Some of these photos are mine (mostly from rehearsal) and some are from various audience members who posted them on Pigeon Creek’s Facebook page or tagged cast members. I’ve kind of lost track of which was which at this point.
I finally got to see one of my shows in the Rose, and it was glorious.
The Rose is a reconstructed Elizabethan theater. It’s not a replica of the actual Rose, but rather is sort of an amalgam of several different theaters of that era. It’s roughly half the size of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It belongs to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and while it’s mostly for the use of the campers, twice each summer, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare performs there as a fundraiser for Blue Lake Public Radio. These shows are usually remounts of a show from the previous season, with some tweaks. This summer, my 2017 Much Ado was one of the Rose shows. The remount rarely has exactly the same cast as the original show, because people can’t always make it happen, and often design and music choices have to change because the Rose shows are straight-up Elizabethan.
What this meant for our Much Ado was that some of the funny anachronisms, like Kat’s Darth Vader mask and the goofy yellow slickers, had to go. Our music choices, which in the original production included some Alanis Morissette and Harry Belafonte (and “Sigh No More” set to “8 Days a Week”) had to be overhauled. Scott Wright did the music direction for the remount, including writing new settings for the songs, and it was gorgeous, if different. He understood what I was asking for when I described the qualities of the original songs that I thought made them work well for story telling, and somehow managed to retain those qualities in the new set of selections.
The casting shuffled around a good bit, also. The original cast had 10 people, which was an uncomfortably tight double. Lots of challenging costume changes! When the time came to remount it, Katherine suggested that we open that double up considerably, moving it to 13 people. Three of the original cast members couldn’t be in the remount, as two had moved away and one was recovering from having a baby, so out of the 13 who came to play, six were new to the show. They all brought their A-game, and by the performance day (after only a week of rehearsal), I honestly don’t think anyone could tell which ones were new.
I never would have thought I’d direct essentially three productions (American Shakespeare Center Theater Camp in August of 2016, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare in March of 2017, and now this remount in June of 2018, so … two-and-a-half?) of Much Ado in about a year and a half. It’s a sweet play, but kind of a domestic comedy, not really my wheelhouse. Most of my favorite plays have epic scale. But every time I’ve re-entered Leonato’s house, I’ve made discoveries.
I have struggled, over the years, with not having a distinctive “director’s voice” or overt style. I often joke about not being a high-concept director: “I’ll never come in and insist that we’re doing Hamlet on motorcycles.” I don’t want actors to be Gordon Craig’s “uber-marionettes”, but that means that sometimes I don’t know what the production is going to ultimately be like until we are well into it.
One way that I have often discovered what it is that I do that is different from other directors is when I have a chance to see direct comparisons, moments when my work parallels someone else’s or other work of my own. For example, when I was in grad school, I worked on a project where I directed half of the scenes and one of the professors directed the other half. With one group of actors, the performance alternated back and forth between her work and mine, and I could suddenly see what my own style feels like–my work tends to have strong textual and physical rhythm and patterning. I do a good job of using vertical space. And when there is an envelope to be pushed, I push it, especially with visual effects and theatricality.
One thing I noticed in this series of Much Ados is how deeply I respond to actors. Their particular, individual energy drives much of my work. I don’t have a favorite Dogberry, but all three Dogberries were very different. My work was to keep their choices grounded in the text and to remind them to keep moving…but they each found their own way into the character. Likewise, working with adults as Beatrice/Benedick was very different from working with teenagers. I don’t think either of them had a “correct” reading of the characters. They were just different. They each were able to show me aspects of those characters I might not have discovered without them.
I think of the play text as a crystal matrix–remember this from high school chemistry? The whole lattice of molecules vibrates together. No part can move without shifting the whole. The structure doesn’t change. But the vibrations themselves can vary depending on what is causing them. The actors are the energy that rumbles the lattice. When I’m working with actors, especially good ones who look for their answers in the text, my work is all to shape this energy, but maintain a sense of who each of them is. The best ensembles are ones where a change in one actor’s work ripples through the whole matrix, affecting everyone else. I saw this responsiveness come to life in this remount. The relationships between characters changed when the actor changed. They still were textual, but the light was coming from a different angle. A few years ago, I saw Dr. Phyllis Rackin speak at the Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival. She talked about Measure for Measure, and what I remember most strongly was that she argued for three different–and possibly contradictory–readings of the play. Her point was, this is a fictional world. There are lots of different right ways to read it. What I see when I encourage actors to bring themselves to the text is that there are also lots of different right ways to act it. This was particularly evident in the reactions between people whose close scene partners were different from in the previous production. For example, Ashley (Hero) found herself confronted with a new Claudio (John). John had been our stage manager for the previous production, so Ashley knew him pretty well, but she hadn’t built that Hero/Claudio relationship with him. John made very different choices from our previous Claudio (Alex), and watching Ashley roll with those differences seamlessly was a delight, and a testament to her abilities as an actor. Again, neither relationship was better, but they were different.
Related to that, one thing I do well as a director, and try to do more of every time, is to say “Yes, AND.” I try to be attentive to the energy in actors’ bodies, to the moments when they clearly have an impulse toward action. I try to name those impulses and encourage them to try them out. One of my favorites from this time was during “Sigh No More.” In our original production, Leonato (Scott Lange) played the guitar for the song (we never explained why Leonato occasionally had the impulse to rock out, but…). In this production, we had Scott Wright playing instead, as a random household musician. When I was watching the rehearsal, I felt this impulse from Scott L. about a quarter of the way through the song, to join in with the music making. His whole body just seemed to be engaged with the music and leaning into it. I asked him if he thought Balthasar (Brie) could give Leonato a shaker or something. He was open to it. When I told Brie that I felt like Scott had an impulse to join the band, she said that she knew exactly the moment/impulse I was talking about–she had felt it too. After some discussion of the various percussion instruments we had available, we settled on a pair of claves. Brie had the idea to give him just one early in the song, and then when it really got rolling, to give him the other one. Scott experimented with tapping his single clave on the chair he was sitting on and on a stage pillar. I encouraged him to explore the different sounds he could get out of the pillar–after all, I always say that that kind of theater is an instrument. He took that and ran with it, playing a delightful sequence of discoveries that added joy to the song. All three of us were saying, “Yes, and…”
Seeing how the show was different in the Rose as opposed to our other spaces was fascinating. I guess the space also, with its own energy, vibrates the pattern of the play as well. And so does the audience (largely influenced by the space). Katherine says that PCSC actors are deeply attuned to the Viewpoint of Architecture, and this is so true. She met me at the theater the night before rehearsals started so I could remind myself of how the space worked. When she unlocked the doors and we walked in, it took my breath away. I’ve been there before to see a couple of other shows, but it doesn’t lose its power with familiarity. Katherine gave me a few pieces of advice for blocking in that space, like using the area outside of the pillars as a spot for long entrances (those times when a character onstage says, “Here comes your brother,” but the brother clearly isn’t in the scene for several more lines. She also told me that the pillars created a stronger triangulation than the stage corners that we usually use for alignment. I discovered this to be incredibly powerful–in many cases, I had blocking where someone was supposed to go “up center somewhere” to get out of the way of the main action, and if they were accidently directly center, regardless of how interesting the action downstage of them was, the play became all about that person, because of how the columns pointed to them.
The audience in that space felt different, too. For one thing, they laughed in the strangest places. “Eat his heart in the marketplace” got an incredible laugh, which surprised me. The actors said they hadn’t ever had a laugh at that line before, and they certainly weren’t playing it for the yucks. There were a number of other places where the laughs came unexpectedly. I’ve noticed this when watching recordings of shows at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, also. As an audience member removed in time and space, watching alone on my laptop in my bed, I am often completely caught off guard by the moments the audience finds hilarious. Oddly, I have not noticed this effect at the Blackfriars. I’m curious about whether it is part of the experience for the Wannemaker.
The audience interaction–or, I’d rather say audience connection, as we don’t do any stuff that requires an audience member to interact directly or publicly with the actors–was more powerful in that space than the one where I saw the show last year. People were singing along with the “hey nonny nonny” and leaning forward in their seats during the disaster wedding.
The shape of that theater creates a feeling of community. The stage is like the hearth, and we all gather around the glowing heart of the story. This is how we get catharsis, engagement, challenge, and love from the stage. This is how the theater holds the mirror up to nature. The story is at the heart of the circle.
Another very cool thing that happened was that Eric Minton, of the Shakespeareances blog, came to the show. He’s a retired journalist who sees a lot of theater and writes reviews. Right now, he’s engaged in a project to see all 38 Shakespeare plays at 38 different theaters in the US. We were his Much Ado. He came to the show, and of course, I watched him the whole time. He seemed to be enjoying himself, even moving from the stalls to the pit for the second half. Afterward, he joined the cast for dinner, where he spent three hours talking to us about a two-hour show. He had a lot of nice things to say about it. He also regaled us with stories of his Shakespeare adventures over his lifetime. I was delighted to get to meet him, and thrilled that he seemed to enjoy the show. He’s written two blog posts about his time in Michigan (one, two), and will eventually write a formal review of the show. I’m of course quite curious to read that.
When I’m working, I try hard to keep in mind Nelson Mandela’s words, by way of Liesl Tommy: “Free yourself. Free others. Serve every day.” But on this project, I wasn’t serving anyone. They don’t need a director for this; they rarely bring a director back for a remount. When I heard that Much Ado was the selected show for this slot, I basically demanded to be part of this process. Working with the actors for this week, I felt myself returning to myself. After an incredibly disorienting year, this week was restorative. The words came easily to me. The places to nudge and guide, the places to let actors make their own discoveries, were abundantly clear.
I want my work to be a service to the actors who place their talent and skills at my disposal, and to the audience who blesses us with their time and their hearts.
But this show was a gift to myself.
A few minutes of video:
More photos (and I’m told that there are yet more to come):