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.