Wednesday, November 3, 2010

David Timberline Reviews "Arcadia"

I've said before that David Timberline serves as a kind of senior voice among Richmond's theatre critics.  In an ideal world, the theatre-going public could also have heard from John Porter on Arcadia, or Joan Tupponce in addition to Susan Haubenstock's review, and Rich Griset's less favorable take, but John was handling personal concerns and we were not able to get ahold of Joan.

However, David has also known Richmond Shakespeare's work since the earliest years of my tenure, in the first year of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival and our touring programs. He's seen the company grow over the years, and brings that perspective to everything he writes.

Here's a link to David's review of Arcadia.  I'm grateful for his thoughtful review.

I'm reminded that our goal remains to impart an appreciation of outstanding language as it reflects, proclaims and examines human ideas with the resonating power of the human voice. Arcadia fits securely within that mission.

Thank you to all who came out to give Arcadia your thought, time and energy.  I hope you'll join us for Scott Wichmann's turn as Tartuffe in our next Second Tuesday Staged Reading on November 9.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Postscript)

My assignment was to write on the rehearsal process. Three weeks ago, rehearsals ended and we opened the show.
But that doesn’t mean the production has stopped evolving. Circumstance comes into play--perhaps even more so than in rehearsal--during the performance. A charcoal stick that’s rolled just out of reach offers the opportunity to actually let Thomasina become truly exasperated with the day’s lesson. A glance that, for whatever reason, is held a little longer makes a realization of the end of an education that much more poignant. An audience member viscerally and audibly reacts to the challenge to a duel heightening the seriousness of the otherwise quite comic scene.
And when Thomasina stumbles a little more in the final waltz than even the actor herself is accustomed to, she finds that Septimus is there to steady her.
There is a joy in realizing that this cast in particular truly embodies that spirit - we steady each other, make each other laugh, attempt to teach each other to play cribbage (long story), warm up together, walk to our cars together. Maybe it sounds a little too Brady Bunch, but there is a sense of play, and a sense of family that perhaps is the truest treasure of this production--especially since I think it really shows in the performance. Even on the nights when one or another of us feels that we’ve had a bumpy performance, I don’t think there’s been a moment when any of us hasn’t wanted to be there. How can it feel like work when you get to spend a few hours with people about whom you care so much?
As we close Arcadia tonight, that joy is mingled with an impending sense of loss. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with myself next Thursday night when I don’t need to drive down to the theater, get my hot rollers plugged in, and play with this wonderful group of people who now seem more like family than anything else.
It is a testament to this cast that this sense of family even exists. We spent most of the rehearsal period segregated from one time period’s cast or the other. Maybe it’s just that this is a really incredible group of individuals. Maybe it’s the magic of this play--that “everything is mixing together, irreversibly...”
I’m inclined to think that it’s both. That thought is the only thing keeping me from being an absolute mess right now. Even though everything must tend toward chaos--in 12 hours, it may be that this group is never fully assembled ever again--but that there is at least one bond that can’t be broken, and it’s built on the six weeks we’ve spent together.
Perhaps I am showing an extreme lack of professionalism by confessing all of this, but it’s all true--and I’ve always been accused of being a terrible liar. I hope that you’ll join us tonight or tomorrow before “the heat goes into the mix,” irretrievable and irreversible. The audience is often said to be the last member of the cast in any production, but here I hope you’ll find that you’re actually the last member of a talented, hilarious, giving, wonderful family. I know I have.
With love and gratitude,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Whatever Experience You Bring to Arcadia, It Illuminates

We are all Thomasina Coverly, in our own way.    

In her innocence and youth, she embodies the persistence of curiosity, the puzzled determination in finding answers, and the explosive excitement of wanting to be the first to have ever thought a specific thought.  Arcadia’s budding intellectual, played so delightfully by apprentice Alex Wiles, (whose blogs on the process of creating her character have been in this space over the last month) brings wonder to all that unfolds in front of her. Though we may be older than 13, we remember Thomasina and carry her with us.  

Thomasina’s tutor, Septimus Hodge inspires plenty of laughs, and in his eyes one easily sees the ebbing of youth: he is challenged and provoked by his younger pupil.  We laugh because we experience ourselves, as parents or teachers or older siblings, within him.  

The rigorous and independent scholar in Arcadia, (Hannah Jarvis), strongly played by Jennie Meharg, evades introspection and delightfully misses her primary subject: herself.  The splashy rock-star scholar, brought to life by Adrian Rieder, makes glaring errors in his research that we find funny----his gut-reactions blind him to the facts.  

And on and on.  We find parts of ourselves in each of the characters.  

Director Foster Solomon and his company of actors, crew, and designers have created a beautifully haunting, delicious romp between two time periods.  Becky Cairns is designing in her favorite period, and it shows.  The costumes reflect her brilliance and excitement.  Brian Barker (Sound of Music, others) has crafted an elegant set---designing each piece to fit through a barely-six-foot-wide door into the Gottwald.  Some are as high as 16’ and complete an arc across that expanse, but in sections. No mean feat. Gregg Hillmar’s lights include sunrises and sunsets, echoes of fireworks, chandeliers and wall lamps that flicker so believably you’d swear they were gas.  Our volunteers gave time, effort, and (sometimes back-breaking) work.  I want to say thank you to all of them.  I have been (and am) thrilled with the work of every single artist on Arcadia, and proud to be associated with them.

Light, love, life and energy flow out of all their work, (and Stoppard’s) in which
“…the unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.  It’s how nature creates itself, on every scale, the snowflake and the snowstorm.”
…And human beings.  “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.”

It’s for this reason that Richmond Shakespeare is performing Arcadia. It’s why I selected the play, and why our artists, staff, board and volunteers struggled to bring it to you---to our audiences.  It’s the closest to Shakespeare we’re likely to find for many years to come.   Daniel Hannan from the London Telegraph gives his thoughts on Shakespeare and Stoppard:
“I’ve made this observation before about the greatest writer of them all – whom Stoppard rather sweetly refers to as “The Champ”. Not many authors in the intervening 400 years achieve the same effect – which is perhaps the highest compliment I can offer our chief living playwright.”
 Hannan describes:
“I recalled, in particular, staggering out of a performance of Arcadia 15 years ago, convinced that it was the supreme theatrical work of our era. Whatever experience you bring to it, it illuminates your experience more than your experience illuminates it.” [emphasis mine]
Watching Arcadia, we see how elements combine, how time periods intertwine, how people and aspects of human nature interact.  Sometimes they are quiet and clear, sometimes producing tension or explosions.  This play is music and gunfire.  It contains Byron’s poetry, Newton’s science, sex, travel, nature, and religion.  These are not what this play is about, but merely elements used to demonstrate Stoppard’s reaching out to teach the Thomasina in each of us.
“When we have found all the mysteries, and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.”
Come see this play.  Bring your experiences.  Find yourself surrounded in childlike wonder at finding the meaning within.  

Grant Mudge
October 27, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dear Appeal from Grant

Dear Friends,

I’d like to take a moment to encourage you to see Arcadia.  Bring your spouse, your love, your partner, a date. Grab a friend.  Join us.

Beyond my usual enthusiasm for RS’ work, this is a play so lovely, inspiring, funny, and important that I just want to share it with as many of our devoted audiences as possible.  Arcadia is about the very core of who we are, the stuff of which we’re made.  It’s a rare chance to hear Stoppard’s brilliant language, laugh at his comedy, and realize more of the world.  It absolutely will affect your perspective. 

If you’ve already seen it, come back.  There is so much to ponder, uncover and enjoy that the play is even more enjoyable on subsequent viewings.  The actors's, designerr's and crew team's work is really outstanding.  It's our best set-and-lights work ever.  Becky's costumes are fantastic. (As of Sunday, she's a two-time critics' circle award winner)

There are outstanding seats still available; at every performance the front two rows are just $18+$2.   The best seats are $36+$2 and still-fabulous-seats (it's only 135 seats, after all) for $24+$2.  Students pay just $15.  If you haven’t yet seen our beautiful new Gottwald Playhouse, you owe it to yourself to come on out, and participate in the conversation.

Why the “+$2?”   I want our audiences to understand some of the expense of operating: $1 of that fee goes directly toward operating CenterStage.  Not part of that fee, but out of each ticket, RS also pays rent, security, housekeeping and front of house staff.  The other $1 goes to the Community Development Authority (CDA), which has been responsible for street, sidewalk and parking improvements in the neighborhood.  At the theatre door, you pay no other fees.  Online or on the phone, there’s a small convenience fee, and that way on a sold-out night you know your tickets are already set. (And that advance fee is much less than last year.)  Of course, our subscribers never pay any fees at all.

You only have a few chances before all the energy of Arcadia is dispersed back into the ether---its final performance takes the stage OCTOBER 30.  So please, pick up a ticket at the company’s website, or phone us at 804-232-4000.  You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t miss this show.  Here's the link for tickets.

Yours truly,
-Grant Mudge
Artistic Director
Richmond Shakespeare

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Installment 4)

Well, we've reached opening night of Arcadia! and thus the final installment in Alex Wiles blog of glimpses behind-the-scenes.  Now, you must come to see the performance, which runs only through October 30. Alex is a marvel, and the entire cast is truly outstanding.  I hope you will join us.  Grab tickets here. -GM

I guess you could say acting is a way of taking a walk in someone else’s shoes, only they more than likely don’t exist in reality, and if you’re doing it right, they’re kind of your shoes, too.
A few weeks ago as we began to have final costume fittings, Liz Blake White (playing Chloe) told me how excited she was to get her shoes for the show and start wearing them in rehearsal: “They just add something special to getting into character!”
She’s quite right--and it’s not just the shoes, either.  While the clothes don’t make the man (or woman), they certainly help you craft your character’s movement vocabulary, particularly in a period play.  Grant teased me one day in rehearsal that I moved as though I live in jeans.
Well, I do.
For the past four days or so, I’ve been living in long, airy Regency-period dresses with big pouffy sleeves in lovely, feminine fabrics.
While corsets weren’t typical of the period (the Regency empire waist freed ladies up for era from full-torso corsets for a little over a decade), a little foundational structure helps remind me of the extent to which my movement is constrained, but not so much that I can’t aim for the physicality of a 13-year-old girl.
After a few hours of wearing dresses that fit rather closely to the upper body, I get to change into my nightgown, which is equally lovely, though far more billowy.  It’s dreamy and ethereal, and ridiculously comfortable.  (Also, it is what my four-year-old self would have termed “a good twirler.”  This is particularly important, and if you see the show, you’ll know why.)
Everyone’s costumes are incredible.  Rebecca Cairns and Annie Hoskins have outdone themselves again!  Their work is beautiful, functional, and informs so much of the work we do as actors.

The funny thing is that this applies to the 1993 cast as well!  As a child of the early 90s, I didn’t pay much attention to fashion in the first place.  Little Mermaid shoes went with everything, even a white and black polka-dotted ruffle dress with matching bolero jacket trimmed with yellow ric-rac. (Oh yes, it was quite a sight, especially when topped off with that 90s classic, the bowl cut.)
I suppose it never really occurred to me that there was a style in the 90s.  
Oh, but there was.
Turtlenecks.  Big sweaters.  Pants that come up to your ribcage.  Pleats--everywhere.  “The Rachel” was becoming a singular trend in ladies’ hairstyling. It’s all here! 
It’s so wonderful to be working in, on, and around the gorgeous set (designed by Brian Barker) in these delightful costumes, juggling so many fabulous props against a backdrop of music and light.  If you pause and look around in the quiet of backstage, you think, “hey, this looks like a show.”
I am so pleased and honored to be a part of a production that is coming together so brilliantly.  
With that, I believe it’s time to review some dialect notes and go to bed.  We preview tomorrow and open on Friday!  Please join us--and stick around afterward to say hello!  For now, enjoy a teaser of the phenomenal hair design--here’s the first trial of Thomasina’s Hair, Look #2 of 3.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Installment 3)

Alex Wiles as Thomasina Coverly 
When your rehearsal schedule says “one-on-one,” that’s both exhilarating and a little intimidating.  It means you’re going to sit down with the director, who’s going to ask you to bare the deep dark secrets of your character’s soul (okay, not always dark)--things that you may not have explicitly told anyone yet.  
Luckily, we actors tend to be a pretty extroverted bunch and sharing is a big part of what we do.
When your rehearsal schedule says “two-on-one,” somehow it seems twice as exhilarating (and almost twice as intimidating).  You’re sharing with the director, yes, but you’re also sharing with one of your primary scene partners - in this case, Jonathan Conyers as Septimus.  It somehow feels like the stakes are higher--the implications of your character decisions on those of the other actor are thrown in to starker relief.  It’s almost like a first date: do your ideas and decision jive with those of the other person?  --and in this case, two other people?  
Now, it’s not that everyone has to agree--in fact, some of the most interesting moments we’ve found were instances in which the characters are on two entirely different wavelengths.
Septimus and Thomasina have a pretty significant relationship arc throughout the course of the play (I won’t ruin it for those who don’t know it), so that was a major topic of conversation.  I’d expected that.  How long has Septimus been Thomasina’s tutor?  What does Thomasina think of Septimus intellectually and as a person--and what does he think of her?  All of these were exciting questions I’d anticipated going into this meeting.
Then Foster (Solomon) turns to me and asks me to explain the arc of Thomasina’s mathematic and scientific interests throughout the course of the play.
Cue the chirping cricket, please.
Now, I’d done my research about the concepts Thomasina explores--an effort very much bolstered by the work of our dramaturg, Twyla Kitts.  Deterministic chaos theory?  Yup.  The second law of thermodynamics?  Got it.  Fractals?  Sure thing.
But how on earth does it all fit together?
We batted the question around a bit, looking at both Thomasina’s and Septimus’ lines for clues, noting the way she responds to Septimus’ teaching about the accepted knowledge of the time, trying to draw from that some through-line from one theory to the next.  We decided that it was her own effort to develop the Grand Unified Theory (which gets hung up on the issue of gravity, if memory serves), but somehow it didn’t quite feel satisfying.  I couldn’t figure out why.
Rehearsal continued with the first unification of the 1993 and the 1809 casts in the last scene of the play, full of waltzing, dress-up, and as Chloe (played by the talented and effervescent Liz Blake White) says “a lot of sexual energy!”  Needless to say my mind was directed away from math and science for awhile.
The epiphany, if you will, occurred the next morning in the shower, which was probably the least convenient time or place for such a realization to occur.  I had no pencil, no paper, nothing to write down all that hit me in a matter about 60 seconds.
Fortunately it stuck with me long enough to get to that pencil and paper, and 20 minutes later I had my diagram.
It’s a mess, but it works.
The problem with our initial approach, it seemed, was that we were trying to cram all of these concepts under one umbrella, while it seems now that they’re connected like links of a chain.  With that, I humbly submit “The Diagram.” (You can click on the image for a better view.)
For all I know, these scribblings are as convoluted to everyone else as the mysterious hermit character’s tens of thousands of “cabalistic proofs.”  The important thing in the grand scheme of this production is that they help make sense of a critical aspect of one character’s arc throughout the production.  
The idea is not that this is all explicitly stated in performance.  The idea is not that the audience has to understand the fine points of complex equations or theories of physics.  The idea is that if we as artists and performers are doing our job well, and turn this thought process into something actable, you as the audience member will be able to come along on--and enjoy--the journey.
After all, while it’s great fun as an actor--or just someone with a wide variety of interests--to gambol through this play and discover all the brilliant little Easter eggs that Tom Stoppard has dropped for us along the way, I don’t think that’s what attracts people to Arcadia.  Every character in this play cares passionately about something; they take something incredibly intellectual and infuse it with an energy that somehow makes it deeply emotional--and makes us feel something about it, not just think something about it.  In expressing that passion, these characters bare some deep, dark part of their souls to us--exposing the vulnerabilities and desires that they all--that we all--often try so hard to hide.
It’s exhilarating to stand at the brink of knowledge looking out into a vast field of feeling.  That’s where Stoppard leaves us: teetering on the edge, leaving us to decide how to balance the two.  
As Valentine (played by Andrew P. Ballard) tells Hannah (played by Jen Meharg) with almost breathless excitement: 
“it’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew was wrong.” 
Also, the jokes are just plain fun.  More soon!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia (Installment 2)

Our series of posts from behind-the-scenes continues. Here again, is Alex Wiles.  Down at Richmond Shakes, we think you'll soon see why she's won us all over.

Alex Wiles as Thomasina Coverly
Over the course of the last four days, the 1809 cast spent 14 hours together.  When you spend that much time with a group of people, it’s either going to result in disaster or the best 14 hours of your week.
I can’t speak for the rest of the cast, but my opinion falls in line with the latter possibility.
Since Arcadia shuttles between two time periods--1809-1812 and 1993--the rehearsals--and thus the cast--naturally break into two groups.  While the focus of last week’s rehearsals were 1993 (as our own Jonathan Conyers--playing Septimus, my tutor--performed in the opening week of the Firehouse Theater Project’s phenomenal Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), we 1809ers got our own chance to dig into the play over the past few days.
Fourteen out of 96 hours may not seem like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly one gets to know one’s cast mates when the emphasis is on play.  As we develop our characters and relationships even as we flesh out the blocking (where we move and when), you pick up on bits and piece of personalities--even of people you thought you already knew well.
Take Julie Phillips, Richmond Shakespeare’s Education Manager.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with her through my work as an intern and a stage manager over the past couple of years, and my impression of her was that she is one of the sweetest, gentlest people I know.  Then I watch her play Lady Croom (my mother) in rehearsal and get to meet a whole new side of Julie: still sweet, but with an imperiousness, power, and sensuality that is absolutely Lady Croom--but also still very Julie.  It’s an absolute delight.
Then somebody flubs a line, and you can’t help but smile or laugh.  Tom Stoppard has endowed Arcadia with beautiful language, but it’s not all easy to get through in early readings.  For example: someone else (who we won’t name) accidentally says “guinea pig” when the script says “guinea,” as in the piece of currency.  (My claim to fame is running into stationary objects.)  Rehearsal has to be a safe place where it’s okay for actors to make mistakes--because we all do.  A lot!  That’s part of what rehearsal is for - trying things out to see if they work or not.  Sometimes they don’t, but sometimes you try something on the fly and it sticks.
You know the “family ties” of the cast are beginning to take hold when the prop letter that’s being passed to you is covered in doodles of everything from explorations of Fermat’s last theorem (which figures prominently in the first scene) to tic-tac-toe boards to be filled out during the next break, to quick sketches of particularly vivid descriptions in the script--like Mrs. Chater’s drawers (and no, we’re not talking an armoire!), waltzing, geometrical name it, it’s somewhere on those prop pages.  
In a way, it’s quite fitting for this play.  So much of the interplay between the 1993 and 1809 action is the 1993 characters’ discovery and wrestling with letters, drawings, and diagrams written and left behind by the 1809 characters.  As rehearsals shift to focus on the 1993 cast for the next few days, they’ll have more than a few surprises waiting for them in those hundreds of sheets of paper that we spread across the table during rehearsals.
As Septimus so eloquently states in one of his lectures to Thomasina, “we shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind...”
It’s not that rehearsals aren’t productive, or that they don’t involve hard work; they do.  Time constraints increase the pressure to move efficiently, to take direction and “get it right” the first or second time, not the fifth or sixth.  
My accounting professor, Dr. Hoyle, jokingly remarked that he hoped I would say that everything I learned in accounting came in use in working on this production.  I don’t know about everything, but here’s a metaphoric connection: the ideal balance sheet in a financial statement is one that, well, balances--assets, liabilities, and stockholder’s equity, that is.  To me, that’s not so different from a good rehearsal: it’s a balance of task and relational behaviors--between getting through the work at hand and building relationships with your cast members.  (Are you impressed yet, Dr. Hoyle?)
Maybe this is my amateur status showing through, but I’ve always loved rehearsals for this reason.  I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of wonderful people in theater, and I love this incubation period every bit as much as I love performing.  Not only are we creating a wonderful story to share with audiences, we’re in many ways creating a family.  Perhaps that sounds corny, but it’s how I honestly feel.  After all, what else is a group of people with whom you’re comfortable enough to open yourself up to being vulnerable, to spending a lot of time together, to creating something bigger than the sum of its parts?  Sounds like family to me.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Rehearsal Process: Arcadia

We spend a lot of time talking about events, performances and reviews.  As an audience member, it may be the final product, the "magic" of the theatre that draws you.  But for the staff at Richmond Shakespeare, and the hard-working actors and crew, the work behind the scenes is "magical" too.  The entire process of creating a production has its rewarding and difficult moments (and sometimes downright terrifying moments) before everything comes together on opening night.

We wanted to invite our audiences to experience a little bit of that process we work on Tom Stoppard's
Arcadia. We've asked actress Alex Wiles to share her experience with you. 

For her first blog, Alex shares her experience leading up to (and at) the very first read through of
Arcadia, our first show of the season, opening October 15th. (with a 1-night preview October 14)   - Sarah Cole

              *                *                *

“We’d like you to play Thomasina for us this fall in Arcadia.”  Those were the words that, for the first time in my life, left me completely and utterly speechless in the best of ways.  Luckily I came to my senses within the next 24 hours and found the one word I needed: “Yes!”
It was the best kind of shock.  Two years ago while volunteering in the Richmond Shakespeare offices, I snuck a peek at the planning board, deciphering the acronyms for the plays that would comprise the next four or five seasons.  “12N” clearly stood for Twelfth Night, “A&C” for Antony and Cleopatra...but what’s this? “ARC.”
Not wanting to appear ignorant about Shakespeare in the Richmond Shakespeare office, I spent a good five minutes contemplating the acronym.  Unable to match it to a play, I gave in and asked Grant.
“Oh, that’s Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.  Have you read it?”
“Not yet.”
“Here’s a copy.  I think you’ll like it.”
As he handed me his copy of the script, Grant had made the understatement of the year.  It was love at first read, particularly with Thomasina Coverly: too intelligent for her own good, witty, at once young in experience and old in wisdom, and she gets to waltz with a gentleman that gives Mr. Darcy a run for his frock coat?  Yes, I think I do like that.
Here I formally apologize to everyone with whom I have spent any time in the past two years for talking their ears off about this marvel of a play.
It wouldn’t leave me alone--I found myself researching things that I never would have touched before.  Deterministic chaos theory?  Thermodynamics?  Iterated algorithms?  Fractals?  I loved it all, even if my understanding was entirely elementary.  I loved the way Stoppard used these concepts and theories to weave the fabric of the play itself.
It’s been said that if we have a contemporary equivalent of Shakespeare, it’s Stoppard.  I am by no means an expert on either of the two writers, but I believe that Arcadia supports that claim.  It may not be in verse, but it’s poetry nonetheless.  The beauty of the speech, the endless puns, a liberal peppering of double-entendres, the comedy, the romance, the existential questions...Arcadia offers so much at every level of enjoyment.  I truly believe it has something for everyone.
Two years of researching, reading, and dreaming were validated in one short moment on June 1 when that offer was made.  I thought things couldn’t possibly get better.  How wrong I was!
After a summer of more research and memorizing those beautiful lines, most of the cast met for a read-through this past Wednesday, August 1.  There were faces both new and familiar to the Richmond Shakespeare scene, all bringing their talent, enthusiasm, and fabulous British accents together, over boxes of Chex Mix, chocolate chip cookies, and homemade Rice Crispy treats from our fabulous stage manager, Brittany Dilliberto.  
After all, we must set our priorities.
As we began our work, something magical happened: it felt as though I was experiencing the play for the first time.  As an actor (or, more to the point, someone who just really enjoys theater), I sometimes find myself hearing the characters’ voices as I read to myself--particularly since Stoppard did such beautiful work in giving each character a truly distinct voice.  Hearing the cast read it aloud brought those voices to life more wonderfully, hilariously, and poignantly than I ever could have imagined--and that was just the first read!
It is a joy and a pleasure to embark on this adventure with such a talented, wonderful group of individuals.  I can’t wait to experience all that the coming weeks have in store, and hope that you’ll join us on our journey to Arcadia.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Speaking of the Court (1 of 2)

Or rather to the court....

Several of you have been kind enough to inquire about a mid-day, luncheon series talk I gave this week at the Richmond Circuit Courts building, and to post my remarks. We began, at the request of my host, with a little overview of what it means to be an actor as well as serving full time with a theatre company. What’s it like? It’s amazing. How so, they asked? And come to think of it, why Shakespeare? What's the big deal with Shakespeare? (A frequent question, and a good one.)

A little illustration served, just then, with explanations of vested engagement in "play," by the audience, in the moments that happen when we share a common space together. (Benedick and Macbeth)
"I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behavior to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love!" and,

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more..."
But one main thing, you learn about people. From the plays, and in meeting so many audience members. You know inherent things about where people are from, mostly by how they sound. You know, instinctively, when you’re being lied to. Maybe not about what, but you know.
Actors know acting when they see it.

That all seemed a useful jumping-off point for a talk on acting, Shakespeare, and the courts:

Acting, Shakespeare, and the Courts

After as many performances as we've given, both locally and touring twenty-three states, you also begin to get a feel for what life must've been like for Shakespeare’s acting company: to tour, to visit towns repeatedly and see familiar faces, to be that traveling actor, is all very exciting. Perhaps we even vicariously felt a little bit of what it must've been like to be Shakespeare. A little bit.

Can you slide that understanding now, of a writer, an actor, the keenest insight of his day, perhaps, into the world of justice and the courts? Shakespeare was no stranger to the English court system. But can we know his views on justice and the courts through biographical record?

His father, John Shakespeare was bailiff or constable of Stratford—more ceremonial than we think of it, but a prominent member of the town. As bailiff, it’s possible John Shakespeare would have welcomed traveling players to town--one theory of how young William became so interested in players and playing…Were some invited to the Shakespeare's home?

….John eventually fell on tough times, some of his own making---he dealt illegally in the black market for wool, at the time highly regulated. Three courts were involved, from the Court of Common Pleas in London at Westminster, to the Court of Queen’s Bench, (representing her perhaps, but not quite as regal as it sounds) —to the Court of Record in Stratford-Upon-Avon. John once presided over the last of these, and now faced it as the accused. But I’m sure that would never happen today...

John's opponent? His brother-in-law, Edmund. Who having loaned John a bond to help him in lean times, later refused payment and kept John's inheritance. Here’s what’s interesting here: John had once so loved his brother-in-law that he named his youngest son (William’s brother)----Edmund. In William’s play of King Lear, an evil character named Edmund steals the preference, patrimony and even the love of their father. Further, he steals it of the King’s Court itself! Autobiographical? Maybe. But interesting! Bailiffs, constables, judges, witness and testimony. The Shakespeare family even had a lawyer, between 1588 and 1590, arguing one case in London. (It was settled out of court.)

By the way, Shakespeare’s siblings all together? Anne, Joan, Edmund, Richard, Margaret! …..and Gilbert. Well, five out of six isn’t bad. In fact, the plays are full of references to people William most likely knew, and who are mentioned in surviving legal documents.

The Mountjoy’s, from whom he rented an apartment, and whose father was sued by his son-in-law for not paying a dowry. Shakespeare is recorded as giving testimony. Montjoy is a reputable character in Henry V. And on and on. Familiar names from William’s life, some of whom end up legal trouble. Montjoy’s case with his fellow French? Too long to debate here.

Court references are also interesting when we recall that Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the law schools themselves, likely with the playwright in the cast.

But what about the playwright’s views on justice? Many of you know “the quality of mercy is not strained.” It of course comes from The Merchant of Venice.

Which we'll turn to that most famous of legal speeches in installment two.
(It was an hour-long talk)

Monday, August 16, 2010

8-9-10----1100! Twelfth Night Posts RS Record

One week ago tonight, Richmond Shakespeare hosted its largest ever single-performance audience, with 1,100 patrons attending Twelfth Night at Dogwood Dell, helping to round out this year's Festival of Arts. The tally was reported to us by the Dell's staff, and Festival legend Lou Dean remarked that behind the 4th of July and the musical Pippin, it was the best-attended night of the summer. It was a lovely night for those patrons, and the cast found it exhilarating.

At right is a quick image of the arriving audience.

We were carrying on a tradition that dates back to the fifties, in fact. For more than two decades, from the mid to late 1950's through the 1970's (and possibly into the early 80's), a community theatre troupe called the Richmond Shakespeare Players performed each summer at the Dell.

What's in a Name?
Richmond Shakespeare is a completely different organization, officially created by University of Richmond alumni as the Encore! Theatre Company in 1984. We created the Richmond Shakespeare Festival after another company tried for two years in the mid 1990's.

Our Director's Own History
Many of you on 8-9-10 heard me tell the story of Molly Hood, the terrific young director of Twelfth Night. For those who couldn't attend: the last time Shakespeare was performed out at Dogwood Dell it was 1996, with the same play. Cynde Liffick and I were fortune enough to be in the cast. (Just prior to joining Encore!) We recall a rainstorm bringing the audience very close to the stage. In the crowd that night, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, was a very young.......Molly Hood. It's been a privilege to help bring her splendid production of Twelfth Night back to that Dell stage. Follow the tags for other tales of Molly and her own fan club, the Hoodwinkers--whose founders were both in attendance Monday night, along with Molly and most of her family.

Many, many thanks to all involved, from the tremendous Twelfth Night company of actors, designers and crew, to the very helpful Dogwood Dell staff and volunteers. More folks participated in bringing this about than I'm able to thank here---but do know that you're a part of this adventure, and that we're grateful to be sharing it with you.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Season Subscriptions and ticketing information

Dear friends,

It has come to our attention that due to a glitch in our ticketing website an "error" message has been appearing during the ticket purchasing process. We have been in continual contact with since the problem was brought to our attention want to ensure our patrons that our ticketing system is and always has been 100% secure. We apologize for the inconvenience and this glitch has been fixed. We thank you very much for your feedback and for bringing this error to our attention.

Please continue to contact us with your thoughts and concerns.

We look forward to celebrating the summer with us at Twelfth Night and Antony & Cleopatra !!

Click here to purchase tickets.

Monday, March 8, 2010

To All the Audiences, Supporters, Artists, Staff, Trustees, Fans and Volunteers of Richmond Shakespeare:

The time is now.

If you haven’t yet contacted your legislator, please, take a moment and do so now---today.

I’m writing today to ask each and every one of you who follows the work of Richmond Shakespeare to act, not on the stage, but by faxing, e-mailing, or phoning your Virginia delegate and senator a letter.

Who to write? Easy:

What to say? Also easy: Virginians For the Arts talking points

The plan is simple. Communicate the support of all our many constituents who reap the benefits of the arts in the Commonwealth. In addition to the 20,000 jobs and the $300 million economic impact of the arts organizations, Virginians have, for more than thirty years, known the value of supporting the Commission.

Now, without equivocation, is the time to remind our representatives of that heartfelt belief.

If you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me from the RS website, or to phone our offices at 804-232-4000. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Catching up: Romeo and Juliet Without Words

I've known and loved Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet score for more than fifteen years, but until last month, I'd never seen the ballet. Films, musical theatre adaptations, puppet shows (in miniature and well, puppet-sized), directed the play twice (three when you count a staged reading); I've performed the text, all seen and done. But never the ballet? How's that possible?

The opening night included sumptuous costumes (by the dozens), outstanding dancing, and an absolutely perfect take on the tragedy. A couple of favorite moments: Richmond Ballet master and, on RJ, choreographer Malcolm Burns allows Igor Antonov and Vallerie Tellmann the time needed to fall in love through prolonged eye contact---such a rarity in any theatre. He also even has the chorus land one dance in which bodies stop moving a second before dresses settle around the dancers, to the last notes of the moment. Simply brilliant.

It was a gorgeous treatment throughout, delighting small children, adults, everyone, and had me a little choked up. At Mercutio's wounding, a man two rows in front of me leaned over to his wife and whispered, with a big smile on his face:
"A scratch, a scratch."
Richmond's terrific offerings include outdoor folk and Shakespeare festivals, performances by symphonies on piers beside the river, (in RJ the Symphony seemed so delightfully comfortable with the dancers---how cool to see their collaboration with the ballet grow with the advantages of the new home), but the ballet company, from design and conception (ages ago, with sets refurbished and looking great), to the astounding artists on stage, I was just thrilled to call myself a Richmonder.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Moving "Merchant" to Feb 24

Among all the weather postponements you're now juggling in your calendar, place the staged reading of "The Merchant of Venice," featuring Alan Sader and Erin Thomas Foley to February 24. I know, it's not a Tuesday---in fact, it's not even a second Wednesday, it's a fourth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2010 - 7:30pm
$15, includes a glass of wine/juice

Directed by Freddy Kaufman in the beautiful new Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage. "Merchant" was first produced by RS in 2004, with Kaufman as Old Gobbo and Tubal. It was also the first Acts of Faith production in 2005 and though it's not our primary entry in the festival this year, will prove great fodder for conversation, as always. The new date will have tickets fo rsale at soon. Join us.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Shakespeare and Co. Coming to Richmond Shakes

Some fifteen years ago it was my great fortune to attend a weekend intensive offered by Shakespeare & Co. Based in Lenox, MA, S&Co. is the grand-daddy of them all in terms of actor-training. Their tremendous insights were for me astounding; they delve expertly and excitingly into the physical, mental and spiritual rigors of performing these remarkable roles.

Later I was also very fortunate to attend a weeklong clown intensive, working with the utterly wonderful Jane West. Her clown is something to behold: fearless, utterly profane, forever childlike even as the physical age of the actor increases. Amazing.

Their training department is headed by Dennis Krausnick, (at right) who simply put is a holy man. You know it in how he approaches actors, in their relationship to text; he exudes such a reassurance that even if you must face something terrifying, the spirit within will emerge.

The acting company is led by Tina Packer, a titan of humanity in a tiny frame. As proof of their method, here's a quick final anecdote: at a recent Shakespeare Theatre Association conference, Tina was performing excerpts from her one-woman show, to all of our delight. Asking for people to stand in for missing other characters, I stood in for her Romeo, a mere couple of decades separating us.

Outside the room was an aviary---a rare conference held in Baja, Mexico---and just as Tina spoke these words of the young lovers' first farewell, the entire aviary awoke and begin singing and twittering:
"'Tis almost morning; I would have thee
And yet no further than a wanton's bird;
Who lets it hop a little from her hand…
And with a silk thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty."
The birds awoke and fluttered, twittered and sang---the entire audience was amazed.

Tina and I both turned, in unison, toward the sound, and then in a moment connected with the air, the sea, all those Shakespeare producers and something profound, turned back to each other. Somehow I remembered Romeo's reply:

"I would I were thy bird."

The smiles and gentle laughter were a delight. The performances connect us to our world, help us understand it, and shed light on what it means to be alive.

Don't miss this weekend intensive, if at all possible. You'll never forget it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spelling Bee

I’ve been lax on these posts, but several of you have been kind enough to prod me with very kind words to return to them. For a guy who loves language, last night’s play was a great excuse…so, first, I'll go back to Souvenir, from the Hanover Tavern, then switch to B'Dales' other venue, Willow Lawn, and write about 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

January 2, 2010
(Much was made on Facebook of the date being a palindrome.)

Went to the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, and there saw the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Singing its praises will hardly be an ineffable task…

It was a delightful, funny, a bit bawdy and sweet. Wait, sorry---it was delectable, effervescent without being capricious, and sweet without being saccharine. I would use sacchariferous, but that’s really reserved for chemicals containing or yielding sugar. Regardless, what this “Bee” contains (and yields) is nicely and not overly sweet.

We first meet Rona Lisa Perretti, the inimitable Debra Wagoner, and Vice Principal Branch, adorably played by Ford Flannagan, who explain “The Rules of the Bee.” Ask for a definition. Ask to have the word used in a sentence. Ask for language of origin. Audience plants are listening carefully and nervously.

“Bee” is a musical take on all our childhood experiences with spelling bees in specific and competitions in general. More, it’s an inventive look at identity, particularly the contributions thereto made by the defining experiences of childhood. Transpiring in front of an audience, some are certainly traumatic, these experiences shape us. No surprise, of course, but fun. Metaphors for a life in the theatre abound, so what at first might seem strange grist for the stage soon becomes clear.

Musically it’s rich, fun and outstandingly sung by the cast. But its ability to connect with us, while it uses the music to do so, goes beyond the score.

Partly it’s our own memories: at the start, almost immediately, the singular spelling bee moment of my life came to mind. In the 5th or 6th? Grade, my recollection is that the entire school was required to participate. Union Chapel Elementary, Parkville, MO. I didn’t make it past my very first word. The huge challenge given me? “Kindergarten.” Now, every rational adult (and child) knows that here, I’ve just spelled it correctly. But even today, even now typing it, I’m grateful for spell check; “Kindergarten” always creates a little reverberation in my head: ---shouldn’t it be spelled just like “garden?” An assortment? A safe haven for small children? An innocent array of nutritious morsels of learning? A GARDEN for, in fact, KINDERS? All these went through my 10 year-old brain, and they still do. In front of the whole school, I reached that moment of singularity, an event horizon in time and space: was it D-E-N or T-E-N?? I thought and thought---all the thoughts listed above---wanted to say D-E-N because even-if-that’s-not-how-it’s-spelled-it-should-be! But no! Both “kinder” and “garten” come from the German, of course, dating back to the Indo-European roots for “stoopid” and “GARDEN.” I said neither.

“Awww, P-D-Q.”

And sat down. Moron.

Always try! It might have been right! In education we stigmatize mistakes---but for the arts, students are wary of making them. Especially the ‘tweens, in front of their peers. Younger children will risk it---they’ll play, they’ll try. But older? Fill in the wrong bubble, and colleges, careers, lives are shattered. Creativity requires accepting the risk of being wrong. But I digress.

This awkward and solipsistic phase of life, for most thankfully brief, nonetheless has tremendous influence on the folks around us. And through the lens of Bee, quite enjoyably so. We’re meant to learn of course that all the phases of life exert tremendous influence on those around us. Hardly new material, but the show communicates it in a novel and not blatantly didactic manner.

It’s achieved mostly through the wit of its silly comic writing—last night’s audience laughed wholeheartedly throughout—and strong character choices. Many are especially moving, both in development, (several characters really significantly learn winning isn’t everything), and in physical and vocal distinctions (three of four main finalists have speech impediments). Their growth is palpable, especially the decisive moments stuck in a spotlight of Audra Honaker, Aly Weplo, Eric Stallings and Yvonne Same. Honaker’s leap into the caretaker’s arms—the actor also plays her father, well, one of them—was beautiful and heartbreaking, and Weplo’s main number, sung partly with Debra Wagoner and William Cortez-Statham, tear-inducing. “The I Love You Song,” saved for last, was clearly the standout of the production. All great stuff. But then, I’m a softie.

There’s quite a bit in the ‘losing victories’ of both Honaker and Same, suffering through onerous parental expectations, and overcoming a kind of cultural determinism---true too for the ‘caretaker’ role of Cortez-Statham, but for the most part, Bee is about self-determinism and life itself.

A couple of brief items: I wanted to see Matt Shofner’s “Leaf Coneybear” get more chance to dance---but Leaf fit superbly into what made each of the “children” adorable.

And I was all set to be perturbed with Matt Polson for not mentioning Richmond Shakespeare in his bio (he was Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice ’04, Lucentio in Taming of the Shrew,’06 and Ferdinand in The Tempest in ’07) but he was so committedly playful and silly (and had a kind of bumpy week), so I gladly gave the guy a break.

Richmond loves and should celebrate even more the talent of Debra Wagoner. I’ve loved her voice and actors’ intuition for that suspended moment—when we catch an emotion with an actor and share it. Debra knows these moments so well, and can use them like a laser. She sings a refrain that even describes it---“Her Favorite Moment of the Bee,” was an instant in which we process emotion on stage. We recall the emotion, and we’re brought to the moment with the actor. Sympathy. Syzygy! (Yes, it’s a word. If you’ve seen the show you know why I mention it here) Debra was also in high gear in this same fashion last month in Souvenir at the Hanover Tavern. --With the fantastic Jonathan Spivey---who juggled (jongleur!) the difficult task of accompanying and performing. Lovely performances, both. I've written a bit more on Souvenir here .

But it’s Weplo’s “Olive Ostrovsky” that the show centers on—educators (like Douglas Branch and Rona Lisa Perretti) are perennially thrilled by a stand-out gifted student discovering a talent, and the show’s repeated focus on what makes ‘a winner’ shine particularly bright in her happiness for a newfound friend, a newfound talent, and an enjoyment of recognizing that talent in her friends. Far more winning, indeed. Weplo is the perfect choice for her. What a treat.

Also lovely to see the spot-on direction of Steve Perigard. The assembled team, inexorably swift timing, particular guidance to actors in character development, and terrific use of the Marjorie Arenstein Theatre stage. I wanted to see more of the band, wonderfully led by Musical Director Sandy Dacus (clearly phenomenal work with her singers, as well), especially post curtain call--the scrim panel hiding them was so good that the audience tended to forget they were there. But that’s just being nit-picky.

A final word on some of the participatory/improvisatory elements of the show. Spoilers follow, so read these after you’ve seen the production….It’s a great device, to place adult actors playing children beside audience members. So, too to have audience members spell ludicrous words, easy and difficult, and poke fun at them even as the characters are also embarrassed. (Is there, after all, a more embarrassing thing than to misspell a word in front of hundreds of people? Well, perhaps only a physical embarrassment for males could be worse, and that’s in the show, too)

But I learned that Ford Flannagan, selects words for the audience members, writes the sentences that may be requested for each word, and improves the scenes with the ‘ringers.’ The unpredictability could have led to awkward disruptions in the flow of the show, but they were beautifully chosen, deftly handled, and tons of fun for the audience. Debra and the whole cast gets into the act.

Congratulations to the whole cast and crew---it’s flawlessly called by Rick Brandt, btw, and attractively designed by Ron Keller, Lynn Hartmann, Derek Dumais and Liz Hopper (no small task, costuming adult actors as children—here it’s a nice balance). I had a great time, and encourage you to catch the show before it closes on January 17.

Then go see RS’ first Second Tuesdays Staged Reading of 2010 on the 12th, Ben Jonson’s delicious Volpone, directed by Jeff Cole. $15 and you get a glass of wine. Jeff was of course our most recent Hamlet, and I’m eagerly awaiting Jeff’s performance as Iago in our mainstage production of Othello, beginning in February, also at CenterStage

Cheers, Happy New Year, and see you at the theatre.