Monday, September 21, 2015

Cross Casting and Gender

As you may have noticed Bad Quarto Productions has released the casting of Taming of a Shrew, and one thing that you may have noticed in this production and others in this company is the casting of various women actors as male characters. When producing Shakespeare’s plays today there is a lot of flexibility in how to portray the genders of the various characters.

Shakespeare’s male characters massively outnumber his female characters, and modern directors often cast women actors in some of the male roles in Shakespeare’s plays. The fact that all the roles would have originally been played by men and boys gives gender a history as part of the performance of Shakespeare, not just a current anomaly.

Theaters such as The Globe often performs All Male productions, such as the recent Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance as Olivia. These productions aim to recreate the past, and are often produced in period costume and makeup, often with period music to accompany. Most of them have adult men playing the women rather than prepubescent boys, so the historic recreation is faulty at best, but it is an interesting exploration of at least part of historical traditions of casting.

Some theaters perform all female productions, such as Phyllida Lloyd’s lauded production of Julius Caesar. These productions go nicely in conversation with the all male productions. They are often more politically charged, often make casting more women actors as a specific reason for these directing choices.

Many more cross cast some roles and not others. This can look very different depending on the production. Sometimes that means the gender of the character and the text of the play is changed to accommodate the sex of the actor. Polonius becomes Polonia, and Laertes and Ophelia's mother. Usually this sort of choice is on the sidelines of a production, (such as in Joss Whedon's Much Ado) but sometimes the main character is changed in productions like Julie Taymor’s Tempest.

Other times the text is left as it is, and the actors simply play a character with a different gender from their own. This is the route Bad Quarto is taking, a fascinating one in its own right. Particularly interesting in a show such as Shrew where there is so many questions of gender roles and theatrical roles (the play is itself a play within a play). When are the characters playing parts? When are the actors? What does it mean to be male or female? These are all questions to wrestle with when thinking about performance.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Shakespeare's Scary Rehearsals

I like to finish auditions for Bad Quarto shows by going over the rehearsal process a little bit, because it is very different than what most actors are used to, and right before I ask the auditioner if I've scared them off at all, I like to remind them that our approach to rehearsals is, more or less, the approach Shakespeare and his fellow players used.

And, for the record, yes, sometimes it does scare people off.

For those interested in the full story, I recommend Tiffany Stern's Making Shakespeare, and Stern and Palfrey's Shakespeare in Parts. These books present a version of rehearsals on the stages of Renaissance London that goes a little like this: the company would rehearse together once, on the day they opened a new play. They would meet at the playhouse at about dawn, and stage the play in its entirety before performing at about two o'clock that afternoon. Prior to that rehearsal, senior members of the company would meet with junior members for "individual instruction," where the leading players would essentially tell the junior players how to say their lines.

That's more or less how things work here at Bad Quarto, too. Although I don't give line readings to actors, and would never encourage another director to do so, "individual instruction" sessions via Skype are a vital part of our rehearsal process so we can explore the subtleties of language to develop character. But just as important, to my mind, is the lack of shared rehearsal time.

Knowing that we'll only rehearse the play together once forces us all to trust one another, and it forces us to make bold choices in acting and directing because we won't have the chance to polish things for weeks. This method of rehearsal helps give our actors a strong sense of their own characters while providing a performance context that forces them to actually listen to one another. Most actors, by the time a show opens, have already heard every conversation in the play they're in at least a hundred times. In a Bad Quarto show, the rawness of the experience is still fresh, and the result is that our shows capture a mastery of verse and character combined with the liveliness of improv.

It's my mind that plays on the stages of early modern London functioned similarly. Most companies rehearse more than us, and some rehearse less, but I'm of the mind that our method captures the spirit of the texts in performance in a way that only rehearsing the plays as they were intended to be rehearsed can.

I understand why that can scare some actors off, and I'll never hold it against them. And while we'll never been able to offer perfectly polished performances and pieces of stagecraft that are pinnacles of engineering, we can offer you a performance of Shakespeare's plays that brings his plays, and the plays of his contemporaries, to life in a way you have never seen before, and will help you see some of the greatest works of English literature as, quite simply, not the play you think it is.

Our upcoming production of The Taming of a Shrew will be a fine example of these principles in action, and I hope you'll be able to join us for it.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Pembroke's Men: A Timeline

When people talk about playing companies around Shakespeare's day, they mostly talk about the company Shakespeare acted with (called first The Lord Chamberlain's Men, and after James was crowned, The King's Men), and The Admiral's Men performing in The Rose theatre. However there were several other companies in London, including The Lord Strange's Men and The Pembroke's Men. Where there is not a great deal known about this company, we do know that they had several very financially successful tours, and that they got in a lot of trouble over a play called The Isle of Dogs. This play caused enough of a stir with its political satire that three of the Pembroke actors were arrested. 

Last week I wrote about title pages, and one of the things we know from the title page of The Taming of A Shrew is that The Pembroke's Men performed it. When it was published in 1594, it was likely published by the company, although we cannot know for sure. For more about The Lord Pembroke's Men, see the information on the Lost Plays database. The following timeline shows key points from their information on the right, and contemporary events in London on the left. 

Again, thanks for reading and feel free to comment with questions if there are things you'd like to hear about!