Monday, December 12, 2011

Wrapping The Second Shepherds' Play

With our closing performance at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, I've finally been able to answer the question about what it would be like to perform The Second Shepherds' Play in a church. This one has been on my mind since my first production of it back in 2000, when I noticed that a priest and a few nuns were in attendance.

While we can't say with much certainty when, where, or how The Second Shepherds' Play was performed, we are fairly certain that theatre, along with most of the other liberal arts and sciences, was preserved within the church through the dark ages. Even if it had moved out of doors to Corpus Christi Festival pageant wagons and scaffolds by the early/mid 1400s, I think it quite likely that some tradition of seasonal plays within churches (or church halls) was maintained. While I have no historical or scholarly evidence, I am prepared to offer some sociological evidence:

1) Look at all the Christmas programming we have on television right now. Then remember that they didn't have television in the 1400s. Granted, they also didn't have Christmas (as we know it), but to my mind that only gave the Church (this was before the reformation) more reason to try to tempt the proletariat away from their pagan holiday of choice: Yule. A Christmas pageant at Christmas time gives people something less damnable to focus their energies on.

2) Everyone loves dressing kids up as things and putting them on stage. I've never been able to pull this off, but I was chatting with Kelly about the possibility of bringing 5 or 10 kids into the cast. They could play sheep (giving the shepherds a flock to leave), Mak and Gil's houseful of brood (giving Mak and Gil reason to complain), a choir of angels backing up the one named angel (because... that's why), and they could serve as tha "ass," "ox" and other barnyard animals at the manger (because those animals are described in the text). Granted, this reading is somewhat inspired by my work on Catalyst's production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever a few years back, but I don't have much difficulty finding textual support for it, and parents always like to see their kids on stage.

So what I'm getting at is that there's still places for us to take Second Shepherds' Play in future years, and judging by the number of kids we had seeking autographs from the cast, and grown-ups who thought we should perform more often during December, we probably will.

Something I take particular joy in was the broad strokes with which Kelly, Ben, Dane, and Jessica painted the shepherds this year. They are clearly written as caricatures of  old-age, middle-age, and youth, and I've never quite managed to find the broad strokes needed within those types to bring the shepherds to the same level as Mak and Gil. The years shepherds (a rapper, a pirate, and Little Bo Peep) were constructed with broad enough strokes that they were very clearly inhabitants of the same fallen work Mak and Gil inhabit, and despite their empathetic rise above their conditions, they still need Christ's promised salvation to be greater than what they are.

I love when I get to learn something new about a play. Especially one I've been working on for so long, and will likely continue to work on for years to come.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Almost there!

Were almost to the weekend and therefore performances!

Because of the lateness of the metaphorical hour, we had to cut a couple of bits because there just wasn't enough time to work them properly. Next year. But the actors are doing a wonderful job and it will still be silly and fun this year!

The singing is beautiful (well most of it). The baby sheep is wooly(ish). And the tennis ball is shined (not at all).

I get to go to Emmanuel Episcopal today to see that space and we'll squeeze in a quick walk through of the space on Saturday morning. Then a final dress run through at Stuart Hall and perform!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Original (Medieval) Staging Conditions

Something new and exciting this year is that the company will perform The Second Shepherds' Play in a church, which sort of makes sense if you keep in mind that churches were where the play would have been originally performed. At the home of the world's only re-creation of the Blackfriars Playhouse.... oh... wait... no.... something isn't right about that first sentence. Like mostly all of it.

The truth is that we know very little about early modern stage-craft, and while the Blackfriars Playhouse is the worlds only re-creation of Shakespeare's original indoor playhouse, a lot more guesswork went into that than most are comfortable thinking about. Keep in mind we have some very detailed paperwork describing the space (Burbage's original lease), and yet we still don't really and for truly know what the theatre looked like.

Of course, we know even less about medieval stagecraft.

While it is possibly true that plays in the medieval period sometimes performed in churches, by the time you get The Second Shepherds' Play (c. 1400-1450), we're pretty sure that the plays were elaborate affairs sponsored by guilds and presented on wagons or scaffolds, or perhaps in front of them, or maybe some combination of both. It's possible these plays were performed as part of a cycle annually, but it's also possible they were performed individually at certain times of the year. Possibly inside guild halls, parish halls, or any building with a hall large enough to accommodate players and an audience.

Based on our touring experience to Philly last year with Merry Devil, really, you don't need that much space at all. Have you ever been to one of those bars/cafes with a small stage for open mic nights? You could probably perform one of these plays there. But I digress....

It's a little bit hard to talk about original medieval staging conditions because even fewer people were literate in the medieval period than in the early modern period, and the first permanent playhouses weren't constructed in London until the 1560s ("The Red Lion," for those who are curious). That means that, at the latest scholarly estimate of composition, The Second Shepherds' Play was written a hundred years before playhouses were permanent structures in the capital of England.

Through the miracle of Google Maps, I can easily show you how far away Wakefield is from London:
View Larger Map

According to Google Maps, that's a two and a half day walk, and that's accounting for paved roads. Lets just say that there's a reason why all those rebellions you read about in Shakespeare started in northern England: it was too far away for the crown to exert much direct authority. By the by, all of those rebellions and insurrections that Shakespeare writes about in his history plays take place during the time period that The Second Shepherds' Play was probably written.

But, again, I digress....

Any playing space the original performance of The Second Shepherds' Play would have used would have been temporary, and while we cannot preclude performance in a church, churches tended to be used more regularly for other things. Likewise with guild halls, or any other indoor or outdoor space. Since plays were basically a trivial form of entertainment for the great unwashed, illiterate masses, no one with the ability to write much about them paid much attention to them.

Essentially, the anonymous monk who wrote The Second Shepherds' Play was writing the medieval equivalent of Cliff Notes.

Of course, we have sophisticated sensibilities, and can appreciate The Second Shepherds' Play as the work of art it truly is.


Anyhow, one of the reasons I'm writing this is that I have been asked to talk a little bit about how our church-performance at Emmanuel Episcopal is reminiscent of the Wakefield Master's original staging conditions, and the truth is that, for all I know, that is 100% true. And for all I know, the Wakefield Master imagined that, someday, someone like me would be able to write this brilliant commentary and share it with the entire world through a magical, glowing rectangle.

Tom Berger, the Shakespeare and Performance Scholar in Residence, has a saying I'm very fond of: "I don't know." I think, in this case, I'm going to have to go with that; with the addendum that I also don't think it necessarily matters as long as we all have a good time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

From one production to another

Since I have some prior experience with The Second Shepherd's Play through another college, I have been asked to blog a bit about the two experiences. I directed a staged reading of the play my sophomore year at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa as part of our Classical Theatre History class.

Once the professor informed me he would like me to direct the reading, the class divided up production duties: those who wanted to act picked their parts, and we chose who would work on costuming, props, publicity, set building, etc. If I remember correctly we used a script from an an anthology of Renaissance and Restoration plays, and kept the original Middle English.

The main struggle we encountered was that of the actors being able to portray what they were saying to the audience. Besides the slight language barrier, the class enjoyed working on the production. The final performance was a riot complete with hair ratting, dirty faces, butt scratching, and a very tall Joseph. I have attached a picture of the cast as well.

I'll be writing again to insert my thoughts on this rehearsal process and how I think the end product will compare and contrast to my first experience.

Jessica, 3rd Shepherd

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Third rehearsal

Oh my. It just keeps getting sillier. And I keep adding props.

I am not a props actor/director. But I keep adding props.

Last night I worked with the three shepherds, played by Ben, Jessica and Dane. As Rachel (Mak/Angel) said, one will be a Little Bo Peep type character, but with combat boots. The other will be a pirate - for the sake of one joke at the end. (I can't resist a good pirate joke - Ok, I can't resist a bad pirate joke.) Last night we also decided to make the first shepherd a rapper. Because, again, for one line. And because we can. It's kind of awesome.

Today, Rachel, Celi, and I took a look at Mak and Gill's moments to establish their relationship and home life. It has been decided Mak has a twirly mustache and Gill is an actress with a soft spot for sheep.

We also looked at the Angel and Mary moments. I've never been able to give this direction before and I'm so proud of it: I told Rachel to turn the awesomeness of what the Angel says up to 11. Once I learned about her opera background, of course, that had to add to the awesome. Celi's Mary was beautiful, sincere, and gave both Rachel and I a chill with it's simplicity. These two moments will be lovely around the ridiculousness that is the rest of the play.

Tony, I hope you don't regret asking me to do this...


Saturday, December 3, 2011

The director speaks - I mean, writes.

What a curious little play! I'm not much of a passion play person, but if more are like this one, I will become one!

We've started our adventure into the world of these shepherds with a read through and a blocking rehearsal with the shepherds. So far so good! The read through was hysterical - much funnier than what I heard in my head reading it by myself. It completely helps that the talents of Rachel Quagliariello, Celi Oliveto, Dane Leasure, Jessica Shiermeister, and Ben Ratkowski are being facilitated for it! (I think I spelled everyone's names right...)

At this point, the actors ideas are flying fast and furious. This is going to be quite a trip!

First Read-Through

Yesterday evening we had our first read-through of the Second Shepherd’s Play (2SP) for this year. I remembered why I love this show so very much. It may, in fact, be one of my favorite theater things I’ve ever done. Why, you ask? Well…

First there’s the language. I remembered yesterday, hearing the other actors read it for the first time through, that this language is hard. It’s medieval, and the entire show is in verse. It can be hard to understand, and some of the words and phrases don’t really flow off the tongue, at least at first. Last year I had to work really hard on understanding all my lines and communicating the meaning of them, not to mention getting the text in my mouth so I didn’t trip over it. But I was surprised yesterday by how much I remembered, and once you get it in your tongue, it does flow (or at least most of it does). It’s actually a beautifully written play—just in language that is pretty archaic. But I think challenging language is actually more enjoyable and rewarding for both the actors and the audience in the end. (I guess that’s why I like to perform Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and also OPERA. You know, like in Italian. And German. And French.) 

Secondly, I think this is possibly the funniest Christmas play of any kind that I have ever seen or heard about. I realize that’s a pretty bold claim to make, but I’ve rarely laughed so much in 45 minutes of theater. Christmas plays are usually so predictable—everyone knows what’s going to happen. This one is not. For one thing, there is the general absurdity of the entire story (which I summarized in my previous post). It’s just silly. Then there are the anachronisms. Although we are supposed to be in Israel before the birth of Christ, and the shepherds of the title are the ones to whom the angel appeared to announce Jesus’ birth, everyone in the show makes continuous references to Catholicism. As in, hardly a stanza of the play goes by without someone making an exclamation that refers to Jesus’ death, or Mary, or one of the Catholic saints. It’s constant. At one point a shepherd says, “I dreamed we were in England!” (Which is funny, of course, because the shepherds are supposed to be in Palestine, but the play was originally performed in England during Advent.) So it’s not really a play about the shepherds who first greeted Christ. It’s about how the shepherds might have reacted if Christ had been born to medieval England, at least if medieval England were already Catholic when He was born…time machine, anyone? But I wonder whether the Catholic references are deliberately funny anachronisms, or whether references to Mary, Jesus, and the saints were just such a normal part of speech at the time that it only made sense for the shepherds to talk that way. Or maybe general education was really so poor that most people didn’t know enough history to recognize the incongruity of swearing by St. Steven when he wouldn’t exist yet for hundreds of years. I hope our modern audiences will recognize it, but many of the references are so archaic that not many people know them unless they are medieval scholars. 

The third reason I love this play is that it’s really a cartoon. I have a big personality, and I love to overact. This is why I enjoy theater for children: it’s ok to overact. In fact, you pretty much can’t be too ridiculous. This is also true of 2SP. Last year I deliberately modeled my character, Mac, after Wile E. Coyote. In yesterday’s rehearsal I was inspired to add an Evil Villain Laugh…once, twice, thrice, maybe four or five times. I warned Kelly, our director, that I’ll probably keep adding it to more moments in the show until she orders me to stop. We also decided last night that the third and second shepherd will be, respectively, Little Bo Peep and a PIRATE. Yes, that’s right: a Pirate Shepherd. It probably won’t make sense until he says his very last line of the show…then you’ll say, Oh, of course he’s a pirate!. 

Curious yet? I mean, how many times in your life have you seen a Pirate Shepherd robbed by Wile E. Coyote? Maybe Tony will be sorry he’s passed on the torch of directing this show when he sees what a crazy cartoon we’re making of it. But I think it will be a lot of fun, for us and for everyone who comes to see it.