"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Directing Shakespeare: Final Post (for now)

Finally, we performed Much Ado About Nothing on November 19-22, 2009, and I believe all involved were satisfied that they had done well. I know I was. You never finish a play, you just stop working on it, but the place we stopped was a pretty good one.

I was particularly impressed with the work of 6 or so principal actors who made the language natural, fluent and expressive. I can claim little credit for their accomplishments--they did it themselves. I contributed perhaps some nagging.

Happily, the rock-solid anchors of the play were the four actors playing the two romantic couples, Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick. Melissa Milne, Mark Diaz, Kelly Novak and Leonard Perez all delivered the language in an entirely natural, clear, yet natural fashion. Additional fine work was done by Disha Dass and junior Andrew Bridge. Andrew really showed he could step up to the complex and varied role of Don Pedro, who is one of those Shakespearean-duke types who mixes nobility with a little wicked humor and a taste for manipulation, something like the duke in TWELFTH NIGHT.

You learn so much about a play by working with it in depth. MUCH ADO is riddled with red herrings. First, there is some fuss over whether the prince has wooed Hero for himself or as Claudio's advocate. Then there is much hoo-hah about whether or not Benedick will actually kill Claudio. Neither of those plots ever actually culminates. Shakespeare simply tosses them aside on the way to something else. Given the neither-this-nor-that status of these plot lines, the contemporary director must decide to minimize or even cut these strands; we tried to make the first one clearer than it is in Shakespeare's original and let Beatrice's aunt mis-overhear things rather than some unspecified servant. For the second red herring, we devised a little stage business for Benedick before a sudden culmination arrives which dismisses several previous scenes.

I was very happy with some aspects of the way in which I prepared the text. First, I got the show down to two hours including intermission, which is right for this kind of light show. I would happily defend all of my cuts, except that I cut a bit more heavily into Leonato's role than I would have liked, but the actor was not comfortable with a lot of the long runs that Leonato has, and it was better that he deliver his material clearly than I preserve all the long speeches. I used the Branagh film to guide many of the cuts, but Branagh virtually discarded the second gulling scene, which is the only chance that Hero gets to really show off her chops and have fun on stage, so we had to keep it. And Melissa did a great job with it, making it at least the equal of the more famous "gulling" of Benedick that precedes it. I followed Branagh's lead in changing some of the partners in the dance sequence, having Margaret dance with Borachio (rather than Balthasar as in Shakespeare) which makes their hooking up later more logical. I could not have Antonio dance with Margaret, as I had made Antonio into Antonia (a change which yielded many benefits), so Claudio is embarrassedly dancing with the household staff, which was charming.

About the newly altered character of Antonia--there is a confrontation scene between Leonato and Antonio on one side and Don Pedro and Claudio on the other which is easily overlooked. My actors really found the juice in the scene and gave it good measure. And by making Antonia a woman, the speech ticking off the antics of foolish young men had much more bite, given a bit of the "battle of the sexes" aspect--nicely mirroring the Beatrice-Benedick plot.

Another think I was proud of with my preparation of the text was dividing the prose (which makes up 2/3 to 3/4 of the text) into separate lines so that the actors could see the phrases and ideas separated the way they needed to be when spoken--as contrasted with looking at a large block of unbroken type, which so often invites young actors to race along.

My Beatrice, Kelly Novak, was always as good as I expected her to be, although she was capable of short-shrifting the music of the words a bit. My Benedick, Leonard Perez made my hair grey for a long time as he took a long time to absorb all the words in his role, and spent most of the rehearsals until the final week with the book jammed into his face, completely obscuring his face, so that I had little idea of what was going on up there. Then, suddenly, he put the book down and completely blossomed, making every work he spoke utterly crystal clear, or as clear as could be hoped for an audience not experienced with Shakespeare.

As I told the cast, work on Shakespeare is frontloaded. Take the time at the beginning to learn your lines--learn them absolutely by rote without worrying about understanding their internal logic. Then keep saying them over and over in rehearsal and their truth, beauty and logic will reveal themselves to you. No research into the character's history or background is necessary. All the actor needs to know about how to play the part is embedded in the text, if the actor will take the trouble to learn the text and learn how to pronounce it properly.

In retrospect, I was a little too pure in one way--I should have put a plot synopsis in the program. Shakespeare races through a number of important points. In the script, the assignation between Margaret and Borachio, in which she is mistaken for Hero and all the trouble starts takes place offstage. Again, I followed Branagh's lead and put the scene on stage, which took a bit more jiggering and arranging, given the limitations of the living stage, compared with film. And the Friar's plot in which the household will give out that Hero is dead in order to elicit a response from the prince and the count is rather quickly and simply laid out as if Shakespeare knew his audience already knew this plot from some other source material. It is easily missed, and sometimes was in our production. I would take more care to get that explanation clarified.

But though I will cut text, I will not change it. I have a video of NY Shakespeare Festival of MUCH ADO adapted from a popular production which went to Broadway. In the course of updating the action to early 20th-century America, actual words in the text were changed. That smacks of cheating. Change one word, why not change any others you find difficult. It's a slippery slope, and I believe I most eschew that path. If a word or phrase is truly hard for the audience to digest aurally, better to cut it utterly than to rewrite it for convenience. Nor will I stage a line so that it means the opposite of Shakespeare's plain meaning. He doesn't need that kind of smart-a** directorial "help" in my opinion.

A word about our marvelous ensemble. Most professional productions cannot afford a large household for Leonato or a sidekicks for the prince, but we had that luxury, and those actors made a tremendous contribution to the play, providing a community and a context for the sometimes outrageous actions of some of the principals. I know most people in non-speaking roles feel unappreciated, but they were absolutely indispensable to our concept of the story.

Then there was what my producer, John Coviello, referred to as our "nuclear weapon," Mary Costa as Dogberry. Mary can play a loopy character in such a fabulously loopy way as to make an audience completely helpless. Every actor playing a Shakespearean clown must make the part absolutely their own--Shakespeare only provides a bare skeletal outline for theatrical hijinks. He expected his actors to fill in the outline with their own business and persona. This Mary did as if to the manner born. Brava! The audience was completely helpless in her hands.

A great experience for me, one I hope to repeat, although I am afraid I cannot do it more than once every three or four years, given all the other experiences I wish to provide for my students, including acting in original plays I hope to write. But I cannot imagine accomplishing any greater professional development this year than what I did by directing Shakespeare.

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