Every now and then, I have an idea that feels in my head like it will be the best thing ever and then I’m so nervous that it won’t be the best thing ever that I get kind of freaked out when it’s time to try it.
I talked about the silks a bit early in our rehearsal process, but we couldn’t do much of anything with them for a bit, because people had their scripts in hand. No free hands to manage massive pieces of fabric that move like living creatures. I kept saying, “Here’s a way I hope we can use the silks, and here’s a way,” at particular moments in the work, but everyone was still trying to wrap their heads around the story, and none of them seemed especially excited about them.
One night, we finished our scheduled work a little early for one phase of rehearsal, and we were waiting on a few other actors to move to the next phase. I looked around and realized that the people I had on hand–Katherine (Cleopatra), Emily (Iras), and Sophia (Charmian)–were exactly the ones who would need to work with the silks the most. “Take five while I run to my car,” I told them. “I want to bring the silks down for you to just play with.”
When I unfurled these magical yards of cloth, some magic spooled out with them. Although they had heard me describe the silks before–and had even seen photos and video of it in motion–I don’t think they fully understood their potential until the physical reality of it was in their hands. From the moment they touched the silks, their buy-in was complete.
They are endlessly delicious to touch and to move. They catch and hold air; they fall beautifully. They can physically carry energy in waves from one end to the other. They can ripple or flow or snap.
From that moment on, actors kept offering ideas of how to use the silks. I said that I wanted them to be involved in Antony’s death scene somehow; Katherine asked if we could use them to haul Antony up to the tomb. It took some figuring, but we could and we did. For the movement at the end, I choreographed the framework, but actors offered suggestions of other ways to use the silk, and we incorporated those ideas into what we ultimately ended up doing.
One question that kept coming up in rehearsal was, What are these silks supposed to be, anyway? In my original concept (“concept”), I thought they would represent the river. But when we began working, I realized immediately that they were only the river in as much as the river is an extension of Cleopatra. The silks represented Cleopatra’s power and person. They allowed her to fill every space she occupied. In the early scenes in her court, they were a sumptuous texture that expanded and breathed with her movement. In one moment, we changed the shape of the stage by tossing them over the top of the curtain wall (weighted, temporarily, with safety-pinned washers), so that they came to the floor in a diagonal, suggesting a tent or pavilion. I loved this use because they made the stage feel different from one scene to another, giving a sense of the many-roomed palace, while retaining the simplicity we value in the “theater of the imagination.” The set-related ways we used them imbued every Egyptian space with Cleopatra’s presence. Other actors used them to show how their character felt about Cleopatra even when she wasn’t around. One of my favorite micromoments was when Scott (Antony) caught himself caressing a bit of the silk in act I, scene 2. Saying, “I must from this enchanting queen break off,” he tossed the silk to the ground. It fell as gracefully as Cleopatra herself would have.
“There’s less and less silk as the show goes on,” I told them, and this was true. In part, the scene changes get so short and fast that there wasn’t any time for messing around with them. But also, over time, Cleopatra’s control and agency wanes. Everything becomes less sumptuous and luxurious. We spend more time in the proper Rome of Caesar Augustus. There’s a war on.
When we were working on 3.11, where Antony and Cleopatra come in from the first failed sea battle (the one where Cleopatra’s ship flees, and Antony follows her–“Egypt, thou knew’st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings,” my, that man could write), we decided that Cleopatra should be exhausted and disheartened to the point where she could barely stand (Antony’s not much better off). I asked Katherine to try finding a way to have the silks kind of drag off of her. She played with how to have them be an encumbrance on her entrance, and end up trailing along, wrapped on her ankle, for a lot of the scene. I loved how they helped to tell the story, hanging in a bedraggled tangle off of Katherine’s body. The silks, for the first time, weren’t joyful, light, opulent. They were weighty and sad. Like the river was trying to pull her under.
The silks allowed us to create magic, too. At least two times, they screened Cleopatra’s entrance in a way that made her sort of appear. It wasn’t magic in the sense of a magician’s sleight-of-hand, but magic in the sense of feeling a tiny bit special and impossible. Cleopatra gets to just be there.
One thing I try to keep in mind when I’m working on Shakespeare is that he was writing from a time when people (generally) believed in the supernatural in a way that most people these days do not. Also, as I once told Scott in a debate over what “really” happens at the end of Winter’s Tale: Magic is much more theatrical than not-magic, so I choose to stage it. The actors who played the watchmen–the ones who hear the mysterious music that may or may not represent the departure of Hercules from Antony’s company–wanted to know, “What is really happening here?” After some talk, I ended up convincing them that what is really happening is just what the text indicates. There is a supernatural sound, which is clearly a bad portent for someone, likely Antony. That’s all it has to be. Magic is sufficient.
As I was talking with audience members following the opening performance, I realized that the version of this story that we told had, perhaps, more magic in it than other productions I have seen. But do we not attend the theater to be transported? Why not take magic where it comes?
Here’s a piece of magic: I like to say that sometimes my communication with actors crosses over into some intuitive space. Often, this is with actors I’ve worked with a great deal; I start to feel like they can read my mind. I’m wary, when I return to actors I’ve worked with in the past, that I (or we) will fall into the trap of repeating shticks. There are times when I can and do reference points in our past work to shortcut something in the present work–connecting the breathwork Kat did for Juliet’s potion scene with what Enobarbus’ death ritual required, or commenting that the scene where Cleopatra and Eros are jostling each other to put on Antony’s armor is an interesting inverse parallel to the scene in Duchess where Cariola and Antonio are both in each other’s way trying to undress the Duchess for bed, for example.
But when I talk about the joy of continuing my collaboration with actors, what I’m talking about is an intuitive communication that is far beyond repeating the work of the past. We have a deep connection in and through the work, and it simplifies communication. It’s not a shortcut. It’s a shared breath.
The aesthetic of this production is one such shared breath. Before we had even talked about it much at all, Katherine and I were both working from images that were of the same time period and related schools. I was looking a lot at Maxfield Parrish, and the late PreRaphaelite movement. Katherine sent me some Klimt that spoke to her, as well as an incredible project where Inge Prader, a photographer, staged many of Klimt’s tableaux with models.
So the design aesthetic was one that we were very in tune on, before we had even talked about it.
But the other piece, which I don’t think I ever said to anybody, was that Isadora Duncan’s movement work was on my mind. In some ways, she’s from the same school of thought as those PreRaphaelite painters–interested in the human form, billowing movement of fabric, the Golden Age that never was and always is.
I don’t think I said her name in rehearsal; I wanted to see if I could communicate that quality of movement without saying her name. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in the particulars of what she was trying to do or the specifics of her movement. But I re-skimmed My Life and borrowed some of her phrases.
Look at this image, from a dance that Duncan choreographed:
That could have been part of our show. Maybe it was.
Here is a video of the only few seconds of extant footage featuring Duncan herself dancing.
Crazy as it sounds, that’s strikingly similar to the movement Katherine developed for herself at the top of the show–when my instructions to her literally were, “Can you take this silk and … do a thing?”
I don’t think I ever told the cast, “We’re borrowing our movement aesthetic from the Mother of Modern Dance.” But I didn’t have to. They knew, without me having to belabor it.
A bigger communication.