Chalkboards and Battlefields

Henry IV Concept

 

I begin rehearsals for William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One at Baldwin Wallace University tomorrow.  I vented my concept onto the page, and here is a sneak peek at my vision for the production…

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I’m always surprised at how few people are familiar with William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part OneHenry V, Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor (and Verdi’s adaptation, Falstaff) are much more popular and seen quite frequently on world stages.    Frankly, it’s a challenge to get theatre students excited about H4.1, and I think its classification as a history turns many off. (Never mind its considerable influence on pop culture phenomenon like the Game of Thrones novels, HBO’s The Wire, and countless others) As I hope you’ve discovered (and if not, I hope you will), this is a marvelous work by a master of the stage, which combines many elements of Shakespeare’s best works into a near perfect piece of theatre.  Depending on whom you sympathize with or are drawn to, the play can be classified several ways:

Falstaff ‘s Comedy

Hotspur ‘s Tragedy

Henry’s History

Hal’s Romance *

*The Shakespearean kind, not the beach novels that your Aunt Harriet reads.

Everything I do at BW is based on what I believe is best for the needs of my students.  Season selection adheres to a long set of criteria – the most important of which is the educational value and potential to challenge and inspire growth amongst our student population.  One of my continuing goals as an instructor is to sell students (and faculty and staff) on these great classic works.  People can be resistant to unfamiliar entertainment that isn’t based on a comic book or doesn’t have a big splashy opening number.  Once again, the word “education emerges.” It’s my sincere hope that third graders will attend, and that we’ll have a packed high school matinee. In my experience, kids like Shakespeare, and it’s never too early to introduce them to the Bard.  Bragging parent alert: my 22 month-old son has already enjoyed BW’s Hamlet, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Pyramus and Thisbe, and several more on television.  Perhaps the iambic pentameter has a hypnotic effect?

At it’s simplest, H4.1 is a play about the education of the king and his son: two individuals who were not born as direct heirs to the throne.   They’re learning on the fly, and enduring an extreme example of on–the-job-training.  I’m reminded a little of Queen Elizabeth II and her father, King George VI.

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There are lessons that begin at a chalkboard, but necessitate eventually jumping to your feet and experiencing life. We can all agree that plays should be performed and not only just discussed in a classroom.   Hal escaped the court to learn by experience. Hotspur would much rather charge on a horse than talk diplomacy.

Shakespeare’s version of this story chronicles Hal and his father’s education.  Falstaff, Worcester and Glendower are among the many instructors.  The tavern, the court and the battlefield are their classrooms.  The stage is our classroom and we’ll transform it into a tavern, a court and a battlefield.  Much the same way that Hal and Falstaff create a court of the Boar’s Head Tavern, we will create England on our simple, sparingly furnished stage.  The design is what it is:  we are on a stage.   Early discussions of concept placed the set in a literal recreated prep-school classroom, but after spending time in the glorious backstage right of the JPT, we were inclined to celebrate and embrace the physical space as it is.  There is bit nostalgia and romance about standing in the wings of a beloved theatre.  As an actor I’m used to watching plays from that location, and now we’ll invite the audience to share that experience to a degree.

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Our cast is comprised of college students and a member of the faculty.  We will not try to hide this.  Actors will play themselves: Students playing the characters who live during the historical time the play is set.  Aside from your excellent auditions, there were very specific reasons why you were cast in the roles you are playing.  Many of you share common traits with your characters, some of you are great at stage combat, a few of you needed to play against type, etc…   Melanie is already working with you to craft looks that incorporate your research and sense of style.

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Our audience will see modern dress mixed with period costumes.  They will walk in expecting to sit in the JPT house, and will be guided by ushers, actors or other patrons to the stage.   Fight rehearsals can be in plain view.  Warming up on stage while audience walks in will be encouraged.  Talking to family and friends is perfectly fine, as is sitting in your dressing room until curtain.  I’ve always viewed our performances here as workshops (not even reaching the preview stage), which plays right into the mission of educational institutions.  This will be a blatant display of that philosophy.  The atmosphere should be fun, like a concert or gathering of friends.  I want to avoid all accusations of pretension.  Shakespeare should be celebrated, not worshiped.  It’s no accident we selected stage right to present the piece.  Structurally, its very similar to the multi-tiered Elizabethan stages – such as the outdoor Globe and indoor Blackfrier’s.

Strewn about the space will be our research, a few pieces of furniture, curtains and the contents of the theatre. In the balcony will be a band and whoever wants to sing during the pre-show and intermission.  On the floors and walls will be a giant chalk-like painting of England.  In a corner will be a solitary chalkboard, with a few bits of broken and used chalk…

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William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One runs October 9-13 in the John Patrick Theatre at Kleist Center for Arts and Drama.  For more information, visit http://www.bw.edu/theatre  

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New Headshots

Summers for me are a time of relaxation, travel, occasional acting work, and catching up.  This year has turned out quite different;  my son is starting to crawl, I’m serving as summer chair again, and I’ve been auditioning for quite a few TV & film projects.  The last time I had headshots taken was in grad school four years ago, and I refuse to become one of those theatre professors who continues to use those antiquated black & white shots from when they were 22.  My school has been fortunate over the past two years to have all of our production photos taken by one of our very talented students, Ben Meadors.  (He is the one who took the amazing shots of Henry and the skull)  He graduated this past spring, and he’s moving to NYC tomorrow, so I was lucky enough to squeeze in a quick session yesterday.  Here are a few samples:

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Henry, Prince of Denmark

Henry crashed our publicity photo shoot (Photo by the absurdly talented Ben Meadors*)

I’m currently directing Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  It’s widely considered one of the greatest literary works in the history of human civilization.  Most actors want to play the role, and many directors dream of staging it.  Aside from the the high expectations, and eager scrutiny, it has been a great pleasure to work on it so far.  The play just works.  With enduring classics, such as this, my job is mostly to cast it well, make sure the text is heard, and get out of the way of the story.  Every variation has been done; every gimmick, every approach, and every bizarre concept has been attempted.  And documented.

Except our production.  My cast has never been seen together onstage.  My designers have never collaborated on this piece.  We are wholly unique.  This is our version.  Our take.  Our perspective.  And that’s quite exciting.

When I chose to direct this play over 18 months ago, Henry was a mere notion; not even a concept or concrete plan.  Why on earth would a new dad tackle second year review for promotion and tenure and this play?  The workload has been enormous. The hours of research, preparation and rehearsals will ultimately number in the thousands. This is a project that can be taxing on families – whether it be late night rehearsals or residual stress.  Fortunately, I am married to the most patient and compassionate woman in the history of the world.  Shakespeare would really like her.

I have been studying this play for over 20 years, finding something new upon each reading.  As I get older, different passages and characters take on new relevance.  I identify with certain themes and ideas depending on what is happening in my life at the time.  I have sought solace in Hamlet’s opening soliloquy.  I have used the players’ scenes to teach acting technique.  I have collapsed in many an existential panic over “To Be or Not to Be.”  I have sobbed  uncontrollably in my mentor’s arms while trying to perform the nunnery scene.

Henry’s birth has provided a delightful and invigorating burst of creative inspiration. My perspective has once again shifted.  This time magnanimously.

Shakespeare and his wife had three children: Susanna, and the twins Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died of unknown causes in 1596 at the age of eleven. In 1602, William wrote Twelfth Night,  a melancholy comedy about a girl who disguises herself as her lost-for-dead brother.  It features a climactic reunion scene of the two siblings that would send nostalgic shivers down the spine of even the most cynical of viewers.    Hamlet is also thought to have been written in that same year.  I have always imagined that perhaps Twelfth Night was a gift for Judith, and that Hamlet was a eulogy for Hamnet.

The relationships between Hamlet and his parents (Queen Gertrude and the ghost of King Hamlet) are clearer to me and of greater interest.  I have tremendous sympathy for the parents and the bond they hold with their son.  The enormity of Gertrude’s arc is much more apparent, the dysfunction we find at the start of the play is all the more heartbreaking.

Two years ago, I directed Twelfth NightThis April my production of Hamlet bows before Cleveland audiences.  I don’t know if Henry will get to see the play, but I am so grateful that he’s around during its creation.

*Check out Ben Meadors’ website.  He is the artist behind all the B-W Theatre & Dance and Music Theatre photographs of the last two years.  You can even order prints of the above photos.

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Denmark’d

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Classes and Classics

This is a recurring comic appearing in our school paper, written and illustrated by one of my students, Luke Brett. We're constantly looking for innovative ways to sell tickets, and this idea is one of my favorites.

We had our first read through of Hamlet this week.  This is a play that I’ve wanted to direct for over 20 years, and it was a thrilling experience to hear my students speak that brilliant text. The cast has met once a week for the past month and we’ve played theatre games, reviewed scansion techniques, watched Slings and Arrows episodes, and had way too much fun getting to know one another.  Next week we dig in and start rehearsing five nights a week.  Excited is such a tiny word to describe how I’m feeling.

First read-through of Hamlet

Next year I’ll be directing Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.  It’s yet another dream play to cross off my to-do list.  Each and every day I remind my self how lucky I am; this play and playwright contribute greatly to my contentment.

Speaking of sardonic Russian theatre… I’m teaching an acting class this semester Chekhov class – month.  We have spent the first month getting reacquainted with the major plays (plus Turgenev’s A Month in the Country), and are gearing up for scene work.  The last few weeks of the semester will involve monologues, followed by a mini-production of A Month…

Anton Chekhov and his wife, actress Olga Knipper

The Department of Theatre & Dance has undergone a lot of changes these past two years.  Last year Greg & Jeff revamped the Dance curriculum and this year we’ve completely overhauled Theatre.   We divided the major up into track-systems, and I was in charge of the Acting/Directing track.    We’ve done a great job at keeping aspects that were working intact, while adding & modifying courses that more accurately reflect the needs of our students.  I’m really looking forward to our new Acting IV: Advanced Theatre Styles, a course covering 2,000 years of theatrical forms.  While Acting II takes it’s time with covering Modern Realism (one scene and one monologue), Acting IV will be a rollercoaster of fun and variety.  I’ll teach in the spring, while adjuncts will cover it in the fall (which allows for the course content to constantly change – we’ve got some exciting potential  instructors interested…)  For the full program description, visit here.   You should also check out this amusing interview I did for the college admissions website:

 

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My Son the Blogger

Henry Heffernan has joined the blogosphere.  For all things Baby Heff, please visit: henryheffernan.wordpress.com

The little joker already has more site views than his old man.

 

 

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Henry makes his entrance…

Henry Renfroe Heffernan was born on October 29, 2011 at 10:38am at MetroHealth Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.  He weighed 7lbs 10oz, and was 20 3/4 inches.  Mom was in labor for 23 hours and reenforced her status as the supreme champion of the family.

Henry is home and spending time quality with his family.  Parenthood has proved that all the cliches are 100% accurate.  I feel like I’m in college again; by which I mean lots of all-nighters, irregular eating schedule and chasing after babes…

 

 

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