Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Dramaturg's Thoughts on the Production Footage

As the dramaturg for this production I mostly wrote these blog posts over the last couple months. Living on a different continent, I won’t be able to attend any of the performances, but Tony asked me if I’d like to watch some production footage and write a few thoughts on the show, so here I am! Here are some things about the performance that seemed especially strong:

  • How well the actors had prepared. Each actor gave a strong, dedicated and shining performance. I kept being impressed by different actors as they gave their individual speeches, maintained separate personas for each character they played and really brought their “A game” to this endeavor.

  • How quickly the actors were becoming a company. In most shows the actors have a lot of time to build up a rapport with one another. There’s a whole run of rehearsals, and maybe bonding exercises. In Shakespeare’s day the core of a particular company often stayed together for years, and produced hundreds of shows together, one can only imagine the teamwork they would display. It was something I looked for in the footage I could see of Taming, and what I saw was a group of actors vigorously accepting each other’s choices, and running together. I saw laughter as they got ready to sing together, I saw chemistry in the couples, I saw enthusiasm in the dialogue (dialogue that they’d only been able to rehearse together over one day?) This struck me as one of the most impressive parts of the show. These actors embraced their identity as a team, and together, really sold the show, and I could tell that that unity would only grow as they became more and more comfortable with each other.  

  • The tricky bits of staging. There were so many pieces of the play that required special attention. The singing, the stage combat, (complete with ukulele and an over the shoulder carry!) the massive group scenes all of which take a lot of rehearsal time in normal circumstances, all looked as though the actors trusted each other and were totally in control of the situation.

  • How much attention everyone paid to the text. While this was true of the actor’s delivery, it was also true of the costume choices. Ferando did have a red cap! The various servants did wear their master’s colors and insignia when described. When substitutions were made (for the various foods mentioned) the actors clearly sold the cookies or crackers as the “Beef and mustard” or whatever food it was supposed to represent.

  • How well this text works as a play. Despite working on this play as a dramaturg I am still much more familiar with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew version from the folio, and this is the first time I’ve seen the bad quarto version staged. I was totally delighted by the pair of younger sisters, and I really enjoyed how much the cast brought out the protofeminist leanings of this text as opposed to the folio.

Those are my thoughts for now! On a more personal note, I’d love to congratulations to the cast and crew on such a fun show, and thanks to Tony for asking me to work on this project with him. It’s been great being part of the team.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Early Modern Rehearsal Structures Today

With preparations in full swing for The Taming of a Shrew, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell a bit about how Bad Quarto rehearsals fit in with a history of early modern rehearsal process. James Overton gave his enthusiastic perspective as an actor on Wednesday, and Tony wrote about the scary rehearsals a while back but just in case you missed those posts, Tony has cast this production and he is working individually with each cast member over Skype, but the whole cast will have only one rehearsal together before opening night. If you scroll through this blog you’ll see that this hasn’t been the way the process has worked for each production, but as a company, Bad Quarto has experimented with different variations on the idea of the early modern rehearsal.

So what are some of the precedents for this sort of rehearsal structure? From Henslow’s Diary and other artifacts from the time we know that a single company of actors could put on twenty different plays a month, leading to huge questions of how they could have possibly rehearsed them all. One of the companies to try out some of the hypotheses was The Queen’s Men, a well funded and heavily researched all male company performing in 2006-7 who list the steps they posit the acting companies in Shakespeare’s Day would have followed. They suggest 5-9 weeks preparation for a new play but only one day of rehearsal.

At about the same time, Tiffany Stern published her groundbreaking book Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, where she details the evidence available about rehearsal practice in Shakespeare’s day. In response to Stern’s research, the American Shakespeare Center set up the Actor’s Renaissance Season, where the first play goes up in just two days, there are no directors, do designers, and no full scripts. It’s still just one of the seasons at the ASC, but it’s one that has gained a lot of attention.  Oxford made a lovely little video about the collaboration between The ASC and Tiffany Stern’s research, which is well worth a watch.

In 1993, The New York Times picked up on the trend writing about companies performing without directors and with minimal rehearsal time, and as these practices gained notice they became more and more prevalent. Today these projects are becoming common and more and more is being learned from experiments with this sort of process. Other companies doing this sort of rehearsal process right now include:

  • Back Room Shakespeare Project- this ensemble in Chicago performs Shakespeare without directors and only rehearse one time before performing in bars.
  • Oxford Shakespeare Company- Performs with three days of rehearsal-- in this instance Richard III performed at Stratford on Avon.
  • A Masters’ student at The Theatre School at DePaul University wrote this lovely take on “Not Rehearsing Shakespeare” and what he learned from the process.

These companies and projects all ask many questions: What was it like in Shakespeare’s day? What kind of benefits can we gain from doing a similar rehearsal process today? Are they just financial and practical--no need to deal with multiple schedules and rent a rehearsal space? Does this sort of environment capture the energy of improv theater? What can we learn about the plays themselves, and in what way were these plays written to facilitate this sort of rehearsal structure? I hope that as these experiments continue (in Taming and beyond) theater will change dramatically and for the better. It certainly seems to be making some waves already.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

I think Tony is a mad-man, a heretic and a genius for having his rehearsals via Skype with each actor individually. I won't say it's an objectively better way to go about making theatre, but I think for the purposes of Off-Off Broadway it's a gosh-darned revolution. You're an actor, but you also happen to work at the Pet Supply Store and Bar-tend on weekends, there's only so much you can make yourself available for. By having just one day (dress rehearsal) that everyone has to commit to to assemble the show, Tony can cast his show based on which actors he wants, not which ones are available to meet with all the other actors. He's essentially cut that headache out.

Of course, that means there's another headache that presents itself. I haven't met any of my cast members, in particular the one which I'll be doing about an hour's worth of improvisation with. Which means when we've gotta bust our asses by ourselves just to be sure that when we get in a room with each other, we've got each other's backs. The ensemble is bonding over a trust-fall, rather than time spent with each other.

I don't know yet whether or not I prefer it, for all I know this could crash and fail, but I honest-to-blog feel pretty good about it, and that's because of the kind of director we have at the helm. My rehearsals with Tony focus on making my side of the show as strong as I can make it so that when it gets put with likewise performances something really cool can happen.