Day 5: May 30, 2019
“It’s like a restoration project, isn’t it?” Anthony Cochrane, acting company member
I woke up today and saw that there are several emails swirling about the need to adjust the casting for the RICHARD III reading. One of our actresses got a tv writing offer and and she is winging her way to Hollywood even as I type! Talk about your dramatic turnaround! Tell me life doesn’t change in an instant – in this case, it was a phone call from NBC. That’s awesome for her. Luckily, we had a backup plan for that reading, and so I think we can easily absorb the roles into the current cast members.
I always knew that the odds for such shifting were great. And so I have been even more characteristically pragmatic and cavalier about casting than I might normally be. There is going to be a lot of shuffling before this marathon has been run, and we all need to lean in to that. It’s time to bring out our Akido training.
It would have been easier from a producer’s standpoint to assign the same 10 actors in five readings (one a week). But I didn’t like the ridigity of that because so many of the directors and playwrights don’t live in NY, and don’t know (yet!) what a superlative group of actors Ada Karamanyan (our casting director) and Taylor have put together. I mean, pound for pound, people, this is a stellar group!
But like in any relationship, we like to work with who we know. I don’t know about 1/3 of this acting company myself, so even I needed the additional context and information that Ada has been able to provide. It has been my philosophy to meet people where they are. And then gently move them along to a different way of thinking. This method requires time and patience, both of which I am running out of right now.
The name of my playwright book is going to be “Unless you can prove to me it’s a typo, the playwright is always right.” I built this program around playwrights and actors. And usually, I will default to the wishes of the playwright. Usually. When it comes to casting, we have tried to bring in as many actors that the playwright knows as possible. With the repertory grid, however, there are cases in which we couldn’t accommodate those requests. And while there has been a lot of back and forthing between casting and the teams (that’s what I call each play), I haven’t had to use my Artistic Director prerogative which is that I make the final casting choices. The playwrights and directors don’t have final say, actually. It takes a lot of patience and emailing to bring people to agree. It would be much easier to just say, “This is how it’s going to roll.” Which is my nature, and so this has been an amazing period of uncharacteristic restraint on my part!
I spent the early morning editing a few texts – yes, there are still some of the plays that aren’t quite finished. I threw the playwrights a curve when I set up this festival. The “rules” of the translation assignment were that they couldn’t cut anything. Well, I’m asking them to cut only because of the nature of a staged reading. And it’s hard. One of my interests in this project has been to test the speed of contemporary syntax versus Elizabethan. And to see if we would be more willing to hang in there if we didn’t have to work so hard all the time at figuring out what was being said. I’d love to hear your thoughts about these two aspects, so catch me in the lobby at CSC.
The rest of the morning I did the 100 yard dash among the three Henry 6’s. I happened to catch the opening moments of H6.2 which starts out like a cannon shot. And the actors were in it to win it. Stakes were incredibly high and it was riveting. One of the biggest challenges about the history plays is that it’s hard to know who’s who. And so they were trying to figure out a system to help identify characters. We signed an agreement with CSC that we would not have paper playbills to hand out. Which we support in theory but gee it’s been hard on audiences to not have a cheatsheet in front of them. These history plays seem to recycle the same names over and over again, and even within the plays, it’s hard to keep track of those Dukes! King Edward III caused the whole problem by having seven sons.
I slipped into H6.1 and heard director Leah Gardiner say, “I don’t like this” at the end of a sequence of actors popping up and moving from music stand to music stand. These Henrys have some of our larger casts in them, and this team is in a small rehearsal room, and suddenly actors, notebooks, and music stands were clashing. So she needed to spend time untangling that. At one point she considered having the actors playing English characters sit on one side and the actors playing French characters on the other. But because of the doubling, it’s not that clean. Purposefully so. If I remember, I’ll bore you more with my thinking about the doubling scheme in a future blog.
I managed to catch a monologue of Duke of York (aka soon to be Richard 3) when I dashed upstairs to the H6.3 room. One of the many things I am looking forward to in this first week is to hear York end H6.3 and the next afternoon, hear him pick up at the beginning of R3 where he left off the night before.
And, oh yeah, it was “Amy Freed” day at CSC. And by that I mean that both of the translations read today were written by her. We had SHREW in the afternoon, and then TITUS tonight. Our first double day!
Another fun thing that is emerging is that every director has a different way of doing staged readings. And in the cases of these two plays, their styles matched the tones of the plays in a beautiful, formalistic way. And, being the formalist that I am, you know how much I would love that!
I read on a rehearsal report that Jackson (Gay, director for SHREW) and Amy were contemplating purchasing some costumes. It was a vague mention in the report, but I wanted to nip that in the bud because I won’t want these readings to escalate into lights, sound, props, etc. However, Jackson’s point about it was to help us see the cross-dressing moment between Lucentio and Tranio. As well as have some fun identifying the “fake” Vincentio with the “right” Vincentio.
And OMG it was fun! I wanted to hear the Induction and especially to see what happens if the actor playing Petruchio plays Christopher Sly, the character that the Duke plays a trick on. The question for me in the play is: Who is the Shrew? (Which, by the way, was originally a term to describe men.) The Induction is also highly stylized which I think is useful that that dramatic arc way. Could we look at this play with the lens of “false” to “true” as I talked about in 2GENTS?
It’s hard to keep the dots connected, because Shakespeare drops the convention after two scenes. (There is one small interjection from Sly, which we cut for this reading.)
Were I working on this play with Bill, I’m sure I would have made some kind of structural comment about carrying that device forward. I do believe this is an early play, and it’s hard to know how it got put together. There is some speculation that in these early days of the professional playwrighting, it may have been a lot like today’s writers’ rooms. (Amy speculated about that in the talk-back on TITUS. I mean, it’s a provocative theory to think that Bill might have invited others in to contribute, and suddenly, we have a sequence of four stabbings, which is weirdly funny, and we’re baking people in a pie. Hm. Sweeny Todd, anyone?)
Anyway, the reading was delightful today. Samy Nour Younes and Becca Blackwell exchanged jackets with Italian logos on them, and Samy donned some glasses to look like a scholar. That’s all it took for shenanigans to ensue.
And then we got to that moment at the end, and I watched everyone lean in to see what Susannah Rogers would do with THAT SPEECH. I told you already that there had been a long discussion about it in the rehearsal room. I had shared with the cast that one of my interests with Play on is that we unvarnish these speeches. I want to know what it literally is first before I figure out what to do about it.
We have no idea how an audience might have received the speech 400 years ago. The laws of the land were certainly in favor of men, and women were chattel. I don’t like hearing that today, but it was a fact. How it might have been ingrained in the minds of men and women (as a woman, I certainly have my share of self-deprecating, inferiority complex going on).
Dramaturgically, there are two hinge points in the speech. And they both come rather late. (I might have asked Bill to re-arrange how the information lays itself out.) The first one is when she says that she too has been in that dark place of resistance that her sister Bianca and the Widow are displaying. And she says she was even worse than they are presenting. But she sees things differently now.
And what is that difference? Petruchio has a speech earlier in the play in which he says “What does it matter to any of you if she and I agree?” At that point, Katharine has not agreed. But in a good play, we should know that the action of the play will be that she will be in agreement with him by the end. AND to add the Shakespeare twist, it will be her idea. Which is exactly what her father demands of Petruchio: that he win her love.
As I said before, there are moments in that speech that just trigger me. And they did yesterday. And Bianca Leigh reading the Widow had many vocal responses, along with many in the audience. But by the end of the speech, Katharine had made her point. It’s not a matter of me agreeing with her; the trick in this play is to get me to at least listen. And so we did.
In the talkback afterwards, audience members expressed surprise at The Induction. “I’ve seen this play 15 times, and I’ve seen The Induction.” That seemed to be a general consensus.
“I was skeptical to come, because I am a Shakespeare aficionado, and I worried what these translations were going to do to the plays. And I have never seen or heard this play with such clarity. And I’m stunned.” I rather liked that comment, you might imagine!
Another couple told me later that they are big David Ryan Smith fans, and they will come to the next four Thursday matinees, because he will be in those readings. (He is the only actor, by the way, who has that kind of stability in his casting.)
I did get some food today, as Amy Freed and some friends of hers dashed across the street to the Brazen Fox before the deluge. “Oh crum,” I thought. (Well, actually I said something more explosive than that.), “This will discourage people from coming to hear TITUS tonight.”
And it might have. (As if the topic of TITUS wouldn’t discourage people!) But it was an intense reading. Director John Doyle choose and very formal and cold presentation style. And the juxtaposition of that with what the characters were saying and doing created its own kind of horror. Is everyone a psychopath in this play? And suddenly there is Aaron, read by Trammel Tillman, cuddling a mimed baby (John did not go shopping). And it was such a surprise that it elicited a nervous laughter from us. I was relieved that they didn’t feel compelled to figure out some kind of performance strategy to mark the actions. John simply read “Titus stabs Lavinia. Saturninus stabs Titus. Lucius stabs Saturninus.” Chilling. As if reading the report in the newspaper the next day. The minute we detach from our actions is when the real terror begins. And I think what we heard was how the consequences of that detachment can play out.
Anthony, who I quoted at the beginning of this blog – it was so long ago, who could remember? – was there last night. He also caught the first act of SHREW in the afternoon. The cast of H6.2 was given the option to attend the first half because the director Michael Barakiva (who is also the artistic director of the Hangar Theater in Ithaca) wanted to hear some of it. I’m telling you, the only way to get what we are doing is to hear it.
It was so sweet of many of the cast members to come over on their lunch break to support their colleagues. I told Amy before the reading that she shouldn’t be concerned when 15 people get up and walk out at halftime.
At intermission last night, Tony came up to me and said, “I finally get what this is about.” At first I thought he was going to tell me what TITUS is about, because I do struggle with it. If you have been in the CSC space lately, you will notice that the brick is exposed again. It was a restoration project that John took on when he began artistic director a few years ago. And Anthony said that where he was sitting – on audience left – he was looking at that brick, and suddenly, he realized that it was a metaphor for what Play on is doing. “You are restoring the experience of Shakespeare as it was 400 years ago. You are patching in the places where mortar has fallen, and you are sanding the spots that got too rough.”
I replied that the idea of restoration came to me during the talkback of SHREW that afternoon, so it was curious that he had the same revelation on this day. I’m not sure that substituting Restoration for Translation would have been clearer or caused less anxiety, but, yes, there is a restoration aspect to this work.
And while all this was happening at CSC, RICHARD III began its rehearsal. Who knows what kind of trouble they were drumming up over there. I can’t wait to see!
Tomorrow ends our first week. We invite the COMEDY OF ERRORS team into the house. It will be curious to see how I feel about this comedy, after beginning our week with TWO GENTS. What has Shakespeare learned?