On Directing Shakespeare: Rehearsals

This is the fourth in a series outlining a year in the process of directing Shakespeare.  I’m using my recent production of Romeo + Juliet as a model

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WEEK 43: READ-THROUGH AND TEXT WORK

The first week of rehearsals is spent around a giant table with all the actors and stage management team. After viewing the design concepts, we attempt to find the world of the play together – to seek common ground, and get everyone on the same page (no pun intended). No line will escape our analysis, and we study and discuss the text until we all understand every syllable.

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WEEK 43 ½: UNREHEARSED RUN-THROUGH

A unique event at BW is our annual unrehearsed run-through. Shakespeare’s original company did not have the luxury of rehearsals (they would receive their entrances and exits, and perhaps some fight choreography), and since our actors are expected to show up off-book, we run the play after four days of text work. The results are always surprising, and they always get through the play. A stage manager is on-hand to prompt them if they need a line, and many moments from this run-through usually end up in the final production. It’s an extremely fun and stressful event for the students, and they all feel extremely proud and happy after it’s over.

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WEEKS 44 & 45: BLOCKING & CHOREOGRAPHY

This is when we get the play on its feet. The two-person scenes are easy, especially when you have experienced and/or intuitive actors, but the group scenes are more akin to choreography. Sometimes they feature literal choreography, such as the famous ball scene from Romeo + Juliet. This scene was especially challenging, as we featured music from a composer. We had to find a delicate balance of focus between the dialogue, music and dance.

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Benvolio. Strike Drum [Scene above goes right into the next…. Without out pause]  

[music starts as soon as we hear “Strike Drum” perhaps a quick energetic entrance anthem no more than a few seconds to get everyone onstage]

begin Act I, Sc. v

They march about the Stage, and Servingmen come forth with their napkins.[?] Enter all the Guests and Gentlewomen to the Maskers.

            Capulet. Welcome Gentlemen, [spoken as people enter and mingle]


We also had a professional fight director that choreographed the fight scenes. He and I worked closely with the actors to ensure that all safety protocols were followed and that the story was clear:

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WEEKS 46-49: WORK THE PLAY

These few weeks are vital, as we attempt to deepen our understanding of the text, and present it an interesting and engaging manner. In education theatre we are constantly at odds with creating a pleasant process and a polished product.   I establish a safe, nurturing environment where the students feel safe exploring and taking risks. This doesn’t always result in an optimal final product, but I always emphasize that the work is never complete. There is always more to learn about a role or a play, and in the professional world, the students will have the chance for a longer performance schedule in which they will constantly make new discoveries.

As a director, I have occasionally been told that I am too “hands-off” and that I give too much freedom to actors. As an actor myself, I take this note as a compliment. I have no interest in creating an actor’s role for them or doing their work. Some directors in the world of theatre are micro-managers, who act more like puppeteers that manipulate actors’ every move. I choose instead to work with actors and designers that feel their contributions are vital to the success of the play. Simply put, I let people do what they do best, and often, the most important thing I can do is to get out of their way. A director is somewhat akin to a conductor – and my responsibility lies in the unification of a large group of creative minds.

On Directing Shakspeare: Weeks 16-42, Concept, Casting and Concentration

This is the third in a series outlining a year in the process of directing Shakespeare.  I’m using my recent production of Romeo + Juliet as a model

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WEEKS 16-25: CONCEPT AND DESIGNER MEETINGS

By this time I usually have a vague idea of the concept of the play. Most contemporary Shakespeare productions are set in time periods that are different from the original, and indeed, Shakespeare’s company set most of his plays in contemporary Elizabethan times. So setting your Shakespeare production in the modern era, is actually honoring the playwright’s original intent.

For Romeo & Juliet, I worked with costume Prof. Charlotte Yetman and our scenic designer Dylan Fujimura, to develop the look and design of the play. The production also featured original music composed by BW alumni Sean Hussey. I have included conceptual notes in a previous post.

WEEK 25: CASTING

I try to cast my plays several months before rehearsals begin, so actors may be completely memorized by the time we start. Actors will receive the audition notice, and they typically are asked to prepare two contrasting monologues by Shakespeare, not to exceed 4 minutes total. Actors sign-up for 5-minute slots, over two nights, and callbacks are held on a third night. The auditions at BW are run as close to how professional theatres would hold them. We have a distinct advantage of knowing actors’ work ethic and versatility – qualities that can both help and challenge students.

WEEKS 25-42: IMMERSION IN THE TEXT

The next two months consist of acquiring in depth knowledge of the text; I aim to know the script backwards and forwards. This can be especially challenging with Shakespeare, as much of the language is archaic or elusive. I liken it to a brilliant record album that you might not “get” or like on the first listen, but by the 15th listen, you become obsessed with its genius. A huge challenge for the company is to make the story clear on an audience’s very first viewing.

On Directing Shakespeare: Weeks 9-16, Cutting the Script

This is the second in a series outlining a year in the process of directing Shakespeare.  I’m using my recent production of Romeo + Juliet as a model:

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WEEKS 9-16: CUTTING THE SCRIPT

Most Shakespeare plays clock in at over three hours; Hamlet is more like a four-hour marathon. Almost all modern productions make significant cuts. Cutting also allows student actors to focus on a shorter piece, and go much more in depth. My productions of All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry IV Part One and Romeo & Juliet came in around an ideal 2.5 hours. My production of Hamlet came in at an astounding 2 hours. (I may have been too cautious, and I’d do a longer version if I had to do it all over again.)

Below is a sample of my cutting:

JULIET. Shall I speake ill of him that is my husband?
Ah poore my Lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I thy three houres wife have mangled it?
But wherefore Villaine did’st thou kill my Cozin?
That Villaine Cozin would have kil’d my husband:
Backe foolish teares, backe to your native spring,
Your tributarie drops belong to woe,
Which you mistaking offer up to joy:
My husband lives that Tibalt would have slaine,
And Tibalt dead that would have slaine my husband:
All this is comfort, wherefore weepe I then?
Some word there was worser then Tybalts death
That murdered me, I would forget it feine,
But oh, it presses to my memory,
Like damned guilty deedes to sinners minds,
Tybalt is dead and Romeo banished:
That banished, that one word banished,
Hath slaine ten thousand Tibalts: Tibalts death
Was woe enough if it had ended there:
Or if sour woe delights in fellowship,
And needly will be rankt with other griefes,
Why followed not when she said Tibalts dead,
Thy Father or thy Mother, nay or both,
Which moderne lamentation might have mov’d.
But which a rere-ward following Tybalts death

Romeo is banished to speake that word,
Is Father, Mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet,
All slaine, all dead:
Romeo is banished,
There is no end, no limit, measure, bound,
In that words death, no words can that woe sound.
Where is my Father and my Mother Nurse?

The speech is much shorter in performance (below version removed the strike-through text):

Jul. Shall I speake ill of him that is my husband?
Ah poore my Lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I thy three houres wife have mangled it?
But wherefore Villaine did’st thou kill my Cozin?
That Villaine Cozin would have kil’d my husband:
My husband lives that Tibalt would have slaine,
And Tibalt dead that would have slaine my husband:
All this is comfort, wherefore weepe I then?
Tybalt is dead and Romeo banished:
That banished, that one word banished,
Hath slaine ten thousand Tibalts: Tibalts death
Was woe enough if it had ended there:: Romeo is banished,
There is no end, no limit, measure, bound,
In that words death, no words can that woe sound.
Where is my Father and my Mother Nurse?

Cutting a script is a long, painstaking process. Most of what is omitted is more archaic language, especially the extremely dated and obscure jokes by the clowns. Ideally, I’m able to cut whole lines of verse, and minimize cutting parts of verse lines. Some redundancy is excised, as are more superfluous metaphor-loaded descriptive passages.  Parentheticals are easy cuts, as their omission still allows coherence.  ,I really try to streamline the action, and make the story as clear as possible to a modern audience.

On Directing Shakespeare: Weeks 1-8, Editing & Adaptation

Committing to directing a play by William Shakespeare often means dedicating a year of your life to the play. The process is long, in-depth, and challenging (and fun). For the next few posts, I’ll be outlining my process, using my recent production of Romeo + Juliet as a model:

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WEEKS 1-8: EDITING AND ADAPTATION

I edit and cut all my own texts when I direct plays by Shakespeare. Modern editions, edited by English literature scholars try to “fix” and improve the Bard’s text by making many unnecessary changes to the original. Since Shakespeare was writing for actors and not for readers, much of the grammatical inconsistencies are deliberate. I work with the 1623 First Folio, which is the first complete works of Shakespeare, compiled several years after his death. A sample of the original text is below, as is a modern edition, and my edits for production:

1.) 1623 First Folio:

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2.) Modern edition (Yale Shakespeare)

Unburthen’d crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,

         And you our no less loving son of Albany,

3.) My edition:

        Unburthen’d crawle toward death, our son of Cornwall,

        And you our no lesse loving Sunne of Albany.

There are several items that should be addressed:

1.) FINAL E’s: Shakespeare intentionally adds extra “E’s” to the ends of words that normally would not have them.

      Unburthen’d crawle toward death, our son of Cornwall,

      And you our no lesse loving Sunne of Albany.

 This is his attempt to make sure the actor enunciates the final consonant OR to make sure she prolongs the vowel. So the actor here would hit the “S” in “lesse” and prolong the vowel in “crawle.” All modern editions “correct” this and most actors and directors are withheld this vital information.

2.) MISSPELLINGS: Shakespeare often deliberately misspells words, such as “Son,” choosing to evoke dual images with his spelling of “Sunne”

       And you our no lesse loving Sunne of Albany.

The actor can make an informed argument that Lear probably likes Albany better than Cornwall. The spelling of Sunne evokes the warmth of the Sun, and the final E forces the word to be more enunciated. The word is also capitalized, another clue that Shakespeare uses to inform the actor.

3.) PUNCTUATION: Punctuation marks are similar to musical notations. They can indicate a beat change or length of breath. Modern editions attempt to make Shakespeare’s text more grammatically correct, inserting periods or exclamation marks that Shakespeare never intended. There were many mistakes in the First Folio made by the printers, so much of my editing compares modern and original editions, and deciding on the best options for the actor.

Brief Thoughts on ROMEO & JULIET (and the seeds of my concept for production)

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The literary form that was traditional for love poetry was THE SONNET.

The Chorus begins ROMEO & JULIET with an atypical sonnet, beautiful and disturbing with it’s sudden announcement of unrest in Verona:

Two housholds both alike in dignitie,

(In faire Verona where we lay our Scene)

From ancient grudge, breake to new mutinie,

Where civill blood makes civill hands uncleane

A pretty piece of poetry erupts into full-scale war with the first of many fights…

The poetry cannot contain the chaos and disorder.

Romeo’s language borders on cliché when talking of Rosaline – a woman he’s never spoken to. Yet, when he first sees Juliet, he becomes sharply inventive, witty and original. Their scene is a mutually composed sonnet – one that works – it ends in kiss. Love at first sonnet.

            ROMEO. If I prophane with my unworthiest hand,
            This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this,
            My lips to blushing Pilgrims did ready stand,
            To smooth that rough touch, with a tender kisse

            JULIET. Good Pilgrime, you do wrong your hand too much.
            Which mannerly devotion showes in this,
            For Saints have hands, that Pilgrims hands do touch,
            And palme to palme, is holy Palmers kisse

            ROMEO. Have not Saints lips, and holy Palmers too?  

            JULIET. Ay Pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer

            ROMEO. O then deare Saint, let lips do what hands do,
            They pray (grant thou) least faith turne to dispaire

            JULIET. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers sake

            ROMEO. Then move not while my prayers effect I take: [They kiss.]

Out of all this chaos and violence, real beauty emerges. Yet, this beauty cannot last, and it is inevitably destroyed. We have some hope at the very end of the play that the two families will begin to make amends. We have hope of restoration.

Two images keep coming to my mind:  Scaffolding and cracked paint.

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The scaffolding serves an immediate purpose: providing a physical obstacle for our two lovers. It’s also used in restoration projects.

The cracked paint recalls works of art that either deteriorate completely or are brought back through a careful restoration process. I’m reminded of the ongoing work on the Sistine Chapel.

We incorporated these ideas into our production at BW last fall.  The costume and scenic design existed both in the Italian Renaissance and in a modern-day museum of art.

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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 ran October 9-13, 2013 in the John Patrick Theatre at Kleist Center for Arts and Drama.

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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: