can’t be done well, but the odds are against it.

Another thought about Polonius and his character: I have increasingly come to think that the keynote to Polonius is fear. I haven’t got through II,ii yet here, but it seems to me that Polonius is dithering out of fear. He has a dangerous thing to tell Claudius (and Gertrude) and dreads the consequences of saying it and also of not saying it. Polonius being also windy, pedantic and prone to repetition, the result is the dialogue that Gertrude finds so frustrating. And having felt that fear at that moment, it seems to me to pervade his scenes—to be specific, his life and his position are both in jeopardy after the regime change; Claudius might experience some political cost to having him killed or imprisoned but could very easily have him ruined and his children impoverished. Ophelia’s marital prospects are hurt by rumor and scandal, and if Claudius gets it into his head that either Ophelia or Laertes are a threat to his throne… From his point of view, everything is a threat. Old Hamlet’s death throws Elsinore into disarray, and Polonius, whatever else he is, is smart enough to know how little security he and his children have in Claudius’ Denmark.

The question is: how does such a fearful person hold his mouth?

Malvolio’s mouth was held very tightly, with pursed lips and downturned corners. Brooker’s jaw jutted forward. Babe smiled a lot. Buckingham smiled incessantly, with the cheeks raised and eyes squinted. Valmont sneered—the corners of the mouth drooped, but the mouth was held more loosely than Malvolio. I don’t know yet how Polonius holds his mouth. The position of the mouth, of course, affects the sound of speech as well as the expressions on the face. I don’t have a settled accent yet, either, which will have to accompany the set of the mouth. What aspects of Polonius do I want his accent to emphasize? His background, his pretensions, his loyalties? I have been more or less imagining Polonius with a kind of stiff-upper-lip receding-chin rabbity face—more Frank Middlemass than David Bradley. But during our actual rehearsals (and keeping in mind that we are really just getting started) I haven’t been able to keep the face in mind as I am doing the lines. That may be that I’m rushing the process, or it may be that my instincts are telling me that I am headed in the wrong direction there. Time will tell.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 9, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: table talk

We are doing multiple table readings of our script, cutting as we go. It’s interesting—as I’ve said most amateur productions I’ve been associated with skimp on table talk, choosing to use limited time up on foot. The last show I was in (a Twelfth Night, if you’ve joined us recently) did some table talk after blocking the show, which was interesting. We are planning four table rehearsals over two weeks, just reading through the play and talking. It’s interesting, although since I am done an hour before everyone else, I will have to restrain my dead self from gobbling snacks.

Mostly we’ve had questions, rather than answers, at this stage, which is excellent. We are trying things out, seeing how they work. Our Gertrude is unsure how to deal with the post-closet scenes, where she appears to mostly trust Claudius again. Her interaction with Laertes doesn’t seem to reflect concern that he is threatening to, oh, for instance, murder her child. Gertrude is definitely tricky, and I think easier (in a sense) in a version that focuses on the plot as primarily political rather than psychological. The solution of simply playing each scene as written without worry overmuch about consistency would not, I think, be satisfying. Well, anyway.

I leaned, this time, toward portraying Polonius in a harsher, angrier key. I don’t think I’ll stick to that. It would play (My recollection is that is how Richard Briers played it in the Branagh film) but I don’t think it helps tell the Hamlet story as well as a more loving, bewildered reading. I do think that this play is, more than some others, focused on telling the story of one character, and that we who are playing supporting parts need to support that story rather than tell our own. Not that we don’t (or can’t) have consistent and interesting characters, just that the choices we make with those characters should (again, in my opinion) be consistent with Hamlet’s story and not distract from it.

So, f’r’ex—to go back to Gertrude, it’s a legitimate choice from Gertrude’s point of view that after her husband’s death, a cynical and loveless marriage alliance with the new king is her son’s path to the throne. Or, even, that she was complicit in the removal of the old king, her husband, either to allow her to marry her lover, his brother, or to serve other purposes of the actor’s own invention. One could imagine a sharp-eyed Gertrude signing Claudius’ name to the Norway letter while he amiably drinks himself insensible in I,ii and later giving the nod to a henchman to whack Ophelia before coming in and giving that oh-so-practiced speech about the willow that grows aslant the brook. A Gertrude that would have real reason to fear Hamlet, and real reason to fear old Hamlet’s ghost. A Gertrude that Claudius was afraid of, enough to set his mind to a subtle plot to assassinate Hamlet without her noticing. Such a Gertrude might be consistent with the text (allowing for deliberate lies, of course), fascinating to watch and totally distracting from the Hamlet story.

One of the acting books I read, probably the Practical Handbook, talked about working within the givens of a part. Those givens may be things like the gender, age, time frame, setting, occupation, language, costume and possibly physical appearance—whatever the playwright has told you about the character, possibly coupled with whatever the director has decided. Within those restrictions, the actor has a wide latitude to decide on motivations, relationships, pace, movement and other aspects of character creation. I have come to think that we should include with the givens the characters purpose within the story. This is far from universally accepted, but I find it helpful. Is the character the antagonist, the advisor, the sidekick… Polonius is in some sense Fifth Business, but rather than having some important message to deliver, his place in the story is essentially to heighten everybody’s tension until he is killed, and then his death wrecks everyone’s plans, either directly or indirectly. There’s a fair amount of latitude to work with, but those are the primary things that I think Polonius is for. Well, and comic relief, too—I don’t think it would be right to decide to make Polonius not funny. So three things, really: get the laughs that are in the script, heighten the tensions between the characters, and get killed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 1, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: II,i the News

Act II, Scene one: Ophelia’s News.

Before looking at this scene, I feel it’s important to look at the question of how to treat the scene that has been cut. It’s actually the first half of this scene, in which Polonius instructs Reynardo, who is leaving for Paris, to find Danes who might know Laertes and bait them with false gossip to try to draw out rumors. It’s a lovely if irrelevant little scene, and I have to admit I’m a bit sad about it being left out. That said, cut scenes like this leave me with a question: do I take the scene as a part of Polonius’ character, just happening off-stage? Or do I build the character entirely with the script we are using, as that is what the audience will see? I think there are arguments either way, and certainly I would not feel comfortable with a Shakespeare role if I didn’t read the entire text. On the other hand, I think making choices based on stuff that is cut is silly. Certainly on the level of word choices and line deliveries I would not take into account the resonances of words that aren’t there anymore. With a whole scene… how important is it that my Polonius be capable of having that conversation with Reynaldo? Does my relationship with Laertes need to take that into account? I’m not sure.

At any rate, when Ophelia comes in, which is now the beginning of the scene, Polonius says things like How now, Ophelia, what’s the matter and What said he?. I have four of those one-line lines that feed Ophelia’s news. When she is done, it’s my turn. How I say those four lines will of course depend on Ophelia’s choices, and more importantly how I listen will depend on her choices. Do I instantly believe her? Have I (as in some surveillance-focused productions) already heard of Hamlet’s madness? For the audience, this is the first news—they have heard Hamlet say that he plans on pretending to be mad, then they hear from Ophelia that he appears to be mad, before they see him doing it himself.

Anyway, when Polonius speaks, he begins with go we to the King. No thought of hushing this up—why not? How does he think the King will take the news? He repeats it later and defends it, which makes me think that Ophelia is being reluctant, tho’ she doesn’t actually say so. I wonder whether he is himself torn about his duty, and about whether he trusts Claudius’ reaction.

His next sentence is This is the very ecstasy of love, whose violent property fordoes itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings as oft as any passions under heaven that does afflict our natures. That’s quite a long sentence. Who is he talking to? Is he trying to convince Ophelia that it’s love making Hamlet mad? Is he trying to convince himself? Or is he just stalling? Then he asks her What, have you given him any hard words of late? Why does he ask her that, or at least in that way? Has he forgotten his earlier admonition, or did he not expect Ophelia to remember it? Or does he think that Ophelia acted on his advice but did so in an unnecessarily harsh manner? He says he is sorry, both before and after that question, so I don’t think he’s trying to pin all the blame on his daughter. In excusing himself, he says: But beshrew my jealousy! By heaven, it is as proper to our age to cast beyond ourselves in our opinions as it is common for the younger sort to lack discretion. is this specifically a dig at Ophelia or just a general attempt at self-absolution? Also—why jealousy? This is clearly meant in the sense of OED meaning 3 Solicitude or anxiety for the preservation or well-being of something which was still in use at Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare himself doesn’t much use the word in that sense. Jaques uses it that way, true, and he’s a pedant much as Polonius. Hm. Still, it’s awkward.

Anyway, the two main questions (with all that shakes down from them) are how much Polonius trusts Ophelia and how much he trusts Claudius. Less so Hamlet, I think, although I may change my mind about that, but the regret does not seem, from the text, to come from concern for Hamlet in himself, but from the awkwardness Hamlet’s madness places his family and the kingdom. I think that for Ophelia, it seems as if Polonius perhaps doesn’t really see her as a person on her own—how old should she be at this point? At any rate Polonius doesn’t think of her as an adult, whether or no. As for Claudius, Polonius seems at this reading both wary and trusting, which may need to be resolved, or perhaps may not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 28, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: I,iii (the docks)

Polonius has only one line in the first scene, so I’m going to start in with writing about the docks scene: I,iii. Well, and I call it the docks, because I think of it that way, although it isn’t—the playscript we are using identifies it as A room in Polonius’ house, which is perfectly reasonable. I must have seen a production at some point that set it dockside, which worked so well that I think of it as properly taking place there. I do like (and perhaps this is also from that barely-remembered performance) the notion of the scene with Ophelia taking place in some semi-public place where they are aware of other eyes on them. That theme of being watched, again. Well, anyway.

In the first part, the Laertes part, the famous part, the verse is very regular, very much plowing to the end of the line. There is one line with Beware at the end, but other that, each change of thought is at a line’s end. It’s not hugely rumpty-tumpty (in places, such as give every man thy ear and few thy voice, yes, but there are more like neither a borrower nor a lender be or grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel) but reads very much as verse. I’ll have to see what the director wants me to do with that, which I assume will depend somewhat on the other actors’ skills and habits. Not that Polonius can’t be more versey (as it were) than the people surrounding him, as a character eccentricity, but still.

As for the content of the advice, I’m always surprised by how good it is as advice. Not terribly surprising, but not silly. The more specific it is, the better, which is worth thinking about; the general precepts (by thou familiar but by no means vulgar) are sensible without being helpful. The big decision here is whether this is all stuff Laertes has heard before, or whether Polonius is making it up as he goes along. It can play either way. I have seen it where both Ophelia and Laertes repeat the famous bits with him, as my children do with some of my precepts for them, which can indicate something lovely and real about their family life but leaves the audience out, somewhat, while indicating that there isn’t anything worth listening to in it.

A question for actor playing Laertes: does Laertes like his father? Question for me: does Polonius know whether his son likes him? Are they getting along? Going back to the first scene’s wrung from me my slow leave by laborsome petition—is this a joke or not? Does Polonius want Laertes in Elsinore or in Paris? Part of this is political, yes, but surely part is personal. Will Polonius miss Laertes when he is away? This plays out when Laertes comes back, and Claudius keeps asking him whether he loved his father… one choice is that they left on bad terms and the son feels guilty, now that it’s too late to make it up. Laertes’ response to all this advice is not noticeably affectionate: Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord. But at the beginning he says Occasion smiles upon a second leave. I need to know how Laertes feels to play this scene; the other actor presumably needs to know how Polonius feels at this point for the revenge bits later.

The second part, and Ophelia: What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you? Why does he address Laertes as thou and Ophelia as you? (Laertes addresses Ophelia as you as well; Hamlet mostly yous her but when he gets worked up it’s if thou dost marry, I’ll give thee, etc) (Laertes does thou Ophelia once she’s dead; that’s interesting). Is Ophelia the older sibling? Is he more affectionate with Laertes than with Ophelia? I wouldn’t have said so from the rest of the text. I’m really not sure what to do with the you and thou here.

The verse—the longer speech (springes to catch woodcocks) has much more broken stuff, such as from this time/be something scanter and For Lord Hamlet/Believe so much in him and In few, Ophelia/Do not believe. It ends very solidly: This is for all:/I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth/Have you so slander any moment leisure/As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet./Look to it, I charge you. Come your ways. Almost rumpty-tumpty there, but easy to drive to the end of the verse line.

Does Polonius expect the answer he gets when he asks her what Laertes said? Does he expect an answer at all? Does he—and this is probably central—trust Ophelia to tell him the truth? How different is the play if Ophelia just says nothing, Dad or he just was warning me not to scratch his Young Fresh Fellows albums, jeez? Polonius claims (here and in II,ii) to already know about the two of them, but does he? Ophelia’s lines here and to Laertes (and we don’t know yet how she will give them, of course) are pretty much the opposite of defiant attachment. I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart, she tells her brother, and to her father I do not know, my lord, what I should think and then I shall obey. Is Polonius confident that she is under his thumb enough to tell the truth and follow his commands? Because she does follow his commands, unlike most Shakespearean lovers. And he appears to believe what she says, which (according to the excised first half of II,i) is not how he treats Laertes.

Some parts of that excised Reynaldo bit, along with the I do know line here and II,ii’s And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this hint at Polonius having, well, a substantial sex life. At least in his mind. They don’t mention his wife; I always assumed he’s a widower. Hm, have to think about this. At any rate, Polonius speaks of sexual passion with a kind of fond remembrance, even as he doesn’t want his daughter to experience it, the old hypocrite. Not altogether surprising or unusual there.

Well, a lot to go on with there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 26, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: the breakdown

Polonius appears in eight scenes:

  • I,ii (the court scene, which is mostly watching except for one line about Laertes)
  • I,iii (the docks scene, which is actually two scenes: the Laertes farewell and the Ophelia remonstrance)
  • II,i (the Ophelia news) (the Reynaldo part of the scene having been cut, alas)
  • II,ii (many scenes in this one: the letter bit with the King and Queen, the first scene with mad Hamlet, and the introduction of the players)
  • III,i (the first surveillance scene; Polonius and the King bracket Hamlet’s monologue and his scene with Ophelia)
  • III,ii (the Mousetrap; Polonius comes in briefly, leaves, comes back with the Court, watches the play, leaves with the King, and then briefly comes back to deliver a message)
  • III,iii (with the King, discussing his plan)
  • III,iv (the closet scene, in which Polonius is killed at last)

The death is at Folger Through Line Number 2465; their edition of the play is 4167 lines long, so I have a lot of lines (and words—a lot of words) packed in to the first three-fifths of the play, and the last two-fifths to put my feet up in the green room. Probably. If we have a green room. I haven’t counted out what has been cut from the parts I am not in, but I think more was cut from before my death than after.

There are three Big Scenes: the docks scene, the Ophelia scene, and then the letter scene leading in to the scene with Mad Hamlet (the fishmonger scene, I might call it). After that, it’s bits and bobs, with a few jokes thrown in amongst the plot point, but mostly watching and coasting. I need to use the big scenes carefully to set up the rest of it. The important thing, really, is that it has to matter when Polonius dies, but emotionally and (more important) for the plot. I mean, it would presumably matter in the prince-and-heir murdered anybody, but it should also matter because it is Polonius specifically. So, we’ll see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 23, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: the read-through

So, Polonius.

The first Read-Through was last night. It went well, all in all—read-throughs are always at least somewhat awkward, and probably more awkward with Shakespeare than with a contemporary text. Our Hamlet and our Ophelia I have worked with before and I have great faith in—they are clearly too old for the parts (tho' much younger than Your Humble Blogger), and the positive part of that is that they have some experience and should be able to handle the verse. Hamlet, particularly, needs to be able to handle verse with real technique, which you aren't just born with. Our Claudius is an experienced fellow, who I believe said had not done Shakespeare before, but is a retired English teacher, so I'm not worried about that. I'll need to have a good working relationship with Claudius—it's good to have good working relationships with everyone, of course, but Polonius must have proper rhythms with only Ophelia and Claudius. If the Hamlet scenes don't quite click comfortably, well, that's all to the better. And Polonius and Gertrude address each other only briefly. Laertes, well, that actor and I will have to come to some sort of conclusion about the relationship there. If we don’t get comfortable together, then Laertes and Claudius won't get comfortable together, and we can work that out. Mind you, Ophelia is never properly comfortable with Polonius, and Polonius is never properly comfortable with the King, but those discomforts are new and plot-driven and come from a background with a proper communicative bond. This could be true with Laertes, but doesn't need to be.

Our Director, other than seeming like a nice enough person, did not overshadow the proceedings. She did not present us with completed set or costume designs. She did tell we would be in modern drag, and that the Mousetrap would be filmed (which could work well), and intimated that she was more focused on the play as a psychological than a political conflict. Personally, at this moment, I am more intrigued by the political aspect, but that's me; part of the job of the director is to direct the focus to the aspects of her choosing.

And—My big discovery from the night is that we will be in a sort of black box room. I have got used to a proscenium, I'm afraid—looking back, I think my last six plays were on proscenium stages. Is that right? 12N and Noises Off were in an old nineteenth-century theater and meeting hall that seats upwards of 200, with a raised proscenium stage and the audience on the flat; Hearts, AYLI and Windermere were all in an old playhouse with a raised stage and risers for the house; NickNick was in a big and moderately modern hall. I'm not counting staged readings, of course, which are different, and I did a short play (more of a sketch, really) in a place without a raised stage four years ago or so. But the last full-length play I did without a proscenium was Rough Crossing back in 2011, and that had risers and quite reasonable lights. This space is a rectangle about 30'x50' (I'm guessing) that can seat perhaps fifty chairs, and has a rather ordinary ceiling with no real room for hanging stage lights. I'm thinking this will be… intimate. Which isn't bad! Intimate can be terrific for theater. But it's going to call on some different techniques that I haven't used in a while. I think my last performance in a setting like this one was in, um, er, 1994?

There's been a big movement, lately, for professional theater that isn't in a theater space—the kinds of things where the audience walk around an abandoned mill, or the whole production is in somebody's kitchen, or a series of hotel rooms or the company does something in a museum. It's not the sort of thing amateur theater does well which if you think about it is kind of odd, because the other thing amateur theater doesn't do well, really, is maintain a physical theater for very long. But it's tough to sell tickets to immersive theater, too, and I imagine that sort of thing can be expensive. Well, anyway, this isn't that sort of thing, but what I'm getting at is that there's a whole kind of theater that I don't have any experience with or technique for, and now and then I think that's not great. So I'm looking forward to this as a different and interesting departure for me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 21, 2016

Production Diary II: This Time It's Polonius

Well, and Your Humble Blogger is starting on a new Production Diary. Polonius, this time. I’m actually quite depressed about having entered my Polonius years. I am clearly too old to play the titular prince anymore, and I did have my crack at it, so I can scarcely complain. Still. Polonius. I was kinda hoping for the Player King.

I was quite pleased with how the Malvolio diary turned out, I have to say, but then I went in to the thing utterly terrified, not knowing what the hell I was going to do with the part. This is Polonius, a part which seems to me to have few questions or challenges. The actor has to get laughs with the funny bits and not be as tedious as his character, but there aren’t really a lot of options, are there? It is quite a straightforward part. Still, I’ll write about how I go about the preparation, and perhaps it will be more interesting than I think it will.

And the play… oh, it’s so good. I hadn’t re-read it in years, and somehow it had fallen somewhat down the Favorite Plays list, or even the Favorite Shakespeare Plays list. Richard III, Richard II, Lear, As You Like It, Henry IV part I, even Comedy of Errors had shouldered their way past it. Re-reading it again, though, I was astonished by how terrific the play is. The poetry, of course, but also the structure and the scenes, the characters and their conflicts. The way that scenes start in one direction and are deflected, sometimes two or three times before they get where they are headed. The way the tension is handled, and the way the characters seek to break that tension for themselves and each other and the audience. So good.

You know, it’s so obvious, when you know the play as well as we all know it now, that Hamlet has to kill Polonius. But if you don’t know it, it is such a great theater moment when Hamlet suddenly sparks into action and screws it up, and that murder pushes all the rest of the terrible, terrifying plot. I have to do something with that.

First read-through is tomorrow night; the show goes up in late February. I hope I’ll write two or three times a week between now and then. We shall see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 28, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Bits and Bobs

I don’t have much inspiration at the moment, and I said I was going to post about some of the physical bits that developed for Malvolio. Or I think I said that, anyway, and while I was hoping to get hold of some video to see how the bits actually looked from the front, if I don’t write this stuff up now I won’t remember anything worth writing. So.

The first physical bit we developed is a handkerchief bit. I suppose I could call it the ring bit, but I think of it as a handkerchief bit, because the handkerchief is the part I brought into it. When Olivia hands Malvolio a ring to give to Cesario, our actress made a bit out of having trouble getting it off her finger, eventually spitting on it for lubrication. It’s a time-honored bit, actually, like most of them. Our director encouraged me to react to her placing the spit-wet ring in my hand; I whipped my handkerchief out of my back pocket and dried the thing, and then used the handkerchief to wipe my hand, and then to polished the ring again. It’s not a great bit; the handkerchief part of it really only adds a level of fussiness. I like the fussiness, that he doesn’t wipe the thing on his trouser leg or whatever, but the handkerchief is incidental.

The thing I particularly liked about the handkerchief happened in the later scene, when I enter and accost Cesario. I have the ring wrapped in the handkerchief (I have a whole scene in the wings to re-wrap the thing) and as I say She returns this ring to you, Sir; you might have saved me my pains to have taken it away yourself I carefully unfold the cloth to reveal the ring. At the end of my line, I have my palm up with the white handkerchief draped over it and the ring in the center of the display. I end my speech Receive it so with my arm fully outstretched, shoulder height, where it remains during Cesario’s response She took the ring of me; I’ll none of it and then as I retort Come, sir, you peevishly threw it to her, and her will is it should be so returned, on the word returned I turn my palm out to the audience and the ring drops onto the floor, where it makes a satisfying rattle. Now, as I say, I haven’t seen the thing from in front, but I believe the handkerchief makes that bit work. The ring isn’t so large that the audience would see it on my palm, but the square of white cloth helps with that, and besides, makes the gesture of dropping it big enough that even if they can’t see the ring, they know what I’ve done. There are other ways to do the ring drop, of course; traditionally Malvolio puts it on the tip of his staff of office and then drops it from that, which accomplishes the same thing of making the gesture larger. I didn’t have a staff of office, so the handkerchief seemed to work.

That one pretty much hatched full-formed. Our director said react, and my instinct was to go to my handkerchief, and once the handkerchief was involved, it made no sense to put it away again until the ring was out of my possession. There were a few minor variances, mostly the timing of my ring-polishing bit—our Olivia increased the hysteria of her Hie thee, Malvolio! over the course of the run, so I naturally increased the chill of my Madam, I will to match. But our director never mentioned the handkerchief, either loving it or not or suggesting improvement, so once it went in, it pretty much stayed.

There was another bit that evolved over the course of the run, this one during the yellow-stocking scene. Olivia begins the scene in her ’garden office’, two chairs down left that indicate we are in Olivia’s place. At the bit I’m talking about, she is already up, having suggested that Malvolio go to bed, a suggestion he misinterprets, of course. On the line I’ll come to thee! Malvolio advances toward Olivia; Olivia panics and grabs a chair to put between them, its back to me.

I’ll stop, though, for a moment, because I Have Opinions about this scene, and particularly about this bit of the scene. I’ll quote:

MALVOLIO “Be not afraid of greatness.” ’Twas well writ.
OLIVIA: What mean’st thou by that, Malvolio?
MALVOLIO: “Some are born great—”
OLIVIA: Ha?
MALVOLIO: “Some achieve greatness—”
OLIVIA: What sayst thou?
MALVOLIO: “And some have greatness thrust upon them.”
OLIVIA: Heaven restore thee!

It's actually a longer bit, but it's these lines that I was concerned about before we started, as it seems to call for, well, a comic physical assault. That's how I've generally seen it done, actually, with Malvolio advancing on Olivia and Olivia running away, and so on and so forth. And that gets laughs, but… I wasn't comfortable with it. It's not that it's psychologically wrong, either. I just don't want to do a comic attempted rape, if I can think of something else to do. Well, anyway, what wound up happening was that at be not afraid, the director suggested that I ‘Captain Morgan’ the chair, referring (I eventually surmised) to the Captain’s pose with one foot on a barrel of rum. This I did, and he seemed pleased. At some point in during tech week, he asked if I could add a pelvic thrust on the word thrust, which is of course an easy laugh, and his philosophy is that easy laughs should be taken. A pretty reasonable philosophy, too, although cheap laughs aren't actually terribly interesting to me. I generally would rather do something unexpected if I can get the laugh that way, particularly in a case (like this one) where the audience will get the easy-laugh part anyway.

Well, then we got the chairs, which were not onlike this one, round wooden seat, high heart-shaped back. Not much different than the ones we were using in rehearsal, but a little bit higher in the back. The bit developed a bit more… Olivia would at the beginning of those lines be holding the back of the chair, the seat facing toward her, with the front legs resting on the ground. On greatness I would put my hand on the crown of the seat back and pull it back toward me, seating the back legs with a thunk! On born great, I would swing my leg up over the back of the chair and plant my foot on the seat. As the back of the seat was hip height, and I kept my toe pointed, the effect was (I hope) less Captain Morgan and more Minister of Silly Walks. The next move, of course, was on thrust, and I tried thrusting my hips forward whilst in that position; it was funny, as almost anything I might do at that point would be, but I didn't like it. My next attempt was to slide the chair forward on thrust, thus advancing on Olivia by a foot or so without otherwise moving; by the time I tried that out, we had an audience, and I liked it better than the pelvic thrust. I tried it again the next day (a matinee) and got the front feet of the chair caught in the lip of the trap door in the stage. Did myself an injury, which I recovered from but slowly. I went back to the hump, but didn't like it; I tried the slide again, and the chair tipped forward a bit. That's it, I thought. For the last weekend, on thrust I pushed forward with my hips and tilted the chair forward so that it was balanced on its front legs with me perched, upstage knee over the back of the chair, downstage leg stretched out behind. That, it turned out, was the correctly ridiculous pose, and got a big laugh the twice I was able to do it.

Our Olivia was kind enough to wait with her interjection until the laugh died down, but alas, it was not the most comfortable pose to hold. Well, you can't have everything.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 31, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Wrap

So. The show is over; Malvolio is no more. Nine performances, none of them went really badly. No missed entrances, no set collapses, no wardrobe malfunctions. Well, not within the meaning of the term; Viola popped a button on her shipwreck dress in the middle of the scene, but there was no unintentional skin revealed. I dried once, during the Prison Scene, and wept for a moment whilst figuring out where in the scene I was; I doubt anyone in the audience interpreted it as anything but Acting. Some shows were better than others—the best show of the run was definitely Saturday the 27th and the worst Friday the 26th—but those were a matter of timing and focus (and the audience, mostly the audience) rather than anything going wrong. So that’s all right. And now, the wrap-up:

The Positives

  • It was, I think, a good production. I’m as proud of this show as I have been of any show in quite a while. Rough Crossing may be the only other show I’ve been in that I think has been that well-done throughout. Now, I could certainly be wrong about its quality—I never saw the thing, after all, and it’s not as if anyone is going to come around after and tell me it was dull, badly acted and poorly lit. But it felt like a good production.
  • We sold some tickets. I don’t know how many tickets the place usually sells, but from a financial standpoint, it seems to have been not-a-disaster. It was pretty even through all the performances; I don’t think we went below a hundred or above two hundred. Call it an average of 140 and I won’t be too far off, that’s 1,260 over nine performances or a take of more or less $25K plus whatever the concessions take was, with a relatively cheap set and no royalties to pay. I would guess the theater at least broke even on the show, although I have no actual idea how much it costs to keep a place like that open.
  • In terms of a way to spend most of my evening for three months, it was a lovely experience all around. Everyone was supportive and kind, with very little personal unpleasantness. There were no assholes in the cast. Nobody showed up late all the time, or screwed around during rehearsals in a way that made it difficult for other people to work. Nobody messed with someone else’s props, went on drunk, or screamed at anyone else. Surprisingly little time was wasted, and most rehearsals broke up around nine o’clock. I didn’t make any new close friends, nor did I have a mad crush on anyone, but that’s probably just as well, really. We all worked hard, laughed a lot, did our preparation, and focused on putting on a good show. In addition, the crew and administration were largely invisible to us, which is frankly lovely—we actors are sufficiently self-centered that we don’t notice anything unless something goes wrong.
  • As for Malvolio, it’s a hell of a part and I think I did it successfully. For values of successfully that are pretty much as good as I can do plus with an appreciative audience. Many of my ideas stayed in the show, including the funny voice I arrived at, a few physical bits (a bit with a handkerchief, and a chair bit that evolved very nicely over the course of the run, and my interaction with the Prison Scene bars) and the shape of my geck and gull line. Others didn’t, which is good, too, if they weren’t working. There were suggestions by the director that pretty much always worked well, and in the one that I recall that didn’t, he ditched it and replaced it with something else. Most of all, when I got the part I had no idea what the hell to do with it, and I found a thing to do, and did it, and it worked.
  • Finally, and perhaps I’ve written about this before, I’ve come to believe that the primary job of an actor in amateur dramatics is to maximize the percentage of people involved with the show and the company that will afterward say yeah, I’d like to work with that guy again. One aspect of that, of course, is to be good on stage; if you turn out to suck at acting, people will not be inclined to cast you again. All the other aspects count, too, though; in a community as tiny as ours, when someone sits down to cast a show, they are likely to have input from someone connected with your old show, whether it’s the costume mistress or the Stage Manager’s spouse. If you are unloved backstage, people will know. And as far as I can tell (and I could well be oblivious to sniping behind my proverbial) I accomplished that goal: many of them have said outright they wanted to work with me again, and nobody seemed to be diffident or cold. And in fact I would happily work with any of them again, given the opportunity. So that’s all right, too.

The Negatives

  • We didn’t get a lot of positive reviews. In fact, there was only one review at all, and it was lukewarm. I like reviews. I know a lot of actors don’t read ’em, and it’s certainly disappointing when they suck, but my vanity is such that I like to get my name in print a few times. When I say suck, I mean either a negative review or just one without insight. Often people reviewing community theater for local websites spend more time on the plot than the production. To be fair, it’s not an enviable job, as any negativity is viewed as an unfair attack on people who are in fact volunteers, and a total lack of negativity is viewed as dishonest boosterism. But I have enjoyed reading reviews of shows I’m in, and there is little more delightful than finding that somebody gets what you are trying to do, and gets it professionally.
  • The director, who is I think not yet thirty, tends to give direction by reference to pop culture. I am old. We share a few references, but only a few. It would be as if I were to tell somebody to do a Mrs. Garrett, or to be like James Garner and Mariette Hartley. Except of course he was using references from the last twenty years, of which I know nothing. This didn’t prevent him from directing me, in the end, but it did make me feel very old. Plus the cast was young—the actor that played Sir Toby is more-or-less eighty, and the actors that played Maria and Feste are forty-glob just like me, but the rest of the cast is thirty-ish on down, with many in their early twenties and three not of drinking age. The tininess of our pop-culture overlap was itself a topic of my conversation backstage, and while the bulk of the time of disconnect was movie-related, it was also the case that my knowledge of musical theater ends around the time most of the cast were born. I don’t know the songs to Wicked or Shrek or The Addams Family; they don’t really know Best Little Whorehouse or Sunday in the Park. I mean, we all know Oklahoma, and it’s my fault that I don’t know Les Mis and Phantom. Still. Old.
  • While a lot of people came to see the thing, including family members and friends from out of town and a few co-workers, most of my co-workers and even more of my local community-theater friends didn’t. The latter was a surprise and I think mostly a coincidence of timing, with several getting their kids situated at college this week or of course being in shows themselves. Of the co-workers, well, after nine years and ten shows, I should be inured to their lack of interest. And yet, it still rankles. Particularly, I must say, for those people who I know do go out to the theater now and then. Although those folk mostly see musicals, I suppose.

Anyway, I may write a few more notes about Malvolio before letting it go. There are a couple of things that I might enjoy writing up, if I find the energy (coincidentally, the show ended as the semester began, which is much better than trying to do the start of the semester and rehearsal simultaneously, as I so foolishly did last year), and of course if any Gentle Readers want to ask anything specific, I could write it up. It was a good experience, all in all, and I’m glad I did it, and now I’m tired and want to spend my evenings at home and go to bed early.

On the other hand, there’s another group doing Hamlet this winter…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 25, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Audiences

Audiences, man. Y’all do know we judge you, right? We start pronouncing our opinions before the show even begins. Actually, before you get there at all, we’ll mention that it’s Saturday and should be a lively crowd, or that the second weekend’s houses are less enthusiastic, or that we hate matinees and matinee audiences with a passion. There will be mild disagreement on whether to expect the worst this particular night, before we all reach agreement that audiences are bastards and cannot be trusted. Some of us pester the house manager or ASM for numbers, which they are mostly reluctant to give. Rumours spread of a crowd that is unusually packed with Phylisses (Phylii?) or that is already tipsy and boisterous. Some of us sneak up (or over or down) to the wings to listen as y’all mill around and settle; some sets have peekholes to peer through, either inadvertently left or deliberately placed.

Once the show starts, of course, we immediately judge whether y’all are with us, whether y’all are a tough crowd, whether y’all are dead. We judge from the stage, we judge from the wings, we judge from dressing rooms, listening to the monitors that barely pick up audience sounds anyway. We judge passionately, viciously and inaccurately. We commiserate about lousy audiences, we exult in the great ones. We listen for coughs, mobile phones and the rattling of food wrappers. We joke about it. We reminisce about the worst audiences we have faced, and the best. We judge.

Friday’s house was quite good, enthusiastic but not rowdy. The Saturday night house was very quiet in the first half, but perked up after the interval (on such evenings we joke that the wine sales must have been particularly good). I felt I never found their rhythm; it’s harder when you can’t hear them, of course. I didn’t get an exit round after the letter scene on Saturday, and didn’t really expect to, although I didn’t think I had done it badly, or indeed significantly differently than previous nights. At the end many of them stood up to applaud, probably more of them standing than any other performance so far. Not that we count. It was not an unsatisfying night. I was sure tired when it was over, though.

Sunday matinee… the Saturday show was quiet in the first half; the audience for the Sunday matinee was silent. It was terrible. So much more work when the audience have decided not to laugh out loud. It was not (we told each other backstage) that they weren’t paying attention, but that they had suppressed their laughter in the first scenes and now were in the habit of silence. I drew an exit round, but it was hard work; in the wing, I mimed pulling the applause out of the audience with a rope, to the knowing grimaces of my castmates. During the interval, we joked about the silence, and matinee audiences.

Then they came back for the second half a boisterous crowd. I got an actual entrance round when I appeared in my yellow stockings, the second scene after the interval. After, as I was making up for the Prison Scene, I expressed my appreciation that the house manager had buried the first half audience and hired a new one. Of course, that’s my last scene where I get laughs; there are occasional laughs during the Prison Scene but they are Feste’s, not mine, and my part of the final scene when I vow revenge is judged by its silence, not its noise. Still, an excellent audience, if perplexingly different from before to after.

Here’s an odd moment, by the way, might be of interest: toward the end of my little verse piece in the fifth act, I recap the bit: [you] Bade me come smiling and cross-gartered to you, To put on yellow stockings, and to frown upon Sir Toby and the lighter people. Late in the rehearsal process, we added a bit: Sebastian (who has not previously met Malvolio) lets out a whispered (but audible) ew when I mention the yellow stockings. I don’t know if there’s a physical bit involved, if Olivia responds with a grimace or whatever, but it’s a funny moment. I’m not playing Malvolio for laughs at this point, remember, but the rest of the cast are still their broad selves, which can be awkward for me as an actor, feeling out of sync. At any rate, the ew is stuck in the middle of my sentence, which of course means I have to pause for it. But I don’t just have to pause for the ew, I have to pause for the laugh that follows it, which, it turns out, is a beat behind. That is, there’s the ew, then a silent beat, and then a laugh. If I start talking during the silent beat, I kill the laugh. If I wait and there isn’t a laugh, it’s awkward and terrible. So far, there has been a laugh (at least a little one) each time, so that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 18, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Three days on, four days off

Today is Thursday, the fourth consecutive day that I haven’t been to the theater. We’re not doing pickup rehearsals for this one, so I don’t see the theater or my castmates from Sunday after the matinee until Friday before the evening show. It’s kind of relaxing, although I ought to have run my lines every day, instead of missing a day in there somewhere.

Pickup rehearsals are an odd thing. This is the first time I’ve been in a show that just didn’t bother with them. Some groups do them quite seriously, in full dress and tech; some groups do them as speedthroughs in streetclothes under worklights; some groups do them as travesties, giving the cast an opportunity to send up the show and ourselves. The thing is that amateur groups (around here, anyway) will generally do three weekends of shows, with Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday dark in between, and sometimes Thursday, too. I have sometimes found that the first show back after a few days off begins a little tentatively. On the other hand, those have been shows with pickup rehearsals during the break, so they don’t fully solve the problem anyway.

In a professional regional theater, they usually have shows five or six nights a week, so presumably it’s not an issue. I have done (some years ago, documented on this Tohu Bohu) a semi-professional show that was dark only on Monday and Tuesday, and did (if I remember correctly) ten shows in eleven days, or something like that, and we still did a pickup rehearsal, of the walkthrough-in-streetclothes variety. I’m not entirely sure why, but it couldn’t hurt, right? That’s largely my feeling about pickups. They are mostly a waste of time, but they can’t hurt.

I have never experienced, though, what the professional actor does in a typical regional theater: the run of thirty or so performances over five weeks. I’d like to. I have no idea what it’s like. My longest run has been twelve performances, I think. Certainly not as many as fifteen. And while by the end of the third (or sometimes fourth) weekend, I am rather desperately looking forward to getting my evenings back, I do wonder what it’s like, as an actor, to get really settled in to a part over a longish run. Would my performance improve or deteriorate? Would I learn? How would I get along with my castmates, once we were done rehearsing and settled down to the business of putting on the play? What would it be like, after twenty shows, to have a good audience or a bad one, or a good show or a bad one? I’ve had some experience at going on when I felt tired or sick or generally crappy; I’ve done shows where the cast outnumbered the audience; I’ve had the terrible experience of feeling like the whole cast is just walking through the thing. I have had the bounce-back shows, when it feels good again. I haven’t had the arc of the thing, though, where I go through good and bad days, good and bad houses and know there will be plenty of each of them left. I haven’t ever finished a performance without thinking this was the best we’ve done or this one wasn’t as good as last Friday; I imagine (but don’t know) that after thirty performances that sort of thought wouldn’t make sense. I’d like to find out.

I’d like to do that longish run once, mind you. And I have no wish to perform the same role for years. That is what being in the elite of the profession means, really, not a month of this and a month of that, but a hundred performances of this and two hundred of that, and then another hundred of the first in a different city, if I’m lucky. And if I’m really lucky, becoming Marian Seldes and playing your part a thousand times over. Those are the hopes and dreams of a professional, if the hoper and dreamer only knew. I am an amateur, and my hopes and dreams are to put on a decent show for a dozen performances and then have some time off and do another one next year. Still and all, I’d like to know what it’s like to do thirty.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 15, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Three down, six to go

Well, and three performances down, six to go. I feel as if I should have something profound or even entertaining to say about the experience, having expended some twenty thousand words on the preparation. Not that much of that was profound or entertaining. Still, there’s all the lead-up, and now we’ve got an audience, and what do I say about it?

It was great.

This group performs in a large hall—Hunh, I haven’t talked at all about the physical location of the thing. OK, here we go: it’s a historic meeting hall (next year will be its sesquicentennial) that was built to be the cultural center for the mill town. Do y’all know about these towns where the mill owners ruled with a kind of noblesse, building not only worker housing but infrastructure, churches, parks, libraries, schools and theaters? It was absolutely terrific for the workers, particularly the ones who were white, able-bodied and of the approved Christian sect, and had no aspirations for their children other than comfort, nutrition and basic literacy. At any rate, it’s a gorgeous old building with a huge multi-purpose hall, meaning they have to put chairs in for theater performances and concerts and take ’em out again when the rent the place for weddings and banquets. It seats, oh, three hundred if you pack the place to fire-marshall capacity; they usually set up around two hundred chairs. A proscenium at one end—I don’t know the measurements of the stage, but I would describe it as biggish and deepish. Lots of lovely fly space above, but not much in the way of electricals. The wings are smallish but they exist, with enough space to walk through. Our set uses the cyc (in terms of condition, it’s not the best or the worst I’ve seen) and there’s a narrow pass-through behind it with a narrow door that leads to a narrow spiral stair that goes down to a basement level with a dressing room, a green room and a largish meeting room (that is used to sell snacks and beverages during intermission. There’s only the one dressing room (I don’t think I’ve been in a community theater space that has more than one) and it’s big enough for the fifteen of us, if a little noisy. There is (thank goodness) a bathroom for the cast, separate from the one that the audience uses. All in all, a nice space.

The problem with a big hall, of course, is that it feels empty even when there are a lot of people in it. Forty people in a hall that seats sixty will fill the place and allow for laughter and applause; forty people in a hall that seats three hundred will feel all the empty chairs and maintain silence. Audiences, huh? Fortunately, the three shows each sold over a hundred tickets, and I think we had more than 150 at the Sunday matinee. On the other hand, the house was never more than three-quarters full. So there’s that. Still, the audiences appeared to enjoy it. Laughed in the right places, didn’t laugh in the wrong ones. I don’t think there are a lot of wrong places to laugh in Twelfth Night, come to think of it. There was applause at the end, and applause at the intermission break, and applause occasionally at the end of scenes or a character’s exit.

Have I ever written here about exit rounds? I must have done. It’s a round of applause on an actor’s exit, particularly noticeable of course when the scene isn’t over. It’s an old-fashioned thing; I believe it used to be almost obligatory (enforced by a paid claque, of course, which in the amateur theater must be replaced by the actor’s spouse or mother) for the star role. We have designed the end of the Letter Scene to almost force the audience to an exit round. There’s the extended smile bit (which I am milking just a little bit more every performance, trying not to cross the line and exhaust the audience’s good will) and then I shout I will do everything thou wilt have me! and turn up, bounding onto the platform and then (bracing myself on the conveniently situated bench) leaping and clicking my heels before exiting. I suppose we could light a neon APPLAUSE sign at that point, but it would be superfluous; the audience know what they are supposed to do. They are probably surprised to discover that the scene isn’t over, and in fact it’s terribly unfair to the Belch Gang who have a dozen lines, mostly rehashing what we’ve heard. Still and all, it’s a marvelous feeling to exit to a round of applause.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 12, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Another Opening, Another Show

Twelfth Night opens tonight. We’re ready. We’ve been ready, really, since Monday—oh, that’s not quite true, in that there have been a few improvements. Mostly technical, though, and entirely minor. A couple of props have been replaced with better versions; a couple of costumes have been altered to improve them; a couple of lights have been refocused. Sometimes the addition of lights and sounds and costumes and props makes for real and necessary changes; not this time. The bit that I do down at the very edge of the stage is now a couple of feet further upstage, so as to stay in the light, which might not be quite as effective, but doesn’t require rethinking the whole thing. Remarkably, flying in the cell worked exactly the way we thought it would, so we didn’t have to do anything different and new (I tell a lie, I made a very small change once I knew it would be visible) with the Prison Scene. The set has no doors, so that’s all right. We added one tiny comic bit with a piece of set decoration. Nothing substantial had to change, not even a line reading, as far as I know.

I don’t think I’ve ever written here about the thing that always seems to happen to me when I’m rehearsing a comedy: sometime during tech week I lose the ability to see the humor in any of it. This hit me particularly hard in the run-up to Rough Crossing, when for two or three days I became convinced that there wasn’t anything funny about Turai. He’s not funny; he’s just a dick! I said, and my castmates assured me that he was, in fact, a funny character. And eventually we got people in the seats, and they laughed, so it turned out to have been funny. That’s why I feel we need an audience so desperately. I can’t tell any more what is funny and what isn’t. Things I thought were funny three weeks ago (my own bits and other people’s) have been unfunnied by familiarity to the point where none of it is funny at all. Or worse, the only things that seem funny are the newer bits; not because they are actually funny but because they aren’t so drearily constant.

There was an article recently, I can’t remember where, that said that the reason so many actors were so fucked up (begging the question, I know) was that we trained our minds to inappropriate emotional reactions through constant repetition. If you play Othello a hundred times, you wear some angry grooves into your neurowhatsit, and while it’s all fake, your brain doesn’t know that. Humans, very good at patterns, not so good at breaking them. I don’t know that I agree with the premise, but I do have to say that very strange things happen to a stage actor’s brain, doing the same show over and over. And I’ve never had a long run of a show. There are nine performances of Twelfth Night (tickets still available!) which is about average for a community theater show. I think the most I have ever done is twelve. It seems like it’s not very many shows for all the work we put in, but we all have lives outside the theater (thank goodness, but that’s another rant) so it would be difficult to get a cast committed to six or seven consecutive weekends, even if you could sell tickets. Anyway, while I absolutely have had the experience of having the triggers installed during rehearsals still there at work and at home, mostly it’s the other thing, becoming desensitized to what is actually happening on stage. Sometimes that’s my ability to ignore somebody having a weeping nervous breakdown or a furious violent rage a few feet away, but mostly it’s the inability to laugh at stuff that I think is probably funny. Probably. Well, we’ll find out tonight.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 9, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Tech Week

Tech week has begun. There will be no survivors.

Actually, we had a fairly mild Tech Sunday. It was nine hours of rehearsal, sure, but there was a full hour break in there, and besides, it wasn’t nine hours of cue-to-cue. We didn’t actually do a cue-to-cue at all, in the event. We ran the show in the afternoon, only stopping a few times, and the lights went blue and red and bright and dim as we ran through scenes. I suppose the lighting designer got what she was aiming for eventually. Certainly from my point of view it was more useful an afternoon than standing and waiting, although of course it’s better to have the lights fully and completely correct in one go and not have to fiddle about with them later. Still.

We had a complete run-through in the afternoon, a dinner break, and then another full run through in the evening. We made it through both—at last we have our lines in our heads and if there were a couple of places where a line was garbled or someone exited the wrong direction, it wouldn’t have been noticeable from the house. In truth, if there had been an audience for Monday night’s run-through, they would have seen a pretty good show. Not good enough, and with a few important pieces missing (most importantly to me, The Letter, which I am hoping will have an actual seal to break) but entertaining. I am beginning to feel that confidence in the show’s quality that I like to and almost always feel. That I feel even when the quality of the show isn’t actually all that great, I’m afraid, but it’s good to have that confidence even when it is misplaced.

One thing I was thinking, as I was sitting in the wings during Act Five, was that it was kinda nice that Malvolio’s last scene requires the depiction of shattered exhaustion. It’s not actually a very big part, not the biggest part in the show, and nothing to compare to Othello or Richard III. But it’s noticeable that Malvolio is, in the first half, full of energy and vitality, whilst at the end he is defeated and lost. It’s not like Shylock, who has to build up to the trial scene. I generally have substantial reserves of shattered exhaustion at the end of a long day and a long rehearsal. Not that you don’t need a lot of energy and focus to portray shattered exhaustion, if it comes to that. But Malvolio really drives the action only up through the Letter Scene, and while the Yellow Stocking Scene must have manic energy, even by the end of that scene there is (and I think ought to be) a significant… I don’t want to say letdown, because I certainly don’t want the audience to feel let down. A shift, though, from driving to being driven. This is also true of his double Sir Toby, although the shift for him is at the beginning of IV,i two hundred lines or so after Malvolio’s. Hm. I suppose you could place the shift earlier, to when his plan for the duel goes awry. That’s an actor/director choice, and depends somewhat on how much you want Sebastian to take over the end of the show. We’re playing Sebastian as a happy-go-lucky guy, a sort of plot-flotsam, in part because we’re very much playing Olivia as the driver of the plot (and in large part the hero of the play), so we need Sir Toby to maintain his drive until he is shut down by Olivia directly. Anyway, both brief (and sequential) appearances in Act Five are notably those of beaten men, whether they admit it or not—again, directorial choice. I have seen angry and unrepentant Tobys and doleful resigned Tobys, and as for Malvolio’s final vow of revenge, well, that can be played different ways as well… in order to have Malvolio triumphant at the end, though, you have to go quite far outside the text, as did the production I read about that had Malvolio return with health-and-safety inspectors and shut down the entire theater building, compelling the audience to leave immediately without a curtain call.

We’re not doing that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: first run-through

Last night we ran the whole show. I think this was the first time we’ve managed to run the show in its entirety, stopping only at the intermission. Well, I tell a lie, we stopped briefly a couple of times, but really only briefly. And we were allowed to call for lines, for the very last time, so that’s all right.

The show is starting to look and sound good to me. Terrific, in places. The first half is very lively and (as far as I can judge) funny; the second half was a little lower-energy, but that may have been tiredness. Which is a problem, as we will be tired during actual performances; if we need to be consciously boosting energy during the second half, we should start now. On the other hand, it might be only my perception that timing and energy flagged in the second half; after the Yellow Stocking scene, I have only two short scenes and spent the rest sitting in the wings.

Hunh. This is odd—I can’t recall where we put the intermission. That is, I know it’s between the Letter Scene and the Yellow-Stocking Scene, but that just means it’s somewhere in Act Three. Is it after III,ii, which ends with Toby, Fabian and Mariah off to watch the Yellow Stockings? It must be. That means we come back with Antonio and Sebastian in III,iv. It’s possible, though, that we break after III,i, which ends with Viola storming out on Olivia, and Olivia’s optimistic couplet. That seems likely. At any rate, I’ll be safely downstairs in the Green Room for that bit, putting on the cross-garters. Still, it seems like a thing I should remember.

Anyway. The show is coming together. Tech starts on Sunday. This oughtn’t be that difficult a tech, he says braving the revenge of the theater gods. I don’t know anything about the lighting design, which presumably means that it isn’t complicated enough to be worth warning the cast about. I mean, lighting design is always complicated, innit, and I suspect they’ll have fun with the dockside scene, and who knows what they’ll do to differentiate the various settings, but there aren’t (as far as I can tell) special lighting effects. And the sound is mostly a few interstitial bits, and perhaps three or four simple cues (a church bell rings at one point, etc) but no full soundscape. There will be some live music; that will take some coordinating, although probably less than recorded music would. We have been using many of our production props already; we have been miming a few rings and jewels and things, but we have been using the production decanters and cups and flasks and whatnot for a while, now. I haven’t chatted with anyone about The Letter; I really ought to be able to break the seal every night, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Anyway, all that stuff is (or seems like it ought to be) simple.

Which means that after Sundays cue-to-cue, we expect to have four more runs of the show before opening, mostly with full tech. That should be plenty.

And as for Malvolio? I think he’s probably ready. I don’t feel like I’m figuring out what to do anymore. I mean, I’m worried about whether the jokes will land, and I don’t claim that I’ve got the rhythm right throughout—there’s still plenty of improvements to make in that limited time left. But at this point it’s not so much about making choices as about making the choices work. I’ve made the choices, and at the moment I’m feeling pretty good about them. There’s the bit I’ve said a few times recently, that the real creative work happens between the last moment when it’s too early to make real decisions and the first moment when it’s too late to make real changes… we’ve reached that latter moment. And I’m OK with that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 4, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Songs for fools

Time to talk about the Twelfth Night Play Playlist List, isn’t it?

Having already done the drag mix for As You Like It, I didn’t want to do that again. There were a few options for this one, but in the end I decided to go with fools. There are, after all, a lot of great songs about fools. Lots. Sometimes I have trouble filling an hour for a playlist of top-notch songs; sometimes I have trouble cutting down to an hour. This one clearly has the latter problem.

And another problem, as well. For instance, which cover of “Chain of Fools” do I select? Aretha, you answer without thinking, and you are obviously correct, but then if Aretha Franklin is represented by “Chain of Fools”, what version of “Running out of Fools” do I use? Well, you respond, didn’t Elvis Costello record that one? True, true. But I was hoping to put “You Little Fool” on the playlist, too. Not to mention that I really like his cover of “Get Yourself another Fool”; I could use the Sam Cook cover, I suppose. And going back to “Running out of Fools”, there’s a Neko Case cover that’s not bad, and there’s an Isaac Hayes cover that’s… soulful. I dunno.

And that’s before we get to Etta James. I could perfectly happily put any of three Etta James covers: “Ev’rybody’s Somebody’s Fool”, “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)” or of course “Fool That I Am”. I could use a different cover of any of those songs—how about Michael Jackson with a very early-seventies version of the first one (note that Connie Francis recorded an entirely different song with the same name, which was also recorded by Ernest Tubb and Pat Boone, among others), there’s a plethora of great recordings of the second (Billie Holliday is perhaps my favorite, the James Brown live version is fantastic, and there’s a Sam Cooke cover if I’m not using his “Get Yourself another Fool”) and Adele has recorded the third.

Did I mention Sam Cooke’s recording of “Fool’s Paradise”? No? The big hit with that song was the Charles Brown side. Looking that up, I found a Charles Brown version of “Get Yourself another Fool” that’s pretty terrific. So if I use the Charles Brown of that one, the Sam Cooke “Paradise”, then EC with “You Little Fool”, Aretha’s “Running out of Fools”, and then, what the heck, maybe Joe Cocker doing “Chain of Fools”. Etta can go on with “Fool That I Am”, Billie with “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)” and MJ with “Ev’rybody’s Somebody’s Fool”. Simple!

Oh, crap, Etta James’ses “Seven Day Fool” is so good. And Jully Black’s cover isn’t. Aw, hell. Start over.

“If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody”—Bonnie Raitt or Ronnie and Rod?

“The Fool on the Hill”— Annie Lennox or Sergio Mendes? Or Shirley Bassey?

“Why Do Fools Fall In Love”—Frankie Lymon or Diana Ross? Or The Beach Boys?

“Fun to be Fooled”—Bobby Short or Lee Wiley? Or Lena Horne?

“I’m a Fool to Want You”—Peggy Lee or Chet Baker or The Jody Grind?

What about “Fools in Love”—Does anyone want to argue for the haunting Inara George cover over the original? Or for Joe Jackson’s own haunting cover?

And those are the songs that make me decide between covers. There are a lot more that I just have to decide in or out: “Who’s Been Fooling You” is Professor Longhair’s song, and that’s the end of it. If I include “Fool in the Full Moon”, it will the the Violent Femmes original. The Rolling Stones’ “Fool to Cry” will either make the cut or not. I’m not putting on the list somebody other than the Doobie Brothers doing “What a Fool Believes”. I suppose I could use some bootleg live version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” but it would be a mistake. I will probably not choose “Dancin’ Fool”, but if I do, it’ll be Frank Zappa.

Well. I dunno, what do you think?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 3, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: 9 days

Not much to update on the Malvolio front. Rehearsals are going well, things are coming together. I have my garters.

An odd moment may be worth remembering: we were in the last scene, and I was doing my big Speech O’ Pathos. Why have you given me such clear lights of favor? I asked. Bade me come smiling and cross-gartered to you, to put on yellow stockings? At this point, the whole cast corpsed. Behind me. I could hear the stifled snickers. The director tried to hold it together. He couldn’t. He looked down, then looked up, caught somebody’s eye—someone who was also trying not to break—and then had to turn his back on the stage entirely.

I carried on, of course.

I had no idea what was going on. Suddenly everyone was laughing, and the director couldn’t look at me. No idea. Carry on. Acting this in an obedient hope. Tell me why?

Eventually, as we did notes, everyone talked about it, and I discovered it had nothing to do with me or what I was doing. Someone, I believe our Sebastian, said or did something funny. I was down center and facing the audience, so whatever happened was behind my back. It was evidently really, really funny, though. Or struck everyone as funny at the moment. We might have been a little punchy at the end of the night, although it wasn’t particularly late. Anyway, it wasn’t me.

Phew. I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 1, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: 12 days

I haven’t updated the Malvolio diary for a few days, it seems. Not a great deal of news. I went through my usual two-weeks-out panic, more or less on time, so that’s all right. For those who have not experienced this sort of thing, about two weeks (more or less) before the opening of a show, we start to run whole big chunks of the thing, staggering through the whole first half or the whole second half, or perhaps attempting to do the whole play. Before that, we usually are working individual scenes multiple times through before moving on, doing no more than four or five in an evening. When we start dong larger sections, the strains show. Unable to cram a half-hour’s worth of script for that night’s work, we start discovering great gaps in our memorization. We find that we don’t remember our entrances and exits when they follow on from the previous scene, or sometimes we discover that the blocked entrance is simply not possible, given what else is happening. The set furniture is in the wrong place, and we don’t know when it was supposed to have been moved or by whom. Acting choices that made sense in the individual scenes may have to be rethought in the bigger context. As rehearsal props (or mimed props) begin to be replaced by performance props, we discover new ways to clumsily bring the action to a halt. Actors develop fits of giggles. Stage managers start to wear That Face. Panic grips everybody.

And then we solve all of those problems. Two weeks is a lot of time—hell, professional summer stock shows often go up with only two weeks of rehearsal altogether—and most of the problems are easily solvable. If you can’t come on from UL, you can come on from DL, probably, or from UR if being upstage is the important part, and once you know your new blocking, you do it and it works and the problem disappears. Or a new problem appears and that one is quickly solved. The worst part is the memorization, and I fully expect that after everyone panicked last week, the rest of the cast, like YHB, spent a good chunk of the weekend getting it right. Improvements start to happen quickly at this stage, bumpy spots smooth out, we start to hit a rhythm. We get better.

In truth, if we were completely ready to go with two weeks left, we would run the risk of being stale on the night. Two weeks before opening is about the right time for panic. It’s kind of comforting, actually.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 27, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: snip snip!

At last night’s rehearsals, the director announced a bunch of cuts to the script we’re using. We’re cutting a significant amount, it seems like, although I didn’t pay close attention to the scenes I wasn’t in. No large scenes cut (we are, alas, cutting Come Away Death entirely) but a good few snips here and there. Mostly, it tightens up the text—I have read the opinion that Shakespeare’s audiences tended to divide their attention between the stage and their audiences, and so he wrote a good deal of redundant text to remind folk of important plot points. I don’t know that I believe that about the audiences, particularly in the indoor (Blackfriars) theater, with expensive tickets and whatnot, but it’s true that some information is repeated, sometimes more than once, and given how familiar audiences generally are with the plays, some cuts are a positive thing. And even in non-repetitive bits, some cutting is a good idea, and in the comedies particularly, there are bits that can be sliced out neatly. The build-up to the duel between Cesario and Aguecheek, for instance, is long and frankly wearisome; it can be done with the full text and made funny, with enough energy and physical play, but it’s better if you tighten it up, and as funny as it is, it’s not worth the time.

It is a tricky business, though, cutting, as the play does hang together just so. If you cut too much from the Fool (and at first look I believe he has done that) you lose the importance of the part and make his (or in our case her) remaining scenes weaker. If you cut too much from Sebastian (as is traditional) you have very little left of the part in which to make an impression of any kind, and no great reward for the recognition and reconciliation. And so on. Sometimes an easily-cut joke in the first Act subtly conveys a bit of information for the fourth Act, not necessarily a plot point but a reason to interpret an action positively or negatively. Cutting the play is not easy work.

And I’ve never been in a show that made substantial cuts this late in the game. I do know it’s common for professional theaters. The production diaries I enjoy reading so much occasionally feature battles over the director’s refusal to cut and the actor’s fear of the show going on forever. The audience need to catch their last trains, so the saying goes, and probably more strongly felt but unsaid is that the power of a play at the end can be dissipated by a muddled middle. And nobody really knows how the play will feel (or even how long it takes) until a couple of weeks before it opens, so that’s when the last cuts are made. Unless it needs more cuts during previews, which also happens a lot, although not in the Shakespeare productions I’ve read detailed accounts of. Still, it’s hard on an actor who has been memorizing lines to be switched up at this point.

Of course, the most important question is: what about my lines? And the answer is, I didn’t lose much. Here’s the sum total of it:

In I,v I lose about half of one longish line: Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy: as a squash is before tis a peacod, or a Codling when tis almost an Apple: Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. He is very well-favor’d, and he speaks very shrewishly: One would think his mothers milk were scarce out of him. Funny (to me) because when I was writing yesterday I had initially used that line as an example rather than the first one, and then switched, mostly because I was prosing on about the words and their meanings (and trying to explain the testicle joke, which doesn’t get funnier for the explanation) rather than explaining how I tried to make the line appear spontaneous. Which upon further reflection, I decided was because I didn’t actually know what the hell to do with the line. So now it has been cut down, and it’s much better.

I didn’t lose any lines in the Ring Scene or the Carousing Scene. The Ring Scene (II,ii) is completely intact, while the Carousing Scene (II,iii) gets trimmed, but my lines remain. In fact, during my brief time on stage, we’ve cut all of fourteen words, none of which were addressed to Malvolio.

In the Letter Scene, I lose about half the first line: ’Tis but Fortune, all is fortune. Maria once told me she did affect me, and I have heard her self come thus near, that should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. Besides she uses me with a more exalted respect, then anyone else that follows her. What should I think on’t? I will miss that last sentence, because I had hit on a way of interpreting it that brought me through into the playacting section. Instead of something like how else could it be understood?, I've been saying it closer to What? Should I think on’t? Meaning Ought I speculate about it? Leading in to the next line: To be Count Malvolio! Still and all, losing the line about the rest of the household is probably for the best, since the household in our production is so much diminished. And we don’t actually need a line to transition there—it was kind of awkward anyway, as the gang hidden by the trellis have four lines in between this line and my next, and having already had the idea of play-acting, I was pretty clearly waiting for them to finish before starting my next bit. In this way, I can more slowly succumb to the lure of speculation.

My next scene is the Yellow-Stocking scene, and we’ve trimmed only the last part of it, when the gang approach me. My monologue is, alas, uncut. The part that is cut, about a dozen lines in all, include my three lines How now mistress; Sir; and My prayers, Minx. I didn’t think that scene was working properly, although my suspicion was that the problem was incorrect blocking: Malvolio remained seated throughout, with his back to the gang, which expressed his disdain quite nicely, but failed to convey a sense of menace—and wasn’t very funny, either. I won’t miss the loose text snipped out, there.

And that’s it. In the Prison Scene, the Clown has lost a few lines, mostly as he (she) is putting on the disguise before I enter (well, not enter, as I’ll be on at the start of the scene) (tho’ in my cell, which hasn’t been finished yet, so I don’t yet know how visible I will be at that point) and then half of one line in the scene. My lines are unchanged. This is the scene I have been having the most trouble memorizing; I’m not sure if it would be easier if I had fewer of them, or if the change would send me back to the beginning. And the Last Scene is entirely uncut, at least I mean to say, the portion of the scene I am on-stage for is not cut. It’s a long scene, and includes the Big Reveal of Cesario being a dame, and as a scene it does go on for a bit. Actually, I tell a lie, Fabian lost a couple of dozen words. It’s the bit where Fabian confesses but prefaces his confession by saying something like I don’t want to distract attention from the main plot, which looks like it’s just about finished, but. We’re cutting that bit and going straight to the confession. I have never actually listened to any of what Fabian says, as Malvolio is at that point wrung out, strung out, hung down, brung down, hung up, and all kinds o’ mean nasty ugly things. I suppose I ought to at least react to Fabian’s suggestion that it was actually all very funny.

And that’s really truly it. Personally, I would have cut more. I would have cut Let thy tongue tang arguments of state. Put thyself into the trick of singularity from both the Letter and the Yellow-Stocking scene; Malvolio doesn’t argue politics on-stage at all, and the trick of singularity is not easily understood or particularly funny. We can do without them. I would also cut I will read politic authors as well, as it connects to the arguments of state more than anything else, and isn’t brought back up. I might also cut and consequently sets down the manner how: as, a sad face, a reverend carriage, a slow tongue, in the habit of some Sir of note, and so forth from the Yellow-Stocking scene; that’s supposed to be a repetition of what’s in the letter, but it isn’t in the Letter Scene. I mean, I kind of like that Malvolio has not only memorized the contents of the letter but added to them in his mind, such that he already believes things are in the letter that are not. But that detail doesn’t add much to the audience’s understanding, even if it is conveyed, and it’s another thirty words. I’m not asking that they be cut; I’m trusting the director to know what works and what doesn’t. I’m just saying that if we need to cut for time, sixty-odd words could be cut from my monologues, and that’s presumably sixty-odd words that wouldn’t have to be cut from elsewhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 26, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: What makes good acting good?

Last night at rehearsal I was admiring our Olivia, who I think is doing a terrific job, and I was thinking about what it is that I think makes for a really good performance. She's inventive and surprising, certainly, and I like that. Her Olivia is not anyone else's Olivia, and I like that a lot. She really understands the text, and that's all to the good. It isn't a beautiful or lovely interpretation; she's not attempting to emphasize the music of the language. It's just very watchable, and very interesting. But what about it makes it so interesting?

So, I was thinking about it, and comparing her performance with our castmates, and I think it's the extent that she makes the whole thing come from within her, spontaneously. I 'll take a moment to say that some of our cast are at the moment better than others, which is to be expected, and to a large extent, the actors who are not, I think, on a level with the rest of us yet are the ones who don't have their lines memorized as thoroughly. So to some extent, her comparative excellence at this point is straightforwardly a function of her preparation. And that's awesome! Because everyone really is going to memorize their lines properly and then we'll all be prepared and the baseline level of excellence will be much higher. So that's all right.

I do think that the illusion of spontaneity is helped out enormously by preparation. And I'm trying to define or at least describe what I mean by that, because it's a vast problem of stage acting. I don't mean that the audience genuinely believes that all of this is being made up on the spot. I suppose I mean that the audience is able to forget, or to suspend, their conscious awareness that it's all done prepared in advance. The extent to which you, in the audience, respond to me saying something by anything other than that was in the script. Although I don't entirely mean that, either—it's completely possible to be thinking that was in the script whilst being caught up in the moment. I suppose I mean that the audience is able to think that the actor isn't doing just it because it's in the script. To some extent, you watch then in uncertainty and wondering what is he going to do? Even though of course you know that I'm going to do the thing that is next in the script.

This is very murky, isn't it? Let's take a moment out of one of my scenes and think about what I am trying to do and how and why, as it relates to that illusion of spontaneity.

Malvolio's first speech is to Olivia, about Feste: I marvel your Ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged. I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of Fools no better than the Fools’ zannis. Seventy-five words. An audience can easily fall out of sympathy with the show in seventy-five words. Can be bored in forty words, can dismiss an artificial character in twenty. How do I (attempt to) make this speech appear spontaneous?

First of all, by addressing Feste directly: when I call her a barren rascal, I am not looking at Olivia but Feste. I am trying to get a reaction from her, to embarrass her and to see that she is in fact embarrassed. I don't get it right away so I keep needling (referencing the incident the other day) and do get a reaction; Feste makes a sad face. I then turn to Olivia in triumph (look you now!) and attempt to get approval from her. This is tricky—Olivia doesn't approve, and certainly doesn't express approval, but (as I play him) Malvolio sees approval anyway, just because he wants to (and is very bad at reading people). Then I give a sort of avuncular warning: Unless you laugh and so forth. I suspect I need to find another shift for my protest, but I haven't been able to think of one. At any rate, the point is to create a sort of tension between Malvolio and Feste, and between Malvolio and Olivia, and for that tension to be interesting, and to provide some spontaneity to the speech by putting my focus on the other actors.

The point of all this is that at each point I need to have in mind an idea for what Malvolio is doing and saying and why. This is the motivation that stereotypical actors whine about needing. It isn't a joke, though, but a technique. To the extent that I have in my mind a reason why Malvolio's text is what it is, I am able to say the lines rather than recite them. I will add that this means that the speech doesn't sound like Shakespeare, if you know what I mean. I'm OK with that, for me and for such audiences as I am likely to have. A hundred and fifty years ago, I would have presumably have demanded that Shakespeare sound like Shakespeare, and the pseudo-spontaneity that I like so much would have felt crude and small. O tempora; o mores.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 20, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: carrying on

I have been somewhat distracted by politics (I watched a portion of the roll call last night; it really does make me happy) but rehearsals do continue apace. My lines are beginning to sink in, somewhat. Malvolio is perhaps beginning to form. A bit. Certainly I am not as terrified as I was.

The actual rehearsals have been a little frustrating for me, largely because of everybody having trouble with their lines. Well, almost everybody. We have been officially off-book for a week and a half, and while it is totally appropriate for us to be calling for a line now and then, we aren’t getting through any scenes without stopping for a memory aid. It makes it difficult to work on the rhythm of scenes, or on any aspect of the acting tasks other than getting through the lines. Oh, we’re tidying up the blocking, which is nice, fixing things that turn out to be wrong, and we’re starting to really work out the physical bits (not having the script in the hand is essential for that) but the pacing and the character work and the interaction are being held up. And perhaps most important, it’s just taking up time; we’re on a fairly light rehearsal schedule to begin with, so not having time after running an act twice to run a scene or two for a third time in an evening is (to my eyes) holding us back. We’re just not having enough opportunities to try different things and see how they work, because that time is being spent stopping for someone to call line every page or two.

Now, having said that, let me make it clear that I am as bad as the rest of them. I am not sneering, I’m sighing. We should be doing better.

And there is in fact real improvement going on. Characters are beginning to come together. Interactions are beginning to take place. Such lines as we do recall are starting to be said to each other, rather than recited. Some of our stage pictures are becoming familiar, such that we don’t have to remember to create them, allowing them to occur naturally. Well, not naturally, obviously, nothing that happens on the stage is natural, but seemingly natural, such that we aren’t drawing the audience’s attention to the process of creating the picture. That fake-naturalism requires a lot of practice.

There is a strand of acting thought that is largely, right now, being attributed to the Meisner School (although the teaching is not consistent with Sanford Meisner’s own any more than the Stanislavski Method has anything to do with Konstantin Stanislavski) which emphases (amongst many other things) the actor’s focus on the other actors onstage. That is, instead of focusing on mimetic truthfulness, or sense memory, or for that matter style or elocution, the actor tries (through a variety of means) to respond to what the other actors are doing in the moment. This appeals to me both theoretically and practically. I don’t much care for naturalism, either as an actor or in the audience. I’d rather watch something fascinating than something real, although of course real-ness has its own fascination, and unreal-ness isn’t necessarily interesting in itself. And Meisner isn’t opposed to naturalism; it’s just interested in something else.

I don’t generally use the formal Meisner techniques, mind you. I think that if I had the time and the energy and the discipline, doing the improvisations and whatnot would be potentially helpful, particularly in situations where the relationship between two characters is at the center of the play. As it often is. On the other hand, I’ve seen really good blocking do the trick, so perhaps time spent on repetition improvs is in fact wasted.

As for Malvolio, well, part of the breakthrough for me was Chris Cobb’s notion of monomania in the performance of the role Malvolio imagines himself to be playing at the moment. My acting tends to be, I think, naturally over the top. Particularly in comedies, I aim for a certain intensity. How shall I say this… I try not to be afraid of overacting. Or, to put it another way, I am a great big scenery-chewing ham. This helps me with Malvolio, or at least with this conception of Malvolio. I don’t think Malvolio knows he’s a ham, mind you, but he doesn’t know how to tone down his performance of his various roles.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 15, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: hack, cough, wheeze

Summer colds suck.

Rehearsal last night was Acts IV and V, which for me are the Prison Scene and the Last Scene. It didn’t go very well. I mean, it didn’t go very badly, it just didn’t go terribly well. My vocal control was diminished enormously by this chest cold of mine, and vocal control is a substantial part of my skillset as an actor to begin with, so that ain’t good. Frankly, with my energy depleted, my physical control was probably down quite a bit as well, but (particularly in the Prison scene, where I am entirely stationary) that isn’t as bad for my particular rehearsal.

There’s a stereotype, I think, of old-fashioned actors rising in the morning and doing their vocal exercises: me, me, me, me, mo, mo, mo, mo and so on. I don’t know how any of y’all feel about that, whether you think of it as a joke. It isn’t. I mean, I don’t do the exercises, but I am aware that if I did them, I’d be better at my (theater) job. Breathing exercises particularly. There are muscles involved that need regular workouts to operate at their best, and perhaps more important to operate at a high level when under inauspicious circumstances. That takes regular work, daily work, work I don’t have the discipline for. I loathe body maintenance—maintenance work of all kinds, really. I can put in effort on new things, sometimes, and I can sometimes buckle down and work on improvements, but maintenance I resent entirely. All that work just to keep things as they are seems terrible. I can’t make myself do the exercises I ought to do for my back or my knee, much less my breath and voice. But it really does make a difference.

I had been wanting to experiment a bit with that prison scene, looking for places to lose my temper and places to pull myself back together. That is, I want three quite distinct states: extreme despair, total fury and a sort or calm(ish) determination, and I want to switch between those states suddenly and unpredictably—to, you know, humorous effect. By unpredictably I mean of course that I want the audience to be surprised by each switch, not that I want to surprise the actors opposite or myself. I want the switches to be plausibly text-derived, which I have been working on, and I want them to work in performance, which I had hoped to be working on last night. My first attempt at peak volume went awry, and I had neither the breath nor the vocal control to make the sudden changes required.

Well, and I will recover, and there is still time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 12, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: table talk

Last night’s rehearsal was table talk—well, there wasn’t a table. We call a rehearsal table talk if the actors are sitting down and discussing the text rather than up on their feet saying it. A read-through could be considered table talk in a sense, but the first read-through is a special thing of its own, really. If your company does a second read-through, as many companies do, stopping and questioning and re-doing bits of scenes taking in to account the discussion, that definitely is table talk. What we did last night is a different kind of table talk, where we discuss characters and their relations to each other, filling in the things that aren’t in the text.

Actors, just like real people, are different one to another, which makes the rehearsal process interesting and fun, as you can imagine. We each have different processes—some people find it helpful (and/or entertaining) to do a lot of this background stuff, coming up with a character biography and as detailed a profile as possible. This is often dismissed as knowing what the character had for breakfast, and in fact it is easy to go down the rabbit hole of irrelevant detail, spending time on things the audience won’t know, and more important, that won’t help the actor tell the story during the performance. On the other hand, a little background can help the actor keep interested in a role that might be on the face of it simplistic, and since there are a myriad of choices (of gait, posture, gesture, accent, etcetera, etcetera) (that are apparent to the audience) to be made somehow, table talk is one way that many actors feel their way in to those decisions. Some actors choose a person to model the character after perhaps physically but perhaps only psychologically; one of our actors explained his characters motivations by referring to a historical personage of note. Some actors are more articulate than others, of course, and when asked (f’r’ex) what he felt about a certain other character might say you know, sort of, yeah, I don’t know, ’cos it’s, you know, like, whoooah, and, yeah, which doesn’t mean that the actor didn’t find that exchange helpful. I suppose.

When I have done table talk (and most community theater productions I have been in do not choose to spend time on table talk, either because the director doesn’t think it’s valuable at all, or more likely because there just isn’t time) it has been at the very beginning of the process, just after the read-through and before blocking begins. That gives the company an opportunity to come to a consensus about the through-lines and emphases of the play before any decisions are made that it would be difficult and expensive to change (OK, the most difficult and expensive to change decision is the set, which almost certainly has been committed to before the first rehearsal and even before casting begins, but other decisions, including costumes and some publicity materials, are still at least somewhat nebulous at the first week of rehearsals for every show I’ve been involved with); if the company does not reach consensus about these issues through table-talk the director will have to impose a vision on the company. Or there will be no consensus, and much of the cast will come to their own decisions about these sorts of things, which can also work out well. Some actors prefer not to know motivations and subtexts the other actors have worked out, feeling that it is easier to portray truthfully their own character’s misunderstandings or confusions or misperceptions without themselves having the inside information. As an example: our Sir Toby revealed last night that he was attributing some of the character's destructive (and self-destructive) tendencies to a conscious resentment as a younger brother of being denied the family inheritance and a share in running the family estate. This is one perfectly reasonable interpretation—since there wasn’t anything for him to do except eat, drink and be merry, Sir Toby fell to his wastrel role with a will. Is it helpful for me, the actor playing Malvolio, to know this information that Malvolio wouldn’t? Is it helpful for the actress playing Olivia to know this information that Olivia wouldn’t? I answer that yes, but not everyone does.

Anyway.

This particular table talk rehearsal took place (as Gentle Readers will be aware) after we blocked and ran the whole thing a couple of times through. On the positive side, that meant we knew more about what was working and what wasn’t, and about how our castmates were playing their roles; on the downside, I think many of us are set in most of our decisions, so we may not be able to use the new developments very much. We’ll see. I also think it served a kind of indirect purpose, of getting us to pay more attention to each other—for blocking rehearsals I focus on my own marks, and largely perceive the other actors in terms of working around their location. No, I’m exaggerating, but it’s easy, particularly as you are laying in the blocking, to get caught up in your own interpretation of what you are doing and not focus on the other person in the scene.

Digression: You know what? I started writing a whole digression here about the Meisner school and Stanislavski-based thinking and various trade-offs of theatrical acting theories, and it’s just not going to work in the middle of this diary post. I’ll try to write it up over the next couple of days (remind me, if I neglect it and you are interested in such things) as a separate note. If you have been reading this Tohu Bohu for ten years, and I think I have attracted very few new Gentle Readers in that time, you know much of my thinking about acting anyway. End Digression.

Anyway.

For me, personally, there was one really nice thing, and that had to do with the question I have written about already a few times: In the court scene, why does Malvolio come back to Olivia and have the conversation that piques her interest in Cesario? What is he trying to do? And oddly enough, I found help with the actor who is playing Valentine. For those that don’t recall (and why would you) Valentine had been delivering love-messages from the Duke to Olivia before Cesario took over that task, and when the director asked the actor about Valentine's attitude toward being displaced, he described it as mostly relief. He is playing Valentine as Orsino’s steward (Malvolio’s opposite number) and said that Valentine found the obviously-hopeless task a distraction from his serious duties, and that he felt that by the point Cesario is given the task, he was delivering the poems in a perfunctory, almost desultory manner, neither expecting nor wanting a time-consuming and fruitless audience with the Lady. Anyway, that was a revelation to me: of course Malvolio is nonplussed that his opposite number Valentine has suddenly been replaced by some new kid that doesn’t know how this all works. I can imagine Malvolio and Valentine being reasonable acquaintances as the managers of the two large estates in Illyria. Not friends, nor even colleagues, but knowing and trusting each other a little bit in business dealings, and accustomed to each other’s habits.

And that means that it is news when Cesario comes to the door instead of Valentine, and news that might interest Olivia. And there’s an element in it of the new FedEx driver who doesn’t know where to leave the packages and who is authorized to sign and is insisting on seeing Olivia himself. It’s an irritation, and a change, and it means extra work as you explain to the new guy how things actually work around here, and that’s worth telling the boss about. But it doesn’t mean that Malvolio expects anything to really change—he doesn’t expect Olivia to admit Cesario to her court, and he certainly doesn’t expect her to entertain his suit (for the Duke), just that there may be a particularly irritating period of adjustment coming up. At least, I’m going to try playing it like that and see how it works.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 8, 2016

Actor and Director Redux

During last night’s rehearsal, the director replaced one of the bits in the yellow-stocking scene with a different one that I don’t like as much. This is a thing that happens. Sometimes I still think, after the show is over, that it would have been better to keep the old version. More usually, I eventually agree with the director. Sometimes I reflect that I just didn’t want to change, or that I hadn’t yet found a way to tie the new bit in with everything else I was doing. Sometimes I still don’t like the new bit in performances, but the audiences do.

I wrote about something like this ten years ago, and much of what I said I still believe:

[The Director] is the one in a position to make that decision. I’m not. It would be stupid for me to be upset about it. […] That doesn’t mean I won’t express my opinion and all, but honestly, if it came down to her judgment or mine, I’ll go with hers, all the same as when the X-Ray wallah said my ribs weren’t broken, and I wasn’t inclined to trust my judgment over his. He knows his job. It’s to be hoped that I know mine, which as an actor does have a lot to do with directorial choices, but it isn’t really to be hoped that I know hers better than she does.

In the dozen or so shows I have done since then, I have learned that my judgment on these kinds of things really is rubbish. Early in the process, I try to tell the director something like this: I have millions of ideas, most of which are lousy, some of which are totally great, but I can’t tell which ones are which. So if I bring you an idea and you tell me it’s one of the lousy ones, that’s great; it helps me know the difference. I do think I’m good at doing things, so when a director says do it like this, I can do it like that. And I really do think that I have lots of great ideas, but I have absolutely learned how rubbish I am at knowing which of my ideas are great; I want to rely on someone who is good at that, and hope to hell the director is. At any rate, I choose to believe that the director is, for whatever play I’m in, for as long as I’m in it, because the other attitude leads to misery and woe, and who needs that? After the show is over, I can think about whether the director made good decisions; during the show, I have to have faith.

This is distinct, by the way, from forming opinions about the director as a person, or about the way the director handles rehearsals or communicates with cast and crew. I may well have fierce opinions about those things, and have already decided by tech week whether I will decline further opportunities with this director. But I try—and have so far largely succeeded in the last decade—to have complete faith in the direction that the director is doing. Because what choice do I have?

Of course, it’s always nice to have some sort of corroboration, and when a little later in that same scene, when I was sitting in the house watching, the director made a slight change in the duel that had me collapsing in laughter, I thought well, that’s all right, then.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 7, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: seven scenes

We’ve run through each scene at least four times now. We have probably passed out of the part where it’s too early to make big decisions; I hope we’re not yet at the point where it’s too late to make big changes. This is where the good stuff happens. I hope.

In a few different things that I have been reading in the last months, actors have said that with Shakespeare, it’s important to play individual scenes individually—that is, not to fret too much about resolving contradictions within the character arc. To some extent, this is Shakespeare’s much-vaunted complexity, his creation of multi-layered roles that have something of the contradictory nature of actual humans. To some extent, this is modern (post-Stanislavsky) actors recognizing that their twentieth-century training can be unsuited to works of a different era, and trying to adapt. I think it was Juliet Stevenson (although it might have been Harriet Walter) who when asked how her performance changed over the course of a long repertory run, said that she found herself thinking less and less about setting up the next scene, and focusing more and more on the current one. That sounds lovely. For any actor with modern training, though, it is tremendously difficult to do character work without thinking in terms of that character arc, the through-line, and consistency. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I suspect that the character work is done in rehearsals and discussions before the play gets on its feet, and that once that is done, the structure exists that allows the actor to forget it and concentrate on the individual scenes as individual scenes.

Malvolio has seven scenes. I’m not sure I’ve laid them out in the blog like this:

  1. The Court Scene (I,v)
  2. The Ring Scene (II,ii)
  3. The Carousing Scene (II,iii)
  4. The Letter Scene (II,v)
  5. The Yellow-Stocking Scene (III,iv)
  6. The Prison Scene (IV,ii)
  7. The Last Scene (V,i)

I could annotate it a bit like this:

  1. The Court Scene (I,v): with Olivia, Feste. Officious, arrogant.
  2. The Ring Scene (II,ii): with Cesario. Officious, arrogant.
  3. The Carousing Scene (II,iii): with Toby, Andrew, Maria, Feste. Officious, arrogant.
  4. The Letter Scene (II,v): with audience (Toby, Andrew, Fabian watching). Arrogant, ambitious.
  5. The Yellow-Stocking Scene (III,iv): first with Olivia, Maria, then with audience, then with Toby, Maria, Fabian. Mad, obsessed.
  6. The Prison Scene (IV,ii): with Feste (Toby, Maria watching) (Feste is also Sir Topas). Fearful, angry.
  7. The Last Scene (V,i): Olivia, Feste (others present). Angry, obsessed.

My descriptions are vast simplifications, of course. I might choose different words tomorrow. But I do think that there’s a strong element of officiousness—I might describe it more fully as the extent to which Malvolio embodies his office as steward—in the Court, Ring and Carousing scenes that is not present in the last four scenes at all. It may come through in flashes in the Prison scene; it may color his exchanges in the end of the Yellow-Stocking scene. But largely in the last four scenes Malvolio is doing something other than being the steward of the Countess’ court, while in the first three that is the core of his character.

What I need to think about, in terms of character and consistency, is the extent to which the ground needs to be laid for the later Malvolios in those first three scenes. That is, when Malvolio capers in yellow stockings, it should be a surprise, and it’s funny because it’s a surprise that someone like the Malvolio we have learned to know in the first three scenes would do that, but it shouldn’t be absolutely impossible. The Malvolio of the Ring Scene has to, in some sense, be the sort of person who under the right circumstances would caper in yellow stockings. Would gibber and wail in the Prison scene, would speak the Last scene’s pathos in verse. While I do think that in the end the audiences will work with whatever we give them, and of course I will have consistency in accent, costume (well, in a sense anyway, and may well stay in the increasingly bedraggled yellow stockings through the end of the play) and figure, I need to think of anything else that can usefully be consistent through the play. And I need to think about that now, so that perhaps I can usefully not think about it on the night.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 5, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: learning the lines

Your Humble Blogger is really struggling with the Malvolio memorization. It’s not a huge number of lines, but they are not sticking.

I have written before about how I go about learning lines. That hasn’t changed much. I have (as y’all may have noticed) been reading the script frequently and carefully over the last month; I started the process of actually committing the lines to memory about two weeks ago. During my vacation last week, I put in a large number of hours, both by myself and with someone on book, trying to get the lines together. At this point, I should have a goodly chunk of them in my brain, with only a few scenes giving me real trouble (and then the endless struggle to get all the words exactly right). Instead, my brain has turned to mush, and while I have a few anchors in a few scenes, mostly I am at sea.

Why is this?

Well, for one thing, I am growing older, and my mental abilities are in fact actually atrophying, so there’s that. But this struggle is not just a small notch further along than NickNick or Hearts, it’s a whole different ballgame. So I don’t think I can scratch it entirely up to my own senescence. I think a big chunk of it is the part itself.

First and most importantly, there’s the monologue, which I may have neglected to mention is one hundred lines long. It’s a huge and fucking impossible scene, and breaking it down into its (four? five?) constituent parts doesn’t seem to be helping. I know there are actors who memorize entire two-hour monodramas, which must be a really insane amount of work. I have had bigger parts than Malvolio (Buckingham is a bigger part, for instance, just going by how many lines the actor has to memorize) but I don’t think I’ve ever had a longer speech. I am just now sort-of starting to get hold of it. I hope.

Then there’s the fact that I have been on vacation for a week, and thus haven’t been to a rehearsal. Rehearsing helps me learn the lines—I can’t really explain the mechanism by which it does help me, but it seems to. In Oliver Ford Davies’ book on Playing Shakespeare he advises that any actor with a part of more than 200 lines (I think it was) should come to the first rehearsal already off-book, simply because there wouldn’t be enough time during the six or eight weeks of rehearsal to both learn the part and rehearse it. There is much to that, and certainly I would hesitate to go in to rehearsals for such a part without putting in a lot of work beforehand, but the actual offbookifying is easier for me when it is interspersed with running through the scenes on my feet, clutching the sheaf of pages. And this is, I think, typical of amateur actors, at least those I have worked with. There is a large range, of course, but I think most of us would say that rehearsing and memorizing work best on simultaneous tracks.

And then there’s the part itself. Malvolio’s lines are just difficult to memorize, I think. He is given to repetition more than somewhat, but with minor variations—in the prison scene, for instance, he says never was man thus wronged and then there was never man thus abused and then there was never man so notoriously abused. And while that one gets longer through repetition, in that same scene he asks the Fool to help me to a candle, and pen, ink, and paper followed by help me to some light and some paper and finally some ink, paper, and light. Which brings up another issue—often the gist of the line is more or less obvious as it follows what the character wants at that moment, but that doesn’t seem to be helping me much, here. In II,ii (the ring scene) it’s pretty straightforward, as Malvolio wants to pass along his message and the ring, and what he says is bent toward that. In the prison scene, while he wants out (and to send a letter on that account) (and, if he has to be inside the cell, light) he doesn’t get those things at all, and just keeps saying the same sorts of things over and again, since his wants at the beginning of the scene are much the same as his baffled wants at the end. Similarly, in the yellow-stocking scene, he starts quoting from the letter, and winds up continuing to quote from it since (to his eyes) nothing has changed. He doesn’t respond to people (in the letter scene, he doesn’t notice them at all) and so even when I can identify how a line corresponds to a motivation (if I can use that word, or perhaps agenda, meaning simply what he wants the saying of the line to accomplish in concrete terms) that doesn’t always help me place the line in the scene, as Malvolio is peculiarly bad at adapting his methods to those around him.

Well, perhaps I now have enough excuses, and should go back to doing the actual work.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 25, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: last blocking rehearsal

We blocked the last act and have finished rough-blocking the play. Now we change things.

The big moment for YHB, of course, was when the director said don’t go for the comedy, which unleashed me to go for pathos. I still think that bathos (or, as the kids these days say, lolz) suits the play better, but I am in the hands of the director, and if he wants me to tear out the audience’s heart, by Grabthar’s Hammer I’ll do it.

The funny thing (for YHB, anyway) is how much of my prepared comic stuff I can keep. I can do my ghastly smile, recreate my leg-waggling exhibition of the yellow stockings, even emphasize my derhotic silly voice—if I have prepared the audience, those things will suddenly appear tragic, rather than comic. Even, and maybe this is going too far, I can kiss the letter’s seal when I open it and again when I hand it to Olivia: say ’tis not your seal. A matter for the director’s judgment, of course, not mine, but it might play.

As for the rest of the Act, a huge mess of entrances and exits during which all the plot points are resolved (well, resolution is claimed, which isn’t the same thing but perhaps more important) and Secrets are Revealed, the main thing from my point of view was learning how totally and completely our Agueface will steal the scene. The scene, the stage, probably the whole building. Grand Larceny. It’ll be lovely. He’s only around for a few minutes of the act, but it’ll be a memorable few minutes. And throughout the play the same, I suspect. Aguecheek doesn’t have a lot of lines, but I think he makes as many appearances as anyone in the play, and if he makes the most of them (and he will) there is no way for another human to take the thing away from him. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is an excellent thing.

Note: Your Humble Blogger is on vacation for the week, so there will be no new Rehearsal Diaries until July. There may not be any posts at all, although there might. I will be working on Malvolio of course (mostly memorizing) so if (a) I discover anything worth posting and (2) I take the time out of my non-memorizing to write that thing up instead of playing more Space Beans then there will be a post, otherwise, not so much.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 23, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: fourth blocking rehearsal

The fourth and penultimate blocking rehearsal was for the Maria/Toby/Andrew scenes, including both II,iii and II,v as well as I,iii and III,ii. Lots of drunkenness, lots of Toby.

We did II, v first, the letter scene. Lord. I know I said this before, but that scene is so fucking long. And I have no idea what I am doing with it. In this rough blocking, the director has (of course) left a good deal of my action up to me—at this stage we aren’t locking in when I stand or sit or cross. The three observers are upstage in hiding (tho not actually obscured from view) so I have the entirety of downstage to play with. The only real marks are that I have to be up and in the center where the letter has been left in order to find it (that is, if I am sitting down and have completed a thought, and then get up in order to be surprised by an envelope on the ground, it will look stupid) and my eventual exit. Other than that, I am at liberty. For the moment, I am starting my speech seated, but the points I have chosen to rise aren’t working for me yet, so perhaps I should begin from a standing position. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure none of my stuff is working yet, so a decision may be hasty at this point.

The carousing scene (II,iii) is more complicated to block, of course. The important thing about this scene is that it also has to be funny. Funny, loud and fast. In one of the essays I recently read (it was, I think, Keir Elam’s introduction to the Arden edition of the play) the writer observed that the scenes alternate between slow, quiet scenes and loud, fast ones. That’s not strictly accurate, but I do think that there are a good deal of each of those and that a decision has to be made and stuck to about which is which. The audience has to be alerted at the beginning of the scene, and in this play (not so with every play) it’s best to play into, rather than against, their expectations. Malvolio’s are all fast, loud scenes, until the end at any rate. Orsino’s, not so much.

My inclination is to come down the stairs and stand there glaring, creating a guilty hush in which to begin ranting. I don’t know if it will work. For one thing, coming in at full rant knocks Toby back onto the wrong foot, which he can slowly recover from—Sir Toby is not at this point in doubt that Olivia will choose him over Malvolio: Am not I consanguineous? Once over the initial shock, he gains the upper hand quickly, mocking and berating the steward: Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs. Malvolio is reduced to threatening Maria—overall, he is completely bested in this scene by Feste and Toby, and knows it.

We are not (as yet) putting in the traditional lazzi for the scene. In modern dress, we lose the opportunity for the candle bit, anyway; it can be done, but the candle would obviously be there just for the gag. I didn’t ask (meant to, forgot) what Malvolio will be wearing in the scene… the nightgown bit seems unlikely but not impossible. I do feel that Malvolio should trip and fall going out, but as I am going upstairs, that decision will have to wait for the actual set construction to see what works.

Tonight we block Act Five and then we’ll be done with the rough blocking. Whew.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 21, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: third blocking rehearsal

My third blocking rehearsal included both I,v and II,ii—Malvolio is in seven scenes, and we have now blocked four of them. We are on track for completing rough blocking in a total of six rehearsals, of which I got to skip one. Even if we only keep 75% of that blocking, it’ll still have put us in very good shape for July.

I,v is at Olivia’s court; Malvolio goes in and out and in and out and then in and out again. I don’t have a name for the scene yet. I more or less think of it as the introduction to the character, but that’s not really what is going on in the scene. It’s a series of spars, more or less—he sneers at Feste, when Olivia is showing favor to the fool, and then comes in to talk to Olivia about sparring with Cesario at the door, and then comes in again to be sent on an errand with the ring. The blocking is quite clear: Malvolio leads the entrance down the stairs and into the court, taking up what is clearly an accustomed position behind and slightly to the right of Olivia’s favorite chair. I advance on Feste and then as I turn my back on her to address my Lady, she goofs on me—I think I will have to throw in a spin back to catch her at it. Well, we shall see, plenty of time to work out that sort of thing. We’ve already added a bit to my first exit ( Go you, Malvolio. If it be a suit from the Count, I am sick, or not at home; what you will, to dismiss it.) to emphasize both Malvolio’s smarmy sycophancy and also Olivia’s somewhat high-strung dithering. Well, not dithering, really, but a sort of changeability or willfulness—Olivia is described as stubborn or unyielding because she won’t accept Orsino’s marriage proposal, but I think that’s an error, or at least not how we’re playing it. Olivia has rejected Orsino but otherwise has no definite plans for the future. She has to be in a frame of mind that is open to the Cesario thunderbolt, and while I don’t think she is looking for love she has got to be looking at least for something to look for, and with enough energy to make it interesting for the audience. I think we want to feel as if Olivia’s court is on a precipice from the moment we enter it, and whether it will be saved or ruined, it will be transformed. Oh, you could play Olivia as a marble statue brought to life by love, and that is probably most often done, but I think a powder-keg Olivia is both funnier and truer. And easier for Malvolio, too.

Anyway, Malvolio out, business between Feste and Olivia, Malvolio returns to whine about Cesario at the door. Again, I don’t (yet) understand why Malvolio doesn’t just come back in dusting his hands, and tell Olivia that yond young fellow has been sent back to the Count with a broken head. I wonder… I wonder if Malvolio is, or might be, jealous of Feste’s influence, and at the moment, after Olivia’s rebuke ( O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio) he decides to dump this problem on the Lady for once, to emphasize how badly she needs him to handle things for her. It would be a terrible idea, but a terrible idea that Malvolio might have. Hm. If I go with that, I might have to tone down Malvolio’s pique at the boy. Hm. I think I will need to chat with the director about this.

My third entrance in the scene is brief. I have a bit of business with the ring, and we will need to time out my various false exits. I do think that at this point Malvolio toys a bit with his power… that is, when Olivia sends him, he pauses, condescendingly, possibly more than condescendingly, until explodes a bit at him. There are opportunities for bits of business with the delay; I’m not sure we need them.

There’s an intervening scene with Antonio and Sebastian, and then II,ii is Malvolio and Cesario. We aren’t planning on doing the bit where Malvolio sees Sebastian at the end of II,i (a shame, really—my preference is to heighten as much as possible the twin joke, but there it is, and in truth if Shakespeare wanted a bit there he was perfectly capable of writing it) so the scene opens with Cesario and then Malvolio enters in pursuit. The trick there will be to catch his (her) attention without yielding center stage. And, ideally, without moving quickly or otherwise softening from elevated levels of pomposity. I think I’ve got a nice bit with the ring (as we are doing it on modern dress, Malvolio will not have a Staff of Office and thus cannot do the traditional business of sliding the ring onto the tip of the staff and extending the staff before tapping the ring off on the ground. Ah, well.

This second scene is where Malvolio’s derhotic accent will blossom, if I can make it work. Our director wants me to keep playing with it. In I,v there are only a few r’s to work with ( barren rascal being the best, and shrewishly the only other significant one) but in II,ii is all about a ring. Ideally, the audience will notice it in that first scene, and then laugh at it in my second, and then get used to it in my third scene, and be ready to laugh again in the letter scene. Well, and we’ll see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Malvolio Production Diary: second blocking rehearsal

For the second blocking rehearsal, my bit was III,iv. I think of III,iv as the yellow-stocking scene, because I am playing Malvolio and that’s when he comes in with the yellow stockings on. The fellow playing Andrew Aguecheek probably thinks of it as the duel scene. The actor playing Antonio probably thinks of it as the arrest scene. I don’t know how the actor playing Olivia thinks of it; she has the yellow-stocking bit and then goes out and comes back with Cesario for a second bit, totally different in tone and feeling, still within III,iv. It’s enough to drive a person French.

For my bit, the director concocted an Entrance, which I do think is important for the scene, and which will get a laugh if nothing else does. So that’s all right. I have started with some bits of business (easier when I’m off-book). Our Maria wasn’t there, which will make a difference, as part of the thing is a performance for Olivia and part is—well, none of it is for Maria, but some of the performance for Olivia involves Maria, and then part of it is probably at Maria as well. We’ll see, when our Maria comes back to town.

My part of the scene is actually in three bits: the first is with Oliva and Maria, which will work just fine. The second is by myself, and it seems very very long to me. I think I will suggest a couple of judicious cuts to match ones in the letter scene; the tang of the tongue and all. We’ll see. At any rate, that middle bit doesn’t feel funny to me at all. I tried a couple of things but nothing felt right to me. Well, we’ll see. The third bit is when Toby and Fabian come in with Maria, and at least last night in the blocking it was, enh, OK but not great. I’m not sure what would help. As soon as my monologue was done, I sat in Maria’s seat, which I really like—I do think that Chris’ observation that Malvolio is unable to distinguish between lust and ambition is going to be useful—but that left me seated for a bit of dialogue that then gives me little reason to stand up again. I stayed seated through until Go hang yourselves all! and then stalked out. That worked for character, but I think made the scene static and dull; Toby and Fabian lacked menace. Well, it’s only the first rough blocking. Things will change.

The duel looks like it will be good. For those unfamiliar with the play, Sir Toby and Fabian bully Andrew and Cesario into dueling. Andrew is a coward, and Cesario is a girl. Hilarity ensues, until Antonio comes in to break it up—the extent to which they actually duel is a production choice. We will have just about the minimum possible sword-clashing, but some very funny bits leading up to it… we may also have some actual fighting when Antonio comes in and lays about him, but that is just a bonus; the important thing about the duel is that it’s funny.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 17, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: first blocking rehearsal

First blocking rehearsal was last night. We did IV, ii, which I have been calling the torture scene. My director calls it the prison scene, which is a huge difference in outlook. I’ll have to start calling it the prison scene as well… we’re flying down a wall with a barred window, so I will be partially visible to the audience. I’m told the design for the prison isn’t final yet; I didn’t think of it at the time, but I will mention tonight that it seems funnier to me if the window is very, very small. Small enough that I have to look through one eye or the other, or press my ear to it to hear. I could be wrong about that, of course, but I should suggest it. That would also help with the it’s really dark in here lines. Which are sometimes cut, of course, but don’t seem to be for our production.

Anyway, as a blocking rehearsal, my blocking behind the little window (or however big the window winds up being) is pretty limited. In fact, I’m just standing there for the whole scene. I’ve practically memorized it already. The blocking for Feste is harder, of course, as all the visual effect of the scene is on her. So that’s all right.

The show that’s currently up at the theater was having a pick-up rehearsal, so we were scheduled to use the space downstairs, which is actually a lovely big rehearsal space. As we arrived, though, the director and stage manager observed that it was an absolutely lovely evening, and accordingly we held rehearsal outside. It was a relaxed atmosphere, with a fair amount of joking and whatnot, but we still got a lot done. That’s pretty impressive for a rehearsal this early in the game. Our director also invented some lovely bits of business, which was nice, and also threw out a bit that didn’t work and redid it, which is very impressive.

I have spoken before of the spectrum for directors, running from those on the one end who let the actors do whatever the hell they feel and those on the other who treat actors as marionettes. Our director clearly leans more toward the marionettish end, although he has already shown the ability to throw out his prepared ideas when he finds they don’t work. That combination is an excellent one. We’ll see how he is at accepting actors’ ideas. The combination of a marionette-style director with the ability to incorporate new ideas (from actors) and toss out any ideas that turn out not to work is my favorite. Other actors may prefer a more improvisational approach, or care much more about the other things that a director can be good or bad at (efficient use of time, communication generally, blocking, creating visual pictures, bringing in and working with specialists (for fight choreography or mime work or music or whatnot), publicity, casting, etcetera etcetera), but a director with that combination of preparation and judicious open-mindedness suits me down to the ground.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 15, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: nothing happening here

Tonight is my first real rehearsal (not counting the read-through). We’re blocking out of order, for efficiency’s sake; the play runs along three (more or less) different tracks, so that you can run the Olivia/Cesario scenes in one go and the Toby/Andrew scenes in another, and the Orsino court scenes in another. Or, more accurately, you can have four rehearsals, giving Orsino three nights off, Sebastian two nights off, Olivia two nights off, Toby, Andrew and Maria one night off, and Malvolio one night off, and you’ll have blocked everything but the big group scenes. I’ve had my nights off.

I spent the last two evenings doing a staged reading (well, one night of rehearsal for it and the second performing it) so I haven’t done much work on Malvolio. I’ve read it over a few times (as a rule, once I start, I try not to let any days go by without reading my part through at least once) but not done any further research or even any real thought. And then we’re heading right to blocking without doing table work (which is totally a legit choice, mind you) so I don’t know that the next two weeks will involve much thinking, either.

We’re doing the torture scene tonight. I haven’t the faintest idea what his intentions are about my cell—it occurs to me that I failed to write that at the read-though the director didn’t volunteer anything about the look of the thing, the design, costumes, any of that. When asked, he said that we would be in modern costumes, saying that for audiences that don’t come to the theater already comfortable with Shakespeare, the period Elizabethan costumes can be alienating and make them shut down. I agree with this, largely. There are other reasons to bring out the modern drag as well, as audiences generally can read class, money and even regional differences in our modern clothes much better than in period dress. There are drawbacks, of course (why don’t Sebastian and Viola just DM each other) but everything is a trade-off. From my point of view, the drawback is in my yellow stockings and cross-garters, but we will find a way.

Anyway, I don’t know anything at all about the set, and I know less than nothing about Malvolio’s imprisonment. The folio just says within; the dialogue makes it clear that he can’t see the others. One traditional way is to have him under the stage, with his fingers poking out through a grate; I don’t know if our stage has working traps. Sometimes he is out in the open, but restrained and blindfolded. One production I saw had a very striking image of him in a sort of light box—he was behind a scrim with a light behind him throwing his shadow, so you couldn’t see him but could see his reactions in silhouette.

The script calls for Feste, Maria and Toby outside the cell, and that’s all we have on the call sheet, so our director presumably does not plan to add in further spectators. He still might. It depends on what you want to accomplish with the scene; if it’s supposed to be mostly funny, focusing on Feste’s clowning, then you probably don’t want anyone other than Maria and Toby around. If it’s supposed to be pathetic, with the emphasis on Malvolio’s humiliation, then having members of Olivia’s court hanging around jeering is probably a plus. I will find out, I guess.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 13, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: the read-through

Well, and we have begun. The read-through last night was, as read-throughs tend to be, variable. Some of us clearly have been preparing by closely analyzing the text, and have already looked up tricky words or phrases. Some of us have not done that yet—some of the cast are in shows that are currently running and have only just emerged from tech week—and some of them have day jobs, so I am scarcely critical that they have not put in a minute for every single minute that I have. There is yet time for all of that stuff. Other may simply not be as comfortable reading off the page; I know several actors who suffer from dyslexia, have difficulty reading from a page, learn their lines by audio, and are absolutely terrific in everything except a read-through. There were glimpses, certainly, of a wonderful cast. And our Olivia is, fortunately for me, an actor after my own heart—super well-prepared, funny, and Shakespeare-obsessed. I think it’s most important that I be comfortable with the actors playing Olivia and Feste—depending on the physical business in II,iii and II,v there could be more or less interaction with Toby, but they actually exchange very little dialogue. Not that I expect to have trouble with our Toby, who is a somewhat older actor clearly very comfortable with the Shakespearean language, but that if I can’t get loose with Olivia and Feste in rehearsal, it will be very difficult—while if I can’t get loose with Toby, it probably means a little less slapstick, is all.

I was struck, again, by how utterly at sea I am with the letter scene, II,v. It is so amazingly long. A hundred lines, maybe, without interacting with anyone on stage (there are people there talking to each other, but I can’t see or hear them). That’s like three times the length of to be or not to be or all the world’s a stage. That’s insanely long. Even after the Gang have fallen asleep (or whatever; at any rate they drop out) Malvolio has forty uninterrupted lines to keep the audience’s attention. So long. It’s madness.

I am starting to identify bits that can be cut. Of course, it has to be done carefully, not to damage the rhythm of the scene, but still, trimming is possible. We don’t see Malvolio actually letting his tongue tang arguments of state or putting himself into the trick of singularity, vaddevah dat means. Yes, I do see the value in the lines, how they are playing to his vanity and add to how ridiculous Malvolio has to be to believe this thing, but balance that against how incredibly fucking long the man is talking to himself. I mean. The loss wouldn’t be that great.

Still, it’s incredibly long. It has breaks, or, rather, changes of pace—it starts with him fantasizing about what would be like to be Count Malvolio, that’s one bit. Then he sees the letter and decides to open it, that’s another bit. Then he starts reading the letter, which itself is broken into three pieces (the poem, the prose, and the postscript) each of which is followed by repetition and explication. I have to identify the moment when he decides that the letter must be for him. I mean, he is so vain he always thinks the letter is about him, but he needs to argue it out with himself. Is it every one of these letters are in my name? Or is he still uncertain-certain through until If not, let me see thee a steward still?

What really scares me about that scene is that, in the end, it has to be an interaction with the audience. Far more than any monologue I’ve had to do in a play, it’s got to be played to the audience. And there is no audience for weeks and weeks. No audience, in fact, until there’s an audience! Well, that’s not quite true, as there will be some audience beforehand, but only a few theater people, who will react quite differently. I will have to trust my director, really trust him, in a truly scary way. Which could turn out terrific! I guess.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 12, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: ready or not

Tonight is the first read-through, and I have no idea what to do with it. I have spoken before about the strangeness of read-throughs. Actors take different tacks—I generally fall in to the camp that overacts, giving it too much energy in an attempt to give it any energy at all. Other actors prefer to underplay; they haven’t committed to a character yet (as is correct), so rather than give a wrong impression, they just read it all out as if they were reading today’s specials. Sometimes there will be an actor who appears to be seeing the text for the first time, stumbling over unfamiliar words and muttering shapeless sentences. Some make eye contact with their scene partners, beginning to make the connections between actors that will be part of the rehearsal process. Some stare at the page. Some peek at the director. Mostly the actors read all the scenes right along, everyone turning pages simultaneously in a great susurration. I, by preference, flip all the way to my next entrance and then just listen, either making notes or knitting. Occasionally screwing up and scrambling to find the page.

Anyway, as I say, in a general way, I fall into the overacting camp, playing a somewhat exaggerated version of what I think I will do with the part. I know I won’t be playing it that way, of course, but giving the director and my castmates some idea of what I could or might do. In a comedy, I try to crack up the room, which is always a delight. I also try to be susceptible to laughing aloud at whatever strikes me as funny. It can be a tough night, reading aloud in a silent room; I like to give it as much life as I can.

Malvolio, though. I have no idea at all what I’m going to do with Malvolio. I feel, not strongly but vaguely, that he should have a ridiculous voice of some kind. Possibly derhoticized, if it doesn’t sound too much like Elmer Fudd. Possibly a foreign accent (a Vienna accent is appealing to me for some reason, although when I read it aloud to myself, it sounds verging on German-Jewish, which has entirely different connotations) which would potentially help give the very English (tho’ notionally Illyrian) Sir Toby an obvious reason for instant enmity. A subtle idea would be for Malvolio to have an educated upper-crust accent that he loses, when alone and excited, and then again when imprisoned and abused, for some very recognizeable low-prestige accent. Probably too subtle, that. But I think you need some reason to find Malvolio ridiculous right from his first words—ideally, you need some reason to find him ridiculous right from his entrance, but I don’t have to worry about that for tonight’s read-through. I do need to read it in some sort of voice. I’m not really pleased by the idea of trying any of them out tonight. I’m actually quite terrified about it.

There’s a line that Oliver Ford Davies quotes in both of his books that I think is very good indeed; I need to find the actual quotation and what and who it’s from. It’s something like: all creativity happens in the incredibly narrow moment between the part when it’s too early to make definite decisions and the part when it’s too late to make big changes. The trick is to expand that narrow moment as much as possible. All the preparation I do before the rehearsals begin is to try to compress the first part by going in to a show with specific ideas about how to play the part. I don’t mean that I arrive with a fully-formed character, but with a base to start from and a set of set of things to try. This time… well, we’ll see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 10, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: Words, words, words (and sentences)

For a second read-through of the text, I’m going to try to concentrate on the word choices, sentence structures, things like that. Still looking for more questions than answers; I don’t want to meet the director on Sunday knowing how I want to play the part, but I want to have enough in place so when we start to narrow options, I can put decisions into practice.

One of my habits in preparation is to plug my lines into a word frequency chart and see what happens. It’s not a terribly long part, some 2,200 words or so. First-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) turn up a lot: 156 instances. That’s 7%, which is Donald Trump territory. There are 16 instances of fool, most of which, however, are in the torture scene where I am trying to get Feste’s attention. Still. There are 16 ladys, 3 madams and 19 sirs. Although again, a lot of the sir instances are in the torture scene when I am trying to get Feste’s attention (addressing him as Sir Topas). Still, those titles perhaps indicates something about Malvolio’s class awareness. The only other interesting thing that turns up is that he says hand 12 times: five of those refer to handwriting, twice in swearing by this hand (he also swears by my life) and the rest are Schenectady for his person (the letter falls into his hand, etc). It’s possible, and I will have to feel how this works out, that there is something there in Malvolio thinking of himself as his hands—not his heart, not his head, not his dick, but his hand. How would that affect his gestures, his movements? Historically, Malvolio often carries a wand of office (no, really, check out the pictures) which is taken from him when he goes mad; is there something else he should be doing with his hands? It will depend on the setting, of course. Hands, rings. Hm.

Looking at my first scene (I,v), I see that he speaks quite plainly. I mean, yes, he speaks in prose rather than verse, but also he speaks in short, common words: I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. He’s not crude, but he’s not flowery or pretentious in his sentences or word choices: Madam, yond young fellow swears he will speak with you. He does seem to repeat himself. There are only a couple of places where he uses a longer word instead of a shorter one: fortified instead of guarded, supporter instead of prop, minister occasion rather than give it. He is addressing Olivia; I will see if it changes when he addresses others.

He is talking with Cesario in II,ii; he is a little (not much) more florid. He throws in a moreover and says desperate assurance, calls him peevish. Still, mostly short words, mostly very plain: If it be worth stooping for, there it lies in your eye; if not, be it his that finds it. If he is pretentious, it’s not with polysyllables.

The next Malvolio scene is the carousal, talking with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and the class thing comes up right away: gabble like tinkers, ale-house, coziers’ catches. There are a couple of odd words (misdemeanor instead of, well, misbehavior or drunkenness or something; mitigation instead of, um, chill) but still mostly short words, plainly spoken: an it you please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.

In talking to himself, before the letter scene, imagining himself Count Malvolio, he gets a bit more longwinded: you waste the treasure of your time rather than just wasting time. Once he gets reading, though (and leaving aside the text of the letter itself) his language gets more pretentious and bizarre: Why, this is evident to any formal capacity; there is no obstruction in this. and This simulation is not as the former. There’s still some of that in III,iv (This does make some obstruction in the blood instead of it’s a bit tight) but almost everything he says to Olivia is a quote, rather than his own words. After she leaves, he talks to himself, and again gets a bit long-winded: no dram of a scruple, no scruple of a scruple and so forth. When people come in, it’s back to short words: Go off. Do you know what you say? Go hang yourselves.

The torture scene (IV,ii) is complicated. Mostly, still, it’s short words and simple sentences: never was man thus wronged. I say to you this house is dark. I am no more mad than you are. Help me to some light and some paper. When asked about Pythagoras, his sentences get a little longer: I think nobly of the soul and no way approve his opinion. But that’s too short a bit to make much of the switch. Or is it? Well, and anyway, the important thing is that he doesn’t either rant or ramble. He speaks clearly and simply. The most flowery he gets is his cry there was never man so notoriously abused. That, though is followed up with I am as well in my wits, Fool, as thou art. How much simpler could it be?

And then he comes back in, released, and speaks in prose. Still, there’s a simplicity to the language and sentence structure (Why you have given me such clear lights of favor?) that is very different, from, say, Antonio earlier in the scene ( His life I gave him and did thereto add my love, without retention or restraint, all his in dedication) or certainly the ever-poetic Orsino (I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love, To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.)

It had been tickling me to play Malvolio as a foreigner, with a strong accent (a Vienna accent, for some reason, is what I hear in my head) to make his lines ridiculous. There was a tradition, evidently dating back to Samuel Phelps in 1857, of playing Malvolio as a Spaniard. There are some reasons it might play (and other reasons why it mightn’t) but mostly this examination seems to work against that. Well, probably. But except when he is talking to himself his dialogue is not ridiculous at all. He’s stern and unlikeable, and when we are told he is sick of self-love or that he is an affectioned ass it doesn’t seem unfair at all, but he isn’t except when he is talking to himself prone to prolixity or malaprops or circumlocution. When he believes himself alone, he seems to be an entirely different person. But who isn’t?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 9, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: First* Read, Parts Four and Five

Finishing up the First* Read. Still asking questions, still trying not to answer them yet.

IV,i is Sebastian being mistaken for Cesario by various people. Including people who are involved in the Malvolio business, but who are not concerned with Malvolio at the present time.

IV,ii is the torture scene. Maria starts in charge, giving Feste a costume (unnecessarily, as she later points out) and a role to play. Why a priest? Why possession particularly, as opposed to other madness? Malvolio is within, probably unseen (tho’ not necessarily). How long has he been there? He still thinks the letter is legitimate, but does he know that Toby and Maria are mocking him, or that they believe he is possessed? How much of their dialogue in III,iv does he remember? Feste joins in the abuse, but his words don’t seem to hold real malice—it would actually be mild treatment for a real case of possession (or madness, for that matter). When Malvolio recognizes Feste’s voice, Malvolio begs him for help. Does he remember their enmity at this point? Feste makes him wait, but then promises to help him, and indeed (after the scene ends) does help him. Why? Toby is done with the whole joke, but Feste seems to be just getting going. Still, he gets a letter from Malvolio and carries it through three hundred lines of V,i before handing it over with a shrug. Actually, he mocks at it before it’s taken away from him—why bring it at all? Why let Malvolio write it? Or how long did it take him to return with that paper and pen?

V,i—well, Act Five only has the one scene. It’s the conclusion! Everybody comes and goes (tho’ not Maria, for some reason) and pairs up and shuts down and ends the play. Malvolio enters 340 lines in to the scene; he is the last loose end to be tied up. He is brought in (traditionally with straws in his hair) and accuses Olivia of doing him wrong. He repeats the bulk of her letter to him, again (he’s got to have memorized the thing right off) and then says tell me why. Olivia denies the letter; Fabian puts the blame on Toby; Feste claims the credit (why? And how accurately?) and Malvolio vows vengeance on the whole pack of ’em. Does he mean it? Is it grumbling or a real vow? Does he still blame Olivia, or is the whole pack aristocrats, in which he includes Cesario and Orsino as well as Olivia and Sir Toby and Maria?

Also, as a minor point: the Captain of I,ii is evidently in durance under Malvolio’s orders; what’s up with that? How long as the Captain been in prison, and under what pretext? Probably the author just threw that in as a way to segue from Viola’s story to Malvolio, but it’s hard not to draw a parallel between the obviously outrageous false imprisonment of Malvolio and Malvolio’s imprisonment of the Captain. I have never noticed it before.

A more significant point: I’ve been telling people that Malvolio has no verse at all, but is entirely a prose part. In fact, Malvolio’s speech in V,i is in verse. Why verse? Why now? True, the gentry are speaking in verse, but that’s true of the whole scene, and when Andrew and Toby come in, the conversation switches to prose, and Feste as well, and when Fabian reads the letter Malvolio wrote in his cell, it’s in prose. But when Malvolio comes in, it’s iambic pentameter:

Lady, you have. Pray you peruse that letter.
You must not now deny it is your hand.
Write from it if you can, in hand or phrase,
Or say ’tis not your seal, not your invention.

It’s an almost lovely little speech. But what does Malvolio think Olivia will say to it? He is not, clearly, expecting her to deny the letter (does he believe the denial, in fact?) but if she admits it, proclaims her love (he does not of course know that she is married) (unless he sees a ring? The ring from II,ii?) (another related question: how much of anything does he see and understand at this point? Does he even notice that there are two Cesarios?) and offers to marry him, would he at this point be willing? What did Malvolio, sitting in the dark, imagine his future to be? Not that he would have been thinking clearly, but how much of any of what happens while he is onstage in Act Five is a surprise? Olivia’s denial? Fabian’s confession? Feste’s taunt?

As an actor, of course, I dearly want to play the Tragedy of Malvolio. I dearly want to come on at the end and tear out the hearts of the audience who were jeering at me an hour earlier. That’s why Big Name actors play Malvolio instead of playing Toby, who has more lines and does more stuff. If that’s what the director wants to do, I am for it. But really, it’s Viola’s play, not Malvolio’s. Taking over the night to the detriment of the play is not really what I’m going for, here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 8, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: First* Read, Part Three

III,i is Cesario and Feste, then Cesario and Toby/Andrew, then Cesario and Olivia. Nothing for Malvolio. III,ii is the Gang (as I have begun to think of Toby, Andrew, Feste, Fabian and Maria) setting up the Cesario duel. Maria, when she comes in, says Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado and they rush off to see how ridiculous and risible Malvolio is. No pressure. III,iii is Sebastian and Antonio, nothing Malvolic there, although unless the scene is moved it’s seventy lines between come and laugh at Malvolio and Malvolio’s entrance. So no pressure there, no build-up of hopes, nope.

III,iv is the yellow-garter scene. He enters, dressed ridiculously, and capers. I notice here that even if the letter were real—even if Olivia loved him and had written that letter—his behaviour here is absurd. His dialogue is almost random. He seems to be quoting love songs ( Please one, and please all and Ay, sweetheart, and I’ll come to thee) along with repeating phrases from the letter. I wonder if he has ever woo’d a woman before at all. Is he a virgin? Has he had whores but not a lover? Is he enjoying his great romance, or does he view it as a necessary charade? Is he—and this is probably an important question to consult with the director about—actually infatuated with Olivia, or just with her estate? Or at least, does he fancy himself in love with Olivia? Shakespeare is, in this play and others, very sharp about people who think themselves in love with somebody they don’t really know, but Malvolio presumably knows Olivia as well as he knows anyone. Did he, before Maria started work, think of himself as in love with Olivia, or not? Does he now?

After Olivia leaves, Malvolio has a twenty-line soliloquy (that’s not short) (if it’s not cut) congratulating himself for how well he handled himself in the previous bit, which was a total disaster. The forged letter is not what keeps him from recognizing what a disaster that meeting was. Toby, Fabian and Maria come in and pretend to believe he’s possessed. Why? For what audience? Malvolio seems unfazed by their actions, until he blows up with Go hang yourselves all! and storms out. Or is he angry? What would he be angry with them for, at this point? Or is he always angry with them?

The scene goes on after Malvolio leaves it, with the Cesario duel and the Antonio arrest. Terrible structure, Shakespeare! It’s a four-hundred-line scene with three or four totally different scenes within it. It’s also interesting that fifteen lines after Malvolio leaves, they all drop the subject and don’t refer to him again. Olivia may be upset by her steward going mad, but not enough to talk to Cesario about it (on stage, anyway). Andrew doesn’t ask how the Malvolio business went.

Speaking of structure and whatnot, the script arrived today via email, and it looks as if Malvolio has lost only one line. I probably won’t bother going through the non-Malvolio scenes in enough detail to know how many lines have been cut and from where. The scenes are all there and all in the Folio order; there’s even some Folio spelling left in. I’m not sure what that portends. At any rate, there isn’t anything particularly exciting about our playing script on first look. Which answers that question, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 7, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: First* Read, Part Two

The Second Act. Not that we will be taking act breaks, or even that I strongly believe in the act-scene structure in the first place, but there it is.

II,i is Sebastian and Antonio. Nothing there for or about Malvolio, although sometimes there is business with Malvolio coming on at the end of that scene and seeing Sebastian exit one direction as Cesario enters from the other. It’s a good bit, but only if Malvolio is entirely a figure of fun, I think. Anyway, it leads into II,ii, Malvolio returning (he thinks) Orsino’s ring to Cesario. Malvolio is clearly pompous and contemptuous—does he think he is taking this cue from Olivia? It’s interesting (to YHB) that she entrusts him with a ring and that he doesn’t just pocket it, given the chance. He clearly isn’t venal in that sense. There’s no great relationship question between Malvolio and Cesario in this scene; I wonder whether Malvolio regrets letting him in. He doesn’t seem to approach him with the caution that he might if he had been truly baffled at the gate back in Act One.

II,iii is the carousing scene. It begins with Sir Toby and Andrew, then Feste joins them, and then Maria, and then finally Malvolio comes down and drops the hammer on them. This is early morning; was Malvolio woken up by their noise or by Olivia sending for him? Is this the first such revelry or the worst, or just another instance? He expresses shock that they are so awful, then he warns Toby that Olivia has reached the limit of her tolerance. He is mocked and then ignored. Well, ignored in the dialogue, as Toby and Feste sing; whether they pointedly ignore him whilst singing or flick breadballs at him is not yet determined. He breaks through their wall of noise, warns Maria that he’ll tell Olivia that she was carousing with the drunks, and then storms out. Then Maria comes up with the false letter plot. Do they have some previous personal antipathy or this a sudden brainstorm? Has Malvolio been living in the house with enemies all along (whether he created them or not) or are they just now turning against him? Feste has no lines after Malvolio leaves; some productions have him present for the plotting and some don’t. Who hates Malvolio and how much?

II,iv is Orsino’s court again.

II,v is the letter scene. This is Malvolio’s big scene. Maria has probably just told him that Olivia fancies him and he talks to himself, imagining being head of her household. During all this bit the conspirators are jabbering away in between Malvolio’s musings; we’ll need to hit rhythms there, to have enough room for their comments without obviously pausing for that purpose. Then he finds the letter and reads it aloud. Reads it in sections: first the poem, then a dozen or more lines of prose, then he muses and interprets, and then after that a postscript and his exit line. He doesn’t interact with anyone for something like 160 lines, of which he has more than a hundred lines on his own (the rest being the conspirators talking amongst themselves, unheard by Malvolio). Dunno how much of this will be cut, if any, but it’s a long bit to be talking to yourself. When I’ve seen it done well, the actor has talked directly to the audience, but that wasn’t from a proscenium stage like we’ll be using.

Well, and I don’t have much to say about this scene yet. there’s a lot to be worked out, but I don’t at the moment have any way in to it. I think, on the whole, that this is a scene to be gone back to after the rest has been worked out. The important thing, probably the only important thing, is that it be funny. Which of course I won't actually know until and unless somebody laughs.

I will add some exciting news: I ran into an old AYLI castmate (well, I say ran in to, more accurately went to see as a Pirate/Policeman in a production of Penzance) who turns out to be our Andrew! He’s a very funny man, an excellent physical-comedy fellow, and well-cast as Agueface. Even better news, from my point of view, is that Feste will be played by another old AYLI castmate, also a well-seasoned physical comic and all around talented actor. Better news in that I will be interacting with Feste more than Andrew, probably, and because a good Feste is more important to the play as a whole than a good Andrew—a mediocre Aguecheek can be carried but a mediocre Feste cannot. Also I am finding it terrific news because Feste is a woman, and that will make our interaction even more interesting. A Malvolio who is nasty to a female Feste is going to come off nastier, and if they decide to do a lighthearted Twelfth Night, the torture scene is probably milder with a female Feste.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 6, 2016

Malvolio Production Diary: First* Read, Part One

OK, starting my First* Read. Not actually my first read, but the beginning of real preparation for the part. I am modelling this more or less after the one in Oliver Ford Davies’ Playing Lear, for which he says in part: I keep asking questions, and try not to come to any conclusions. In particular, this time through, I'm trying to think about possibilities, particularly possibilities of relationships. I'm not at the moment looking for words and connections between words, although if anything leaps out at me I may make note of it. Mostly, the first read is to get into my head what happens when and with whom.

I,i establishes Orsino’s court. Orsino talks about Olivia, but doesn’t mention Malvolio at all. I,ii is Viola shipwrecked. Nothing there for me. I,iii is the first taste of Olivia’s household, and Malvolio doesn’t appear—in fact, reading it with an eye to playing the part, I noticed that he isn’t mentioned at all. When Maria warns Toby, it’s Your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours. No warning about the lady’s steward. Nothing else there for me on first read. I,iv is back with Orsino. Again, Orsino sees no need to alert Cesario (Viola, that is, although I think I’ll try to get used to thinking of her as Cesario) about a peculiar fellow in charge of the household.

I,v is Malvolio’s first scene, but it doesn’t start with him; it starts with Maria warning Feste that Olivia is unhappy with him—again, not that Malvolio is angry, but that Olivia is. When Malvolio finally enters with Olivia, we are 325 lines into the play, about an eighth (I’m using the Folger throughline numbers) of the way in if there’s no cutting. And at that point, he’s just one of Olivia’s attendants and as I’ve been noting, we’ve heard a lot about her, but nothing about him, so this is Olivia’s entrance and only incidentally his. He stands around while Olivia banters with Feste, and then—only when invited—joins the conversation in order to disparage the Fool. Is he usually this quiet, or is this unusually humble? Olivia slaps him down (you are sick of self-love) quickly and then sends him to answer the door like a footman. What’s going on there? Whatever it is, Malvolio takes it quietly. When he comes back, some thirty lines later, he is longwinded again—and hasn’t done the obvious thing of setting the dogs on the importuning lad at the door, or otherwise getting rid of him. Why not? Evidently he wants to send the fellow in rather than away, and seems satisfied that Olivia agrees. Then he goes out again for a hundred and fifty lines, but is near enough to enter at once when Olivia calls. Has he been listening? How does Malvolio feel about Olivia’s endless mourning and the Duke’s suit? Yes, he wants to marry her himself, but he has got to know that’s unlikely—would Olivia marrying the Duke mean the loss of his job or a step up to a ducal estate? How long has Malvolio been running the household, anyway—long enough to remember the old Count, or is he relatively new—that will make a difference in how he looks on Olivia and her erratic behavior. At any rate, when she calls him back in it is to send him after Cesario. Isn’t this task also beneath him? He doesn’t immediately object, in the text. Madam, I will. And off he goes.

So, what have I got? Entrance, exit, entrance, exit, entrance, exit. Two things stand out to me at this point. One, that slap-down from Olivia. Second, that choice to (effectively) bring Cesario in to the house. Are they connected? I suspect so. There’s also clearly earlier antipathy between him and Feste. There’s a line here that will be repeated later (Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged) so that will be important, too. I suppose I need to decide if (for me) this is really one scene or three, to what extent whatever is happening offstage is a big deal. If I call it one scene, it’s clearly the first Olivia Court scene; if it’s three, it’s the Feste fight, the Cesario entrance, and then being sent after him.

The relationships that will be important later are with Feste and Olivia. He clearly has earlier antipathy with Feste, tho’ it’s Maria that seems to be the force behind his comeuppance later. How long have they all been in the household together? Who was there first and who longest? Did any of them know Olivia as a child? All those relationships ought to be set up by the end of this scene, I think, although there’s not much there in the text to work with.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Malvolio Production Diary: getting cast and getting started

So. Having read two very enjoyable production diaries recently, I’m going to attempt to write one this time through. It won’t be a whole book, but, well, we’ll see what happens. I’ll start, at least. The production runs August 12-28, so this should be the work of a summer.

I suppose, having written a bit about the audition already, the next thing to write about is the call: Tuesday late afternoon, I got a call from the director of the play, offering me the part of Malvolio. I let out an involuntary ohmygd as he said it. I am still half-convinced he said Antonio. Also, as is usual for me during this time between being cast and the first read-through, I fully expect to arrive and hear the director say no, I meant the other guy. Still and all, it has happened, I got cast, and immediately felt utterly terrified, so that’s step one. Malvolio! What the hell am I doing with Malvolio?

I was sufficiently panicked to neglect to ask the director any but the most basic logistical questions. I do not, for instance, know how this production will be set in Time and Place. And I didn’t ask whether he is directing a broad and silly comedy or a gloomy and dark one. That is, whether the audience should feel bad for Malvolio or not—there are other aspects to it, but that’s the main one. You can leave Malvolio a figure of fun (and Sir Toby also a figure of fun in a different way) and that’s a totally legit choice and in fact was the obvious and default choice for a very long time. Or you can play up the undeserved torture of Malvolio and the menace of Sir Toby, twisting the audience’s initial sympathies, which has become the last couple of generations’ default. Our director presumably has a choice in mind, but I don’t know what it is. I begin my preparation, then, at sea, which is an excellent metaphor to begin preparation for this show.

Only it wasn’t so much beginning, as I did a fair amout of work before the audition, so once I got the part, I was scarcely starting from scratch. I have often had the leisure of doing that; I don’t remember the last time I got cast in a play without having done a fair amount of research beforehand. For a show like Hearts, that was reading the playscript and a handful of reviews; I didn’t research the specifics of the setting and the historical events in advance. For Shakespeare, it’s a lot more. That’s largely because I really enjoy learning about Shakespeare, and largely because the CUP Shakespeare in Production series is so wonderful. Have I talked about these books before? It looks like I mentioned them when I got the part of Jaques, but I didn’t talk about why they are so wonderful. They have lengthy essays at the beginning, which are quite good, looking at trends in performance over time (and place). The full text of the play is extensively footnoted with specific information about dozens (maybe hundreds) of productions, culled from promptbooks, reviews, films, recordings, pictures, books, memoirs and other records. Cuts and rearrangements to the text are detailed, along with descriptions of sets and blocking, bits of business and characterization. It’s like having a conversation with a bunch of actors and directors and set designers, only less irritating, and easier to get out of bed the next day. If you like Shakespeare, you’d probably enjoy going through one of these books, even if you aren’t preparing for a production (or writing an essay). If you are preparing for a production, they’re invaluable. Unless, I suppose, you’re the sort of actor that gets too tangled up in other people’s interpretations to work on your own. Myself, I’m perfectly happy to read about other people’s productions, and I love looking at pictures of other people’s productions (the Designing Shakespeare Collection is a major time-sink) and I will even listen to audio (the Arkangel productions are wonderful and unabridged, but there are also a lot of bibs and bobs on-line) but I feel very uneasy about watching video. Actors are different one to another, just like real people, and have different sorts of boundaries on this stuff.

Anyway, I do a fair amount of research beforehand, mostly for my own benefit, although if there will be an opportunity to read from sides, I don’t want to be handed anything I can’t at least place into its context in the play. So my first read after getting cast is not really a first read, not even really a first-read-with-an-eye-to-playing-the-damned-thing, but it does come with a sharpening of focus. I’ll write it up in pieces, then, one scene (ish) at a time and post a bunch of them over the next week before the first read-through. Before get to the opening curtain, though, I’ll put the front matter in this note. The title has some information in it, but not really for Malvolio; the alternate title What You Will seems to apply more to the strand of the play that includes him. And, probably, points to a more light-hearted tone, although of course that choice is the director’s. In the character list: Malvolio means something like dislike. Whether he is named for disliking things or being disliked or both will be an important decision, I think. It’s interesting (to YHB) that it’s a serious villain name, not a buffoon name. Sir Toby Belch is given a buffoon name, as is Andrew Aguecheek, but Malvolio is a serious sounding name. More Voldemort than Barty Crouch.

And then to start on the first scene.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 31, 2016

Auditioning

So. Your Humble Blogger went out on another audition yesterday, this time for Twelfth Night. When I saw the audition listed, I immediately thought that I want to play Malvolio—such a great part, and I think (in my arrogant way) that I could be good at getting the laughs, at being ridiculous in cross-gartered yellow stockings, while getting—if not a tear or two, at least a moment of shock and sympathy when he gets such a vicious come-uppance. And to say I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! What a part.

Reading the play more carefully, and thinking carefully about the possibilities of staging, scene by scene and line by line, I became attracted to the part of Sir Toby Belch. A disgusting old drunk, he is the reverse of Malvolio—Sir Toby gets the audience’s love and Malvolio gets their ire, but of course it is Toby who is misbehaving. Malvolio is quite right to ask for quiet in the house of mourning, but we hate him for how he does it. We like that Malvolio gets his come-uppance, but (by the end) we hate Sir Toby for how he does it. I think. They are one of Shakespeare’s great doubles, anyway, and really I want to play them both at once.

At any rate, I went and auditioned, and it seemed to go moderately well. I did my monologue (the Seven Ages) and read a bit of a side (II,v). As I have become used to, the director asked me to do the side again in a different way—for this, he asked me to read it as a buttoned-down man who is conditioned to respond soberly to anything, but is unable to contain his glee at the letter completely. That’s not how I would choose to play the scene, honestly; I think I’d choose to play Malvolio as being as flighty as Sir Toby, just in the other direction. Still the point, I would think, is to see if the auditioner is amenable to direction, capable of change, and has enough imagination to go in the direction he is pushed. Also, I suppose, if the actor is quick to understand the director, or if this is someone who has to be walked through step by step. At least, I hope that’s the idea, because that’s what I tried to get across, and I think I am good at that sort of thing.

What was new to me, though, was the director doing the same thing with my monologue: in this case he asked me to do it again as an exasperated teacher of unruly children. That was more difficult—I honestly question whether it is perhaps a trifle unfair. Unlike a play, where we ought to know the script backwards, forwards and sideways, to the point of being about to roll with whatever happens on the night, we learn our monologues in a kind of bubble. The text, the pacing, the gestures—normally we control all of that. With only two minutes, we don’t expect to adjust much to the audience, and really, we are preparing for three guys at a table going through paperwork and not looking at us at all. Preparing to be as good as we can be under those circumstances. To ask us to change up the character… well, as it happens, having played Jaques in an actual production, I do know that monologue well enough to roll with it, but if I were doing the Coriolanus one, I might not.

Anyway. It seemed to go well, and while as far as I know the director has never seen me in anything, the three people in the room representing the board were the Director and Stage Manager of the production of Noises Off two years ago and a fellow with whom I was in a staged reading of Art the following autumn. So with luck they will tell him I’m a good guy to do a show with, and that I have range greater than it’s possible to show in such an audition. And if not Malvolio or Sir Toby, there’s Andrew Agueface and Orsino, or even Feste if they want him to sing badly, and Antonio isn’t a bad part, actually, with a lot of time to sit backstage and do crosswords betimes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 26, 2016

Play Report: The Call

Your Humble Blogger has been on a bit of a theater binge lately. The latest was The Call, by Tanya Barfield, over at Theaterworks (in Hartford). I had a terrific time, but I didn’t much like the play. Or most of the performances. Or the production.

So. Over the last year or two, most of the plays I’ve been reading have elicited only the response: this isn’t for me. Or I don’t care about this play. Or just meh. And at some point, fairly recently, I began to wonder: what do I like? If I don’t like very many plays, do I not like plays? Or is it that (as happens so often) a particular wave of theatrical concerns or conceits passes me by? There seem to be a lot of plays about unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly: I see no need to be part of that. But what do I like? What do I like about theater? Do I even like theater at all, or do I just like Shakespeare?

After a fair amount of navel-gazing and thought, identifying some plays I do like and some connections between them, I realized that what I like most of all in the theater is storytelling. I like plays that tell stories; I like plays that are about storytelling; I like plays that mess around with the idea of storytelling. I also like words; I like plays that mess around with words; I like playwrights that enjoy words and wordplay. Another thing I like is characters with interesting voices—by voice here I mean the way the character speaks, the rhythm and structure of sentences and speeches, the word choices, the music of the sound. And the other thing that I like, when I read a play, is for it to spark a lot of possibilities, a variety of potential interpretations.

So anyway, The Call is mostly a play of domestic squabbles with some rather mild political/racial whatnot, depicted naturalistically. Not my thing. The rhythms of the dialogue seemed off to me (possibly deliberately, to show the tensions and lack of connection or listening, but I couldn’t tell and it was bugging me, anyway) and I had little sympathy with or interest in the main character. Toward the end of the first act, I began to think about the main question of the play: would the lead in the end choose X or not X? And I thought: I don’t really care. In the second act, though, a character we haven’t heard much from—an Ethiopian immigrant—starts telling the story of the lion’s whisker. And the play began to sing to me.

And just for the duration of that story, I was fascinated. Now, I’m sure that was the work of the actor, Michael Rogers, a veteran actor with tremendous skill, and I really like watching actors use that sort of skill. He shaped the story: the sound of it, the melody, the rhythm, the speed, where the pace changed and changed again. When he was focused on who he was telling the story to, and when he was focused on the story itself. It was also the playwright, of course, and the director, and the actress to whom he was telling the story helped as well. But mostly: for a moment, the play breathed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 6, 2016

Play Report: Richard II

Your Humble Blogger was fortunate enough to catch Richard II at BAM last week, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King and Country season. What a lovely production. I have almost nothing to complain about. Really, it was wonderful.

David Tennant played Richard, and was very, very good. Very moving, very clear. Very funny, in places. There were two moments that will really stick with me—that is to say, that I think will be difficult to put aside to allow for other interpretations. The first is Richard’s sudden silliness in the deposition scene (IV,i) The exchange:

RICHARD: To do what service am I sent for hither?
YORK: To do that office of thine own goodwill which tired majesty did make thee offer: The resignation of thy state and crown to Henry Bolingbroke.
RICHARD: Give me the crown. Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin. On this side my hand, on that side thine.

It’s one of those bits Shakespeare serves up to an actor, little bits of repetition and distraction to interpret as you will. Is the second Here, cousin said after he takes hold of one side and Richard holds the other, thus Here, cousin. On this side my hand…? Or does it indicate a pause, some reluctance on the part of Henry that makes Richard repeat the offer? That’s how I’ve usually seen it played. Here, watch the Fiona Shaw version: the exchange above starts at 1:49.

We can feel the pause, as nobody trusts that Richard has really just handed over the crown. There is a definite moment where he (or rather, Fiona Shaw) has completed the thought: Seize the crown. And then when Henry does not immediately seize it, Richard barely whispers the second Here, cousin, as a nudge—Ms. Shaw is setting up a desperate grab for the crown a couple of lines later. A lovely, tense interpretation, with more than a hint of madness.

I can’t locate a clip on-line of the Derek Jacobi, but he runs the second Here, cousin together with the first, barely giving Henry a chance to respond. He crosses to Henry with the crown on the line, as if to indicate how close here is. A valid interpretation! His Richard is quick, angry, bitter, serious. Still, perhaps, hopeful. In the Hollow Crown version, Ben Wishaw’s Richard smiles through his tears at Rory Kinnear’s suspicious Henry. He says the second Here, cousin gently, placatingly. He is a beaten man, bewildered, ruined, frankly pathetic. Totally different Richards, totally different interpretations, totally different line readings.

The production I saw last week has a clip on-line from their season at home; the exchange starts at 1:29:

It was not quite exactly like that when I saw it in Brooklyn, but close. The slow examination of the crown, then the long arm thrust out to center stage, and the mocking, haughty, contemptuous imperative: Seize the crown. And then that pause. So long, so uncomfortable. Our Henry (a different actor) did not so obviously phumpherate in the throne, but they were all discomfited. This Richard was not broken, did not accept his fate, and while he would, eventually, weep, he would certainly not weep in front of Henry Bolingbroke. He would demonstrate his superiority—a touch of Fiona Shaw’s Richard, there—even as he capitulates. And then: Heeeeee-eeeeee-eeeere, cousin. In our production (in my memory, anyway) it was even more drawn out, more mocking, more obviously like calling a dog to heel. Even less a surrender. It was funny! And a bit scary. And a bit sad. And wonderful. Drawing out the tension, snapping it, drawing it out again. An inventive moment, out of two repeated words of text. Lovely.

The other moment involves the Duke of York; if you watched that exchange above, you might have recognized the actor as that guy from that thing, who was also in that other thing. It’s Oliver Ford Davies, and he was wonderful in Richard II. I forgot how good a part York is—in many ways, R2 is a family play, where all the main characters are closely related, and York becomes the pivot around which the family turns.

I’ll go back a bit. Edward III had eight sons. Three of them died in infancy; we don’t need to worry about them. We’ll also skip Lionel, the second-oldest, who lived long enough to have a daughter whose descendants take over the royal house later, but who died during Edward III’s reign and whose house wasn’t a factor in England at the moment in question. The oldest son was Black Prince Edward: he was E3’s heir but also died before the King; his son is crowned Richard II as a boy. The other three sons become the King’s uncles—they’re beneath the boy king in rank but above him in power and dignity. As Richard grows up, this will cause trouble, yes? Before curtain, the youngest, Gloucester, has attempted to seize power (or perhaps regain control over the now-no-longer-a-child-king Richard) and been defeated and killed. It is unclear who had backed Gloucester against the king, or who murdered him at the (probable) behest of the king, which atmosphere of mistrust is an important part of the background. Gaunt is the oldest: it’s his son, Henry, who deposes Richard. York is the middle one. He is the middliest middle that ever middled. After Gaunt dies, he’s the last one of his generation, the connection not just to the king’s father but to the king’s grandfather, the previous king. York avoids Gloucester’s failed rebellion and distances himself from both Richard and Henry, and manages to somehow survive the transition, even as his son does the opposite, careening between sides at the worst times for each, betraying both and ingratiating himself with neither. You can play York in different ways—his sympathy for and anger with Richard is in the text, but its sincerity is up for question.

Oliver Ford Davies turned it into a mini-tragedy of its own. An aged man, uncomfortable with the young men who must lead the country, used to authority but without political power, sharp enough to see disaster coming but without resources to avert it. And tired. So tired.

The moment of his that really stuck with me was from II,iii, when the rebel army comes to Berkeley Castle, where York, who is for the moment Regent in England whilst Richard is in Ireland, is undefended. York chastises Henry and calls him a traitor, then agrees that Richard has wronged him, and finally, grudgingly, surrenders. It ends with this speech:

Well, well. I see the issue of these arms. I cannot mend it, I must needs confess, because my power is weak and all ill-left. But if I could, by Him that gave me life, I would attach you all and make you stoop unto the sovereign mercy of the King. But since I cannot, be it known unto you I do remain as neuter. So fare you well—unless you please to enter in the castle and there repose you for this night.

There are so many shifts in this short speech. You could play York as a foxy old trimmer, trying this and that way to ingratiate himself with both sides and make enemies of neither. I would probably think to play him like that. But having seen Mr. Ford Davies’ exhausted noble, I’d be tempted to try to imitate him. His impotent baffled rage at a world going to pot is tragic, and then he tops that with really funny line readings and business. So: after his declaration of neutrality, he wants to wash his hands of the business and fare you well. The rebel lords, however, stand in his way. Silently. Hands on hilts. And he pauses, and thinks, and hangs his head and sighs. Then, slumped, he waves them into his redoubt with weary acquiescence and heavy sarcasm: Unless you please to enter… It was funny, and sad, and lovely—and even better, it clarified what was going on. Not just neutral, he has been neutered. All he can do is draw their (and our) attention to the simulation of graciousness with which he capitulates.

I could go on. With praise, not complaint, which says something, for YHB.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 11, 2016

Spring 1841

Yesterday, Your Humble Blogger participated in an event commemorating the 175th anniversary to the Amistad case, in the Old State House in Hartford, where the case was first argued. It was a moving event of speeches, sermons, music and dance, along with two performances: Valerie Tutson gave a "view from the balcony", evoking the life of an African-American woman of that time and place, and I gave a bit of John Quincy Adams’ argument before the Supreme Court. It was a terrific event, very moving— Connecticut has a complicated and challenging history, and people being moved to grapple with it, challenge it back, and fight—not in anger, or least not consumed by anger, but in hope—was inspirational. My own piece was more problematic, I think. Or at least I was aware of it, as a white man impersonating a powerful white man, joining a white Mayor and a white Governor in a room of (mostly) African-Americans, talking about justice. Well, and perhaps it was instructive, at that.

I spoke for about five minutes, almost entirely in the words of JQA. The bulk of it was taken from the Supreme Court argument that was published at the time, with a few bits I added from his diaries. Appearing in character, and briefly, meant that I did not have to deal with the complexities of the man and his time; I spoke forcefully of justice and human emancipation, and then sat down. I did a little research, but not much. And fortunately, nobody asked me penetrating questions afterward, so that was all right.

What struck me, reading the diaries from the beginning of 1841, was something—well, a combination of three things, really—that had nothing, really, to do with the Amistad case at all, but was just… well, interesting to me. So I’ll pass it along to you, in case you find it interesting as well.

If you associate anything in US History with March 1841, it is likely the brief presidency of Willian Henry Harrison, who was sworn in March 4 and died April 4. Mr. Adams writes not very positively ("The coup-d’œil of this day was showy-shabby.") of the inaugural parade, which passed by his house as he was reading materials for the Amistad case. He doesn’t mention the President’s health again until April 2nd, when he alternately calls the news alarming, but then says that the report is that the President is quite out of danger. Two days later, he was dead. I was eleven years old when Reagan was shot and as far as I remember, by the time I heard about it, he was considered certain to recover. President Kennedy’s death of course was a matter of minutes, as were (I believe) FDR’s and Harding’s. William McKinley was the last President to linger and then die. I cannot imagine what it would be like for this country, in our current culture, to have a President in extreme ill-health, likely to (but not certain to) die. Even at the time, it must have been overwhelming—and of course for Mr. Adams, this was a man he knew, and the sheer logistical consequences affected almost everyone he know. Not to mention his own attendance at the funeral, as Ex-President, slotted in the procession between the Acting President and the Justices of the Supreme Court, before which he has just the month before appeared.

Well, the surviving Justices. That’s the second part of this combination: the day after John Quincy Adams began his argument (speaking for four and a half hours), that is, February 25, 1841, he arrived at the court to discover "that Philip P. Barbour, of Virginia, one of the Judges of the Court before whom I had yesterday argued, was found dead in his bed, as if yet asleep, and without the appearance of having suffered a pang." In the conclusion to his argument before the court, Mr. Adams made a brief and sentimental personal statement:

As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall—Cushing—Chase—Washington—Johnson—Livingston—Todd—Where are they? Where is that eloquent statesman and learned lawyer who was my associate counsel in the management of that cause, Robert Goodloe Harper? Where is that brilliant luminary, so long the pride of Maryland and of the American Bar, then my opposing counsel, Luther Martin? Where is the excellent clerk of that day, whose name has been inscribed on the shores of Africa, as a monument of his abhorrence of the African slave-trade, Elias B. Caldwell? Where is the marshal—where are the criers of the Court? Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed? Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone! —Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. From the excellent characters which they sustained in life, so far as I have had the means of knowing, I humbly hope, and fondly trust, that they have gone to receive the rewards of blessedness on high.

The third thing happened a bit earlier, and I’ll just type out from the diary entry of February 18th:

A severe visitation of Providence.

There was an exhibition at a quarter-before eleven, in the front yard of the Capitol, of firing with Colt’s repeating firearm—a new-invented instrument of destruction, for discharging twelve times a musket in as many seconds. I rode to the Capitol with Mr. Smith. We had alighted from the carriage from five to ten minutes, when the firing commenced. My carriage was then going out of the yard; the horses took fright, the carriage was jammed against a messenger’s wagon, overset, the pole and a whipple-tree broken, the harness nearly demolished; the coachman, Jeremy Leary, and the footman, John Causten, precipitated from the box, and Jerry nearly killed on the spot. He was taken into one of the lower rooms of the Capitol, where, as soon as I heard of the disaster, I found him, in excruciating torture. John Causten, a colored man, was taken to the house of his uncle, who lives on the Capitol Hill.

John Adams visited Mr. Causten at his uncle’s and reported him not seriously injured, but Jeremy Leary died the next day. Mr. Adams attended the funeral at the Roman Catholic church (the old man’s rather nasty anti-Catholic sentiment, or his anti-Semitism for that matter, doesn’t appear to have factored in to his relationships with actual Catholics or Jews, as is fairly common) and seems to have been genuinely broken up about the death. He calls him "my poor, humble but excellent friend" and describes "a heart melted with sorrow". While he doesn’t, as far as I can tell, write any further about the unfortunate Mr. Leary, or for that matter the footman Mr. Causten, that isn’t altogether surprising in a diary largely devoted to the matters of public life.

At any rate, it struck me that John Quincy Adams must have felt himself surrounded by mortality that Spring. On the 18th February, his coachman is killed in an accident five minutes after dropping him off; on the 24th, after he spoke for four and a half hours before the Supreme Court, one of the Justices went to bed and never got up; a little more than a month later, a month after inheriting his old office, the President of the United States died. On his 74th birthday, the next summer, he wrote that he could not rationally expect to see another. He did, as it happened, live past 80, but that Spring—what we remember now as the Amistad triumph, for which he is more admired by history than all of his time as legislator, diplomat and President—must have seemed to him very somber and sad.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 17, 2016

Stage report: Romeo and Juliet (Hartford Stage)

Your Humble Blogger was fortunate enough to have a chance to see The Hartford Stage’s production of Romeo and Juliet this past weekend. As always, I enjoy watching Shakespeare productions in part to disagree with the choices. There is always something to disagree with; there is almost always something surprising that I like. Shakespeare, eh?

This production, if you follow the linky thing, proclaims that it was inspired by the Italian neorealist cinema, which I know only a tiny bit about. It worked—within the framework I talked about in 2010 it’s a Something to Do concept, not a Brilliant Idea, but you gotta have Something to Do, don’t you? The cast looked good in their postwar outfits, and there was an excuse to strip Mercutio down to bathing trunks, so that was all right. Unfortunately, as a Darko Trejniak production, I went in with very high expectations for the visuals, and was disappointed. There were a few lovely moments, but the center of the stage was taken up with a sort of marble elevator that raised and lowered for no narrative reason, and I hated it. The balcony in the tomb was also problematic thematically (as was a gate with a padlock that Romeo broke, while Paris and his linkboy came in through the vom, so there was clearly some other unguarded entrance somewhere, but fine) and I disliked the noise of people tramping through the gravel pit. Also, the actual neorealist cinema was not just realist stylistically but in subject matter (that is, it focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, not the grand feuds of the one percent) so it felt to me at odds with R&J on that level.

Still, having all the action of the play overseen by a massive tomb wall was a nice touch, and I absolutely loved Mercutio on a bike. Mercutio on a bike! In fact, that was probably the best part of the whole thing: in his first scene, he circles round and round the stage, irritating his buddies with his restless energy. At his last moments, trying desperately to mount his bike and ride off, irritably pushing his buddies away with a plague! and then coughing up blood and collapsing in a crash, all very very good indeed. And there were some lovely, lovely bits with the lights, particularly when Romeo’s gang are prowling at night and, as they pointed their flashlights at each other, the focus of their attention was suddenly illuminated. I can’t imagine that was all done with the flashlights themselves, but whatever supplemental light came from the big lenses was unobtrusive, so the impression was that it was all thrown from the onstage actors’ torches. And then play with shadows during Queen Mab… really, the lighting was extraordinary, as far as I’m concerned. The sound design, with incidental music underscoring individual moments and one utterly perplexing scene of offstage conversation piped through the speakers, was not.

The real problem with the play (other than that awful marble elevator, I mean) was that the title characters were the least interesting thing onstage. They weren’t bad, in the sense of seeming fake or awkward or ‘stagey’, just not terribly interesting. And, alas, inferior at handling the verse. The actors playing Friar Lawrence and Capulet (Juliet’s father, that is) were really lovely at the verse. The actor playing Capulet was particularly good, appearing natural (or realistic, I suppose) while conveying the sense of some quite difficult lines and keeping the majestic rhythm of the language. Friar Lawrence has to explain the sleeping-potion bit of the plot twice (once beforehand to Juliet, once afterward to the Prince) and kept it interesting both times, which must be a terrible challenge. But their skill with the verse made me realize something about the play that hadn’t occurred to me before: the actors playing Romeo and Juliet have to be persuasively young and yet have the facility with playing verse that comes from long experience. That’s a problem.

Of course, it’s our current generation that demands that our Romeo and our Juliet be convincing teenagers. We focus on the youth of the star-crossed lovers to explain their poor decisions, and I do believe that’s a valuable interpretation, but together with our (waning, I think, but still dominant) adulation of naturalism as a style of acting, it means that our actors may be fresh out of drama school. At drama school, of course, they have a lot of other things to learn than Shakespearean verse, so even those getting a really good grounding in it will not yet have spent the ten thousand hours that (apocryphally) make a master. Our Friar Lawrence and our Capulet each had two dozen or more Shakespeare plays under their belts, and it showed. Our Romeo and our Juliet listed five each, and it showed. Nothing against them, and maybe in twenty years they will be wonderful with the verse, but they aren’t yet.

This was exacerbated somewhat by dreadful blocking choices which largely stranded Juliet in place to give her long poetic monologues without the use of the stage’s width or depth. This was particularly bad in IV,iii, when she imagines herself unrescued and permanently entombed: O, if I wake shall I not be distraught, environèd with all these hideous fears, and madly play with my forefathers’ joints, and pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud, and, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone, as with a club, dash out my desp’rate brains? This bit comes 35 lines or so (depending on cuts) into a longish speech that requires but doesn’t necessarily get close attention. Similarly with Romeo’s speech in V,iii: O, here will I set up my everlasting rest and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh! and so on. They’re wonderful speeches, if the actor can make the verse work, but it’s hard to do that, and it takes more experience than most actors in their twenties have. My own preference would be for actors who have the experience, even if that means that Juliet looks forty, but that’s just me.

I'll also mention that this is the second R&J Your Humble Blogger has seen in the last twelvemonth, and the one I saw in the summer had something I had never seen nor heard of, that worked very well indeed. The Balcony Scene (you know the one) was interrupted twice or thrice by revelers from that dinner party walking through the gardens. There were three advantages to it: first and probably least important, watching Paris drunkenly groping a maidservant is a helpful background to believing that marriage to him might actually be a fate worse than proverbial. Secondly, the interruptions provide an immediate cause for Juliet’s second thoughts (as when she decides that It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, too like the lightning) which keeps her from seeming dithery and ditsy. And most important, it underscores how crazy and irresponsible they are, particularly Romeo, how actually dangerous and exciting and risky the balcony scene is. That tends to get lost in productions, particularly once he starts climbing, as the two can seem enveloped in a dream bubble, untouchable and serene and kinda dull. Particularly if they have trouble with the verse.

Oh, and another thing—why isn’t the Prince at Capulet’s party? He’s not; there’s a list of the people invited, and he’s not on it, and one would expect that if he were there, they would mention it. Still and all, his presence should really work: he would be showing Paris around, Capulet would be trying to impress him, Mercutio would be trying to avoid him… Tybalt’s outburst would be very ill-timed, which would make Capulet’s angry response fit better; in general, it would be a reminder that the Prince is in charge in Verona. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production where he shows up, though. And it’s not as if directors have been particularly cautious about messing around with the text in other ways.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 6, 2016

Cross-casting the day

In honor of Three Kings Day, here’s a question: How well would a gender-swapped Twelfth Night work?

Well. Start with Viola, who I’ll call… not Violo, because that’s terrible. Vincent? Vikram? Vidor? Yeah, let’s go with Vidor, I like that. He’s a young fellow who spends most of the play in drag, because funny, and I think it would actually be funny. He’s got a crush on the Duchess Orsino Organa, who is constantly brooding over the rich and single Count Oliver, and that’s all right. The problem is that when Count Oliver falls for Vidor (in drag as, er, Celeste) and pursues her (well, him) it seems creepy rather than funny. At least, I’m having trouble imagining it being funny and not on some level scary and, well, rapey.

The real problem, though, is Malvolia. Not that Malvolio isn’t already a problem, but Malvolia would be worse. Oh, her first scenes, where she is officious and arrogant, would be great, and I’m not sure that the letter scene (which my Best Reader described with some accuracy as cyber-bullying) wouldn’t work just fine. The cross-garter scene would go from igry to demeaning for everyone, though, and as for the prison-and-fake-exorcism scene, well, the show isn’t a comedy anymore, is it.

I do, however, think that Dame Tori Belch and Lady Angela Agueface would be outstanding, and the ending where Dame Tori marries Marco the handyman would work just fine. It might be good to swap those even in a production that leaves the rest alone, but it might require too much violence to the text. Worth looking at, though.

OK, the point though is obviously the dream cast. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler alternate nights as Dame Tori and Lady Angela, right? Marco is a great part, shouldn’t be too young or conventionally good-looking… James Corden? He’s awfully likable. The Duchess Organa is all broody and moody and dark but still funny, so let’s try Michelle Gomez. Since I have a problem with Count Oliver being a baddie, we have to make him absurdly likable, too, so let’s just put Martin Freeman in the role, and then for Vidor/Celeste I am surprisingly not going to pick Eddie Redmayne but DJ Qualls. He’s too old? Is Freddie Highmore doing anything these days? OK, here’s one from Downton: Michael “illiterate Andy” Fox. What do you think?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 4, 2016

Change, if not quick change.

Eight years ago or so, I wrote a note about the dearth of specfic plays, saying that it was difficult to think of plays (not musicals, not children’s shows, not by Italians) that I would put solidly in the category of speculative fiction. This seemed odd to me, as in other areas (film and television and books and so forth) speculative fiction was clearly very popular, and was actually the dominant genre for the medium. But there it was: I had trouble thinking of five plays that I considered speculative.

This has changed.

I have been noticing it for years, particularly since reading about Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play a couple of years ago. I particularly noticed a couple of weeks ago when both the NYT reviews of new productions in New York (Marjorie Prime and Take Care) had significant speculative elements. In the years’-end best-of column, the Times includes Cuddles and The Nether, both of which appear to have substantial speculative elements, in addition to a steampunk musical.

There are a variety of different things happening with this trend; I don’t think there’s any one obvious change in the landscape that accounts for it. I’m curious if critics and essayists on specfic have been writing about the theater at all; I’m curious if specfic fans even know about all the new plays. It’s quite exciting, from my point of view, because I am interested in both theater and specfic, but that doesn’t mean that either community finds it interesting. Anyway, I just wanted to update my note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 18, 2015

NickNick: Three Roles

Now that NickNick is over, I have had a few people come up to me and tell me that they enjoyed it, which is nice. I wrote—ten years ago??—about how to talk to near-strangers who you have seen in a local production, and that seems to have done some good. My standard response is now Thank you for coming; it’s very kind of you to tell me, which seems to do the job.

I have been ruminating, though, on several people specifically telling me that they were impressed by my playing different roles. And, yes, it’s a nifty trick. I played three roles, with three different voices and three different physical traits (I hope), and it’s nice, I suppose, that people are impressed by that. I like impressing people! And, you know, it’s a trick that I am good at: I played three roles in The Man Who Came to Dinner, two in Pygmalion and eighteen or so in Hearts. It’s fun to do. It’s also easy. Still and all, for LoveTheatreDay, here’s a little note from my point of view about doing the three NickNick roles.

Well, and first of all I’m a technique actor with a certain facility with accents. Vocally, I can usually just slot in an accent for a character: William, the waiter at the Saracen’s Head in Snow Hill: Cockney; Wagstaff, the Shakespearean actor: Upper class English; Brooker, the mysterious stranger: Cornish. I did have to develop the West Country accent, never having played a Cornishman before, but that’s the facility with accents part. I listened to a bunch of recordings of Cornishmen (on the British Library’s Accents and Dialects site, an invaluable resource) and then after marking up my script had only a few questions to ask our dialect coach (I mentioned this was at a performing arts conservatory, yes? We had a dialect coach, a resource the students did not take as full advantage of as might be hoped.) about specific words (the word again was the main one, whether to rhyme with grain or hen but also whether the first syllable would get slurred into the previous word or given weight of its own). Mostly, though, putting on three accents in three different scenes is not much more difficult than putting on one accent. Particularly if the dialogue is well-written for that accent.

Physically, as a technique actor I am used to starting (and sometimes finishing) with exterior attributes: a walk, a gestural style, a costume, a prop. William the Waiter didn’t really come together physically until I got my apron. He was the last of my characters assigned to me, and to be honest the one I worked on the least. In the end, I settled on William keeping his smeary hands in the pockets of his dingy apron as much as possible; when he takes them out, it’s for a purpose (to carry a tray or shift a table, or to usher in or out a customer) and when that is completed, the hands are wiped carefully on the apron and then returned to the pockets.

Wagstaff the Actor is a comic drunk, staggering and falling, with actual staff wagging. The joke of him is that he is an irascible old drunk who plays the virtuous old gentlemen; in the novel, the company also contains a virtuous old gentleman who plays the irascible old drunks. That joke goes away, in the play, and the remaining joke is pretty much that Wagstaff is a drunk. So, staggering and falling, listing to one side as much as possible. His arms go out, with broad gestures, to balance himself. Wagstaff’s hands, at rest, have their palms out (toward the audience), and he gestures from his wrists. He also wears pince-nez, and so has no peripheral vision, requiring him to turn his head entirely toward whatever he looks at.

I am playing Brooker, the mysterious stranger, without glasses at all, which is always a bit of a challenge for me, but I think spectacles would not go with the ragged and shapeless layers of garments and battered hat that indicate Brooker’s homeless poverty. As a result, Brooker makes very few gestures at all, and doesn’t move his feet much, either, which (more or less coincidentally) makes a nice contrast with Wagstaff’s wanderings. He strides quickly, to where he is going, and then plants himself and stays. I also had a tendency to hunch my shoulders a bit under the weight of the layers, and had to remind myself to pull up my neck and jut out my chin: Brooker is aggressive, not defeated, even if he is beaten down by circumstances. For the long speech, I held my hat in my two hands—gesturing a couple of times by thrusting it forward, but otherwise keeping my arms and torso still (I did take a couple of steps in one direction and then back, to draw in the rest of the people in the room; I am now thinking it may have worked better if I hadn’t) as much as is possible for me.

I also grew my hair out and brushed it differently for the three: William the waiter had my usual part on the left, but brushed as flat as possible without Brylcream and back off my forehead; Wagstaff had the same part but loose in waves, and a little loose kiss-curl on the forehead; and Brooker was brushed straight forward over the brow in what (as far as I could tell in advance from the mirror and I think was verified in production photos) looked like a homeless man’s fringe. Assisted, no doubt, by the fact that by the time Brooker takes his hat off, it’s almost three hours into Play Two, and I have been schvitzing like a hydrant.

So: three parts, quite differentiated from each other. I also appeared as a muffin seller and as a toff in a casino, both effectively without lines, and I didn’t worry much about differentiating those. I also gave a few lines of narration in a few places, mostly not ‘in character’ but as one of a team of narrators; I don’t know how that worked into the audience’s experience of me in multiple parts. Perhaps it was confusing, I don’t know; anyone I am liable to chat with about it knew me beforehand and that in itself would tend to make it less confusing. Well, anyway, that’s the playing different roles trick that people seemed to enjoy, and I’m glad they did enjoy it, after all.

But I do have to say that my immediate reaction is to take those people and shake those people and say: Three different roles is an easy trick! Do you know what’s difficult? Playing one role that grows and changes over six hours! But I am good, and thank them for coming, and for their kindness.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 6, 2015

Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant, amateur

So. I am a ‘special guest’ in Nicholas Nickleby; it’s a student production of the Actor Training program of the performing arts conservatory that is part of the institution that employs me. There are twenty students in the cast and ten guests, mostly teachers in various parts of the conservatory, former and current professional performers. There’s one local professional actor; I don’t really know what he’s doing in the cast, but he’s terrific and a great fellow. Then there’s the president of the University and a former president of the University, neither of whom act in their spare time (not counting special appearances at University events such as this one) and who don’t really count. I am the only amateur actor, the only hobbyist.

The twenty students in the cast (and another twenty first-year students in the crew) are planning to go into the business professionally. Of course no more than two or three of them will make a living as performers for very long, because that’s how the business is, but I’m sure that each of the twenty is determined to be one of those two or three, or they wouldn’t be at this conservatory. In fact, I suspect that each of them would be disappointed even to have the career that our professional has had: in his sixties he has had ensemble roles in two Broadway plays, probably with as many as ten speaking lines between them. I’m impressed, but I don’t know that these Young Persons would be. They are young, they imagine themselves as future Benedict Cumberbatches and Kristen Chenoweths, going from one exciting opportunity to the next.

At any rate, I think of my job as a ‘guest’, in addition of course to performing on stage, as being a role model for these twenty-year-old hopefuls. I was at their age much like they are now, only with worse training and no contacts: I wanted to be a professional actor without knowing what that actually meant. Or, rather, not even knowing what that meant for the tiny percentage of hopefuls who make a living at the thing, but only knowing something of what it meant for the tiny percentage of successful professionals who could command enough attention to publish memoirs. Once I learned a bit of it, then heigh-ho, no actor’s life for me, no, thank you, no. Even if everything somehow came up sunshine and daffodils professionally and I were able to work and eat, it’s not a life I want. I did a couple of community theater shows back then, and found them frustratingly unprofessional, and gave the whole thing up. Didn’t do any theater of any kind for ten years. Came back to it, eventually, as an amateur, to do good amateur work (I hope) in good amateur productions. And I have a day job, and a wife and a family and a life, and I am above all a happy man.

Do I sound defensive? Well, that’s fair enough, but all the same: I’m just about the happiest guy I know, and I’m an amateur actor. If my 1990 self saw my 2015 self, he would probably be sorely disappointed, dissatisfied and perplexed, but I hope—I hope—he would at least recognize that this 2015 self is happy, and be pleased by that. And so I am parading myself in front of these Young Persons, twenty years old in 2015 as I was in 1990, in hopes that if they walk away from The Stage when they discover that they can’t, won’t or don’t want to make a living at it, they don’t have to spend ten years away. They can do this thing that we love, and love it, and do good work, and have a day job and be happy people.

I have more advice of course, which I would give if they asked for it. But they wouldn’t listen, and why would they? I shan’t be Polonius for them. I will do my best, on stage and backstage, and at my day job, too, where some of them do occasionally come by, and they will take from that whatever they will.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 2, 2015

Theater Report: My Perfect Mind (part two, actually about the show)

Your Humble Blogger went to New York to see an off-Broadway show this past weekend. It was My Perfect Mind, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I don’t think it was a very good show. It’s hard to tell, because I enjoyed it so much.

Wait, did I do that bit already?

So. The Show. It’s hard to describe.

I’ll start with this: A few years ago, Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke while rehearsing to play King Lear. No Lear. He made a near-complete recovery, learned to write again, speak properly, read and paint and so forth. This theatrical event depicts bits of Mr. Petherbridge’s life and career, his stroke and recovery, his… um, that’s it, really. Well, and King Lear. Lots of King Lear.

Edward Petherbridge plays the Edward Petherbridge character, and also King Lear, or at least plays Edward Petherbridge portraying King Lear, or sometimes he plays King Lear, and sometimes I think he may have been playing King Lear portraying Edward Petherbridge. Paul Hunter plays everybody else. Everybody else in Lear—he plays Gonoril and Regan, he plays Edward Petherbridge’s cleaning lady playing Gonoril and Regan, he plays Cordelia and the Fool, he plays the Lords of Burgundy and France. He plays Edward Petherbridge’s mother, father and brother; he plays the director, the ASM, and a cab driver in New Zealand; he plays Laurence Olivier; he plays Mr. Petherbridge’s agent; he plays a mad scientist; he plays an end-of-pier emcee; he plays the director, the director’s translator and a castmate in a production of The Fantasticks that was a flop of Carriesque proportions—wait, did I do that bit already?

Anyway, the point of bringing up the production of The Fantasticks is that the castmate Paul Hunter plays is, in fact, Paul Hunter and that the two who were thrown together found each other so congenial that they decided to work up a performance together, about Edward Petherbridge’s stroke and recovery, his life and career, and King Lear.

Now, all the reviews I had read, particularly when the thing started out last year in the UK, begin by saying This is an evening about Edward Petherbridge’s stroke and recovery, his life and career, and King Lear—but it’s better than that, really! And it is. For one thing, it’s not a one-man show, so that’s all right. For another, it’s much funnier, in places, than it has any right to be. There’s some physical comedy (not enough), some gentle self-mockery, and a good deal of absurdity. It’s called antic in the press materials, and it probably is, at least intermittently, which is probably enough.

My favorite part, I have to say, starts when a New Zealand cab driver (Paul Hunter, of course) picks him up after the first day of rehearsal for Lear (the actual rehearsal is only pretty-good; the welcoming haka just a gesture rather than the extended bit it could have been) and recognizes him from Royal Hunt of the Sun, leading in to Mr. Petherbridge demonstrating the chant and dance ritual from that 1964 show. The stage is steeply raked left-to-right, for some reason, with a trap door on the upper side, open at that point, and as he chants and gestures he steps uphill closer and closer to the trap door, and as I was giggling, he looked at me and said “It’s all right, I do see the hole, you know.” Then he re-enters the taxi (the driver admires his mime skills, so Mr. Petherbridge takes extra care miming closing the door as he sits), finishes the anecdote and is dropped off in Bradford (his home town in the north of England) in 1936, where he meets (Paul Hunter as) his mother, pregnant with himself.

Mssrs Petherbridge and Hunter

If that all sounds a bit difficult to follow, it is. I followed it all quite well, in large part because I had read his memoir (Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances) and read his blog and already knew much of the history and even the specific anecdotes. There were still moments when, for instance, I couldn’t tell that Paul Hunter was portraying Laurence Olivier portraying Othello; I figured it out eventually. Those in the audience who were unable to match up the sudden scene changes with ones remembered from reading would have been altogether at sea. Why were we suddenly at a talent show on a pier in Wigan (or wherever)? And why should we care?

This may be the most fundamental problem with the thing—sure, it could use some less shambolic organization and further refinement of the scenes would be good in places, but unless you went in already half in love with the man it didn’t give you any particular reason to care about any of it. I mean, yes, very sad that he had a stroke, but here he is in front of us obviously recovered, so where’s the drama? For me, there was the tension of zoh my goodness look it really is Edward Petherbridge right in front of me! but if that reaction is necessary for the show to work, that’s not good.

And also… Mr. Petherbridge doesn’t reveal anything about his relationships to people that he cares about. His wife, for instance, does not appear: we do not participate in a phone call with the news of the stroke, nor does he ask for her, nor does he talk about missing her, either before or after the stroke, half a world away. Nor, for that matter, is there any sense that he was feeling her absence whilst in New York performing the thing (there were occasional references ad lib to being in New York) and I don’t remember him mentioning her at all at any point. I assume she asked him not to, which is fine, of course, albeit a large absence. (Your Humble Blogger has been reminded that she is mentioned in passing in an anecdote about visiting the graves of his ancestors.) He does have a rather poignant moment with his father, who doesn’t speak, and there is a great visual image of Mr. Petherbridge post-stroke walking with the aid of the wall whilst his mother, post-stroke seventy-five years earlier, walks past in the opposite direction with the aid of a chair. But these are moments, not themes. There is little conflict, little dramatic tension, and surprisingly little story-telling. That’s an awful lot of lack for an hour and a half.

And yet, I loved it. There were running gags, terrible jokes, bizarre visuals, poignant moments, and nearly enough showing off. There were also longish passages of King Lear which is a play that has been growing on me as I age, and by now I am quite in love with. I don’t know how good a Lear Mr. Petherbridge would have been—he wasn’t outstanding in the beginning parts when he must be every inch a king, but in the end, fond and foolish and not in his perfect mind, not knowing where he is or what he is wearing, looking at Paul Hunter and saying I think this is my child, it was heart-breaking. As for the storm… well, the storm scene ends with Mr. Petherbridge crying out This is not the production of Lear I want to be in! and the audience agreeing with him.

Well. There it is. As a piece of theater, pretty much terrible; as a performance, pretty much wonderful; as an experience for Your Humble Blogger, pretty much the best. And I should say—I have not gone to any other performances of look-back-on-my-life-and-work, a rapidly increasing subgenre of the monodrama, and I’d be willing to say that every one of those sound inferior to My Perfect Mind in just about every way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 30, 2015

Theater Report: My Perfect Mind (part one, not actually about the show yet)

Your Humble Blogger went to New York to see an off-Broadway show this past weekend. It was My Perfect Mind, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I don’t think it was a very good show. It’s hard to tell, because I enjoyed it so much.

I have to start with Edward Petherbridge, the star and subject of the thing, and that probably means I have to start with the broadcast of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby on Great Performances (I think, definitely PBS) when I was, oh, fourteen or so. I could look all this stuff up, now. I could look up the dates of broadcast and whether it was Great Performances or Masterpiece Theater (now a diminished Masterpiece) or just a PBS presentation. I could find out whether it broadcast in the winter or summer; I have no recollection of that.

I remember watching it, in our TV room, with my mother, and possibly my father, although I don’t know that I remember him watching, or his reaction, and I do not associate the show with the smell of cigarettes, so either he did not watch or he had already given up the smokes. I don’t remember exactly when that happened, either, and although that isn’t on Wikipedia, I could probably figure it out, if I tried hard enough. I don’t want to. I want to have that half-memory, unbound by historical detail. I don’t think historical detail necessarily enhances the memory of falling in love.

What did I fall in love with, back then, more or less the age my daughter is now? The theater, definitely, and its suddenly expanded possibilities. Charles Dickens, maybe, and his preposterously generous, sprawling, profligate, incident-laden stories? Nicholas himself, and his righteous anger. More than anything, probably, I fell in love with Newman Noggs, as portrayed by Edward Petherbridge. Well, in love with the portrayal—not even the character of Noggs, but the style of acting, the technique and facility, the movement, the inventiveness, the surprising line readings, the control… I think, more than anything, I fell in love with the possibility of my being able, someday, to perform in something like that style.

Not that I have achieved that. Nor will I, now, at anything like that level. But I still love the idea of it. If I could be a great actor, I would want to be that kind of great actor. If I have any idea about what kind of great actor that would be. Or how to explain it to you, Gentle Reader.

There are clips, of course. There’s a compilation of Newman Noggs scenes from NickNick. Here’s a clip from Krapp’s Last Tape that shows much of the same inventiveness and control used to a very different purpose. Here’s a… thing of some kind and here’s another. I rather like this bit of a lecture on undulation, too. For no good reason, here’s a photograph of him as Volpone. And what the hell, a photograph of him in the background sitting next to Rory Kinnear, with Ian McKellen and Eleanor Bron in the foreground of The Real Inspector Hound, put on by what was called the McKellen/Petherbridge group of the National Theatre. That must have been a thing, hm?

One more photograph, this one is of Mr. Petherbridge and Paul Hunter, in The Fantasticks a few years ago. Mr. Petherbridge is playing Henry, the tatterdemalion old vagabond actor; Mr. Hunter is playing Mortimer, the One Who Dies.

The Fantasticks

That show was evidently a flop of Carriesque proportions.

Not the point, not the point. The point is that Edward Petherbridge was one of my first and largest acting-crushes, in some sense of that term I just made up. And that production—I’m talking again of the television broadcast of NickNick—inspired a tremendous number of those acting-crushes, on Mr. Petherbridge and Mr. Rees and Mr. Woodvine and Mr. Armstrong, too, and Mr. Peck, I suppose (I do love Bob Peck’s performance, but it’s not one I particularly wish I was capable of giving myself, not my sort of thing at all) and theater tech crushes too, I suppose, on the magnificent staging techniques and so forth. I don’t quite want to say that theater people meet at it as a shrine, like lovers at the bridge of locks, but it is one of those things that make connections between people.

Anyway, Edward Petherbridge put together a sort of theatrical performance that has been touring around the UK (and I think perhaps Spain?) and it came to America for a few weeks, and a Gentle Reader of this blog and I (who shares my feeling for NickNick and Mr. Petherbridge) decided that we would go, dammit. Just buy the tickets, go to New York and see the show! And we did!

But this note is already too long; I’ll talk about the show in the next one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 17, 2015

Playing Hearts

So, having fallen out of the habit of blogging, Your Humble Blogger seems not to have mentioned being cast in an upcoming play. It’s called Hearts, and it goes up at the end of the month and through the first couple of weeks of May.

It’s a crap play. And really, what I mean is, it’s crude and sentimental, it’s easy to see the mechanisms of the manipulation, and it has a variety of flaws in structure, technique and craft. On the other hand, the emotional manipulation probably works, and even if some of the audience will resent being manipulated while feeling the emotions, I suspect that audiences at large eat this shit up with a spoon. Hoping so, anyway. And there are quite a few good things in the play, some lovely scenes, funny moments, and opportunities for theatrical effects. It’s a memory play, where the main character tells the story of his life—his war story, both as a WWII soldier in Europe and the aftereffects over fifty years—to the audience. This sort of thing depends enormously on the likability of the lead actor, and fortunately we have a very likable lead.

And I’m playing eighteen characters.

Well, it depends on how you count, but it’s at least a dozen, even if you are stingy with what counts as a different character. It’s a lot of fun.

My main character is Babe, the main character’s best friend. I play Babe at ages 18, 24, 26, 41, 42, 51 and 71. That counts as one, even though I have to indicate to the audience that every cell in his body gets replaced, like, eight times. Seriously, it’s at least four different voices and three different walks, and it’s more difficult to play all those different characters that are the same person, but still, it counts as one.

The rest range from having a single word (two of them) to having all of sixty words, some of them actually responding to something somebody else says. Ten of them are in the Army, because part of the thing about the Army is that there are a lot of people around, saying things like report to the stockage depot and the CO says to wait for reinforcements and INCOMING! One is a psychiatrist with a facial tic; one is a twenty-year-old encyclopedia salesman. One is both in the army and a childhood friend of the main character: he gets one line, an obscenity in Yiddish. One is an SS captain. Three die. Three are in Buchenwald on liberation day.

I’m doing accents from Boston, Baltimore, Zurich, Tupelo, Leipzig, St. Louis, Zwickau and South Philadelphia. Actually, that’s all bullshit—my Mississippi accent is probably more-or-less Mississippi, but I have no idea if it’s Tupelo; my Swiss accent is a travesty, and I’m doing standard-central-European-Jew, not any particular region, much less town. Even my Baltimore is not even Baltimore so much as white-mid-Atlantic My South Phillie, though, is fabulous. My point, though, is just that I have eighteen different voices, eighteen different rhythms, eighteen different ways to hold my jaw, and maybe ten ways to set my shoulders and heels, since most of my military guys walk the same. It’s a lot of fun.

And the show in general is a lot of fun. The last couple of shows I have done were not very fun for me, for a variety of reasons, so I’m really happy with this one. The script, I still have problems with. The process has been great.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 3, 2014

No. No? No...

Your Humble Blogger has been called back to audition for the role of Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well. Here’s his first entrance, Act I, Scene I.

Parolles:      Save you, fair queen!
Helena:      And you, monarch!
Parolles:      No.
Helena:      And no.

A bit of background: We are in Rousillon, in the palace of the Countess—technically, the palace of the teenage Count. Helena and Parolles both reside in the palace with ambiguous status. They are not aristocrats, nor are they servants. Helena is the daughter of a well-known physician; after he died, the Countess took her in. Parolles is a kind of professional hanger-on, the guest of the young Count. The two clearly know each other well—or at least, Helena knows Parolles well, while Parolles knows her about as well as he knows or cares about anybody other than himself, which is not very much.

As Parolles enters, Helena sees him coming:

One that goes with him [the Count]: I love him for his sake;
And yet I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, solely a coward;
Yet these fixed evils sit so fit in him
That they take place, when virtue’s steely bones
Look bleak i’ the cold wind: withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.

So. Helena thinks that Parolles is a fool, a coward and a liar. The audience ought to accept that right away, and not be surprised to discover that he is also a fop, a pimp and a cad. As far as I can tell from reading the play, much of the point is that the audience knows that Parolles is Bad and that Helena is Good from the very beginning, and the Count only learns it over the course of the play. Anyway, Parolles is obviously a Baddie, and Helena lets the audience know this as he comes onstage. And then:

Parolles:      Save you, fair queen!
Helena:      And you, monarch!
Parolles:      No.
Helena:      And no.

So many possible ways to play this exchange! There’s so much there, and so much left open!

One thing I particularly like about this is the way it pivots the scene from verse to prose—you could argue that Save you, fair queen!/And you, monarch! is a line of verse split between the two speakers, but then No./And no. is clearly not. It breaks the verse off, in those short words, and leaves a space for the prose to begin. Parolles, in fact, speaks in a sort of faux-verse; having played with it some of his language a bit, it seems to me that his rhythms are sixes and fours, limping near-verse. His images, too, are not quite on-the-mark. Parolles is never what he pretends to be, or thinks he is, and one of the things he isn’t, is a courtier—here he is playing court to Helena, who is just a poor orphan charity case at this point, and getting shot down.

Although Helena doesn’t actually cut him completely; she speaks to him, which isn’t necessary at all, and she responds with playful-sounding mockery, giving what she gets. How does he respond to that? Does he feel delighted that she will play with him? Does he feel threatened? Offended? Bewildered? In the ensuing scene he reasserts his mastery with bawdy wit—does he think he has found a partner? Or is he putting her in her place? Does he think of her as One of the Guys, or is she like a little sister to be taunted and excluded? Does he resort to gross-out humor to wrongfoot a wench who doesn’t know her place, or because it’s just funny? Have we come in to the middle of an ongoing sparring match, or is this an unexpected attempt to even the score? All of that has to be either communicated or prepared-for with that “No.”

Parolles has to be fun for the audience—fun to dislike, of course, fun to hold in contempt, but fun. The audience has to be delighted every time he shows up, looking forward to what foolishness he will commit and how he will receive his come-uppance. So I think he has to be fun for Helena, too. Not that she likes him, really, but that he is amusing and non-threatening. That’s not the only way to play it, but that’s my instinct.

Which would imply that his reaction to her sally is positive—he calls her a queen, and she calls him a monarch, and perhaps he laughs, perhaps plays with the idea for a minute—can he make a crown of his fingers and place it on his head? Or do the monarch-wave from an imaginary chariot? Some sort of foolery before turning it over and saying No. An inviting No, a conspiratorial No, a positive and affirmative No. No?

I don’t know. It’s a possibility. I find myself rather hoping to get the part, even if at the moment I have no real idea what I might do with it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 5, 2014

Noises on!

It’s hard to believe that this will be the eleventh Play Playlist List. Or the twelfth. I’m not sure, really, which makes it even harder to believe. When last we met, I was musing on the choices for the Noises Off Mix; I was toying with the structural link: half a dozen songs are Act One, covers of those same songs in the second Act One, and different covers of the same songs in the third Act One. That seemed like a good idea, but not terribly helpful in picking the half-dozen songs, was it?

Then, in screwing around trying to come up with a mix worth of songs about sardines or songs about bags, one of my favorite lines came to mind. This is near the beginning, when Garry is complaining about the incredibly complicated blocking and prop handling. It’s not in the earlier version of the play, where Garry just says something like: “We’re busting our guts up here, Lloyd, and, I mean, you know, Christ!” In this one, Lloyd is pressing Garry to articulate his complaint and he says: “I’m just saying. Words. Doors. Bags. Boxes. Sardines. Us. I’ve made my point?”

So. Words. Doors. Bags. Boxes. Sardines. Us. Six songs. That’s half a dozen songs, right? And enough for Act One of the mix.

  1. Words: The BeeGees, of course, “Words”. I could go with the Beatles’ “The Word”, but that doesn’t seem as funny to me. Also, BeeGees! On the other hand, I’m open for suggestions.
  2. Doors: This is the tough one. I could of course do “Light My Fire” by the Doors. Or I could try to find two covers of “Open the Door, Richard” by Louis Jordan. There are certainly plenty of covers of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, which makes it attractive, but on the other hand, it’s a song about dying, innit? Not sure I want a song about dying on this playlist.
  3. Bags: I’m going with the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”. Aren’t I? I mean, what, P.I.L.’s “Bags”? You think there are two covers of that somewhere worth finding?
  4. Boxes: Well, we were talking about the late Pete Seeger the other day, which leads me of course to “Little Boxes”, which of course has a million billion covers. So we’re probably OK there.
  5. Sardines: Radiohead and “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”. Seriously. There’s a brilliant Punch Brothers cover, and a jazz band version and I have barely started looking. Plus, how many songs are there about sardines?
  6. Us: This turned out to be the hard one. There’s a Sixpence None the Richer song. There’s a Regina Spektor song. There’s a Drake song. I don’t particularly like any of them. And the other us songs that come to mind (“Spies Like Us” “Just the Two of Us”) don’t really work. Sir Paul McCartney has a new song called “Save Us”, but nobody will have covered it yet.

Oops! Update: I asked some old high-school buddies about Us and they came up with Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All”. I’m still looking at covers, but this one has a strong case. Yeah, that’s Mama Cass. And there’s The Housemartins, for the third act. Or maybe Tom Jones doing a medley with the completely appropriate “I Can’t Stand Up (for falling down)”. So that’s all right, d’y’see?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 28, 2014

On the Noises Off

So. One of the things about Noises Off is that while it’s the funniest play ever written, and a lot of fun to perform in, it is in many ways not a very interesting play to produce. There are very few big choices to make—the set, for instance, must be almost exactly as described by the playwright or the action won’t work. That action is set out in detail, and very few particular bits can be significantly changed without tearing apart the fabric of the farce. Even the character choices are constrained more in this play than in most plays I have been involved with a production of, largely because of the play of stereotypes, but also because of the thickness (if you know what I mean) of the gags. This isn’t a drawback of the play, but it is a drawback to writing about the production of the play.

Not that one production can’t be better than another, mind you. Some productions will be funnier simply because the timing is better, the physical gags smoother, the voices and walks and facial expressions more or less risible. I have seen a group of high schoolers put on the show without understanding the dirty jokes—or possibly, it now occurs to me, whilst pretending not to understand the dirty jokes, possibly under orders from the director. At any rate, it was still funny, although not as funny. But my point is that while one production will be better and funnier than another, all the productions will for the most part look and feel the same.

The one big directorial choice, it seems to me, is whether this is a group of talented and professional farceurs who, under better circumstances, would be doing a fine job with, or whether this is a crew of pathetic incompetents reaching their level. Essentially, the choice of incompetence allows for extra gags on a moment-to-moment level, while the choice of competence allows for a greater sympathy for the cast in their disaster, and presumably a farther fall to the third act. I don’t think one is better than the other necessarily, being rather a decision of balance that lies within directorial discretion. Although that discretion might properly depend on the actors and their abilities.

Our director has chosen the competence route. I like it, myself, if only because the last time we went the other way. I like to think that some of the audience will leave feeling at least mildly disappointed that they didn’t get to see an actual production of Nothing On with our cast.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 9, 2013

Noises, or rather Songs Off

So. The question Gentle Readers have been asking themselves, I’m sure, is what will be on the Play Playlist List? It’s an excellent question. I don’t know the answer.

Noises Off is fundamentally a play about the theater. It would be possible, I suppose, to come up with an hour of songs about the theater, but most of them would be showtunes—“There’s No Business Like Show Business” or “I’m the Greatest Star” or “The Glamorous Life” or “I Hope I Get It”. I have been reluctant to do showtunes in a mix for theater folk. Mostly, it’s just that it’s a limited subgenre and the cast is presumably more knowledgeable than I am in it—I like to think that everybody will be surprised and intrigued by at least a couple of tracks.

But thematically, what else is the show about? It’s a comedy; I could do an hour of comic songs. Shudder. My character is (believed to be) a lush; I could do an hour of drinking songs, I suppose. There are dalliances; I could do an hour of songs about flings. There’s a diagnosis of nervous exhaustion. There’s real estate. There are boxes. There are bags. There are doors. There are sardines.

I have done songs from the time-and-place of the show’s setting, but when is this thing set? It used to be set in the present day, back when it opened in 1982; now it’s just sorta set nowishly. Nothing On is certainly not set in 2014—the telephone mouthpiece is attached to the phone by a cord, which is attached by a cord to the wall—but there are no timebound references so it could be pretty much any time from 1950 onward, couldn’t it? Anyway, I don’t think that an hour of songs from 1982 (ish) would work. Although it would be an awesome playlist.

I have had a suggestion that the playlist be structurally, rather than thematically linked. Begin with (let’s say) an Act One of half-a-dozen songs, and then follow it up with Act One, which would repeat the six songs in different recordings, and then finish with Act One, a third (and presumably most shambolic) version of the same six songs. It’s not a bad idea, although I’m not sure it would be listenable as an hour-long playlist, which is always a goal. It’s not the only goal, but it is a goal.

Anyway—what do y’all think? Any bright ideas?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 5, 2013

It begins! And then begins again!

Well, and we’ve started rehearsals for Noises Off. It’s a strange play to begin rehearsals for—the first rehearsal, of course, is a read-through, and reading through this play is not like reading through other plays. There are fifty pages in the middle where dialogue is the titular noises off, that is, heard but not seen. The stuff that the audience is seeing is happening silently, and is thus pretty much ignored by the read-through.

The other thing that’s unusual about a read-through for Noises Off is that it’s the funniest play ever written, and now and then the proceedings come to a halt whilst the actors regain their composure.

What is usual, what’s pretty much the same about a first rehearsal read-through of any production is the murky business of trying to figure out if the production will be any good. I am optimistic about this one. Oh, I’m a little concerned about the accents—we’re doing it with English Accents, which is great for me as I can show off two of them, but tricky for those who don’t have accents in their pockets. And for me, at any rate, weak accents are a huge marker of Bad Theater—it may be totally unfair, but a weak accent just makes me cringe in a way that cheap sets or lighting don’t.

Still and all, we’re weeks and weeks away from the show. Which is the point, really, about that first read-through.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 15, 2013

The Show Will Go On

Not really back yet, but doing a bit of bragging: Your Humble Blogger will be playing Selsdon Mowbray in Noises Off! this February here in the central Connecticut region. There will be further updates as time passes.

It will be an odd experience for me, as I played Selsdon back in my college days. I was twenty years old then. I am forty-four years old now.

Perhaps I will play the part again, in another twenty-three years; I will at that time be around the same age that Douglas Seale was when he originated the part in 1982, and around the same age Karl Johnson was last year in the revival at the Old Vic.

Or perhaps I will play the part a fourth time twenty-three years after that, in the year 2059. After all, while Selsdon is described as in his seventies, the playbill for Nothing On (the play within the play) describes his service in the Artists Rifles in the Great War. I suppose he might conceivably have joined up at fifteen—although I suspect it would be more difficult for a boy lying about his age to join the Artists Rifles than another regiment—which would have made him born in, at the latest, 1903, yes? And thus seventy-nine in 1982, when Noises Off opened. At the absolute youngest. Much more likely to have been nearly ninety.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 22, 2013

NT50, or The Habit of Art

Fifty years ago today, or rather tonight, or more accurately tonight in a different timezone so it was tonight there but still today here, Peter O’Toole played Hamlet in the first performance under the aegis of the National Theatre. Probably not under an actual aegis, not, you know, literally under. Although possibly. They’ve surely done plenty of things under aegides over the last five decades and (according to their website) eight hundred productions. By the way, in that production, directed by Laurence Olivier: Rosemary Harris, Michael Redgrave, Derek Jacobi, Max Adrian, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Your Humble Blogger has been gorging himself on NT50 stuff. The National Histories panel sessions are lovely—a set list of ten questions being asked to two participants at a time (mostly actors, but some writers and directors and so forth) in 45-minute sessions all filmed for YouTubitude. The best part is watching those people who are incapable of answering a question whilst seated. Edward Petherbridge is the most wonderful—seriously, he can’t do it, he tries at one point and cannot. Jim Carter also has to illustrate his remarks physically, and Nancy Carroll manages to be impressively mobile within the confines of her chair. Also it’s fun to catch the resonances and connections—I think Nancy Carroll was the one whose first connection to the National was seeing Guys and Dolls. Imelda Staunton was in the chorus of that show (it was where she met her husband, Jim Carter, who was playing Big Julie, and the story of how he got that part is wonderful), and if I am remembering correctly, the first National show she saw was Olivier’s famous Othello at the Old Vic. Edward Petherbridge was an attendant lord in that production. And so on. For one generation, stories about the National are almost by definition Olivier stories; for another they are something else—The Mysteries stories most likely.

Anyway, the thing about gorging myself on the NT50 stuff (I also watched The Hour, a 30-minute (don’t be fooled) documentary about actors at the National in the hour before curtain and am currently listening to a BBC Radio 4 special and poked around the Google Cultural Institute exhibit and have been looking at pictures and googling names that came up during those interviews I was talking about) is that all that stuff is the stuff that made me think I wanted to be a professional actor. I mean, that is the life. Those dressing rooms! The casts! The dressers! The assistants to the ASMs! The costumes! The rehearsal rooms! The rehearsals! The plays! The playwrights! What I wouldn’t give to be one of those people being interviewed about my years at the National Theatre.

Well, I wouldn’t give up my comfortable life, it turns out, is what I wouldn’t give. And I certainly wouldn’t give up my comfortable life for a crappy life that contains a one-in-a-million shot at the job at the National. And, by the way, even the people who get that job don’t have that life for long. There are a few who get that life or something like it, sure, but those are the exceptions to the exceptions—Lisa Dwyer Hogg to pick a name at random, may become one of those faces seen in everything over years but is more likely to have to go back fairly quickly to the actual life of a working actor, being treated like shit under crappy conditions for next to nothing and lucky to get it, plus of course doing TV Ad voice work to pay the bills.

And yet… this year, now, there she is. At the National. And who knows? Maybe she will become a Julie Walters or a Brenda Blethyn or a Geraldine McEwan. They did, after all. And even if she doesn’t, this year, now, there she is. One in a million.

So while I am enjoying gorging myself on the Olivier stories and the window-banging and the rest of it, I find myself resenting it a little. Or perhaps resenting myself a little—resenting my younger self for having bought into that dream without figuring the cost or the odds, and resenting my middle-aged self for being so damned realistic.

Before I close this note, though, I have to pass along a bit out of Alan Bennett’s play The Habit of Art. It’s the end, as the somewhat shambolic rehearsal of the play-within-the-play is breaking up. The stage manager, the unsung hero of our play and of course the unsung hero of every play, is reassuring the playwright that, well, that it’ll be all right on the night, luvvie.

I worked once or twice with Ronald Eyre. Difficult man and, like all the best directors, an ex-schoolmaster. Ron knew what fear was... he’d worked at the RSC and he was here not long after it opened. The opening was, of course, disastrous. Ron said they should have moved out straight away, gone back to the Old Vic and rented the place out, made the Olivier into a skating rink, the Cottesloe a billiard hall and the Lyttleton boxing. Then after twenty-odd years of ordinary unpretentious entertainment, when it’s shabby and run-down and been purged of culture, and all the pretension had long since been beaten out of it, then with no fanfare at all they should sneak back with the occasional play and nobody need be frightened anymore.

Except of course the actors.

He was wrong, though, Ron. Because what’s knocked down the corners off the place, taken the shine off it and made it dingy and unintimidating--are plays. Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten--but plays persistent. Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art.

Fifty years is quite a habit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 8, 2013

Hours or Whores

Your Humble Blogger came across this Open University video recently courtesy of David Beaver over at the Language Log. I have some issues with it—quite a lot of issues, actually, taken as a video. For instance, the video gives the effect that David Crystal believes that there was One Original Pronunciation, as if there were no regional or class accents in Shakespeare’s day. Which is really obviously not true, as people make fun of each other’s accents in the plays. I don’t think that’s what the scholar actually thinks, mind you, but that’s the impression one would get from these ten minutes.

I am, however, unsure whether the Crystals (father and son) feel that performing in O.P. in 2013 is one possible interesting option—which is true and undeniable—or if it is The Superior Way. Which, in my opinion, not so much. I would like to attend such a production at one point, and would like (I think) to take part in such a production, but as experiments. In the video, by the way, they say that it’s a misconception that the O.P. Way makes it difficult for the audience to follow the words, but they don’t talk to any audience members about that. In fact, they only people they talk to are the Crystals, who have the text memorized, pretty much, so.

They do give an interesting example, and it’s from a Jaques line in As You Like It, so it caught my attention. Also: dick joke. It’s only sort-of a Jaques line, as he is quoting Touchstone; in the production I was in this past spring, they took the line away from me and gave it back to Touchstone, which worked rather well. I think. Anyway, for those who don’t want to watch the ten-minute video, it’s from II.vii:

“It is ten o’clock; Thus we may see,” quoth he, “how the world wags; ’Tis but an hour ago since it was nine; And after one hour more ’twill be eleven; And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.”

The observation is that in 1600 or so, the word hour would have been pronounced more or less oor, identically to the word whore. Thus it’s more obvious that when Touchstone talks about rotting, he’s talking about venereal disease, and more obvious that the whole thing is a dick joke. On the other hand, even if a performer were to use the O.P. of hour, I don’t know how an audience member would know the O.P. of whore, or know it well enough to make the connection quickly on one hearing.

Nor do you really need the hour/whore pun to make the joke work—Ben Crystal gives a bad Received Pronunciation presentation of the joke, but of course there can be good ones as well. If I were doing it, myself, I would play up the hands of the clock—it was nine, arm straight out, soon it will be eleven, arm up. Then bring the arm back in for the world-wagging so you can start it at nine again for ripe and ripe—the erection of your hour hand can be accompanied by a pelvic thrust, if the audience doesn’t seem to get the point—and then the hand droops from twelve to three on rot and rot and then is completely limp and detumescent as the tail hangs. I think the visual pun of the clock’s rising and setting hand works better to explicate the hour/whore pun than actually using the O.P., with which the audience presumably is altogether unfamiliar.

This brings up another problem with the video, and this one I suspect really is a problem I have with the Crystal’s attitude. They seem to be saying that people don’t really get Shakespeare, the sonnets or the plays, unless they get them in the Original Pronunciation. Empirical observation, though, seems to indicate that lots of people enjoy and are moved by the plays and poems in Received Pronunciation, in American Stage Standard, in broad Yorkshire, in Southern Drawl, and even in translation. Are those people wrong? Do they fail to understand that they are failing to understand properly? Is their experience not, you know, central to their experience? I don’t like any discussion of Shakespeare in performance—any discussion of any playscript in performance, actually—that doesn’t put the audience in the center of things. I don’t find it persuasive, not because I don’t believe in their linguistic evidence, but because their dismissal of the evidence of the audience makes me very skeptical that they are judging their other evidence fairly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 20, 2013

Another Audition Monologue, part the fifth

So. I went to the audition, and I gave my monologues, and it was OK.

The monologues went OK, I mean. The experience is deeply lousy—those rooms filled with anxious actors waiting for their two minute slots, those rooms filled with fear and petty envy and calculation and insecurity and arrogance and desperation, those rooms filled with the misery of knowing that most of the people in the room are not going to get a part… how I loathe those rooms. How I loathe them.

This particular loathsome room was far from the worst. Part of that is that the theater itself is only a few blocks from YHB’s house; I didn’t have a half-hour drive’s worth of anticipation and a half-hour’s drive of recollection. Part of that is that I have been in two shows in that space; I am familiar with the layout—and I suppose I didn’t have the hunt for the location or for parking that can wind up an already tightly-wound actor just a bit more. Part of it is that it was reasonably well-run, only fifteen minutes or so behind schedule. Part of it is that I am not a professional; I am not dependent on the money this job would pay, or on using it to get an Equity card, or on keeping in enough work to qualify for the Equity group health plan. No, I don’t really need this job. I would like it—I have talked myself into really wanting to play Brabantio, and if I don’t get the part I will be profoundly disappointed, but I will also be freed up to audition for other, non-professional, plays this year.

Still, once you are in those rooms, those rooms with their atmosphere of competition and fear, it’s difficult to avoid breathing it in, taking it into my mood—I’m imagining one of those terrible Doctor Who plots where somebody inhales the green glowy special-effect smoke with the alien spores. OK, not a good image. Still. I loathe those rooms.

The actual audition, when they let me out of that room and into the theater itself, went OK. I didn’t dry, and if I screwed up a few words here or there, it didn’t throw me off. My big risk—I didn’t talk about this, but I was considering spitting on the ground after such a thing as thou or whether it would seem too affected without an actual Othello present, and not having come to a decision beforehand, I wound up doing it—seemed to work out all right, with an apparently positive response from the fellows in the seats. I started out the second side too loud, from nerves I suppose, and wound up declaiming the apprehend and do attach thee a bit more, you know, declamatory than I really wanted to. And afterward I realized that I had not worked sufficiently on making my years sound in my voice—I think I look my age but don’t usually sound my age, and sounding young would presumably work against me for this particular role.

Digression: I happened to see a tiny clip of the courtroom scene in Love Among the Ruins, filmed in 1975 when Laurence Olivier was a mere lad of 68 or so. He sounds forty. This is actually a tiny bit of a problem, since the character is supposed to be old and superannuated, but if I remember correctly (and my recollection of the film is vague at best), he acts older when not in wig and gown, recovering some youthfulness from his task. Anyway, it was noticeable to me, as I was thinking about not playing Brabantio old enough, that the venerable stage actor might himself not have been playing old enough for his role in that film. End Digression.

After I finished the second side, they thanked me, shook my hand again, and ushered me out. I asked the fellow out in the room (have I mentioned how much I loathe those rooms?) when they would be in touch, and he said Wednesday. And then I went home.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 15, 2013

Another Audition Monologue, part the fourth

So. I am working on memorizing the two sides for Brabantio, and preparing them for the audition in three days’ time. The first is the short one, the lovely little monologue with all the changes in audience and manner.

God be wi’ you! I have done. Please it your grace, on to the state-affairs: I had rather to adopt a child than get it. Come hither, Moor: I here do give thee with all my heart that which, but thou hast already, with all my heart I would keep from thee. For your sake, jewel, I am glad at soul I have no other child: for thy escape would teach me tyranny, to hang clogs on them. I have done, my lord.

I am finding this quite easy to remember. Only a very few lines, of course, which is bound to be easy, but also there isn’t much here that is tricky. It’s six bits, and each bit is straightforward and leads into the next bit—well, it doesn’t lead into the next bit, but they are in a kind of natural order: Starting with Desdemona, then the false finish to the Duke, then the break, then the Groom and the Bride, and then the real finish to the Duke.

The second side is more difficult for me:

O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter? Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her; For I’ll refer me to all things of sense, if she in chains of magic were not bound, whether a maid so tender, fair and happy, so opposite to marriage that she shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation, would ever have to incur a general mock, run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou, to fear not to delight. Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense that thou hast practiced on her with foul charms, abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals that weaken motion: I’ll have’t disputed on; ’tis probable and palpable to thinking. I therefore apprehend and do attach thee for an abuser of the world, a practiser of arts inhibited and out of warrant. Lay hold upon him: if he do resist, subdue him at his peril.

For one thing, of course, it’s twice as long. But for another, the breaks are not as clean: it’s all one piece. That’s probably where thinking about it as verse would help. If For I’ll refer me to all things of sense serves much the same purpose as Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense and not altogether different from I’ll have’t disputed on; ’tis probable and palpable to thinking, they occupy a different number of feet. On the other hand, the lines so opposite to marriage that she shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation drop out of the verse very nicely, leaving whether a maid so tender, fair and happy would ever have… , which reads very smoothly. Of course, I adore that line—wealthy curled darlings is so lovely—so I hope I will remember to stick it in somewhere. The right place, though, would be best.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 13, 2013

Another Audition Monologue, part the third

The Second Side of Brabantio:

O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter? Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her; For I’ll refer me to all things of sense, if she in chains of magic were not bound, whether a maid so tender, fair and happy, so opposite to marriage that she shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation, would ever have to incur a general mock, run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou, to fear not to delight. Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense that thou hast practiced on her with foul charms, abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals that weaken motion: I’ll have’t disputed on; ’tis probable and palpable to thinking. I therefore apprehend and do attach thee for an abuser of the world, a practiser of arts inhibited and out of warrant. Lay hold upon him: if he do resist, subdue him at his peril.

This is a much simpler bit: it is all directly to Othello—well, I say that, but it is all a public utterance directed to Othello but largely performed for the others. Brabantio isn’t so much looking for any specific response from Othello, but a response from the people he has brought with him, as well as Othello’s men. It appears to be written as a crowd scene—Othello begins the scene with Iago and other attendants and is joined by Cassio and some other officers, and then is met by a “troop” of officers led by Brabantio and Roderigo. They draw on both sides and we are poised for a pitched battle, when Othello says Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. Lovely.

Digression: Have I ever mentioned my Willie Mays in Spring Training story? I guess I haven’t. It was just after they lifted the ban, so I was 16, I suppose, and while he hadn’t actually been banned that long, it seemed like he had been absent for quite a while. Anyway, he was some sort of special instructor for the Giants—his job was to hang around and be Willie Mays, you know? Anyway, they’re playing a spring training game and some guy is sliding into second with his spikes up, and what with one thing and another, there is a rhubarb that turns into a ruckus, the benches empty. Pushing, shoving—all of this during spring training, right? So there’s, like, forty guys on each bench to begin with. Anyway, there’s this massive scrum on the field around second base, and then suddenly it just… stops. Everybody seems to stop all at once, and there, just off the bag at second, is Willie Mays, just standing there, with those enormous palms out and down. And everybody backs away, kinda sheepish-like, and goes back to where they were. That’s how I would stage this scene, if I had the money and the space. End Digression.

Well, and Brabantio is speaking to Othello, but in fact trying to rile up the crowd for a lynching. The problem, then, for an audition monologue is that I don’t have a crowd to rile up—or, perhaps better, to fail to rile up. I will have nothing to play back against. It being a much simpler bit means that if I want to show off my skills using it, I have to think a little harder.

What I am concentrating on, with this one, is the pitch and volume build-ups: we start up the ladder with the reasonably phrased thou hast enchanted her, up to all things of sense, up to chains of magic. A breath and down to the bottom with a quiet maid so tender, going only small half-steps up to shunned, darlings and our. Slide the pitch all the way down during would ever have and hold that pitch but bring the volume up until mock before a quick scale up to thou, and then either keep the pitch at the level or go slowly down low again (I’ll have to hear myself on it a few times) on fear and delight. Start again, but keep it slow and at a medium volume: judge me the world up to gross in sense, up half a step to practiced on her, another half to abused… my instinct is to break it, there. When it comes to actually explaining the details, he’s got nothing. So: drugs, orrrrrrrrr, minerals that weaken motion? Then he gets himself back together, down in pitch to begin the last rhythmic, emphatic trip up the ladder: disputed, probable, palpableapprehend, attach, abuserpracticer, inhibited, out of warrant. And then at the top: Lay hold!

That is, let’s see: five climbs? That’s a lot. Two of them are half-ladders, though, and there are two quick ones and one slow one. Hm. I’ll have to record this and see how it sounds. More later.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 9, 2013

Another Audition Monologue, part the second

So, the first side I am preparing for my Othello audition: Brabantio’s heartbreak:

God be wi’ you! I have done. Please it your grace, on to the state-affairs: I had rather to adopt a child than get it. Come hither, Moor: I here do give thee with all my heart that which, but thou hast already, with all my heart I would keep from thee. For your sake, jewel, I am glad at soul I have no other child: for thy escape would teach me tyranny, to hang clogs on them. I have done, my lord.

So what I love about these lines is the amazing variety. Let me break it down for myself:

God be wi’ you! Is this to Desdemona? I think it is. It’s that sort of greeting-parting thing to say, and I think he’s dismissing her, saying, in our modern pronunciation: Goodbye. What is he wanting from her? Shock and regret, surely. A return? No, I don’t think so at this point. Just a confirmation that he can still hurt her as she has hurt him.

I have done. If that’s right, then this is a continuation of the first: Goodbye, ex-daughter, I am all done with you. Alternately, it’s a more simple statement that he is done with the accusation against Othello: he is also giving up the hope that they can be unmarried. In that case, who is it addressed to? Not to Desdemona, presumably. To Othello? To the Duke? I think probably Othello, if that’s the interpretation.

Please it your grace, on to the state-affairs Obviously this is addressed to the Duke; if we accept the second interpretation it falls naturally after his withdrawing the suit-at-law. If I stick with the earlier interpretation, then it’s a complete change: I am done with being a father to you, I am turning my back on you and attending to business. In either case, of course, it’s a sham—he can’t do it, not yet…

I had rather to adopt a child than get it. …because he turns back from business to fatheration; another stab at Desdemona (who presumably has not sufficiently indicated pain yet) although it is notionally addressed to the Duke or perhaps even to one of the other fellows circumjacent, which further emphasize his inability to keep up his pose.

Come hither, Moor: I here do give thee with all my heart Hm. It would be effective if Othello is not directly addressed at all until this point. At any rate, it’s another attempt to put an end to the fathering part. He is saying that he now puts his whole heart into thrusting away his ex-daughter, but of course he’s also simply making a conventional father-in-law insincerity.

that which, but thou hast already, with all my heart I would keep from thee. And he can’t finish it, can’t maintain the pose.

For your sake, jewel, He turns again to Desdemona. Is he calling her a pet name out of cruelty here? Or is it his own weakness? Or—far more devastating if one could get away with it—does he not even realize that he is using his usual endearment until it is out of his mouth?

I am glad at soul I have no other child: for thy escape would teach me tyranny, to hang clogs on them. Another stab at the ex-daughter. Clearly addressed to her. An interesting thing about this line is how weakly it ends. Hang clogs on them? I mean, no, we’re not talking about shoes, but still, he is only imagining slowing them down, not, f’r’ex, locking them in the tall tower. His imagined vengeance doesn’t go as far as violence—he still husbands his imaginary daughters, rather than punishing them.

I have done, my lord. And now he really is done. Exhausted. Broken. He’ll die, soon, pure grief shore his old thread in twain. He is turning the scene over to the Duke with this line, and the Duke’s half-hearted attempt to bring him back to life and interest does not succeed.

So. Six changes of address in ten lines of verse, there are a couple of changes of direction within those. It’s pretty fucking awesome as a monologue, is what I’m saying.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 8, 2013

Another Audition Monologue, part the first

Your Humble Blogger will be auditioning for yet another Shakespeare play, this time The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. I enjoyed writing about the Audition Monologue process a couple of years ago, so I thought I would write about this one, too. It’s different this time: instead of the actors choosing monologues (which I believe is still the standard), they are having us prepare sides of our own characters’ lines. I am reading for Brabantio, so they sent me a sheet with sides, and said We also ask that you prepare the side to the best of your ability. So that’s my job, now.

Brabantio, by the way, is Desdemona’s father. It’s a nice, small, juicy role with a few big scenes in the first act, and then a couple of hours in the green room with earbuds and a crossword puzzle. I may be too young for it—if they have a very young Desdemona (which is how it is written, after all) then having a Brabantio who is in the prime of life (stop snickering) will emphasize her youth. If they have an actress for Desdemona who is not so youthful as all that, they will want a greybeard for Brabantio and I am out of luck. Ah, well. Almost all the other characters are in their twenties or early thirties, though. Unless, you know, they aren’t. Depends on how it’s cast, innit?

Anyway, the two sides they gave me are lovely: the first is from right after we meet Desdemona. I have accused Othello in front of the Duke of using witchcraft or drugs to seduce Desdemona, and when she is brought in (all unbeknownst like) she calls Othello her husband and shows affection for him. I say:

God be wi’ you! I have done. Please it your grace, on to the state-affairs: I had rather to adopt a child than get it. Come hither, Moor: I here give thee with all my heart that which, but thou hast already, with all my heart I would keep from thee. For your sake, jewel, I am glad at soul I have no other child: for thy escape would teach me tyranny, to hang clogs on them. I have done, my lord.

The one labeled #2 is actually from earlier in the play: Brabantio has discovered that his daughter is missing, is told that she is sleeping with Othello, and braves the soldier in his home:

O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter? Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her; For I’ll refer me to all things of sense, if she in chains of magic were not bound, whether a maid so tender, fair and happy, so opposite to marriage that she shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation, would ever have to incur a general mock, run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou, to fear not to delight. Judge me the world, if ’tis not gross in sense that thou hast practiced on her with foul charms, abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals that weaken motion: I’ll have’t disputed on; ’tis probable and palpable to thinking. I therefore apprehend and do attach thee for an abuser of the world, a practiser of arts inhibited and out of warrant. Lay hold upon him: if he do resist, subdue him at his peril.

I am using the punctuation they gave me, but have (as is my wont) laid it out as if it were prose, rather than verse. There is an issue there (for my memorization) with the short line in the middle of the first one, but I think the chop of Come hither Moor is obvious enough without the line break.

Anyway—are they not great? That first bit has half-a-dozen different changes in it, pace and goal and audience and emotion. I’m really looking forward to it. The second is just a lovely rant—an excellent challenge for speaking vehemently and clearly, at speed but communicating the sense. I am hoping to write about them in detail over the next week as I am prepping them for the audition.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 6, 2013

Words, words, words.

So. Your Humble Blogger is appearing in a short (10-minute) play as part of a night of one-act plays written by a local fellow. My role is that of an upper-crust galley slave, which is funny in itself, innit? And the piece is really well-done: the premise is excellent, the pacing works, it builds to a conclusion, and on the way there are lots of funny bits which are, in my arrogant opinion, funny. So that’s all right, d’ye’see?

The problem is that in many places, the actual words and sentences aren’t quite perfect. They aren’t terrible—there aren’t any clunkers or infelicities that I think will jar an audience member out of the scene. It’s just that there are a bunch of places where a slight difference in the phrasing would be a little… well… a little better. I and I find that it’s very difficult for me to memorize the lines the way they were written, rather than the way I think they ought to have been written. Have I written before about how much easier it is to memorize well-written lines?

As an example: Oh, don’t worry about me! I’ve worked with all kinds of different types. Nothing wrong with that, is there? Only I keep saying I’ve worked with all sorts instead. And I do think that all sorts is better than all kinds of different types. Not much better, but better. Similarly, there’s a spot where I want to say ripped and the script says tore, a That’s wonderful to hear that comes out I’m so glad to hear that, and I want to say I was onboard instead of just saying I was there. And so on and so forth. I have thirty-seven lines (my character is comically garrulous) and there are, oh, more than a dozen such bumps in the proverbial.

Our author is a nice fellow with no more than the requisite amount of ego. He has taken wording suggestions very well, in the small handful of places we have made them during our rehearsals. What’s more, he has indicated that he won’t be too upset if we make a slip or two in the words of the thing. Still and all, I want to read what the writer has written—not only because it’s still possible that, you know, I am wrong and he is right, but also because it’s the premiere of the thing, the first time the man will hear it in front of an audience, and I would think that it would be better for him to hear the dialogue as he is written it, and if I am right, he will hear that, and if I am wrong, he will hear that, too.

Still. It’s a struggle to memorize them that way. And while that’s certainly not the main distinction between good writing and bad, it’s illuminating to me, as my Best Reader and I are working on writing something of our own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 3, 2013

A view from one community to another

There has been a recent spate of women writing about having been harassed at sf conventions. If you haven’t been aware of it, you could perhaps start with Elise Matthesen’s essay (posted various places) and then read Carrie Cuinn’s note Please stop touching my breasts, and other things I say at cons. There have been several others worth reading as well. And, of course, this is far from the first time that the topic has been written about—I am not really a member of the community, and I believe I recall three different waves of discussion about Making Conventions Safe Places. Look, I wrote about it myself in 2006! So it’s not like this is news, as such.

It occurred to me, though, that back during racefail09 I took some of the Stuff in the specfic community and tried to apply it to the community theater world. And… let’s just say sexual harassment is a huge issue in the community theater world. The theater world generally, of course—professionals and schools and amateurs and everywhere. And while the specifics of the incidents Ms. Cuinn describes are beyond what I’ve personally witnessed at a rehearsal space or cast party, they… aren’t that far beyond. And I think it’s fair to assume that there are incidents I haven’t witnessed that are far beyond those I have.

And, of course, there’s this—in the last few fully-staged productions I was in, there were three bits where the big laugh came from a male character coming into contact with the female characters bosom, which were accomplished by the male actor actually coming into contact with the female actor’s actual bosom. The actresses did not object—did not voice objection where I could hear nor indicate discomfort with the whole thing. In fact, they all indicated a certain confidence and pride in the whole business. Which is great! Only we must reflect that (a) these were all talented actresses, and (2) the incentives were for them to indicate confidence and pride whether confidence and pride were real (vaddevah dat means) or not. Which is not to say they weren’t OK with it! I think they were! Probably! Yeah!

And I feel super-delicate about all of that, because I want to totally and completely support their OK-ness with it, and also totally and completely support their not-OK-ness, if they aren’t OK. I think that fundamentally this whole thing is about consent. All three of the actresses consented—but of course they consented in a situation where both the norms of the community and the incentives of future parts in plays (not to mention the other incentives of, you know, getting a big laugh) are pressuring consent. And the history of theater is just chock-full of stories where women consent to stuff they aren’t really consenting to because they feel they have no real choice. Were this individual cases part of that horrible history, or were they part of the other story, the one of women feeling empowered to use their own bodies for their own purposes?

…I’m pretty sure it’s the good one. Pretty sure.

Which gets me to my actual point. Did you know I had an actual point? Here it is: the specfic con-going community, and the wider specfic community, have this thing that’s like an actual community, where people talk to one another, argue with one another, listen to one another, and generally create community together. And within that community—I’m willing to say at the heart of it, because it appears that way from the outside—are a whole bunch of women who write really, really well. Who are, in fact, professional writers. Writers and editors and illustrators and so forth. And who have written a whole bunch of great, great essays (and comments and tweets and tumblrs and gifs) on this topic. And those things are being spread around, argued with, refined, clarified, extolled, criticized, shared, linked, retweeted, digged, starred, all that crazy community stuff.

Community theater has nothing like that.

I would guess that none of the three actresses in the incidents I’m talking about—don’t get me wrong; I am not criticizing them. They are all readers, they are all active on the internet, they are all smart women with an understanding of women’s issues, all women I have had great conversations with. And I’m pretty sure none of them have written essays about their experiences with sexual harassment in community theaters. Never even considered it. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure none of them read any blogs dedicated to the experiences of community theater. I don’t. I don’t even know of any, not that are regularly updated. These women (and men, such as YHB) are existing in a space without that written backup support. Yes, there’s gossip and sharing and so forth, and that’s all great as far as it goes, but the con-going community has been seeing that as far as it goes isn’t far enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 17, 2013

Funny/Not Funny

So in As You Like It there’s a bit where Rosalind is pestering Celia for information about Orlando and then not letter her get a word in edgewise when she attempts to actually talk. Celia complains about her interruption. Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede, remember) says Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.

Through the first weekend, this line does not get a laugh. The director has given her a note, which she has tried, and nothing. So she comes backstage and asks us: why am I not getting a laugh with this line? I told her the problem is that she is not saying the line in 1974, which was the last time it might have been funny. Our Fool, more helpfully, tells her to draw out the pause between the phrases. She does this, and she gets a laugh at each of the remaining performances, often a huge laugh.

And I am bothering telling you so because this sort of women never shut up amirite joke is something that I just find Not Funny. Not Funny at all. There are a lot of jokes in AYLI about gender roles, and how people respond to crossed-up gender expectations, and a lot of those jokes are really funny—but not that one. Not to me, at any rate. And one of the things I have found that sort of lurks around the edges of the various misogynist nastinesses that have been turning up in fandom recently is the women never shut up amirite joke (and to a lesser extent the men! amirite? joke), and it is still not funny.

I lucked in to some tickets for the local professional production of Twelfth Night, to which I took my daughter this weekend, and it occurred to me that the production took very few opportunities to make gender expectation jokes. Yes, there were bits about the very masculine Orsino among his buddies, particularly getting a rub-down from the supposedly-male Viola/Cesario, but those were jokes about Orsino, not Viola. One production I saw (in Golden Gate Park in 1993) had Viola/Cesario chucking herself under her chin whenever she wanted to assert her male-ness; an odd gesture, and one I didn’t previously associate with the performance of machismo, but after a few repetitions we all got it, and it got funnier through the rest of the show. In this one, Viola pasted on a moustache and wore trousers, but didn’t spit or scratch or grunt or otherwise indicate guy-ness and masculinity at all.

Another Swat Digression: Darko Tresnjak directed the production we saw last week, and in the program mentions having played Orsino in college. Did any of y’all GRs happen to see that? Or be in it? I know some of you overlapped with him more than I did, and I don’t remember whether any of you were in any of the shows he directed there. I only saw The Visit and House of Blue Leaves, and The Skin of Our Teeth on video, I think, and I have no recollection of who was in any of them. I’d be curious to know what his classmates thought of him and his shows at the time. End Digression.

So I felt in the one production that I was missing some gender play, jokes based on our expectations of gender performance. And in the other production (that I was in) I was grouchy about the gender stereotype joke that was there. So is it that I’m just a gripey sort of person? Probably that’s a good deal of it. Probably a lot. Some of though, is a difference between reinforcing our gender expectations and blowing them up. A garrulous person-in-male-clothing claiming that she is garrulous because she is actually female is reinforcing our gender expectation, not subverting it—and in truth nearly everything onstage, in that show and most others, reinforces our gender expectation. And that isn’t funny at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 14, 2013

In Loco Parentis, or The Shakespeare Talk

I haven’t been writing about As You Like It—the rehearsal process was not a good experience for me—but I did want to pass along something that happened yesterday. You see, I brought my Perfect Non-Reader and a friend of hers along to the matinee. This is the PN-R’s third Shakespeare comedy, which isn’t too bad for an eleven-year-old. The first was Midsummer and the second was Twelfth Night, and then this one the third. I think this was probably her friend’s first Shakespeare. I can’t be sure, of course, but I think so.

Anyway, they both seemed to enjoy it, but were vague on specifics: they didn’t say they liked any particular aspect of it particularly. This may have been an attempt at tact (an unwillingness to tell me that their favorite bits were not those with me in them) or more likely one instance of the more general tween uncommunicativeness. At any rate, on the drive home, they talked about other things. And I realized, afterward, that I didn’t talk to my PN-R’s friend about Love and Shakespeare.

I gave my daughter the talk after Twelfth Night, because she said that the fellow playing Orsino had done a great job of playing somebody who was in love—meaning with Olivia, at the beginning, with the sighing and the poetry and the leaping of all civil bounds. And I said: Orsino sure thinks he’s in love. He thinks that’s how you act when you’re in love. But he’s wrong. And Shakespeare is making fun of Orsino for thinking that. So if somebody comes all sheep’s-eyed to you, with the poetry and the harassment (says I to my ten-year-old daughter), don’t you believe in that love for a minute. That’s not real love, that’s Orsino’s love for Olivia. And even Orsino understands, in the end, that it’s Cesario that he really loves.

In AYLI, Phoebe falls in love with the young man Ganymede, bad poetry and all. We laugh at her along with Shakespeare because we know what she doesn’t: Ganymede doesn’t exist. There is no such person. Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise. When the disguise is lifted at the end of the play, Phoebe is shocked and appalled, and we laugh at her all over again. She fell in love with her own imagination. But she isn’t the only one.

Sylvius, another buffoon, claims that no man has ever loved the way that he loves Phoebe—he’s so blinded with his love for her that he can’t see her at all. His Phoebe, the object of his affection, doesn’t exist any more than Ganymede does. And I think it’s clear—well, I think it’s clear—that Shakespeare punishes him for his idiocy by marrying him to the real Phoebe, who will make his life a misery. All the more a misery for the remembered dream of bliss with the imaginary Phoebe he so desperately loved with that false passion. As she is haunted by Ganymede, who never existed at all.

But what about Orlando? He is as big a goon as Sylvius, yes? With carving into the treebark love songs about the fair, the chaste and unexpressive She. Here’s the whole heart of the play, as far as I’m concerned. He falls in Orsino-love with his imagined Rosalind on one meeting with the real one. He can’t speak to her. He writes bad poetry. He swears by her white hand. He’s got it bad, and that ain’t good. But—and here’s the trick of it—he meets and spends time with Ganymede and falls in love with him. Not the Orsino-love, the pining and the poetry and the puppy eyes. No, he just likes to spend time with Ganymede, talk to him (her), do things together. He falls in love with Ganymede, but stays in love with Rosalind, and he wins! Because Ganymede is Rosalind. Orlando may be a role model for entering into a romantic relationship, but it’s totally inadvertent. He falls in love with a Rosalind of his own imagination, and it’s just his luck that he also falls in love with the real Rosalind—who doesn’t exist either, really.

Anyway, the thing I ought to have told my daughter’s friend is that Shakespeare is making fun of people who fall in love with an imaginary ideal, by having it explicit that the object of the love doesn’t even exist. And it’s easy to fall in love with an imaginary ideal. And maybe when someone falls in love with you, it won’t be with you at all—not the you that exists but the Ganymede-you—and that’s not so easy. But if you’re lucky, maybe you get some Forest of Arden time to figure it all out.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 27, 2013

Who am I this time?

As I wait for our version of As You Like It to arrive, I am of course reading and rereading the play. Or at least the forest court bits. II,i (for set-up, although Jaques does not appear), III,ii and IV,I (which are not in the court but dialogues), II,v and V,ii (Jaques loves music), III,iii and V,iv (Touchstone and the end) and of course most of all II,vii (from A fool! A fool! to All the world’s a stage. My scenes being seven ages. Although I could appear in more or in less, actually, depending on how the thing is shaped in the cutting.

You could do the play just fine without my part at all, really. The plot ignores him. What do you need for the plot? The two cousins, of course, and the brothers they eventually marry. The two fathers. You need, I think, the shepherdess and her swain. You need the clown that accompanies the cousins, and then you need the country wench that he marries, to make up the four couples at the end. The others are presumably dispensable, although I suppose you really do need someone to bring in the messages. You can have the wrestling offstage, though, right?

My point (if I have one) is that Jaques floats above the plot, or behind it, or beneath it, which gives a production a tremendous latitude in how to present him. Actually, the play as a whole admits of a terrible range of possible interpretations, but Jaques in particular is untethered. I’ve read that he stands between the audience and the play, preferably as a bridge rather than a wall. A recent production put Jaques in the prop trunk at the end, which I think speaks to a somewhat different level of respect. He can be played for laughs or for pathos, as the ultimate wit or the ultimate twit, as a man of mystery or as the butt of the cosmic joke.

For me, as I’ve been reading and rereading it, there’s one Big Question, though: is Jaques really one of the Duke’s men? Well, and he is an outsider to some extent, of course, but how much so? Is he a beloved mascot? Is he a tolerated freak? Is he a distrusted Duke’s pet? Does he, in turn trust that they aren’t laughing at him—or that they are laughing at him with love, anyway? When he launches into one of his bits, can he expect cheers and applause? Groans and eye-rolls? Blank bewilderment? Indifference? Snickers?

This is tied up with, but not entirely dependent on, a bigger question about the production: is the banished Duke the leader of a magical court in a magical forest, or of a desperate insurgency? Over the last few decades there seems to have been a trend to emphasize the usurpation of the Duchy as a civil war, and thus the Forest of Arden as a dangerous place, wild and unsettling. This goes along with an undertone of danger in the wooing—Orlando and Rosalind, Orlando and Ganymede, Aliena and Ganymede, Celia and Rosalind, the possibilities of love and hope amid very real terrors of exposure and death. In such a production, I might well play Jaques as a complete outsider, hesitant and fearful of his own exposure and death, even as his uncontrollable wit further alienates him from each companion.

And in the text as I read it, there’s this: When Jaques finds something sad (or funny) he finds it much much sadder (or funnier) than anyone else around him. He has tremendous difficulty matching his tone to the people around him (expressed as verse/prose issues among other things). He appears cold and disdainful most of the time. He is given to long stretches of silence, and then bursts into seemingly endless monologues. His enthusiasms extremely focused and are totally incomprehensible to anyone else. All of these seem to me consistent with Asperger syndrome. I don’t know if an actor and a production could pull off an actual Asperger Jaques, but there could certainly be some of that sense of outsider alienation and bewilderment on both sides.

Or not. Jaques can also be just a witty guy, getting off zingers in the magical dream forest and play-acting the Seven Ages with an appreciative band of brothers. That would work, too. It’s not my choice—and it’s not really a choice about Jaques, either.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 11, 2013

Dream Casting

Your Humble Blogger spent a couple of snowed-in hours watching Shakespeare in Love again. It’s a fun movie. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it since it came out in the theaters, and I had come to think of it as overrated, which is possibly true, but then it got rated as overrated, so perhaps it’s now underrated. I mean, it’s just a fun movie, but it is a fun movie.

And, of course, much of the fun is that absolutely magnificent supporting cast. I mean, yes, Judy Dench’s Oscar-winning Elizabeth R is a glorified cameo, but it’s such a good glorified cameo! And the men in their glorified cameos—Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, Antony Sher, Patrick Barlow, Martin Clunes, Mark Williams. In addition to Geoffrey Rush and Tom Wilkinson in actual supporting roles. And IMDB tells me that John Inman is in the thing, which I did not spot at all.

But the reason I am bothering telling you so is that Jim Carter plays one of the small supporting roles: a drunken actor who had been given the role of the Pirate King (Ethel’s father) but who is recast as the Nurse. And, as we’re seeing little bits and pieces of the play within the play, I’m thinking: Jim Carter would be awesome in that part! So. I want to see Jim Carter play the Nurse in R&J. Make it happen, someone.

January 30, 2013

One Man in his Time

Well. I did the monologue I talked about a couple of weeks ago for an audition. The play is As You Like It; the part I particularly wanted was Jaques. That actually was important to the monologue because I particularly did not want to be cast as Touchstone. Touchstone is the professional fool in the play, and he is particularly dire. Shakespeare’s fools are generally unfunny, and Touchstone, in my opinion, is among the worst—he has a million lines, most of them with very heavy puns or paradoxes, and the rest with fart jokes. It’s odd, actually, for a sexy play like this one, that there seem to be fewer dick jokes and more fart jokes than in most of the canon. Anyway, I loathe Touchstone. But I adore Jaques.

Jaques is the other fool, the amateur fool. He’s an odd duck, and everybody thinks of him as an odd duck. I think he’s the only character of note that doesn’t get married at the end (except for the already-married people, parents and whatnot). He’s a foreigner, with a foreign name, and he’s clearly an outsider. People are fond of him—maybe more indulgent than fond—and he has to be likable, but it’s not clear that he is likeable. He is melancholy, and everybody including himself talks about him as being melancholy, but he also has strenuous enthusiasms and jokes incessantly. In other words, he’s a challenge.

And, speaking of challenges, he’s got this bit about the seven ages of man. It’s not Top Five Shakespeare Monologue for audience expectations, not any more, but it’s probably still top ten.

Anyway. The monologue went no better than OK. The director asked me to do it again without “acting”, very simply, and I did, and he seemed to like that. Then I got to read the Rosalind scene, and again he had us do it again “more simply”, actually putting us in chairs facing away from each other. And then, since I was still around, he had me read Silvius for a Phebe in III,v. That was clearly just to have somebody for a Phebe to read with, though. I left the night thinking that I had done fairly well, but not extremely well. It would depend on who else was auditioning. As it always does, of course.

Then there was a callback, and another callback. I think the first callback was for the young persons; I was at the second one, for the Dukes and Touchstones and so forth. There were five us fogeys looking for the various fogey parts. I think there was one other fellow who was focused on Jaques particularly, a much older (looking) man with a quiet voice but a nice line in melancholy—If the director wanted to emphasize the melancholy aspect, that would be a perfectly good way to go. The other three were pretty good as well, though, and I left that callback not having any idea at all who would be cast as what. In particular, of course, whether I would be cast at all, and if so, in what part.

And… I found myself, over the next couple of days, wanting to get cast as Jaques. Really, really wanting it. Eager to get to work on the part, dig in to the text, think about the various possibilities. In point of fact, I braved superstition and did some initial research, looking at Alan Rickman’s essay about the 1985 RSC production and getting my hands on the correct volume of the wonderful Cambridge University Press Shakespeare in Production series.

When the email came, this morning, with the cast list attached, my gut clenched. The document seemed to take forever to open. And forever to scroll down the page through the fourteen parts and people who were neither Jaques nor YHB. And on the fifteenth line, there are both.

So. For those Gentle Readers who will be or can be in the area in May, Your Humble Blogger will be playing Jaques in As You Like It. And I expect that between now and then I will be writing about the part, about the play, the text, the process, and all the that goes with it.

So we have that to look forward to.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2013

Beckett and Still, Kaufman and Cole

Your Humble Blogger has for a long time had an idea about modern non-representational art that doesn’t appear to have made it to this Tohu Bohu. Essentially, it’s that if you look at a work of representational art—say, a landscape—and if you don’t get what’s good about it, or more important, even if it’s kinda crappy, you can still say oh, trees, sky, hill, got it and there you are. If you look at a non-representational piece and you don’t get what’s good about it, or if it’s kinda crappy (no link there, thanks), then you don’t have anything at all. No trees or sky. No face or body. Nothing to hang on to.

And there is, I think naturally, a sense that you’re being ripped off, or made fun of somehow, or are otherwise at a disadvantage. I think that’s part of why people get angry about it. If you don’t get it, you don’t get anything at all, and it just makes it worse that the circumjacent hipsters are murmuring exquisite… absolutely exquisite.

The reason I bring this up in this Tohu Bohu at this time, having espoused the idea in conversations over many years, is that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are bringing their Godot to Broadway. And a large number of my friends had reactions that were probably best characterized as Oh, no, not Godot. Which is of course legit—people are different, one to another, and like and dislike different plays. But what I’m wondering is whether my idea about non-representational art applies to Samuel Beckett’s plays. If you don’t like them and/or you see a kinda crappy production, there may not be anything there at all. If you see a kinda crappy production of You Can’t Take it With You, well, there’s a plot, and problems with resolutions and so forth. You may not enjoy it, and you may well feel ripped off, but you have something. Godot or Endgame, not so much.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 18, 2013

This, this, this is the air. Where? There.

Your Humble Blogger will be auditioning for a play tomorrow, for the first time in a year or so. I will need a monologue, again, but a one-minute this time, and for a comedy. I can’t just use Coriolanus again. I had some trouble fixing on a choice, actually; my various reference resources gave me only a narrow set of choices for a one-minute comedy monologue for a man. I settled on Sebastian near the end of Twelfth Night:

This is the air. That is the glorious sun. The pearl she gave me, I do hear’t and see’t. And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus, yet ’tis not madness. Where’s Antonio, then? His counsel now might do me golden service. For though my soul disputes well with my sense that this may be error but no madness, yet doth this accident and flood of fortune so far exceed all instance—all discourse—that I am ready to distrust mine eyes and wrangle with my reason that persuades me to any other trust but that I am mad!

Or else the lady’s mad.

Yet if ’twere so, she could not sway her house, command her followers, take and give back affairs and their dispatch, with such a smooth, discreet and stable manner, which I perceive she does. There’s something in’t that is deceivable. But here the lady comes.

.

It’s verse, of course, rewritten as prose. It’s really, really verse, isn’t it? I mean, the rumty-tumty kind. Which is part of why I chose it, as I would like to exhibit my facility therewith. And to avoid getting cast as the prose clown, who is particularly dire in this one. In my opinion.

Well. It’s not a terribly funny bit. There are two laugh points, I think: the description of the whole mess as deceivable, and the sudden wide-eyed or else the lady’s mad. Although the last could be or else… the… … …LADY’s mad!. That would be funnier in the actual production though, where we know that the situation he hopes to explicate is so utterly crazy that he will never figure it out. I think in a monologue it’s better as a quick-change Aha! kind of thing.

The real problem is the beginning. When I last prepared a monologue I said that if the actor hasn’t impressed the director in the first five seconds, it’s all over. This group isn’t professional, and I frankly doubt that there will be twenty men who will impress the director in the first five seconds of a monologue, but still, the first impression is the most important.

So.

In an actual production—I wouldn’t play Sebastian, for one thing. It’s a part for a young man, the son rather than the father, but as I said up there, I had some difficulty finding a monologue I liked and couldn’t find anything I liked in the father bracket. However, leaving that aside, if I were playing Sebastian in an actual production, I would, I think, sniff the air. This—huge sniff—IS the air. Or maybe This is… the air?—little sniff, little sniff, HUGE FRICKEN SNIFF, little sniff again. Or possibly a face, there. It’s a potential laugh line, anyway, if you do something with it. In a monologue, though, I’m not sure. For one thing, if the director doesn’t immediately recognize where it’s from, it doesn’t make any sense. For another, I’m assuming there won’t be enough people in the room to actually laugh. Anyway, I’m still looking for a way to say it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 10, 2012

The Plain One

Your Humble Blogger has mentioned the Pride and Prejudice problem before. I put it like this:

The adaptation also had what I call the Pride and Prejudice problem, where there is a Main Character who is the Plain One, and a supporting character who is the Pretty One. In a film or television adaptation, there is simply no way that the actress playing the main character is going to be plain, and it is quite unusual for everyone to allow the supporting character to be substantially better-looking than the main character. Generally, what you wind up with is a pair of women either of whom would turn heads on a sidewalk; any plot point that depends on the Plain One languishing un-noticed in a corner whilst all the men pay their attentions to the Pretty One have to rely on the viewer’s acceptance of the convention.

For men, it recently occurred to me, this is much less of an issue. For one thing, the main character is the good-looking one; the fat, slovenly wise-cracking guy is the supporting role, and everybody is OK with that. For another, when the fat, slovenly, wise-cracking guy is the lead, in say for instance a comedy, and the joke is the contrast with the handsome but stupid supporting actor, well, then you get a supporting actor who is handsome, and the lead is Oliver Platt or Zach Galifianakis or Chris Farley, who actually do lack conventional good looks. And then—the range of conventional good looks is so much wider for men, isn’t it? Was Humphrey Bogart the plain one, or was Edward G Robinson the plain one? Was Mickey Rooney the good-looking one? If you need the lead actor to be the Plain One and also very attractive indeed, you get—Harrison Ford? Alan Rickman? Gary Oldman? Steve Buscemi? John Wayne? You have a lot of choices, is what I am saying, and besides, Robert Downey, Junior isn’t going to kick up as much of a fuss if the good-looking one is, in fact, better-looking than he is. Even better-looking. This isn’t to blame Keira Knightley or Elizabeth Taylor or Doris Day or anyone, who after all have their careers to look out for and live (or lived) in the actual world. The consequences of being the Plain One are different for women, obviously, as is so much else.

Anyway.

In the (recorded) performance of The Rover I saw recently, there is a sort of Pretty One/Plain One thing going on with the men. The titular character is a womanizer who all women fall for immediately; the high-priced prostitute even sleeps with him for free. There is a supporting character, a country bumpkin so unattractive that the mere idea of him finding romance is a joke—the prostitute that pretends to fall for him actually rolls him and robs him and dumps him in the river. Without sleeping with him, which his buddies find particularly hilarious.

Anyway, the Plain One is played by Daniel Craig. And the Pretty One is played by Andy Serkis. And it works just fine. That part of it, anyway—I have some more serious thoughts about the play and the production, which would require a separate note. But yes, Andy Serkis was the Pretty One, and Daniel Craig was the Plain One, and that isn’t the problem with the production at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 6, 2012

The STM, but I've said too much already

Your Humble Blogger has been reading a lot of plays, lately. Quite a few good ones, some not so much. Now that I have become associated with some community theaters, I wind up reading plays with an eye toward the possibility of staging them locally—I have always read plays looking for parts for myself, but mostly as idle interest rather than as part of a nefarious plan to actually get the thing put on. Now, though, I wind up thinking quite specifically about production difficulties in the local spaces. Which has led me to identify what I call subsidized theater moments—bits in the playscript that turn what appeared to be a relatively affordable production into an unimaginably expensive and difficult one.

The most obvious example, really, is from Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, an extraordinary work about Mr. Bennett himself and the more-or-less crazy woman who lived in a broken-down van on his street (and eventually in his front yard). The style is non-naturalistic and the set is or can be minimal (a few chairs, a table with a typewriter, that sort of thing), until the Van in question is driven onto the stage at the end of Act One. It must be a tremendous theater moment for the audience, and one that cannot be replicated at a converted shoe store that seats forty people. Of course, one could find a way around that—I was at a performance of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in a black box that succeeded with no fly space whatsoever—but it would be something missing. And that’s before the truly moving climax of the show, which requires that the van be lifted up into the flies. This isn’t, in my opinion, gratuitous spectacle, but is (and is discussed as, because it’s a very, very meta play) necessary spectacle, spectacle without which the play would be incomplete. And it’s very expensive spectacle. Perhaps less so if you already have a theater with the required wings and flies, but then, that theater is very expensive, too.

A different Subsidized Theater Moment came at the end of the first act of David Edgar’s Pentecost. This is less obviously a matter of spectacle, though. The play has a single setting that could be quite easily done on the local community theater stage, and even the big noisy stuff could quite easily be accommodated without hurting the theatrical effect. No, instead of invading the stage with a working motor vehicle at the curtain of Act One, the invasion is of a dozen new characters, each native speakers of a different language. Greek, Arabic, Hungarian, Croatian, Farsi, whatever. Pentecost, right? And it’s a tremendous moment, completely jarring, the audience totally disoriented, spends the interval going what just happened there and we come back and spend Act Two with these really interesting characters attempting to communicate with each other and with our Act One characters. I don’t quite know how it works as a play, but it’s really interesting. And really expensive. Going in one moment from a seven- or eight-actor play to a twenty-actor play? And most of those actors have to be able to sound fluent in a particular language? Costs money. Not just in the actors’ pay, which Lord knows isn’t spectacular, but in the whole process of casting, finding the people who can play those parts and play them well. The cheapest way, presumably is to have a Very Famous Theater that every student at every drama school in the country has always dreamed about working for. If you have neglected to acquire the decades of subsidy for that, well, there are other ways, but they aren’t cheap.

This is, by the way, different in feel (to my feel, anyway) to the plays of the twenties and thirties, when labor was cheap and casts were naturally large. A drawing-room comedy might have two maids, a butler and a footman with three lines each, mostly providing atmosphere. Costumes were cheaper too, I suppose. Anyway, a modern shoestring-budgeted theater can collapse those into two characters, or one, or write them out altogether. And, frankly, the big casts of the early-mid-twentieth century often do require subsidized theater to put on—I recently read The Quare Fellow by Brendan Behan, and it’s marvelous, but there are something like twenty-seven characters, all of them men. The physical problems (several cells with doors, people dig a grave on stage) are easily solved, but the cast? Not gonna happen. Not even at a drama school, which counts as subsidized theater as far as I’m concerned, are they going to put on a play with two dozen men and no women. Unless they do The Women in rep as a kind of experiment in segregation, I suppose.

But what really made the Pentecost bit a Subsidized Theater Moment for me was not just that you would have to find all of those actors with those specific language skills, but that you would find them and then leave them in the green room for forty-nine minutes. I have been writing, again, for the stage. The eight characters all have substantial parts—some bigger than others, some with more laughs or more dimensions, but everybody comes in and out, in and out, and everybody has at least one good long scene in the first act. There were nine characters, but it turned out (at least so far) that one of them wasn’t absolutely necessary. I couldn’t countenance having to cast an actor and put him through rehearsals and then have him sit in the green room most of the night just for the sake of a few jokes, so I cut him out entirely. I don’t think it’s fair to make the audience keep track of a ninth character, either; audiences are capable of keeping track of large casts, but as with everything there is a cost, and the cost should only be incurred with an eye to a sufficiently large payoff.

On the other hand, I am considering writing in a bit where a part of the set is utterly destroyed, which could be a Subsidized Theater Moment indeed—not unlike Jed’s suggestion, which come to think of it, is a Subsized Theater Moment itself, if only for the cost of the ASM’s therapy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 16, 2012

Globe to Globe

Your Humble Blogger has been very much enjoying reading the reviews of plays in the Globe to Globe project of the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival of the Cultural Olympiad. This is the project to have the 37 Shakespeare plays performed at the Globe, each by a different company, each in a different language. It’s an ambitious idea, just logistically, and they have already had to deal with some lost costumes and set pieces and so forth. But they are doing it, and is seems to be going quite well.

Now, my initial reaction was not actually very positive. I don’t much like the idea of Shakespeare in translation. I would undoubtedly feel differently if I weren’t a monolingual English speaker, but I really think that the wonderful thing about William Shakespeare’s writing is the language. The plots aren’t even his, of course. I don’t much care for the structure of most of them, and of course most good productions these days carve up the structure, often by moving bits around but at least by making cuts. You could argue that he’s wonderful at character, which he is, but he creates those characters through language more than through situation or action. It’s the language of Shakespeare that is Shakespearean; you wouldn’t call anything Shakespearean for any other reason than the language. Well, most of that is seriously overstated—people call performances Shakespearean just to say that they are both good and large-spirited, even in a play with very different language. And people who screw with the structure of his plays as often make things worse rather than better. And with the plots, there is much that is original and good in the way plots are presented or the way subplots interact, and besides, original plots are gimmicks. Still and all, William Shakespeare ain’t Ira Levin or Anthony Shaffer or Agatha Christie, any of whom (YHB is guessing) would lose very little in translation.

Do you know what did it for me? The Guarniad reviewer that mentioned, in passing, that a fair chunk of the audience were native speakers of the language in question. Mentioned it a bunch of times, for a bunch of different plays in a bunch of different languages. Because it’s London. So there’s an audience of Zimbabweans, there’s an audience of Bangladeshis, there’s an audience of Italians. There’s an audience that speaks Mandarin, there’s an audience that speaks Hindi, there’s an audience that speaks Madri. The Kenyans in London came to the show, the Greeks in London came to the show, the Poles in London came to the show. Because it’s London.

My mistake was in thinking of the thing as a way to show off Shakespeare’s plays. It is, of course, although they scarcely need it; you could just make a list of how many Shakespeare plays are being performed to day, in which languages, in which countries, to how many people, without bringing them to the Globe. No, the best way to think about the Globe to Globe is as a way to show off London.

Of course, that’s why cities spend a gazillion dollars to host the Olympic Games, to show off. People don’t say Let’s bid for the Olympics so local people can see the two-hundred-meter butterfly. They say Let’s bid for the Olympics so that everyone in the world will want to visit here, spend money here, and maybe even move here. Not that there are travel agents anymore. But you know what I mean. The problem is that sporting events are a really terrible way to show off a city; did Salt Lake City really get to show off? Turin? Lillehammer? Mexico City? No. Beijing, maybe, and at that only because everybody was so down on the city in the lead-up. And, to be honest, London is London, and nobody in Harare or Phuket or Dhaka or Oslo is just learning about it now. Still. What a thing, to send thirty-seven companies back home (and on tour) saying We played Shakespeare in London and they talked the mammyloshen in thirty-seven languages. And what a thing for the people who live there who speak Gujarati or Juba or Albanian, to find themselves Londoners, too, in the festival.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 14, 2012

Taste, and mine

Your Humble Blogger distributed the Play Playlist List for LWF on Opening Night, as is my wont, and got several pleasant comments about it. As I haven’t worked with anyone in the cast or crew before, they can’t compare it to earlier Mixes, but they did pick up the wide-range of styles.

  1. Adele, “Rumour Has It”
  2. Steve Gibson & The Red Caps,“Dirt Dishin’ Daisy”
  3. Original Broadway Cast of The Music Man,“Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little”
  4. Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington,“Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”
  5. The Everly Brothers,“Wake Up Little Susie”
  6. Amy Winehouse & Paul Weller,“I Heard It through the Grapevine”
  7. Bonnie Raitt,“Something To Talk About”
  8. Me First And The Gimme Gimmes,“Take It on the Run”
  9. The Spazzys,“My Boyfriend’s Back”
  10. The Go-Go’s,“Our Lips Are Sealed ” (Fatboy Slim Remix)
  11. Lou Reed,“New York Telephone Conversation”
  12. Original Broadway Cast of Fiddler on the Roof,“The Rumor”
  13. Louis Jordan,“You Run Your Mouth (And I’ll Run My Business)”
  14. Mills Brothers,“I Heard”
  15. Elvis Presley,“(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame”
  16. Kippington Lodge,“Rumors”
  17. Mose Allison,“Your Mind Is On Vacation”
  18. The King Cousins,“The Telephone Hour”
  19. Maxine Brown,“Oh No, Not My Baby”
  20. The Ink Spots,“Whispering Grass”
  21. Dave Dudley,“Talk Of The Town”
  22. Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe,“Baby It’s You”
  23. Billie Holiday,“Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”

My director asked me, after listening to the thing over a few days, if I really listened to all those kinds of music. I admitted that I don’t listen to much current music, but that Adele was ubiquitous (particularly since I work on a college campus) so I added it. Otherwise, yeah, I listen to all that stuff. He said he was impressed. I didn’t mention that I restricted my range to songs with lyrics in the English language, and that I didn’t actually include examples of all the kinds of music I listen to. No klezmer, no Early Music, no Dixieland or Afro-Caribbean Jazz, not even any ska or reggae (I suspect I could fairly easily have found some that fit). Pretty much the list had Pop, Rock, Jazz, R&B, Showtunes, and if you want to make it a separate category, Oldies.

A day or two after that, I came across, on the internet, some people who were mocking an absent person’s comment that he liked "all kinds of music". This was, they said, because he had no taste at all. Anyone who actually likes music, naturally, will like some kinds of music and dislike other kinds, because such a person will have personal tastes, tastes that come from thinking about what he is listening to. And I thought—do I have taste?

In fact, there’s lots of music I don’t like. I don’t listen to modern Country (or Country Rock, as I think of it) at all, and I don’t particularly like what I think of as Country and Western (Glenn Campbell and Loretta Lynn, Charlie Daniels and Larry Gatlin that sort of thing). I don’t listen to Hip-Hop or Rap; I have a few rap songs on my hard drive (mostly a guest vocalist contributing to a song by some pop group I like) but on the whole, I can do without it. I don’t like much disco; I don’t like much of the modern dance music that sounds to me like disco with louder drum machines. I don’t listen to metal of any kind. I don’t choose to listen to orchestral or choral music; I strongly prefer small groups. I don’t listen to any operatic-style opera (is that clear at all? I mean: Philip Glass and John Adams and Kurt Weill don’t sound like opera to me) either, both because of the orchestration and I find very high soprano voices irritating. On the other hand, I do listen to Gilbert & Sullivan, and while I say that Sullivan is the price for the Gilbert, in fact I like Arthur Sullivan’s melodies more than somewhat.

The distinction, perhaps, is that I have listened to the operettas enough to like them. I’ve noticed, in myself, that there are a lot of songs I like, not because I like other songs that sound like them, or because those songs are better than similar songs, but simply because they are familiar to me, having heard them so many times. Most of them are crappy songs on good albums, songs that I have come to love simply because I love them, indefensibly. Others, well, I don’t know for sure. Stuff my elder siblings listened to when I was a kid? The big example of that is Queen—a lot of their stuff sounds awful to me, but there are songs I love which sound exactly the same as the ones I can’t stand. I don’t mean the stuff that sounds different, like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, but “I’m in Love with my Car” or “Somebody to Love” or “Now I’m Here”, the stuff with the shredding guitar. The ones I like are the ones I have heard a thousand times; the ones I dislike are the ones that, for whatever reason, I haven’t. Is there any taste involved in that?

To sum up: Yes, I listen to lots of different kinds of music, in different genres. No, I don’t like everything; there are things that are to my taste and things that are not to my taste. On the other other hand, my taste is only partially a matter of what I think of as real taste; even within a genre, while I have Sources of Listener Pleasure and Sources of Listener Irritation, my actual fondness for a song has as much to do with the circumstances of my hearing it as with the song itself. Had I not been looking for a recent song to put on this mix, the verse-to-chorus ratio of the Adele song might have irritated me enough to make me dislike the song, which in actual fact, I like quite a bit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 19, 2012

The Bitters End

So. In the only actual plot point in my Big Scene in LWF, I discover the titular fan, which has been carefully left on its mark under and behind the table being used as a bar. We have blocked it so I have returned to the bar to mix myself (yet) another drink; I am exhorting my fellows on the subject of experience, when I discover the fan:

GRAHAM: Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes, that’s all.

DUMBY: Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.

GRAHAM: One shouldn’t commit any.

DUMBY: Life would be very dull without them.

GRAHAM: Of course you are quite faithful to this woman you are in love with, Darlington, to this good woman?

I discover the fan, clearly, between One shouldn’t commit any and Of course, while Col. Dumby has his line. In the script, Oscar Wilde simply has [Sees LADY WINDERMERE’S fan on sofa], but we have changed if from the sofa for reasons the Director presumably finds sufficient. If it were on the sofa, I could imagine spotting the fan as I am saying the line, thus giving it a double meaning, that I have now (as I think) caught Lord Darlington in an error. As it is, with the fan on the floor, I don’t see my way to that—I would have to stoop to pick it up and make sure the audience sees it before getting to the commit part, which would break the rhythm of the bit. What I did come up with is a different double meaning: I am adding ice to my drink as I pronounce my contempt for error, and end with a flourish of the tongs, dropping the chunk of ice to the floor amid general laughter. As I stoop, I see the fan and pop back up with it, holding it, perhaps, behind my back while asking my ingenuous question, only showing it to the audience during Lord Darlington’s interminable and fatuous reply. Nice, isn’t it?

Sadly, while the drop was okayed, the ice was vetoed, as (a) English Gentlemen wouldn’t pollute their whiskey with ice, and (2) an ice bucket is a pain in the ass for the stage manager, even with fake cubes. I cannot disagree with either of these, although I am disappointed. The director has suggested a little bottle of bitters, as gin bitters is a veddy British drink of the period. I acquiesced, mostly because he is the Director, and I didn’t have any better ideas. And it’s not a bad idea, really, only now I have to figure out how to make it work: do I adopt the modern (I think) technique of pinking the glass with the bitters first, before splashing in the gin? Can I do that with a whiskey tumbler rather than a martini glass, or should I pour the gin first and add the bitters to it? Can I drink a pink gin out of a whiskey tumbler at all? Should we change an earlier line about me drinking whiskey, or should I just drink gin on top of whiskey (on top of wine and whatever else I had at the club)? Also, if we have a whiskey decanter and a gin decanter, why would we have the bitters in the recognizable store-bought bottle? Should I drop the whole bottle, or just the cork? Should I drop it drunkenly, or through not looking what I’m doing?

Well, well, well. We have a little time yet to work on these details. I do wish I had at least a sense of the size and weight of the gin bottle, the bitters and the glass I’ll be using so that I could practice all this at home in front of the mirror. But we’ll make it happen.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 5, 2012

Giving a demmed note

I don’t believe in giving notes to other actors. I feel quite strongly about this, enough to get snippy if another actor tries to give interpretation notes to me. In fact, I feel strongly enough about this that I rarely talk about what I’m doing with the role with the other actors in the play, except in discussion with the director. Yes, it’s a collaborative thing, and I do know that my interpretation puts limits on other people’s interpretation of their own parts, but I see that as one of the Director’s jobs—if I feel that I am not getting what I want from another actor, I talk to the Director about it, and then either the Director disagrees with me and sets me straight or gives the note to the other actor.

Well, and in fact I do on occasion give the clichéd I love what you are doing with that scene sort of comment, but that doesn’t count as giving notes. No, what I mean by giving notes is why don’t you try playing that with more anger or surely the emphasis is on the end of the sentence sort of thing. Which I keep to myself. Because I do think it. I don’t say it. I am tempted to say it, but I do not. Perhaps it’s because I am an overly intellectual actor that I inevitably have a line or two for any scene to which I have paid serious attention that I feel I would do differently. Mostly, for me, it’s words: some word that isn’t getting punched with enough emphasis, or isn’t being used to echo a previous usage, or isn’t being differentiated enough from the circumjacent dialogue.

What is tempting me at the moment is that the character of Tuppy (which is the part I wanted to play, which makes it worse) is, unless I have missed something, the only character in the piece that swears. He says demmed this and demmed that, probably says the D-word a dozen times in as many lines. And, as I say, nobody else swears with a big, big D at all—not never. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t (it seems to me) happen by accident: Oscar Wilde meant that Tuppy was the kind of Tuppy who comes out with a big, big D even when in groups of men who use more discreet language to say far more indiscreet things, which again, is the sort of Tuppy that Tuppy must be.

All of which, to me, says that Tuppy should emphasize those ds, every demmed time. Maybe even wind up to them a bit with a pause to set his Tuppy mouth for it. A tiny pause, of course, perhaps an infinitesimal pause. Or maybe no pause at all, maybe a little bob of the head for emphasis, or the chin jutting out a trife. Something. A hand gesture, although that would be a bit much, unless the actor (and Director, yes) can think of something that would work. Something. A small thing, but a consistent thing. The audience should notice.

I expect I am doing something that is driving the Tuppy-actor crazy as well, of course. And he’s a fine actor, doing a fine job in the role—as I hope am I in mine. I won’t tell him mine, and I hope he won’t tell me his. I’ll try to do what the Director wants, and within that what makes sense to me, and someday we will all look back on this and laugh.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 27, 2012

People are singing, singing about people

Volume Nine of the Play Playlist Lists will be the Opening Night mix for Lady Windermere’s Fan. The possibilities are limitless.

I have decided, though, to make a list of songs about gossip. It’s a play about gossip and scandal, more than anything, and the ways people protect themselves against it, or fall victim to it. And there are lots of good songs about gossip, so the problem is less the difficulty of coming up with songs and more choosing which songs (and versions of songs) to put on the mix. Still, this is my semi-traditional plea for recommendations: songs about gossip, please, in any style or genre.

Here’s a large double-handful of things I have come across already. I’ll note that the links are to YouTube, which often starts the video on loading the page, so restrict your workclickage accordingly. Also, I have started amusing myself, in making these mixes, by choosing less well-known recordings of the songs, which I am linking to; if y’all know of wonderful covers you should let me know.

There being so many songs that fit the category, I am uncertain about including the borderline ones, and even more uncertain about songs (such as Lovable or Baby, It’s You) in which there is a memorable line or two about gossip and reputation and so on and so forth, but in which it ain’t the real subject of the song.

So—What do you think about the ones I’ve started with? What am I missing? How should I put together the mix? I have a month, but (as usual) once I get to tech week, my time for messing about with mp3s is limited.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 16, 2012

Blocking it in

Directors, it turns out, are just like people, at least insofar as they are different one to another. Our Director for Lady Windermere’s Fan (which I suppose I will refer to as LWF, because Lady is insufficiently specific, as is Fan, and if I’m going to type out all of Windermere, I might as well type the whole demmed title) has a different process of blocking than I have experienced before.

Blocking, as y’all know, is just telling the actors where to stand and what to do while spouting our lines. Generally, the first rehearsal is a read-through, for which the actors sit around a table. Nearly Legendary Director had a second read-through around a table where we discussed the text and some vocal stuff before the actors got up on our hind legs, but I think that was the only time I have had that. Otherwise, from the second rehearsal we begin blocking.

There is a spectrum, from my perspective, that runs from on the one side the directors who say get up there and see what feels right to the directors who say as you enter, cross UL and then turn, ending your line CL, with one hand on the back of the settee. One can think of the first side as lazy, or the other side as puppet-masters, but it’s (wait for it) more complicated than that. A director who begins by letting the actors roam free may simply be hoping that they happen on the blocking that they will eventually be forced into. If they don’t, it’s simple to say that looked a bit awkward from there, why don’t you try putting the settee between you and see how that feels? Or the director may genuinely have nothing in mind beforehand, but will accept or reject each of the actors’ feel right choices until it forms a coherent whole that is as much the director’s vision as if it were all worked out in advance. Or, alternately, the director who has carefully orchestrated a stage picture, built up move by move, may decide it doesn’t work at all and throw the whole thing out and start over from scratch. Or the director may find ways to incorporate the actor’s ideas later in the process, particularly as the relationships develop and there are differences in what stage pictures are effective. Or, of course, a director may be a puppet-master throughout the rehearsal process, or may leave all of that blocking work to the actors’ feelings throughout.

The Director for LWF is one of the more prepared sort, at least this far in the process. He worked out the blocking in advance, working with toy soldiers on a drafting board—he claims that he broke both the board and several soldiers whilst attempting Act Two—writing down each individual move on a yellow pad. For our blocking rehearsal for Act Three, then, we began by sitting down with our scripts and our pencils and writing in the blocking as he told it to us, asking about anything that was unclear, and getting an idea of the staging while seated. Only after we had finished going through and writing down did we rise to our feet and begin walking through it. I have never worked like that before; it was a surprise to me.

Not necessarily a bad one. It was tedious to sit through the first part, where he read off other people’s blocking, and I’m not sure it was an efficient use of time, but on the other hand, when we did get up on the stage, we mostly went through the scene quickly and coherently. And our director made at least one major change (moving my character from the chaise to the settee, in fact), which indicates to me that he is willing to adapt to what the rehearsal process brings forward. So that’s all right.

So the problem isn’t the process. The problem is that so far I don’t like the blocking. It’s too static, and it isn’t centered, and I can’t figure out what the director people to focus on. Are we focused on Lord Windermere? On Lord Darlington? Are we focused on the two offstage women? What story are we telling?

Actually, that’s a problem with the play: why on earth are we listening to these gentlemen piffle for twenty minutes before we get back to the plot? The answer, I would say, is that we are heightening the tension. There’s a scene of comic relief, before the thing we all know will happen: the discovery of one or both of the women hiding in Lord Darlington’s rooms. We don’t know who will discover them, or what the consequences will be, but the story is that Lady Windermere’s marriage is on the precipice, and Mrs. Erlynne’s future is at risk, and these self-satisfied fellows are piffling their way closer and closer to them. That’s the story we’re telling, and it doesn’t feel like the blocking emphasizes that at all.

On the other hand, I am not very good at judging these things before the audience sees them. And, then, it’s early in the process. It may all come out right on the night.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 15, 2012

A question answered

Your Humble Blogger mentioned the other day that I was putting on my dancing shoes for some quadrille action in relation to the production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Our Dance Captain (who is actually choreographing the dancing, and may not be taking part in it at all) found a nice set on YouTube; we are doing a modified version of the third round in this video. We have been rehearsing it, so far, to the music of the video itself: the Dance Captain plays the video on a laptop with some speakers, and we cavort. The sound is not terribly good, and the instrumentation is Not Period, but the melody is nice and suits our dancing quite well. I wanted to help out by getting a clean recording of the song.

Well. The first thing I did was to poke around the internet a trifle, doing no more than twenty seconds of research myself. Then I gave up and asked on Facebook; most of my FBFs who dance are Scottish Dancers, not English, and English Country Dancers don’t do the Quadrille anyway, as I understand it, but I tend to assume that any piece of music that is used for any English Dance is also used for a million other Dances, and hoped for some recognition. Worth a shot, I thought, and it was, although I did not come up with the title of the piece.

So. What did I do next? I asked a librarian, of course.

It took all of thirty minutes, perhaps, for the reference librarian at the music library to bring to my desk the sheet music for Les Moulinets from the Original Lanciers from Polite and Social Dances: a Collection of Historic Dances, Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, American; with Historical Sketches, Descriptions of the Dances and Instructions for Their Performance, compiled and edited by Mari Ruef Hofer; 1917 Clayton F. Summy Co.

He also linked to the Amazon site for the mp3 as recorded by Smash the Windows. So. No problem.

The best part is that I’m pretty sure I already own the Smash the Windows album with that track on it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 12, 2012

Putting on my dancing shoes

Your Humble Blogger cannot sing or dance. Well, I can, and I frequently do, but the results are painful for those around me. Sometimes literally. The singing and dancing is not my forte.

It’s an odd thing, then, to be learning dance choreography again. In Rough Crossing, there was a final Big Dance Number that was deliberately cheesy enough that the audience could be amused by the non-dancers amongst us as well as the dancers. Nobody thought the dancing was good, but it amusingly (I hope) indicated Big Dance Number, which was the point, and that was sufficient.

This time, a key scene takes place in Windermere House (in St. James’, I believe) while a dance is being held in honor of the titular character. The action takes place in the drawing room; Oscar Wilde did not indicate that we see any dancing whatsoever. On the other hand, people like dancing. I would be surprised if there wasn’t a producer or director in 1893 that wanted to stop everything and have a big lovely popular dance. Our group isn’t doing that (and I mock it, but seriously, audiences like dances) but we will be peeking in to the ballroom by means of a scrim. We will project Society in silhouette. This means that we supporting cast will be required to waltz (Ha! Ha! My waltzing has been declared a weapon of mass destruction by the UN High Commission on Nasty Bruises) and we will be carrying out a couple of quadrilles.

Quadrilles would have been a touch old-fashioned, I’m thinking, by 1893, but then Lady Windermere is plausibly setting herself up to be deliberately old-fashioned. And the quadrille in silhouette will be lovely. On the other hand, we will be in a very tight space, and very close to a light, in very warm clothing—I’m thinking it will be like the Black Hole of Calcutta in the Up Left corner. On the other hand, the men’s part of the set involves standing still for twenty-four out of the thirty-two bars, or if we include the entire dance, 80 out of 136. Not too strenuous.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 6, 2012

A Play About a Good Woman

Your Humble Blogger will be playing Cecil Graham in Lady Windermere’s Fan this spring. If you don’t remember the character, he’s one of the lads, one of Lord Windermere’s friends who attends the ball (six lines in Act II) and then stands around trading witty comments in Lord Darlington’s rooms after they are all thrown out of the club (thirty-nine lines in Act III) (unless they cut some of them; I haven’t seen our performance script yet), one of the largely interchangeable witty and cynical minor characters in the four Oscar Wilde plays and the dozens of imitations. I get to say my experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don’t know anything at all and Wicked women bother one. Good women bore one. That is the only difference between them.

It’s not a very good part, honestly. If I were to list my preference for parts in this play, it would start with Tuppy (a frankly wonderful part, but there are jokes about his stoutness, and while I am no longer thin, I am not yet stout enough for the jokes, I suppose), then Dumby (like Cecil, but with better lines), then Lord Windermere (who I am too old to play, and who isn’t very interesting or witty anyway), then Lord Darlington (who I am also too old to play), and then Cecil. Actually, I am too old to play Cecil, only because I think it’s much funnier if Cecil is one of those super-sophisticated, utterly jaded, weary and patronizing nineteen-year-olds.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Windermere on stage. And the only film I’ve seen is A Good Woman, which changed all the dialogue, so it doesn’t count. I’ve seen Ernest, of course, and I’ve seen A Woman of No Importance and Salome, and that’s it for Oscar Wilde. Well, I have read Windermere several times, and I’ve read Dorian Gray and many of the fairy stories and some of the poems (I’m rather embarrassingly fond of “The Harlot’s House”) and other short stories and essays. I am very fond of Oscar Wilde, as a historical personage and a writer.

The one really good thing, though, about being in the play (apart from simply being in a show again, after many months) is that I assume I will get to wear evening dress. I’m not sure exactly what I would put Cecil in. Lady Windermere says specifically that it isn’t a ball, but a simple dance, “small and early”, so I would think not white tie, but black tie and tails. He must have a boutonnière, probably something frilly like a dyed carnation (not green but perhaps a pale yellow) or a blue cornflower, or even a sprig of lavender. Yes, lavender would be excellent. Or statice. At any rate, when the men arrive at the afterparty at Lord Darlington’s rooms, they should still be in evening gear, or the remnants thereof, but with hats and coats and scarves and umbrellas and so on, which we would either keep on or strew about the room. But we’ll see what the director wants.

Anyway, I expect I will be posting more notes about the text of the play, my preparation, and other exciting trivia of the community-theater life. The other day, I heard a PSA on the radio, encouraging people to get their kids involved in some activity alongside grown-ups, claiming that teenagers who were involved in such an activity regularly were less likely to take up drugs. The example activity was community theater, and I’m afraid my reaction was No! Marijuana is cheaper and less addictive! Probably, the poor decision-making under the influence is about the same, although I will say this for community theater: the risk of jail time is quite low.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 14, 2012

Satellite photos of Great Burnham Wood

Benjamin Rosenbaum has an interesting note about the past’s future, wherein he complains about (to simplify beyond recognition) stories that are set in the future, but it’s the future of 1985, a future without (or largely without) GPS and social media, or rather a future with a feigned ignorance of those things. There is a deeper point, and a wider one, but to go off on my own tangent…

A world with GPS and social media is a world that (it seems to me) is very difficult to tell stories about. Everywhere around the plot, and all through it, you have to ask yourself: why didn’t he just text her? Why don’t they link to a picture of the Mysterious Stranger and ask their friends if they know him? Why don’t they use the app to find out if it’s poisonous? Why doesn’t he look at her recent calls? Why don’t they just Google it?

The obvious answer to that is to set things either in the past or in a future that is lower-tech than our present. I think the dystopias and post-holocausts that have become so prevalent are derived from our present day anxieties and millennialism—but also because it’s an easy solution to this plot problem. In The Wikkeling, for instance, there is a vast network, but (a) it only shows what The Man wants you to see, and (2) it’s broken. That’s better than the another book I recently finished, Floors, which simply ignored the existence of mobile phones or the internet altogether, while having fantastical advances in things like holography, controlled magnetic levitation, and, um, stuff. There were good things about Floors, and there were bad things about The Wikkeling; I’m just thinking about this GPS/social media thing. And, because that’s the way I am, the theater.

My Best Reader and I are working on a playscript which is set in the present day, and I am finding the mobile thing difficult. Two or three of the people involved would be very connected—texting and tweeting and so on—and I want to work it in as a plot point, or at least as a series of jokes. It does, for instance, allow two characters from different class and social circles who would otherwise have never met to have a history together. On the other hand, nobody wants to watch an actor thumb-typing for minutes on end. And as it’s a farce, there will be times when the plot relies on imperfect communication; a properly written and read tweet would screw everything up by unscrewing everything up, as it were. And texted crosstalk isn’t funny on-stage. Nor is Damn You Autocorrect. And the cheap tricks—accidentally swapping phones so that the wrong person gets the text, or sending the text to the wrong person, or the reply-all thing—are all cheap tricks, and obviously so. Deadening. The easier cop-out is to set the thing in 1985. Or, as Mr. Rosenbaum says, to collude with the audience in a feigned ignorance of the last twenty years, a refusal of now.

So. Here’s my question for Gentle Readers: Can you come up with examples of plays set in the last twenty years that Get it Right? At least partially? Any aspect of it, of course, but mostly I’m thinking of the plot-point problem where the audience thinks why don’t they…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 21, 2011

Book Report: Superior Donuts

Your Humble Blogger was, a few months ago, flipping through one of those books offering advice on one’s putative professional stage acting career, or perhaps it was just on preparing audition monologues. I don’t remember. I occasionally flip through those books as they cross the circulation desk, and I suppose I glean bits from each, but without taking any bits of any of them very seriously. Actually, the best bit I read recently was from a book on stage management and other technical stuff, in which the author advised potential stage managers, ASMs, prop and costume masters and mistresses and other reasonable, rational hard-working crew not to think of actors as intrinsically stupid, but to think of them as perpetually having a lot on their minds. Not, it was hastily made clear, that such thinking was more likely to be accurate, but that it might cut down on the amount of bile in the lives of the crew. This is a piece of advice I have found widely applicable: whenever possible, attribute obvious stupidity (on the part of others, naturally) to everyone being excessively busy, and commiserate rather than rant.

Well, in theory it’s a good idea.

Anyway, one or another of those books decreed than anyone who wanted to regularly work as a stage actor should be reading at least two plays a week. It might have been three, actually, but whatever it was, it seemed absurdly high the moment I read it, and then after a while I thought to myself hmmm (not even addressing myself by name, because we’re that close) it really doesn’t take long to read a play, does it? The point of the advice, I would think, is not to be choosy in reading plays, but to just keep reading them, that familiarity with a lot of plays, good and bad and clever and formulaic and successful and that other thing, helps an actor prepare for any specific play. And while of course there is limited time for play-reading as there is for anything else, reading a play is a good use of that limited time (even if, as in my case, my interest in acting is only amateur). So if a playscript comes across the circulation desk and it looks remotely interesting, rather than spending time looking through it to decide if I think it’s worth reading or not, I try to just read the thing.

Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read Superior Donuts anyway, and in fact I’m not absolutely sure I read that two-a-week advice before reading this play. Tracy Letts had a monster hit with August: Osage County, and this was his follow-up play. I had read the reviews and found them intriguing. And, most important, there’s a part for me. Actually it turns out there are two parts for me: the aging pothead owner of the store and the raving Russian Mafioso neighbor. The neighbor is the good part, the supporting role that has some actual tension. The lead is an interesting challenge, as the actor would have to portray an even-tempered hazy drop-out with enough energy and intensity to keep the audience awake without betraying the character’s traits. On the other hand, it’s not a challenge with a lot of reward.

The play is dull on the page. I imagine that given the right actors it could spark to life, but there wasn’t anything in the script that made me itch to see (or produce) this rather than any other play.

The good news, though, is that there are plenty of other plays.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 19, 2011

Who dunnit this week?

Your Humble Blogger was reading a 1971 play in which a television network brings together a bunch of stereotypical mystery novelists to collaborate on a television series, and then people start dying and so on and so forth. Hilarity ensues. Except it doesn’t seem to, and besides, the problem with a play that is mocking all of these outdated mystery styles is that forty years later Your Humble Blogger is mocking the 1971 stuff as much as the parody 1930s stuff.

But it occurred to me that it’s a terrific idea for a reality show. I mean, in theory, because I don’t watch them myself so I don’t know how they really work. And since I don’t watch them myself, I may well have missed a version of this that bombed. So there’s that. But here’s my version:

The show gathers together eight (or so) mystery novelists into a secluded house outside a small town in, probably, Vermont. The contestants are all published novelists with a series of books featuring a detective; part of the deal is that the TV show will talk a little about each detective. In each episode, as I understand the formula, there is a sequence of challenges that the contestants must rise to, with one or more of them getting either a Benefit of some kind or safety from elimination for the week. These challenges will of course have a mystery-novel theme of some kind.

But the great part is that the first challenge each episode is to solve the murder of the contestant that was voted off at the end of the last episode, and we get to see the murdered novelists come up with the murders, scatter clues and play the corpses.

Or, I suppose, the stuff over the course of the show indicates both a murderer and a victim, and at the end of the episode we see the designated murderer have to dispose of the victim in such a way that the other housemates will be mystified. I’m less keen on this idea, actually, because (a) having an unsuspecting victim is actually creepy, and (2) the other way provides more opportunities for the team of writers to help an eliminated novelist whose ideas are either totally unworkable or just bad television.

If the idea worked, you know, you would have the reality-tv show crew and the mystery-fan crew watching. I suspect that half-a-dozen mystery novelists shut in a house for a month would generate lots of dramatic scenes of interpersonal whatsit, although I do not actually know any mystery novelists, so that’s not necessarily an accurate assessment. Still, it shouldn’t be hard for the production company to find eight mystery novelists that (a) have published three or four books in a series, (2) are in need of the money and publicity that such a stunt could provide, and (iii) would themselves make good television. I mean, if they can do it with cooks.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 27, 2011

Rough Crossing Wrap-Up

Well, and my Rough Crossing is done. Fourteen performances, all in all, counting the benefit and the private one, but not counting the dress rehearsal that had half-a-dozen invited guests to give us practice holding for laughs that might or might not come. Probably something like five hundred people attended—I’m making that number up, actually, but there were a couple of nights in the maybe-twenty range, and then the rest were in the perhaps-forty range, except for opening and closing, which were in the nearly-eighty range. I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if my estimate were off by more than twenty percent. But I would be a little surprised. I hope the show broke even (I always hope the show breaks even), but I suspect it wound up in the red by a trifle. Well, there it is. A number of Gentle Readers came, which is always nice.

I have been doing a wrap-up on previous shows, detailing some positives and negatives of the experience. This was a strange show, though, and I’m not sure how much this all will make sense.

The Positives

  • It was, I’m pretty sure, a terrific show. I can’t tell for sure, not having seen it. I don’t know that I am altogether blinded by ego, but I certainly concentrate on the more successful aspects of any show that I am in, to the point where I probably overrate them quite a bit. On the other hand, I am onstage for the whole darned show, pretty much, and we get laughs aplenty, which is how you know a comedy is working, right?
  • It was the largest and most central role I have had in years. I don’t call it a lead role, because it is quite an ensemble cast, but my role had the most lines and the most minutes on stage, and was in many ways the plot driver as well. So that’s nice. I was always really a character actor; I am now old enough that I will only have character parts. So it’s nice when the character part is a big ’un.
  • The part is pretty much in my wheelhouse, and I think I pretty much hit it.
  • We did come up with a fair amount of physical business that I think added to the show, including what may well be the first time I have ever juggled on any stage.

The Negatives

  • The lack of audience, of course
  • I dropped a tray on Closing Night, marring what had been a run of successful attempts, and in front of something like a sixth of our total audience. On the other hand, my partner caught the bread roll I threw at him all fourteen performances.
  • there was a shortish telephone conversation in Act II that I never managed to get word-for-word correct to the script. Or even particularly close. I got all the bits in, but there was a lot of paraphrasing, and it never really felt right.
  • There were some stretches where the boat was supposed to be swaying, which was indicated with the actors tottering back and forth. There was a light system set up to time it, which turned out to be very difficult to whilst doing the blocking. We did not choreograph the swaying to the lines, either, preferring (in theory) to keep to the rhythm of the boat rather than that of the particular audience. Unfortunately, without specific line cues to change sides, and without the cues provided by the lights, we were a very ragged crew indeed, with some people starting the return trip to stage right as others were still staggering left. While I of course never actually saw any of that, what with being one of the ragged staggerers myself, I believe it looked amateurish and shabby. The thing about that sort of co-ordinated business is that if it looks good, it looks great, but if it looks bad, it looks awful.
  • This isn’t so much about Rough Crossing, but doing two shows in a row has left me very, very tired and not interested in doing any more theater for a good, long while.

Another negative that is only somewhat connected with the show itself is that I have not written about it much for this Tohu Bohu. This is largely because I was in the middle of a note about how things were going rather well when a castmate had a stroke (or what I will call a stroke without knowing if that’s entirely accurate; it was a massive brain trauma) and was evidently on the brink of death. He has recovered miraculously well: he came to closing night, and while he leaned on a cane some of the time, he was able to walk without it. Still, this was a catastrophe for him, and didn’t do the show any favors. Now, we did find somebody to play his role, and that person was very good in it, so that’s all right in that sense. But the stricken fellow was just starting to inhabit what showed promise of being a very interesting take on the part, and I will never see where he was going with it.

And every time I would think about what to write for this Tohu Bohu about the show, I would think of that unfinished note that began Things are going very well, and decide I didn’t want to write anything at all. Well, anyway. It’s over now, and there will be other things to write about in the summer.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2011

Playing it Straight

When Your Humble Blogger mentioned to an Equity Actor that the next show was to be a comedy, the Equity Actor (who is, by the way, terrific) gave the well-known advice to play the comic characters straight, that is, that the characters don’t know that they are funny. Like all the worst advice, it is completely true.

Well, not completely—there are a handful of comic characters who know that they are funny, with Pseudolus the first that comes to mind. Characters, like people, do crack jokes on occasion. Richard III. Falstaff. The Fool. The Porter. But on the whole, yes, comedy comes from the character being oblivious to what is funny about the situation, or about the other characters, or even about himself. In the current show, I think Sandor Turai (whom Your Humble Blogger plays) has about three lines that he himself finds witty, and even with those, his reaction is more pleased self-regard than laughter. So, yes, I play the comic character straight.

And yet—it’s terrible, terrible advice. So you play the character straight. So what? Why is that funny? You could play King Lear straight and it wouldn’t be funny. If you played the Tyrones straight, it wouldn’t be funny. Why would it be funny to play Sandor Turai straight?

The first thing that comes to my mind is the script. If you have a good script, then the character played straight may be funny simply because of the situation. Take, for instance, the People’s Front of Judea:

Nobody is doing anything funny. Nobody is using a silly voice, or a silly walk, or even wearing a particularly humorous costume, given the setting. The lines are funny, and the situation is funny, and the people are funny. They play it completely straight—in fact, John Cleese is almost deadpan here.

Contrast, though, with this other scene from the same film:

Silly voice! Silly costume! Silly wig! Such silliness! And, of course, they are playing it straight. Well, playing it straight with some extra eyebrow waggling and general goofiness.

Now, what about this?

Margaret Dumont is playing it straight, but is Groucho? I mean, if you can claim that Groucho Marx, with greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, silly voice and all, is playing it straight in this scene, does playing it straight have any meaning whatsoever? And yet… that’s the way to play this scene and have it be funny.

Here’s the thing: if you are doing something that’s funny and playing it straight, it’s going to make the funny thing funnier (probably). If what you are doing isn’t funny and playing it straight, then playing it straight is not going to make it funny, and in fact might make it less funny than doing the unfunny thing while wearing a funny nose and glasses. So the advice, as far as I’m concerned, is start with something funny, and then play it straight.

Alas, I have no way of knowing whether a thing is funny or it isn’t. Not until someone laughs. During the last dress rehearsal, I spent the bulk of the second act with the part of me that watches observing me playing the temper tantrum as straight as I could possibly do it, and saying This isn’t funny at all! This guy’s just an asshole! What’s funny about that? Too late to change anything, of course, and I had to trust that my director had good judgement. Until we had an audience, at which point the laughter confirmed that it was, at any rate, funny enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 27, 2011

Mix for a Rough Crossing

Your Humble Blogger thought that this Playlist was going to be easy. The play is set among musical comedy folk on an ocean liner in the 1930s, and I have a reasonably extensive collection of music from the 1930s and of songs from musical comedies. In fact, I wound up having some difficulty because I had too many choices. I was afraid I was on the road to making a generic Great Music of the 1930s album, or a Guy Bolton’s America album—which wouldn’t be bad, but wasn’t what I was looking for, either.

So. I started over, concentrating on songs about the sea. Well, mostly about crossing the ocean, ideally, although in many of the songs the sea is either metaphorical or tangential to the lyric. Still, it’s a pretty good mix.

  1. “Reckless Night On Board an Ocean Liner”, Raymond Scott. This is the only instrumental on the mix, and makes a nice mood opener.
  2. “Bon Voyage”, from the 1962 Broadway Revival of Anything Goes. This seemed to be a requirement, pretty much, hitting the time period, the setting and also jokes about the French language that play a minor role in our play.
  3. “Hold Tight, Hold Tight”, the Andrews Sisters. This song has the subtitle (Want Some Seafood, Mama), and is evidently actually about cunnilingus.
  4. “Beyond the Sea”, Rod Stewart vocals. No really, Rod Stewart.
  5. “A Ship Without A Sail”, Dave Frishberg vocals and piano.
  6. “My Ship”, Judy Garland vocals. Lyric by Ira Gershwin, music by Kurt Weill for 1941’s Lady in the Dark, but evidently written to be old-fashioned; it’s a song the Gertrude Lawrence character remembers from her childhood.
  7. “Home By The Sea”, Mel Torme vocals. I have no idea where this song comes from, but it’s catchy.
  8. “I Threw A Kiss In The Ocean”, Peggy Lee vocals, an Irving Berlin song and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Obviously a WWII song, but still worth sneaking on to the list.
  9. “Like a Ship in the Night”, Jean Eldridge vocals. Technically the Johnny Hodges Orchestra with Duke Ellington on piano, but it’s a Duke Small Group.
  10. “Sail Away”, the Noel Coward recording. This is originally from a show called Ace of Clubs that I have otherwise never heard of.
  11. “Little Boat”, the Cleo Laine recording. Bossa Nova, originally titled “O Barquinho”
  12. “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea”, George Harrison vocals and ukulele. No really, George Harrison.
  13. “I Cover The Waterfront”, the Sam Cooke recording, amazingly upbeat and wonderful.
  14. “How Deep is the Ocean”, Eric Clapton vocals and guitar.
  15. “Slow Boat to China”, Bing Crosby & Peggy Lee vocals.
  16. “There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York”, George Kirby from the bizarre 1956 Bethlehem Records recording of Porgy and Bess.
  17. “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat”, Stubby Kaye in the Original Broadway Cast recording of Guys and Dolls.
  18. “Sea Fever”, Flanders & Swann. Not actually a great song, but sufficiently entertaining to claim a spot.
  19. “Seaside Rendezvous”, Queen. Oh, how I love this song.
  20. “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing”, Natalie Merchant vocals and setting of the Mother Goose rhyme.

Yes, I’ve gone pretty far afield stylistically from the 30s. Listening to it through, it doesn’t sound jarring to my ears. It’s a mix I enjoy listening to straight through, which not all of them have been; the Higgins Archive coming to mind. So that’s all right.

May 24, 2011

Tech Week

Tech Week for Rough Crossing. Some call it Hell Week, but Hell doesn’t rhyme with Tech, does it? Anyway, while Tech Week is always exhausting, it isn’t always Hell. Usually, though.

See, here’s the thing: Tech Week is, pretty much by definition, when rehearsal time takes a detour from focusing on what the actors do to what the technical people do. So whenever anything doesn’t work, we all stand around and wait while it gets fixed. Now, early in the process, when it’s all about the actors, when a scene doesn’t work, the actors who aren’t in that scene do have to stand around and wait while the scene gets fixed—by which I mean rehearsed more, usually, or re-blocked—and that, too, is frustrating and exhausting, but a halfway experienced director can either prepare for that in advance or recognize what’s going on and do something about it, either letting some people go home early or skipping the bad bit and rescheduling the call for the next day or two, or something of that sort. Furthermore, many actors are interested in the craft of acting, and at least somewhat in the related crafts of directing and blocking scenes, so standing around and waiting whilst scenework is taking place is not such a hardship. Also, early in the process the standing around can be done seated in plush comfortable chairs in the house, or sometimes in the diner or bar next door.

During Tech Week, it’s a different story. First of all, the replaying of sound cues over and over in order to get the mix right is not interesting to anybody, even the sound guys. They have to do it, sometimes, and we understand that, but—not interesting. Same goes for lights. We know you want to get them right, we want you to get them right, it’s just not very interesting to watch.

A bigger contributor to the irritation, though, is that by Tech Week, we actor types have been rehearsing for ages (well, most of us, at least in community theater) and are this close to being ready for an audience. The sound and light techs may have been preparing a bit (or a lot, depending) but they haven’t been rehearsing. It’s awfully easy for us, who have been through each scene perhaps fifty times, to expect that the sound and light people will get it right after their first time through. They won’t. Or the second. The amazing thing is how much they get right on the third time through.

And then—do you remember how close we felt we were to being ready for an audience? By this point, the odds are that we’ve had a couple of full run-throughs that went moderately well, where the flubs and lulls were salvageable and were saved. All we need is some people to laugh at the laugh lines and Bob’s our proverbial. Right?

The first technical is where we learn that we weren’t actually that ready at all. Not just because the lights and sound aren’t ready, but because that’s where you learn that you have to close the door behind you, so the line delivery doesn’t work. That’s where you learn that you can’t cross between the table and the chair, and will have to either walk all the way upstage and back down again or deliver the line from down center. That your mightily effective bit on the very edge of the stage will be taking place in complete darkness, and so won’t be effective at all. And, disconcertingly, that the tray of sandwiches that I fling about in my rantiest moments unexpectedly has sandwiches on it. Why did no-one tell me? The entire bit has to be reworked now, and we only have three days.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 28, 2011

Take Two

Your Humble Blogger gets an excellent double take opportunity in this play. Like a lot of Tom Stoppard bits, it is both a simple joke and a place where several threads in the play cross. Of course, since this play is fundamentally a silly play, the threads are pretty much joke threads rather than a cross of a running gag, a deep philosophical question and a meta-theatrical device, but that’s all to the better for me.

The main running gag involved is people talking on the telephone to people who have already hung up and left. My moment is the second of three instances of that—out of five telephone conversations, I think, altogether. As my character is comically garrulous and my partner on the other end of the line is in the cabin next door, before I realize I’m talking to myself he has entered the room. I halt my rant with him over the phone to say Hello, come on in and only then realize what is going on.

The classic double-take, of course, is in three parts: the actor looks at something surprising without registering surprise, then looks away, and then registers surprise and looks back. It can be fast or slow, the second take can be exaggerated to varying amounts (John Cleese is knocked into the air by the power of whiplash, hopping away from the object of the double-take by anywhere from a few inches to (at The Hollywood Bowl, I believe) what appears to be more than six feet, but that must be an optical illusion), but that’s the basic move. Look, look away, look back.

This gag allows me to do the triple-take: I look at Alex Gal entering, without of course registering any surprise at his presence, then turn my attention to the phone before turning back to stare at him in surprise—and then turning again to stare at the phone, which is now a surprising item due to my realization that the person I thought I was speaking to is in the room with me. It would be possible to do yet another take after that, switching my attention back to Mr. Gal, but that seems to me excessive, particularly as the bit can perfectly well end with my slamming the telephone down on the hook. On the other hand, how often does a fellow get a chance for a quadruple-take? I mean, a legitimate one, not just mugging? Or not completely mugging, anyway.

Also, Mr. Gal is joining Mr. Adam, who is already in the room, and they don’t have very many lines before I am off the phone and monopolizing the conversation again. In fact, I don’t think I’m going to have time to let the second take be a slow one and the third a quick swivel, which might be even funnier… I think it’s going to be Hello, Gal, come on in and then bam-bam-bam-hang-up. I still have a few weeks to play with it, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 15, 2011

Rough Crossing: Farce or Menace?

Is Rough Crossing a farce?

What are the markings of a true farce? Well, that’s an excellent question. I think we have to use syndrome thinking here; of the n symptoms of farce syndrome, a play that exhibits all of them is clearly a farce, a play that exhibits none of them is clearly not a farce, and a play that exhibits, oh, two-thirds n of them is a farce, and a play that exhibits about half is a source of argument. So. What have we got? I think of a farce as having

  1. laughs
  2. repetition
  3. a fast pace
  4. disguises or misidentification of persons
  5. cross-talk (misidentification of subjects)
  6. overheard conversation
  7. coincidences
  8. repetition
  9. hiding, ideally multiple people behind multiple doors
  10. slapstick
  11. taboo-violation (violence, nudity, profanity, etc played for laughs)
  12. character types (the trickster or promiscuous servant, the doddering scholar, the lustful priest, the unfaithful wife, the innocent virgin, the separated twins, etc)
  13. repetition

Rough Crossing has some of those: it’s a fast-paced comedy with a lot of repetition and cross-talk, and the plot is driven by an overheard conversation. That’s four. On the other hand, everybody knows who everybody is, and nobody is mistaken for anyone else. Nobody wears a disguise. There is no nudity or even particularly revealing undress; there’s next to no profanity and there is no violence; to the extent that there is taboo-violation at all it consists of shouting a few relatively mild insults. There are some physical gags, verging on slapstick, but nobody even falls down. And I’m not actually clear to what extent the characters are character types; they are recognizable, but they are not written as types, confined to their type-actions. Even the servant character, is not so much a variation on the type as a… well, I’m not sure. Our Director calls Dvornichek a fool, which is not from the farce tradition at all, but also is not quite right, I think, as the purpose of the character is not truth-telling or trickery at all. I don’t know what the purpose of the character is, come to think of it. It’s a brilliant creation, a magnificent thing in itself, but it doesn’t move the plot along, or hinder it, or pass along messages (to the wrong people or with the wrong words) or otherwise do the things I would expect a servant type in a farce to do. So that’s four that are missing.

On the other hand, it’s a fast-paced comedy with a lot of repetition and cross-talk, and the plot is driven by an overheard conversation. That’s four. So I think this falls clearly into the subject of argument category.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 14, 2011

Rough Crossing: dramatis personae

So. Rough Crossing. A play about a bunch of people preparing to put on a play. There are six characters, in order of appearance:

  • Sandor Turai: The older of a duo of playwrights of continental repute, Turai is a garrulous dandy, a selfish and dishonest but kindly rogue, constantly concocting ever more extravagant responses to the frustrations and thwartations of theatrical life. Your Humble Blogger plays this fellow.
  • Dvornichek: The cabin steward, Dvornichek is new to the sea, and while totally unfamiliar with the crossing, is mysteriously conversant with the plot of Rough Crossing; among the many excellent services provided is exposition. Of a sort. We have a cross-cast Dvornichek; I think of the part as an imposingly masculine presence, so the diminutive woman playing the role in this production seems incongruous. On the other hand, why not?
  • Adam Adam: The young songwriter and composer discovered by the playwrights, Adam would make a terrific romantic lead if it weren’t for his unfortunate speech impediment. Also, he is in the grip of young love, the inexpressible highs and lows of passion—at least inexpressible by the poor lad, under the circumstances. Our Adam is, alas, not quite matinee-idol handsome, but has a winning manner and also (I think) the musical chops to make the required piano-playing work.
  • Alex Gal: The younger and more practical of the playwrights, Gal is a needed weight to Turai’s blustery dreaming. Gal is often exasperated by, well, everything, but takes consolation in food and drink, and in the knowledge that it probably will all turn out all right in the end, as it has so often before. Our Gal is a handsome fellow with a saturnine look to him and a kind of jovial humor that I think audiences will find appealing.
  • Natasha Navratilova: Natasha is the lead of our play, the idol of theater lovers across Europe, and the object of Adam’s devotion. A rising star, she is just starting to feel her power; she finds the world at her feet. Our Natasha is not what I would call classically beautiful (although she is certainly good-looking enough, for a real person), but will wear fabulous gowns well, I expect. She is funny, which is more important, and has a good singing voice, besides.
  • Ivor Fish: An aging matinee idol, poor Ivor is the object of everybody’s contempt. He is hoping for a theatrical success to revive his career as well as his the embers of his romance with Natasha. Our Ivor is extremely well-cast, a tall, balding lantern-jawed deep-voiced stick of a man, quietly funny, a willing butt of jokes.

I think the whole thing is going to be very funny indeed, if we can get the audiences.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 3, 2011

Or just upload it to my head.

OK, a question: why doesn’t Samuel French or The Dramatists Play Service offer electronic editions of plays? I suppose what I actually mean is: why don’t they have, as part of the licensing deal, a requirement that the theater pay, oh, four bucks per cast member for an electronic edition?

It wouldn’t help me at all, as I type in the text as a start to the memorization process. And of course many actors will still for a long time want to have a paper script in hand during blocking—but it’s easy enough to print out sides for the scenes you are in, and for most parts in most plays, that would be easier and less paper-intensive than having a whole script. Or, of course, the licensing publisher can insist on the company purchasing both a paper and an electronic copy for each cast member; I don’t see a problem with that, myself.

I suppose that I am just assuming the demand. Presumably, the two companies have done (or certainly are capable of doing) actual market research. It’s just that the last two shows I have done have been adaptations of public domain works, the adaptations being done by people involved in the show, and so the electronic files were in the hands of the producers, who distributed them via email/download as well as in paper copies. For Rough Crossing, they were compelled to distribute paper copies only, which meant that (due to conflicts arising mostly from my not having quite finished the last show) YHB didn’t get a copy for two weeks after the casting announcement. I mean, I didn’t get a copy of the acting script; my employer has both the version published with On the Razzle and the Collected Works Volume Four, so I was able to begin work without waiting. Still. I would think, at this point, that there’s no need to wait.

It also seems to me that many actors—no, actors are of course different one to another, just like people, but many actors—are quite tech-happy. Not particularly clever or anything, just happy to adopt any new tools that will make our lives easier. Well, as long as they don’t interfere with our superstitions and prejudices, of course; and there’s the argument about microphones, etc, etc, but I can imagine many people finding a tremendous comfort in having a copy of the script on their telephone or netbook or e-reader, to scan while on trains and waiting in lines and even walking down the street.

It’s also possible, once you have the text electronically, to use software to check your memorization; if you don’t mind the typing, any reasonably current word processor will compare two documents and tell you where you have gone wrong. I don’t use a dictation system, but presumably that would be even easier—and if there isn’t a bit of software specifically for the purpose, then once playscripts were regularly distributed to casts, software would appear to fill the market. Right? Again, not that everybody would want it, just that enough people would want it to make it worthwhile, considering how easy it seems to be to implement.

Anyway, I was just wondering. It seems like such an obvious thing to me, and since Samuel French and DPS are making their real money (I assume) on licensing fees, I would imagine they would be in a better position to absorb the downsides of making their product available for easier copying. Of course, it could just be that the Standard Contract doesn’t allow it, and that the really prohibitive cost is rewriting the Standard Contract to make it allowable. And I don’t really know how those companies work; perhaps the individual playscript sales are enough of their product that having more copies around would hurt more than could be covered by the extra licensing money. Or perhaps theater companies would rise up in anger against having to pay for electronic copies of scripts that they neither want nor know how to use. Still. Doesn’t it seem, somehow, not right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 29, 2011

Three Hundred and Sixteen Lines

Your Humble Blogger has begun rehearsals for the new play, in which I will be playing Sandor Turai in Rough Crossing, Tom Stoppard’s sparkling adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s brilliant Játék a Kastélyban. I’m a huge fan of both playwrights, and am absolutely tickled to be in this thing. Although it’s a lot of work—I will not be posting and analyzing each of my three hundred and sixteen lines, as I will be concentrating on memorizing them. Some of the lines, of course, are nice short things like No or What? or To whom? or Perhaps a cognac, but I also get to say Naples has fallen below the horizon. Mother has eluded the Italian police only to come to grief in Casablanca where she is in the hands of the white slavers. Ilona finds Justin on deck. With luck, I will get to put a substantial level of thought and analysis into each line, but as for typing that all up for Gentle Readers, well, I think not. If I am lucky, I will have time to post my thorniest lines for your advice and support.

The play, for those who can make their way to Greater Hartford, will run in late May and June; if you don’t get an email from me with the info, let me know and I’ll get you on to my shill-list.

This is, I should just mention, pretty much the opposite of the last production. Where the last production was semi-professional, and certainly from my point of view was run more professionally and efficiently than any show I have ever been involved with, this next show is at the community that I talked about the last time I discussed community theater, a group of hippies who like to drink and put on plays and build a community. The director of the last play is, as I have said, Nearly Legendary; the director of this next play is a wonderful goof of a man who is younger than I am (and not much more experienced, perhaps). In the last production I was a supporting player with a lot of time backstage (including one stretch of more than 45 minutes); in this next show I am onstage from the beginning to the end, except for three pages in Act One, one three-page musical interlude and one stretch of about eleven lines toward the end of Act Two. And the intermission; I get to come backstage during the intermission, although I am onstage when the lights go down and again when the lights come back up.

What else… well, both plays are adaptations, although the last one attempted to be faithful in tone and content, while the next one says Freely Adapted on the cover, and means it, too. The last play uses a sort of heightened archaic speech that verges on tushery; this next play uses a sort of heightened thirties-style speech that verges on Archie-and Bertie-ry. Both plays and parts required some shouting; this one also requires wheedling, double-talking and possibly juggling.

And in this one I will wear a significantly smaller hat.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 25, 2011

Playlist: Let's Clatter There

I think this is Volume Seven of the Play Playlist Lists; it’s the prettiest of them, I think, despite everything.

  1. Ten Commandments: Psalm 6 (Bay Psalm Book), Margaret Dodd Singers
  2. Psalm 24 (Bay Psalm Book, set: Henry Ainsworth), Gregg Smith Singers
  3. Psalm 39, "Martyr’s Tune" (Thomas Ravenscroft), Gregg Smith Singers
  4. Mein Heiland geht ins Leiden (Georg Muller), Charles Bressler
  5. Thanks Be To Thee (Johannes Herbst), Charles Bressler/Harriet Wingreen
  6. Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (Heinrich Schütz), Philippe Herreweghe
  7. Audivi vocem (Thomas Tallis), Taverner Choir
  8. Vigilate (William Byrd), The King’s Singers
  9. De Profundis (John Dowland), Consort of Musicke
  10. When Jesus Wept (William Billings), Colonial Revelers
  11. Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice (18c hymn), Boston Baroque
  12. The Image Of Melancholy (Anthony Holborne), Hespèrion XXI
  13. Daphne (John Playford), Hesperus
  14. Greene-Sleeves (Traditional), Paul O’Dette
  15. The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night (Traditional), Custer LaRue
  16. The True Lover’s Farewell (Traditional), Baltimore Consort
  17. Old Wife Behind The Fire (Traditional), Bare Necessities
  18. The First of the Princes (Robert Johnson), Musicians of the Globe
  19. Cuckolds All In A Row-Rufty Tufty-Parson’s Farewell (John Playford), Hesperus

Let’s see… the Bay Psalm Book was the first book published in the New World, and had the melodies that were used in Boston in the time that was used. These setting are not exactly what my character would have heard, mostly because these people are professional singers, and the settlers perhaps not so much. There are a lot of things that are fifty to seventy-five years too early, but then these people might well have old-fashioned ideas about music, and may well have heard (probably in Amsterdam) some of the older stuff still being performed. Of course, the Latin stuff is Right Out for our Puritans, but the “Vigilate” is particularly wonderful, so there. There are also a couple of things that are clearly too late, mostly the Billings setting for “When Jesus Wept” and “the Fox”, but they seemed to fit anyway and I liked them.

I tried to make a nice shift between the sinners-in the-hands-of-the-proverbial stuff at the beginning, stuff that the Other Clergyman might have heard or even sung in his church, to the secular tunes that the Other Clergyman would have not quite prohibited.

Oh, one more thing about these: my character was named after the real-life Pastor of the First Church of Boston at the time of the events of the play. That real-life person was known for his fondness for and facility with anagrams, which I do not actually share, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can fake. So, I gave this mix the title Let’s Clatter There: a list for the cast of Retell That Secret; I individually lettered copies with anagrams (such as Let Her Test Claret or Test, Err, Cheat, Tell or Tell Tech Retreat) as well. It amused me, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 24, 2011

Wrap-up for the Great American Novel adaptation

Your Humble Blogger has been intending to write a wrap-up about the play that closed last weekend, but frankly this morning has been entirely taken up with refreshing the OBO on India-Australia. Kohli just got caught out, and that makes India 143-3 after 29 overs, chasing 261. I think this may well come down to the last few balls again. I find I’m rooting for India, mostly because I would like to see India meet Pakistan in a later round, although of course I would also be worried about violence. Still. Pakistan are incredibly erratic, but you would have to think they would hit another level in a one-day against an at-home India side for the World Cup.

Anyway. A few thoughts about my experience doing this semi-professional theeyater.

Positives

  • Nearly Legendary Director was wonderful and twinkly and said things like “The props don’t know they are in a play” and “The audience hears your vowels but they understand your consonants”. Actually the main thing I learned from him is that it is possible to be as good as he is at a variety of things. He blocked the play for a thrust stage without ever seeming to have to think about its requirements; he is such an old hand that he simply set things up on the diagonals and everything built from there. He also not only knew exactly what he wanted from any scene (at least any of my scenes) but was able to get it, which he did by simply and clearly explaining his demands. That may not sound like much, but damn.
  • I learned a lot from our out-of-town cast (particularly from the actor playing the Man, who was very pleasant to share backstage with) about what it is like to work as a professional actor on an equity contract. This is the first time that I have worked with equity actors, and while I do not want to become one at least I now have some sense of what that life is like in a practical sense.
  • The production values of the show were very high, certainly much higher than I am used to. The costumes were terrific, and there were people taking very good care of them (and being paid to do so). The set was very simple, deliberately so, but was excellent and again well cared for (mopped before every show, for instance). The props were not particularly good, but they weren’t awful, and more importantly I didn’t have any. The lighting and sound were very good, as far as I could tell, with one moment of thunder-lightning-fog that would really have been lousy if it didn’t work, but did seem to work, so that was nice. Rehearsals began on time and ended on time—this is more to do with the last point than this one, but still, it was very pleasant for me.
  • The show as a whole seemed to be very good, as far as I could tell.
  • Both Nearly Legendary Director and the actor playing the Man made a point of telling me that I was doing a good job; the Man told me that if a revival did happen, he would be happy for me to revive my role. Which doesn’t mean that I would actually be offered the part, and I wouldn’t take it if I were offered it if it meant going to New York for a month, but it was a lovely thing to hear.

The Disappointments

  • Ticket sales, mostly. For our nine open performances, we never sold more than a hundred of the seats in our 150-capacity house, and half of the time there were between forty and fifty. That’s just weak. The last time I was in that house (under different, and much more amateur management) we averaged a hundred, and sold out a few.
  • The professionalism of the whole endeavor has both good and bad; it was a lot less fun, and the cast didn’t really go out together after shows. At least, I actually never went out with the cast, but there was only one night where I know the cast did go out as a group, and even then it was only two-thirds of them. It wasn’t really a social group, in fact, it wasn’t a community. It wasn’t an unpleasant dynamic or anything, but it was much more like a workplace than a playspace.
  • Frankly, being in a tiny part wasn’t all that great. There was a stretch of around 50 minutes where I sat in the back and wrote letters or did crosswords. In addition to the shorter backstage stretches, that is.

All in all, I’m glad that I was in the thing, and I’m glad it’s over. …and in between starting this note in the morning (my time) and finishing in the afternoon, the match ended with India winning at a canter, 14 balls left. After, of course, they dropped two fairly quick wickets, giving them a run required rate of more than one a ball with twelve overs left; Australia ought to have been able to put India away, frankly, but couldn’t do it. So Pakistan meets India in Chandigarh on Wednesday for a semi-final. Looking forward to it, particularly as I don’t give England much chance in their quarter-final on Saturday against Sri Lanka in Colombo.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 22, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Finish Line

The run is over, but the memory lingers on. At the end of the scene, as the Child leaves, the Husband (who is (or is posing as) a scholar) asks if a Philosopher could deduce the Child’s father from what we know of the Child and the Woman.

Nay, let us not invoke secular philosophy. Better to fast and pray upon the question. Still better, leave this mystery as we find it, till Providence reveal in its own accord.

I make a clear distinction between the first two sentences, which are to the Husband, and the last, which is to the Governmental Authority. I also use this to sort of build on the triumph of my protégé (or what I perceive as a triumph); the Governmental Authority is bound to agree with me, not only because it means less work for him but because after nine years, the subject has been nigh exhausted.

As such, I am against secular philosophy, of course, and fasting and praying, as well as for this mystery (in this context) and obviously for Providence and its accord. It is a major-key speech, and it has a taste of the lectern about it; this is the moment where I try to let peek through the circumstances the nature of the Other Clergyman to be, by his natural instinct, a rather dull village rector who likes to hear himself speak, and is considered a harmless and pleasant dullard by residents who fondly avoid him. In the context of his religious doctrine and the requirements of a new settlement, the Other Clergyman is all brimstone and no treacle, but I want ideally to have just a taste of the sweetness present if possible.

…and that’s my last line. I do have two further entrances: I come through in the storm, through fog and lightning, under the Man as he rants on the gibbet, but I don’t see him or hear him and exit without speaking. That’s near the end of the first act. The second act gets rid of the crowd for 40 minutes or so, concentrating entirely on the Woman, the Husband, the Man and the Child; only in the last scene do all the townsfolk (and there are seven of us) come out to witness the dread revelation of sin and redemption. But we don’t have lines, other than some verbalization to cover our getting in to position for the tableau.

Which reminds me that I have given a tremendous emphasis to the lines and the words in them, in large part because (as Nearly Legendary Director puts it) this is a play of words, not a play of actions. It’s also easier to talk about the words, as YHB can quote them and a G.R. can go back and forth between what I’m saying and what I’m saying, if you know what I mean. I am also making choices (or embodying Nearly Legendary Director’s choices) about actions, how I sit and stand, how I gesture, what sort of faces to pull while some other sorry bastard is speaking his lines, who to stare at when, all that sort of thing, and while in this play it is perhaps less important than deciding whether to end a line on a rising or falling pitch, it’s still pretty important. So I wanted to mention, as I get to the end of this series of notes about lines, that I am aware the lines aren’t everything.

I should have two more notes about this play, and then turn to the next one. You are warned.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 20, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Fifteenth Line

After the Governmental Authority has granted permission for the Woman to keep the Child, she wordlessly thanks the Man for pleading their case.

The little baggage hath a witchcraft in her, I confess.

This is an odd thing to say, isn’t it? It’s a joke, of course, but a dangerous one. I wonder if it’s an attempt, possibly a not entirely conscious attempt, to keep a sort of deniability in case anything goes wrong. In case the child does turn out to be of demonic origin, I mean, or in case the decision leads to some further trouble in the town. On the other hand, it could just be an expression of wonder that we all, authorities assembled including the speaker, permit this child to misbehave in a way that would certainly not be permitted in another child, one with a father. The waywardness of the child is clearly a matter of significant concern to the town, and yet somehow there is charm in it.

Which brings up the question: is my character for or against this? The answer that I came up with is that the statement isn’t about the Child at all, but about the Man—I am excusing his behavior in being thanked by the Child. Thus, why I am against it, I am not so strongly against it as I am for him; I am, in effect, apologizing. It’s a minor key speech, or the closest thing to it that I have in this shouty role.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 19, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Fourteenth Line

Your Humble Blogger has three more lines to blog and two more performances. I had better get on that, hadn’t I better? The Man is orating with great effect, and the Husband says that he speaks with enthusiasm.

And with wisdom, may it be said. What say you, Governor Bellingham? Hath he not pleaded well for the poor woman?

I like the phrasing here: the Man has pleaded well, not logically or correctly or according to Writ, but well. The phrasing also gives me a chance to do that against/for thing that Nearly Legendary Director is on about: I am so clearly for the Man and his skilled oratory, and against the poor woman, and it makes a nice contrast in the line.

I am also pleased about this moment in the play, as it is one of the few moments in this particular production where I came up with a bit. Nearly-Legendary Director is not enamored of actors coming up with bits—oh, he does make the usual mouth noises about actors experimenting and so forth, but in point of fact, given two weeks of rehearsal time with the full cast, and given that he did not want us experimenting or inventing during the blocking process, and that he wanted everything locked down by the dress rehearsals, there was no time for us to come up with things that might work and might not, and I was not under the impression that he regretted that lack in the slightest way. I am complaining, of course, because I do like the opportunity to come up with business or body language or such to add my own touch to the story, but I must admit that the final result does not appear to have suffered at all from this exclusion.

And, when I say exclusion, it wasn’t forbidden at all, it was just…much less of a priority than other shows in my experience.

So. In this line, when I am responding to the Husband, the line is actually communicating to the Man; I reach out my hand to him in a sort of benedictory clasp, if you know what I mean—my palm is down, and he takes it in both of his hands and bows over it. I am giving him my imprimatur, my countenance. It is congratulatory, but clearly from a greater power to a lesser; I am his patron, and I am, in that sense at least, patronizing him. Just a moment, a trifle really, not something that would (I imagine) break through to the awareness of the audience, but a helpful part of the story, anyway. And it’s one of the non-shouty bits, which is nice for a change.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 15, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Twelfth Line

You may believe this or not, as you like, but the twelfth line is perhaps my favorite in the play.

Oh? How is that, good Master Dimmesdale? Make that plain, I pray you.

Why is it my favorite? Because it was in studying that line and making choices with it that I was able to come to some fundamental choices about my character’s relationship with the Man, and those choices were not only helpful to me, but to the actor playing the Man. Let me explain.

If you have been following these lines, you presumably have figured out that the Other Clergyman comes in to this scene arguing that the Child must be taken away from the Woman. He is pestering the Governmental Authority about it; he interrupts the Husband (not that he knows it’s the Husband, but still) and generally causes a fuss. The Man (and no, my character doesn’t know it’s the Man in question, but still still) is asked by the tearful Woman (yes, I do know it’s the Woman) to plead her case, which the Man has begun to do.

Two minutes later, I am completely and utterly convinced, and appeal to the Governmental Authority to rule according to my new position, the opposite of the ruling I was demanding when the scene began. This was difficult for me. People don’t act that way. People do change their minds, yes, over time, but not usually like that. It didn’t seem to be done for comic emphasis, either; that wouldn’t be appropriate for the rest of the people in the scene. I didn’t find the book helpful, either; the adapted scene is lifted nearly intact out of the book, and there isn’t any helpful explanation in Mr. Hawthorne’s narrative voice (which does happen elsewhere). So I needed a reason for my character to change his mind, and I needed a way to play that change that made sense and wouldn’t be distracting.

What I came up with is this: the Man is my character’s protégé; the older Clergyman is bringing up the younger both as an eventual replacement in the position of authority and as an ornament on the young church’s crown. This, by the way, in addition to being a common and understandable relationship that the audience should be able to relate to, is in keeping with the historical person who shares a name and a job with my character. There are several incidents of the Real Person taking visiting dignitaries to see the preaching of the young clergymen under his wing. In this scene, then, once the Man has been set the task of pleading the Woman’s case in front of the Governmental Authority, my character is likelier to be rooting for his success in that pleading than against it.

Thus, this line. My younger colleague, there, has been struggling, and is starting to put some words together in vague but coherent sentences, mostly to himself. I interrupt to encourage him to make that plain to the Governmental Authority (complete with gesture) rather than to me—the kindly advice of his somewhat stern debate coach, not the challenge of his opponent. Then, as he gathers steam and begins a nice line of oratory, I am with him, not against him.

The actor playing the Man (who has a very difficult job) found that very helpful; suddenly he’s got somebody on his side. And suddenly, instead of just desperately responding to the clearly implied blackmail, or even acting out of some affection for the Woman and the Child, he is also getting to show off for his mentor. This makes the transition from the abovementioned vague coherence into the nice line of oratory work. It also, as it happens, makes a couple of other parts of the play work better, as that relationship can inform his public actions and interactions with me when we are together.

And, really, the future of the Man (my protégé, who is tightly bound to the future of the settlement of the new world) is more important than the future of the Woman and the Child, who are after all a Woman and a Child. I mean, really. As long as she’s unhappy and everybody knows it, so that there isn’t any more adultery going around being found out about, I can live with her raising the demon child just fine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 14, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Eleventh Line

So. There we are, all of us, the Man, the Woman, the Husband, the Child, the Governmental Authority and the Other Clergyman, and the last two mentioned have threatened to have the Child taken away from the Woman and raised with a foster family. The Woman is distraught.

My poor woman, the child will be well cared for—far better than thou canst do it.

Nearly-Legendary Director gave the note, early in the rehearsal process, that my line should top the previous line, meaning (he explained) that it should be both higher in pitch and greater in intensity. This is the secret to interrupting, he said. This makes very good sense, and is a lesson learned.

Unfortunately, the Woman’s line is You shall not take her from me. I shall die first!

I do give my line at a higher pitch and with substantial intensity (if not actually greater intensity than the cue line, which is difficult to measure), but it isn’t easy. And having interrupted at that pitch, I have some difficulty with the rest of the line. The way it goes, now, is that the first word my is nearly at the top of my range, then drops quite a bit to poor and then drops again to a very repressive woman. I suppose I could pick out the notes on the piano, but it seems to my ear to make a chord with the three falling notes. Mypoorwoman. In, actually, increasing volume.

Then I can go back up a bit to will and then down again and then up again to thou with a little twist upward on the last word. So. Exhibiting a bit of vocal range on that line.

As for our earlier questions, I’m pretty much against everything here: the Woman, the Child, the thou. Even the better is focused not on what my character is for but on what he is against, that is, the better is in contrast to what I am really talking about. I am also choosing to have my character speak this line directly to the Woman and for her (its meaning being, essentially, shut up and do what I tell you, stupid female person) rather than speaking for the benefit of the Governmental Authority. Which would have been a legitimate choice, emphasizing the Other Clergyman’s sycophantic nature. It would change that better to a for, either sincere or otherwise, as an attempt to convince that Governmental Authority of my character’s good intentions.

Alas, it is not a story about relationship between the Governmental Authority and the Other Clergyman; our job is to support the story about the Man, the Woman and the Husband, and given a viable choice with my lines and character to do that, we go with the one that does that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 13, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Tenth Line

So, where was I? Oh, yes, Act One, scene seven. My character has been asked by the Governmental Authority to examine the Child to see if she is being Well Brought Up:

Pearl, comest thou hither. Child—Pearl, thou must take heed to instruction. Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?

There’s (obviously?) a lot of business here to go along with the words. A gesture for the Child to come closer, the child’s reluctant foot-dragging, an attempt at an avuncular pat on the head with attendant revulsed flinching, and then (this is the bit I particularly like), my character, who is sitting square and upright in a wooden chair, holds out his two hands in front of him for the poor Child to step in between, so I place her by the upper arms in an over-the-top imposition of authority. In this short moment, the Other Clergyman goes from an incompetent attempt at twinkliness to outraged authority and back more than once—it’s a hint (at least in my mind) that the character is not only unsympathetic but fundamentally untrustworthy, fully capable of convincing himself and other people that things are as they are not. Or at least himself, and I hope making it at least plausible for the audience that I will sweep others up in my delusion of myself as kindly, stern, loving, pious and ultimately concerned with the Divine Will for the community of faith.

Which, at least in my character’s mind, I am.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 8, 2011

De Profundis

I know this blog has been silent lately. This is Hell Week for our production, and as it happens there are other things taking up time that I could have spent with my Sixteen Lines. Including running those lines, which I have also been remiss about. Well.

The show is proceeding more-or-less normally; I have a good feeling about the thing as a show, and almost none of the panic I am supposed to be feeling, or was supposed to be feeling a few days ago. Had an audience snuck in a couple of nights ago, they would have enjoyed themselves despite a couple of moments that were tentative or imperfectly executed. By tonight, when the front-of-house gang are sitting in, they should be seeing a show that is realio trulio ready for an audience. Tomorrow night, the paying customers arrive.

In addition to falling behind on my Sixteen Lines, I haven’t blogged the Scarlet Playlist, which could have used the advice of any Gentle Readers with a knowledge of music from the early 1600s. I did OK, I think, and I will post the list and some commentary when I have a chance. Which may be Saturday, and may be in May. We shall see.

In the meantime, Gentle Readers, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 5, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Ninth Line

The Child has just said that her name is Pearl, which leads to more jocularity, and then a turn:

A pearl? A red rose, at least! But where is this mother of thine, eh? Eh? Ah, this is the self-same child of whom we spoke, and behold, her unhappy mother.

So. I begin this line as a continuation of the last, in a stiffly jocose manner—again, I am notionally speaking to the Child, but actually speaking for the other men in the room. The Child, naturally, flees from my patronage back to her mother’s arms, which precipitates the second half of the line.

The for and against, then, is complicated. I am essentially pretending to be for this pearl, while being against children and other disruptive elements. Then, again, I am against a Mother that lets her Child run loose (and dressed like that), but am covering it in hilarity. Then, as I the Child with the Mother, I am very clearly against them both (but for beholding them).

The music of the line shifts entirely with that percussive Ah that begins the second half of the line. No, it’s not actually percussive; you can’t actually make the sound ah percussive, but it is metaphorically percussive, and I mean to convey the sound as being sudden and sharp, and not at all a reflective Ahh-h-hh-h. Just Ah following the ehs that…

Here, I’ll record the thing:

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 3, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Eighth Line

Our colloquy is interrupted by the appearance of the Child, dressed in a bright red dress with incredibly fancy embroidery. The Governmental Authority is pleased at the interruption, and jocularly scolds the Child, comparing her to something from a court mask from Old King James’ time—’we called them then the Children of Misrule! My character attempts to join the jocosity:

Indeed, a little bird of scarlet plumage? Art thou a Christian child? Or some naughty elf or fairy?

So. This is a very complicated bit to answer questions about, although not very difficult to play (he said, courting disaster). It is addressed to the Child, of course, although it is only notionally addressed to her, as my character is mostly speaking to the other men present by speaking to the child. He doesn’t have (I think) any particular reaction in mind from the Child, but he very much wants the Governmental Authority, and to a lesser extent the Man and the Husband, to chuckle approvingly at how terrific he is with children. Which, alas, is not very terrific at all; his attempts at hilarity are stiff and awkward, and rather than bring my character in to the circle of grupps, the effect is to unite the other men in sympathy with the Child. But I don’t know that.

Furthermore, while my character is against children wearing bright colors, and against elves and fairies, he is for his little jokes and the putative hilarity that ensues, or doesn’t. And while there is no reason for the line to be in a minor key, best of all is to hit false notes, fail to resolve, clink on the ear like a, um, well, you know what I mean.

Actually, my key for the line so far is to pronounce the word Christian with three syllables: kriss-tea-an. That bit is directed right in the little girl’s face, before turning to present the point of the joke to the grown-ups.

Of course, it isn’t really a joke, which makes it funnier.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Sixteen Lines: Seventh Line

Your Humble Blogger’s character is attempting to persuade the Governmental Authority to take the Woman’s Child; I relate that the village folk believe the child’s father to be the Father of Lies himself.

Should the child prove, after all, capable of moral and religious growth, possessed of the elements of ultimate salvation, then surely its prospects for these advantages would be improved by being transferred to wiser and better guardianship than Hester Prynne’s.

One thing about the Other Clergyman is that he is somewhere between comic relief and a villain; he is not a sympathetic character at all. He is not the Bad Guy in the piece, but he is bad—he dislikes the Woman, who is our heroine, after all. His fondness for the Man is fondness for the parts of the Man we don’t like, the parts that prevent him from pairing up with the Woman for a happy ending. In fact, his presence as the Other Clergyman makes him a symbol of the Clergy in an anticlerical play; he stands in for all the oppressive prudery we associate with the Puritans. He is also a pompous git, a preacher who likes the sound of his own voice, and clearly our Nearly-Legendary Director wants the audience to react to his speeches by almost instantly hoping for someone to shut the man up.

I can play that.

None of that, however, makes the questions about the lines unnecessary. In some ways the fact that nobody is really listening to the words makes the close examination of the line even more important for an actor, if only because it’s easy to get lazy and play it for laughs. So.

My character is against the child, for moral and religious growth, for the elements and particularly for salvation, and very much for surely, for the advantages, for improving them, and for the Child being transferred. Oddly enough, I am againstwiser and better guardianship—I mean, I am in favor of the guardianship being wiser and better, but I am against in the sense that I am speaking of them in contempt as being an easy, almost trivial matter to be a wiser and better guardian than Hester Prynne. Who I am against.

It’s a major-key speech, clearly. He’s a major-key guy.

The speech is addressed to the Governmental Authority; it is also addressed to the Man and the Husband, not in those roles but as a preacher and a philosopher. Mostly, its address to those two is designed to block any arguments they might make against fostering out the child. That is, its intent is not to get agreement, but to get silence or acquiescence, presenting the opposing view as being in favor of the Woman, which of course no man in his right mind could be.

I’ll add, thanking Christopher who brings it up, that the lines to fall into a rough pentameter:

Should the child prove, after all,
capable of moral and religious growth,
possessed of the elements of ultimate salvation,
then surely its prospects for these advantages
would be improved by being transferred to
wiser and better guardianship
than Hester Prynne’s.

I don’t want to overstate the matter, as any flowery speech of complex syntax could probably be divided into groups of five stress beats with some jiggery-pokery like the above, in which I have taken words such as salvation or capable and given them one stress, eliding the minor stress, but having a caesura when I want it so that surely its prospects is three beats and so on. Still, it does seem to work. And, if nothing else, it indicates the sort of person the Other Clergyman is: the sort who extemporizes in pentameter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 1, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Sixth Line

Now. My character had just coerced the Governmental Authority to repeat Stumbling block?, allowing further explanation:

A substantial number of my flock believe this child, Pearl, to be of demonic origin, and that it would be better for Hester Prynne, the child, and our community of faith that the child be removed from her mother’s care.

Nearly-Legendary Director was talking to me about this line last night during rehearsal, pointing out the tremendous contrasts available to me. My flock: for. The child, Pearl: against. Demonic origin: very against. Better: for. Then, a ladder up the triple, as being better and better before plunging down in pitch to child: against. Removed: for. Her mother’s care: against.

What my character is really against is disorder, and (in his interpretation) (or, rather, my interpretation of his interpretation) any possibility of the Woman being seen to be happy or even not-entirely-miserable is a temptation to disorder amongst the populace. Further, children are inherently prone to disorder, and this child seems to be particularly irreverent and willful. The clergy cannot be soft or lenient in these matters or there will be chaos.

Not you, Chaos.

Anyway, the suggestion that the Child be removed into foster care has two obvious benefits: (A) it will make the Woman unhappy, and (secondly) it will make the child unhappy. It’s a win-win!

In this line, by the way, I turn to include the Man (who I know only as a somewhat soft-hearted clergyman prone to misguided compassion) as I suggest that my advice is best for the Woman and the Child, before capping the triple with the community of faith delivered directly to the Governmental Authority, who is responsible for it.

I will add another note about line reading… one of the tricky things about, well, about acting, I suppose, at least in the naturalistic style that is most common and popular in our culture, is that the character must act as if he is thinking up the words as he goes along. Yet doing so is not the best way to tell the story that must be told. If an actor pauses as long as a person really would pause who had no idea what was coming next, the audience would fret. Even if they didn’t notice it, they would fret. Even if they didn’t fret at the moment the gap was too long, they would fret when it came to be eleven o’clock and they weren’t on the way home. Thus, the pauses have to be quick. Infinitesimal, really. But still noticeable, still breaking the sentence into thought groups as a person might.

Nearly-Legendary Director will interrupt a line like this if it is flowing so smoothly that it doesn’t allow the listener any entrance points. A substantial number of my flock believe—believe what?believe the child Pearl to be of—to be what?of demonic origin! He is saying that the audience should be thinking (tho’ not verbalizing it) those questions at those points in the script. We don’t have time to keep them in suspense, but we have to allow them to think the thought. If they are quick. It’s a tough trick for me—I have written before about my tendency to creeping Shatnerism, which leads me to (correctly) mistrust my sense of pacing. I am having a great deal of difficulty with the pacing, but at least I am getting near-legendary directing. Stretch it out, I am being told. Slow it down. But without taking too much time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Sixteen Lines: Fifth Line

Nine years pass in the twinkling of a Fresnel, and I have my Big Scene (with the rest of my lines). The scene begins with my character pressing the Governmental Authority (in the presence of the Man and the Husband, although they are not their in those capacities, nor do either of us minor characters know this about them) for approval of the fostering of the Child. The scene will expand to include the Child and the Woman (or, as we may now call her, the Mother); it’s a lively scene with much of interest. And I get the first line.

I tell you, Governor Bellingham, a Christian interest in Hester Prynne’s soul requires us to remove this stumbling block from her path.

Asking our questions: I am for the removal I speak of, although of course I am against the Woman. It is to the Governmental Authority I address by name, and it is (within the context of a play) entirely to him, seeking a response only from him. In fact, the line is phrased so as to elicit an tell-me-more response, rather than a final approval; this is a lead-up to the point, not the point itself. However, that tell-me-more response (“Stumbling block?”) is almost compulsory; not to provide it would be outright rude.

It is a major-key speech—I should take a moment a talk about the music of the speech. Nearly-Legendary Director admonished us that while in conversation one almost always wants to end your line—that is, end the bit you were going to say, whether it is one sentence or a few—by lowering your pitch, on the stage, it is generally better to end a line with a rising pitch. This is not the Valley Girl tic of turning everything into a question, but an emphasis on the final word (because the last word of the sentence is likely to be the most important, or at any rate, quite important) as well as leading the audience in to the next line. Let me demonstrate:

Here’s the line as I might say it under a different director (pardon the pops and hisses):

And here’s the line as I might say it tonight at rehearsal:

Do you see?

And it goes on: in my Second Line, it ends take the scarlet letter off thy breast on a rising pitch rather than a falling one, as might be more natural—but the reason the falling pitch is more natural is that it serves to put a finish to the discussion, to make anyone who wishes to disagree re-open the subject rather than continue it. One can’t score every line like that, of course, but more than you might think.

One of the great things about having sixteen lines with a Near-Legendary Director is that the odds are pretty good that he will listen to every one of them at least once, and may well give me notes about each one of them. He is extremely attentive to details of intonation, of course, as well as the blocking (ours is a thrust stage with two extra bonus columns for added excitement) and the timing and all the rest of it. Evidently we can expect to get detailed notes scrawled in his handwriting—maybe there will be something I can scan and post.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Fourth Line

So. The Woman has emerged from prison and begun her new life as a mother and as an outcast. After a short exchange where she is abused by the nastiest of the local women, the Other Clergyman (that is to say, my character) walks through the square and sees her with her infant:

Ah, Hester Prynne. Still silent? All the world knows thou didst not sin alone. Confess, and lessen thy pangs of guilt. How say you, now that time has done its work?

This is the first time my character speaks in private—or semi-private, anyway, as it is on the street and there are other people nearby, and I’m not foolish enough to believe they aren’t listening, even if I can’t see them.

I mentioned, I think, that privacy is one of the themes of the book; for the play, this is (perhaps necessarily) narrowed to secrecy. Each of the three characters keeps a secret (the Woman keeps two), and those secrets work to the detriment of their souls. In the book, the destructive nature of secrecy is played against the perhaps equally destructive nature of full disclosure: the question is not necessarily how to reveal everything to everybody, but what to reveal to which people. It is, I think, quite a modern question, a Facebook/Twitter question, but I wouldn’t want to adapt the whole book to that phenomenon. But in the play, there is very little difference between those secrets revealed to a particular person (perhaps the wrong person) and those revealed to the entire populace, as peopled by the audience, who are there even in the private thoughts of the three of them. As such, the rigor of the Other Clergyman’s view that confession must be public to be helpful (to the soul and to the community) is part of the character detail that falls by the wayside.

The interesting decision here is one I talked about in a different context at one point: is this the first time this character has spoken this thought, or is it a thought expressed before, perhaps in these words. This major-key minor-key business is affected by this decision, as is the for/against. Nearly-Legendary Director has instructed me that this is a weary repetition, said without expectation of success. The music of the line reflects the resignation, sadness, and frustration of the character.

A side note: as we shall see, the Woman’s silence and the unruly child she ill-raises eventually lead many of the townsfolk to believe that the Devil was the father, and thus that in some ontological sense the Woman did sin alone. It isn’t clear to me whether the Other Clergyman in this play believes in such things, in that literal sense—it is tempting, of course, to imagine the well-educated traveler as being above such superstition, but that’s a projection of our own time and place. The line, though, takes on a new meaning in that context: rather than a faintly ribald wheedling, it’s a flat denial of the rumored diabolism. This makes the otherwise familiar rhetorical stakes-upping inclusion of all the world to be, rather, a warning to the listening townsfolk that they, too, should know what all the world knows. Not a moment to be played for (we are telling the story of the Woman and the Man and the Husband) but an interesting thing to keep in mind.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 25, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Third Line

So. Unless there is a rather surprising ad lib, the Woman does not reveal the name of the Man in question, leading to my character’s third line:

Woman, the scarlet letter shall there burn forever on thy remorseless bosom, echoing with its hue the flames of the eternal pit. Remain then, confined for a time to expiate thy sin, and on thy release, wear thou the letter still, as symbol of the brand upon thy soul!

Here’s a story: when I began to learn my lines for this play, I completely missed this one. I simply didn’t notice my character’s name. Which is inexplicable, as I have the script in a searchable PDF, and I did, in fact, do a search to see where my lines were. Anyway, when I was very-nearly off book on the rest of it, I went to format my sides for blocking (I think I have mentioned that I prefer to work with just my own pages, formatted with my own lines in big bold type, and lots of space for writing) and discovered this line, which needed to be memorized in a hurry. My Best Reader worked with me, and in an ingenious attempt to give me hints without giving me words, came up with a series of gestures that go with the words. I hope I don’t absent-mindedly use them on-stage.

Anyway, the first questions I am asking myself about each speech: Is my character for or against what he is saying? I have been directed to emphasize the defeat in the speech, the extent to which my character is aware that the Woman has successfully defied myself and authority (civil, ecclesiastical and Divine). I am against what I am saying, in the sense that I would rather not be saying it. This for and against is not terribly easy, it turns out—it does seem useful, as a question, perhaps because, not despite, the difficulty of answering it simply. I am for the punishment as appropriate to the situation. I am against the situation.

I think, for that reason, there is a minor key element to the speech. Certainly, this speech lacks the triumphal fierceness of the previous blasts. I am lifting it up for the middle part about the flames, addressing that (to begin to segue to the next question) to the circumjacent villagers rather than to the Woman. But then it modulates (if that’s the word I’m looking for) to a resigned tone that is, if not actually in a minor key (because my ears ain’t that good), metaphorically in a minor key.

This speech is followed by the Governmental Authority ending the ritual and the crowd dispersing, clearing the way for an expository scene which Your Humble Blogger is not in. Well, and actually I have been given the task of calling for the servant from off-stage, which was not among my original sixteen lines, and which I will not honor with its own entry. When I come back for my next line, the Woman has served her term of confinement and begun to settle into her new life.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 24, 2011

Sixteen Lines: Second Line

My character’s second line comes after the Woman does not respond to the ironic plea of my younger colleague to expose her lover to public censure.

Woman, speak the name! That, and thy repentance, may work to take the scarlet letter off thy breast!

Shall we go to our questions from before? Clearly, I am for the speaking of the name, and I am for repentance, and although I am not for removing the titular mark of shame, I feel that it’s a worthwhile bargain. My character also feels, clearly, that the marker is a severe punishment indeed.

In one of the introductory essays to one of the editions I read from as I went through the novel as preparatory research, the scholar suggests that the main character is neither the Woman nor the Man but the titular character—a character in that sense, not a person at all. We begin with the scrap of embroidered cloth (in the book, I mean, as the play dispenses with that bit) and follow it back to its occasion, and see it as it changes meaning, as it signifies one or another thing, changing over the course of the story. A badge of shame, of course, and a punishment. When (in the book) the townswomen grow to respect the Woman for her rectitude over the years, it is said by some that it stands for Able, rather than Adulteress. The Man thinks he sees an A in the sky as he stands out his mad midnight vigil, and of course in the end, as he dies, some people see the red letter on his bared chest. Others claim they did not. In the show, we do see the letter (just to give away the ending), because doing the effect where some of the audience see the A-shaped wound and others do not requires giving out those glasses, which would mean increasing the ticket price. At any rate, the letter and its various locations, meanings, attributions and possibilities is very much a concern throughout the play. We even play the entire show under a big red A—I was going to say we play it literally under the shadow of the letter, but presumably the lighting will prevent that.

So. The second first question I have been using is who the speech is too (clearly it is to Woman, and while there are of course multiple audiences and the speaker is aware of them and attempting to manipulate them as well, still, the speech is clearly to Woman) and what response the speaker hopes to achieve. Again, in this simple speech it is to have the Woman speak the Name—but does my character actually want the letter removed? Would that serve the Pastor’s purposes? I think this can be answered either way and therefore requires a choice, and I think, insofar as I have to make the choice at this stage, that I choose to portray a Pastor who does not, in fact, want the letter removed. Who does want the name, and is willing to bargain for it, but is also reserving the right to deny that there was an agreement and compel the Woman to remain branded even after giving up the name (judging, for instance, that the repentance is insufficient).

That isn’t the Pastor of the book, but it is (I think) the Pastor of the play, or of this version of the play, or of this production of this version of the play. On Thursday, with two weeks before we open.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 23, 2011

Sixteen Lines: First Line

Your Humble Blogger has sixteen lines in this play. I am thinking about blogging each of them. I mean, there aren’t that many, and if it’s too deadly dull, y’all can go back to reading about Rahm Emanuel, right? And to start it off, I’ll spice it up with a visual:

Wordle: Lines

How’s that? It’s a Wordle, of course, of all my lines. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the bigger words are repeated most often; it’s a trick to make rhetorical conceits and habits pop out. In this case, it revealed to me my character’s habit of referring to non-men in the generic: Woman, Child, Mother. Not a good way of thinking, but not a bad way for the actor to think about the character, in a general sort of way. And, of course, Gentle Readers will be able to discern the title of the play in the Wordle. Perhaps I should take other words that pop out and refer to the play as The Child of Sin.

Well, and here’s my first line, directed from a public platform to the prisoner in the pillory:

Hester Prynne, I have striven with my younger colleague here, under whose preaching of the Word you have been privileged to sit, that he prevail with you, here in the face of Heaven and in the hearing of the people, as touching the vileness and blackness of your sin, no longer to hid the name of him who tempted you to this grievous fall. The name! The name!

Near-Legendary Director says that the first thing one should ask one’s self about a line is whether the speaker is for it or against it. Another first thing one should ask one’s self is who it is to, and what the speaker wants from the person so addressed. Another first thing is whether it the line is in a major key or a minor key. There are other first things, too, but that’s enough to go on with.

As for whether my character is for or against the speech, he is for his younger colleague, for prevailing with Woman, for the face of Heaven and the hearing of the people, against sin, and against the unnamed tempter (who is, of course, the unnamed colleague he is for earlier in the sentence, but he is still unaware of this—as may be some portion of the audience, still). More closely touching on the meaning of the question, the speaker is speaking what he believes to be true: he is neither speaking ironically nor deceitfully. He considers this to be a straightforward account of the situation: the fall was grievous, the woman is recalcitrant, the colleague ought to prevail.

The second question, of address, is complicated. Or would be, in real life or even in a major character. As in most occasions of public address, the speaker has several audiences. He is, of course, addressing the Woman, and wants her to speak the name of the Man, both as an acknowledgment of her deference (to him, to moral and legal authority, to the Divine) and in order that the Man be appropriately punished for his Sin. He is also speaking to the Man (who may be in the crowd, and in fact is on the platform), in hopes that he will confess himself. He is speaking to his colleague, who he considers soft and who he wants to adopt a more confrontational method of admonishment. However, he also speaks to the populace assembled, and what he wants from them is more complicated. He wants to scare them straight, for one thing, to make them sufficiently afraid of being in the Woman’s place that they do not commit adultery. He also wants them to agree with him, to add their pressure on the Woman to his own. He wants them to indicate their own sense of appropriate deference to authority and his ownership thereof. He is also speaking to the Governor, who is on the platform next to him and has just introduced him, wanting the Governor to approve his statement and extend their authority together. In the real world, or in a novel, or even in the main character in a play, all of those are important components of the speech.

As a supporting character in a play, though, it is better to narrow the speech to its address to the main characters. I think, in this instance, it’s better to focus on the Woman. It’s true that the tactic of shaming and browbeating is the wrong one to get the results he wants, but his character would not bend his tactics to circumstances, seeing that as weakness and irresolution in the service of the Divine.

I should say—in the novel, the character is somewhat more fully sketched, and the portrait is of a man who is by nature kindly and sympathetic, but who by education and belief feels that nature ought to be suppressed. There seems to be some historical justification for that sketch, actually—the clergyman was noted both for zealousness in fighting apostasy and in generosity to individuals under his pastoral care. I would like to have some sense of that in the show, but there really isn’t much time to portray all of that, and it’s very important not to distract attention from the story. The supporting actors should support, after all.

Next question: my musical ear is not sophisticated, but I would say the line is in a major key. It is a brassy speech, a fanfare of sorts. I suspect I should do it as a rising pitch sort of thing, starting low and pitching each clause higher until the call for the name at the end is a blast at the top. I guess. Possibly drop the vileness and blackness clause deeper before going back up to the demand for the name. Either way, it will be important to start in the lower register.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Read Through, through, through the play

Your Humble Blogger has at last begun rehearsals for the new play. It’s a very different experience from anything I’ve done, and very very different from what I’ve been doing these last few years.

A Nearly-Legendary Director, who has worked with everybody and done everything, has as one of his latest ventures started a small non-profit theater in New York. One of the actresses in the group wanted to play the lead in an adaptation of the Great American Novel (well, you know, I suspect she identified it as such, and is scarcely the only one). However, the existing adaptations for the stage are not terribly good. When she brought them to Near-Legendary Director in frustration, he said so write your own damn adaptation, Pomerantz, which she more or less did, eventually bringing him an incomplete draft, which he whipped into a play, and which is the script we are using.

They played the thing in New York, to good reviews (some of which are available on the internet), but it didn’t take off. They like the thing, though, the actress and the Near-Legendary Director, and have been trying to get it revived, doing a few readings and, now, a Regional Premiere in an attempt to drum up interest. The Near-Legendary Director himself is directing, and the core of the original cast (the Woman, the Man, and the Wronged Husband) have come to reprise their performances. The rest of the cast (the Daughter of Shame, the Peasant Fellow, the Four Townswomen, the Government Figure and the Other Clergyman) are local, cast by audition here. The original cast members have been rehearsal for a week up in New York, where they live (their comically overplayed delight at our town’s enormous grocery stores with ludicrously cheap food was a successful icebreaker), and we joined them last night for the read-through. Now we have all of fifteen rehearsals until a paying audience comes in. A short, intense rehearsal period, with a short, intense run, and the whole thing over in a month.

So. Last night was the read-through, and was unlike any read-through I’ve ever done. The leads gave extraordinary performances. Extraordinary for a read-through, I mean, although it is obvious already that the Wronged Husband will give an extraordinary performance when he is on his feet, and will steal the show entirely, as is proper. But the rest of the cast also gave readings much better than the average read-through, too. This is presumably because we are all well-prepared, as we need to be—we were asked to be off-book by last night, and clearly most of us mostly were, which makes a read-through more performance-y. Or it’s because we are all extremely good at this acting thing. But probably the well-prepared thing.

And then, after we read through the play, our Near-Legendary Director gave us a little lecture about theater, acting, speaking, history, performance, story-telling, and a hundred other things. It was wonderful—no advice I hadn’t come across before, but stories about people he had studied under or taught or been robbed by. And someday, you know, I will be able to say it was like Near-Legendary Director once told me: Speaking is Discovery.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 28, 2011

A Play

Your Humble Blogger has been pseudonymous on the Internet for years and years, now. Actually, I’m only pseudo-pseudonymous—I would guess that 80% of Gentle Readers at this Tohu Bohu know my real name, and the rest could easily find it if they bothered themselves for some reason. It would not be difficult to take the stuff I am on about and put it into a search engine and come up with my name, my employer, my address, a satellite photo of my house and its valuation, pictures of my wife and kids, and probably my Social Security Number as well. Which is fine. I never intended my pseudonymity to completely insulate me from myself. My intention was, primarily, to prevent any potential employers from starting with my resume and coming up with this blog in ten seconds of research. Which may or may not still be true; if I were stalking myself I would find this Tohu Bohu pretty darned quickly. But it would be easy enough for somebody who was working with me or somebody who was considering working with me to go blithely on her merry way without being presented with my views of the politico-rhetorical landscape.

With this divide in mind, I don’t necessarily want people who are looking, f’r’ex, for information about a punk production of Richard III to wind up here rather than at the official page for the show. Not that it would be too terribly confusing, but it would be confusing enough. I don’t think of myself as using this blog specifically as a publicity vehicle (although, of course, y’all should come see me in shows, and y’all did come to R3 in tremendously flattering numbers) (and although when the show does have a blog as a publicity vehicle, I have cross-posted from here to there as seemed appropriate) (I’ve forgotten where I was before the first parenthetical remark) (Oh yes, this Tohu Bohu and its connection to my so-called proverbial), but I do find it interesting to write about the process.

So. I put it to y’all, Gentle Readers. Would it be terribly annoying and fey to pseudonymously talk about my next show without mentioning its title? It’s an adaptation of a famous novel, arguably the Great American novel (I use arguably here in the Alex Beam sense of course); if y’all haven’t actually read it or seen a film of it (with Demi Moore, Gary Oldman and Robert Duvall—or with Meg Foster, or with Colleen Moore, or with Lillian Gish, or with Sybil Thorndike, or with Mary Martin) you probably still know the basic idea. A woman in 1650s Boston bears a child that is not her husband’s; the child’s father is a secret until one day

I’m not altogether sure why I am so hesitant to write about it under it’s proper name. The adaptation is new, and GRs are unlikely to have read or seen it, or in fact to have access to it if they want to. Unless you can come to Greater Hartford between March 9 and March 20, that is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 21, 2011

An Audition Monologue, part the Fifth and Last

So. Your Humble Blogger did, in the end, audition both for Earnest and (with the Coriolanus monologue) for the local semi-pro theater, one right after the other.

The Earnest call was the evening before. It was an open audition at what is very much a community theater; anyone who wanted to came in, filled out a little form, and read from the script. We were all in the house watching and listening to each other. The evening took an hour and a half, maybe more. I met four actors I worked with the last time I was in a show at that theater and another three or four people I had met during the course of the run. We chatted, filled each other in on our lives, and noshed on the snacks provided. We ran through the scenes in various combinations, sometimes going through one scene four or five times. I read one scene three times hand running, with different people on the other end of it. I absolutely killed as the Reverend Doctor Chasuble (my metaphor was drawn from bees), getting laughs from my assembled competitors. I got to read Algernon, despite being twice his age (Point of Fact: Your Humble Blogger is not twice the age of Algernon, being only forty-one; Algernon does not, as far as I can remember, state his age, but his buddy Jack claims to be twenty-nine), and even better, I got to read Lady Bracknell. I had mentioned to the stage manager that Lady Bracknell was the part I would really want, and he passed that along, and the director kindly indulged me, and we all had a good time. Well, at least I had a good time, and the other people seemed to have a good time, is all I can really say.

Anyway. The other call was the day after. I had my appointment at 4:05; I ran through my monologue at home a bunch of times—

Digression: One of my methods for cramming this piece was to record myself doing it.

When I have very nearly memorized a speech, there isn’t much point in running through it without somebody holding the text and pouncing on the word substitutions. Otherwise, I’ll finish it and have no idea whether it was correct or only mostly correct. Well, and I had exhausted everyone in the house, so I spoke the text into a recorder, and then listened back with my eyes on the text. It’s slow going, but I didn’t want to lose a part because somebody listening had been involved in the play two years ago and know whether it was witness of or witness to. And they would be completely correct not to cast some guy who can’t even properly memorize his two minute monologue.

I considered recording the actual audition, but figured I didn’t need the distraction. End Digression.

I went over to the theater to arrive at 3:50, which I judged to be eagerly but not inappropriately early. I met the woman with a 4:00 appointment, who seemed nice and vaguely familiar, and she seemed to find me vaguely familiar, and we laughed about that while we were sitting in the lobby filling out the form. Then the flunky brought her in to the house, and I looked at my monologue text again. After five minutes or so they brought her out and the flunky brought me in and introduced me; he gave the first names of the half-dozen or so people there, but not their positions in the theater or the show. Somebody asked me what are you going to give us today, just like in the movies, and I said Coriolanus, and the director (who I was able to identify because he was sitting in the middle, and because I had looked up his name beforehand, and because he was the one who responded) said we don’t see that very often! So that’s all right.

I went through the monologue. I don’t know whether I made the small errors (witness of instead of witness for) that I was making over the previous days, up to that morning, but I didn’t dry altogether, and I am pretty sure I didn’t butcher the thing too badly. That is, I think anyone who didn’t know the piece well would not have spotted any errors I made, if I did, in fact, make any errors at all. I had not sufficiently prepared my body—I had no prepared gestures, and had only vaguely decided to walk two or three steps at a couple of transition moments—but did not feel overly amateurish. The Director asked me about my availability (my handwriting on the form was evidently sufficiently illegible to make that necessary), said I gave a nice reading, and then I went away. I was gone from the house a total of half an hour; even granting that I live in the neighborhood, that’s a quick event.

I am bothering telling you so in such detail because the whole thing was so stereotypical of the two kinds of theater. One was fun, time-consuming and unprofessional; one was tense, brief and professional. I enjoyed the silly one; I respected the proper one. They are both doing what they are doing—back in my callow proverbial, I thought of community theater as simply amateurs doing what they can’t hack at a higher level. I stopped doing it largely because I found it so unprofessional. Since coming back to it, I have started appreciating community theater more for what it is, and being less critical of it for what it isn’t. I think community theater is more or less evenly about community and about theater; it’s really about maximizing the fun quotient between the audience and the cast and the crew. An efficient audition process does not do that. The silliness of the auditions for Earnest and R3 doesn’t actively prevent good casting, and it does to some extent select for people who will be enjoyable to work with. The efficiency of the other audition selects for people who it will be efficient to work with. People who are inefficient to work with can be an irritation of community theater, but in a professional context would be far worse. People who are unpleasant to work with can be an irritation of professional theater, but in a community context would be far worse.

So. Doing the two very different auditions within twenty-four hours made me think a little bit about what kind of person I am. Is YHB a community theater person, interested in community as much as in theater, maximizing the fun quotient, being silly? Or is YHB an Ack-tore, interested in the theater more than in the community, keen on the Next Step, the best show possible, the efficient production? I’ll tell you: I don’t know.

But I can tell you that when they offered me a part in the professional production, I took it, and withdrew from consideration for Earnest.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 16, 2011

An Audition Monologue, part the Fourth

The middle of my monologue has two lovely bits. First, the disdainful if I had feared death bravura, and then the triple my misery, my revengeful services and my canker’d country, ending in that lovely over-the-top rant.

Now this extremity hath brought me to thy hearth; not out of hope—mistake me not—to save my life, for if I had feared death, of all the men i’ the world I would have ’voided thee, but in mere spite, to be full quit of those my banishers, stand I before thee here. Then if thou hast a heart of wreak in thee, that wilt revenge thine own particular wrongs and stop those maims of shame seen through thy country, speed thee straight, and make my misery serve thy turn: so use it that my revengeful services may prove as benefits to thee, for I will fight against my canker’d country with the spleen of all the under fiends.

Actually, I have found myself peaking on canker’d, and then dropping down to mutter about the under fiends practically under my breath. I don’t know if that’s right. It seem effective, paying against expectations, but then I don’t know that there are expectations there, and I can’t really hear it.

The theater is intimate, in the language of these things; it seats a hundred and fifty, but it feels smaller than that. If I were in a big place, the iconic audition where one guy in street clothes is on a fifty-foot proscenium stage playing to three people in a four hundred seat house, I would play it differently. Or not—the effect of someone holding in anger is great for tension. On the other hand, I have two minutes to show some range, so maybe holding back isn’t such a good idea.

By the way, once of the nice things about this middle bit is that it reads very quickly. There are phrases that run together very nicely (ofallthemenitheworld I wouldhavevoided thee), punctuated nicely by sharp syllables (spite quit here then straight fight) that don’t require extra pauses around them to make them stand out. The first bit has, for me, a lot of tricky rhythms. It’s choppy, preventing me (or Coriolanus) from getting into the flow of the thing. For example, the verse line which thou shoulds’t bear me; only that name remains is extremely awkward. It’s meant to be. It works by being awkward. But it’s still tough to do. There isn’t anything like that in this bit, which says to me that Coriolanus has got into the swing of his speech, and now has to worry about being too comfortable, not controlled enough, and that brings us back to the under fiends, muttered rather than shouted. Or am I just talking myself into it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 15, 2011

An Audition Monologue, digression

Well, and Your Humble Blogger just discovered that the community theater where last YHB trod the proverbial is doing The Importance of Being Earnest in the Spring; the auditions for that are this weekend as well. This presents me with a dilemma. I would (I estimate) be quite likely to be cast in Earnest as either of the manservants or, possibly, as the Reverend Canon Chasuble, D.D.; I am alas, too old to play Jack, and far too old to play Algernon. Now, Merriman and Lane have some good bits, and of course Chasuble is terrific, but they are small parts, and it would mean a good deal of night driving on February roads. On the other hand, it’s a fun, fun show. And the group is a good group putting on good shows, for the most part, and I am hoping to be in Rough Crossing there in the late Spring when the weather is better. Auditioning for smaller roles in Earnest may be in the way of paying dues, hoping for one of the juicy parts later. Or it could just be hogging the stage; I don’t know.

On the other hand, the audition I have been preparing for is for a paying part that is within walking distance of my home. The show is more ambitious, more serious, more difficult… less fun, probably, but likely more satisfying. The parts I am trying out for are also small parts, but in a show where the leads are Equity, so I am curious about it. Of course, it is much less likely that I will get cast in the thing at all, because the caliber of auditioners is presumably higher. And I have auditioned for this group twice already without being cast. So there’s that.

I could audition for both of them, of course, but I suspect from the timing of things that Earnest will be settling its cast list by Wednesday or Thursday, and there’s no need for the other one to settle until later in the week. If it were the other way around—the less likely one going first, so that after they rejected me I could accept the more likely—I would just audition for both and enjoy the auditions. Probably. I really am worried about driving home after a snowstorm, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 13, 2011

An Audition Monologue, part the Third

Your Humble Blogger was talking about an audition monologue. I’m just going to continue talking about it—not that I have any special insights, I’m just typing up what is more or less the thinking that I would be doing anyway. I hope it’s at least moderately interesting for y’all.

Anyway, the first paragraph:

My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done to thee particularly and to all the Volsces great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may my surname, Coriolanus: the painful service, the extreme dangers and the drops of blood shed for my thankless country are requited but with that surname; a good memory, and witness of the malice and displeasure which thou shouldst bear me: only that name remains. The cruelty and envy of the people, permitted by our dastard nobles, who have all forsook me, hath devour’d the rest; and suffer’d me by the voice of slaves to be whoop’d out of Rome.

The trick here will be to punch that first line. As with anything of this kind, while in theory I have two minutes to make a favorable impression, really if by five seconds in I haven’t got him, that’s the end of it. The other minute-fifty-five helps to distinguish the people who haven’t been rejected already after five. Of course, it’s not just the first five seconds—there’s the walking in part, too, that is usually another ten seconds or so, and proportionately does probably make two-thirds of the impression. But as far as this monologue goes (as YHB would have to walk in no matter what monologue was prepared), the key is my name is Caius Marcius.

Which is going to be a bit tricky. In the play, it’s a bit of a big deal: Coriolanus enters with his face partly hidden (muffled, actually) and refuses to identify himself to the servants (at least one of which he thrashes). Aufidius (the general to whom the speech is addressed) comes in and says

Whence comest thou? what wouldst thou? thy name? Why speak'st not? speak, man: what's thy name?

Coriolanus unmuffles himself and says, essentially, if you don’t recognize me, then I will name myself (a bit of a pun, there, for complicated plot-related reasons, but never mind), and Aufidius asks again, What is thy name?. Coriolanus warns him that he won’t like it, and again Aufidius asks Say, what's thy name? Coriolanus still stalls, asking once more if he recognizes him and Aufidius says I know thee not: thy name? And then Coriolanus says: My name is Caius Marcius.

It’s a build-up that I don’t get the benefit of in the monologue, alas. Nor can I expect that the casting director will know the play well enough to supply that build-up without having seen it, and even so, that sort of thing simply can’t be assumed. So. I have to make the line work without it.

How? I don’t really know yet. The situation calls for mingled emotions: Coriolanus is afraid that he will be cut down without a chance to present his plan, he is defiant and unwilling to apologize for his history, he is proud, he is embarrassed, he is aggrieved, he is uncertain and he is clearly a man used to certainty. That’s a lot to get in to five words.

Once he gets his name out—particularly once he hits Coriolanus, on a lower pitch I think, he senses that he will be allowed to continue, and feels his way into the meat of the speech. From that point on, he is attempting to persuade, and the first part of that is to convince Aufidius that he is sincere in his offer, sincere, that is, in his hatred and bitterness. And, perhaps, indulging himself in that bitterness more than he expects to, or realizes. But, you know, without going over the top, because it’s only the first third of the monologue.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 12, 2011

An Audition Monologue, part the Second

So. Your Humble Blogger is auditioning, and needs to prepare a brief, serious Shakespeare speech to demonstrate my comfort with Renaissance English. I have chose a speech from Coriolanus IV v, where our title general has been kicked out of Rome and is now offering his services to the enemy.

My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done to thee particularly and to all the Volsces great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may my surname, Coriolanus: the painful service, the extreme dangers and the drops of blood shed for my thankless country are requited but with that surname; a good memory, and witness of the malice and displeasure which thou shouldst bear me: only that name remains. The cruelty and envy of the people, permitted by our dastard nobles, who have all forsook me, hath devour’d the rest; and suffer’d me by the voice of slaves to be whoop’d out of Rome.

Now this extremity hath brought me to thy hearth; not out of hope—mistake me not—to save my life, for if I had feared death, of all the men i’ the world I would have ’voided thee, but in mere spite, to be full quit of those my banishers, stand I before thee here. Then if thou hast a heart of wreak in thee, that wilt revenge thine own particular wrongs and stop those maims of shame seen through thy country, speed thee straight, and make my misery serve thy turn: so use it that my revengeful services may prove as benefits to thee, for I will fight against my canker’d country with the spleen of all the under fiends.

But if so be thou darest not this and that to prove more fortunes, thou’rt tired, then, in a word, I also am longer to live most weary, and present my throat to thee and to thy ancient malice; which not to cut would show thee but a fool, since I have ever follow’d thee with hate, drawn tuns of blood out of thy country’s breast, and cannot live but to thy shame, unless it be to do thee service.

I have, of course, retyped this as if it were prose, because that’s the way I do Shakespeare. Not that I am unaware of the rhythm and meter, but to take that into account as only one factor in the reading. I find that taking the text out of pentameter line breaks helps me avoid being locked in to the rumty-tumty of it. The meter is strong enough in Shakespeare to come through without that—even working against the meter, as I like to do, brings out the meter, because he is just that good.

I have also divided the speech into three paragraphs, to denote (to myself) three different ideas, or tones, really, that I see in the speech. The divisions are simplistic; there are any number of places where I could have divided the speech, and any number of resonances across any divisions that I make. It’s a tool for an audition, though, and within my two minutes, I have to show that I am more than Johnny One-Note. So. The first paragraph is who I am, and the second is what I want. And the third is a taunt, a goad to add to the persuasion, and to bring both the tempo and the intensity up for the finish. Or, rather, to bring it up again: each paragraph has an upward momentum, starting lower and ending just on the verge of over-the-top, to be mastered and brought down again to start the new paragraph quieter and more reasoned and build again. Three beats.

It’s true that they show mostly one emotion: anger. A really good audition monologue will have a change of emotional state over the course of the two minutes, from anger to sadness, or from grief to hope, or from indecision to resolve. Or vice versa, of course. The point is to show the range; if I can play anger well in my two minutes, that’s fine, but over the course of the play I will need something else, and they can’t necessarily guess that I can do sadness and merriment and hope just because I can do anger. On the other hand, this piece does have a sort of variety, where the speaker tries different tactics of persuasion: he tries to frighten his listener, play for his sympathy, browbeat him, embarrass him.

And I like it for what it doesn’t have, as much as for what it does. It doesn’t have a lot of names that have to be explained or passed over. Or pronounced correctly, for that matter. It doesn’t have a lot of set-up; it doesn’t require them to be familiar with the play at all. It doesn’t require me to mime anything, to pretend to drink or jump over something or fall down.

It does, however, need to be memorized. So I should probably get to that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 11, 2011

An Audition Monologue, part the first

Your Humble Blogger will be auditioning again, in a few days. I’ve had quite a nice time off, but I’ve started feeling that desire again, wanting to wear other people’s clothes and speak other people’s words.

This audition is for a group that I have auditioned for three times, already, without being cast. I don’t really expect to be cast in this one, either, but it’s worth a shot— a theater within walking distance of the house is kind of a Golden Ticket, and I’m willing to keep buying a lot of chocolate bars on the miniscule chance of payoff. Plus, if there’s no ticket, there’s still chocolate, and I’m afraid I do enjoy auditioning, particularly when I don’t feel pressure because I don’t expect to be cast.

The interesting thing for this one is that I am required to prepare a monologue. I don’t have one in my pocket anymore. Back when I thought I wanted to be a professional actor, to attempt to earn a living at it, I had my tight two minutes, classical and modern, and I have to admit they didn’t get me any parts, so I don’t entirely regret having lost them in the dim recesses of my memory. This time they want a Shakespeare serious two minutes, and I will have to memorize it by next week.

Now, working at a library as I do, I went to a reference book. I could have waded through my Riverside (actually my Best Reader’s Riverside), but that would have been silly: the lists of suggested audition monologues are pretty darned comprehensive, and much much lighter than the Riverside. Throwing my back out now would put me out of the show for sure. So. Shakespeare audition monologue, male, middle-aged (there are three available parts, one thirty-ish man and two fifty-ish, so go where the numbers are) (plus, while I insist I can still play thirty-ish, that has not been confirmed by independent sources for a while) (where was I? Oh, right, male and middle-aged) and not too overused. I am not going to give them the Prayer of Claudius; I’m not going to give them Now is the Winter; I’m not going to give them the World as a Stage; I’m not going to give them Iago’s Villainy. No, my slot is not the end of the audition day but it isn’t at the beginning, and I don’t want to be the third person giving them those lines. And I’m not going to try to give them Titus’ Recipe, either, although it is not among the Most Overdone Monologues.

I have settled on Coriolanus, having been expelled from Rome, showing up at the house of his defeated enemy and volunteering to lead their armies against his old city, purely out of spite. It’s a nice monologue, which I haven’t seen before—I’ve never seen the play produced, and I’ve only skimmed the text of it— and if it does happen to be new to the casting people, it’s rather amazingly straightforward. The speaker not only introduces himself by name, he states his current situation, his motivations, his goals. Within the context of the play, of course, these aren’t necessarily reliable, but for an audition monologue, it’s nice to be able to say: this is who I am, this is why I am here, this is what I want you to do. Clarity.

I’m planning to write about the piece over the next few days, as I work on it. I don’t know if it will help me get the part, but I’m hoping it’ll be interesting. So. Next time, the text and my initial thoughts.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 26, 2010

Book Report: The Pillowman

I’m not sure what to write about The Pillowman. It’s a… fascinating play to read. I wish I had seen it. I actually wish I had seen both the London version and the New York version; it’s easy to imagine David Tennant and Billy Crudup playing the writer, but the lead cop was played by Jim Broadbent and Jeff Goldblum, who are more difficult for me to imagine in the same role. Also, of course, this play like others of Martin McDonagh’s, was evidently screamingly funny while it was screamingly horrific, which honestly did not come through in the playscript.

So. Mr. McDonagh is a writer who, for this work, came up with a story that is just about the most appallingly revolting thing you could imagine, and which (perhaps just by virtue of being imaginable) has elements of uncomfortable realism in it, while being disorientingly unreal. The main character is a writer who comes up with stories that are just about the most appallingly revolting things you could imagine, and which (perhaps just by virtue of being imaginable) have elements of uncomfortable realism in them, while being disorientingly unreal. Which is not to say he is writing about himself. One of the underlying jokes of the piece is that the law has come down on him because of the one story, out of hundreds he has written, that somebody somewhere was willing to publish. Mr. McDonagh by this point is a highly successful writer—but then, supposedly he wrote all of his celebrated plays in a short time long before he got anything produced.

Lately, I’m afraid, I have been reading plays and then thinking what’s the point? Not the point of reading them, but the point of, well, of writing and producing them, I suppose. What is the audience supposed to get out of it? I don’t mean, I think, whether they are supposed to learn and grow and become better people, although that may be part of it. No, I mean—well, I read Equus recently, and while there is certainly a voyeuristic thrill from watching the sheer fucked-upness of the boy, and I suppose a sense of accomplishment when we are able to trace it back to what fucked him up, I just don’t really get it as a play. I felt much the same about Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and still do, really. I didn’t feel that about Richard III, of course, which is mostly because it is Shakespeare! but also because I fully buy in to the premise that it matters who is King and how they get to be King. Well, and I admit it is because I love the character, and want to watch what happens to him, and do find watching what happens to him fulfilling because it fulfills (if you’ll allow me to claim it) the nature of Richard himself.

Anyway, I was going, in a roundabout way, to say that I don’t think what’s the point about The Pillowman. I’m not sure I know what the point is, mind you. Mr. McDonagh is having too much fun twisting the point around to ever let it, well, come to a point. I’ll note that once I understand as a reader that everything you see or hear is likely to be false, that this scene’s revelation is the subject of the next scene’s revelation that the earlier revelation wasn’t so, I can’t be properly surprised anymore, even by the bits that are surprising. But I don’t think that falseness is itself the point. I think the point is that…

Well, I don’t know. But I would say this: In Mr. McDonagh’s world, not only of this play but of the others I’ve read, and probably including the movie as well, stories are always both fundamentally false and fundamentally true; storytelling is both fundamentally evil and fundamentally necessary for survival. You can’t trust anybody who tells stories, but you certainly can’t trust anybody who claims not to tell stories, and you really really can’t trust yourself, because your own stories are the worst betrayers of all. But when you are not telling stories, then you’re really in trouble.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 21, 2010

Book Report: The Dresser

So. This was more than a year ago, now, that my Dear Director (the one who directed Man Who and Liaisons and Pyggie and the reading of Bound, way back when) mentioned that she was considering putting on The Dresser. It hasn’t happened—the rights are evidently not available just now—and if it had, I don’t know that I would have committed to the ridiculous travel time to do it. I might have, though.

Actually, I had never read the thing; I know it from the wonderful film. Tom Courtenay is the titular Norman; Albert Finney plays Sir (and Eileen Atkins who is probably the best film actress ever plays Madge). I haven’t seen the film in fifteen years, I would guess, but I can remember their line deliveries as clear as anything, their faces, bits of business. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the thing, did the screenplay and added a few things (and I think took a few away, but as I say, it has been fifteen years), but I would say three-quarters or more of the playscript is in the screenplay and vice versa. I don’t generally recommend things, you know, but any Gentle Reader who has any interest in the Theeyater at all should definitely watch this thing.

Being in it, though… I can’t imagine being in it. In the main roles, I mean, as I am egotistical and, tho’ I say it my self, successful enough to think that I would have a shot at the main roles, and wouldn’t be Mr. Oxenby or Mr. Thornton, and wouldn’t drive across half the state to play the small roles, I’m afraid. But reading the play and imagining doing Norman or Sir, that is very difficult indeed. Tom Courtenay in the movie is doing the role he created and played in London and New York. I can’t read any of his lines without hearing his voice, his inflections, seeing his gestures and his grimaces. Not a line. Not a pause. If I were forced to play the part, I would do a Tom Courtenay imitation, which would be sad and wrong and bad, and not worth seeing. Oh, in the event, given time and direction, one hopes to come up with something, but I have read through the play twice now, and I am baffled.

On the second time through, though, I did come up with some… well, not ideas, properly, but possibilities of ideas for Sir. Things I might want to emphasize that Albert Finney did not. Even, here and there, a line reading that isn’t an echo of Mr. Finney’s powerful voice. A possibility of delineating the sudden mood changes, or even a physical aspect to the disorientation. Something, anyway. Is it because I know that other people have played the part, and played it well? Freddie Jones was the first Sir, and Paul Rogers took the part in New York (evidently because Mr. Jones didn’t have a Green Card and didn’t want to bother with the paperwork, figuring that his success would give him plenty of opportunities at home, which it did), so there is in the back of my mind the idea that it can be done. Which is not so much true for Norman; I don’t know of any sizable revival of the play at all, and there definitely hasn’t been one in New York or London.

Which, bye-the-bye, makes Samuel French’s restriction very interesting indeed. The most likely reason for it is that somebody has put a hold on whilst putting a New York production together. But who? I mean, who for the actors, not the producers. For Sir: Frank Langella? Michael Gambon? It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Gambon would do the part here and not in London, or not in London first. Is Christopher Plummer too old? I would think so, but wouldn’t he be wonderful? What about Philip Bosco, is he still working? Simon Russell Beale? I think there’s something to be gained by having a Sir that’s not actually elderly, but is old young, as it were. And for Norman, there’s… um… Philip Seymour Hoffman, maybe? Seriously, I can’t think of anybody at all that I want to see in this part. Of course, I haven’t seen very many people. For all my interest in the theater, I have seen very few professional productions, and know the great stage actors of this era through recordings, films, television and YouTube clips. Still.

As a side note, just because I think it’s interesting, in the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours List Ronald Harwood, C.B.E., was added to the list of Knights Bachelor, and will be a Sir, now. Tom Courtenay has been a Sir for some time now, and Albert Finney has reportedly turned down a knighthood more than once. So it’s Sirs all around. Well, Freddie Jones isn’t a Sir, but Eileen Atkins is a Dame, so that’s all right. The irony—well, it isn’t actually, irony, as such—is that Sir is not a Sir himself, which we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way into the play:

HER LADYSHIP: […] And you drag everyone with you. Me. Chained. Not even by law.
SIR: Would marriage have made so much difference to you?
HER LADYSHIP: You misunderstand. Deliberately.
SIR: I should have made her divorce me.
HER LADYSHIP: You didn’t get a divorce because you wanted a knighthood.
SIR: Not true.
HER LADYSHIP: True. You know where your priorities lie. Whatever you do is to your advantage and to no one else’s. Talk about being driven. You make yourself sound like a disinterested stagehand. You do nothing without self-interest. Self. You. Alone.
SIR: Pussy, please, I’m sinking, don’t push me further into the mud—
HER LADYSHIP: Sir. Her Ladyship. Fantasies. For Gd’s sake, you’re a third-rate actor-manager on a tatty tour of the provinces, not some Colossus bestriding the narrow world. Sir. Her Ladyship. Look at me. Darning tights. Look at you. Lear’s hovel is luxury compared to this.

That moment comes as a shock to me still, even reading the play through twice in a month. I believe in Sir, still, because of course I want to believe in him, and Sir feels that pressure the way we all do up there, that we trade our love for his agreement to be what we want to love. Norman, of course, loves him even more for failing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 25, 2010

Finally, the final R3 note

Well, and R3 has been closed for more than a month now, right? If I am going to do a post about it, I should just start typing, because otherwise it’ll all be a blur…

Things of which I am Proud of:

  • doing Shakespeare at all, frankly. This is my third in twenty years; I hope I get to do more. Any of my complaining about the production or the theater group should be put into the context of how pleased I am by a community theater that does Shakespeare every couple of years.
  • Chemistry with Richard. If Richard and Buckingham don’t have a kind of chemistry together, Act Three is going to really drag. I think we nailed that part of it—it’s always possible that two actors feel they are working well together and the audience doesn’t see it, of course, but you have to trust your instincts sometimes.
  • My death scene. If y’all are interested, I can write it up in detail, but in general, I think I managed to be just sympathetic enough to make the scene matter, without ruining the whole thing by making Buckingham into some sort of Righteous Wronged figure. Also, my Big Idea about the scene and the part (the notebook, and destroying it at the end) seemed to work, which was nice.

Things in which I am (somewhat) Disappointed in:

  • The houses, of course. We should have drawn more people. I don’t really understand that end of the business at all, but seriously: damn.
  • My costume. Our costume mistress kind of pooped out on us partway through rehearsals, and we wound up on our own, for the most part. Costume is really not-my-forte (despite my own fondness for dressing up), and I feel that Buckingham’s costume just didn’t really work. The punk costumes were great (Richard’s Act One leather jacket with the boar on the back was a highlight), and my inclination to dress against the punk thing may have been an error. Ah, well.
  • I,iii: the scene where Buckingham stands around for a long time in the background. It is hard on a fellow to start with a scene like that (or to only have scenes like that, which must be excruciating), but I don’t think I overcame it. Not that I think I was awful, but I don’t think I either prepared the audience for Buckingham’s important role in the middle of the play, or prepared the audience to be surprised by Buckingham’s important role in the middle of the play. Mostly, I just stood in the back and wiggled my eyebrows. Hm.
  • My lines. I did a good job but not a great job. I think I only really screwed up once, when I absolutely blanked and floundered for a couple of minutes before somehow getting back on track. On the other hand, I misspoke myself slightly every night in one or another place, got a couple of words consistently wrong, and in general satisfied myself with speaking mostly Shakespeare. Not good.

Other Things:

  • I met some very nice people who I enjoyed spending time with. It doesn’t look like any of them are going to wind up close friends, alas, but Facebook means never having to say goodbye.
  • Within thirteen months I had been in three shows with three different theater groups. The three have each had their own problems as companies. The one that seemed to consistently sell tickets is now defunct and bankrupt, but the people in charge will open a new place soon. The one that owns a humongous house that seats two hundred and fifty is happy to sell fifty seats, and had in the past year a significant changeover of the board, with quite a bit of bad feeling, and is struggling to put on three shows a year. The one that does six shows a year plus showcases, with very few dark weekends, is organizationally a mess, priding itself on its post-hippie leftover structure that leaves nobody responsible for anything. I really really really don’t want to get involved in community theater politics, and it looks like if I want to do community theater in this neighborhood, I will have to either get involved, or keep doing one show with each company.
  • I am due for a break from theater for a few months, possibly until the new year. I enjoy it, but it takes up a whole lot of evenings. And after a month, I am not missing it yet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 14, 2010

Anonymous, the movie

Today’s Shakespeare News is that Roland Emmerich—yes, Roland Emmerich—is directing a movie about the man who wrote all those plays. No, not William Shakespeare. That would be too easy.

See, here’s the thing: it’s not like I care very much who wrote the plays. I tend to think it was William Shakespeare, because, you know, he said he did, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he didn’t in the contemporary record. But I don’t care very much, and if it turned out that it was someone else, well, it doesn’t change the text at all, so that’s OK. But really, the reason why I tend to think that William Shakespeare wrote the plays is because almost everybody who writes trying to persuade people that it was someone else is a dickish snob.

I don’t mean that it’s impossible to believe that W.S. was a front without being a dickish snob. It’s certainly possible. And I suppose it’s even possible to care about it enough to try to talk people out of their belief in the Stratford fellow without being a dickish snob. I haven’t seen it happen, though.

And I have to say that I don’t expect it to. Part of that is simply that I find it a bit dickish just to keep hocking about the whole thing, trying to persuade me that I am Wrong Wrong Wrong; I try to keep an open mind about things, but I do get defensive when attacked. And a lot of the writing on the topic that I have read (or skimmed, or began and given up on, more likely) seems like an attack on the deluded fools who are so simple to believe that William Shakespeare—a nothing from nowhere, practically a peasant—wrote those plays. And more than that, an attack on the poor deluded fools who believe that they enjoy the plays without grasping the True Key of Understanding. In all honesty, if it isn’t possible to enjoy them properly without knowing who wrote them, then the pseudonymity of authorship implies to me that they plays aren’t very good, and that we shouldn’t care about them at all. But of course lots of people have enjoyed the plays just fine whilst believing they were written by William Shakespeare, going back to their first productions when presumably the whole audiences were taken in (except the Queen, of course, and other select aristos).

That’s the snobbish part, of course. Not just that there’s the classic snobbery of locating all positive attributes in the hereditary aristocracy, although that is very prominent in Anti-Stratfordists. But there’s another kind of snobbishness, the inner-ring delight in having Special Knowledge, being among the elect who are In On It. They transfer that delight to an inner ring in Elizabeth’s court, duping the groundlings who didn’t get all the political undertones. That’s pretty dickish, too. I do get the inner-ring temptation, of course, and it’s a powerful one, but the right thing to do is resist it, not promote it.

Mr. Emmerich’s movie appears to be based on a recent book by Charles Beauclerk. Mr. Beauclerk is (unless there’s something that doesn’t show up in the family tree) a descendant of Edward DeVere, the current favorite in the Shakestakes; since he argues that his ancestor was not only the greatest playwright in the English language but an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, which would make him an heir to the Tudor line, and quite possibly a Pretender to the Crown. When his father dies, of course; his father Duke of St. Albans and head of the Royal Stuart Society (which lists among its aims opposing republicanism). And, according to Wikipedia, Charles Beauclerk was banned for life from the Palace of Westminster for misbehaving in the House of Lords.

I should add—Mr. Beauclerk recently came to speak at an event held by my employer, and by all accounts didn’t, you know, do anything to get himself banned. I saw the man briefly as he walked through the library; he seemed a bit like a dickish snob, but then, so does YHB, probably. And while I am spending time mocking Mr. Beauclerk, he didn’t have anything to do with the 1998 Godzilla movie, so there’s that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 27, 2010

Book Report: Year of the King

When I was thinking about auditioning for R3, I knew I would want to read Year of the King, Antony Sher’s Diary and Sketchbook about his preparation for playing Richard III. I have read one other of his diaries, and enjoyed it tremendously. He has a nice touch with anecdotes and name-dropping; enough to give you a sense of traveling in heady circles (—then you had better crawl, hadn’t you?—said Michael Gambon) but not so much to exclude you. And he makes himself the butt of the joke, usually.

Anyway, I failed to get hold of a copy by the auditions, but eventually my ILL librarian turned it up for me. And it’s a marvelous book, really enjoyable. And it occurred to me, as I read it, that that is what I thought I wanted to be when I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be paid a salary by the Royal Shakespeare Company or some similar repertory company, get leading parts in fantastic plays and spend months working with wonderful people on all aspects of putting on a complex play. And there are, presumably, people who have lives like that, the bastards. What I failed to understand is that not only to most people who attempt to make a living acting on stage fail to do so, almost all of those people who do manage to make a living at it are going to spend most of their time either in long-running shows doing the same role eight times a week, with very little creativity involved once the show is formed, or else very quickly ginning up a role in a slapdash way. And I envy those people, too, of course, although I am unwilling to pay the cost in auditions, misery, ill-treatment, low pay and time away from my family. No, when I imagine myself as a professional actor, I imagine myself as a Star, I’m afraid, going from playing the Fool and Tartuffe to playing Richard III.

Anyway, it was startling, in a way, to recognize my youthful dreams in that book, although I had never read it. I am just, really, adjusting to the idea of myself as a community theater guy. I had adjusted to the idea of myself as not being an actor, but I hadn’t adjusted to the idea of my being an amateur actor. And a lot of the stuff he talks about? Just isn’t in the world of amateur acting.

OK, I’ll pass along one story, or at least a version of it. They had decided not only to have the coronation on-stage but to have the King and Queen stripped to the waist for it. We see them from behind, you understand. And there’s Anne, perfect and pretty and sexy. And there’s Richard’s hideous deformity.

Well, naturally if you are showing the hump onstage, out there under the lights, you can’t just use Lord Larry’s old one, you are going to need something new and designed to look realistic. And so they budget to have Christopher Tucker, the movie makeup artist (Company of Wolves, Mr. Creosote, Elephant Man, original stage Webber-Phantom), do up a fancy hump. Mr. Sher, who has a very visual imagination, wants to have the hump be in the center, a huge build-up of flesh that would remind the audience of a bull and lend emphasis to his nearly-useless little legs. The idea, aside from it just being a great visual, is that we would get a sense of tremendous upper-body strength overcompensating for lameness; Richard is simultaneously vulnerable and imposing.

Well, in they go to Mr. Tucker’s studio, where there are werewolves lying about in various stages of completion, and he immediately asks if the hump will be on the left or the right. No, the center, he is told. That’s not right, he says, humps are on one side. Well, this is true for scoliosis, but not for kyphosis, and anyway they are looking for this kind of impression, and so on and so forth.

Well, and nobody seems very happy about the discussion, but they agree to keep working, and the cast is made for Mr. Sher’s back, and so on and so forth over weeks and weeks, and meanwhile the costume people are very upset. You see, in a show like this, it’s best if you can make the lead’s costume first, so you can make sure that everybody else’s costume works with it. But they can’t make the costume, really, without the hump. So they are waiting, and doing the other costumes, and waiting, and so on, and finally, we are about a week before opening, and the final fitting happens and the hump is ready, a really disgusting lump of putty-like substance that will look absolutely hideous when he is stripped for the coronation.

And under the costume, it barely makes a ripple.

This, I think you will agree, is the kind of situation that calls for freaking out, and Mr. Sher is freaking the fuck out. Here’s this hideously expensive bit of stage magic for in between Four, one and Four, two, and it’s going to make him look like an idiot for all of Acts One, Two and Three. So the director comes around to the costume shop to look, and yes, we are all in agreement that this Will Not Do. So he takes the second version of it (if you have the money, it’s best to have two of any costume piece, just in case) and shoves it on over the top of the other one, and pulls up the back and starts shoving stuff in between, bits of fabric, some foam rubber, some batting he found lying around, and there. Now you look like Richard.

Meanwhile, with all the money from the budget going to the Hump, they wind up with a Hasting’s Head that looks like utter crap. But that’s all right. Nobody expects Hasting’s Head to look good, and honestly, when you have Brian Blessed playing Hastings, there is just no way for artifice to catch up.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 26, 2010

The bloody dog is dead.

Well, and the show is over now. Twelve performances. I don’t have audience numbers, as they were not relayed to us, alas, but my impression is that we had something like four hundred people over the twelve shows, with two really decent-sized houses (for the venue) of sixty-plus, and two houses under twenty, which isn’t good for anywhere. Thinking about it, that four hundred is probably high. Ah, well. I will say that we had only one performance that I thought was below par throughout, and one or two that started slow or low-energy but picked up steam. There were two or three that stood out for me as really good all the way through, at least as far as I could tell from where I was.

For one of the shows, I posted here some of the things I was pleased about and some that I was disappointed in. I’m not really prepared to do that for R3, at least not yet. I will say that I was particularly pleased and proud that nine Gentle Readers come to the show (if I have counted correctly, and if nobody came and went without telling me); I hope you all had a good time. In fact, I just realized that I brought in a pretty good share: twelve tickets, I believe, were attributable to my having pushed the show to friends and acquaintances. With a cast of eighteen plus a crew of five or so, if we had all managed a dozen tickets we would have cleared five hundred tickets, right? That said, I am quite sulky about none of my co-workers coming to see the thing. This is the third show I have been in locally since starting work there and nobody has come. This bothers me more because the two people I work closest with are occasional theatergoers; it seems like it would be a fun night out for them, rather than a social obligation. Further, since the theater where R3 was produced has a pay-what-you-will policy that seems ideal for students, I was hoping that some of my student workers would have made their way. Not so.

Well, and that’s all right. I pushed the show on y’all, because we are part of this Tohu Bohu voluntarily and without obligation; I am circumspect and diffident pushing the shows at work. I put up a poster and make sure everyone knows about it, but I try not to mention it more than once. And while we are co-workers, we are not really social friends—we do not invite each other to dinner at our homes, or go out to clubs and bars together after hours. Still, I am sulky and petulant.

Most of that, of course, is the usual post part-um depression that kicks in when an actor realizes that doesn’t get to play dress-up any more for a while. I am also very aware that I am unlikely to get to play another Shakespeare part for quite some time—I am lucky to have been in three Shakespeare plays, more or less ten years between them. And I am, I rush to clarify, really enjoying not being in the play, having no theatrical responsibilities to add to my family ones, seeing the lovely quiet evenings stretch out before me into the summer. I would not audition for a show this month if they were doing Comedy of Errors (I like to think I am not yet too old to play Antipholus); I want some time off.

I am, in fact, simultaneously relieved and saddened. But extra emotional, either way. I blame William Shakespeare.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 23, 2010

Many Happy Returns

And we head in to our last weekend of Richard III, I feel I should write something to observe the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. And probably birth, although that anniversary is just within a day or two. And even then, the baptism was recorded as being April 26, 1564 old style, before the calendar reform in 1582 (which was not actually accepted in the UK until 1752, because you don’t want to rush into things). So although this is, by any useful reckoning, the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 1616, it is not the moment at which the earth is in the exact position relative to the sun than it was when he died. Much less when he was born.

Are you all clear on that, now? When you read your This Day In History lists and discover that it is Admiral William Penn’s Birthday, do you question what that this day in History means? The good Admiral was born on the 23rd day of April in England, but it was already May in France, or possibly Mai, and I’m afraid I have no idea what it would have been in the area that was later named after his boy Billy. When Pedro Alvares Cabal claimed it for Portugal on this day in 1500, what day was it in Brazil?

You are better off with Camryn Walling, born twenty years ago today. You may never have heard of Camryn Walling, but then he may never have heard of you. And he knows who lives in a pineapple under the sea, which is more than you can say about William Shakespeare.

Well. All right, technically, you can say that William Shakespeare knows who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Just like William Shakespeare can say that Richard III was a murderous hunchback. Doesn’t make it true.

It does make it memorable, though, which is what this calendar-based anniversary system does, too. So even if William Shakespeare was not born on April Twenty-third, and even if April Twenty-Third didn’t fall on April Twenty-Third in 1564, still, this is the day we use to commemorate. So go and commemorate it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 21, 2010

Book Report: A Practical Handbook for the Actor

People, it occurs to me to say, are different one to another, and that is what makes the world interesting and fun. The specific instance of this general observation that sparks its repetition is from a green room conversation about acting classes and books. I have never taken a proper acting class—I took Drama in high school for three years, I think, and I took an Intro to Theater course in college that wound up focusing on acting. But none of those were proper acting courses. And I have read a bunch of books about acting, and read in a bunch more, but I can’t say I have adopted any sort of school of either method or technique. Mostly, I make it up as I go along.

In the conversation, though, I did mention that the only book on acting I have ever really liked was A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by a bunch of people associated with David Mamet and the Atlantic Theater Company. The next day, that very book came across my desk (or rather came across the shelving area next to my desk) and so I decided to pick it up and reread it for the first time in years. And I didn’t really like it.

It turns out that the reason I really liked it was that it was incredibly snarky about Method acting. It states that most acting teachers are frauds, and that most acting classes are fraudulent, and most of the people in them are faking it and faking themselves out in an attempt to be what they think an actor should be. When I was a teenager, this was an wonderful affirmation that (a) I was completely right in my opinion of my high school drama teacher, and (2) I was so, so superior to everyone else I had been doing theater with. Reading it all again now, I am suspicious. Yes, I think my high school drama teacher was a fraud, and both mistaken and deeply confused about theater. She did, however, put on great shows. Which is a point.

More important, though, the so-called Practical Handbook presents a formula for analysing a scene that seems utterly without value. I know the book is not supposed to replace actual work with actual teachers, and it seems possible to me that the actual work with actual teachers would be valuable to me, but a third of the book or so is taken up with this formula that I cannot imagine is useful to use from the book. Not very practical or handy. I can only surmise that the book is intended to be a reminder of techniques learned and practiced in person, and that the formula is useful in that context. That isn’t how the book is presented, but I can imagine that the writers would have found it difficult to imagine how it would look to people without that practice, and thought it was useful when it wasn’t.

The other thing that I found completely lacking in the book, which I don’t remember noticing when I read it twenty-odd years ago, was any recognition of the existence of non-naturalistic acting. I don’t think it would be a problem to fit stylized acting into their Practical Aesthetics, if they wanted to, but they don’t seem to have even thought about it. It’s not going to help you, then, with a commedia production, or The National Health, or Aladdin—again, I suspect the authors and their troupe could adapt to the needs of the show, but the Handbook doesn’t give any idea of how. This is a frustration for me with a lot of the stuff I read about theater—while naturalism has thoroughly dominated the American and English theater scene for a couple of generations, it isn’t the only style in the history of the world, and it even the only style that playwrights are currently working in. It certainly isn’t the only style that audiences like. It’s a perfectly good style, don’t get me wrong—although I have begun to think that some familiarity with, some more presentational style is a very helpful tool even in the naturalistic actor’s kit.

Hmph. This has become a very negative note, and I don’t think the book deserves quite such a negative note. I would break it down like this: about one-third of the book is nasty snarking about the Actor’s Studio-derived Method, which is (imao) a well-deserved corrective; about one-third is the useless formula for scene study; and about one-third is useful observation about the theater, with which, of course, one can agree or disagree, but which are in either case useful for anyone interested in theater.

I would definitely encourage any young person who has gone through some half-assed Method training to read this book; I think it helped me, not only in my theater work but in a larger sense. I don’t find it useful anymore, myself. I wonder if the writers still find it useful. I know their school is still going, quite successfully as I understand it, but they haven’t put out a new edition of this book or a replacement in the last twenty years. Either they are happy with this one, or they have given up on the idea of it. I suspect the latter, although of course there could be a million other reasons.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 15, 2010

Also, I plan on pronouncing the long Ss as Fs

I don’t know how many GRs are fans of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I thought I would throw this one out to y’all… We have a performance of R3 on April 23, which is the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Relevant, because, you know, William Shakespeare wrote R3, as well as writing all the rest of Shakespeare’s plays (with certain possible exceptions). So we are having a little post-show shindig, with cake and champagne and the reading of some of the sonnets.

YHB has scanned the sonnets in the past, but has never made anything like a study of them. I am fond of 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment), but that one was claimed by someone faster off the mark than I am, in my ear-infected state. 130 (My Mistress’ess’s eyes are nothing like the sun) and 138 (When my love swears that she is made of truth) are also claimed, as is, I think, 27 (Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed). Does anyone have any suggestions? It’s not a Big Deal of any kind; I don’t have to participate at all, and it being more of a lark than a performance, I can just grab one and read it off the cuff, as it were. Still, I think it would be nice to work something up.

Any favorite Shakespearean sonnets, Gentle Readers? I will promise to record and post my interpretation of the one I actually perform, unless I get sicker and die before the 23rd.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 8, 2010

No future

Malcolm McLaren has died.

It’s hard not to feel personally bereft, at the moment, although of course I am not really basing my Buckingham on Mr. McLaren so much as on a kind of stereotype (or archetype, if you will) that Mr. McLaren himself used and subverted and ultimately fed into. I admit that I thought, briefly, that it would be great to have his curly mop of hair atop the Duke of Buckingham’s head, but (a) my hair is not curly, and (2) no, it wouldn’t be great. Still.

As it happens, I don’t really have much good to say about Mr. McLaren on the occasion of his demise. It’s an odd thing—I don’t particularly like his music, or his fashion design, or the staged outrages and Situationist stuff that he perpetrated so effectively, but I am glad that they exist. I think his attitude (Turn left, if you're supposed to turn right; go through any door that you're not supposed to as quoted in the Observer recently) is self-indulgent and self-defeating, and that it is far likelier to lead to bad art as good, and that even more the dissemination of that idea is far likelier to lead to a docile and easily-manipulated crowd than an independent and progressive one. On the other hand, I would hate to live in a world without punks. I want my daughter to grow up, as I grew up, in a world where people are trying to sell previously-ripped jeans and t-shirts. I want her to do what I did: experience the thrill and energy of contrarianism, and then find some deeper and more satisfying joy.

I want the establishment, and I am specifically referring to myself and the things I like and support, to be faced with the sort of aggressive and frankly stupid disrespect that typified the punk movement. I want taboos (and calling a shop 'SEX' and putting bondage gear in the window was very very taboo when they did it) to be smashed—I don't want to smash them myself, thank you, but I want to be making the choice to follow the traditions I value, not just following along without thinking.

I asked a few college kids today if they had heard of Malcolm McLaren; they hadn't. That's too bad. If you are eighteen or nineteen, and you think of punk as being your parent's generation, you're right—but you are also wrong. Punk is for all time, but not for everybody; punk is about looking for something to smash, and discovering, with any luck for the first time, that a lot of our assumptions and our traditions and our taboos and our social structures really are fragile. Yelling boo! at the right time, in the right voice, loud enough, really does work. And it's a great thing for people who want to take those traditions and social structures and assumptions and taboos seriously to know that, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 6, 2010

Yes, I'm still here

Four down, eight to go. I suppose that’s one-third in, although it’s also two-fifths, as the remaining three weekends include the two matinees. The shows have gone well, for the most part. We were a trifle overrehearsed, I think—two nights before we opened we were ready but for lights and sound, so we kept running the show for our lights and sound people, which was correct and needed, but took a bit of the edge off our performances. This is a problem for us community theater amateurs; we tend to be either overrehearsed or underrehearsed, and we haven’t the years of experience or the technique to just do it all the same.

I was concerned about the audiences: after getting a fairly nice house of 67 for Opening Night (the place seats a hundred or so), we had only 34 on the second night. The next weekend, we had 17 on Friday, and I began to perceive a pattern. Fortunately, however, we had more than 9 in the house on Saturday, actually bumping up to 25 or so. Still quite low in absolute numbers, and in terms of the theater making any money to speak of (or at that level, keeping the losses down) it ain’t great, but not so bad as I had feared. And, in fact, the smallish audiences on the second weekend were more appreciative and noisier (in a good way) than the somewhat bigger audience on the previous Saturday.

In fact, that Saturday was the worst of our four performances so far. We did not have the nervous energy of Opening Night, and the initial quietness of the crowd fed into a fall-off in the energy level (after tech week, we were very very tired) which of course led into the audience being less entranced, and therefore giving us less, which brought us further down, and so on and so forth. In my case, I misspoke several of my lines—not forgetting the line but hearing it come out of my mouth incorrectly. That’s exhaustion.

In point of fact, just today I was wondering what was up with the odd feeling I had, strangely energetic and alert, and realized that it was just that for the first time in three weeks, I’m not tired. That was kind of scary.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 25, 2010

Who you are, and who you stand with, my gracious lord

One of the things about this last week before we open is that we are running the show from front to back, you know, in order. While it’s true that I originally read it in order, I had, over the course of the rehearsal process, lost the order of it in my head. This is very common and perfectly proper, and we properly and correctly are readjusting our heads to the show as a whole. This usually gives us new insights on character arcs and pacing, which is happening, but for YHB and the Duke of Buckingham, there was something else I hadn’t noticed.

So. The Duke first enters in I,iii with Stanley, and is immediately confronted with the factionalism in the court: The Queen says to Stanley that she doesn’t blame him for his wife being in the anti-Queen faction. The words are conciliating, but there is steel behind them; he is immediately wrong-footed at the very beginning of the scene. And I am standing right next to him.

I have been playing this by taking a half-step away from him during the Queen’s speech, without looking at him, just a tiny separation, as if to say we are here, together, but we aren’t here-together, if you know what I mean. Then I take the Queen aside to tell her privately about the King’s plan to make peace between the factions—you see, by coming in with Stanley, I may have already compromised my position as a neutral arbiter. Then, when I am speaking privately with the Queen, Richard comes in. So I have again compromised my position.

The second time I come onstage is for the grand reconciliation scene, and while it is implied that I am not in the Queen’s faction (as I am reconciling with her, and why would I need to do that if I were in her faction), at the moment that Richard comes in, I am in fact shaking hands with her brother. So the first two times that Richard sees me (on stage, of course) I am in close conversation with the Queen’s faction. And at the end of that second scene, I declare myself on Richard’s side.

The point, here, is that I think of myself (or rather, the Duke’s self) as neutral at the beginning of the play, successfully avoiding committing myself until I see that (a) Clarence is dead, and (2) Edward is dying, at which point the choice is between Richard and Young-Edward-as-a-proxy-for-the-Queen-his-mother, and I quickly make that choice, throwing the balance decisively in Richard’s favor (a show more focused on the politics could do something with the fact that Hastings is on Young Edward’s side but very much not on the Queen’s side, which leaves the young prince with two champions at odds, which is worse than having one champion and certainly worse than having two in partnership). But my studied neutrality may well be a figment of my imagination; Richard, certainly, has every reason to think of me as in the Queen’s faction. So my declaration in the second act has a different meaning, perhaps, to Richard than it does to Buckingham.

And to the audience? I wonder.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 23, 2010

Lord, I'm so tired. How long can this go on?

Tech week is upon us, the time when everybody in the show, not just the actors and the director but the sound and lights and tech and costume and props and front-of-house and publicity people all think to themselves, wouldn’t it be nice to have a hobby that involved less work? Like building those ships inside bottles? Or maybe butter sculpture?

Call last night was for 6:30; YHB left at 11:30, and I am told that the remaining crew left around midnight. We were painting the last bits of the set, hoping it dries before 6 this evening, when we start assembling again. I am not much of a hand with a paintbrush, but I did a little bit before realizing that I really was tired enough to be problematic for the short drive home in the rain. Which, since this morning my Best Reader found the bottle of port in the fridge, seems to have been a more or less correct assessment of my mental state. Safety, as our fight choreographer says, is reallyreallyfirst.

I do feel bad that I have managed now to show up at three work calls and do almost no actual work. For those of y’all that haven’t done community theater, one of the sources of tension is that many of the actors simply never show up on a Saturday to paint or build or shift furniture. I generally am an offender in that, which I justify to myself by the importance of spending time with my children, when I can manage it. Probably the same is true of the other people in the cast; we do spend many, many hours at the theater, and volunteering to spend more is not really high on our whatsit. For myself, there is another issue, which is that I am not good at that set-building stuff, and I dislike feeling that incompetent. And, since I am incompetent, I am able to tell myself that the crew are not losing much by my absence.

In actual fact, I can wield a paintbrush without doing damage, and am perfectly good at, for instance, holding a bit of wood while somebody sinks a screw in it. Not to mention, my broom skills are actually quite tolerable, and when it comes to hauling a sack of trash to the dumpster, I admit to no better. There is always a large amount of unskilled labor involved, and if I don’t do it, somebody else will have to.

So, out of the eight or ten work calls for R3, I have made it out to three. For the first, logistics prevented me being there at the beginning, so when I arrived a couple of hours in, it was just in time to some ten minutes of sweeping up sawdust and flinging screws in the bucket, and then we broke up for the day. I joked about how brilliant my timing was, and posed with the broom. The second time, I arrived at the beginning, helped to tidy the green room, moved some bits of wood around, held a strip of wood while the set guy measured it, and then toddled off. I did not, this time, joke about getting credit for showing up without having to do any work. Last night was the third, staying around after the technical to help out with the painting, or rather “help out” with the painting, since I did a lot of very little. And then toddled off. Perhaps the other fellows made the jokes this time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 21, 2010

R3 Spoiler: Damage Done

Well, and we open in less than a week. The show keeps getting better, at the very least in the sense that it gets more smooth and professional. The scene changes are still a trifle messy and slow, and there are the moments of Where is my prop? Where’s my fucking prop!!!! but that has to happen this week if it isn’t going to happen in front of an audience. None of that is any worse than it has been in any other show, and much of it is much better.

Anyway, do y’all remember the earlier R3 Spoiler note? In my final scene, now, I’m tearing up my precious, precious notebook. I didn’t mention it before, but the notebook is an Accopress Report Cover, not a three-ring. This means that the front and back covers are easy to separate, each from the other, being held together by presumably-patented aluminum prong dealie. On the other hand, the pressboard covers do show the wear and tear. Luckily, I happen to own two nearly-identical black Accopress Report Covers (although I believe one of them is actually Wilson-Jones), so I figured that I would carry the pristine-looking one through four acts, and swap out for the increasingly war-weary one for the last scene, which, you know, makes the scene even better, showing that I have been dragged halfway across England to my doom. Great, right?

Only, of course, there are limits to the abuse a little folder like that can take, and I noticed after one of the rehearsals this week that the holes were tearing through, or actually that two of the four of them had already torn, and that the remaining two were just barely hanging on. So. What do I need? I need reinforcements! Those little circles that people used to use so that their papers wouldn’t fall out of their three-ring binders. Only, you know, I really only needed four of them. Well, call it eight—may as well protect both binders, just to be safe. And I really didn’t want to purchase a package of two hundred and fifty little ring reinforcements when I only needed ten. Not that there was a lot of money at stake—what would a package cost, a buck?—but that’s the kind of thing I hate.

So, I ask at work whether we have any, and whether it would be OK if I took a few for my own personal use. Our office manager said that she didn’t think she had seen any for years and years and years, but I was welcome to go through the supply cabinet and take any that I found. So I hunted around in there (our supply cabinet is not well-organized, nor does it usually need to be, so there was a good deal of digging through stacks of things and moving things that were on top of plain cardboard boxes and so on) and lo and behold, just as I was about to give up, I get to the bottom of a stack and there is a whole little package of paper reinforcements. Success! I show them to the office manager, who tells me that they are mine, now, and that she thinks they are probably thirty years old.

And, in fact, there is no more adhesive on them, but it isn’t that big a deal to swipe it with a glue stick before pressing it on. So that’s all right. And I carefully prepare my folder for the rehearsal on Sunday.

And then, in my frenzy of tearing, I rip the whole back cover of the binder in half.

Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 17, 2010

One Half and one half is still one half

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t have any news from last night’s rehearsal. We’re getting close, now: last night we did after-the-intermission twice, tonight we’re doing before-the-intermission (twice, I hope), and after that it’s just running the play through from beginning to end, over and over, until somebody starts applauding.

It is a trifle strange for, running the second half twice like that. The second half is my quiet half: I’m in IV,ii (at the beginning, and then exiting for a page or two and then coming back on) and V,i (my death, a one-page scene) and then I’m one of the ghosts in V,ii and that’s it. So I have a lot of sitting down in the green room in between scenes of tremendous emotion and stress. It’s not actually that hard to gear up for the tremendous emotion and stress; the hard part is sitting back down quietly in the green room afterward. The first half has a lot less backstage time for me, and a lot less emotion on-stage. Build-up, don’t you know. The second half is the payoff for my character—but since it’s not a play about the Duke of Buckingham, it’s a payoff well before the play actually ends.

And, of course, running the thing twice means that the moment I am backstage, I am thinking about what went wrong in the scene, and what I need to do to get it right. If we’re just running scenes, then I don’t have that moment—I’m just up and doing it again. If we’re running the whole play, then I know I can’t do anything about the problems until tomorrow, so that’s all right. But running half the play is the maximum time for me to fret about doing it again the same night, which is what really makes the whole sitting-in-the-green-room bit so difficult.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 14, 2010

Kings full of Queens

So, I have decided, unless I change my mind, to go with the easiest idea for a Richard III mix: songs about kings and queens. What the heck. I have a lot of such songs, and it looks to be a good mix, so why make trouble for myself?

Here’s an initial list, with some notes and possibilities, and then I’m throwing the floor open for comments and GR help. My restrictions on this were (a) no instrumentals, (2) no jazz numbers this time, and (iii) um, I had to kinda like the stuff. I am tempted to break the no-instrumentals rule to end the Mix with Queen’s recording of “ God Save The Queen ”, but then, they are my rules and I can break them if I want to, right? Your advice is, as always, gratefully appreciated, both on more tunes to add and what to leave off (as well as what must stay).

  • “I’m King”, B.B. King: I’m stuck between this slow sexy blues and “Riding With The King”, a duet with Eric Clapton.
  • “The King Of Bedside Manor”, Barenaked Ladies: A fun song, with some relevance to the Boar
  • “Kings Of The Highway”, Chris Isaak: a ballad, which could either provide a nice variation with a mostly uptempo mix or be a stone cold drag.
  • “Rock’N’Roll is King”, Electric Light Orchestra: Rama-lama-lama-lama!
  • “King Of Confidence” or “King Horse”, Elvis Costello: or, I suppose, “Brilliant Mistake”, which begins he thought he was the King of America; another ballad, though
  • “The King & Queen Of America”, Eurythmics: I had forgotten this song entirely until I did a search in my library for the words, but it’s a good song.
  • “Duke Of Earl”, Gene Chandler: This is the only song left on my list with duke rather than king or queen, but it does seem to belong.
  • “Wanderlust King”, Gogol Bordello: Gotta have some of that gypsy shit.
  • “The King Is Gone”, Heads: This is from that odd and inconsistent album that the rest of Talking Heads did without David Byrne; it’s a good song, in its way, and has a bit of that punk sound to it.
  • “New Crawlin’ King Snake”, Howlin’ Wolf: This is not about a king, actually, but a king snake. Well, it isn’t actually about a king snake, either…
  • “Babydoll, The Beauty Queen”, Jabbering Trout: One thing about a Mix Tape is the right combination of familiarity and novelty. I like to have a couple of obscure things like this one.
  • “King of the World”, Joe Jackson: a live cover of the Steely Dan song.
  • “King Of Spain”, Moxy Früvous: Gotta have this.
  • “King of the Dogs”, Iggy Pop: this sounds nothing like Iggy Pop to me, but I like it
  • “La Femme duDoight”, Queen Ida: The chorus goes Queen Ida/Is her name
  • “King Of Comedy”, R.E.M.: Off my least favorite album, one of those grungy songs, seems to suit the mood of our show
  • “King Of Bohemia”, Richard Thompson: Another somewhat obscure track, and, alas, another down-tempo one
  • “King Of The Hill”, Roger McGuinn: The former Byrd, the side is pretty much indistinguishable from Tom Petty, which isn’t a bad thing
  • “Sun King”, The Beatles: Hard to leave the Beatles of a list if there’s an excuse for including them
  • “The Rascal King”, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Love, love, love this one, which is of course about Mayor Curley
  • “King Dork”, The Mr. T Experience: The chance to include this track is what made up my mind about using the K&Q theme.
  • “King Of The Hill”, The Nields: another obscurity, alas, but one that begins Gimme my bomb back, yeah
  • “King of Pain”, the Police: this Mix? Needs Moar Eighteez.
  • “King For A Day”, XTC: one of their cheerful Colin Moulding numbers

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: Four Plays (Wodehouse)

Your Humble Blogger has ruminated in the past about adapting Leave it to Psmith for the screen, at which time it was suggested by Gentle Reader Chris Cobb that I get my grubby paws on the stage adaptation. Yes, that was more than two years ago, but I only recently got around to requesting the thing through interlibrary loan. I was disappointed in the adaptation, frankly. For reasons that are not clear to YHB, they transported the thing from Blandings to another Stately Home very similar to Blandings, replaced Lord Emsworth with another Stately Peer very similar to Clarence, and replaced Lady Constance with a character substantially inferior to Lady Constance. And Phyllis Jackson is replaced by an entirely different character named Phyllis Jackson, one not married to Mike Jackson at all but engaged to Freddie (who is not Freddie). On the other hand, Eve is pretty solidly Eve, Miss Peavey is gloriously Miss Peavey, and Psmith is Psmith, which is the best thing you could say about anyone.

As for the adaptation, Mr. Wodehouse (and probably some other uncredited writer) put Act One at the door to the Tube station just down from the Senior Conservative Club. This allows for a lot to happen quite quickly. Alas, that means we only see Psmith go into the club and come out again with Comrade Walderwick’s umbrella, but we do meet Comrade Walderwick, not once but several times, as he is one of the Berties and Algies who come to the weekend at not-Blandings.

Which brings me to my real disappointment, which is that Mr. Wodehouse writes with a very free hand to paying castmembers. There are about a million of them. Many with lines to say. I cannot imagine attempting to cast the thing at a community theater, drawing on available talent, and I cannot imagine attempting to cast the thing at a professional theater, drawing on available money. Things must have been very different in the old days. I mean, I know it was, I have read plays of the thirties before. But this was ridiculous. Utterly prohibitive. The thing would require an altogether new adaptation of the adaptation, if anyone wanted to try it.

On the plus side, the play is in a collection called Four Plays, and although I didn’t manage to read the Jeeves play before returning the thing to my ILL hero, I did reread The Play’s the Thing, which really is a wonderful play. It’s good to be reminded of that, because I do prefer the adaptation by Tom Stoppard, which is called Rough Crossing. The original is called The Play in the Castle, and it is by Ferenc Molnar, who is, of course, wonderful. The last play is also an adaptation of a Hungarian play, this one by Ladislaus Fodor, and this one is really good. I mean, snappy. And with a managable cast, too. There is a moment near the end where our Leading Man threatens to rape the Leading Lady, which might ruin the whole play, though. I mean, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t mean it, and it’s very very clear that it won’t happen, but even to be brought up in talk, well, I don’t know. Do productions of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam these days cut out the lines about rape? I certainly would. Well, anyway, I hadn’t read Bill before, and I really enjoyed reading it, so that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 12, 2010

R3 Spoilers: Warning!

No, seriously, actually, this isn’t about plot spoilers, but about production spoilers. Because it occurred to me that four Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu have already made plans to see the thing, and it’s possible that perhaps half-a-dozen more are contemplating it. Which y’all should be, if the logistics work out—I’m starting to get the feeling that this is going to be a good show. It’s early yet (two weeks from tonight!), but there are bits that are very good indeed. So if you can come to Greater Hartford on a weekend night in April (or late March), come. If you need details, let me know and I will email them to you.

And there are a few details of the production that will probably work better if you haven’t read too much about them beforehand. So I was going to refrain from writing about, oh, the really cool thing that we did the other night, because I don’t want to Ruin It for the folk who are coming to see.

Still, of the three dozen or so Gentle Readers, two thirds at least are simply unable to arrange a trip. Not going to happen, and I do understand. Frankly, I understand even if you could possibly make it to town and you don’t. I have missed my friends in shows this Winter just out of laziness and cheapness, and I’m OK with that in myself and others. And I believe that some of those GRs who are not coming (for whatever reason), are amongst those most interested in Shakespeare and theeyater. So. Rather than continuing to refrain, I think my plan is just to mark some of these notes as containing SPOILERS for the production.

SPOILERS

Really, not just warning you to avoid wagering on Richard in the final battle (I will give you 7-2 odds) but that as with any production, we have made some new choices and you will enjoy the show more if you don’t know what all of them are. So if you are even thinking about the possibility of coming and seeing the show, stop reading here. You can always come back in a month or two and tell me how it worked out for you.

OK?

Everybody good with this?

Ready for the production SPOILER? It’ll be a letdown now, I know, but still, it’s a bit I do like, if I say so myself.

Right, then. Act V, scene i: my death scene. We have discussed the scene before, and how it ends with my telling my executioner to covey me to the block of shame and the closing couplet. I haven’t talked about the beginning of the scene, where I list the dead:

Hastings, and Edward’s children, Rivers, Grey, Holy King Henry, and thy fair son Edward, Vaughan, and all that have miscarried By underhand corrupted foul injustice.

In the full text, Buckingham is addressing the shades of the dead, whose moody discontented souls are invited to mock him as he dies. We cut that bit of the address, as we have cut a lot of the supernatural elements of the show. So as I was preparing the scene, I was just listing them, in a sort of hysterical laughter: he knows he’s going to die, and now look at the people he has had killed for (it turns out) no benefit at all. A cosmic joke, and the panicky laughter as he faces his own addition to the list was, I must say, working for me.

And then I happened to sit in on the rehearsal for IV,i (in which Buckingham does not appear) and saw that Lady Anne responds to the summons of Lord Stanley that Come, madam, you must straight to Westminster, there to be crowned Richard’s royal queen. is stunned and panicky laughter, rising to hysteria as she contemplates the cosmic joke that her own curses redound on her head as the unhappy wife of the accursed Richard. And that was working very well, indeed, and was not only pathetic (in a good way) but a highlight on her basic instability (as opposed to the Duke of Buckingham, who is not inclined to regret and second-guessing). Only… if I respond the same way twenty minutes later, it makes me look dumb, and make the show work worse. So. Ah, well, what the hell. Back to the old proverbial, eh?

What to do, what to do. And then what comes to the rescue but my trusty notebook, and the rumination of the other day that I had a little list and could, in my own words, Cross them off, one after another. So, despite it making no real-world sense whatsoever, I determined that when I was caught and brought to execution, I would be clinging to that notebook of mine, and

[opens Notebook, glances at executioner, shows him page] Hastings [Rrrrrip!], and Edward’s children [Rrrrrip! Rrrrip!], Rivers [Rip!], Grey [Rip!], Holy King Henry[Rip!], and thy fair son Edward[Rip!], Vaughan[Rip!], and all [Rip!]that have miscarried [Rip!]By underhand [Rip!] corrupted [Rip!] foul [Rip!] injustice[Actually, by this point I have torn out the pages, torn the covers from each other and am surrounded by the fluttering shreds of my life].

A couple of things to note: first, of course, this is exactly the sort of thing that I love but don’t do well, what I have called physical inventiveness, coming up with bits of business that bring out something in the character and the text in a way that would not be present without the business. As such, I am really, really hoping it works. I have done it once, and it seems to work, but, you know, it is a bit over the top, and I can only justify it by doing it really well. A trifle daunting.

The other thing is that this business brought out Buckingham’s anger at his betrayal. Buckingham, of course, is a mix of emotions at this point (as is everyone at every point, but this is dramatically heightened, being, you know, in a play), and the text emphasizes his acknowledgement of the irony, his wittiness, as it were, over everything else. But of course he is also angry at Richard’s betrayal of him (I feel sure Buckingham never sees the raising of a rebel army as a betrayal on his part), and afraid of his immanent death and damnation. Regret? Sure. Defiance? All right. All of that. The question is which come to the front in the portrayal to make the better theater. And when, urged to by the list-shredding, I brought the anger to the front, it seemed to make the scene work better, and (I think) the play, as of all his emotions, the anger is the most Richard-directed, and the play is all about Richard.

And best of all, it brings the whole Buckingham’s-notebook thing to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a version of Tchekov’s law, right? If you show the audience a notebook in Act One, somebody has to tear it up before the final curtain.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 9, 2010

Off, book!

A couple of days ago, when my Director asked if we had any production or schedule type questions, and I asked for an off-book date. She said that we should definitely be off-book by the 26th. That is Opening Night, you see. A little joke.

My preference is to have a deadline, some date to prepare for, after which any actor clutching a script will be scorned and derided. I have been in shows where actors were simply Not Allowed to clutch a script after that date; I don’t approve of that. So, I suppose there’s some sense in being unwilling to declare a deadline you are not going to enforce. Still, there has to be a time.

Now, as for myself and the Duke of Buckingham, we both carry around a folder. And, in fact, it’s the same folder. Although, presumably, what’s in the folder is a trifle different—the Duke probably would not carry around a printout of everything he is going to say for the next two hours. He might, if he could, but most likely he does not.

So. I found myself, at that rehearsal, carrying around a prop notebook with an actual script. And although I am mostly off-book, I mean, off-book enough to be off-book, but not yet off-book enough to get all the lines exactly correct, the temptation to open it up to the correct page and take just a little peek was overwhelming. Just, you know, while somebody else is talking, open the folder and glance down at the page and back up, refreshing my memory that I address the Queen as Madam not Highness or that it is for shame if not for charity and not vice versa. And we’re not past some deadline for off-book-ness, so it’s not, you know, cheating. There’s no scorn or derision. There’s only the beginnings of the formation of a bad habit.

Therefore Your Humble Blogger, being a Good Lad, has transferred the sides to a new folder, a new blue folder, and put a bunch of random pages out of the recycle bin into the black folder I will be carrying properly. I will probably want to make up something that looks good (for mid-70s values of good) before we go up, but the key thing is to get the book out of my hands so I get used to being without it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 4, 2010

...

Do you know what the secret is to all good theater? No, it's repetition. And timing. And repetition. But mostly timing.

YHB has an unfortunate tendency to slow pacing. Not terrible, and at least I'm aware of it, but still—I like to create a silence to speak into. A rather effective technique, if it is used very, very sparingly.

I should say that I am not generally slow to pick up cues, that's not the issue. It's that once I get into a speech of any length, I tend to find places to pause, to create emphasis with stillness, a kind of creeping Shatnerism, to be honest. As I say, I am aware of this, and I know that it can be easily overused, very very easily, and so I struggle with it.

My point is that I have a line, one line in particular in this play, that seems to me to require a pause before I speak. There's my cue line, and then I come to a decision and speak. In order for the audience to follow that I have come to a decision, and that I am coming to a decision right at that moment, there needs to be a pause.

But how long a pause?

My instincts will tell me to prolong the moment, that the tension is continuing to build. My instinct will continue to tell me that for at least, oh, three or four seconds after the last audience member has dropped off to sleep. My instinct is not to be trusted. So I will not trust my instinct. I'm not sure how I will wind up judging the pause—there's the simple method of counting two, or I could find a way to have Richard (for it is Richard, inevitably, to whom I speak) cue me on his instinct by raising an eyebrow or otherwise unobtrusively kicking me. Or something will come up—the one thing I know for sure is that whenever I do speak, it will feel to me rushed.

Which means that every night, at the end of that scene, I will leave feeling a twinge of dissatisfaction. And I will feel that twinge of dissatisfaction no matter what. If I don't feel that I rushed the line, I will feel that I dragged it out; if I nail it by any objective measure—including an audible gasp from the audience and a chorus of ooooohs—I will still feel rushed.

Ah, well. Such is life. As we hear in They Might Be Giants, everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Bits of Business

We are slowly settling on a character for Buckingham. Not as comic as I would make it, which makes sense, as we are not doing the play as a whole as a comedy (alas). There will be some laughs, but we are going to emphasize Buckingham as a capable political player, albeit overmatched. He is the money and the repute, the public face of Richard’s faction. Do y’all remember, and I hate to bring this up, but ten years ago there was this idea that Our Previous President’s callow and stubborn inexperience would be tempered by the wisdom and statesmanship of Old Hands, of the ilk of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld? There is some sense in which our Buckingham makes our Richard more plausible, easier to support. Only, of course, Richard doesn’t have any loyalty.

Well, and one of the things that has guided YHB into a nearer orbit of this particular Buckingham has been a prop. I asked our Director, possibly at the first blocking rehearsal, if I could have a hand prop of some kind, something to hold during my first scene (which for me consists of long stretches of standing quietly at the back, watching), and she suggested a notebook or portfolio of some kind. Since I have been carrying my script with me at the blocking rehearsals since then, of course, it has been easy to incorporate that into my various bits of business. There was one moment, really, when it came together for me, as we were blocking II, ii a couple of nights ago.

So, King Edward is dead; Richard and I come to the Queen and Rivers along with Hastings and Stanley for an impromptu Privy Council meeting, to conclude that it is time for the Young Prince to be brought to London. My line is “Me seemeth good, that, with some little train, forthwith from Ludlow the young prince be fetch’d hither to London, to be crown’d our king.” At this point, I know the line well enough not to have to read it off the page; I am now carrying around my folder more as a prop than a script (particularly in these scenes where I have so few lines). On the spur of the moment, I flipped open the folder to get information: …forthwith from what the hell is the name of that place, oh, right Ludlow… and flipped it quickly closed again.

And, there, you see? So much in that half-second the notebook is open. Buckingham is the sort of fellow who keeps lists. He’s got the train schedule in there. He can’t remember the name of the Prince’s school, so he writes it down. He is persistent but not inspired. He has written down Earl. Hrfd; moveables, so he thinks he will get them. He’s a list-maker. Who needs to sign off on Richard’s investiture? Hastings, Stanley, Bishop, Mayor. Cross them off, one after another. Who has a claim to the throne? Edward, the Princes, Clarence, Richard, Buckingham, Richmond. Hm.

Of course, it doesn’t always work like that. Last night in III,vii when I dragged the Lord Mayor off (Come, citizens: ’zounds! I’ll entreat no more), I did an absolutely lovely spin. Headed for the U.L. Exit, I have the L.M. on my right arm (Come, citizens!), and then turn back to my left (’zounds!) dragging him across my body upstage and then turn to exit again (I’ll entreat no more!), dragging him downstage of me in a full circle. This also was on the spur of the moment—it came as a surprise to the Lord Mayor, who is a very funny fellow and reacted perfectly (I am guessing, because of course it is essential to the bit that I not look at him or acknowledge him at all during the spin), and to the cast and crew who erupted in screams of laughter. I love screams of laughter. Alas, when the Lord Mayor backstage said it was a terrific bit, I immediately said yeah, but I don’t think we’ll be doing it in three weeks. And in fact, at the end of the night in the Notes, our Director quite rightly said that it would have to go. Because, you know, it could be a good bit and still ruin the scene. And, as I think I said, we’re not doing it as a comedy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 24, 2010

oooooOOOOOoooooh!

Well, and I don’t know if we have at last finished blocking the whole play, but we have finished blocking the bits I am in, so that’s all right. After we did my death scene in V,i, I was released to go home, and I did, and thank goodness for that, because the roads? Not so good.

Anyway, before we did that, we did the ghost scene. Now, I don’t like the ghost scene at all. We’re doing a reasonable job of it, but frankly, I would cut the whole thing. We have already cut two-thirds of it, so it’s just a little bit more.

Now, I could imagine a terrific production of the show that emphasized all the occult and unnatural elements. Ours is not that production, but I imagine it could be terrific. It would begin, I imagine, with Richard spying his shadow on the wall, and then, when he moves to the left, the shadow moves to the right, and then perhaps morphs into a boar—or perhaps just into a bigger, more grotesque version of Richard, more deformed. Maybe… with horns? Or tusks, anyway. Still, that would set up a special-effects laden version, a dark Richard. Margaret, of course, becomes more prominent. Perhaps she is onstage more frequently than is written, observing and casting spells—if you can have her appear and disappear, perhaps overlooking the seduction of Anne, it can prepare us not only for her arrival later, but for the strange behavior of everybody else, who seem not to see her at first, and then inexplicably fail to have her arrested and confined. And then, possibly, when Queen Elizabeth asks her, in Act Four, how to curse her enemies, she could …not sure. Something, though.

And, of course, there are the dreams. Clarence’s dream, Stanley’s dream, and Richard’s dream of the ghosts—if we see the other two performed, brought to vision for the audience, then the ghosts fit in. How to do it? Puppets, I am thinking, behind a scrim. Hard to have it be appropriately spooky, but there are people who do that sort of thing very well. And then, perhaps, begin the ghost scene with puppets and have them appear to climb down and become life-sized people? Just a thought.

And in a play like that, there is the possibility of having ghosts appear throughout. Bloated and disfigured Clarence watches his nephews being sent to the Tower. Wasted and debilitated Anne watches Richard attempt to negotiate a second marriage. Rivers, Grey and Vaughn take up the empty seats at the council table to watch Hastings’ destruction. Henry VI could show up. Dead Rutland could play jacks with Dead Edward while the bodies pile up around them on Bosworth Field. The dead could outnumber the living.

But if that’s not what you are doing with the play, which we’re not, and thank goodness for that, and if furthermore you are not doing the whole text, which we’re not, and thank goodness for that, I firmly think that the ghosts should be the first things cut. Well, the second, after the scene with Clarence’s children. But early in the cutting process.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 23, 2010

Enter Buckingham

Last night we blocked IV,ii, which is probably known as the ‘giving vein’ scene. Immediately after the coronation, Richard suggests to Buckingham that he take care of murdering the Princes in the Tower, and Buckingham equivocates, and then asks for the Earldom he was promised. Richard dicks with him and then tells him “I am not in the giving vein today”. Buckingham sees the writing on the wall and flees the court to raise an army.

So. I found it particularly difficult to learn the lines in this scene. Not just straining to get the exact words right, as I have been having problems with in all my lines, but missing whole lines or getting them in the wrong order. That’s because through a page or two I am trying to get Richard to respond to me and he is conspicuously not responding to me but talking about something else. Our lines don’t match, deliberately. I ask about Hereford and he answers with Richmond; he asks about time and I answer about promises. We’re not listening to each other. It’s harder to find hooks to attach the lines to each other.

Mind you, it’s a terrific scene. Lots of conflict. Just hard to memorize.

Well, and last night we blocked it. I had been imagining possible blocking problems as I was preparing it, imagining possible solutions, ways to make the scene work in different ways. And I had kinda figured on one particular way as working well with what we’ve done so far, meshing with some of the earlier stage scenes and themes and working with the scene itself. And what our director did is just about the opposite of what I had been thinking. I don’t think I want to be any more specific—I am hoping that a few Gentle Readers will make their way to see the thing, and there should be some surprises for you—but I will say that never in a million million years would I have thought of blocking IV,ii like that. And it’s brilliant.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 22, 2010

Wrong hath but wrong, but something's gotta be right

OK, so you know how helpful you all were with my exit line last time? Well, I have a different problem this time.

First of all, I have a great, great speech for when I’m about to die. But the last couplet, which is one of the few well-known lines I have, which is in fact one of the very few well-known lines in the whole play that is uttered by anyone other than Richard, that last couplet? Doesn’t make sense to me.

That is, I know more or less what it means. Here’s the line: Come, sir, convey me to the block of shame; Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.. I have admitted, at this point, my complicity in underhand corrupted foul injustice, and I have further admitted that foreshadowing is a legitimate literary device my own pledge had asked for and deserved nothing better than betrayal in response to my own. So what I’m saying is that I am being wronged by Richard in response to my own wrong behavior toward the Young Prince, and that insofar as I blame Richard, I needs must blame myself as well. Right?

Or, as SparkNotes and the No Fear Shakespeare site have translated it, I have done wrong, so I will suffer wrong. I have been blamed because I deserved to be. Boy, that’s terrible writing.

But the problem—my problem—is that I can’t make the words of the text mean that. If I am saying Wrong hath but [the seeds within it that grow into greater] wrong, that’s an awful lot of implication to put in between the words. If I am saying Blame [that I place on Richard is] the due of blame [that I place on myself], then not only am I jamming a lot of implication in between the words, I’m using due in a way that is difficult to understand. For me as well as the audience.

Now, I don’t mean to say that I can’t deliver the line. Frankly, if I do say it myself, I think the bit that leads up to the closing couplet is going to be terrific, and then, I straighten myself, look at Tyrell (who I think will be my executioner, although it may be Brackenbury), take a deep breath and snap Come, sir! Convey me to the block of shame! before smiling ruefully, opening my arms and saying Wrong hath but wrong, and blame… the due of blame. Or, of course, I could play it the other way: resignedly asking to be brought to the block, and then suddenly turning on my escort and snapping out that wrong hath but wrong, and so on, as a threat that he, too, will pay for his support of Richard. In some ways, when the structure of the sentences are opaque, the actor is released to use the words as floaters, independent of the surrounding sentence, and shouting out wrong! and blame! will carry (I would think) the audience to the meaning I put into them.

On the other hand, it would be nice to feel like I’m working with the text and not around it. I don’t ordinarily feel any difficulty with Shakespeare’s language, you know. Oh, I like to work against the meter, but not against the language itself. I almost never have a problem with understanding the basic meaning of the sentences, or figuring out why the various parts of the sentence are presented in the order they are. I have lots of lines that I can say a number of different ways, even within the confines the character than I am narrowing, but the different ways is because they all make sense in different ways. And, in fact, for all of Buckingham’s courtly language, with his unnecessary modifiers and intensifiers, his sentences are for the most part straightforward. Either straightforward lies, or straightforward truths. This last couplet of mine, though, is baffling me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 19, 2010

Shake my shaky hand

Your Humble Blogger has spoken before about two schools of thought about acting, and how while my sympathies are with the English, my training (such as it is) is with the Russian. Since that time, I’ve done some more shows, am on my third director since then, actually, and none of the directors has engaged in improvisation or any of that Method stuff. Which is fine with me—although I do enjoy improv generally, with the typically limited rehearsal time available to Community Theater, I’m in favor of just getting the blocking right.

And, I feel, over time I have become more and more sympathetic to the Technical style anyway. One of the ways people have described the difference is that the English style is outside-in while the Russian is inside-out. The Technical actor will begin with the externals—a hat, a limp, an accent—and fill in the character from there, whilst the Method actor will begin with the internal emotions and sensibilities—relationships, motivations, instincts—and fill out the character from there. I have always felt better when I have the externals—the hand props, the shoes, the hat. It is true that on occasion, I have had to ditch an external, when it doesn’t work with the internal, but that’s part of the process, too.

I mention it because as we have been blocking the scenes, I have been touching the other actors a lot. No, not like that. At least not yet. No, I’ve been putting my arm around them, grasping their forearms, putting a hand on a shoulder, turning them by their shoulders, and generally being the kind of guy who is always touching you. That had not been a plan of mine, and I was honestly surprised to discover it happening over and over again.

When I first come in, after my greeting, my next line is

QUEEN ELIZABETH: God grant him health! Did you confer with him?
BUCKINGHAM: Madam, we did: he desires to make atonement Betwixt the Duke of Gloucester and your brothers, And betwixt them and my lord chamberlain; And sent to warn them to his royal presence.

As the Queen’s brother is there in the room, I thought it might be nice if I took her arm and drew her aside, speaking to her as if in confidence, while Lord Rivers (her brother) conspicuously eavesdrops. The scene (I,iii) is all about the intrigue, making clear to the audience the factions, insofar as it can be made clear without having people wear different colored track suits (which has been done, you know). So, the two obvious options are to say the lines to Lord Rivers through the Queen, and to say them to the Queen around Lord Rivers. Well, and I suppose the most obvious option is to say the line broadcast, but that’s the least interesting option as well, and fails to contribute to the sense of factionalism and complottery. So I went for the most secretive one.

Then, later in that same scene, I am drawn aside for private talk myself. The Duchess of York (who has been given some of Margaret’s lines, which is very interesting and probably worth a note in itself) warns me against Richard, who is in the room at the time and wonders what’s up. We kiss hands (the Duchess and I, not Richard and I, at least not yet), and I take her glass away and hand it to Hastings as I feel she has had enough. That’s two.

In the next scene, although I am speaking to a group, I speak to each in turn, taking hands with a symbolic handshake—that’s three handshakes in the scene at least. I enter with my arm around the Young Prince’s shoulder, and then later, I draw Catesby aside and put my arm around her shoulder. In my scenes with the Lord Mayor, I steer him around the stage so that he can play his part properly. Richard puts his arm around my shoulder (his shoulders are off limits, of course), and I take Hasting’s arm to lead him to the Tower. In each of those cases, or almost all of them anyway, I was doing what the scene seemed to require without thinking of Buckingham as touching people rather a lot.

In real life, as it happens, I don’t touch people very much. I suspect it’s not uncommon for a week to go by without my touching anyone other than my Best Reader, my Perfect Non-Reader and the Youngest Member. Oh, I shake hands, now and then, but not every day. When I come in to work, for instance, I do not greet anyone by touching them, with a high five or a back slap or whatever. When I come in to rehearsal, I don’t generally speaking touch people—I don’t shrink from a proffered hug or handshake, but I don’t offer them myself. I have a few friends with whom I am physically affectionate, but not many, and not new ones. It would not have occurred to me to develop Buckingham as a character who is physically—what—not affectionate, certainly. Physically insinuating, let’s say. But once the actions are there, it makes sense for the character, too. Outside-in.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 18, 2010

A New Idea

So. We had a cancelled rehearsal on Tuesday, due to the storm that wound up dumping eight inches or so of the white stuff on our roads. SNo Big Deal, since we are naming our storms these days. And can I suggest, if the Baltimore/DC area is hit with another one in the next few weeks, we call it SNo Mas!, which I think has the proper sound of defeatism and disbelief.

Anyway, we were back to rehearsal on Wednesday, and one of the other actors, sitting around, came up with a great image that I think I may make use of, which is the idea of Buckingham as the manager of the band. He’s enough older than Richard and Richmond and all of them that he doesn’t really get the punk thing, but he sees that there’s money in it, so he’s all in favor. He’s the link between the punks and the straight world, the one who gets the gigs and collects the money, and maybe hands some to the band, but not too much, because they will just piss it away. He loves everybody, because anybody could be useful, and if possible, when he screws people over, he won’t be there to watch it, he’ll be in the back room gladhanding the next contact.

And then, you know, once the band has a hit and a contract, they don’t need him any more and out he goes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 17, 2010

Time and Place

The thing about putting on a Shakespeare play is that you have to set it somewhere.

So, in my positivist way, shall I do a breakdown? Yes, I shall.

Shakespeare in tights: This is in some ways the first thing that people think about, when they think about Shakespeare on stage. The cast dress in something approximating Elizabethan style, or what Shakespeare’s colleagues would have worn on stage. The setting approximates an Elizabethan theater setting, adapted to the physical layout of the theater. Drawbacks: comes with a sign marked Warning: Shakespeare is Dull. Relegates the actions to long ago, when things were different. Advantages: Audiences are expecting it, usually, and aren’t confused or distracted by it. Also, it’s what Shakespeare had in mind, so there is rarely any need to modify the text or otherwise put effort into making the setting work. Personal Taste: We hates it.

Historical Accuracy: That is, setting the production when the story itself is set, whether that is Ancient Greece or Medieval Italy or Imperial Woam or Scotland’s Dark Ages or Fairly Recent England. The idea is that the modern, clever, analytical dramaturg can bring out things in the setting that Shakespeare could not in his day, not having Wikipedia. Drawbacks: Togas. Also, Shakespeare is the total king of anachronisms, so you have to do some fancy footwork. And in the case of R3, it would be difficult for a Production Team to make it clear that this was not, in fact, Elizabethan, but a few generations earlier. Advantages: Well, it does have a sort of literal consistency. And some of the settings are pretty cool. Personal Taste: I’ve never seen it work really well. But then, I don’t particularly like Julius Caesar, which is the one that gets that treatment.

Modern Dress: Actors wearing the same clothes as the audience, pretty much. Advantages: It’s cheap and easy. And you can indicate quite subtle differences in class, regional background, ethnicity, climate, affluence, rank and occupation in ways the audience can pick up on. Disadvantages: No sensawonda. Difficult to explain references to horses, heralds and hogsheads. Throws the non-naturalism of Shakespearean language into sharp relief, as well as the archaisms. Personal Taste Fine. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages for me.

Brilliant Idea: There is a time and place (possibly imaginary) that totally works on a bunch of levels. It casts new light on the play as well as on its setting, and also on our own situation. Not only does the main setting work, but all the other places fit as well, and the class/race/wealth/culture/religious differences between the characters translate beautifully. Advantages: Wonderful, wonderful show, talked about forever. Disadvantages: Largely mythical. No, but extremely rare. The Fascist Julius Caesar, maybe the Voodoo Macbeth, the Fascist Richard III, perhaps the white box Midsummer. Alas, most ideas are not brilliant. Personal Taste: A wonderful, wonderful thing. When it happens.

Something to do: Something that looks good, at least part of the time. Coriolanus in Imperial Japan. Titus with tanks. The Comedy of Errors in Postwar Italy. Twelfth Night in the Wild West. Advantages: A couple of cool effects, some awesome costumes. Perhaps some cool music in between scenes. Doesn’t actually have to be consistent throughout the show; if you want to have the Capulets in kimonos and the Montagues in muumuus, heck, go for it. Disadvantages: Not making consistent sense. Can be distracting, when the audience is wondering why these dogfaces don’t have a radio, or why this importer doesn’t go to a different insurance house, or why that guy is wearing that thing on his head. Personal Preference: Actually, I like this sort of thing a lot. Oh, sure, I spend the intermission and half-an-hour afterward complaining about it (OK, half-an-hour a day for a week), but that’s part of the fun.

If I were to rank my preferences, I would say top would be the Brilliant Idea, of course, but second would be Something to Do, ahead of the other three. So as much as I am complaining and will complain about the whole Punk R3 business, and as much as I still don’t really get the point of it, the truth is that I’m just glad we’re doing the play, and I’m happy for the bits where the punk thing will work, and will live just fine with the bits where it won’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 16, 2010

Worth a thousand words

As I have not yet finished my post about designs and settings for Shakespeare’s plays, and as I haven’t anything else to say at the moment, I would encourage Gentle Readers to view this publicity photograph of a Richard III performance. First of all, is it not a thing of beauty? And second, do all y’all recognize that Richard? No? Look closer.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 12, 2010

Twenty-Five Scenes

So. A quick breakdown of the 25 scenes of the play, with particular focus on Buckingham’s through-line. OK?

Act One, scene one is The Monologue, Hastings and Clarence. The important thing here is that in the politics, the following people are mentioned along with their supposed factional differences: Clarence and Hastings, of course, the Queen, Rivers, Mrs. Shore and the King. And, I suppose, Warwick’s daughter, the Lady Anne. Nobody mentions Buckingham.

Act One, scene two is the Seduction. Nothing to do with Buckingham, at least in the short term.

Act One, scene three begins with the Queen and Rivers (and Grey, cut in our version) and continues with Buckingham coming in with Stanley. We immediately learn that Stanley’s wife is in the anti-Queen faction; Stanley manages to straddle the fence (as usual). Buckingham passes along the idea of reconciliation from the King, but is not at this point included in that. Richard comes in and starts fighting with the Queen, and then old, mad Queen Margaret comes in (although this part is given to the Duchess of York in our play). Margaret has a happy facility for getting different people to agree, that is, to agree on how much they hate her. Buckingham is finally singled out for address by this powerless outsider, but he dismisses her and is brushed aside. After the gang all go see the King, Richard includes Buckingham in his list of “simple gulls”

Act One, scene four is Clarence’s murder. The key here is that this is the first murder, possibly the first violence. This is where things begin to actually move. Buckingham is outside this and pretty clearly doesn’t know anything about it.

Act Two, scene one is Edward’s deathbed; Buckingham is there and makes it clear that foreshadowing is a legitimate literary technique. After the reconciliation, when Richard drops his bomb (the news of Clarence’s death, blamed on the Queen), Buckingham does not go with the King and the rest but waits with Richard and whoever is with him. He has the last line of the scene (“We wait upon your grace.”), which we are playing as a formal declaration of support to Richard. A private declaration, but clear.

Act Two, scene two is Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and her orphaned grandchildren (that is, Clarence’s children), and then Queen Elizabeth and then Rivers and Dorset (still on the fence) and then Buckingham comes in with Richard and that faction (Stanley and Hastings and Ratcliff). At the tail end of the scene Buckingham is seen in active political maneuvering for the first time, but still subtly, waiting until he is alone with Richard to speak openly.

Act Two, scene three is a group of Citizens discussing the political scene. We cut this. The only thing worth mentioning is that they mention only the young Prince and his uncles (Richard and Rivers, and the Queen’s other brothers); there is no mention of Buckingham at all, nor of Hastings or Stanley or Dorset or anybody else on any side.

Act Two, scene four is Queen Elizabeth and her younger boy and her mother-in-law getting the news that Rivers and Grey and Vaughn are prisoners, sent up by “the mighty dukes Gloucester and Buckingham”. Gloucester is Richard, by the way; most of the characters are referred to variously by their first name, their title lands, their family and their rank. Buckingham is never anybody but Buckingham, which is nice. But the key thing here is that Buckingham has by this time declared himself publicly, and is known to be on Richard’s side against the Queen and her family.

Act Three, scene one is the first time we see Buckingham and Richard working together. They have come to meet the Prince of Wales and divert him to the Tower; they make a show of convincing him that it is for his own protection. Then Buckingham has a political conversation with Catesby, of all people, as if Richard hadn’t been directing Catesby from the beginning. The notable thing there is that although Buckingham and Richard are publically allied, he spends a lot of effort on pretense: they are civil to the Young Prince, although he pretty obviously sees right through that (and also sees that he has little choice), and his instructions to Catesby are clumsily subtle, if that makes sense.

Act Three, scene two begins with a lot of Hastings and Stanley business, and ends with Buckingham coming in and having a brief and somewhat odd conversation with Hastings. Buckingham reveals to the audience that Hastings is for the chop in an aside that reads like a sort of Richard-knockoff. It’s Buckingham using the Richard technique, but badly, and to no great purpose. It’s also odd that Buckingham is here by himself, one of the few places he isn’t with Richard.

Act Three, scene three is the deaths of Rivers, Grey and Vaughn, and we have cut it. It’s a shame, really, but as we are making Rivers stand in for all three of them, it would make the scene awkward. This scene, by the way, has another reference to Buckingham in his absence, in a way that clearly ties the Richard and Buckingham together.

Act Three, scene four is the strawberries scene. There’s a bit at the start where Buckingham jests about not being as close to Richard as Hastings is. That’s contradicted immediately on Richard’s entrance, when it is clear that they are buddies, and in fact leave the room to speak privately. Interestingly, when they come back in and Richard accuses Hastings, Buckingham doesn’t speak at all.

Act Three, scene five is the scene of Hasting’s Head, where Buckingham and Richard pretend to have just barely fought off a murderous attack. It’s a hilarious scene, and the two of them seem to be almost equals. They alternate advice to each other, and play to each other’s lines. Fun to do.

Act Three, scene six is the Scrivener scene, and cut. I think I want to write about this scene later, but for now, there’s nothing Buckingham in it.

Act Three, scene seven is the photo-op, where Buckingham arranges to bring the Lord Mayor to disturb Richard at prayer, and then offer him the Crown, which he reluctantly accepts. It’s a lot of fun. At the beginning of it, Buckingham talks about his appearance before the electors, and how (a) Richard has no popular support at all, and (2) he is able, with the help of a claque, to provide a facade of popular support, enough to go on with. In all of this, Richard is listening to Buckingham—in the full text (not in our version) it is clear that Richard’s earlier advice was insufficient without Buckingham having thought to pay a claque. Then Buckingham gives Richard advice on handling the photo-op, which he meekly takes. We do not, alas, get a moment between them to private enjoy the success of their plan.

Act Four, scene one is the womenfolk learning (from Stanley) that Richard is going to be King. Nobody talks about Buckingham.

Act Four, scene two is the giving vein scene, just after the coronation. It begins with Richard drawing Buckingham aside for private consultation and ends with Buckingham kicked to the curb and fleeing for his life. A great, great scene. I don’t know if it can be a surprise to the audience, which has over the last half-hour or more been seeing Buckingham not only increasingly at the center of things, but tied very strongly with Richard as a character and his success. Now, gone.

Act Four, scene three is Richard and his goons. Buckingham is mentioned, but is not considered a threat.

Act Four, scene four is the wooing of Elizabeth, a long and lovely bit in the middle of a very long and rather muddled scene with a lot of mostly unconnected bits. One of the bits is the news that Buckingham’s army is scattered. The last bit is the news that Buckingham is now a prisoner.

Act Four, scene five is a short scene between Stanley and one of Richmond’s supporters;

Act Five, scene one is Buckingham’s death scene. Or at least, his just-before-being-taken-offstage-and-killed scene, depending on how bloodthirsty the director is feeling. We haven’t blocked it yet. It’s a nice bit, short enough not to slow down the action, in which Buckingham more or less goes over the story so far.

Act Five, scene two is Richmond and his buddies.

Act Five, scene three is a long and bizarre scene, containing in it a bunch of plot stuff and fight stuff, and the Ghost Scene, where Buckingham is the last ghost, in the chiefest place, but, you know, still dead. After the ghosts is Richard’s last great monologue (very different from the earlier ones) and then the battlefield speeches and the battle begins.

Act Five, scene four is a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse. Which is pretty much the whole scene.

Act Five, scene five is Richmond killing Richard, and getting the crown from Stanley, and the end of the play, hurray.

This is all somewhat misleading, as the division into scenes is not necessarily going to be visible to the audience. But still, I think it should give an idea of what I’m talking about with my character arc, and how it helps tell the Richard story.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 9, 2010

Aye, there's the rub

I’m not sure which kind of rehearsal dream is worse.

There’s the kind where you wake up absolutely convinced that you have had a brilliant idea in your sleep, and that you really should deliver the line not to the glassblower directly, but to the glassblower’s cat, which would totally bring out how bompstable the relationship between you and the glassblower really is. And then only later, when you are fully awake, does it occur to you that the glassblower doesn’t have a cat, and that you don’t have any scenes with the glassblower, and there isn’t a glassblower in the play anyway. And that bompstable is a perfectly rippin’ word but it doesn’t so much have any meaning, alas.

And there’s the kind where you wake up already unable to remember what brilliant idea had come to you in your sleep. But that one probably was brilliant, right? If only you could remember it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Good to Verse

There are, of course, a million different ways of playing Shakespeare for an audience, and not all of them are wrong. What I’m on about at the moment is the verse.

I assume that y’all know what I mean when I talk about Shakespearean verse. Perhaps I shouldn’t. Essentially, Shakespeare wrote big chunks of his plays in a highly rhythmic style, not much like common speech. This is separate from the language—Shakespeare has a largish vocabulary containing a fair number of words that you won’t come across very often, and very very often uses words you know in ways you don’t, but I think that’s exaggerated in people’s minds. The thing about the verse is that the demands of its rhythmic structure (among other things) push the structure of Shakespeare’s sentences well out of what we expect. This is not a problem unique to Shakespeare, or unique to iambic pentameter; David Mamet, f’r’ex, and Martin McDonagh f’r’another’ex, bend grammatical syntax to their rhythmic demands. But with Shakespeare, which has a reputation for unintelligibility, it’s something that requires real and serious thought.

There are two major schools of thought: some people emphasize the verse, other people play against the verse. If you figure that Shakespeare’s intent in writing in verse in the first place should be a high priority, you focus on the beats and play them up. If you figure that the verse is a problem for audiences, you focus on the beats and break them up.

Let’s take a look, shall we, at one of Buckingham’s most famous speeches. It’s not terribly long. Seven lines. Buckingham and Richard are preparing for a photo-op with the Lord Mayor and a crowd of Citizens, during which Richard will be formally offered the Crown and will accept it.

The mayor is here at hand: intend some fear;
Be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit:
And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord;
For on that ground I’ll build a holy descant:
And be not easily won to our request:
Play the maid’s part, still answer nay, and take it.

First of all, it’s written here as verse. As a clue to which school I am in, here’s how I formatted it in my sides for the scene:

The mayor is here at hand. Intend some fear; be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit. And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, and stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord, for on that ground I’ll build a holy descant. And be not easily won to our request: play the maid’s part—still answer nay, and take it.

What’s odd to me is that on the whole my instinct is for stylised acting, rather than naturalism. I don’t have a problem in theory with the idea of verse; it doesn’t bother me at all that people don’t talk like that. But when I see a passage like this one, my first idea is to see where I can break up the verse.

Perhaps some noise will help. Here is YHB reading the thing with an eye to keeping the verse. I’m trying not to exaggerate. Emphasizing verse is not just going rumpty-tumpty-tumpty-tum. More than anything, it’s finding those places where the verse is not regular. Now, having said that, R3 is very rumpty-tumpty compared with later plays, and this is a pretty rumpty-tumpty passage. All seven lines have all their feet; there are two lines that have an extra soft syllable at the end. There are a few more beats that have an extra soft syllable in them, barely. The last line is the furthest off, with no introductory soft syllable and that double off-syllable in the middle. You could think of it as two trochees at the beginning, followed by three iambs, or you could think of it as the first two iambs of five being busted. Whichever it is, it’s clearly a break, there.

OK, now here’s the other way, where I look for ways to break up the verse and emphasize the meaning rather than the rhythm. I again am trying not to exaggerate. The way I do this is to treat the speech as if Buckingham is making it up as he goes along. Say the first bit, get a reaction, decide what to say next. It’s actually perfectly plausible that Buckingham would have had the idea about the churchmen and the prayerbook while walking back from the hall, but what the hell, it’s more exciting if he comes up with it on the spur of the moment. I’m also trying to play up the connection between the two, where they are working together on this project, and Richard is for the moment at least pretending to take his cousin’s advice.

The second version is a few seconds longer. That may not seem like a lot, but with thousands of lines of verse, adding a second to each line can add up to a very long time indeed over the course of the play. On the other hand, if the only way to get through your text in a reasonable time is to gabble it at tremendous speed, perhaps you need to cut some more.

The real issue, though, is that the two instincts don’t work very well together—if Richard is emphasizing the verse, and Buckingham is breaking it up, they sound like they are in two different plays, working against each other. And I think my Richard likes him some verse. And given his lines, who could blame him?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 6, 2010

Rehearsal Report: first time's a charm

I haven’t yet reported on our first rehearsal, which was on Thursday last. This was our first proper rehearsal, I should say; the read-through doesn’t count.

The evening began with a rehearsal with Richard alone, which is as it should be, and then I joined them all for some general discussion about the relationship between Richard and Buckingham and the way that plays out in our production. We have agreed that Buckingham is not a punk, or at least not at heart; he follows Richard out of opportunism, and indeed does not so much think of himself as following Richard as being equal partners with him, and perhaps even as Richard’s puppetmaster. But then (and I should discuss this with Maria directly) one of the funny things about Buckingham is that his high opinion of himself is very much at odds with his deserts. He genuinely believes that he played a crucial role in Richard’s ascent; it doesn’t cross his mind that nobody actually believes his play-acting. They are bullshitting him as much as he is bullshitting them; they acclaim Richard because he would have them killed if they don’t, rather than out of faith in his Buckingham-described virtues.

Which is not to say that Buckingham is not important to the politics of the play. He is. It’s the fact of Buckingham’s active support of Richard’s claim that is important, not the actions themselves. If Buckingham is making an idiot of himself in Richard’s cause, rather than protecting the Young Prince, it’s clear which side is going to win. From the Lord Mayor’s point of view, or Oxford’s or Blunt’s for that matter, Buckingham’s support for Richard makes it clear that the Prince will never reign; it is time to find somebody else. In that sense, the moment when Buckingham and Richard ally themselves in II,ii is pivotal, and neither Catesby’s bungling nor Buckingham’s clowning are enough to shift the balance in the other direction.

Well. All that’s not actually a rehearsal report, just my thinking about it, mostly since that evening. At the rehearsal itself, as I said, we talked in general terms and then blocked out III,v and III,vii. Or mostly blocked them out; we still are lacking a Lord Mayor, so things will no doubt change when we have a real actor rather than an Invisible Man and the Stage Manager’s voice.

III,v is the scene of Hasting’s Head, a tricky scene to manage, particularly in an intimate theater. We will be following the time-honored tradition of keeping the head in a sack. I remember they brought Sir Ian the head in a metal pail, but I’m pretty sure he brought it out for us all to see. But that was a proscenium, and I was in the balcony. Although I had little opera glasses, as I recall. Anyway, there will be laughs, particularly when the Lord Mayor is left holding the proverbial; the trick I think will be to keep just on the straight side of the clowning line. We are laughing at the Lord Mayor ourselves, so the audience should laugh too, but then (ideally) feel just a bit guilty about it.

III,vii is the balcony scene, which will not of course involve a balcony in any way. This is where Buckingham pretends to implore Richard to take the throne on behalf of the people, and Richard pretends to be reluctant. It’s a goofy scene, frankly; by that time we know (or ought to) that Richard isn’t going to leave anybody any choice. It doesn’t matter whether the Lord Mayor consents, because we can find another Lord Mayor. It doesn’t even matter whether the Lord Mayor believes that Richard is piously reluctant, just that he is willing to say that he believes it. Nobody will believe the Lord Mayor, but that doesn’t matter either. It’s not unlike a coronation—it’s not going to convince anybody who thinks the monarch is illegitimate, but you have to go through with it anyway.

On the other hand, it is important, I think, for the audience to see that Richard and Buckingham do work well together. They generate a sort of rhythm together, feeding each other lines and relying on each other to carry through with them. It’s not a perfect partnership—I should go into detail at some point on the minor specific instances where they cross each other—but the audience should both (a) enjoy watching them work together and (2) imagine or almost believe that there is something genuine behind it.

Of course the audience should imagine or almost believe that Richard is in love with Anne. And that Richard is on Clarence’s side. And that Richard wants to protect the Young Prince. And that Richard is determined to prove a villain only because he cannot prove a lover. The audience should keep falling into the trap of trusting Richard, even trusting him to be untrustworthy, and then realizing they’ve been played again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 5, 2010

Poc Air Buille

Gentle Readers will be asking themselves, what about the Mix? Well, some of y’all might be, anyway. Maybe. Others, particularly if you are new-ish here, may not know what I am talking about. Well, Your Humble Blogger has started a tradition, of sorts, where I make a playlist of an hours worth of music for my castmates for Opening Night. As the first rehearsal for Richard III (or Gd Save the King and His Fascist Regime) is tonight, it is not too soon for YHB to start thinking about the Mix.

But what sort of a Mix shall it be? One way is clearly to do a mix of the 70s punk sides that are the artistic overlay to the show. On the other hand, I’m guessing we will be listening to that stuff in the theater itself. If it isn’t piped in as scene-change music (and I’m thinking it will be), the director is bound to be playing it just for us to get us in the mood. So there isn’t really any necessity to do up a playlist of it. Besides, I’m afraid that the pre-1980 punk stuff isn’t really my strong suit; I’m more of a post-punk guy. Oh, I like that punk stuff all right, but I don’t think I’m going to come up with anything that would go on the mix that I’ll be introducing to anybody.

The other idea that occurred to me, naturally enough, is to do a mix of Elizabethan music, or even music from the late fifteenth century (when Richard was King and everybody was nervous). The advantage to that is that I like that music, and I probably know more about it that my castmates, just because most of them probably don’t know anything about it at all. So that’s a possibility.

Another thing that comes to mind is an hour of songs with the word king in the title. Everything from “The King Porter Stomp̶ to “King Dork”. Or add in some songs with queen and duke; that has the advantage of allowing me to call the mix Duke’s Place, because, you know, Duke of Buckingham. That would be pretty easy to do, and I would have a lot of choices, so I wouldn’t wind up throwing in lousy songs to fill an hour.

What else… songs about killing people, of course. Songs about ghosts? War songs? A whole hour’s worth of songs by people named Richard? That would be funny, actually.

Anyway, Your Humble Blogger has a little time to think about it, so now would be a perfect time for a Gentle Reader to provide inspiration. Come on now, inspire!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 1, 2010

Reading through

Well, and the rehearsal process has begun. Last night was the first read-through, and I’m working on my lines.

The first read-through is a strange thing. For one thing, sitting around reading a play is a strange thing in the first place, somewhere in limbo in between acting and reading. For another, we are at the very beginning of the process, in a room with strangers and near-strangers (and friends and lovers as well, depending), and as much thought as we may have put into our characters in advance, this is the first moment when our castmates hear it aloud. There’s something tentative about it, and the lack of gesture and movement makes it even more so.

And, of course, actors react to that tentativeness in different ways. I tend to go over-the-top, trying to make up for the lack of visuals and for the unfamiliarity with volume and expressiveness. Also, you know, there’s nothing like getting a laugh out of the rest of the cast. Other people go the other way, bringing the energy down, keeping their eyes on the page and concentrating on getting through it. That’s a perfectly good reaction (although, as it isn’t mine, it is a little strange, isn’t it?); any particular line reading or any idea of character arc that you have at this point is certain to be demolished over the next few weeks. So I don’t have any sense of how our Richard is going to play the thing—but then he doesn’t have any sense of how I’m going to play Buckingham. Until Thursday, when the first rehearsal is just we two. And maybe later.

Our Richard is not, as it happens, the Richard I had been willing to wager we would have. I don’t mean that I’m questioning the decision—our Richard gave a good audition, as did three or four other potential Richards, but I had pegged one fellow as Richard, and they went the other way. The casting table had seen both of them in previous shows, so it’s not surprising that they know more than I do. Anyway, I’m happy with him. Envious? Yes. But happy.

And the rest of the cast is very good, too, at least as far as I can tell. Our women are conspicuously good. Our women playing the women’s parts, I mean. The woman playing Hastings and the woman playing Catesby, as well as the very young woman playing Ratcliff, are good, but our Anne, our Elizabeth and our Duchess are all marvelous. The Duchess will be interesting, as they’ve given her some of Queen Margaret’s lines (having cut Queen Margaret altogether), which makes her much less sympathetic. She storms into the squabble scene and publicly insults and curses both her youngest son and her daughter-in-law; she appears to regret the entire war, despite being on the victorious side. As well she might, as her husband was killed in it, and she is mocked, disparaged and discarded by both political factions in the aftermath.

The great moment in the read-through, though, came late in the play courtesy of our Young Prince Edward. This punk R3 has, quite correctly, got rid of most of the kids. Clarence’s brats are gone altogether (hurrah!) and the long taunting Richard receives from the Younger Prince Wossname is gone, too, as is the Younger Prince. Edward is the only representative of that generation we see. Our Prince is a very cute kid, excited about the idea of doing a real play, and perfectly able to get his mouth around the few lines of verse he has left. I don’t know how old he is, and I’m not good with guessing those ages, but he could be twelve or thirteen, say. Something in that range. He did his bit very nicely in Three, one and was carted off to the Tower.

Later, on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard (and Richmond, in the full script, but we’ve cut that) is visited by the Ghosts of the Dead, specifically the people who Richard has had killed or killed himself. Or some of them, anyway; in the full script it’s eleven ghosts. In our version it’s not so crowded. But we still have some ghosts, at least for now, and we get to Five, three and Dead Hastings has told sleeping Richard to despair and die, and there’s a pause. A longish pause. And we’re all looking around, and there’s Young Edward, sound asleep in his chair, his head resting on his mother’s shoulder.

Cutest. Read-through. Ever.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 29, 2010

Scene by Scene, line by line

Rereading the play with an eye to Buckingham, Your Humble Blogger noticed that the part is structured very oddly. It starts out as a small supporting part, which becomes a very big part in the middle, and then, just as the play is coming to a climax, he is cut off, and makes just a couple of small appearances in the second half.

I'm going to go through the scenes, as they are in the full (Penguin) text. First of all, there are a lot of scenes. 25 scenes in the five acts altogether, with no act having fewer than four. Some are short, and some are immense, and the whole division into scenes is a bit suspect from the start, but still: lots of scenes. And Buckingham is in eleven of those 25 scenes, a bit less than half. In the first act, I have only a few lines, and again in the last act, but I am in five of the seven scenes in act three. Well, I'm going to go through them one by one, which you knew anyway, so here we go.

I'm not in either I,i or I,ii. The first scene is the monologue and the scenes with Clarence and Hastings, which set up the politics of the factions; Buckingham isn't even mentioned. The second is the seduction of Lady Anne, which doesn't touch on Buckingham at all, so that's all right. Those scenes, by the way, total about 430 lines of verse (if you do them all, which nobody does). The third scene is all politics. It starts with the Queen's faction, and Buckingham and Stanley come in quickly. It's established that Stanley's wife is not in the Queen's faction, although it isn't clear whether Stanley himself has chosen sides, and Buckingham stands aside and is ignored. Then Richard and Hastings come in and squabble with the Queen's faction, to which Stanley and Buckingham stand apart, and then the old banished Queen comes in and everybody joins together in vilifying her. Buckingham is actually pulled aside by the old Queen to make two points: first, that Buckingham and his family were neutral in the civil war just concluded, and then that Buckingham should not trust Richard. Buckingham dismisses the idea, and is cursed for it. I enter on line 17 and exit on line 323 but have only a dozen lines of verse of my own in between. At the end of the scene Richard is left behind to arrange Clarence's murder, in a sort of after-scene; the whole scene is 356 lines. And then there's Clarence's murder itself, of course, a long, long scene of 286 lines, and Buckinham isn't in that or mentioned at all.

So. The first act is between eleven hundred and twelve hundred lines, of which Buckingham delivers twelve. He is on stage for three hundred or so, perhaps a quarter of the act, but most of that is spent in the background. And in the real business of the act for everyone other than Richard, which is finding out who is in which faction, Buckingham is oddly unidentified. There is no reason for the audience to suspect that Buckingham will be important. Certainly Rivers, Hastings and Stanley are placed more obviously in the plot. But things are about to change.

Act Two opens with what I think of as Edward's deathbed scene, although really it's just the dying King's final scene, where he demands reconciliation between the factions. Buckingham is singled out and gives a short speech in which it is revealed that foreshadowing is a legitimate literary device. 140 lines in the scene, Buckingham has a dozen of them but is singled out more than once. Still a minor character, but gaining. Then there's an inevitably cut scene with Clarence's children (I came across a great quote from Brian Blessed, in reference to cuts in this play, who claims that nobody in the history of the English Theater has ever even known that Clarence had any kids) which leads into a bit arranging for the arrival of the Young Prince. Buckingham takes the front as arranging everything. It's only 24 lines out of 154 in the whole scene, but it's a key plot mover, particularly as it's the first moment where we see a relationship between Buckingham and Richard. Buckingham refers to us two: it's not clear whether he has already started to conspire with Richard or if he is now proposing to begin, but either way, the audience is now alerted to a change.

The third scene is between three unnamed citizens, worrying about the realm in the aftermath of Edward's death; it's 48 lines that have probably never been performed, unless the leads need time to change costumes. The fourth is another short and often-cut one, 73 lines between Edward's widow, his mother and his younger son. And that's the end of Act Two, a bit over 400 lines of dialogue, of which Buckingham still has only thirty or so, but (and this is crucial) spends less time being ignored.

And now Act Three, in which Buckingham has the first line, as he greets the doomed Prince. We are now suddenly seeing a Buckingham/Richard double act, dishonesty and subtle mockery and plans within plans. That scene is 200 lines; Buckingham has more than fifty, almost the same as Richard himself. Then there's a short scene with Stanley and Hastings and a lot of politics. It's 123 lines, and Buckingham comes for the last eleven and delivers six and a half of them—when he comes in, he dominates the scene for the moment (and in the absence of Richard). The third scene is the death of the Queen's faction, 26 lines and not necessarily performed. And the fourth is the immediate power-grab, orchestrated by Buckingham and Richard together: the scene is only 107 lines (I think if it as longer) and Buckingham has only eleven, but spends a portion of the scene in private (unheard) conversation with Richard, clearly at the center of attention. The fifth scene is the scene of Hasting's Head, where Richard and Buckingham play-act that Hastings attacked them first&8212;it begins with a wonderful, wonderful exchange between them about their ability to lie and be believed. It's also short: 109 lines, but Buckingham has 39 of them, and much of the rest are addressed to him directly. It's still Richard's scene and Richard's play, mind you, but Buckingham has stepped up to a major supporting part. The Act ends (after a 14-line comic bit with a Scrivener) with another scene cooked up between the two of them, where Buckingham persuades the oh-so-reluctant Richard to accept the kingship, all put on of course for the benefit of the Lord Mayor. It's a longish scene and Buckingham spends most of it talking, 155 lines out of 247 total. And that's the end of the act: 800 or so lines, and Buckingham has 250 of them, about a third of all the lines in the Act Three. Act Four, and Richard is King, and Buckingham wants to be paid but finds his buddy is not in the giving vein. He is only in IV,ii, which is a great scene. Buckingham has 30 lines or so in that 124-line scene and then flees. The act is five scenes and something around 850 lines or so, most of which take place rather conspicuously in Buckingham's absence.

And then Buckingham is executed in V,v. It's a nice little scene, 29 lines and of course all but two of them are his. And we move on. The play is moving very quickly now toward its end; The second scene is only 24 lines long. The third is the center of things, 351 lines covering the whole night and dawn, and including the appearances of the Ghosts, including Buckingham's Ghost, who gets another bonus lines. The fourth scene is all of thirteen lines and ends in Richard's death, followed by another forty lines in the last scene of all. That's 467 lines (if I've counted right), and Buckingham or his ghost get to deliver 36 of them.

So, you see: 350 lines or so, of which 250 are in Act Three. The whole play is around 3700 lines, if I'm not confused. So Buckingham is a third of Act Three, and a thirtieth of the rest of the play. That's not so unusual—after all, Clarence dies in Act One and has very little to do for the rest of the night, and Lady Anne gets one huge and important scene at the very beginning and then kind of wanders through the play for a bit before being forgotten entirely. Richmond doesn't poke his nose onstage until the fifth act and then pretends to be a major part through the end. There a hundred million characters in the play, and only Richard is consistently important throughout. But it does lead to questions for me as an actor preparing the role: should we clue the audience somehow that Buckingham will become important later, or should he surprise the audience by coming out of nowhere (and surprise them again by disappearing as quickly as he came)? Should we play that Buckingham and Richard are old buddies who seize on the chance to work together, or are they comparative strangers who find they have like souls? Or do they have like souls—is Buckingham a dupe all along and only deceives himself into thinking he is a partner? Is he betrayed or just discarded?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2010

And is it thus?

Well, and the news is very good indeed. I mean my personal news, of course, not any news of national or political import. My news is that I have been cast as the Duke of Buckingham in that punk Richard III I’ve been hocking about, and that means that for the next few months this Tohu Bohu will (if all goes well and the creek don’t rise) feature reports from rehearsals and the whole process of putting on a show. And none of the political commentary that I used to do so much of.

Which is just as well, really, because, honestly: a spending freeze? What the fuck? I mean, what the fucking fuck sense does that make? I don’t think I could write a blog note that said anything more coherent than that, and knowing that, I wouldn’t write anything at all, and then, you know, not so much blog any more.

So here we are on this Tohu Bohu, having become a books-and-theater-and-sometimes-music blog, more than a political rhetoric blog. Except, of course, that R3 is political rhetoric, and more than that, it’s political rhetoric about political rhetoric. And so much more. I really love this play.

For those of y’all who don’t know the play at all, or who are vaguely familiar but (very reasonably) can’t tell your Buckinghams from your Ratcliffes without a scorecard), Buckingham is a very good part indeed. The show is Richard’s, of course, and far more of a star piece than many of Shakespeare’s plays. But then I assumed I wouldn’t get that part—you don’t choose that play and go into auditions without having a pretty damned good idea who your Richard is, and it wasn’t me. Because, you know, they didn’t know me. Still, there are a bunch of very good parts in support of Richard: Clarence, who has one magnificent scene and then has the rest of the night off; Hastings, who is loyal and true and utterly, utterly hosed; Richmond, who is young and hopeful; Edward, who is old and dying and then has the rest of the night off; and even Catesby and Ratcliffe and Tyrell.

But Buckingham is Richard’s main partner in crime, and the betrayal of Buckingham immediately following the coronation is a major turning point in the play, as well as being a great scene with several famous lines (Richard’s, of course, not mine). It was Ralph Richardson in the Laurence Olivier; it was Jim Broadbent in the Ian McKellen. And it’s me in this one in April. During the audition, I wrote the words I want Buckingham in my notes, and I got him.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 25, 2010

Trying it out

Well, and as mentioned previously, YHB has auditioned for Richard III. I won’t know for a couple of days if I will be cast, but the audition went well, if one can speak of an audition from a process-oriented stance, independent of outcome. Of course, if I don’t get a part, the audition will have gone very poorly in retrospect, but at the moment, I would say it went well.

This was one of the auditions where we are all in the big hall and watch each other. It seems like a very community-theater way of doing things, assuming that we are not all completely eating our proverbials over the audition process and therefore able to be a big community together. I quite like it, as a way to spend an evening, actually. Which you may believe or not.

The thing about auditioning for a really great play is that a really great play is capable of a million interpretations—I should probably say that when I find a play really great, it is because it is capable of a million interpretations, each line capable of being shaded in a variety of different ways, each potentially powerful and freighted in a different way. That said, there are wrong ways to read a line, and with Shakespeare particularly, it is difficult, if you haven’t prepared the text, to get the meaning and the rhythms to work together, much less to work with the characters. Most of the people auditioning were quite good, but I heard about four people read the line in I,i

We speak no treason, man. We say the King is wise and virtuous, and his noble queen well struck in years.

and I wanted to get up and shake them and say it’s a joke! Pause after the word queen and think! And then, of course, somebody did, and I hated him for it.

But the real anecdote of the evening was that after we did our readings (mostly the Clarence scene from I,i; the Elizabeth scene in IV,iv; the Anne scene in I,ii; and the Prince Edward scene in III,i) the director asked if anybody wanted to read anything else. One young man asked if he could read the opening monologue, and the director said yes. And then, well, as one fellah said, how could any of us resist? So it was, I think, seven consecutive winters of our discontent. And it was a hoot. I mean, we were doing it seriously, we weren’t spoofing it (although I’m afraid I did do it in my Ian Dury voice), but come on—it’s just inherently funny.

Of course, my instinct is to play up the humor in the scene, anyway, as it is with all scenes. But this monologue really is funny. The whole series of comparisons between war and peace, leading up to his conclusion that… war is better! And then the outright statement of intention: I am determined to be a villain. That’s a laugh line, if I’ve ever heard one. And, of course, if it’s a laugh line at the beginning of the play, it sets us all up for real gasps when it turns out that he means it, surprising even (I think) himself with the extent of his villainy. And if you play the scene without humor, getting the audience to hate Dickon from the start, then where’s the play?

Oh, another comment from the audition, while I’m at it. None of us limped. None of us hunched over. Nobody cradled a withered hand. The director didn’t ask us to (she gave very little direction), and I suspect that we were all a bit embarrassed to pull out the crutches. And, I suppose, she feel that she has enough sense of our physical acting and our movement from the scene readings. And likely enough she is planning to downplay the whole limping business anyway, or else (she is a choreographer) she is confident in her ability to teach the physical business if she gets somebody who can do the lines. Still, a roomful of aspirant Richards, and no hunchbacks.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 16, 2010

OI! Dickie!

Your Humble Blogger will be auditioning in a week or so (if nothing prevents it) for a production of Richard III set “Set in late 1970’s London … amid the punk culture of the time.”

Now, Richard III is one of my favorites. I was lucky enough to see Sir Ian McKellen play it in 1992 or 1993 or so, his famous production having toured for about a million years at that point, and it was heartstoppingly wonderful. Magnificent. I mean, you have no idea. Well, except my Best Reader, who was there, and who in fact bought me the tickets as a gift. Did I say thank you? Thank you, Best Reader. Anyway.

My immediate reaction was that it made no sense at all to set R3 in punk London. I mean, it made no sense to me to have the main characters, who are all in the elite, royals and mandarins and whatnots, be punks. You could have the murderers mohawked and strung out, but big deal—if you are going to set the thing in the punk culture, you have to have Richard and his brothers be punks, instead of being duke’s sons, military officers and magistrates.

Having said that it makes no sense to me from a narrative standpoint, I do have to say that over the last few weeks the idea has been growing on me from an emotional standpoint. I think this is because I have been following Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, the Ian Dury biopic (starring Andy Serkis), and I’ve been thinking about that kind of twisted gleeful rage fitting young Gloucester pretty well. And, of course, I suppose one could imagine the plot being driving by Richard’s drug-fueled descent into paranoia, while simultaneously coming tantalizingly close to achieving the mainstream success and respectability that he rejected because it was out of reach. Ian Dury as Richard III.

Mind you, I still don’t think it makes any sense. And I don’t think that is exactly what they have in mind. But the idea has been rattling around in my brain for long enough, now, that I’ve decided present it to y’all for kicks and proverbials.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Richard.mp3

November 20, 2009

Just here--wait--what?

Your Humble Blogger just had an odd theater experience that I thought I would share with y’all, as why not?

Gentle Readers will remember that YHB has been doing community theater over the last few years, not starting one play as soon as the other is finished (some start rehearsals for one show during performances of the last, actually, which I have never ever done) but allowing a nice rest in between. I did a show this past autumn, and one last spring, and one the summer before, and so on. Well, and I had been settling in to my time-in-between-shows, glorying in my evenings spent with Best Reader, tucking the Perfect Non-Reader and the Youngest Member in to bed, and generally not missing rehearsals, when I got a telephone call.

The director of Prisoner of Second Avenue, which was in rehearsals at the stage I was most recently allowed to tread, had come down with a bad case of lead-drop. I don’t know the details. But there he was, still eight weeks before opening, with no lead actor. So he called up two men he had seen recently, and one of them was Your Humble Blogger.

Now, I had seen the audition notice for 2nd Ave. I decided not to audition for it, because, as I say, I did not want to be in a show this winter, and I didn’t want to be in that particular show enough to overcome that. On the other hand, I was being offered a lead (or, more accurately, a 50% chance at a lead), and a lead that I think I could do well (Neil Simon should be in my wheelhouse). It would certainly be good for my future in the community to (a) be good in a lead role, and (2) help out a director in need. And, of course, it would be good to help out a director in need—it must be just utterly awful to have somebody drop out in the middle of rehearsals. So of course I said I would come in and read for him, and let him see.

The telephone call was Wednesday evening. We arranged for me to go and read on Thursday evening (latish, as my Best Reader had a thing scheduled, and I was on tucking-in-duty until she returned). That gave me all day Thursday to think about it, and since I was working in the afternoon, I could get a copy of the play and re-read it.

Digression, I suppose: I saw the thing ten years ago in London with Richard Dreyfuss in the lead, and my impression was that it was kind of a nothing part. I mean, a big part, sure, but it was just tossing out the wisecracks. It turns out, upon inspection, that Mr. Dreyfuss, the sonofabitch, is a good actor—the character is incredibly unlikable, but the audience needs to like him or the play doesn’t work at all. It is difficult to carry that off, and he did it without making me aware that he was doing it. At any rate, I was surprised, when I looked at it, how little idea I had what to do with the part if I wound up with it. Imitating my memory of Mr. Dreyfuss clearly wouldn’t work. End Digression.

So I went and read for it last night, and the director said he would get back to me today. So I went to bed thinking I might be in a show, and woke up thinking I might be in a show, a show that I had had no intention of being in until the night before.

So I was in a state of advanced ambivalence. On the one hand, I was thinking of all the reasons I wanted the director to pick the other guy. I don’t want to be in a show again so soon. The show isn’t really that great. I don’t have any idea what to do with the part. The weather is going to get ugly, and I would have to drive back late at night in January and February. It’s more work for the Best Reader. I would miss my Best Reader, and I would miss tucking the kids in, too.

And on the other hand, of course, I was thinking of all the reasons I wanted him to pick me. It’s a challenge as a part. I am building a reputation. I like being in shows. I would meet some new theater people. I am better than that other guy (whoever he is).

Well, the call came in around midday, and he picked the other guy.

Just as well, really.

Although I would have been better than him. Whoever he is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 1, 2009

Book Report: After the Ball

You might think, on first glance, that a Noel Coward musical based on Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, would be a good idea. Further thought, however, would probably lead to the realization that what Oscar Wilde does not need is to be a bit more Noel Coward, and vice versa. Or would lead you to invest a bunch of money into a production starring a woman with a singing voice that Mr. Coward described as sounding like someone fucking a cat.

Ah, well. I haven't heard it, but I have read After the Ball (a Concert Version), adapted, edited and rewritten by Barry Day, and frankly, unless the music is utterly utt, I don't see any reason for it at all. I mean.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 28, 2009

Book Report: Horton Foote's Three Trips to Bountiful

One of the great things about working in an academic library is that when I have three auditions in a week, I can pretty much walk upstairs to the P section and grab copies of the plays. Not that our collection is all impressive compared to other such libraries (I had browsing privileges in one of the five great superlibraries for five years, so my comparisons are just a trifle unfair perhaps), but it was three-for-three for me this summer.

In fact, what I got was not just the script for The Trip to Bountiful but Horton Foote’s Three Trips to Bountiful, which included the telescript, playscript and screenplay. For those who don’t know, and why should they, the thing started as one of those plays-on-television they used to have in the fifties. It was so successful (and Lilian Gish was such a macher) that it was produced on Broadway the next year. Then it sorta kinda faded into the that-was-interesting history of American Theeyayter; Horton Foote did not become the Great American Playwright (or if he did, as some argue, he did certainly was not considered the Great American Playwright), and the play was not revived on Broadway. There were a few regional productions, and it was done in London I think, and there was an off-Broadway production, but it was not in the canon. The people who liked it, liked it a lot, but most people had never heard of it, or of Horton Foote for that matter.

Then some of those people who liked it made a movie, and that (I think) was the big move to Horton Foote becoming at least a Great American Playwright to those people who think about those things. Certainly Barbara Moore and David Yellin, who edited the Three Trips book think so. Well. Different people like different things, because people are different one to another, which is what makes life interesting and fun. And I am glad that Ms. Moore and Mr. Yellin put the book together, because knowing (a) I am just interested in adaptation, as a process and a problem, and (2) the differences between the three and the interviews and such that supplement them in the volume did provide me with some interesting and perhaps useful background when I was working on the show.

And no, I still haven’t seen the movie. And I don’t think there is any recording of the original television play.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 25, 2009

and that's that

Well, and that’s the end of it. The last two performances drew seventyish crowds (quantity, I mean, not age) (well) who appeared to like it, although the Friday crowd laughed at everything and the Saturday crowd coughed a lot and crinkled wrappers. I don’t think I performed very well either night, but it’s hard to tell. I didn’t feel the monologue particularly deeply.

Which reminds me to mention Gerald Klickstein’s note on The Peak-Performance Myth from a few weeks back at the OUP blog. Mr. Klickstein is writing about music (and trying to sell a book; I always feel a bit whatsit linking to such a blatantly commercial blog for free, and yet they frequently do provide interesting notes as part of that whole selling-books thing, which goes to show) rather than theater, but his point is applicable. While it’s nice to maximize your chances of giving an inspired and emotionally connected performance, it is absolutely imperative to minimize your chances of giving a rotten performance. The point is to prepare yourself to be good even if you can’t quite get your mind into it.

I never did grow to like The Trip to Bountiful. Over the course of two months of presentation and performance there were aspects I grew to like and even admire, but it’s also true that there were aspects I grew to dislike more, and my fundamental lack of sympathy for the play as a whole never dissolved. That doesn’t mean I never connected with the part. I would say that of the seven performances, there were three, maybe only two in which I really felt emotional during my big scene. Where I was blinking back tears, instead of just blinking. I wasn’t able to tell whether the audience was responding differently to the different nights; the audiences were so different one to another that I couldn’t interpret their levels of silence and response during those minutes. Nor was my director the type who would rate my performance after each show, which would have been awful. The responses from random strangers in the audience were much the same, night to night, but then, they would be—no-one who thought I was stinking up the stage is going to go up to me and tell me I was lousy, and anyone who found themselves facing me in the lobby was going to say they loved my work, because that’s what you do. And the few people I know who saw the show (I didn’t pressure folk this time) and who I trust to tell me their real judgment and whose judgment I think is perceptive, well, they only saw the one show and can’t compare an on night with an off.

But I hope that the audience couldn’t tell if I was ‘faking’ it or feeling it. That’s what I was preparing for, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 23, 2009

Book Report: Uncle Vanya

The second of the three simultaneous auditions was for Uncle Vanya, which I read in Carol Rocamora’s translation in Chekhov: Four Plays. I can’t really speak to how good the translation was—reading Michael Frayn’s introductions to his translations but not his translations themselves has led me to a very strange place regarding Anton Chekhov in English. Or Tchekoff. Or Tchekhov. Anyway.

I still don’t really get the play. I mean, yes, there’s a lot of stuff I get about it—Jean himself is miserable, and the way in which his misery is brought to a head is both plausible and theatrical. The various crushes, one way and another, make a good deal of sense. And the doctor, who combines a grandiose idealism with a petty thoughtlessness the way some people do in real life and many of us like to think all idealists do, is in some ways a memorable character. But mostly, these are depressing people who behave badly, and I don’t see why people keep wanting to spend time with them.

Of course, I felt that way about Seinfeld.

I do wish that I had managed to see the local production that I wasn’t cast in. Although I suppose that it’s not somehow petty on my own part to want to see what they went with, when I would otherwise not be interested in the show, or at least not interested enough to go out and see it. But that’s how it is. And anyway, I was kinda busy, what with my own rehearsals, so it didn’t happen.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2009

What's snew?

The forecast for tonight in our town is for cold, cold rain. The high today is projected to be 42 degrees (Fahrenheit, in case anyone is reading this overseas and thinking forty-two degrees is beach weather) and the low tonight is right at the freezing point (so no foreign or domestic calculation of degrees is necessary). The good news is that the drizzle may actually stop around the time that darkness falls.

Why is Your Humble Blogger mentioning the weather? Because I am just trying to imagine people leaving their warm dry houses and coming to see community theater tonight. Frankly, it’s not easy. I wouldn’t be surprised to draw less than twenty.

As Samuel Goldwyn said, if people don’t want to buy tickets, you can’t stop them. But it would be nice if the weather helped.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 11, 2009

Do you hear music?

Well, and we’ve had two official performances, plus the Open Dress, with five more to go. They have gone mostly well, although the sound effects have been very bad indeed, coming in at the wrong places or with the wrong sounds, or not coming in at all. The sort of thing that comes off very amateurish. With lighting, a fairly good job is unnoticeable and therefore not a problem (while of course a terrific job may be noticeable and not a problem), but with sound, it is always going to be noticed. And if it’s not terrific, it’ll be terrible. Ah, well. I can’t really blame the tech guys, who don’t have money for expensive equipment, and don’t really have the knowhow to make the cheap/free stuff work like the expensive stuff.

But the sound is the only problem. Our lead (who is, after all, seventy-five years old and on-stage almost the entire time) managed to commit all the blocking and lines to memory. Well, and there have been some minor line fluffs, but nothing significant or particularly difficult to run with. I had predicted she would, of course, but I have to admit I was just a bit afraid she wouldn’t. My character does a lot of Yes, ma’aming, which makes it difficult to save my castmates if they go up. So, I bet you were going to ask me if I ever think back over the past sort of thing. But in the event, it has not been necessary.

The houses have been small, but attentive and they appear to enjoy themselves. I wish we had more people—we’ve been drawing forty in a house that seats at least two hundred—but I don’t have any idea how they could get those more people in to the seats. Or at least, I don’t have any ideas that don’t involves either the expenditure of money or lots of work that nobody is willing to do (including me). So.

I do wonder aggressively cutting ticket prices would help much. I would surely try it, if it were my decision. They are charging $18; I would cut that in half. Or do a two-for-one, anyway, which isn’t quite exactly the same thing, but is close. Or I would offer season-subscription discounts down to that amount, with individual show tickets for twelve or fourteen. It might not work at all. Let’s see: they sold eighty tickets this weekend for something less than $1400, as I am sure that there are some discounts. If they could sell another forty at the lesser price, they would make around $1000, losing $400 or so, which is a lot of money for a place like that. But they could (I’m guessing) make some of that back in donations, over a season, as getting butts in seats is a big part of the momentum for donations. And an incentive to get actors back—certainly I would, given the choice, prefer to go to a place that regularly gets a bigger house.

It’s not that it’s more difficult to play to a small crowd in a big auditorium. It is, a bit, but not that much. In a comedy, it’s harder to get audible laughter in a small crowd, which is a big deal, but in a drama it’s easy to forget how big the crowd is or isn’t. Until the end, when the applause is underwhelming from a sparse crowd. And I think to myself I worked my ass off, I want more applause than that. Well, no, I think that’s two; five to go, but if there is a big house and they liked it, I’m thinking damn, that went well! Oh, I still get the pleasure in doing my job well (or at least thinking I’m doing it well), but playing to a hundred people is just a lot more fun than playing to forty.

Ah, well. As I always say when there are lots of empty seats, at least there are still more of them than there are of us. Which has not always been the case, in my life, and I assume in most community theater folk’s.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 8, 2009

Tonight, tonight, I'm getting pissed tonight

Well, and tomorrow is Opening Night, but tonight is a Special Open Dress Rehearsal Senior Night Event, with Extra Upper-Case Letters, which means that we will have an audience. And my guess is that we will have as big an audience tonight as any we’ll have in the run; the Special Dress Rehearsal Reduced Prices for Elderly Folk are a big draw (as are those big initial letters, I’m sure), and I suspect for many of these theatergoers, the idea of whole houseful of alte kockers is not a bug but a feature.

I tend to joke that it’s good to have an audience for the first performance that can neither see nor hear us, just in case. This is a joke because it is false; we need to be at our peak for this performance, not only because these blind, deaf, lame and disoriented citizens are the most sharp-eyed, knowledgeable and vocal critics but because if they tell their friends to come, we will sell tickets, and if they tell their friends to stay away, we will not. No newspaper review will carry the weight of the opinions of Phyllis and her friends Phyllis and Phyllis, when it comes to Phyllis buying a ticket.

On the other hand, this show is drastically under-rehearsed. We did sound and lights all of twice, and more than one of the cues went badly awry both times. It’s not just that we have never had a perfect run-through, which rarely happens—it’s that there are certain parts of certain scenes that have never worked, and that is a problem. Still, it’ll probably be all right on the night. Which is in about two and a half hours.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 5, 2009

The Trip to Bountiful: the Mix

Well, and Gentle Readers may have been figuring that if they held out during all the whining and noodling about the show, YHB would eventually come across with the Opening Night Mix. Others may have forgotten all about my tradition of giving the cast a Mix CD on Opening Night, chock full of music appropriate to the show. Or not, if I feel like that about it. The Trip to Bountiful is set in Texas in 1950; I took the Texas part more than the 1950 part, and wound up with an album of country and bluegrass tunes, mostly. This is heavily tilted to the religious music that Mother Watts would have enjoyed (she sings hymns to calm herself when she is angry or nervous), but I have thrown in some stuff relating to some other themes of the show, the collapse of small towns, the rocky marriage of Jessie Mae and Ludie, and the hopefulness of journeying.

Here's a tentative track list:

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley)
Momma Cried (Alison Krauss & Union Station)
Calling My Children Home (Ralph Stanley)
Down To The River To Pray (Alison Krauss)
Cotton Eyed Joe (Bob Wills)
The Devil Made Texas (Hermes Nye)
I Saw The Light (Hank Williams)
Man Of Constant Sorrow (Bob Dylan)
Peace In The Valley (Johnny Cash)
I'm Workin' On A Road To Glory Land (Flatt & Scruggs)
Wreck On The Highway (The Louvin Brothers)
Looking t'ward Heaven (Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley)
Angel Band (Ralph Stanley)
Keys To The Kingdom (The Nields)
Laying My Burdens Down (Willie Nelson)
Travelin' Prayer (Dolly Parton)
Run Come See (The X-Seamen's Institute)
When I Grow Up (Michelle Shocked)
This My Town (Eddie From Ohio)
She's No Lady (Lyle Lovett)
I Just Don't Like This Kind Of Living (Hank Williams)
The Old Woman's Hornpipe (Baltimore Consort)

Now, Your Humble Blogger doesn't know a great deal about country music or bluegrass; I did a fair amount of research and listening, mostly to find things for the album but also to give myself mood music to play in the car whilst driving to rehearsals. So, while there's still time to fix it—what am I missing?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 2, 2009

One Week (Gotta see the show, cause then you'll know)

Perhaps it is time for an update on the play. We open a week from tonight, and at the moment it feels drastically underrehearsed. Of course, there is usually a point at which I start to panic, thinking we will never get ready in time, and why should this show be different? Actually, my feeling at the moment is not so much panic—I am sanguine that we will muddle through somehow to opening night.

I can’t tell how good it will be. That’s pretty common, too. I am distressingly bad at imagining how stuff works from the stage, or even from the audience. That is, if I am in the audience, I will sometimes find that the rest of the audience is loving a thing or not loving a thing, and I have no idea why. Or why my reaction is different. So I have no idea, really, whether audiences will love the play or be bored.

I do think that the rhythm and arc of the play is starting to come together at last. There were two major blocking changes in my scenes that have both been very positive, and have helped (I think) prepare the audience for the mother-son relationship. My only major worry is whether our lead will forget enough of her lines and blocking to create obvious moments of distracting covering, or whether she will come through once she’s in front of an audience. I suspect she will come through. I mean, it’s an immense part: she’s onstage the whole play (except two or three very short breaks, I mean, one- and two- page breaks) and she talks through much of it. Even worse, she initiates the topic of almost all her conversations, through all their meandering turns; I can’t really turn to her and say Was that a scissortail I didn’t see or I bet I remind you of someone, standing here like this or I know I was just leaving the room, but I suspect you wanted to call me back in to ask me something, didn’t you? So I have a great deal of sympathy with her plight. On the other hand, what a great part. I mean, I don’t even like the play much, but the role is terrific.

Oh, and that last line is working much better. In fact, y’all’s comments have made me rethink an earlier exhange, which goes

MOTHER WATTS: I know, Ludie. Now you’re here, wouldn’t you like to come inside, son, and look around?
LUDIE: I don’t think I’d better, Mama. I don’t see any use in it. It would just make me feel bad. I’d rather remember it like it was.
MOTHER WATTS: The old house has gotten kind of run down, hasn’t it?
LUDIE: Yes, it has.
MOTHER WATTS: I don’t think it’ll last out the next Gulf storm.
LUDIE: It doesn’t look like it would.

This is before Ludie has his big emotional breakdown, and also before he explodes in anger at his mother’s continued attempts to delay their return to Houston. He is still angry, he is still emotionally wrought up about the ordeal. But these are not pivotal lines, they are part of the buildup rather than the peak.

I had (I think quite effectively) been saying Yes, it has with a sort of contempt. Ludie’s focus at this point is in getting Mother Watts back to the car before Jessie Mae gets tired of waiting and comes out fighting (as of course does happen); he makes several attempts to get to the car before and after this. My line reading had been with the subtext that the broken-down house was not worth coming out to see, and certainly isn’t worth delaying the return home to investigate.

This is with the other undercurrent that Ludie really does not want to go back to the house, for whatever reason: he spends twenty years refusing to take his mother even to visit, and once she does force him to the doorstep, refuses to go in. I am playing it that Ludie refuses even to look at the house until the above line sequence forces him to; the audience may not pick up on any of the details, but they should become aware by this point that whatever memories Mother Watts has, Ludie’s memories of this house are not good ones.

So, considering the helpful comments in the earlier thread, I have changed my delivery of those lines. I make a bigger deal of this being the first time I have really looked at the house, and now say yes, it has in a tone of wonder and disbelief. As a response to Ludie’s transparently false claim that he’s rather remember it like it was, he is surprised to discover that it hasn’t gotten bigger, as it has in his memory, it’s gotten smaller.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 22, 2009

The house used to look so big

I don’t know how to say my exit line.

I don’t know if y’all know the play. Essentially, A Trip to Bountiful is about Clara Watts, who lives with her son and her daughter-in-law in a small one-bedroom apartment in Houston. She grew up on a farm in a North Texas town called Bountiful; after her husband died, she brought up her son at that farm, too. She hates the city, fights with her daughter-in-law, and dreams of returning to live in Bountiful. During the play, she sneaks away and takes a bus to the nearest big city, and then sweet-talks the local sheriff into driving her the rest of the way to her old house, which is now falling apart. Her son and daughter-in-law meet her there to drive her back to Houston.

She claims to have “found her strength and dignity” in Bountiful, or perhaps on the trip; she returns to Houston and her daughter-in-law meekly enough. There is some talk about everybody getting along, but the daughter-in-law is clearly not reconciled, and she herself twice ignores her daughter-in-law’s direct questions. So we’re not talking about a redemptive epiphany here, we’re talking sad, sad, stuff. If you care about the people at all, at that point, I suppose.

Anyway, I am playing the son, and I have no idea how to say my last line. It’s the end of the play, right? Jessie Mae (the daughter-in-law) has gone ahead to the car, and I fall behind to speak quietly to my mother.

LUDIE: Mama, if I get a raise, you won’t—
MOTHER WATTS: It’s all right, Ludie. I’ve had my trip. You go ahead. I’ll be right there. Look, isn’t that a scissortail?
LUDIE: I don’t know. I didn’t get to see it if it was. They fly so fast. The house used to look so big.

And I exit. And then Mother Watts says “Goodbye, Bountiful” and exits as the lights go down.

So. How do I say the line The house used to look so big? I mean, clearly, what I’m saying is that the house no longer looks big to me, either because I have grown (physically? emotionally?) or because it is so dilapidated that it appears shrunken. Or is it that the house used to loom large in my imagination, during the years that I refused to visit?

Digression: One of the things I find irritating that actors do is to come up with background details about their characters that are (a) irrelevant to the actual production, and (2) juicy beyond anything really conceivable by non-actors. I try to keep my back-story within reason. For instance, I eventually decided that Valmont was having a little E.D. problem, rather than deciding it was the early stages of syphilis… anyway, Ludie is so adamant about not remembering his childhood home, even refusing to set foot in it once he is compelled to go to the doorstep, that it’s awfully tempting to imagine some very juicy reason for his behavior. Abuse, not to put to fine a point on it. I imagine Horton Foote would be horrified to have an actor read that in to the part. And the play belongs to Mother Watts; my job is to support her, not to draw attention away from her with Acting! that will not be understood by the audience anyway. So I am repressing that thought. But still. End Digression.

The house used to look so big. What an awful thing to say. At that moment, I mean. To my mother, who has claimed to have found her strength and dignity at last in visiting it. I mean, whether you believe that claim or not, it seems so utterly heartless at that moment to say to her The house used to look so big. It’s so dismissive. And I know that Ludie is not a perceptive guy; Jessie Mae for all her bitchiness knows Mother Watts much better than I do. He never understands, for twenty years fails to understand, how much being in Bountiful would mean to his mother. And he is, I think, ashamed to have let his reluctance deny his mother that visit. Possibly ashamed of the reluctance itself. And after all that, there he is, in front of the house. Not in it, but in front of it. And it’s collapsing, the roof is probably half gone and the walls leaning and bending, and his mother is standing there convinced, convinced that just being on the land has been her salvation. And he says The house used to look so big. If his mother was listening at all, how would she take that? Or can he just assume that she isn’t listening? Or is he really so self-absorbed and oblivious that he can’t hear what that sounds like to her?

So. How do I say it? And I don’t just mean, what am I thinking when I say it, what emotions are intended to come out, that sort of thing. I mean, do I emphasize so or big? The Texas voice tends to accent the final word of sentences, but not if the speaker wants to emphasize something else. Do I say it fast or slow? Do I pause between so and big as if I am trying to think of what to say, or as if I was going to say something else and stopped, or do I run the words together as if I were trying to get the thing out and go? Do I gesture at the house? Or at the past? Or not at all? Do I say it while walking out, or say it standing still and then walk out? I’m not going to face Mother Watts (unless the director overrules me, which would be great as it would solve the dilemma), but should I face the house or the audience or the car or just away-from-her?

If you have any ideas about it, please shout ’em out. I really am stuck over this, and it seems important. I don’t know that I will actually do what you suggest, but I will probably try it, and your suggestions will very likely spark something in my brain. And yes, I will ask the director, but I’d like to try a few things first.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 21, 2009

Wrong again, right again

Your Humble Blogger should probably update y’all on the rehearsals for Bountiful. Not much to tell, though. It’s a compressed rehearsal schedule—for Valmont I had nine weeks, I think, while this is thirty-one days between first rehearsal and Opening Night.

Directors are different, one to another, you know. Our Director for this show is not one of the ones who maps out the whole show beforehand. He waves us up there to see what seems comfortable; if it looks good, we can do it that way again, and if it looks terrible, he’ll come up with something else. It has led to some moments I didn’t enjoy much, as he doesn’t have the script in front of him, and all of us have had a good deal of difficulty figuring out exactly what he means, what line he is referring to, that sort of thing. The ideas are good ones, but it takes a little while to figure out what they are. And sometimes they aren’t any good, because he has forgotten that this cross is not that other one, so we can’t eliminate it, or else we will have to reblock the whole next beat. That sort of thing.

One of the things I was very skeptical about was how early we are off-book. Well, and I suppose it isn’t all that early counting backwards from Opening, but as we live forwards, it meant that each scene had only two on-book rehearsals. One blocking rehearsal, one rehearsal holding the book and doing the blocking (and changing it of course), and then off-book. Each rehearsal involved running the scene more than once, of course, although we stopped and started a lot. And we just didn’t have all the lines. I thought the first few off-book rehearsals would be disastrous.

And, in fact, from the point of view of line-memorizations, it wasn’t good. But our Director made it clear that it was perfectly fine to call for lines—this wasn’t a test, and he knew we didn’t have it all in our heads yet, but he wanted our hands to have the props, not the books, and he wanted us to look at each other. And it worked. At least, the bits that I was in, so far. Yes, we wandered around the lines, quite a bit. My bad habit of approximating the lines is exacerbated by this sort of thing, and I may discover in the next two weeks that these early off-book rehearsals have ruined me for the actual lines. But the scenes started to have some shape and some rhythm. We went through the long first scene with only a few interruptions, and we have been through the second and third scenes multiple times, now, with prompts shouted in from the stage manager, but without stopping at all. And I’m starting to see the show.

One of the things about continuing to do theater is the discovery of new and different ways to do it right. And wrong, of course. But right is better. And I don’t know about you, but it’s always a bit humbling (in a good way) to be reminded that other people’s obviously wrong answers are often right answers, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 15, 2009

Ludie as in Ludlow, we think

I have not been reporting my progress with A Trip to Bountiful. This is in part because I have been busy, with one thing and another, including but not limited to the preparations for the play, and so I haven’t been contributing to this Tohu Bohu at all. I know y’all have missed me. But also, frankly, because I don’t like the play and have been thinking about it as little as possible. Which is a lot, of course, but rather than snatching moments of the day to impart my insights to you, Gentle Readers, I am forcing myself to learn my lines and trying to think of other things.

Why don’t I like this show? Well, first of all, I don’t like any of the people in it. Oh, Thelma’s all right, but we aren’t on together much, and it’s more that I don’t have any objection to her than any sort of fondness or even interest. The main character, Mother Watts, is a passive-aggressive, selfish, impossible woman. Yes, she has positive elements to her character, and yes, she is put in an untenable situation through no real fault of her own, but Lord, Lord, what an awful person to spend time with. As for Jessie Mae—she has, at least, some spark of vitality, although she puts that to use in making everybody around her miserable in petty ways. Again, she’s not entirely evil, and of course her situation is as awful as everyone else’s, but she is the sort of person you avoid in life as much as you can.

And my own character? Well, he’s a despairing, broken man. He has failed at everything, probably through little fault of his own. His home life is witness to an unending cascade of petty squabbling; his work life is as junior to younger men in a tedious job without real hope of advancement. He was advancing (perhaps, it isn’t clear) before some illness forced him to spend two years in bed as an invalid. Now, starting over at forty, he’s just killing time and paying the rent.

Digression: The first version of the play was written in 1953 and is set in the present, more or less. Now, it’s a period piece. But thinking about Ludie as being 40 in 1953 (or so), and having spent two years in bed recently, I was trying to figure out what was wrong with him. It had to be something that required a long bed rest, and it had to be something from which he could recover enough to go back to work, although leaving him weak enough that six months after starting work his wife is still worried about a relapse. I am thinking heart; they did at the time put people in bed rest for heart problems (which of course was wrong, wrong, wrong), and his mother has some sort of heart problem as well. It could have been lung-related (pneumonia and complications), or a soft-tissue problem like fibromyalgia (although of course that wouldn’t have been diagnosed in 1953). I don’t think I’ll be using the information, but it makes me curious. Also, a heart problem could have kept him out of the war—they don’t mention the war at all, but there’s certainly no indication that he served, and he would have been old-but-not-too-old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He could have been exempted as sole-support, although of course lots of such people did volunteer. Again, not really useful, but once you start thinking about these people as people, certain questions come up. End Digression.

Anyway, I don’t like Ludie. I have pity for him, surely, but I don’t like him. And it’s hard for me to interpret the play as having any kind of redemption for any of them. I mean, yes, it’s the way people are—people talk about Horton Foote as rejecting the sentimental epiphanies in favor of the complexity of real life. And I see that. I understand, at least distantly, that lots of people like to recognize his characters as being like themselves and people they know; they prefer that to the outsized characters of Shakespeare or Kushner. I don’t quite get, myself, why they like that, where the pleasure comes in, but there it is: people are different one to another, and that is what makes the world interesting and fun. Presumably people are coming to this show to see a Ludie (and the rest) that are real, and I will work to provide that. But I don’t like lots of real people, and I don’t like Ludie.

And there aren’t any real people I don’t like that I will be spending much time with this Fall, I hope. But I will be spending a lot of time with Ludie, and with Jessie Mae and with Mother Watts, and although there are still lots of enjoyable things about putting on the show, the company is a distinct drawback.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 28, 2009

Book Report: On the Twentieth Century

First of all, The Twentieth Century is a terrific movie. It’s Howard Hawks, with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, based on a play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It’s one of those plays/movies about theater/Hollywood, and there’s a wonderful, outrageous and oversized performance by Mr. Barrymore which makes me wish I’d seen him onstage.

I had vaguely known that there was a musical, but I had never seen it, or been aware of a local production of it, or seen the cast album. Until recently, when I grabbed the CD and the book (On the Twentieth Century) from my local performing-arts library.

No, it isn’t very good. So there’s that. But the thing that really struck me was the cast—the star is John Cullum, who I know from Northern Exposure, and who I sort of know is a big deal theater guy, but it’s still odd to me to see his name above the title like that. And he’s wonderful, in the Barrymore role, although I have to say that they seem to have watered it down a little bit. He doesn’t close the iron door on people. I loved that in the movie.

The second star is Madeline Kahn, and this was a big surprise to me. I mean, of course you would choose Madeline Kahn for that sort of role. And then, thinking about it, I started to wonder why Ms. Kahn hadn’t been a big musical-theater star. I mean, she was one of the funniest comic actresses of her time, with a terrific singing voice and operatic range. She sang in comic movies, brilliantly and hilariously (particularly in Blazing Saddles, of course, but in other movies as well). Why wouldn’t people have been writing shows particularly for her, for her skills and range, showcasing her like they did Judy Holliday or Joanna Gleason or Mary Martin? Judging from the CD, and from her early departure from the show, it seems as if she just wasn’t very good at it. I don’t know why. Her songs just don’t work. Very disappointing.

And then, down in the small type, is Kevin Kline.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.


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