Monday, September 26, 2016

Jack Straw: A Literary Prequel and a Plea

The Life and Death of Jack Straw is not one of the best known plays of the early modern period (and that may be an understatement), but fans of Shakespeare will be familiar with the historical circumstances of the period, and of peasant rebellions, through the works of Shakespeare: most notably Richard II, 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI. The events preceding the deposition of Richard II are almost the same as those surrounding the usurpation of Henry VI, and echoes of those events could certainly be heard in the last decade of Elizabeth I's reign.

Richard II's portrait at Westminster Abbey, ~1495.

Jack Straw serves as a literary prequel to Shakespeare's Richard II. The events of Jack Straw take place in the early years of Richard II's reign, and lay the foundation for the events Shakespeare depicts in that king's eponymous play. In Jack Straw we see Richard II, little more than a child, and hopelessly overwhelmed by the concept and the practical requirements of kingship: he would rather be praying than ruling. Richard blushes at the thought of his subjects dealing with him so rudely and brazenly, but he is also squeamish about punishing them. Richard is so out of his element here that his mother comes to the site of the rebellion to advise him. 

The Death of Wat Tyler from Jean Froissart's Chronicles (15th c.).
Richard II's incompetence is on display in Shakespeare's play, but Jack Straw gives us the chance to see the foundation for the  Richard's deposition. Where Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of Richard's inefficacy in Richard II; Jack Straw more completely paints a portrait of events that plunged England into 80 years of civil war. And that is a portrait that was especially important in the early 1590s: the royal succession was doubtful, and Elizabeth I was gaining in years. Elizabeth's military campaigns in France and the Nine Years' War was just beginning in Ireland, and a new generation of leaders were governing on the privy council, and Elizabeth increasingly relied on spies and propaganda to maintain the illusion of peaceful and stable governance. 

In 1593 (or 4), Jack Straw wouldn't have just been a literary prequel to the Shakespeare's English histories, it was also a plea to prevent history from repeating itself. Given that Shakespeare was himself writing his earlier English histories at that time, he seems to have had similar concerns. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Look Back at Directing "What, Lamb! What, Ladybird!"

Directing What, Lamb! What, Ladybird! was a learning experience for everyone, myself included. There are three concrete lessons about directing and theater production that I took away with from the experience.

The first is that simplicity is your friend, but it requires infinitely more planning. The script for WLWL switches  between scholarly discourse, Shakespearean drama, and contemporary relationships, and I felt that the more stripped down the set and the action, the better the audience would be able to follow the narrative. Simple staging creates visual tropes quickly, and it is nearly impossible to establish a new performance semiology after the first few minutes of the play: by then the audience has already accepted whatever conventions you’ve established. I had to learn how to be not just simple but utterly clear as well.

From left to right: Sarah Sawyer, Nadia Brown, Keaton Morris-Stan,
and Courtney McClellan in Bad Quarto's production of What, Lamb! What, Ladybird!
by Charlene V. Smith. Directed by Alex Dabertin. 
This understanding let me focus on the essentials of the piece as I saw them: knowledge (embodied in an easel that acted as a primitive slideshow), love (embodied in a set bed), and the body of the actor. By having only these elements in the room, we could play with them and hopefully draw conclusions between them.

This minimalist approach also made a script whose costume and prop changes could have been mechanically impossible relatively easy to organize. It’s the same way that Shakespeare can take you from Egypt to Rome in the amount of time it takes one scene of actors to exit and another to enter.

The second lesson was one of organization and timing. After having previously worked with very good stage managers and producers, I was in charge of scheduling on WLWL. I have never understood the value of my collaborator’s time, or the company’s resources, than when I was put in charge of them. I learned how to manage the time of my collaborators, a lesson that will serve me in good stead in the future when trying to balance the needs of future projects.

From left to right: Dani Martineck, Courtney McClellan, Nadia Brown,
and Sarah Sawyer in Bad Quarto's production of What, Lamb! What, Ladybird!
by Charlene V. Smith. Directed by Alex Dabertin. 
Finally, I learned the value and necessity of collaboration, even in a more isolated environment. I had developed a set list to open the show of what would traditionally be guitar and voice songs, but I neglected to cast a guitarist (purely by accident)  But the cast rose to the occasion. Sarah and Courtney, when staring down the barrel of a pop song, took it upon themselves to do it acapella, which lent the opening a unique emotional tone. In another vein, I had an idea for staging involving an evolving set, and Tony showed me how morphing semiotics could make an audience uncertain about the piece. In all honesty, the best lesson I learned from this experience was the direct product of collaboration. Collaboration is a word I regularly hear spoken, but that I often need reminding of, partly because collaboration often entails letting someone else tweak a small piece of mise en scene (“What if the door were over there?”) when it can do so much more and evolve the whole piece. No matter how good I thought my ideas were, the piece always became better when I had Tony’s input, and the input of my cast.

In addition to these three concrete lessons, I rediscovered something else: I love directing actors. Really digging into a text with them and discovering a way to bring us to the same page, something Bad Quarto’s staging method really made paramount, making the work better and more fun. I am also excited because I will have the chance to apply these lessons as the Assistant Director on Bad Quarto’s upcoming production of The Life and Death of Jack Straw in November.