Friday, September 30, 2005

Two Noble Guys

Patrick Bussink just forwarded me a link to some photos of a Memorial to John Heminge and Henry Condell in London. I play Heminge and Patrick plays Condell. Amy Freed's take on these two is a great deal less magnanimous than the plaque would lead one to believe, but these were the two men who compiled Shakespeare's Plays for the First Folio Printing. She casts them as theatrical producers and they are just as concerned as modern producers with putting butts in seats. In Shakespeare's Will he bequests each man enough gold to buy a ring.

The Racks

To the right you will please note our very own Brent Stansell, assisting in the presentation of one of about five racks of Elizabethan costumes, assembled by our talented, delightful and yes I will dare say it cute as bug's ear costume designer, Ms. Jenn Miller. There are doublets, farthing gales, breeches and cod pieces filling the dressing area at Rorschach Theatre. She has amassed a huge collection of ruffs and cuffs all in the service of The Beard of Avon.

In a town like DC, you would be amazed at how many of these costumes I and other cast members have seen before. Patrick Bussink and I toured with National Players like seven years back in a production of Twelfth Night, with costumes by the famous Helen Hwang, and dyed by Rorschach Resident Company Member Debra Kim Sivigny. There on the racks are costumes that we traveled America with for 9 months on loan from Olney. Olney then proceeded to use the same costumes that next summer in their Summer Shakespeare production of As You Like It.

Many of the items which make their way into productions in DC are either kindly lent or cheaply rented from one company to another for various productions. It is one of the many things about the DC theater scene which allows so many companies to survive if not thrive. Something built for one show may be altered and repurposed for another show across town a few months later. This has created a sort of secret brotherhood of designers, with an arcane knowledge of where Round House keeps their fine china or where Shakespeare Theater keeps those extra platforms.

And why not repurpose props, sets and costumes, theaters repurpose actors all the time. Grady Weatherford and I are both repurposing the accents we used in Gross Indecency at Theater Alliance for this very show. Think about that for a while.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Word from the Blogger

I think whenever we theater folk get around Shakespeare we tend to go a little goofy. For many of us Shakespeare is one of the reasons we got into theater in the first place.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, Ian McKellen was touring his production of Richard III. I had just taken Acting Shakespeare the semester before and was excited because my professor has procured a bootleg copy of Sir Ian playing Iago in Othello directed by Trevor Nunn for the BBC. Just from watching that video I knew that that was the kind of actor I wanted to be, an actor who gets to play the villain. Not just any villain but a Shakespearean Villain. I knew I had to see this man live and on stage in what was and still is my favorite Shakespeare play.

My friend Rachel got us tickets for a Kennedy Center Matinee. We made our way into the theater and the lights went low. Out came this twisted man, useless left arm placed in his pocket, and a scar across his face. His mouth opened and out came the words that still make me glad to be an actor:

Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious
summer by this sun of York. -- Richard III Act I Scene 1

This one line has everything; poetry, irony and a pun all within one sentence. And Sir Ian quietly intoned his speech to the crowd as he slowly removed the glove from his one good hand with his teeth, produced a cigarette from a case, lit it and took one long drag and stamped it out. That told you everything you needed to know about this Richard. And it made you love him and hate him all at the same time. Love a man who was telling you his plan to kill everyone who stood in his way, to get what he wanted. It is the perfect balance between performance and text. Shakespeare can make an actor into a king or queen and all they have to do is speak.

A couple of years later I got to play Richard III in a small community theater production. I was working as a substitute teacher in Baltimore County and would drive through rush hour traffic to Annapolis nearly every night for three months, because I was being given the chance at 23 to play a role that I quite possibly will never have the chance to play again. That is what Shakespeare is to me. And I bet if you ask other actors you will find similar stories.

Even bad Shakespeare, and let's face it there is bad Shakespeare, is something which has stood the test of time. Despite gapping plot holes, anachronisms, sexism and some would argue racism, Shakespeare speaks to every generation.

For over four hundred years women and men have spoke his lines in nearly uninterrupted succession around the world. When a 14 year old girl in Australia picks up Romeo and Juliet for the first time, something wonderful happens. When an English major at a small liberal arts college somewhere reads King Lear for the first time and starts to realize that someday will be old, there is power in that. And when an auditorium of high school students in Lima, OH, see The Taming of the Shrew and realize that Shakespeare can be funny as well as serious, there is something you never forget.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Another Word from the Director

Instead of letting Ms. Burgess' comments languish in the hidden world of the comment box, I have brought it here to you the reading public. Once again the Director Jessi Burgess:

I'd rather Ellen in a cape than a beard, as it were. Although I should like to see other members of the company bearded, I prefer Ellen in her cape and cat ears!

Regarding the run last night, Fair Reader, I should like to say that officially we termed this past evening the "stumble-through": this terminology lowers the stakes of the run by giving everyone permission to "stumble" (forget a line, wander outrageously outside the parameters of the established blocking, miss a scene or a transition, etc). In my opinion, last night's run could have been called--without apology--a design run! Kudos to the team for their hard work as evidenced by keeping the stumbles to a minimum. I was pleased to see: that we're around 80% off-book (an average); that the blocking works in many places, and the places where it doesn't work it's "fixable"; that the actors are doing a fine job with their multiple characterizations and the variety of styles within the scenes. Also, it's funny. I laughed loudly and obnoxiously, many times, even though I was trying hard to be serious and evaluative.

After the actors went home, we had a productive design meeting. Big decisions were made based on what we saw working/not working last night. The biggest changes occurred in evaluating the set's functionality: we essentially morphed the set from being in the round to a thrust last night after a heated debate regarding the experience of the group in that seating arrangement (producer & Artistic Director Randy Baker and set & lighting designer David Ghatan sat on this bench in Act 2, prompting this debate). The discussion was terrific fun and an interesting solution was reached; we'll have to see which of the solutions sticks through to the opening night. Dear Reader, you will just have to come and see the end product to see how the debate of the bench was solved!

Congrats, again, all! As Heminge says in Act one:

"I am heartened by this, our run-through!"

The Run

I came into rehearsal last night to find our stage manager, Ellen, wearing a cape. I have nothing more to add to that I just thought you should all know.

Last night was the Designer Run. This is the director and actors chance to show the hard working designers the monster they have agreed to dress, light, set and prop (not really sure if you can use prop as a verb but I just did). Notes are taken as the actors try and bring the blocking and direction that has come about over the last couple of weeks to life. For the cast it is the first real chance to explore their characters through-line (fancy actors call this a Character's Journey). More importantly they get to see if the jokes are funny in front of people who haven't seen it yet.

Despite some dropped lines and missed blocking, I think things went swimmingly. The funny moments were funny and more importantly the poetry and dramatic scenes were quite marvelous. And now we work the thing until it can stand high on its own two legs and kick the ass of every show in town.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Welcome Post Readers and a Word from Will

Good morning all! First off I offer a warm welcome to those who just joined this experiment in terror, thanks to Ms. Jane Horwitz's Back Stage Column. Jane has always been a friend to the little guy and for those of you who have known me, I am the biggest of the little guys. Thanks Jane.

Just to catch all of you up. This is a blog which will help expose the ins-and-outs of producing small professional theatre in Washington, DC. It may turn out that like sausage and Nike tennis shoes you may enjoy the final product but you really don't want to see how they are made. While Rorschach has resorted to slave labor on occasion and on very rare occasions even child labor, our shows have and always will be fur free. So please come back here again and again and watch the unfolding of this, our production of The Beard of Avon (Pay-What-You-Can Previews start October 19th). For Tickets and information about a Season Subscription, (four shows at $60 for adults and $45 for Seniors and Students) follow the links.

Now for your reading pleasure, Rorschach Company Member Grady Weatherford shares with you, the public, his thoughts on bringing to life a man who on a play by play basis has killed more women, children and heirs to the English crown than anyone before or since, William Shakespeare.


Here is a subject that I have been faced with before, but fails to get any easier. In the past I have played George Danton, George Bernard Shaw, and directed Lord of the Flies. Each posed their own problems, not unlike trying to play (of all things) William Shakespeare.

Shaw and Lord of the Flies were similar in their difficulty. Since Shaw lived until 1950, there are many extant photographs of him and some record of what he sounded like, thus putting the actor in the position of choosing a seat atop a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there was a wealth of material to use, on the other there are those who also would have studied it and have a broader idea of what the man was like.

Flies was (and continues to be) a mainstay of English Literature, so it to benefited and suffered from assumptions and preconceived ideas about the play itself, as well as the characters.

George Danton, I felt a bit freer to experiment with. Having been a secondary character in the execution (hehe) of the French Revolution, I basically based my interpretation on the following facts:

1) he was mauled by a herd of pigs at the age of 10

2) he was known in the legislature as "the mountain," for two reasons, his booming voice and that he sat in the top row, being the tip of the growing mass of "non-nobles" in the legislature.

Also, not many Americans are familiar with Danton and so the liberté (hehehe) was greater in the development of his persona.

Shakespeare (on the other hand) comes with a great stigma. And there are many of them. There are the various portraits of the man (Droeshout being the most famous) as well as the lofty scholarly debates about who the hell wrote the plays. Prolific genius, or stand-in for some greater mind (or minds.) Amy Freed has made the task easier by making some of the more difficult choices for me. Those of station, education level, manner of speech and the like. But the task remains of finding Shakespeare. How I do find my self hating Joseph Fiennes at the moment. He made a wonderful Shakespeare, but has also saddled me with an inevitable comparison, even though Beard of Avon is not in the same style.

So, really, I guess what I have learned so far is that one must amass as much information as possible, try one's best to understand it, then just forget it and play the damn part. Really one can not play the icon at all, one must play the person. Now, you can all sit back and watch me fail miserably.

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Word from the Director

A message posted as a comment to the last post from our director Ms. Jessi Burgess.
Dear Reader:

There were many fantastic costume adventures this weekend as actors were strapped, squeezed and cajoled into many fantastic fabric combinations of designer Jenn Miller's devising. Miller has spent the past two weeks combing through the costume stocks of every theatre company within a 60 mile radius of the District. Her work has paid off! Esteemed Reader: in my humble opinion, Miller has hit upon what is known in the industry as COMIC GOLD.

Elizabethan period clothing is HILARIOUS!

First and foremost, please call to mind the ubiquitous neck ruff (designed to, what, catch the pieces of breakfast that missed your pie-hole? To make you look more like a saint in a Renaissance portrait? To help amplify your ability to hear, since Elizabethans prized a fine-tuned sense of hearing more than anything?).

Second, try pairing that silly starched-stiff collar with a dainty pair of stockings and some pumpkin breeches so short that Daisy Duke would blush. Or, if you happen to be playing Queen Elizabeth, you may want to slip into a hoop skirt that makes you as wide as you are tall--and then try to fit through a doorway.

Incidentally, the run of ACT ONE yesterday proved exciting! Although we have rehearsed the whole play so far out of order, we have managed to spend time on (almost) every scene in the play. I was thrilled with the work that everyone did to string together their journey through that act, and the work that everyone did last night was incredibly heartening. There IS a There there, Scotty, and we shall arrive at it within the coming weeks in a blaze of glory, farce and low comedy--alliteration be damned!

Weekend of Adventures and Wonders

Thursday night we staged the sex scene. I will not spoil anything but think of a very tasteful act of pure acrobatics all carried out in the style of the Matrix. Not the weird rave thing that happens in Matrix II: Electric Boogaloo, but one of those fight scenes. People were picked up and rotated and moved in a carefully controlled act of extreme violence. But ain't that just love folks.

Saturday was a long day for many. There were costume fittings and meetings. Cast and crew put in a good solid 6-7 hours of work and all of it seems to have been worth it. Yours truly strolled in around 4:30 and left at 7 so my day was relatively easy. I did however have some trouble at my fitting when I was unable to get my hands all the way through the sleeves of my costumes. Now I am a large man but I have never faced this particular challenge. Maybe my hands are still growing. It has seemed harder to type lately. My giant fingers seem to smash into two and even three keys at a time. Eventually, I will have to invest in one of those over sized novelty key boards just so I can send an email. Ah well big head, big hands and big feet. Well you know what they say, big hands . . . big gloves.

Sunday we ran Act I and to quote Jessi, "There is a there, there." As I may have mentioned in the past saying the same word over and over again does not make an alliteration, but all of us seem to have elevated our discourse and this show seems to have set free the frustrated poet in all of us.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Director

Old Theater tradition holds that it was the Greek, Aristophanes who first said "Do it right this time or I will replace you with a Sock Puppet!" Every director who has ever worked at Rorschach has felt that wise saying is as true today as it was when I made it up in the last sentence.

The picture to the right is me with the the inimitable Ms. Jessi Burgess. I am the one in the beard. We are very lucky to have Jessi working on this project and already her energy and commitment to the project have paid off in ways no one expected. Most directors give you absolutely no indication of whether your bit is funny or not. Jessi is not just laughing, but she will say, "That was funny!" See instant gratification, what every insecure actor needs. (And when I say insecure actor, it's like saying insecure twice.)

Little bio on Ms. Burgess for those of you who like your blogs to contain facts:

Director Jessica Burgess is an exiting new director emerging here in Washington DC. After returning from the 2005 Lincoln Center’s Directors Lab and from assistant directing several shows at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Burgess started her own production company, Two Foot Trout Hatchery, where she recently directed its premiere production, PLAYING HOUSE. She has also directed for Adventure Theatre, The Source Theatre Festival and in college at Middlebury College in Vermont. A gifted young dramaturg, Burgess was recently the Literary Associate at Woolly Mammoth where she also worked as production dramaturg on LENNY & LOU (Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding New Play 2005), HOMEBODY/ KABUL and COOKING WITHELVIS. She also the assistant directed BIG DEATH/LITTLE DEATH under Howard Shalwitz. With Damien Sinclair, she is a co-founder of the upcoming Capital Fringe Festival.

The Players

Above is a picture of most of the cast of The Beard of Avon. In this exclusive rehearsal shot we see the courtiers gathered around old Queen Bess herself. From left to right Andrew Jessop, Eric Singdahlsen, Austin Bragg, Wendy Wilmer, Brent Stansell, Scott McCormick, and Patrick Bussink. Two of the people in this picture are playing women but I won't tell who.

In order to create the world of Elizabethan England we will have to rely on a technique employed by Shakespeare himself:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

--- Chorus , Henry V, Act I Scene 1

While we are not dividing one man into a thousand we are doing some dividing. In the business this is called double, triple and in some cases quadruple casting. This is done by all your finer theaters around town, so don't act surprised. I myself will be playing 3 roles and I think some people are already up to 5.

Here is the remainder of our cast Grady Weatherford and Valerie Fenton. Cute aren't they. They will be playing Will Shakspere (not a spelling error) and Anne Hathaway. Please don't hold the expressions on their faces against them it was a very early rehearsal.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Play is a thing . . .

I said I would reveal the cast in my next post but I am fickle. Instead I will give you a summary of the story of The Beard of Avon. And not the company line that you can find at the Rorschach Web Site but I as a member of the casts take on this exciting and funny piece of conspiracy theory.

The playwright Amy Freed has created the theatrical equivalent of Oliver Stone's JFK. Only the play is much funnier and with Sir Francis Bacon instead of Kevin Bacon in the cast. There are many scholars throughout history who have had a hard time believing that a kid from the backwater town of Avon could have written the works of Shakespeare. Put it down to intellectual snobbery or what ever but they hold that the knowledge needed to write the Cannon of Shakespeare's work could not have come out of the head of some rube. They usually point mostly to the use of Italy as the location for the plays and the intimate knowledge of the workings and history of the English Royal Court. Thus the great conspiracy was born. Who wrote these plays and did William Shakespeare even exist?

The Beard of Avon plays on some of the myths that have sprung up around Shakespeare; the man, the name and the plays. The usual suspects for authorship include names like Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, The Earl of Oxford. There is even a theory that Christopher "Kit" Marlowe wrote the plays, after faking his death in a bar fight and hiding in Italy and having his plays smuggled back to England. Personally I would rather Marlowe actually died in the bar fight because being stabbed in the eye makes for a better story.

Amy Freed has written a play which really explores less the answer to the question of authorship and more about answering the question of what makes art great, the art or the artist. Its all that and jokes about bodily functions, but very classy jokes.

Here is what Amy Freed the playwright had to say on all this in January 2002 to the Stanford Reporter.

Tomorrow: The Cast

Beard of Avon Begins

Welcome to Rorschach Theatre's first blog. I know let the rejoicing commence and the questions to pile up. Questions like: Why? What are you doing? Do we really need another theater blog? How do you keep your whites so white and your colors so bright?

As to the last question is that really important right now or germane to the topic at hand? For the first: Why? Well because we want to give the public a look into the process of producing small professional theater in DC. Not just the dirt you get on T-boy or reviews like Potomac Stages, but a verbal and pictoral representation of nearly empty space and script to fully designed, directed and acted production.

What are we doing? Well there is a whole season of stuff coming up but first up is The Beard of Avon (follow the link if you want to learn more) . A smart, sexy and literate comedy about William Shakespeare.

Check here every couple of days and we will have information the production. Cast lists, designer names and comments from the actors. It will serve as a way to see what it takes to be a theater on a mission, a desire for perfection and the guts to do shows that comparably sized and funded theaters wouldn't dare.

Later today I will post the cast list, so until then enjoy the picture above from our first read on a very early Saturday morning.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

This is a test post

What? I told you this was a test post!