Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Making of the Shakespeare Evolution Series

As we embark on the Tragedies segment of our Shakespeare Evolution Series with Titus , people have been asking how we settled on the chronological order for all of Shakespeare's plays...not to mention how we decided what counts as a ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’ or ‘romance.’ Well, here’s the truth: since Shakespeare never left a personal record of exactly when he wrote each play, that lack has left everyone guessing about the order for the last four hundred years. Probably dozens of proposed composition orders exist in the Shakespeare scholarship universe, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Part of the fun involves arguing over which play goes where.

But a producing theatrical company eventually has to settle on an order, and we knew that we needed to just pick one list and stick with it ‘till the end. Ultimately I suggested that we rely on the composition order presented in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (2nd Edition), because I studied under one of that book’s editors in grad school and could email him personally to make sure that the order still makes scholarly sense. When I received the go-ahead back from him, we had our list. Not everyone in the world agrees with this chronological order--in fact, not even all of our company members agree with it. I’ve overheard some great debates. Again, every chronology is debatable, and debates are part of the fun.

But that’s not all we had to choose: we aren't just performing Shakespeare’s plays in the order he composed them, but rather performing his Comedies in order of composition, followed by the Tragedies, followed by the late Tragicomic Romances (and at some time in the future, we would love to round things out with the Histories!) This plan demands that we assign genres to each play, and that’s where things get even fuzzier. Part of Shakespeare’s brilliance as a writer lay in his ability to mix comedy and tragedy almost effortlessly. His comedies all contain elements of tragedy, his tragedies all have funny moments, and the history plays have lots of both. As with order of composition, when it came to genres we just had to make a decision and stick to it.

Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have held much personal interest in publishing his plays during his lifetime. Luckily, his friends and fellow company members collected many of his plays after his death and published them together in a book. Scholars refer to that book, first published in 1623, as the First Folio. And while the First Folio as a document is far from error-free, we think it still can tell us a great deal about the way that Shakespeare’s contemporaries viewed his plays, and our company accordingly treats the First Folio with a great deal of respect when we approach his work. In keeping with that respect, for the Comedies and Tragedies portions of our series we’ve relied mostly on the way that the First Folio classifies each play. For instance, modern scholars have trouble agreeing on a genre for Troilus and Cressida, but the First Folio titles it a ‘Tragedie,’ so we’re going to honor that classification (although interestingly enough, Troilus and Cressida was completely left out of the Folio’s table of contents--I told you the Folio wasn’t error-free!) And while Richard III seems much like a tragedy, the Folio lists it as a history play, so we haven’t included it in our Tragedies portion of the series.

But you’ll notice I said we were almost relying on the Folio’s classifications. If we relied totally on the Folio, there would be no Romances portion of the Evolution Series, because the Folio only divides Shakespeare’s plays into Comedies, Tragedies and Histories. Thus, the Folio lists The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale as a comedies and Cymbeline as a tragedy. But we feel that a series always works better as a trilogy (just ask Peter Jackson.) And since the point of the Evolution Series is to show Shakespeare’s evolution as a writer, we thought it’d be neat to show how he perfected the comedic genre, and also perfected the tragic genre, and in his later plays perfected mixing the two genres into Tragicomic Romances. The term ‘Romance’ has been applied in more recent years by scholars--though the genre ‘tragicomical’ must also have existed in Shakepseare’s time, since Polonius mentions it in Hamlet--to describe Shakespeare’s later work, which often mixes the death of major characters with themes of resurrection and reconciliation and, of course, clowns. So we’re straying a bit when it comes to honoring the First Folio, mixing that publication’s genre classifications with a little modern scholarship. Instead of counting The Tempest as part of our Comedies portion, we’ll be performing it again in the final Tragicomic Romances leg along with The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. And that list highlights another important reason to mix in modern scholarship: the First Folio doesn’t even include all 39 plays currently attributed to Shakespeare (including two of the plays I just mentioned,) and we want to do them all!

So the Evolution Series turns out to be a bit like Shakespeare’s work itself: plenty of different influences thrown together in order to, we hope, create some great entertainment. Catch Romeo and Juliet in February for our next Tragedies installment, and in the meantime...we welcome your questions and comments.

~Kristin H.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Intern-Eye View: On Inspirational Kids, and Honesty in Acting

Sarah Palay, one of our Education Interns for the summer, worked in the classroom with the June session of Shakespeare Intensive for Teens. Here she writes about her experience:

As a new member of the Shakespeare Tavern education team, I entered my internship with little knowledge of what to expect. I knew the basics: I would be assisting in the classroom where needed, stage managing the final production, perhaps directing a monologue or a scene. What I did not expect was an experience that left me grippingly aware of the meaningful affect that a four-week Shakespeare intensive program could have on a group of high school students.

The Shakespeare Intensive for Teens (SIT) program allows students to discover themselves and learn what it means to be a thinking, feeling, and living human being in the world of the play. The program embraces what it means to be an individual and constantly encourages students to bring their personal experiences—pieces of themselves—into their work. Mary Russell and Matt Felten led the fourteen students on the four-week exploration, which culminated in a full-length performance of A Comedy of Errors. Matt and Mary chose to direct A Comedy of Errors as a clown show, and they introduced a series of clowning exercises that helped the students create clown personae for their characters...which was interesting in ways I'll discuss later.

What immediately struck me about the SIT students was their insatiable appetite for knowledge. These students thrived on information. While many students groan at the thought of conducting an in-depth analysis of Shakespeare’s works, these students cheered when they discovered they were about to delve into a three-hour class centered around the structure of Shakespeare’s text. The students digested any and every piece of information they could get their hands on and yearned for more. This attitude permeated the classroom for seven hours a day, five days a week. Every activity was a precious link to discovery. It was not only the students’ abilities to process and apply information that was invigorating to watch, it was that they craved knowledge, depth, and specificity in their work. They were continuously striving to learn and improve, a feature that I have found rare amongst many of my college peers.

Their steadfast commitment to understanding sometimes reminded me of my own work as a young actor. I observed students as they attempted to find the “right way” to play the character or to say a line. In searching for what was right, students seemed to allow the fear of being wrong to block their creativity. But when the students stopped searching for what was right and freed their minds and bodies to explore, they discovered a far more personal engagement to the text and their characters, which resulted in the creation of truly compelling pieces of art. Various acting teachers and professors have often told me that I limit myself in the creation of something magnificent when I become paralyzed by the fear of being wrong. And while I understood what these professors were saying, the ability to watch the SIT students—miniatures of myself—battle with the same sort of fears that I have experienced reinforced this idea in a new way.

The clown work that Matt and Mary folded into the SIT curriculum particularly encouraged the students to free their minds and bodies and to release into a state of pure playfulness. The first week of the program, each student was presented with his/her very own red clown nose. The clown nose acted as a gateway into the play, and through multiple different clowning exercises, students came to cherish this little red token and the permission it granted them to release their inhibitions. As a newcomer to clowning myself, I found that my expectations of clowning certainly did not match the realities of the art form. Initially I thought, “I’ve seen the occasional circus. I know how clowns behave. They make us laugh with their over-the-top reactions and exaggerated gestures—that’s all there is to it.” I was WRONG. As Matt and Mary introduced clowning to the students and me, it immediately became clear that this art form was exceedingly different from what I expected. The secret? To clown effectively, one must be painfully honest. That means stripping away any emotional masks you might have created based on what you think your character should be feeling, and allowing whatever emotions you’re truly feeling to shine through. Discovering truthfulness in clowning was not an instantaneous effect, but rather a process—a process that produced a camaraderie amongst the students defined by trust. Over the four week intensive fourteen students, two teachers, and one intern went on a very special journey of self-discovery.

Being ‘honest’ on stage sounds easy enough, right? Well, not exactly. In order to be honest on stage, you must begin by being honest with yourself. Having experienced the necessity for honesty in my own acting work, I can testify that this is no easy task. It is incredibly difficult to stand on stage and to experience what it means to be vulnerable. I saw in these students a powerful struggle to embrace vulnerability. And when these students found those precious moments of vulnerability in their acting, they created something magical, something untouchable, something that was real and honest and uniquely theirs. The positive effects of this candidness certainly shone through in the final production—the students created a wonderful, honest, and fun rendition of A Comedy of Errors—yet the effects of this honesty extended far beyond a fabulous production. Through their willingness to express themselves honestly, these fourteen students created a haven, a place where they felt free to be themselves, express their individuality, play with one another, grow alongside one another, encourage each other, help each other, praise each other, critique each other, love each other.

The theater is a powerful place—it is a place of transformation. The Tavern’s Shakespeare Intensive for Teens takes a group of teenagers and allows them the opportunity to transform. But what I found unique about the SIT program is that the transformation not only occurs on the stage. I expected to watch the students transform into living incarnations of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, but what I did not expect was to witness the students finding new incarnations of themselves. I found it incredibly moving to watch these students grow, learn, and emerge as confident, articulate, powerful human beings ready to conquer. I am honored to have had the privilege to work alongside two incredible teaching artists and to learn alongside fourteen brave, mature, and introspective students. My experience here has truly been inspiring!

~Sarah Palay

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Actor Interview: Doug Kaye on Playing Shylock

Veteran Tavern company member Doug Kaye is no stranger to Shylock: he's played the character three times and earned a Suzi Awards nomination for his last Shylock on our stage. Over the course of his career--which includes a 'Merchant of Venice' with our company back when we were still setting up stages at the Excelsior Mill, in 1986--he has performed more roles in 'Merchant' than in any other Shakespeare play. It's safe to say he knows the play pretty well. Kristin Hall recently sat down with Doug to ask his thoughts on one of Shakespeare's most controversial and complex characters.

What have you discovered about this character over the three times that you’ve played him?

It hasn’t changed my opinion of the character. I love getting into the language, the language is wonderful, and discovering what things these speeches actually do impart. I think I’ve realized this time that a lot of what Shakespeare puts in the trial scene for Antonio to say against Shylock is the same kind of thing Antonio himself has been doing to Shylock, and all of the Jews of Venice, up to that point. Total hypocrisy. Another thing I’ve realized this time is that Shylock would have had a better chance at getting further in his trial if he had used the argument that he uses in Act 3 Scene 1--but he wastes that argument on Salerino and Solanio, who are bigots. If he’d used that argument on the Duke and even Portia, he’d have had a better shot.

Have you focused on different aspects of the character each time you’ve played him?

Actually, one of the reasons I’ve been disappointed with other Shylocks in the past is that there’s been too much of a consistency throughout the entire play, there’s no arc. They start off with determination and keep it. What I discovered the first time I did it and have continued to explore over the years is the fact that every scene that Shylock is in--and there’s only five of them--every scene is a different aspect of this guy’s character, there’s a little different part exposed. And in the beginning scene, even though the treatment he’s gotten from Antonio really gripes him, he’s trying to shove that to the back of his mind. He’s trying to make friends and do this favor for Antonio, take as he says ‘a doight of usage,’ ‘not a speck of interest’ for this loan. When he sets up this horrible bond he says it’s a joke...and it really is a joke, he has no inkling that he’s going to be able to collect on it. And I think the most sinister aspect of why he comes up with this bond in the first place is so that at least for the time Antonio has this loan out, Shylock will have that this bond in his hand and be able to say to himself ‘I have Antonio in my back pocket, look at this.’ But he doesn’t dream that it’s ever going to come to fruition. And even when he comes to court, he refers to it as a “losing battle.” He doesn’t think they’ll let him get as far as he does.

So you think he goes all the way to court mainly to make a point?

To teach a lesson. But then, when he realizes that they’re going to actually let him do And that’s when he goes too far. That’s when he steps over the line. His determination, his fury appears when his daughter has betrayed him.

For your Shylock, that’s the turning point?

That’s the turning point. It’s two weeks before the bond will be due at that point. Salerino and Solanio say that Antonio’s ships are in trouble, and they have to think that things are looking bleak for him since so many things are going badly for him. But it’s still two weeks away. [Shylock] tells Tubal, “Fee me an officer. Bespeak him a fortnight before.” You know, ‘We’re still two weeks away but get me that officer, because I want to jump on this if he’s not able to pay.’ Antonio becomes the scapegoat. Even though Shylock’s already got a legitimate gripe against Antonio’s behavior towards him, it’s the final encouragement of Antonio and Bassanio’s friend, who has stolen away his daughter, that pushes him over the edge. And it becomes ‘one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’: the two, Lorenzo and Jessica, have escaped, but the bird in the hand is Antonio, and that’s where all Shylock’s revenge then goes.

That’s a really interesting point--people talk a lot about how Shylock, as the foreigner, becomes the scapegoat for all the Christian characters. But you’re saying that Shylock also uses Antonio as a scapegoat for all the bad stuff that happens to him.

Yes, the ultimate bad stuff. And of course in Shylock’s mind, [Jessica’s abduction] is Antonio’s fault as well. As far as he knows, Antonio has been baiting all of his friends to treat Shylock and his people badly.

If you still haven't witnessed Doug's portrayal of Shylock, you still have two more chances this weekend on January 26 and 27.