Direct And To The Point: Relevant

I’ve been thinking a lot about Les Mis recently.

I read an article a few years ago about one of the conflicts in the middle east (I don’t remember which conflict) and the fact that many Americans couldn’t understand why the local populations would fight against the American soldiers who came to free them. The author’s point was that the luxury of morality (and fighting for the “good guy”) is hard to maintain when your family is starving. In those circumstances, you fight for whoever will give you a bag of rice.

I should specify; I’ve been thinking about how Les Mis has always seemed like a pretty story rather than something with present day relevance, despite the fact that the overarching concept of Les Mis – a country in the middle of a revolution and the lives it affects – strikes me as incredibly timely. The theme of societal conditions making it easier or harder for a person to do the right thing, is one that I imagine will always be relevant. But, for me, rooting the story in Paris during the French Revolution somehow distances me from that. I keep wondering what it would be like to stage a production of Les Mis in the present (or close to it) and in the Middle East.

Les Miserables and The Middle East

This is not something I’ve thought very far down the road with. At the moment, it’s just a fleeting question that won’t leave me alone. I’m not exactly sure how well a shift of the setting would intersect with the script and score. I don’t imagine Schönberg and Boublil were seeking to make any particular social comment in adapting the novel into the musical. But I do feel safe saying that Victor Hugo was most definitely wrestling with many of the social issue of his day. So, in that sense I feel like it becomes of an interesting question; what if your concept strays from the intention of the adapters but is closer in spirit to original source material?

Then there is the consideration of sides. Within the context of the show, the establishment (the law, represented by Javert) is the villain and students are, if not the hero per se, certainly the good guys trying to win liberty and equality for the people. If you were to set it in the recent Middle East, you would have to pick a side as the oppressive establishment and another as the visionary revolutionists. A move which couldn’t help but be seen as a political statement – something which I would want to avoid, given my ignorance as to the subtly and complexity of the situation. Making a statement you intend to make is one thing. Making a statement purely out of ignorance is another and should be avoided when possible. And even if you could somehow avoid naming names in that regard, there is still the issue of a flag. The barricade and its accompanying flag are significant visual aspects of the story. Removing the flag from that image would significantly reduce the emotional impact of that moment of the show. And making a completely fictional flag, or something “vaguely Middle Eastern” seems like an option that could quickly become offensive.

My next thought was perhaps you could do it in a neutral time and place, a la the recent Broadway production of A View From The Bridge, and let the audience draw it’s own parallels. It doesn’t exactly solve the flag issue, but perhaps something could be established purely with colors, much like the way sports fans rally around their team’s colors. The more distant a story seems – the harder it is for the characters to seem like they overlap with your world in some way whether it’s that their struggles are your struggles, their words sound like the way you speak, or their clothes look like things you wear – the harder it becomes for the story to feel immediate. Perhaps by adopting a more neutral design palate, you could allow the audience to feel closer to the story, by virtue of the set and costume not highlighting the fact that these events took place hundreds of years ago.

When I watch a show, one of the primary things I want from a show is an emotional connection, ideally an empathetic, emotional connection. Any time I hear someone say they don’t like musical theater (or Shakespeare), I always take that as an indication that haven’t seen a production that allowed them to relate to the characters in a meaningful way. So, as a director, I’m always looking for points where an empathetic connection can be strengthened, ways to highlight the relevance of the story being told. Sometimes that comes in the form of adding something, sometimes it come in the form of stripping something down. I’m not sure if this concept would be at all effective. But I’m curious.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Ladies, All The Ladies

This post is a response to the production of Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was recently at St Ann’s Warehouse. Since this was my first time seeing a performance of Henry IV (and this production took the liberty of combining parts 1 and 2) I didn’t feel like it made sense to make this post about those texts. But I am interested in looking at one of the most notable things about this production – its all female cast. One of the things that I aspire to do as a director is to advocate for more and better roles for women. Shakespearean plays can be particularly uninspiring from this vantage point. Often, you’ll have 3 women’s roles to 15 men’s roles, and the size of those roles is significantly smaller in scope. And while Shakespearean plays are something of an open invitation for various conceptual ideas, it’s rare to see an all female production at this level. So, without further ado…Henry IV St Anns Warehouse

No apologies.

The single most striking element of this production was to see women in roles where there was no apologizing, no softness. In roles where they were initiating action, rather than just responding to what life threw at them. It was thrilling. An actress friend of mine had the opportunity to play Peer Gynt when she was in college. She summarized the difference of experience by saying that female roles are about being female, where male roles are about being human. Which sounds bold, but is actually very true especially with regard to females characters who are under the age of 40. Stories where there is a female protagonist are the minority. When they are the protagonist, their character arch typically revolves around love – falling in love, surviving love gone wrong, etc. And when they manage to avoid the love trap, they tend to be about responding to what’s happened to them – a parent has died, they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, a rebel droid won’t leave them alone. Female characters who pursue their own agenda are often portrayed as villains or deranged or both. I don’t find that to be an accurate representation of my life or the lives of the women I know. But when you hear all these stories and none of them reflect the reality you experience, you start to think it doesn’t really exist. So, it was refreshing on a really profound level to see these women have free reign to be fully human.

I forgot.

There were moments during this production where I forgot I was watching women, moments where I saw them as men. I find this fascinating, especially given that there was no attempt made by the production to disguise them as men. Because of the conceit of this production, that the story was taking place inside a women’s prison, all of the women playing male characters were dresses in grey sweats and t-shirts. But no effort was made to pass them off as men. Breasts were not taped down. If they had longer hair, it was simply pulled back in a pony tail. In an interview with Playbill, Lloyd mentioned that she had really encouraged the cast to use space the way men use space (ie. to take up more of it) and that shift felt very palpable. I love when you can do the heavy lifting of your story in an organic way rather than through special effects. If we want to impress people, special effects are great. But if we want people to be able to relate to us, it’s better to use our own facility.

The least interesting…

I found the two female characters of this production (Lady Percy and Mistress Quickly) to be the least interesting. I’m not entirely sure why that was. Certainly, they are among the smaller roles and are not intricately involved in the plot. But I wonder if having an all female cast contributed, in part, to that dynamic. In a production with traditional casting, these roles could display more masculine characteristics – Percy can be blunt in telling people exactly what she thinks, Quickly can crass and bawdy – without ever being in danger of confusing the issue of whether they are playing men or women. I don’t think these roles were intentionally pulled back, but they just didn’t standout. It’s worth thinking about how you distinguish your female roles from your male roles (and what function they serve) when your entire cast is female.

Still different.

I read an article recently that talked about the word “equal”. Its point was that we’ve begun using “equal” as a synonym for the word “same” and that we should strive to avoid that. Equal refers to a fixed quantity. Thus, men and women are not equal. They can have equal rights. They can be paid equal salaries. They can have equal intelligences. But they are not the same items. And when you replace one with the other, while many things will remain the same, there will be a shift in some things. One of the things my husband remarked on with regard to this production was that he missed the genuine affection and comradery between Hal and Falstaff that he had seen in more traditional productions. Which makes sense. The bulk of the interaction between these two revolves around Hal publicly humiliating Falstaff, a dynamic which is all in good fun among a group of guy friends. But among women, that dynamic doesn’t exist. Among women, that behavior is malicious and signals a major breach in the relationship. And since the women where not disguising themselves as men, this change of dynamic altered their relationship and significantly reduced the impact of Hal severing all ties with Falstaff in the final moments of the production.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Grey It Up

I love me a grey character. What I mean by that is I love a character who really makes you weigh how you feel about them. The hero who isn’t the nicest person or doesn’t always do the noble thing. The villain who stirs our pity with a relate-able motive. Some people might call these characters complicated. But the word complicated implies something difficult to understand. I think of these characters as human. They are doing what they feel they have to do. For my tastes, the hero would be as flawed as the villain and the villain would be as right in his argument as the hero. Because then you have a match between two worthy opponents, a match either side could potentially win. Every now and again, you get lucky enough to meet characters who are written like this on the page. These are scripts that I consider to be virtually actor-proof. You could cast almost anyone and as long as they commit to saying the lines, the story will still be compelling. But more often than not you have to do what you can to try to blur the edges.

Grey

Obviously one of the places where you can work to balance out a character is in the casting. Casting against type can be a great way to amp up the humanity of your characters. The caveat here is that you don’t want to cast some who is completely wrong for the part. But there’s often a wider range of actors who could do the role successfully than we consider. Do a quick analysis – what one thing must the character have in order for the story to be believable and what one thing is glaringly absent from the character as it’s written? Does the character really have to be a certain race? A certain gender? A certain age? Especially when you’re working on new work, these “givens” can be much more flexible (and thereby become more interesting) if we allow them to. I think the point where an actor/character intersection becomes the most interesting is when you can find someone who understands (and can deliver) on the one thing you need, but who lives in the world of the one thing that the character is lacking.

Another point where characters can be greyed up is in their interpretation. If we’re working on a script that we can’t change, we don’t have the option of adjusting the arguments to be more balanced. But we can shape the behaviors and influence the motivations in and around the text of the script. We don’t react to events, we react to what we believe about events. Which is to say, it’s not the act, but the context of the act that shapes how we feel about it. As an act, we can agree that killing someone is generally perceived as wrong. But if we believe that someone was killed by accident or in self-defense, how we feel about the killer can shift considerably. As an act, promoting someone might be seen as a nice thing to do. But if one person is promoted in order to smite someone else, suddenly the promotion isn’t as generous an act as it was before. Even if we don’t agree with why someone has done something, knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing goes a long way toward making them feel more human.

First and foremost, we want our characters to be honest and we want the story to make sense. But that’s really the bare minimum. Once that requirement has met, we want to be interested. And when we look around, real life is chock-full of interesting. Things are rarely, if ever, purely black and white. Who is a hero and who is a villain is a constantly shifting landscape. To some degree, we are always a bit of both. Even the “right” answer to any problem leaves a trail of pros and cons in its wake. We own it to ourselves to reflect that in our work.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

 

Direct And To The Point: 5 Seconds Of Caring

When I was a kid, my mother had this phrase – “Five seconds of caring!” – which was constantly being deployed around our house. What it referred to was the fact that it only took “five seconds” to put away the shoes that were left by the door or wipe down the counter where we’d left crumbs from our sandwich. The moral of the story being that it only took a moment to give a damn.

Give a damnI’m in rehearsal for a show at the moment. It’s a big project with lots of moving pieces and our director isn’t able to be in the room with us at all times. For one run in particular, we were left in the hands of our stage manager. I’m involved in a large fight sequence with wooden staffs that are about 5 feet long and just over an inch thick. During the fight, my opponent accidentally landed a strong blow to my fingers. Her staff should have hit my staff, but somehow, my fingers got in the way. There was no blood but it was a severe enough hit for us to have to stop and regroup. I know someone asked it I was ok (I think it was my opponent), to which I replied, “We’ll find out”. We finished the fight and the remainder of the scene that followed it. Following that, I was released from rehearsal. Since my character is killed in the fight, and our director was not in the room, there wouldn’t be notes and there was no reason for me to stay.

I left rehearsal feeling less than thrilled, to put it mildly. I expected that our stage manager would check in with me to make sure everything was fine, but there was only, “Great. Cotton, you’re released. Moving on to the next scene.” Granted, I’m an adult and no bones were broken and no blood was spilled. But I was hit in a rehearsal with enough force to leave purple bruises on my fingers. The fight choreographer did follow me out into the hall to make sure I was ok and ask if I thought we needed to rework anything to make it safer, which I sincerely appreciated. But the person in charge did not take five seconds to investigate the extent of the injury that happened in their rehearsal.

I don’t mean to imply that our stage manager wasn’t sufficiently doing her job. I honestly think it was just a moment where she made the assumption that everything was fine. But the keystone of people feeling cared for is that tiny bit of extra concern. And when things are really starting to get hectic, it’s easy for that to get pushed aside. Not caring is the default of caring, much like chaos is the fault of order.

When you are the one who’s actually in charge, when you are the one left in charge, when you somehow get stuck being the face of an organization, it’s your job to care. Set the tone. Set the expectation. How you lead will greatly impact those in your charge. Patients sue doctors not because they have actually received inferior medical care, but because they feel they have been slighted. Military personnel when asked why they risked life and limb to save a fellow soldier in battle often respond, “they would have done the same for me”.  If we want a team of people to give us their everything, they have to know we really care about them. Not just when it’s easy or convenient, but at every turn.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Play The Cards You Have

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and specifically his book David and Goliath. David and Goliath is a case study about playing the cards you’re dealt to the best advantage possible. It explores the possibility that the thing everyone else views as your weakness may in fact be the root of your competitive edge. I love this concept on many levels, but I think it’s a great thing to remember in the realm of directing.

There will always be limitations and things you don’t have – not enough time, not enough money, no say over who gets cast in certain roles. Very rarely will we ever have carte blanche. And I think that’s a great thing. Embracing our limitations can really help us get clear on what is most important in our story and get creative with how we accomplish that. Dream your dreams about who you would cast or what kind of crazy effects and costumes you would have in your ideal world. Then take a step back and look at the essence of that ideal. Get creative with how you can manifest that essence. Talk to you team in terms of those essences.

Playing Cards

If your ideal set would be a magnificent castle, what is the importance of that castle? Is it to convey the cold, stark environment of being surrounded by stone? If so, can you convey that in a stripped down space and a desolate color choice? Or maybe a looming throne made of cinder blocks? Or maybe even harsh florescent lighting? Is it to convey the grandeur of being a royal? Could that be conveyed through some choice costuming and one really luxurious element, like an enormous stained glass window?

If your ideal leading lady is sexy, what are the ways the woman who’s in that role is sexy? And how can that integrate with the character? On some people, it’s their intelligence that makes them sexy. On others, it’s their sense of humor. On still other people, it’s their drive. Comedians talk about how the material that one comedian can kill with can fall completely flat with someone else. Both comedians are funny, but they’re only funny in their own style of humor.

If your show calls for a big dance number and you don’t have a single dancer in your cast, choreograph to the level that your cast can do. There are dance moves that look easy which are actually very hard and dance moves that look hard that are actually pretty easy. The best ones will always be the ones your dances can do. And a lot can be done to make arm movements and moving within certain patterns look impressive. If George Balanchine can choreograph for elephants, surely something can be done for those that happen to have two left feet.

Look at what you have at your disposal and work from there. As artists, we’re always looking to see how we can tell our stories in new and compelling ways.We’re always asking what unique interpretation we can bring to the mix. What you can’t do (or what you don’t have) is a great way to force yourself to think of other solutions. The core of creativity is being able to generate an array of strategies and perspectives. Any time we become fixated on solving the question in only one way, we’re selling ourselves short. Knowing what is essential in order for the pieces of your story to click, and being able to talk to your team in those terms will help everyone have a clear picture of the end goal is and help you get there in a way that’s unique to your production.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Cymbeline

This post is inspired by The Public Theater’s most recent production of Cymbeline, directed by Daniel Sullivan. Previously, I had had the pleasure of seeing Fiasco Theater production of this work. These viewings make up the sum total of my background with this play.

As I understand it, this production harkened back to a previous production Mr. Sullivan and set designer Riccardo Hernandez had worked on together in 1999 at the Old Globe. It features a found space aesthetic, with locations being suggested by key pieces of furniture and seats which are visible to the audience for the actors to sit in when they are “off stage”. The cast is small with most everyone doubling or tripling roles. This is a style of performance that I find to be a lot of fun as an audience member. I feel like it allows me to engage with the imaginative aspect of the storytelling and not be distracted by other design elements. It feels more like we (actors and audience alike) are all playing make believe together. You can see all the gears of the machine as it’s working. (As opposed to the more typical style of theater where everything is hidden and you only see the pieces you’re shown.) I wish this production had embraced this style more fully. The costumes, for example, could have been more suggested than actualized, such that that actors could add or subtract pieces on stage in order to become their different characters. Rather than having to be hidden away in a changing booth for a complete costume change. The “off stage” seats for the actors were visible, but definitely in the shadows. I would have loved for them to be plainly on display. In the prologue type scene right at the top of the play, they make use of the audience by having them speak selected lines. I wish they had found a way to work this in at some other point in the play. But, stylistic quibbles aside, these are my thoughts as they relate to the storyline…Cymbeline

Imogen Descending.

I think it’s safe to say that the first scene, where Posthumus is being banished, marks the beginning of a series of events for Imogen where everything in her life gets progressively worse (until the last scene when everything is righted). As such, it’s crucial for the moments where it seems like things might be improving to be as joyful as possible. I think it’s also important to pace each subsequent tragedy so that the distress level is able to continue to rise with each new turn. And within that, to explore the full spectrum of emotions we feel when we’re in distress, in order to keep her story from becoming one-note.

The Stupidity of Cloten.

There is lots of fun to be had in the stupidity of Cloten, and I think Hamish Linklater milked each and every opportunity. But I think Cloten’s stupidity also has to contribute to his danger. It’s important to believe that he would be capable of making good on his threats to rape Imogen on Posthumus’ dead body, given the opportunity. It’s important to believe that he is a legitimate threat to Belarius and his boys if he were left alive. Otherwise, the beading just seems cruel (and not an expression of noble, princely instincts. His danger (which builds) is that he’s stupid and he’s increasingly frustrated by the fact that everyone knows he’s stupid. I think he needs to have a degree of physical brutishness to him, so that what he lacks in skill and intelligence he makes up for in rage and brute strength. He’s a terrible fighter with regard to having any actual ability when he gets mad and goes ballistic, damage will be done.

The Villainous Iachimo.

One of the things that I thought worked exquisitely in this production was Raul Esparza’s performance of Iachimo. It’s easy (and boring) for Shakespeare’s villains to fall into being evil for the sake of being evil. However, if you can convey some sort of reason for why they’re doing what they’re doing (which Shakespeare often leaves unanswered) it becomes mesmerizing.

In this production, Iachimo became that guy whose gaping insecurity makes it so that he always has to win, always have to have the last word, can never let an offense go – regardless of the cost to himself or others. This driving insecurity made everything else about him make sense.

The Villainous Queen.

Likewise, the Queen, being another villain, needs her motive. In the production that I saw by Fiasco Theater, if felt very clear that the Queen was on a mission to get Cloten on the throne (so that she could rule the country by dictating his every move). Her distain for both Cymbeline and Imogen as obstacles on this path were palpable. In this production, that wasn’t as strong and, as result, her deathbed confession seemed to come a bit out of left field. I knew that she was evil, but I didn’t get a clear sense of why and exactly who she was for or against.

Pisanio with the Potion.

I assume that Pisanio, being a smart and observant servant within the court, knows that the Queen is not to be trusted. As such, it begs the question why he believes that the potion he gets from her is capable of bringing people back from the verge of death. I think the way to package this is for her command that he make Imogen give up on the idea of being with Posthumus (and her threat that he should also disavow Posthumus if he knows what’s good for him) to be as menacing as possible. So that when she give him the potion immediately following that, it feels like a bribe or an act of making him complicit with her plans. Her speech to him needs to be like he’s just been chosen by the most violent of street gangs and he better deliver or else. That way the potion becomes a gift worthy of the stakes and it’s a shocking enough scenario that Pisanio never really stops to think about why she might have given him such a valuable thing.

The Bodies.

Aside from the fact that Shakespeare needs the bodies to be uncovered in order for his scene to continue to play out the way that it does, it’s ridiculously strange that Belarius and his boys leave the Fidele/Imogen and Cloten corpses uncovered. I don’t know if there’s anything that can really be done about, based on how the text is. I wonder if there’s a way to imply that the Belarius crew had to leave suddenly because of the approach of Caius Lucius and his men.

The Battle.

The battle scenes are quick and rather chaotic, especially given that Posthumus switches from fighting for Rome to fighting for Britain in the middle of it…and then ends up being jailed by the Brits. So, whatever can be done to make all of that clearer should be done. I feel like costuming that quickly and clearly distinguishes the Romans from the Brits is a good start. I also wonder if there’s a way to see Posthumus be caught with with some part of the Roman uniform on him. Like if the Romans where red capes and the corner of a red cape is seen sticking out of Posthumus’s bag? That seems a bit trite, but I was completely confused about how Posthumus ended up in Cymbeline’s jail. So perhaps something like that is worth it for the sake of clarity. Also, perhaps it makes sense to just cut that scene in jail? I think it’s enough if we know that he’s been captured by the Brits.

That Final Scene.

That final scene is a doozie with plot points wrapping up right, left and center. The thing that I really wanted from this last scene was better stage pictures. I don’t mean to imply that the pictures Mr. Sullivan and his cast created were not good ones. What I do mean, is that with all of the disparate plot lines coming together so quickly, it’s difficult to maintain visually what everyone’s relationship is to everyone else. I don’t have a solution for this, but I would definitely want to spend some time on it in rehearsal.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: The Tempest

This post is inspired by the recent production of The Tempest, produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival and directed by Michael Greif. My previous experience with The Tempest include seeing other full productions once or twice before and playing Miranda in a production which I am hard pressed to remember. Like any Shakespearean play, the it has its warts and its gems.

My specific thoughts on it are as follows:

– Sorting Out The Storm

The play opens on a boat that’s in the middle of being shipwrecked by a storm. Understandably, it’s a fairly chaotic moment. And it involves a large group of people. Since the dialogue isn’t loaded down with a whole lot of exposition, I would want to use this scene to distinguish the relationships between the 4 main groups of people who come from the boat. They are:

  • The Sailors: The Captain and Crew of the boat. They want the king and all his entourage to out of the way and stay safely below deck.
  • The Good Guys: Alonso (the King), Ferdinand (the Prince) and Gonzalo (the Courtier). These guys are kind of just hanging out trying to not die in the storm. Ferdinand does not technically appear in scene (he has no lines), but given that we don’t otherwise see him with him father until the end of the play, this is the one point where we could visually establish their relationship.
  • The Bad Guys: Antonio (the Duke) and Sebastian (the King’s Brother). These guys are hotheads. They’re quick to berate the crew and think they are the ones who should be calling all the shots.
  • The Fools: Stephano and Trinculo. These clowns don’t have any lines in the first scene, but I think it would be good to see them, so that we can establish visually that they were on the boat. Plus their first scene doesn’t come up until fairly late in the play. (In my ideal world, I would also have these two do a quick interstitial cross, after we’ve established that the men from the boat are wandering around the island but before their first scene, just to establish that they are also alive and wandering the island.) These guys largely live to get drunk and secure the best station in life that they can with the least amount of energy.

If we can establish these groups either through stage pictures or by costuming (or both), that lays a great foundation for what’s coming up.

Ship at Sea– Miranda/Prospero Relationship

There’s something wonderfully teenage about the relationship Miranda has with her father. This relationship strikes me as one of the most contemporary feeling parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. Many of the others seem to have a formal distance between parent and child, but this one seems much closer. There is a sense of banter. It feels like Miranda has been raised to consider her father as an equal and he, for his part, largely enjoys being able to converse with her now that she is becoming an adult (although, he is sometimes annoyed with her precociousness). In their first scene, it’s important for Prospero to drive the scene. If he doesn’t keep speaking (or if what he’s saying isn’t significant enough to Miranda) she should (given the context of the scene) interrupt him – initially in an effort to save the ship she thinks is sinking and then to find out more about this astonishing secret past that he reveals. (I think it’s also helpful if in his telling of this backstory, if Prospero can highlight with team we’re supposed to root for – Milan or Naples. Because to me, those cities are interchangeable as I’m sitting there listening to the play. But they are most definitely NOT interchangeable to Prospero (or any of the people who were on the boat), and that’s information worth knowing.)

– That Scene with Prospero, Miranda and Caliban

Why, for the love of God, does Prospero bring Miranda with him when he goes to see Caliban, the beast-man who tried to rape her?!? This production at one point even had Prospero pushing Miranda toward Caliban – a choice which I still cannot fathom. She doesn’t have any lines while Caliban is present. It almost seems like she’s there in the scene with Caliban just to have her on stage when Ferdinand enters a few moments later. Regardless, I think we have to see Prospero protecting her from Caliban. Otherwise, Prospero wins the award for worst dad ever. Also, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for Prospero and Miranda to go see Caliban together. It seems like this is how things typically unfold. I suppose if Caliban is being made to fetch their wood and build their fire, he would be going to their dwelling, at some point, to do so. And in that case, it’s better for Miranda to be away from there and safely with her father. But I don’t think that reasoning is implicit in the text and I’m not sure if there’s a way to trigger it non-verbally. Maybe if there’s a way to see him doing the labor at their dwelling? (This production had a prison like cell that Caliban emerged from, which made sense to me. It seems to me that one would keep Caliban around (rather than kill him) only if his value outweighs his danger. Only if he’s able to do major physical labor that you are unable to do. However, that creates the need to be able to restrain him from being able to harm Miranda or restrain Miranda from wandering the island by herself so that she doesn’t encounter him alone. Prospero doing a bit of both seems likely.) I don’t know. It always strikes me as really weird scene.

– Prospero

It’s easy for Prospero to seem like an ass. He put the country in his brother’s control while he was off studying magic. Then he doesn’t like that by the time he gets back all the supporting officials have become loyal to his brother. Perhaps taking a magic hiatus is not a crime worthy of exile, but it’s also not the best way to handle your divine responsibilities. He continues to renege on his promise to release Ariel, despite Ariel doing everything he says. In order for me to root for Prospero to be restored to his throne, I would like to see some kind of recognition of his failings, like “this was partly my fault for studying magic instead of ruling my country.” “Ariel, I know I said you could go, but I still need you so I’m going to have to keep you locked up for a bit longer.” I know these aren’t in the text, but I think they could be implied in the delivery. He also enslaves Caliban. He “enslaves” Ferdinand (who is presumably treated better than Caliban, but is charged with doing exactly the same labor). In light of these not so noble actions, I think it’s important to look for ways in which he can be likeable because ultimately we want to root for him to regain his throne. We want to believe that he’s a competent ruler. (I also think it’s worth noting that Prospero need not be aged to the point of having white hair. By the timeline laid out Miranda is supposed to be 15. Even if we age her up to her 20s, Prospero could easily be only in his 40s. Indeed, Sam Waterston played this same role at The Public years ago. I mention this because I tend see the part played by men who appear to be in their 60s.)

– Caliban

Caliban is incredibly articulate for someone who’s speaking in a second language – the bulk of his lines are even in verse. This production tried to give him some kind of speech impediment, as a means of conveying his brutish, I’m-part-animal quality – as though speaking the language were still difficult for him. But we have to remember it’s been 12 years since Miranda and Prospero landed on the island. Conservatively, Caliban’s been speaking this language, and only this language unless he speaks to the other animals on the island, for the past 10 years. Even if he has some kind of accent (or speech impediment), finding the words (because of a language barrier) should not come in to play. I think his beast-ness should instead come from some kind of huge physical presence. I would love for him to come across as something like Wolverine or the Incredible Hulk – a ridiculously strong, basically human form with wild emotions who’s super useful for certain things but difficult to control. Is Lebron James available? Because he would be about the right size to make everyone else seem puny.

– The Island

I would love for the island itself to come across as beautiful, but crazy dangerous – like the rainforest where many of the plants and critters are gorgeous, but potentially deadly. Not sure how you convey that. Perhaps there could be some staging with Miranda and Ferdinand where you see her stopping him from touching some of the wild life? Where you see her indicating “eat this, not that” or “don’t touch those”. Especially, since you have the lines where Caliban talks about how he taught Miranda and Prospero how to survive on the island. It would stand to reason that Ferdinand would also need to be taught some survival basics about the terrain.

– Magic Rules

Wherever there is magic, there are rules for magic. It’s important to clarify at least for the cast, if not also for the audience, what the rules are because rules help us understand how the game is being played. Prospero seems to be able to exercise physical control over the bodies of others in his immediate vicinity – plaguing Caliban with cramps, freezing Ferdinand’s arm as he reaches for his sword, making Miranda instantly fall asleep – but lacks the ability to control the sea and the winds. (Presumably, since this is what he makes Ariel do and why he seems to be keeping Ariel prisoner). One of the things I appreciated in this production was a representation of Ariel causing the storm. This production utilized an army of spirits under Ariel’s command, which I liked. But I would I have liked to see a more tangible communication between him and his legions or more of a recognition that he was directing them to do what they were doing. (The pronoun “he” will be used for this post, since this production chose to cast this role as male.) Although, Ariel having a whole troupe of spirits does make me wonder why he can’t/doesn’t utilize that against Prospero. It makes me want a clearer understanding of what exactly Prospero’s hold over Ariel is. At the end of the play we have Prospero breaking his staff (and thereby giving up his magic powers). It’s possible to tie this to Ariel’s freedom, but this is only satisfying if we can establish a more direct link with this object being the thing that keeps Ariel prisoner throughout the play. (Writing this I’m reminded of a story that was on The Jim Henson Hour called The Heartless Giant. Basically the Giant is unkillable because his heart is hidden in a vault somewhere far away…until someone tracks the heart down and crushes it. Perhaps this kind of mythology could be established for Ariel and Prospero – where Prospero physically holds an aspect of Ariel captive, so that Ariel’s form can roam around the island but never leave until what Prospero has is relinquished. I’ll grant that this could be tricky to establish, but it’s interesting to me.) Also, magic is not splendor, glitz or glamor. Magic is something we cannot explain.

– What Turns Prospero’s Heart?

Prospero spends the bulk of the play seeking revenge on his brother and then when they are finally face to face he’s like “it’s cool, I forgive you.” Which begs the question, why does Prospero have this sudden change of heart? This production had a fun moment, where Miranda, in her delight and wonder at seeing a whole crowd of people on the island, unknowingly embraces her uncle – the one person her father would have most strongly objected to her hugging had he been able to stop her in time. While I didn’t see them utilize this moment in this way, I think it could be shaped as the trigger for his change of heart.

– That Wedding

I’ve always found the wedding to be incredibly dull. I would love to see it really feel like the show erupts into celebration when the goddesses arrive. There is nothing that advances the plot in the lines that the Goddesses have. Why not turn that into some great gospel number…maybe reminiscent of the goddesses from Disney’s Hercules? Also, Miranda says she’s never seen another woman’s face (and she’s soon about to be wowed by the miracle of humans when she sees her uncle and the other men from the ship), so perhaps it’s impactful to not see these goddesses as fancy humans? Perhaps they appear as some kind of creature? Or perhaps some element of nature (maybe in puppet form)? Or maybe even as shadows?

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: I Am Not A They

I was working on a staged reading recently. Rehearsal time was limited, but it was just a brief excerpt of a larger work. The hope (expectation) of the creative team was that everyone would be off book for the final presentation. The end of our one rehearsal concluded with notes from the director, one of which went something like this, “I’m not going to name names, but some of you really haven’t done enough preparation for this project. You guys are incredibly talented, but you need to go home and do your homework.”

The Crowd

It’s easy to imagine why this director addressed this issue in this fashion. He may have felt pressed for time. He may not have wanted to single anyone out. He may have just not really thought about it. But ultimately, I think it did more harm than good.

My initial response was one of confused shame. Did he mean me? I had been involved with this project in a previous iteration and while I was referring to my script due to changes that had been made late the night before I was not glued to it. I decided that he was not talking about me. I decided he was talking about two (possibly three) people out of our ten person ensemble. Certainly not the majority that you might infer from a group note like that. As I rode the elevator down with some other members of my cast (after a round of “Did you think I was unprepared?”) the consensus that was reached was this: when you give a note like that, the offenders don’t think it’s for them and everyone else is already doing it.

The negative effects here are two fold. First, if his note was meant to apply to any of us who were in that elevator, it was not received. We all came to the conclusion that it was a note we should disregard. Any time an actor hears a note and thinks, “that must be meant for someone else,” is dangerous. I think it sets a precedent for your future notes to be ignored and/or significantly watered down. Second, the scolding tone of the note created a negative emotional tone for the relationship. Of our 10 person cast, only one of the actors had worked with the director previously. For the rest of us, our first interaction with this person was being put on the defensive with regard to our professionalism in how we had prepared for this project.

My point is that this was not a group note. This was an individual note that happened to pertain to 2 or 3 people. If you’re going to give a group note, it should be about information. (Any time you exit stage left, be sure to pull the curtain behind you.) If it’s behavioral (Learns your lines. Pick up your cues. Etc.), it should be an individual note. Our strongest potential for change (which is what we’re trying to do when we give notes), lies in our ability to make our relationships personal – our ability to say I see you specifically and what you’re doing matters to me. It give the note immediacy, urgency and accountability. Giving personal notes, especially unpleasant ones like “you need to work harder” take more effort. But it reaps more rewards.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: All In The…Timing

My last post was inspired by Hamilton. This one is inspired by The Flick (directed by Sam Gold, currently remounted with its original cast at the Barrow Street Theatre). Or rather, this post is inspired by the radically different pacing that’s exhibited by these two shows and the question of how timing effects storytelling.

Both of these shows are on the longer side. Hamilton was running around 2 hours and 45 minutes when I saw it. The Flick ran around 3 hours in it’s previous run at Playwright’s Horizon. (Although, it was 3 hours and 30 minutes when I saw it at Barrow Street, which was during previews. So perhaps they are in the process of tightening it up.) I would wager that Hamilton squeezes in at least double the volume of words that The Flick does within that roughly 3 hour period. Hamilton is an ever singing, ever moving roller coaster. The Flick is a slow burn of sparse language and even sparser action. Stylistically, I don’t know if these shows could be more different. Yet, in theory, the goal remains the same – tell the story at hand with the greatest emotional impact possible.

As a general rule, I believe that lines should be delivered as quickly as possible while maintaining the integrity of the story. I believe that we should speak at the speed of thought (which tends to be pretty fast) and that pauses should be earned. As such, The Flick was a challenging piece for me to sit through with its massive gaps between sparse exchanges of dialogue. And while it was well executed by the performers and achieved the Chekhovian effect of making ordinary interactions poignant, I couldn’t help but wonder if all that time was really necessary.Snail

Because I’m really not sure that it was. I feel conflicted saying that. As I read various articles about how technology is shortening our attention spans – how musicians are having their instrumental interludes gutted in order to be played on the radio and the acronym TLDR (to long, didn’t read) haunts articles that take longer than 60 seconds to read – I feel determined to retain my ability to focus in concentrated blocks of time. But at the same time I have very little use for theater that is described as being best for “serious theater goers” (as reviews from The Flick‘s initial run hearkened to). If our audience has to work to stay engaged with our story, maybe we need to adapt how we’re telling it. I genuinely don’t know what the answer to this is.

I would love to know, from a scientific standpoint, how time – specifically the gaps between cues – effects perception of the story. This is clearly the issue at hand for film editors all the time. But I would love to see a controlled experiment where the pauses between lines were systematically shortened to test whether or not the scene could be as effective in a shorter amount of time. Much like the way researchers test whether people make higher donations after receiving appeals letters written in blue on black ink. Until then, we’ll have to continue to feel it out.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Start At The Top

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk back for Hamilton, the fantastic new show by Lin-Manuel Miranda that’s currently playing at the Public. The show is sung (or rapped) straight through from beginning to end. During the talk back, someone asked if Lin had ever considered making the format of the show be more like a traditional musical, with scenes broken up by songs. Lin responded that they had tried that, but because the language in the songs was so heightened there didn’t seem to be anyway for the scenes to maintain the momentum of the music. So, instead they opted to let the piece be sung through, to start at a high point and build from there. And, amazingly, this is exactly what watching the show feels like. The opening number feels like you’ve been shot out of a cannon and the story continues to escalate through the whole show. It’s one of the few performances where I’ve been exhausted by the end, as an audience member, because I have been watching and listening so intensely from start to finish.

This strikes me as a terrifying, but fantastic way to operate. Throw out the best idea you have and continue to raise the stakes. Often my instinct when I have an idea I’m really excited about is to view it as the climax (figuring out how to appropriately scale everything back that comes before it) rather than the starting point. This approach makes a lot of logical sense. It’s much easier to plot your course if you know where your going. Plus, if you start with your best idea right out of the gate, you’re in the daunting position of having to meet or exceed it in your next scene/song/moment. But the value of an artist lies in being able to present something in a way that feels fresh and new and relevant, not repackaging the same old thing over and over again. Which means part of our job description is stepping out onto a limb and taking risks.

If you want to do big things, you have to think big thoughts. The way we get to a point where we think in big thoughts, is by routinely stretching our brain (and our comfort level) to produce big thoughts. If you read any of James Altucher’s work (and I highly recommend it) this echoes his concept of how you can grow your creativity and train yourself to become an idea machine – by continually pushing your brain to think that way.

It’s not genius, it’s training. Time to start doing the heavy lifting.

(I’m trying to write shorter posts, so it’s easier for you to read and me to write. I can’t make any promises, but I’m trying.)

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!