In the 2016/2017 season, I somehow ended up directing two productions of Much Ado About Nothing. The first was with high school students at the American Shakespeare Center’s high school theater camp. The second was with Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, a touring professional company in Michigan. As I’m preparing to go back to Michigan to remount it at the Rose, I finally am getting around to putting up some photos (by Sarah Stark) and transcribing some of my notes.
The two Much Ados were obviously very different. The high school kids entered into the play through the dimensions of gossip and scandal. The older actors had more life to work with. They had the capacity to reflect on love gone wrong, betrayal, and second chances, because they had experienced those things first hand. I loved both productions, if for no other reason than the two of them, side-by-side in my mind, showed me that I’m doing a good job of being a director who responds to the actors I’m working with. If these two productions told the same story, I wouldn’t be doing the work that I want to do. That is to say, I want to work with the actors, not work with the actors.
One way in which they were very much the same was that they followed similar emotional curves. A surprising amount of this play is very sad, and we invested in that sadness, for all that the play is a comedy. And I wanted the funny parts to be super funny, which they were. One of my favorite audience responses to any of my work was from someone who saw Romeo and Juliet–they said they were having so much fun that they kind of forgot it was a tragedy until the bodies started to fall. That’s how I want all my work to be–the fun parts should be fun, even if it’s a tragedy, and we can have real anger and sadness in a comedy.
This production was one I had selected with Kate in mind for Beatrice. She had told me that this was her dream role. Working with an actor on a role they care about that much is an incredible privilege, and Kate was fantastic to work with. The Beatrice we ended up with wasn’t what she had imagined, and it also wasn’t where I had started either. She was a Beatrice we found together. We both had lots of discovery in the process of building this character, and that is a testament to Kate’s ability as an actor. Not everyone can hold their conception of their dream character with a light and open hand, but Kate can.
Brad was opposite her as Benedick, and he was delightful. I hadn’t worked with him before, and I’m glad I finally got the chance. His gift for physical comedy made him a very different Benedick from others I’ve seen; most actors rely on the wittiness to communicate the character. Brad found a fun spot for Benedick between the brainiac war of insults and a clumsy physicality. He was fun to watch on stage, and the stumbles humanized the character. Brad’s physical work let us see Benedick’s insecurities, the way he tries too hard to be cool.
Our Dogberry, Janelle, tapped into a particular kind of earnestness that I think is necessary to play this sort of clown. She also had great physical work, playing Dogberry as an unstoppable force, both verbally and physically. She was a hoot to watch moving through the world of the play.
One doubling brainstorm I had was to conflate Ursula and Margaret. Why are there even two of them, anyway? Although I’ve now directed a production where they were separate characters as well as this one with “Mursula,” I still can’t remember who is in which scene. Amanda rolled them into one character, a good foil for Hero, a fine object for the affections of Borachio. I felt that it simplified the story to not have this random extra woman who shows up midway through the action. I’m sure plenty of people hated this choice, and others probably didn’t notice.
Scott made Leonato one of my favorite characters. He found the pathos of Leonato’s anger and regret. I felt for him in ways I can hardly describe. Leonato became one of my favorite parts of this play, which is interesting, since that is kind of a garbage Pantalone role. I felt bad casting such a talented actor in that spot, but here wasn’t anywhere else he fit. And then he was amazing, and brought dimension to scenes that I had never fully heard before. This is what good actors do; they take bottom-of-the-barrel roles and make them brilliant. Anyone can be a great Romeo; being a great Lord Capulet is much harder (Scott has done that, as well).
The ensemble overall was great. They had good listening and good collective work. They were skilled at balancing the stage and remembering whose turn it was to be the focus of attention. This is humility on stage; a valuable and rare gift.
I am not much of a designer, but I was quite pleased with a few of my design choices on this show. One thing I did was to costume the show in more or less Elizabethan outfits, but with sprinkles of anachronism thrown in. At the masked ball, for example, Don John (Kat) wore a Darth Vader mask. The watch all were in bright yellow slickers, just like the sailors from Pete’s Dragon. Don Pedro’s jam band included a melodica. I did this because I found it aesthetically pleasing; coming up with just the right modern things to throw in was fun. This show was also one that we produced for high school matinees, and the day I watched it with the high school students, I could hear the kids tuning their attention to these details, which I think drew them into the world of the play a little bit more.
Katherine helped choreograph the dance. I often have a hard time with the dances that Shakespeare drops into the middle of his plays. We’re supposed to dance AND talk AND hear everything AND be in the right place at the right time? SUPER HARD. But this time it worked, thanks, I think, to the step patterns that Katherine devised. Although they were set, they also were a bit adjustable, so that the dialog could run the dance, in some ways.
Scott picked the music, and as always, he did a brilliant job. My one contribution was to have Balthasar open the show by singing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” by Harry Belafonte, because that is pretty much the thesis of the show. Scott set the mid-show “Sigh No More” to the tune of the Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week,” which worked perfectly and was incredibly fun. For both of these, we were able to invite some audience participation. People sitting close to the stage got rhythm instruments, Balthasar encouraged them to shout into “That’s right, the woman is SMARTER,” and a few people even sang along with the Hey Nonny Nonnies. Again, because it was their high school matinee show, as well as a show for general audience, I wanted to set up the idea that it was okay to be interactive right from the start.
One thing that I did in my ASCTC production and recycled here because I liked it so much was to have Hero hide in the crowd of singers/monks at the tomb when Claudio is repenting. I don’t think the play makes a ton of sense if she doesn’t witness his remorse. We also, once again, replaced “Pardon Goddess of the Night” with a contemporary song. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare let his intern write “Pardon Goddess,” it’s an awful poem. In this case, it was Alanis Morissette’s “Not As We.” Alanis seemed like the right level of teen angst.
I particularly enjoyed how much I was able to let the actors create and then just edit. One example is Borachio’s speech where he lays out his dastardly plan. I had all these flowers all over the stage–after people threw flowers at my actors in the ASCTC production, this show always makes me think of flowers. When we were working on this scene, I asked Josh if he could use flowers to represent the women in his plan. He took that and ran with it. What is often a piece of information to plow through became a really fun thing to watch.
Similarly, in Benedick’s gulling scene, I had asked Brad to play with this little shrubbery we had, and he went wild with it, even using it as a microphone and dance partner during the song.
And now we get to remount it. Some of the design elements and the music will have to change–when we perform at the Rose, it’s a bit more straight-down-the-middle Elizabethan. We’ll also have a few new faces, as not everyone was available to come back. But the core of the show is still there, the story we’re telling will stay the same.
And it will be at the Rose, and unlike the last time my work was on stage there, I get to be part of it!