Everything Is Already Something Week 35: Caution, Contents May Explode

Stop reading about the film version of “Into The Woods” and read this instead- it’s Allison Page! 

My big problem now isn’t inspiration, it’s dread of content. Let’s say you’ve got the ingredients for two pie recipes – one is for a Chocolate French Silk pie and one is for a Personal Fears And Worst Parts Of Yourself Plus Chocolate Shavings pie. They both contain some chocolate, but the first one sounds less painful to make, right? That’s what’s going on with me right now. I’m keenly aware of what I should be working on. I have 75% of a draft of a play that’s really important to me and is filled with lots of real shit. And it’s been 75% done for months. I haven’t touched it since February. I NEED a completed draft this month, and it currently has no ending. A play should probably have an ending, so they tell me. And then I have this other play. I have a fully completed draft, I’ve had a reading of it, and I don’t *need* to make the necessary revisions until fall. But I’d much rather work on that, than the more pressing script. Who wouldn’t choose a juvenile horror comedy with a mythical beast to work on over something that so closely relates to their own demons, and the demons of people who have been close to them?

Wait, it's not going to write itself? BUT PEOPLE SAY THAT ALL THE TIME.

Wait, it’s not going to write itself? BUT PEOPLE SAY THAT ALL THE TIME.

Overall I think it’s a cop-out to say that you can’t write anything unless you’re in the mood or feeling inspired. Maybe I say that so that I can convince myself not to wait for inspiration, knowing that I’m so lazy I might never get around to feeling inspired. (I enjoy playing tricks on myself to force myself to work. I do it all the time. Just setting bear traps around my apartment to create a sense of urgency. You know, regular stuff.) But dreading the content isn’t much different from “not feeling inspired” if the end result is the same – not getting shit done. I’ve been primarily writing comedy for the last several years, which is obviously fun. Even when it’s hard, it’s fun. You know what’s not always fun? Writing a character that you love who is completely sabotaging their own potential for happiness. UGHHHHH, RIGHT?!?

YOU CAN'T TELL BUT I'M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!

YOU CAN’T TELL BUT I’M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!

’m hoping this is one of those situations that I’ll later look back on and say “That was really hard but SO WORTH IT.” and not “That was just really hard. Pass the bourbon, stranger.” I feel bad even talking about it, somehow or other people write way more exhausting/personal/tragic/depressing/catastrophic stories than the one I’m working on. I recently saw a production of The Crucible (while in the middle of pondering this topic) and thought “Yowza. Imagine writing all that misery.”

Arthur Miller: Bucket Of Fun And Smiles.

Arthur Miller: Bucket Of Fun And Smiles.

Or Titus Andronicus…that couldn’t have been a good headspace for Shakespeare to live in. Ah, to be a fly on the wall of those therapy sessions. I guess that’s part of the toil of being a playwright – not always wanting to live in the world you’re building, and worrying that it’ll take you somewhere you’re afraid you’ll never be able to leave. This isn’t just a problem writers face, but something actors can get stuck in too, obviously. I’ve done some heavy actor-brooding in the past. Antigone wasn’t exactly a giggle-fest.

That probably sounded pretty grim. In actuality, I’m really excited about this play – it’s just not easy. There is plenty of humor in it, but I’ve got that part down. It’s the other icky-sticky-dark-murky stuff that needs my attention.

PS. If you see me looking forlorn, staring down at the sidewalk…buy me a cookie.

Allison Page is an actor/writer/director/whatever and you can follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: You Can’t Buy Publicity Like This

Dave Sikula, back in the here and now. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in rehearsal for my production of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” at Palo Alto Players. It seems like just days ago that I had my auditions, but here we are, finally on stage, with our opening next week. It’s been an interesting process (but aren’t they all?), mainly for two reasons.

The first is dealing with the usual mix-n-match collection of actor conflicts, up to and including losing one of my lead actors to something as trivial as an anniversary trip to Hawaii (how dare he have gotten married all those years ago!).

The second was the not-unusual differences between the rehearsal space and the actual theatre. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of working at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, let me describe it briefly. It was built in the 30s (as a WPA project, I believe), and – in spite of the desperate need (IMHO) for a renovation, it’s a lovely space to work in: good sightlines and acoustics (once you’re downstage of the proscenium, that is), pleasant and professional staff, reasonably comfortable accommodations for actors.

The problem is, the rehearsal room in the back is much smaller than the stage itself. In my previous productions there, there had been an extension that made that stage much closer to the actual one used in performance. That extension was taken away some time in the recent past, so that while there’s plenty of depth, there’s not quite as much as we’d actually be using – not to mention the issues of the various platforms and levels in the set design. “Don’t worry; it’s all going to change” became my mantra to the cast, who looked suspiciously at the close quarters and tightness of the blocking.

Not our show, but you get the idea.

Not our show, but you get the idea.

Sure enough, Wednesday night was got on stage, and all of their fears – well, most of them – were addressed. “Oh, now I get it!” was the response. We spent the evening restaging a good portion of the first act, and everything I had in my head, but wasn’t able to convey, became clear to all of us.

(In all honesty, I think it’s going to be a dynamite production – especially when we add the tech elements. They’re going to make for a long cue-to-cue and 10-out-of-12 day, but they should be more than worth it.)

Tangentially, I might mention that this production has become the center of a bit of controversy. The play’s plot deals with how electronic television was invented by Philo T. Farnsworth, and how the process of who would control TV was tied up for years by David Sarnoff, the head of both RCA and NBC.

Even though Philo won every legal battle over the patents, Sorkin has him lose and kind of brushes it off with a monologue by Sarnoff. I understand why he did it dramaturgically – it sets up the final scenes – but I have no idea why he felt so compelled to distort the truth that way. And neither does a fellow in Tennessee who runs a website called farnovision.com, which is rightly dedicated to making sure people are aware of what Farnsworth did.

Philo Farnsworth and his eponymous invention.

Philo Farnsworth and his eponymous invention.

Well, somehow this fellow found out we were doing the show (not that it’s a secret), and began a letter-writing campaign more or less demanding that we rewrite the play to give Philo the victory.

Now, let it be noted, I’m very much in the pro-Farnsworth camp. We even have his nephew coming to two talkbacks to give the audience the real scoop on what happened, and I’ve been in contact with other members of the family, soliciting their participation. But this guy in Tennessee keeps complaining – to the point where the Mercury News is doing a story on the controversy

I have no idea of what the outcome of this whole thing is going to be, but I look forward to its resolution.

Anyway, being so close to opening, I was put in mind of the beginning of the process, and came across a blog entry I’d written during auditions. It follows below, in edited form. It’s mainly some of my thoughts on the whole audition process.

I had my first round of auditions today, and was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Not that I wasn’t expecting good actors – I got them in spades, even the people I didn’t call back – but that I wasn’t expecting so many men or how, consequently, tough the casting choices are going to be.

What it didn't look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

What it didn’t look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

One of the things about “The Farnsworth Invention” is that it has, by my count, 93 speaking roles in 43 scenes, so – short of casting 93 actors – there’s going to be a lot of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling – or more. I’ve broken down the casting at least five times (my initial spreadsheet was nine pages; I’ve gotten it down to one or two, depending …), and while I think I’ve got the final version, it’s still subject to change dependent on what happens in rehearsal. (This also applies to blocking; I have a feeling that I may well stage a scene, look at it, and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try it this way.” Fortunately, I’ve (finally!) got a long-enough rehearsal period that I have the luxury of being able to do that.)

Probably the right-size cast for "Farnsworth."

Probably the right-size cast for “Farnsworth.”

You never know what you’re going to get in an open audition. I’ve seen brilliant monologues and I’ve seen cringe-worthy stuff. My favorite example of the latter was in 1983. I was working the desk, checking people in for the Equity auditions for the Grove Shakespeare Festival. The festival itself was in Garden Grove – the heart of Orange County – but the auditions were at Santa Ana College. A fellow with a “European” accent – it wasn’t Spanish, French, German, Russian, or any identifiable-to-me dialect; it was “European” – came in asked where the bathroom was. It was a warm day and he’d driven down from Los Angeles, so I assumed he needed to either use the facilities or just “refresh” himself.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

He’d been in the bathroom a few minutes, and I went in to either use the facilities myself or get him.

He was wearing a toga.

Not recommended audition wear.

Not recommended audition wear.

I mentally rolled my eyes and rushed into the theatre to warn the producer and the directors, “There’s a guy in a toga in the bathroom.” They visibly rolled their eyes, and I went out to usher this actor into the lion’s den. The producer said, “Ah, I see you’re doing something modern.”

The actor muttered some humorous reply, climbed the stairs to the stage, and launched into a very bad version of “Franz, romance, countrymans” (sounding, in memory. like a bad Schwarzenegger impression). He finished and the producer went up on stage, put a friendly arm around his shoulder, and explained to him why his choices may not have been the best.

This was also the series of auditions where, in the non-Equity call, a kid (just out of high school) did some Shakespearean scene that had elaborate blocking and miming of props and other characters. It was astounding in its awful meticulousness. When he finished (after what seemed like about an hour), he thanked us and left, and we all turned to one another and asked, “What the hell was that?” (The punchline here is that he came back the next year and did it again. I wasn’t present to see that one, though.)

Even Will was appalled.

Even Will was appalled.

After seeing those, I’ve learned to both expect anything at an audition and that I’ll never see anything that quit matches those heights.

Though a boy can dream, can’t he?

Working Title: Expecting the Dark Prince

This week Will takes a look at the perils of writing familiar characters.

OK writers, it’s writing activity time. Take out your #2 pencils and pick your favorite literary character. Got it? Good. Go! Put yourself in the mindset of this person and then write a new scene or scenario or sequel. Don’t worry about originality. Just write. Get those juices flowing! Back before the turn of the millennium, Mr. Smith, my senior English teacher, said something similar as he charged me with the task of creating a series of journal entries for a character in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I’d like to think I was tapping into the civilized nature of Ralph, the novel’s protagonist, but I might have just been channeling cheeseburgers and speaking as Piggy. Who knows. It’s been awhile. The point is writing in this way allows one to connect to a character and engage in an alternate, personalized way. Instead of being passive readers, we are now active co-owners of the story. This is all good for students, but when does it become an activity for professional writers?

The Aurora Theatre recently mounted David Davalos’ Wittenberg, which tells the story of prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) and his final fall semester at university before returning to Elsinore castle after news of his father’s death. The two sides of his budding mind are molded by the religious, theological teachings of Professor Martin Luther and the seeking philosophy of Doctor Faust. This creates a wonderful stage to hit back and forth the ideas which Hamlet anguishes over in the famous play. Davalos uses our familiarity with the Bard’s work to comedic ends. Famous lines are thrown around in new ways. (Faust: “To be or nor o be” / Hamlet: “Is that the question?”) This is very entertaining on the surface. The inherent problem is that the very thing that gets people in the door also creates a very high bar to live up to. Most comedies set against Hamlet seem trite. It’s a blessing and curse. Wittenberg is aware of that fact and has fun with these weighty characters while still playing with weighty themes. That’s the blessing. I enjoyed ideas and source material more than the overall production. That’s the curse of adaptation.

Wittenberg copy

Similarly, genre films can create this same curse of expectation. Jim Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie. The beauty is that the film exceptionally more than that. Even though Lovers isn’t working with a specific character that most audiences are familiar with, it is working with a certain breed of character. This particular bloody breed is fraught with expectation. Everyone has an idea of what a vampire should be. Just as most theater goers have expectations of the Bard’s dark Danish Prince should be. There is much to be said overall about the quality of this film but for now I’m interested in how it stacks up against audience expectation of the vampire. Jarmusch brings the vampire story back to a place that holds a mirror to humanity instead of existing apart from it.

Jim_Jarmusch copy

My vampiric expectations look something more like Interview with the Vampire rather than Twilight. However all of these stories are playing with similar genre expectations: immortality, sensuality, danger, outsider mentality, super-human power, empowerment, longevity, inspiration, violence, the trappings of existence. The difference here is that Jarmusch takes these tools and turns them into lenses over the human condition. What does it mean to be near-immortal? Do the weight of years enhance our ability to see beauty in the world or only make existence feel all the more heavy? Is creativity richer when you are restricted to the outside fringe of society? How does anger and separation heighten allure? The methodical atmosphere of Lovers rolls over these themes and allows Jarmusch’s characters to appear as tangible and as alive as any human counter part. The film adds up to more than the drawn lines of it’s genre. This is what it looks like when adaptation transcends.

Only_Lovers_Left_Alive copy

Adaptation is an essential aspect of artistic creation. It has been and will remain so as long as we continue to create. Occasionally, it seems greater or lesser value is assigned to the discussion of adaptation versus original creation. Which is harder? Which is more important? Ultimately, it’s a fruitless non-discussion. They are different creative endeavors. Black and white rules don’t apply here. (Do they anywhere?) Taking a set of characters and creating a new story around them is just as hard as starting with an entirely blank slate. I’m sure certain sides of this activity come more easily to one writer or another. In the end, do I care whether Hamlet as derived from Amleth or ur-Hamlet? No. The quality of a new creation speaks for itself. With any art, when the piece edges upon transcendence, the familiar can reach into the universal.

Citation

Allen, David. Wittenberg. Digital image. http://www.auroratheatre.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Jim Jarmusch. Digital image. http://www.imdb.com ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Digital image. http://www.imdb.com ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I Don’t Want to Wait

Marissa Skudlarek gives us her longest blog ever, because she’s got a lot to think about. 

As Allison Page noted here last week, self-producing is a hot topic among theater-makers right now. On Facebook, the group “The Official Playwrights of Facebook” frequently plays host to conversations about best practices for self-producing, and last week, HowlRound led a Twitter conversation on the topic.

In these discussions and conversations, there always seems to be someone (or multiple someones) offering advice along the lines of “Before you even think about self-producing a play, make sure you’ve done tons of drafts and multiple readings and workshops.”

Here’s why I think that that may be dangerous advice.

(Caveat emptor: I haven’t self-produced a play before, though I am planning to do so this year. Therefore, I may be writing this column from a place of naïve ignorance. If the play I self-produce this year goes disastrously, and I end 2014 moaning “Oh, if only I’d listened to the advice of my betters, if only I had revised and workshopped the play more before I produced it,” I will write a follow-up piece lamenting my folly. But these are my beliefs as they stand now.)

Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think playwrights should slap their raw, unedited first drafts onstage. My plays have definitely benefited from table reads, staged readings, and thoughtful revision. What I am taking aim at, though, is the idea that a playwright must spend years revising and workshopping a single script before it can even be considered stageworthy.

The standard counter-example to the idea of “every play needs tons and tons of revision” is Shakespeare. While we know very little about Shakespeare’s life or his writing process, consider this: he wrote about forty plays in twenty years, at a time when writing was much slower and more difficult than it is today. And he had a day job, too: he acted in and helped run a theater company. So it’s doubtful that he had the time to do multiple revisions and workshops of each of his plays!

But, you might say, Shakespeare was a genius and, anyway, he lived 400 years ago. Still, think of some examples closer to our own time. Well-known American playwrights such as Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson got their start by writing and producing lots of plays at the Caffe Cino: fast, cheap, and dirty. Not all of their early plays stand the test of time, but they got these writers noticed, taught them valuable lessons about the craft of playwriting, and are still being read and produced today.

Moreover, why are playwrights told to spend years workshopping and revising, when we do not expect the same of screenwriters? Woody Allen writes and directs a film a year, pretty much, and he claims that he doesn’t do multiple drafts of his screenplays—he just writes a script and then shoots it. And he has more Oscar wins and nominations for screenwriting than anyone else! Or, as you know, we are living in a Golden Age of television, and a typical TV episode is written, shot, and edited within a span of weeks or months. Some of the most brilliant dramatic writing of the 21st century has appeared on TV, and none of it comes from writers who spent years revising and workshopping a single script.

We playwrights may not earn as much money as Hollywood screenwriters, but historically, we’ve consoled ourselves by saying “Well, at least our plays do not get stuck in ‘development hell’ the way that screenplays do!” Yet now, people are advising us that for “the good of the play,” we need to get stuck in a development hell of our own making. We hear that our work is so precious, so special, so flawed, so fussy, so hard to get right, that it needs years of tender loving care before it’s ready to go out into the cruel world.

Actually, here’s a metaphor for you. You’ve probably heard people compare writing a play to having or raising a child. And, in the olden days of high infant mortality, parents would have lots of children and then try not to get too attached to them, for fear that the child would die. Discipline was severe, and parents expected their kids to grow up fast. Nowadays, people plan for their children carefully, have just one or two kids, lavish them with attention, and overthink every aspect of parenting. Likewise, in the olden days, playwrights expected to write plays at a steady pace, have them produced regularly, and then move on to their next play. But, nowadays, we are encouraged to write fewer plays, and become “helicopter parents” to the plays we have written.

I don’t want to return to an era of Dickensian cruelty and high infant mortality, nor do I want to live in a world where every play is produced right after the playwright completes the first draft. Still, there’s evidence that helicopter parenting is harmful to children, and I think it can be harmful to plays as well.

Consider this: if every new play needs to be workshopped for years before production, this will ensure that the theater always lags a few years behind the rest of culture. One of the theater’s advantages has always been its immediacy and flexibility. But as the rest of the culture speeds up (blogs, Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle), we’re encouraging playwriting to slow down and take its time. Also, if you do too many drafts, there’s a risk that you will grow bored with your own play and that it will lose its initial freshness and liveliness. You may even extinguish the creative spark that caused you to write it in the first place.

And if you want to do a dozen drafts and three workshops of your play in the hopes that you can iron out all of its flaws and make it critic-proof… sorry, honey, that’s not going to happen. No play is ever “critic-proof,” because no work of art can ever appeal to everyone’s tastes. Moreover, I remember reading a line in Chad Jones’ SF Chronicle review of American Dream, by Brad Erickson, that pulled me up short: “For a new play, American Dream is in remarkably good shape, though, as with any new work, there is still room for editing.” I never saw American Dream and therefore cannot say whether it had “room for editing” or not — what bothers me here is Jones’ cavalier implication that every new play needs editing and that it’s rare to find a new play that is in “good shape.” It suggested that critics approach new plays with the assumption that they are always flawed in some way. And if a critic goes into your play with that attitude, no amount of revision will help your cause.

A culture that encourages “five years of revisions” encourages writers to operate from a mentality of fear and scarcity, rather than a mentality of joy and abundance. It suggests that the financial, emotional, and reputational damage accrued from producing a less-than-perfect play will be far more consequential than any lessons you might learn from producing that play. (And everyone says that producing a play teaches you a lot and will make you a better writer the next time around.) It encourages black-and-white thinking: it suggests that unless your play is perfect, it is worthless.

Maybe some people do benefit from this advice. Maybe there are brash, over-confident people who bang out a play in two weeks, refuse to revise it, and insist on producing it “as is.” But I’m a fearful, neurotic person who has struggled with perfectionism for my whole life. So I can say with some authority that, for people like me, it is dangerous to tell us to wait and revise and make sure everything is perfect. Because we will wait, oh yes. We will wait forever.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s gearing up to self-produce a full-length play later this year. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Ritual Business

Dave Sikula writes us from New York, on Shakespeare, Broadway, and ritual.

Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to, and when it finally came, not only were your high expectations met, and wildly exceeded? Well, I had one of those afternoons.

I write this sitting in my hotel room in sunny New York (no kidding on that, either; in spite of the snow yesterday and the current temperature of 34 degrees, it’s supposed to get into the high 60s – if not 70s – this Sunday), having just returned from seeing Mark Rylance and the rest of the Globe company perform “Twelfe Night” (sic). The misspelling is part of the conceit of doing the show strictly in period. That is to say, authentically period costumes (no materials or conveniences that weren’t available in the 17th century – including [or not including, to be more accurate] zippers or Velcro; it’s all hand-stitched materials held together with buttons, straps, or ties); authentic period musical instruments (according to the program notes, these are the first shows in Broadway history to use authentic period instruments); no “artificial” stage lighting (they do use a general stage wash of lights, but there are no apparent cues from the time the audience arrives until they leave*, and real beeswax candles – which kept dripping onto the stage during the performance; I thought it was amazing nothing hit the actors); audience members in on-stage boxes; and men (or boys) playing all the roles.

I had heard that the pre-show was worth watching, and indeed it is. The actors (or most of them) are all over the stage before the show, being helped into their costumes (which seems no mean feat, given their complicated nature), talking to people in the front or in the boxes, warming up (Rylance was doing something that involved shaking his hands and moving his arms around – all while his dresser was adjusting his gown and undergarments [he plays Olivia in “Twelfe Night” and the title role in “Richard III”]), and generally being themselves. (In the evening performance, Angus Wright, who doubles as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Earl of Buckingham, was talking to a couple in front of me about the inscription on his garter.) As far as I could tell, there was no pretense at them acting in character as 17th century actors (thank the gods), but were just being themselves, squeezing themselves into these clothes.

A few minutes before curtain – precisely at 2:00**, I was delighted to note – some costumed stagehands came out, and the candelabra chandeliers were lowered. The stagehands went to an upstage candelabrum at lit tapers which were used to light the other candelabra, which were flown back up once everything had been ignited.

I was sure how the performance would actually start. I imagined they might pound the stage to get our attention (which was concentrated on the stage, anyway). Even though that’s a French thing, I thought it might feel “period.” I even wondered if they’d “fire” a cannon, as they did in ye olde days of Ye Globe. But no, the houselights dimmed and they just started***. (Side note #1: In all of the three shows I’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been either one “shut off your cell phone” announcement [though there is a great running gag about it in the marvelously entertaining “Murder for Two”] – and I’ve only heard one ringing vaguely. Have audiences finally been trained?****)

In the middle of experiencing the whole thing, I was struck with how ritualistic it all was. This goes along with my column from last time. Not only have all these people agreed to meet in the same place at the same time, but in this case, the ritual was really driven home. We all had jobs to do this afternoon. The audience was there to listen and react – and, in some cases, to participate. The dressers were there to help the illusion. The stagehands were there to light the candles. The actors were there to tell the story.

But there was something almost ceremonial about it. Konstantin Treplyev in “The Sea Gull” disparages the theatre his mother performs in by saying “these High Priests of Sacred Art represent the way people are supposed to eat, drink, love, walk; wear their jackets.” But in this case, it really did feel like we were a congregation watching priests don their vestments, light the candles, and deliver a prepared text that would entertain us and illuminate what it means to be human in the 1600s. (That the message is still relevant in the 2000s is both a tribute to Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology and that that psychology hasn’t really changed much in 400 years.) All in all, the afternoon was electrifying; funny, melancholy, and human.

I have to leave in a few minutes for “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third” (I don’t want to miss the next robing ceremonies), and am looking forward to it greatly. I’ll have more thoughts about all of it when I return in a few hours.

Just back – well, just back after a late night supper – and it “Richard” was just as good as “Twelfe Night.”

The thing I meant to mention earlier (and forgot) was the presentational nature of the day. That, as part of the story-telling ritual – and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy – there was no doubt that the plays were being presented for the benefit, and participation, of the audience. Rylance’s Richard was an interesting approach to the character. Giggly, almost seeming stupid (though ruthlessly intelligent underneath), and really seeking the approval of the audience in everything. For example, there were a lot of entrances and exits through the audience, up and down stairs at the downstage corners of the playing area, and Richard/Rylance came down the stairs, and without breaking stride, shook the hand of the guy next to me (it went unnoticed by virtually everyone, I’m sure) in a classic politician’s move. The actors in both plays interacted with the audience members in the onstage boxes, and in the scene (Act III, scene vii) where Richard appears with two clergymen in order to seem pious to the crowd, his henchmen made sure – through gestures and expressions that were simultaneously cheerleaderish and threatening – that all the audience shouted, “Long live Richard! England’s worthy king!” Something remarkable about Rylance is that he has the amazing knack of seeming to pull blank verse out of the air. That is to say, to seem to discover the speech even as he’s saying it; adding pauses and non-verbal interjections that make it all seem spontaneous. It really is a pair of marvelous performances; fully rounded and invested, completely different, but wholly original.

At the end of “Richard,” I joined in the standing ovation, not so much to honor the emotional values of the play – even though it was probably the clearest and most entertaining “Richard III” that I’ve seen and certainly the funniest overall “Twelfth Night,” it was not the best Shakespeare (though it’s way, way up there) – but to honor the effort and accomplishment; the thought and care that’s gone into the whole thing. It’s a huge undertaking and I felt it deserved the kudos. (Side note #2: Just for the record, as much as I loved both “Murder for Two” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier in the week, I didn’t stand for either of those. In the latter, I was conspicuous by my remaining seated.) (Side note #3: As much as I enjoyed the “Twelfth Night,” I was constantly reminded of Benjamin Stewart, one of the best actors I ever worked with and who passed away earlier this year. His Lord Capulet is the gold standard, and his Toby Belch was phenomenal. I never saw him give less than a stellar performance.)

To return to my theme, though, I was more aware of the ritualistic aspects of the performance tonight – if only because a) I had just written the first part of this post, and b) I was looking for it. It was a bit of a paradigm shift for me; to really be aware of what we all agree to do when we participate in a play (in whatever role; audience, actor, writer, director, designer, technician). We all have assigned roles and parts to play in the process, and from here on in, I’m going to be much more aware of the part I’m fulfilling in the ritual.

(*There were at least a couple of light cues in “Richard;” it was noticeable in the evening scenes before the Battle of Bosworth Field when it grew dark, reflecting both the time of day and Richard’s mood.)

(**The evening performance also started precisely on time; at 8:00.)

(***There was a trumpet blare in “Richard” that started things off.)

(****I had my cell phone out during Intermission, and just before the second act started, an usher came by and told me to shut it off, so I guess they’ve gotten much better at policing these things.)

Working Title: The Interpretation of the Time or So Our Virtues Lie

Will Leschber discusses the merits of Shakespeare set in modern times.

It’s been near 400 years since William Shakespeare passed from this world and his works are in more supply than ever before. His reach is positively exhaustive: from home book shelves to the auditorium halls of high school onward to local community and professional theatre to the big screens of plentiful major motion picture adaptations and even globally to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 two-year tour that aims to take Hamlet to every country in the world. The influence spans to the far ends. Why does the Bard timelessly ring true after all the years come and gone? Any ordinary English teacher will tell you that the unearthed truths of the human experience are mined nowhere more deep than in Shakespeare. Hence, we still relate. We still need to see our tragic heroes die, for in their deaths we see the folly in ourselves. My question then is this: How much relevance does a contemporary setting lend to a Shakespeare adaptation?

Impact Theatre’s current production ofTroilus and Cressida sets their scene in modern war. Traditionally, the play takes place at the end of the Trojan war, but this production clads the heroes of history in American war garb reminiscent of Desert Storm and Vietnam.

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The setting is familiar and our characters look like young friends or acquaintances we’ve known who have gone to fight for their country. Is this enough reason for the setting change? For some, yes. More importantly though, does the change of setting bring us closer to the plight of our ever-true Troilus and kind-eyed Cressida ? Does the play resonate more because of the setting switch? In this case, the production would have played just as well in a classic setting. The Middle Eastern conflict connection didn’t detract from the themes built into the play but didn’t necessarily enhance either. One thing this conveys is that wars throughout time are alike. Our emotional maneuverings can play against any wartime backdrop. We must then ask, when it comes to stage adaptations does it matter since the human drama at the heart of the play is the same? Of course it does. Resetting a play is a tool for creation and that tool can be used adequately or excellently just like any other aspect of theatre creation.

Adapting Shakespeare can be a feat regardless of the medium. Academy Award nominated actor Ralph Fiennes made his film directorial debut with 2011’s modern retelling of Coriolanus. Coriolanus shares a number of themes with Troilus and Cressida (pride, hubris, vanity, arrogance, strength, submission) and both are set in times of war. But again I ask, is a modern adaptation about more than a setting shift? With this film at least, the answer is yes.

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That being said Shakespearean film adaptation can be tricky. When modernizing a play 400 year old play, does one simply trim the length and let the scenes play long relying on the actors to carry the pace and weight of the scenes? Or does one trim and split the scenes to lay on top one another, supporting each other thematically and then allowing editing or camera work to create flow and pace. The answer is a creative choice and can go either way. In this case, Fiennes adapts Coriolanus as if it were conceived as a film to begin with. This is the way to go with any film adaptation. Film had its own rules and expectations. Often when audiences are watching a film adaptation of a play they want exactly that: a film. Not a filmed stage play… which has it’s own place and purpose. However, the best adaptations use the tools unique to the medium to enhance the story in a way that the stage cannot. Realistic locations, wartime scenarios played out in full desolation, a close-up that allows an intimate soliloquy to be whispered: Fiennes utilizes these tools while relying on the language to carry the narrative.

Where this adaptation shines the most is how Fiennes draws a parallel between modern news agencies/social media and their connection to the tenants of public rule within Ancient Rome. Coriolanus, who serves as such a perfect wartime weapon, is of little value in times of peace. His pride and arrogance call for scorn.

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows!

Coriolanus, Act III, scene iii

His cursing lines here remind me of contemporary feeble rumors of facebook and overbearing media that fans our emotions. The times are similar and people will not put up with being called out on their ignorance! The voice of the people calls for banishment! Have we not seen public out cry fueled by media and social networking call for the downfall of a public figure? Do we not see soldiers return to an unwelcoming home country after their service? We see these things today as we saw them in the 60’s and as Shakespeare saw them four centuries ago.

When banished, Coriolanus is shown wandering through ravaged neighborhoods reminiscent of war torn Eastern Europe. On a small, trash-littered peninsula he sits. The upward reaching bare trees reflect in the still waters below him as if he were the middle of a world upturned. In the separate war worlds of Troilus and Coriolanus, tides turn in spite of what is right. Love and honor shift on the voiceless winds and settle uncertainly down in the ashes of war. Any generation who has known war knows the uncertain world that these Shakespearean characters inhabit. Both are relevant because of the human truth built within. However, the superior adaptation is one that ties modern aspects not present when the play was written to the human truths that were always there.

Troilus and Cressida plays at Impact Theatre until Dec. 15th. Coriolanus is available on Netflix and many other digital rental sites.

Photo Credits:

Isaacs, Cheshire. Consoled by his brother Paris. 2013. http://www.impacttheatre.com/press/Web. 3 Dec 2013.

Coriolanus. 2013. http://www.imdb.comWeb. 3 Dec 2013.

Cowan Palace: Bombs, Dog Food, and Audition Woes

Ashley Cowan dramaturgs her own audition process. 

On Monday night I bombed an audition. And no, I’m not being hard on myself. I was really terrible. I got up, introduced myself, and a few words into my first monologue I just blanked. It was the worst. Especially because it was a piece from my homeboy, Willy Shakes! The same fella I’ve been writing about these past few weeks in honor of Taming of the Shrew. But while those guys were honoring the language, I was destroying it.

Maybe you’ve been there. You have those lines down cold a moment before you step into the audition room; you’ve literally run it twenty times that day without freezing up and then boom. And you wail, “why oh why, did it all leave my brain the second I actually needed it?”

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the evening curled up into a ball and soaking my pillow with defeated tears. I was heartbroken.

Lately, I feel like auditions haven’t been coming around as often as I’d like and here I go and ruin the one chance I have. I’m being dramatic, yes. But that’s the business, baby, haven’t you been watching Smash? Bad TV aside, auditions are hard. You learn to make a business out of rejection. I’ve been told I’m too big, too small, too tall, too similar to Rose McGowan – you get the point, but it’s supposed to be my job to do whatever I can to try and land the part, right? And when you suck at it, you can’t help but feel like you suck at life.

On Tuesday, I woke up in a sleepy haze and tried to get ready as usual. I noticed that the dog food jar was sitting open on the floor with its top lying next to it. I found that to be strange but since it was 7am, I decided not to care and put the cap back on and continued hurriedly getting ready. As I was packing my things, I noticed our cat was pawing at the jar and biting it with her small teeth. She was slowly working the lid off the jar so she could sneak her paw in and scoop out a piece of kibble. The scene made me literally LOL. After four years of living with a cat who loves to eat dog food, this was the first time I had seen her actually go after what she wanted in a new way. Usually she just sits by it and meows. But suddenly she changed her ways. And as silly as it sounds, it made me feel better. It seemed to say that there are other ways to go after the things you love and want. You’re not destined to fail the same way each time if you attempt a new route.

So tonight, I decided to get back out there. I had another audition. Same two monologues as Monday’s bombfest. Plus a song. All day I felt torn between wanting to cancel so I wouldn’t have to worry about further murdering my  dreams  and desperately wanting to redeem myself. In typical dramatic fashion, I put a lot of pressure on what would ultimately only last about three minutes of my life.

After helping me run my pieces again a few times, my cheerleader (best) boyfriend (ever) kindly drove me to the audition and made me yell “I’m the man” (ala Beasts of the Southern Wild) a few times before heading upstairs. And while my stomach may have given a home to every butterfly in town before I uttered a word, I got the lines out this time. Which, after my devastating Monday night, was a huge victory. And I had a great time. While I’ll never really enjoy the pressure of showcasing acting talent in the form of one minute monologues, I do love every opportunity I get to become a different person for a moment and act. It’s a gift. So perhaps, I’ll attempt to make that my new route. Or at least I’ll keep at it. Because even if that cat never gets into the dog food, she’s never going to stop trying. And I just can’t live with a cat fighting harder to chase her dreams than me.

And if you want to see talented folks not destroy Shakespeare – make sure to check out  Taming of The Shrew playing at Café Royale Monday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 26 at 8pm!

Cowan Palace: Quick and Dirty Tips to Surviving The Taming of the Shrew

This week, Ashley Cowan offers a few thoughts and facts regarding The Taming of the Shrew to get you ready for March 18’s Opening Night at Cafe Royale. 

Now, I’m sure most of you out there are Shakespeare fans. Or at least, that’s what you tell your friends. But just in case he makes you a little nervous, here are a few basic points to help ease you into to The Taming of the Shrew

First, what the heck is a shrew?

Well, according to the dictionary a “shrew” is a mouselike mammal with beady eyes and a long pointed snout. Its second definition simply explains a shrew as “a bad-tempered or aggressively assertive woman”.  And while I do think Stuart should have considered casting an array of small creatures, in this case, the tamed shrew describes Katherina.

Katherina? What an exotic name! Where does this play take place?

In the Italian city of Padua. 

Ah, and when was it written?

There are a few opinions on the year but most seem to believe it was in 1592.

16th-century Italian comedy was a thing, right? Did that impact the play?

Well, reader, great observation.  There does seem to be some evidence within The Taming of the Shrew that reflects some of the style of Commedia dell’Arte. For example, the combination of some melodrama moments and slapstick humor executed by a colorful collection of characters. 

That sounds fun.

It is!

Has The Taming of the Shrew ever been made into a movie?

It has. An impressive fourteen different films have been created; including one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It also helped to inspire the enchanting musical, Kiss Me Kate, and the ever popular teen classic flick, 10 Things I Hate About You

So how does this story start?

Once upon a time there were two sisters: Katherina and Bianca (spoiler alert: one of them is a shrew) who lived with their father, Baptista. Bianca was considered a hot piece and managed to attract herself three suitors but Dad refused to take any of them seriously until his other single daughter, who had a reputation for being harsh and unfriendly, found a beau of her own.  

Theater Pub has taken a slightly different route and has cast Baptista as a woman. And since mother often knows best, this should be a fun interpretation of controlling parenting presented with a feminine approach and two daughters working what their mama gave them. 

Does Katherina find someone?

Does she! After a few questionable OKCupid dates, Petruchio leaves Verona and comes into town in search of fame, fortune, and perhaps some female companionship.  And when he meets Kate, he’s not afraid of her or her reputation. 

So?

So? People love this stuff. It’s the whole “battle of the sexes” thing. We get to explore the relationship of two strong competitors who both embody elements of their sex and the fire to remain in control. 

Would you say it’s a romantic comedy?

I guess you could say that. But the play certainly opens the door to larger social issues regarding the institution of marriage and the exploration of the roles within them. 

Does the shrew ever get tamed? 

That’s something we can talk about over a beer.  Partially because it can be a fun discussion and partially because I’m thirsty. 

At the beginning the play, so much of what we, the audience, know about Kate is told to us by the other characters. They all seem to be on a mission to teach us about her incorrigible ways. But as the story progresses, we start to get an idea of what may be influencing her behavior and her response to her sister being favored by her father (or in this production, her mother). 

Now, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I’m a bit of a romantic. I’ve been through many heated discussions about this play and listened to the backlash of several spirited thinkers who find the piece to be sexist and degrading. And to them, I say – maybe grab a drink and relax for a moment. I personally believe it’s a story about people learning from each other, exploring their fears, and ultimately transforming by approaching life in a new way. The play can be farcical but it’s also richer and more developed than that too. 

Yeah, but what’s up with Kate’s speech at the end? 

It depends how you direct it and interpret it but I believe it’s a representation of Kate’s dynamic spirit evolving into a more mature state. She seems to be accepting that she’s in a partnership and perhaps with that, she understands that power can exist together. When one succeeds, the other benefits.

Okay. Why should I see Theater Pub take this play on?

Well, what else are you doing? 

Come see it. There’s nothing like watching Shakespeare’s words come to life surrounded by bar patrons and theater lovers alike. This production is sure to entertain and challenge us, make us reconsider the strengths and weaknesses of relationships, and delight us with a cast of talented Bay Area actors. Image

Plus, I’ll be there. And I’d love to see you. 

 

Cowan Palace: 7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs In A Bar

As we move closer to Theater Pub’s next production of Taming of the a Shrew, I thought it would be fun to get the party started by learning just a little bit more about one of history’s favorite writers. So to kick things off, here are Ashley Cowan’s top 7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs in a Bar!

7 Reasons Why Shakespeare Belongs in a Bar

1.) He puts the “bar” in “Bard”.

2.) We don’t really know how to spell his name.

Just like a drunk Marina brah who writes his number down for a tipsy sorority sister, the mighty Bard also abbreviated his own name and signature. Apparently, there were about 80 different ways Shakespeare’s name was written out during his lifetime – and that’s only counting the cocktail napkins that survived! Some include whacky interpretations like “Shaxberd”! For that one alone, we should all take a drink.

3.) Shakespeare’s daddy was paid to drink beer!

That John Shakespeare tried out a few careers in his day but in 1556 he became a professional drinker. He was an ale taster responsible for reviewing bread and malt liquors. Cheers, John!

4.) Taming of the Shrew begins with a drunk dude!

Before the first act officially begins (in the Induction), a rather sloppy Christopher Sly is kicked out of a bar. He is then becomes the target for a sneaky nobleman who tricks Sly into believing that he too is of notable nobility. Bestowing upon him the honor of a play and officially beginning 10 Things I Hate About You.

5.) Shakespeare put a curse on his grave!

Okay, this may not directly correlate to Shakespeare being performed in a bar but it’s bad-ass! It’s believed that he wrote the epitaph reading: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, / To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Now, if only he had written something for Richard III…

6.) An anagram for “William Shakespeare” is “A Karma Wheelie Lisps”.

That clearly was made for a bar. Or you could go with the more well-known anagram: “I am a weakfish speller” but how can you resist celebrating when a karma wheelie lisps?

7.) He wrote about beer!

My three text favorites include:

“I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”Henry V

I will make it a felony to drink small beer.”Henry VI, Part II

“OLIVIA: What’s a drunken man like, fool?
CLOWN: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him.”
– Twelfth Night

Taming of the Shrew opens on March 18 and also plays March 19, 25, and 27 at Cafe Royale. Which gives us plenty of time to add to our list of why Shakespeare belongs in a bar. Part beautiful language, part beer, the production is sure to be worth toasting to!

Day of Play!

Actress and Theater Pub Artistic Director, Julia Heitner, talks about what it’s been like to bring Measure For Measure from the page, to the stage.

After 3 ½ weeks with just a few rehearsals per week, we’ll be performing an 80-min version of Measure for Measure starting tonight!

Will Hand rehearses like a champ.

I am playing Isabella, a novice about to enter a nunnery, who gets pulled into the plot when her brother Claudio (played by Vince Rodriguez) is condemned to die for knocking up her homegirl, Julietta, and so she has to go save his ass. I love Isabella’s fierceness, eloquence, and that her particular character flaw is never being able to hold her tongue. I also relate to her being a sort of outsider in the play, left to fight her own battles, always speaking her mind (no matter what the consequences, and oh- the consequences!), and clinging to an outdated moral code in a modern world. Plus, I get to say things like,

Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd:
‘Tis best thou diest quickly.

I am excited and extremely nervous to be performing in this role and intimidated to be in the company of such talented and hilarious actors.

Linda Ruth Cardozo, Tony Cirimele and Neil Higgins intimidate Julia, just for fun.

We’ve been working hard, stress is high and after our tech/dress at Cafe Royale on Saturday, Sunday was our day of play.

Kirsten Broadbear and Tony Cirimele sure do love to play!

It was an unexpectedly sunny and beautiful day in downtown San Francisco, so we took over a space near the Children’s Creativity Carousel in Yerba Buena and started a line through, which quickly turned into an innovative outdoor run-through, turning the area into our stage/playground. Most everyone wore sunglasses, which enhanced the severity of our Provost (Tony Cirimele) and Aeschylus (Carl Lucania) and added to the devilishness of Lucio (Neil Higgins) and Angelo (Nick Dickson). I tossed a shawl over my head to serve as a makeshift nun’s habit and we were off!

As usual, Carl Lucania is asking God why he continues to put up with our nonsense.

A few passersby gathered to watch us circle around a metal globe structure, scurry up and down stairways to the raised walkway above, and, of course, spout the beautiful and hilarious words of Shakespeare. In the final scene, as I let rip at Angelo and called him names, I felt a pang of shame when I screamed out that he was a “virgin violator” while groups of parents and their children wandered past.

Passersby were even more baffled by Will Hand and Tony Cirimele talking about beheading people.

Favorite moments of the run-through include, the moment when Mistress Overdone (Linda Ruth Cardozo), no longer restrained by a tiny rehearsal venue, made a run for it when she was about to be arrested, forcing Escalus and the Provost to chase her down. Marianna (Kirsten Broadbear) put on some extra fabulous attitude as she revealed herself to Angelo during the play’s climactic face-off, and The Duke and Lucio engaged in an imaginary sunglasses-nose-pushing-clown-off.

I turned to Stuart in the middle of the final scene and said, “It’s a comedy!” and he sardonically replied, “FINALLY!”

Linda-Ruth waves while Stuart Bousel passes judgement.

We can now take this show anywhere. All our costumes fit into one trunk. All the actors could squeeze into two cars.  We’ll need this flexibility when we hit up The Plough and Stars on August 22nd, when we have to dive into a space entirely different from Cafe Royale with no rehearsal time.

The Duke Vincentio Curse: when comforting someone just makes them cry harder.

Want to book us for your birthday party? We’re also available for Bachelorette parties! Your BART ride home? You’ll love it, I promise.

Don’t miss the show, August 14, 20, 21 and 27 at the Cafe Royale, and August 22 and Plough and Stars! Showtime is 8 PM, so get there early! Admission is Free!