Friday, September 30, 2016

Thoughts on Henry VI By Mary Ruth Ralston

I’ve spent the last several days muddling over what I want to say about Shakespeare’s Henry VI and the experience of playing him. There’s a lot to talk about. Although the play isn’t wall-to-wall earth-shaking verse like some of Shakespeare’s later works, it’s full to the gills with complex characters, nuanced political intrigue, and a haunting sense of national soul-searching. This story brings up a lot of tough questions with which we still grapple:
Can a warlike country call itself Christian? Does a leader have to sacrifice being a good person in order to be a good leader? Is kindness a weakness? Is cruelty a strength? Is it better to obey our leaders or our own consciences when they tell us different things? How do we define masculinity and femininity, and what do we do to ourselves when we try to enforce those definitions?

Those questions only scratch the surface, and I could geek out for hours about this play and the issues it raises. If you want to catch me in the lobby after a show and chat about it, I’m most likely up for a chat. But for this post I want to narrow it down. I asked myself the other day what I would say to a child who had seen these plays and asked me afterwards what they were about and why I wanted to play Henry. This is a tough story to present to children, and there have been a few in the audience, so I wanted to have my answers ready for them. This story is dark and sad. Over the course of these three plays we watch a kind, generous, trusting person be manipulated and used, fail to prevent his country from falling into chaos and war, and eventually [SPOILERS] die alone, ashamed, and heartbroken at the hands of a triumphant sociopath.

So for the kids out there, this is what I think the story of this sad, sweet, eventually powerless man can tell us.

Firstly, about Henry himself: I don’t think Shakespeare intends for us to leave believing that all of Henry’s defining qualities are weaknesses. It’s easy to dismiss him as just a spineless wimp who lost his throne because he lacked the strength of will to keep it, and his inaction and self-doubt are certainly a big part of the story. But Henry also has immense strength. He has a deep, quiet moral strength that he never ever loses, no matter how much other people use and belittle him. Henry, in spite of everything that happens around him, never becomes cruel or callous or petty. Henry remains honest and empathetic; he loves his family and his subjects even when they let him down. Henry [SPOILERS] uses his literal last breath to pray for his murderer. To me, that speaks of incredible internal strength that is worthy of admiration, and much of the tragedy in the play is in knowing that Henry could have been a great king if the people around him rather than preying on his weaknesses had worked to magnify his strengths. Being able to play that soulful strength and that unfailing moral compass even in the midst of so much doubt and grief and frailty and collapse makes Henry a remarkably rewarding part to act.

Secondly, about Henry’s world: I think the main reason Henry’s England falls apart to such a terrible degree can be summed up pretty nicely by the Two Wolves fable. The story is that there are two wolves fighting inside of all of us. One wolf is kindness and empathy. The other is cruelty and selfishness. Which wolf wins in the end depends entirely on which one we feed most. I like to think of Henry and Richard as England’s two wolves, and over the course of three plays we watch England and its nobility feed the wrong wolf until at the end of Part III we finally see the two wolves face off; Henry, the kind wolf, is spiritually starved and weakened to the point that he’s barely there while Richard, the cruel wolf, is strong and well-fed and [SPOILERS] able to destroy the kind wolf with ease and gusto, leaving the world for himself to bustle in. The reason this happens isn’t just because Henry failed as a leader. It’s also because the followers in whom Henry put his trust failed to be the virtuous people their king believed they could be.

I think, then, the reason that it’s important to tell this story is for this painful truth: the kind wolf can’t win if we don’t make the constant effort to feed it more. One person trying to be good and do the right thing is not enough. They have weaknesses, and if we expect them to their fight alone they will lose, and the cruel, manipulative, selfish wolf will win. This isn’t a very comforting moral (especially considering how much food is available to the cruel wolf) but we have ample evidence of its truth.

I hope you enjoy watching these plays as much as I’ve enjoyed working on them and that you leave the theater with thoughts, challenges, questions, and inspiration. I’d love to chat with you about them, and about poor sweet magnificent Henry.

Submitted by Mary Ruth Ralston

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Summer Intensive for Teens with JoJo!

At the Shakespeare Tavern, it’s trial by fire.

I am a teaching intern this year for the Summer Intensive for Teens, or SIT. SIT lasts three weeks; in that time the group of teenagers that were chosen from auditions held in the spring prepare a full-length Shakespeare play and take master classes in theatrical skills like mask work and combat. This particular group of fifteen students put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the help of two brilliant teaching artists, Mary Ruth Ralston and Chris Rushing. The whole three-week process is an exercise in trust and in releasing inhibitions. The way to succeed is to dive in full force, make bold choices, and support scene partners’ bold choices. Trial by fire.

I participated in SIT twice as a teenager, and I liked it so much I came back to experience it from the other side. I assumed my time here as an actor would prepare me for the next step. I should have known better: if I’ve learned anything from SIT it is to expect the unexpected.

In true Tavern fashion, I was thrown headlong into something both scary and inspiring. Mary Ruth and Chris put an unbelievable amount of faith in me. They, and the education department as a whole, believed me capable of teaching and directing long before I believed myself capable of those things. On the first day of SIT, Mary Ruth and Chris split the characters into three groups. They each took one group to direct and left me with the third. Here I was on the very first day, in a cramped back hallway of the Tavern attempting to direct a battle between fairy royals so powerful that their fighting literally alters the seasons. I was terrified.

The amount of trust present on all sides was what made it work. Not only did my directors trust me, but so did the students. After all, it was their first day too. They knew none of their peers, they knew nothing of me, and some of them weren’t even familiar with the Tavern or with Shakespeare. It made me grateful, proud, and relieved that they were willing to put their faith in me and jump right in. If everyone else believed in me that much, I had no choice but to believe in myself. They were already taking the leap; there was no other option but to be there to catch them.

So in this way I was tricked into being a confident teacher and director. I began to volunteer to direct scenes on my own. I brought in a movement exercise that I had learned in a dance class and taught it by myself. I taught warm-ups and improv games. By the last week, I was confident enough to direct the lovers’ quarrel all on my own, a scene that had interested me since day one but that I had been too shy to tackle.

I also acted as a student. I participated in workshops and games. I watched closely as Mary Ruth and Chris led text classes. I learned how to talk to students when they get discouraged, or how to gently but firmly enforce rules. I learned from my students how to handle mistakes or embarrassment with grace, and how to imbue a text with new life.

When I started the summer, I thought I would make a smooth and logical progression from student to teacher. Little did I know, the progression from student to teacher is anything but smooth and logical. The line between the two is often blurred. Everything I did took on double significance – it is not even fair to divide my time into teaching and learning. They melted together. Any single action contained elements of both. Teaching my movement exercise was learning. Learning to direct by asking questions was teaching.

The most gratifying moment of SIT was the day I realized my own favorite vocal warm-up, which I had taught on the spur of the moment one day, had become a tradition. On the last day of performances, the students requested I lead it one last time. They were going to miss it, they said. I happily bequeathed these young actors something that works for me in my own acting. It was the simplest, most tangible example of my student to teacher transformation.

Trial by fire works for the teenage students. I already knew that much from my time as an actor at SIT. I didn’t know, though, that it works for everyone. It works for teachers just like it works for students, because there’s really not such a black and white distinction between them anyways. Trial by fire works for anyone who wants to learn. Dive in. Don’t hold back. Trust yourself to be great enough to walk through flames. 

Submitted by Amanda Lindsey McDonald
Social Media Specialist

Monday, August 1, 2016

Shakespeare with a Twist- Payton Anderson on Remix

Hey there! My name is Payton Briggs Anderson and I’m the Shakespeare Intensive for Teens (SIT) Remix intern for the Summer of 2016 here at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. So what exactly is SIT Remix? After three weeks of rehearsals that culminate with multiple performances of a Shakespearean play, the participants of SIT launch into a fourth week devoted to devised theatre. 

Wait a second. What exactly is devised theatre? I’m glad you asked! Now I’m no expert (I’m still a student myself), but I’ll do my best to give you a basic run-down of what devised theatre is. Devised theatre (n.) results from the creative process of devising (v.), a process in which theater practitioners create a piece that doesn’t arise from a specific script.
So what exactly does that mean? Generally, when going into a traditional theatre environment (like the one that the SIT students are exposed to for the first three weeks), an actor is equipped with a script that has specific parts, lines, text, stage directions, etc. The actor learns their lines, rehearses their part, and performs a story according to a specific script. When an actor steps into the devising process, however, learning your part and learning your lines from a specific script is not the first step. Instead, the actor steps into an ensemble-driven environment that works on the embodiment, interpretation, and communication of larger themes and ideas that can stem from an infinite number of different sources. These sources can be pretty much anything, such as society, personal experience, observation, a piece of poetry, or (as in the case of SIT this year) the text of a Shakespearean comedy. After a period of exploration, the ensemble uses elements of staging such as lights, text, sound, space, props, and movement to compose a piece that addresses these themes.

When I was given the opportunity to expose high school students to devised theatre I was initially super nervous and scared. Personally, I had no idea that devised theatre even existed until my freshman year of college, so I had no doubt that Remix would be the first exposure to devised work for many of the high schoolers I’d work with. What right did I have to be teaching high schoolers about devised work when I’m still a student myself? Luckily, I had an amazing lead teacher (shout-out to Atlanta actor Brandon Partrick!) to collaborate with, and together we did our best to create a trajectory that would introduce these creative young minds to the basic principles of devising theatre.

This June, the SIT students rehearsed and performed a production of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing. During the first Remix session, we had the students discuss themes and ideas from the play that resonated for them or had been uncovered during the rehearsal process. True to the nature of Shakespeare’s plays, the themes discussed were a diverse slice of the human experience, including love, truth, deception, pride, and forgiveness. As the week unfolded, the exercises we introduced were utilized to tackle these themes and explore them through embodiment. In addition to the exercises, students were encouraged to bring in their own contributions to the work. It could be anything from a piece of text that spoke to them on some level, a movement that elicited some sort of emotion, or a song they had written. By encouraging the students to bring in and share their own material, we hoped that the students would develop a sense of ownership of their creation – a crucial element of any ensemble. And own it they did. By the end of the week the students had created a piece that was completely their own, one that took place primarily in a dark room and explored the darker issues of Shakespeare’s comedy.

By a landslide, my favorite part of the week was watching the students’ faces light up as a new, exciting piece of knowledge clicked for them. As a particularly nerdy theatre theory person myself, it was so much fun to watch the learning process in real time as a new idea was introduced, and it was even more fun to watch the realizations occur as those theories and ideas were explored through exercises. I can absolutely relate to the feeling of excitement brought on by a buzzing brain, and I had no doubt that this was happening for those high schoolers. For me, this feeling is invaluable as a student and ESPECIALLY as a theatre practitioner. Introducing students to alternate methods of creating theatre opens a portal of infinite possibilities filled with their own unique challenges and levels of excitement. Just as exploring Shakespeare’s words offers an insight into the complexity of the human condition, I believe that devising theatre encourages students to explore these complexities in new and exciting ways that are completely unique to them.

Being the Remix intern has definitely been one of the most rewarding experiences of my summer, and I’m incredibly excited to do it all again this July!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Summer interns and Shakespeare Intensive for Teens

It is a little bit surreal to look back on the first half of my summer at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. I spent June working with the Shakespeare Intensive for Teens program, and I feel like I have just stepped off of a rollercoaster. Sure, I’m winded but I also can’t stop smiling. This three-week program has been incredibly informative for me as an artist, as an intern, and as a person. However, since it is impossible to convey every lesson learned during SIT without time travel -and science has limited my resources- here is the Sparknotes version of what I learned.
It’s all about the students. This experience is shaped by those who participate in it and each student within this group was incredibly eager and willing to work. Personally, it would be difficult to imagine this going through this experience without each of the young artists and their personalities that brought the work to life. Veterans and newcomers alike courageously explored outside of their comfort zones. These students readily shared their discoveries about themselves, their characters and the text which informed their work in profoundly unique ways and brought the group together.
After each day, we would sign off as a team (like an all hands in, 3..2..1 GO TEAM!! type team). Though it might seem trivial, reinforcing the team element was a beautiful way to establish the tone of the room. One of the tenants of the ASC’s educational philosophy is to create a judgement-free environment, so establishing this group as a team helped keep everyone on the same plane. On any given day we were Team Off-Book, Team Team or Team Work but most importantly, we were always a part of Team Safe Space. We asked students to be aware of judgement within their language and their physicality in order to establish the SIT classroom as a free zone for exploration. The group was supportive, attentive, and quickly broke judgmental habits. Especially once the students recognized they had the support of their cast, they identified and discussed their emotions eloquently- something even adults struggle with. It seemed simple for the students to be receptive to the ideas and emotions of others which allowed us to really get moving in the artistic process. However, it was much more difficult to eliminate the judgement they passed on themselves. 
Asking anyone to access their emotions in front of others is a tall order. Asking TEENAGERS to access their emotions in front of others?? Good luck. High schoolers have an inclination to avoid talking about their feelings in public. Naturally, SIT starts every day with an emotional check-in. After each run through of a scene, the first question asked was usually “how did that feel?”.  So, it’s safe to say we talked about feelings A LOT. One of the larger challenges was to get the students to identify what they were feeling instead of judging their performance. Judgement is a full stop. When faced with a judgmental response such as “that was good” or “I felt like I was awful” the directors would shift the focus to unpacking the emotions behind those rulings. As someone who is riddled with self-judgement, this is a game changer. Providing the vocabulary to assess emotions prompted students to make bold, active choices and opened their performances up to new discoveries. Once a student made an awesome new choice there was no time to waste. To quote everyone’s favorite sports brand, JUST DO IT.  Infinite discoveries are made in the moment. There was no time to judge when ideas were immediately put into motion. Students, especially self-conscious students, tried to talk themselves out of these spontaneous findings by inquiring whether it was “the right answer” or not. But here’s the kicker: we trusted our students and the findings they discovered.
It took some students the whole process to recognize that they were entitled to their own decisions. No one was going to shame them if they tried something that didn’t exactly fit. Sure, the directors offered guidance, but ultimately the students were at the helm. Students let their emotions lead them without worrying about conforming to a pre-set artistic vision. Each student had the right to tell the story their way.  This inclusive directing style cultivated wonderful, weird and honest performances. Offstage, it changed lives. During the wrap-up of the first week, we asked the students what had affected them most from this process. Almost unanimously the group commented on how quickly they felt comfortable trusting one another. Another resounding answer came from several students; they had never felt like they were enough on stage before this program. This struck a personal chord with me. I’ve spent a lot of my life obsessing over whether or not I am good enough. If I could go back in time and tell my younger self one thing, I would try to silence self-doubt (I’m waiting on you, science!!). So, to know that SIT has given students the tools to combat that anxiety is overwhelming.  This program is powerful.  
Lastly, life– like theatre- is ephemeral. RECORD IT. I wish I had just written down what it felt like to be in that classroom. That way I could bottle it up and take it with me now, like a handwritten time machine. I implore everyone to journal. The feelings discovered and life lessons learned within this program are all worth remembering. Keep discovering, exploring and leaning in. I know I will.

Submitted by Aliya Kraar, Summer Intern 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Interning with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company

Hi everyone!  I’m Sidney, and this summer I am the Superheroes intern for the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse.

This first June session, I worked with Katie Wine and Kathryn Lawson as teaching artists at our Decatur location of Shakespeare Superheroes.  We had nineteen phenomenal kids who in just two weeks learned the epic, intricate stories of both King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew.  On day one, we got to know each other, began to understand our plays and did a little acting with Story of the Play, and played many fun games together.  All of the children got their scripts on day two, and by day three some had even already memorized their monologues!  I was so impressed by the diligence and hard work these children put forth in memorizing their complex lines and comprehending their characters in just two weeks.  I never expected such professional attitudes of children ages six to fourteen, plus with the added silly bonus of the joy and energy children bring to the stage. 

I brought some of my own personal experience teaching to the camp by introducing Mad Libs as an entertaining way to take our stories and have some fun with them!  I created six pages per show with blanks for adjectives, nouns, verbs, and adverbs, and the kids themselves invented hilarious scenes and then split off into the roles to act them out for everyone!  It was a way for them to further understand relationships and become more familiar with the characters, and also to have some very silly fun.  Our angry line, “O, Goneril!” became, “O, mashed potatoes!” and was certainly a hit for the rest of camp.

How do children this young understand the Shakespearean lines they are saying?  My fellow teaching artists and I work hard to help these kids come to their own conclusions through Directing by Asking Questions.  This has been my first experience with this type of teaching and directing.  I have personally always had directors in the past that just tell the actor where to go with no actor input or motivation behind it.  Directing by asking questions allows the children to grow through the process and have individual discoveries and develop the tools to help them understand more text themselves in the future. 

The imagination and creativity of these students was so inspirational.  They really got into their roles and committed to their performance with such strength and passion.  They even used the art supplies we had to make some of their own props and invitations, such as construction paper swords for knights, sparkly pipe cleaner jewelry for the wealthy, and their own posters advertising their shows.

I definitely learned a lot with the performance process as well.  With thirty-two scenes, nineteen children who had at least four costumes each, over ten quick changes, and six difference places they could enter and exit from, it was… hectic!  I took a lot of initiative backstage in managing everyone by writing down every single entrance and exit in my script, and even putting together a Master Entrance sheet for my helpers to follow when we got to the Tavern the day of our performance.  I made sure everyone was in their places a scene or two in advance to enter from stage right, stage left, and center, and made sure there was some extra assistance for some of our six year olds with their entrances and exits.  The final performance was incredible, and I am so proud of every single one of them.

It was such a delight to watch these children learn and grow over the past two weeks.  They overcame their nerves and confusion to put on an absolutely beautiful production.  Even if some of them do not pursue Shakespeare after this camp, they still learned team work, communication, reading comprehension, confidence, and had oh so much fun.

Submitted by Sidney Marie Joines

Friday, May 13, 2016

Atlanta Shakespeare Company selected as venue for cultural experience project

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company has been selected as one of the 21 venues for the Cultural Experience Project offered by the Office of Cultural Affairs.  This project will serve the Atlanta Public School students in the 2016-2017 school year.
The Cultural Experience Project was launched during the 2005-2006 school year to give every Atlanta Public School (APS) student the opportunity to experience the city’s premier art and cultural venues.  The Atlanta Shakespeare Company will be serving high school level students with performances of Caesar: 60, an hour long performance of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Kati Grace Brown and adapted by Andrew Houchins.  These performances, taking place in September, will reach over 1000 students.  By encouraging students to hear and analyze Shakespeare’s language, plot, and characters, these performances will meet criteria that directly ties to Common Core Georgia Performance Standards and curriculum goals.  Teachers will also receive study guides before performances as well as post show question and answer sessions with the actors.
The Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s Education programs provide opportunities for students, educators and parents throughout Georgia and the Southeast to experience the power of Shakespeare’s language and dramatic vision through play, passion, poetry, active participation and performance using dynamic, language based methods.  We do this through interactive, fast paced playshops in the classroom; useful, in depth study guides for all our school programs and performances; in school and after school residencies of varying lengths where the full power of Shakespeare in performance can be experienced by your entire school and summer programs that delve deep into the world of Shakespeare performance and study for students and teachers alike.
# # #

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Amanda Lindsey McDonald at

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Two Noble Women of The Two Noble Kinsmen

We had to take a moment and talk to the ladies of the show.  By the way, there are seven women performing in this production!  Check out this interview with Amee Vyas and Katherine Lawson!

Who are you and what are your characters?
AV: Amee Vyas and I play the Jailer’s Daughter. It’s really listed as Daughter in the dramatis personae and in the script. It’s in the stage directions, we get “Jailer’s” Daughter, so for consistency we say Jailer’s Daughter.
KLKathryn Lawson playing Princess Emelia

How long have you been working at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse?
AV: I plead the fifth! Actually, this is my 14th year with ASC and I’ve performed in at least one play here every year except for the 2012-13 season when I moved out of Atlanta for a brief year.
KL: Since 2010

What did you enjoy most about the previous production of The Two Noble Kinsmen when it was produced five years ago?
AV: The freedom of not having a predecessor or another popular production of the play to be compared to. Also, I believe we took that freedom and ran with it. We created some really lovely bits of staging (and that Troy specifically re-created in this production) because we were all willing to try anything; since, we’d never seen the play performed we didn’t think “well, that’s not how Branagh did it!” or “you know, I hate it when actors make Hamlet so mopey, so I’m going to do it differently!” We really allowed the text to dictate what we did, which resulted in one particularly uber-theatrical staging: the building of a human ship – which one of the actors suggested as a literal interpretation of the brief text in the scene.
KL: The wonderful cast and meeting new people in Atlanta theatre. 

What do you like that is different about this production?
AV: The cast is great. Each new cast brings something fun and exciting (if the gods are smiling at you and with this cast they are!). I don’t remember laughing as hard backstage the last time. Then again, we were all a little unsure of the play and how it would be received. This time around we knew that it is a magical play and with Daniel and Matt as the title characters, we were set for success!
KL: I love our wonderful new cast and getting to play pretend with my very dear friends.

What is one of your favorite moments in this show? When do you feel most connected to the show?
AV: Ahh, there are so many! This is unfair!  I’d like to say the last moment of the opening song, when Sarah Beth goes for the Soprano line and Rivka beats the last four notes on the drum, there’s a harmony of sounds that is just beautiful; but then, I think, my personal favorite is one of my character’s last scenes in the play, I’m drunk (which Shakespeare never gives to a female character!) and I’m talking about the afterlife. Instead of staging it where I am interacting with the 3 other characters who are talking about how crazy I am, Troy continues my character’s arc of being alone with the audience and I play the entire scene in the ditch and on the edge of the thrust. There isn’t a more perfect example of audience interaction and since I’m drunk and seeing a different world I’m also tapping into my craft; so it becomes a perfect intersection of preparation, craft, and being in the room – and it’s just fun to do.
KL: There's a big confrontation scene after intermission that I feel like is super dynamic, the two Noble Kinsmen have their sword fight interrupted by the royal hunting party: Theseus & Emelia have their bows drawn and ready, Hippolyta & Pirithous have their mitts out, everybody's ready to throw down.  For me, it's the little moments of audible response that echoes how I'm thinking and feeling in a particular moment. We've just finished uproariously laughing at our own bad jokes and Matt/Arcite does this snap stare of mega intensity and the audience sees this budding connection between us and responds.  Kevin/Theseus says "Make choice then." And there is a groan of sympathy for Emelia's predicament of having to choose between two handsome awesome lovable guys knowing that whichever one she doesn't choose dies.  I love being able to use our style of original practice to directly address the audience and actually ask two different audience members which Kinsmen I should choose!  I never know what they are going to say.

Who should see this show and why?
AV: Everyone! First, it’s rarely produced, so if you are a theater- or Shakespeare- or Classic Literature-geek, you need to see it. Second, it’s a beautiful production with music, and fights, and a human ship. Lastly, #shamelessplug, I’m in it!
KL: Can you relate to love in the extreme? Or love that is non-traditional and multifaceted? Have you ever stalked an ex? Have you ever dated more than one person at the same time and didn't know which one you liked best? Do you like music? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, no judgement but you should see Two Noble Kinsmen!

Amanda Lindsey McDonald
Social Media Specialist