Thursday, December 15, 2011

Original Practice...Dickens?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has to be the most-performed drama in the U.S. It’s everywhere this time of year—at least six productions going on in Atlanta alone right now.

I’ve loved the Tavern’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol since I first saw it in 2008. And I’m not the only one: tickets sell out quickly every time to audience members who come back to see it year after year. It might seem at first that we bring this one back every Christmas because it's always nice to produce a sold-out show…but I prefer to think of it as an integral part of our theatrical mission. Even though it’s not a Shakespeare play, I think this particular production strikes a chord with Shakespeare Tavern fans because it highlights the very best of what our company brings to Shakespeare’s plays:

1) Focus on the author’s words.

Just as the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V begs us to enhance the production before us with our imaginations, the Tavern’s Shakespeare productions allow audiences to view scenery, great battles and more through the lens of Shakespeare’s words rather than the eyes of a modern designer. Here the playwright’s words and the audience members’ imaginations join to create great theater—no elaborate sets, no major special effects, just costumes and the occasional prop to help your imagination along. We bring this approach to Christmas Carol as well, to great effect. For me at least, hearing Dickens’ original description of Marley, or the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Old Joe’s lair in a seedy part of London, felt like encountering the story for the first time.

2) Live music and sound effects.

Rather than recorded sound effects, we use actor-created ‘sound sculpture,’ one of my favorite parts of Tavern stagecraft. Shakespeare’s company didn’t have the benefit of recorded sound effects, after all. Peeking backstage for a particularly sound-heavy show like Macbeth reveals a bizarre collection of ‘instruments’: everything from the guts of a piano, to Whirly children’s toys, to a bowed psaltery, to a wooden pole with five pairs of Converse shoes tied to it (used to make the sound of marching feet during army scenes. That one’s my favorite.)

Same thing for Christmas Carol. Every sound you hear, from the clanking of Marley’s chains to the church bells pealing, is created live each night by the actors offstage. We even have strings of bells hanging in three different places backstage, both upstairs and down, to create a ‘surround sound’ effect. And of course, as in our Shakespeare shows, this show treats the audience to beautiful live music (call me a purist, but I believe a live soundtrack is always the best.)

3) A sense of humor.

Three years working here and I still believe that productions at the Tavern create energy throughout the room that’s unlike any other theater experience…and the best word I can think of to accurately describe that energy is ‘celebratory.’ Our shows celebrate not only how brilliant Shakespeare’s work can be but also how enjoyable it can be. And so much of that celebratory feeling comes from audiences realizing that Shakespeare can actually be funny. Shakespeare is full of humor, and if there’s humor to be found in a moment we will play it—not just because our company employs, in my opinion, the best comedians in the city, but also because we want you to have a good time.

The same goes for Dickens. People tell us year after year how surprised they felt to find themselves laughing so much while watching Christmas Carol. If you keep a lot of Dickens’ original narration intact, rather than cutting most of it as many productions do, it turns out that the old guy had a (delightfully British) dry wit.

4) Talking to the audience.

The most important part of our ‘original practice’ approach to Shakespeare? Acknowledging the audience’s presence in the room. We’re here to tell you a story, no matter what play is on stage…and the storytellers of old kept their listeners engaged by talking directly to them. Since we bill our production as a ‘storyteller’s version’ of Christmas Carol, I guess the connection is pretty obvious. I can certainly confirm, being part of the production myself this year, that I spend far more time talking to you guys than I spend talking to the other actors on stage.

Since Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a novella rather than a dramatic script, it’s hard to call our production ‘original practice’ Dickens. But I think our original practice approach brings out the best in a story that people love to hear told again and again. Hopefully you’ll agree with me.

Merry Christmas!

~Kristin H.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Andy's Music Playlist for 'Macbeth'

Andy Houchins, who plays the title character in the brand new Macbeth that has its first preview this Thursday, shared with us his personal playlist for preparing to play the murderous Scottish lord:

"Here are a few songs I have on my iPhone that I've been listening to for 'Macbeth.' Some of them are listed because the lyrics fit for me in some way, some are listed because the mood that I get while listening to them puts me in a certain head-space.... and the last one is just a joke, not really on my setlist."

1- 'Devil in Me' ~ The 22-20's
2- 'The Go-Getter' ~ The Black Keys
3- 'Bridge Burning' ~ Foo Fighters
4- 'Please Bleed' ~ Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
5- 'In the House - In a Heartbeat' ~ John Murphy
6- 'I Just Can't Wait to Be King' ~ The Lion King Soundtrack

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer 2011: An Intern's-Eye View

Anna Fontaine, one of our 2011 Education Interns for this summer and a former Shakespeare Intensive for Teens participant herself, talks about her experience so far:

It’s funny to think that for the past three summers I’ve spent the majority of my time plunging head first into Shakespearean classics. While that might sound kind of painful to some people, it’s actually been a highlight each year. I’m currently an intern with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, where I’ve been privileged enough to lead and learn as stage manager/instructor for the Shakespeare Intensive for Teens program (aka SIT). It’s a program I myself was a part of both in 2009 and 2010. We have just completed the June session, which culminated in a full-fledged production of Julius Caesar, and I am still blown away by how much everyone, students and teachers alike, managed to accomplish. I think that’s a big part of what has led to my continual return to the Tavern: every time is a new and exciting adventure.
I played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice my first year in SIT, or, as we came to refer to ourselves, the “Mutants” of Venice. This was the first summer program that gave me a realistic view into the world of professional theatre while also providing a ridiculous amount of fun. I was surrounded by people who loved acting just as much as I did and who were all eager to experience as much as humanly possible. We learned from some pretty top notch actors, too. They constantly challenged us to broaden our minds and confidently think for ourselves. SIT gives more than just schoolbook lessons on prose and verse. Students have the chance to bring classic and complex characters to life. It wasn’t always an easy task, but by learning to make bold choices and trust our own decisions, we all managed to create a memorable performance.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking, “That sounds fine and dandy, but THREE summers? Is it seriously worth that much time?” The simple answer is…yeah! Last year I returned to SIT to be a part of the July production of As You Like It where I played Rosalind. Again, we had a chance to participate in all kinds of amazing classes, from clowning to stage combat to Rasa Aesthetics. All of these experiences allowed us to make new physical and emotional discoveries about our characters and ourselves. I was able to reconnect with some of my old friends and make some great new ones from all across the state. A new play with a new cast brought its own exciting and hilarious moments. For example, not only did we delve deeply into the status and relationships of our characters, we also discussed such things as the origin of the play’s title and pondered why it couldn’t have been, “like, four couples and one wedding, or whatever?” Because, let’s be honest, that would make so much more sense than As You Like It.
And I’m not the only one to keep returning to the Tavern. Each summer numerous students return to audition for SIT and many times they also come back as audience members, volunteers, interns, and even apprentices. I think that speaks volumes regarding the quality the ASC manages to pack into its summer programs. What has been especially great about seeing both new and old faces each year is how much SIT allows its students to grow in just four short weeks. Many leave having gained a new level of confidence, courage, and achievement.
Likewise, as an intern this year I have already gained a ton of leadership experience, organizational skills, and theatre game knowledge. It has been really enlightening switching from student to teacher, and I don’t know many places that allow for that kind of opportunity. For the rest of the summer I’ll be taking an in-depth look into the administration side of the Tavern. As I learn all the behind-the-scenes details that allow this place to run smoothly, I know the July session of SIT is hard at work on Romeo and Juliet. And, as evident by our last SIT production, it’s going to be quite a show because, honestly, these kids just keep getting better and better each and every year.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

False Cues in 'Double Falsehood'

DISCLAIMER: This entry contains information and observations that could be classified as 'geeky.' If you love Shakespeare and history, read on.

Remember a few months back, when I said our production of Lewis Theobald's [and supposedly William Shakespeare's?] Double Falsehood was sure to make us examine exactly what we mean when we say “This is Shakespeare,” or “This is not Shakespeare?”

Man, has it ever. Actors, staff members, and audience members old and new have been asking those questions like mad. But leaving the debate about Double Falsehood’s authorship aside, I want to take a few minutes to tell you about some of the other geeky questions this production has given us a chance to ask. Questions like, “What would happen if, rather than giving each actor a full copy of the script before beginning rehearsal for this unknown play, we only gave each actor his or her own lines with a few words of the cue for each line?”

Partial scripts, called ‘cue scripts,’ were par for the course in Shakespeare’s day (and in Lewis Theobald’s, for that matter.) A 16th or 17th century actor working on a new play never saw a copy of the full script—he was responsible only for learning his own lines, and for knowing when to speak those lines by memorizing the few words spoken by another actor immediately preceding each of his lines (to use theater-speak, his ‘cues.’) He was given this information and nothing more, not even a synopsis of the play’s story. And since productions during this period had little to no group rehearsal beforehand, chances are he would go on stage to perform with no understanding of a larger context for his character’s lines. This means that a) he had to glean as much understanding of his character as possible based on that character’s own words, and b) he had to really, really listen to the other actors on stage with him to get a sense of what was going on.

We’ve talked about experimenting with cue scripts for a long time, but considering that none of the actors for ‘Double Falsehood’ were familiar with the play nor its plot ahead of time, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to explore the experience of an early modern actor preparing for a newly-written play. This choice has led to a lot of interesting discoveries, including watching a ‘false cue’ in action.

Tiffany Stern has outlined how playwrights like Shakespeare and Theobald took advantage of the cue script rehearsal style, writing ‘direction’ for their actors into the actors’ parts (if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, our Education Department highly recommends her book Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan.) One way for a playwright to draw the emotion he wanted out of an actor was to write a ‘false cue,’ or a ‘premature cue.’ Dr. Stern does an eloquent and lengthy job of explaining this cool concept in her book, but since this is a blog I’ll do my best to explain it briefly.

Here’s how it works: an actor on stage would only know the last few words of his cue, without knowing the larger speech to which those words belonged. That actor would automatically start saying his line after hearing his cue. So if Shakespeare wanted that actor to say his line with lots of anger, he would write the actor’s cue into the proceeding speech multiple times…the actor would keep trying to say his line each time he heard his cue, only to be cut off by his scene partner. The example Stern uses is from Act III, Scene 3 in Merchant of Venice: after a long speech of Shylock’s, Solanio has an angry line calling Shylock nasty names. The actor playing Solanio came on stage only knowing that his cue to speak was ‘have my bond.’ Problem is, Shylock says ‘have my bond’ five times in the preceding speech…and each time Solanio would be trying to butt in, only to be cut off by Shylock, who would not have finished with his own speech yet. By the time it was actually Solanio’s turn to speak, the poor actor would be so frustrated and embarrassed at having repeatedly missed his cue that he would be feeling the right emotions to deliver his mean-spirited line appropriately. Shakespeare directed actors emotionally simply in the way he wrote the lines. Cool, huh?

I’m telling you all this because during the first rehearsal of Double Falsehood I happened to capture on film what I think is an example of premature cues at work (regardless of who wrote the script, it's still the same technique.) Bernardo, Leonora’s father, knows that something to the effect of 'poor Julio' is his cue to speak. She says that a LOT in her speech…and in the context of the play, it makes sense that he would try to keep cutting her off, only to answer angrily when it’s finally his turn to speak (I love how at the end of this video, Jacob York pauses before his line to make sure she's finally done.) Granted, because this was rehearsal rather than a performance everyone cracked up when the premature cue took its course rather than getting angry. But you can see how it might have worked in performance toward making both Bernardo and Leonora increasingly frustrated with each other.

And this is why I love the Shakespeare Tavern: you can have fun but learn new things at the same time. Double Falsehood has been an adventure all around, and there’s still another weekend to go!


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Great Debates

As we come to closing weekend for our productions of The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III, I’ve been looking back on our Canon Completion Project and realizing how much debate—the good kind of debate—tackling these plays has brought into our theatre. With these last two plays we’ve reached the very fringe of Shakespeare’s work, and new questions and phrases not often heard around here have found their way into the building: “I don’t think this is Shakespeare.” “I don’t know, feels pretty Shakespearean to me.” “This is definitely a Fletcher bit.” “Why do you say that?” And so on.

By now you might have seen this great Associated Press article about our Canon Completion Project in any number of places:

Atlanta troupe claims mark; 39 Bard plays

I love the way this article highlights the debate among scholars and artists about what to include or exclude from Shakespeare’s body of work. I also love Jeff’s response that we hope to make the question moot by producing every single play that scholars think Shakespeare might even possibly have had a hand in writing. If that’s our goal, then the debates within our company and our audience alike seem sure to rage on. Both Edward III and the upcoming Double Falsehood have indirect connections to Shakespeare at best: the first was published anonymously and the second, an adaptation, was published a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death by a playwright who claimed to have seen a copy of the Shakespearean original.

Scholars and artists have argued for years over the authorship of these two plays, and our own company is no different. Although all the artists here at ASC unite in their excitement about tackling these plays, every actor has his or her own take on how much poetry can be labeled the Bard’s. Our Artistic Director feels that Shakespeare wrote Edward III alone. But actors in the company who have worked on the show all have varying opinions of their own, as this video shows:

Personally, I’m thrilled that our journeys into the far corners of the Canon have inspired us to ask important questions: How do we go about deciding what’s Shakespeare, and what isn’t? What trademarks of Shakespeare’s plays can we say are uniquely his, and which characteristics can we rely on when trying to decide the authorship of an anonymous play? Does it become easier to decide when you see or hear the play on stage? What do we mean when we say that a line or speech ‘feels’ like Shakespeare?

My guess is that producing Double Falsehood, which takes the stage for 2 weeks in June, will only intensify this kind of questioning. That production looks to be one of the coolest, most experimental projects we’ve taken on in a while. Stay tuned here for more details!

Posted by Kristin Hall