Sunday, December 31, 2006

What About...Masks?

I had a mini-revelation last night. I'm still not sure if it's a viable idea, but I think it has the potential to solve two big birds with one semi-simple stone. Bear with me as I tease this out.

First, the practical production problem: we still lack a costume designer, and it's becoming increasingly clear that no one is willing to take on the responsibility when the cast is so big, the costumes are period, and the Walterdale wardrobe has so little from that era. Everyone agrees that Antony & Cleopatra deserves to be a sumptuous visual spectacle...but no one is willing to take charge of that sumptuousness (at least not where costumes are concerned).

I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with a fix for this. One option is to set the production in a different period altogether -- some historical or contemporary setting that Walterdale already has ample supplies of in our wardrobe. But a decision like that requires an equally strong artistic concept backing it up. There's nothing worse than a Shakespearean production wallowing in post World War I Europe or floating in some vaguely medieval limbo if there isn't some strong, supportable reason for connecting that play with that period. Modernizing the play is also fraught with problems, because then you have to explain the presence of swords amidst 21st century battle gear (or else use the word "sword" to describe the machine guns in everybody's hands). In any case, nobody wants to see Cleopatra in a modern evening gown; they want to see her in her own historical grandeur.

However, a clever designer has a bit of an out, here, because most people don't know exactly what that historical grandeur is supposed to look like -- only that it's not like anything we see today. Most theatregoers have a vague sense of Roman attire, but Egyptian fashion? Hard to place. They could involve a lot of gold, like Tutenkhamen's sarcophagus; or they could involve brightly coloured, flowing fabrics, like images of Persian or Arabian cultures; or they could be quite simple, like the white cloth tunics seen in most hieroglyphics. (Historically, Cleopatra probably dressed more like a Greek noblewoman than an Egyptian goddess.)

Where am I going with this? I'm dancing around the notion that Egypt and Rome can be signified by relatively simple and basic images -- a coloured fabric here, a tunic there, maybe some gold jewelry, and so on. But that doesn't account for the rest of the clothing (actors need to wear something, after all). Nor does it provide the spectacle which audiences expect with a play like this.

I'll get back to this problem in a moment. In the meantime, there's another challenge, this time of an artistic nature. It involves the tension between characters' public and private personas -- a tension which pervades the play, as Antony & Cleopatra struggle to resolve their private love for each other with their public responsibilities to their respective realms. There are a number of ways to demonstrate this tension onstage -- through voice, through physical stance, etc. -- and I suspect I'll draw on most of them at different points in the action.

But what if there were a way to clearly delineate the public/private faces of these characters while also injecting a hefty dose of visual spectacle and theatricality? And even make it fun for the actors?

Greek and Roman theatre employed masks to identify character types, and to amplify and broadcast emotions onto a grand tragic (or comic) scale. Their masks represented public, easily recognizable figures -- the Hero, the Soldier, the Lover, the Old Man, the Clown -- and those characters were expected to behave according to particular parameters. Like Antony the public figure or Cleopatra the queen, those masked characters had scripts, and if they deviated from those scripts, then their audiences would rebel.

Most modern productions that employ masks use them for similar ends. They usually either use masks 100 per cent of the time, or not at all. But what if a character could be masked in public, and then remove that mask in private, intimate scenes? It would become a sort of badge of office, like a helmet or a crown. It would also give characters a physical focus for their debates about public vs. private responsibility. Imagine Antony saying, "These strong Egyptian fetters I must break / Or lose myself in dotage" while raising his "Roman" identity up to his face, to cover up the naked, honest emotions that reveal him as a human being.

What about the costume problem? Adding masks doesn't resolve this issue, but it might give us the artistic flexibility we need to simplify our design concept to a manageable level. The masks are a "conceit," an artistic abstraction that informs the audience, right from the start, that we're not 100% in the real world. Once you've telegraphed that sort of abstraction, you can afford to make other adjustments, too. You could, for instance, make the base costumes more neutral (timeless, colourless robes or tunics, for example), and then use individual costume items as signifiers (as mentioned above).

So, in theory, the masks could solve a very problematic production issue and an artistic challenge in one fell swoop. They're not without their own challenges, of course -- mask construction takes time, and can be messy -- but this is the first idea I've had in awhile that seems to really open up a wealth of performance possibilities.


Monday, December 18, 2006

A Cast At Last!

Our call-back read-through was tonight; it was exciting, but also nerve-wracking; I felt like I was auditioning as much as they were, plus I had to make some very tough decisions about casting. I hope I didn't disappoint anyone too much; but I am certain we have an amazing ensemble cast on our hands!

Here is the cast of A&C 2007:

Kelly Aisenstat (Lepidus / Philo)
David Cairns (Pompey / Silius)
Bonni Clark (Octavia)
Nathan Coppens (Menas / Scarus)
Denny Demeria (Ventidius)
John Dolphin (Antony)
Erik Martin (Agrippa)
Kieran O'Callaghan (Enobarbus)
Jennifer Peebles (Mardias)
Cody Porter (Octavian)
Monica Roberts (Cleopatra)
Matt Robertson (Gallus)
Erin Voaklander (Alexas)
Natasha Weenk (Eros)
Leah Wilburn (Iras)
Beverly Wright (Charmian)
Philip Zinken (Menecrates / Thidias)
TBA (Chorus, Soothsayer, Clown)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Auditions, Day Two

Another good night on Monday, and a lot of fierce discussion afterwards with Sarah and Jenn. Who's Antony? Who's Cleopatra? Who's available when? Who do we want to work with? Well, we'd like to work with everyone, but ultimately it comes down to questions of chemistry and compatibility. Who do we think will work well together--or look good together?

I wish I could provide all the answers, but I don't have them--not quite yet. We'll have to wait until the call-back on Monday to finalize the cast. We'll read through the script and I'll try different actors' voices off each other. It will be a bit nerve-wracking, waiting until then--and I can only imagine how the actors must feel!

But soon, very soon, we'll have a cast. And no matter how the chips fall, I think, it'll be an awesome one.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Auditions, Day One

Tonight we had the first round of auditions for A&C. We saw 16 people (plus one early bird I saw yesterday because she couldn't be here tonight or tomorrow) -- and I'm aiming for a cast of 18, so in theory, we should have almost everyone we need.

Except...the ratio of female to male auditioners is, perhaps unsurprisingly, skewed. Every gal wants Cleopatra...and who can blame them? I had to beat the bushes a wee bit to get men out to the auditions. And it paid off, to some extent. In the end, it turned out to be a very fine evening. I saw a number of familiar faces (some from King Lear or other recent Walterdale shows) and a lot of delightful surprises from newcomers. In a way, I could cast the show from what I saw tonight. I'd just have to cross-cast a lot of actresses as tough-guy Roman soldiers (or politicians...or pirates ... hmm, lady pirates...).

I can't, of course, make any decisions until I've seen everyone. And it's hard to picture most of the supporting roles until I know exactly who is going to be playing the leads, especially the big three: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian.

But if tomorrow proves as profitable as tonight, I will have an abundance of talent to choose from. In fact, I may have to make some tough, tough choices...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hide and Seek

Here's a great practical example of how knowledge of the set design can help to solve a director's challenges, while simultaneously opening new avenues of exploration.

Antony & Cleo enter about ten lines into the play proper. Prior to that, a Roman soldier (Ventidius in my version) is moaning about how Cleo has turned Antony into a simpering girly-man instead of the mighty soldier he should be. When the two of them enter, they start talking about (what else?) their love. Cleo asks Antony to measure it for her; he cleverly evades this trap, and so on:

CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.

ANTONY: There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned. (or "measured" in my version)

CLEOPATRA: I'll set a limit on how far to love.

ANTONY: Then thou must needs find out new heaven, new earth.

The challenge is this: how do they enter? Side by side? Arm in arm? Or does Cleo walk ahead of Antony--since she is the Queen here, after all, and since she has the first line? Or should Antony lead, with Cleo following, begging for his love--putting the lie to what Ventidius has said about his diminished power?

Obviously, Shakespeare is no help in resolving this. Directors and actors can debate endlessly about who has the status, and how the audience should first be exposed to these central characters. The possibilities are almost limitless...

...until you have a set. And in our set, the central entrance is covered with an archway and a screen, which means that actors must walk around one side or the other (which I'll be calling Upstage Right and Upstage Left from now on) before they are visible to the audience. And since there are also pillars set along each side of the arch, the entryways are only about four feet across.

Now, having A&C enter side by side or arm in arm becomes a challenge. Not only do you have to decide which side of the arch to bring them in, but you also risk having them squeeze together most undecorously in order to get through the entryway. A grand, processional entrance is effectively out of the question.

So, one leads and the other follows? But which side of the arch do they enter from? A non-centralized entrance effectively weakens the impact of both characters. And (unlike my production of Lear last year) this play really doesn't feel like it moves in curves and spirals--it's more of a straight-on, right-angle kind of show. How can you bring on two characters from a non-centralized entrance but still have them dominate the stage?

The solution is practically self-evident. They enter at the same time--but they enter separately, coming around either side of the arch, creating a centralized movement between the two of them. This works visually, and it starts to say something about the characters as well (the fact that they treat each other as equals). But does it make sense to have two characters enter in mid-conversation, but from different entrances? How could that be explained?

A glance ahead a few pages provides the next solution. After the two of them have exited, Cleopatra re-enters (this is Act 1, Scene 2 in the original, although it will play straight through in my version). To Enobarbus, she asks, "Saw you my lord?"

ENOBARBUS: No, lady.

CLEOPATRA: Was he not here?

CHARMIAN: No, madam.

CLEOPATRA: He was disposed to mirth, but suddenly
A Roman thought did strike him.

Then, moments later, when Antony does arrive, Cleopatra characteristically changes her mind, and exits, saying "We will not look upon him."

What's going on here? Isn't it obvious? They're playing hide and seek. Although Antony's goals have started to shift (having received some upsetting news from Rome, as Cleopatra implies), Cleopatra continues the game, scurrying off as soon as Antony re-enters.

Applying this idea back to their first entrance, I find it delightfully concordant with the constraints of the set. The characters are engaged in an ongoing discussion (about their love), but they are also involved in an ongoing game of chase-me, chase-you, using the entire palace (or all of Alexandria) as their playground.

Obviously, this choice supports Ventidius's opinion (that Antony is not behaving like a soldier). But, curiously, it refutes his idea that Antony has somehow become subservient to Cleopatra. He is not "a strumpet's fool" if both of them are acting like fools to the same degree. The entrance will suggest fresh, unbridled love--but not, I think, in any way which will diminish the participants.

I love it when solutions just happen.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Blocking Friezes

Earlier, I mentioned that I'd decided to add chorus speeches to the beginning of each act (since there will only be one intermission, there are only two acts in my version of the script). But I wanted to keep these speeches dramatic, somehow, so that the play did not begin with bland exposition. This is a bit of a balancing act; if you include a bunch of dumb-show action upstage during a speech, then your audience's focus will get split, and they won't hear the information you're trying to convey.

Thinking about the set design, I realized I have an opportunity for a sort of compromise--something half-way between an empty, lifeless stage and a bunch of action. See, the upstage walls will be backdrops, with pillars running a few feet apart from one another. The gaps between the pillars aren't quite wide enough to act as a "frame" for an entire tableau. But what if the space between each pillar could act as part of a frieze--that is, a series of frozen images (live actors in tableau) that unfold to make a story?

There are hundreds of examples of what I mean from classical artwork. A Greek or Roman vase will usually contain a story, told in a series of still images. Egyptian heiroglyphics do the same thing. A more modern equivalent would be the panels on the page of a comic book: each one tells a little bit more of the story; they're mostly visual, although they would work in tandem with the chorus to provide a complete narrative of past events.

Each upstage wall has three pillars, which means four spaces. How do you tell the "story" of the assassination of Julius Caesar in four still images? Keep in mind that each one could not involve more than a couple of people.

Panel One: Caesar enters the capitol, wreath on head, hand up, triumphant.
Panel Two: Brutus and Cassius stand close together, daggers peeking out of their togas.
Panel Three: Cassius stabbing Caesar. Caesar still stands upright, shock and rage on his face.
Panel Four: Now Caesar on his knees, Brutus poised to stab him. Caesar's disappointment and betrayal.

Of course, in the version of the chorus I have currently, this entire sequence of events is described in a two lines: "For, after Caesar cravenly was stabbed, / Betrayed by Brutus and his fellow blades--" So maybe it would be asking too much of the actors (and the audience) to move so quickly through so many panels. In which case, one might need to summarize the whole play of Julius Caesar instead:

Panel One: The assassination: Caesar and Brutus
Panel Two: Caesar's corpse, with Mark Antony crouching over it, thinking of vengeance
Panel Three: Caesar's ghost stands over Brutus. Brutus, racked with guilt, holds his sword above his own chest.
Panel Four: Antony stands over Brutus's body, maybe with Octavian as well

Or something like that. I might also incorporate the silhouette screen; we'll have to see. But I am intrigued with the "living frieze" idea--like ancient illustrations coming to life on stage.

Sooner or later, I'm going to have to stop mucking about with the chorus and get down to thinking about the actual play...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Images of Cleopatra

I've been looking for neoclassical artwork--trying to find ways to incorporate their strict geometric compositions into my blocking (because, you know, I'm a masochist). Out of curiosity, I did a search for images of Cleopatra herself.

Fascinating to see how different eras interpreted this protean character. It seems like she could transform to suit the needs of just about any artistic movement.

Here's one I like by John Waterhouse (a pre-Raphaelite, though strongly influenced by neo-classicism).

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Antony & Cleopatra doesn't have a Chorus. None of the Roman plays do, as Shakespeare preferred to use lower-class characters (citizens, servants, or, in the case of A&C, footsoldiers) to discuss current events. Thus, Act 1, Scene 1 of A&C begins with one of Antony's soldiers, Philo moaning to his friend Demetrius about their general's unmanly conduct in Alexandria:

PHILO: Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of his war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.

The advantage of this dialogue-based opening is its dramatic momentum. It's driven by characters who have objectives--unlike a Chorus, whose only motivation for speaking is to inform the audience. It's a much punchier way to start a play, and most of Shakespeare's masterpieces begin like this (Hamlet, Othello, and perhaps most successfully, Macbeth).

The disadvantage is a greater risk of audience confusion. At lights up, they don't know who these two characters are (their costumes might identify them as Roman soldiers, but whose soldiers? And where are they?), and we don't know who they're talking about--"our general" in Line 1 refers to Antony, but since the characters both know who their general is, they have no practical need to identify him by name. Same with Cleopatra, who is referred to twice in the above speech: once as a "gipsy" and once as a "tawny front." These semi-derogatory terms are perfectly in character for the resentful Philo, but they don't serve the audience's first, most pressing need: to know what's going on, and who is being discussed.

There are several justifications for this potential ambiguity. The first is that Shakespeare's original audience would have been more familiar with these terms--they would have understood, for example, that "tawny" and "gipsy" both refer to Cleopatra's dark skin colour, which distinguishes her from Roman women. The second is that Shakespeare's audience knew more about the historical situation than most modern audiences do. This point is debatable; but at the very least, Shakespeare's audiences had already seen his play Julius Caesar, so they knew about the events leading up to A&C. Modern audiences are, sadly, out of touch with their classical history, and JC isn't produced as often as it used to be.

The third justification for Shakespeare's ambiguity is unapologetic: he enjoyed starting off a play with a mystery. If you force yourself to forget everything you know about Hamlet or Macbeth, and then read the first few pages of Act 1, Scene 1, you'll see how much is left unsaid. Ambiguity and mystery is one way of drawing an audience into the world of your play. And, in any case, the ambiguity about the "general" and the "gipsy" doesn't last long: within 10 lines, the two characters arrive on stage and begin acting out the passion that Philo is describing.

None the less, I am concerned enough about the play's beginning to have done the unthinkable: I've added to Shakespeare's script. I feel that A&C has altogether too much backstory, and that Shakespeare doesn't spoon-feed it to his audience (which is good), thus running the risk that modern audiences will tune out in frustration (which is bad). I could solve the problem in the same way that many other productions do, by writing some program notes; and I may do this as well.

But I've had some experience writing faux-Shakespearean verse, so I thought I'd try a more active solution. Starting off the play with a Chorus loses that dramatic immediacy; but it gives the uninitiated audience members some common ground, so that they are not dropped into totally unfamiliar territory. In fact, it struck me that a modern audience might like to have things start off with a familiar image: the assassination of Julius Caesar. Even those who haven't seen a production of Shakespeare's JC know about this historical event--and A&C emerges fairly directly from that incident. You need only mention Brutus's civil war and the establishment of the Triumvirate, and you're pretty much good to go.

Here's what I came up with. I haven't yet decided if I will have the speech accompanied by dumb-show scenes, or tableaux, or even slide projections--one way or another, it would be nice to give it a bit more dramatic motion. I'll probably write a Chorus piece for the top of the second act as well (approximately Act 3 in the original).

CHORUS: I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
‘Twas never so; not in our history.
For, after Caesar cravenly was stabbed,
Betrayed by Brutus and his fellow blades—
(A tale which our own author has described,
And many stages shown)—then there was war,
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
Did prowl the battlefield, and turn the swords
Of his assassins, guilty, on themselves.
Then rose in Rome a great confed’racy
Between three princes—the Triumvirate.
Great Caesar’s nephew, called Octavian,
Remained in Rome; and with him, Lepidus,
A grey reflection of an aging empire.
The third, Mark Antony: right hand of kings,
A peerless match in politics and war—
Brave Antony set forth to gird the borders
Of the sprawling Roman realm. Brave Antony,
Whose honour vaulted over mountaintops,
Whose majesty could have commanded all—
But first, he sailed to Egypt, where he met
The one force which surpasses honour, might,
Ambition, duty, death, the gods above—
In Egypt, mighty Antony met love.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Set into Motion

Last night, I met with Sarah, the assistant director, and Alli, the set designer. Alli had a maquette of the set done up for us to admire. The simple, scale model, with its pillars and backdrops of construction paper, were more than enough to re-engage my imaginative brain. I realized that what was holding me back (other than an insanely busy schedule) was not knowing how everything would look. Obviously, I'll need other pieces of the puzzle--costumes, props, and oh yeah, actors--but having a set to play with in my mind is an important start.

The Walterdale Playhouse stage is a wedge, of sorts--a great big curved apron downstage, narrowing to a corner directly upstage. The back walls are brick, but they will be covered by backdrops, constructed out of flats and painted to resemble a vast, Mediterranean sky. In front of this broad backdrop, two rows of pillars (one might be painted onto the backdrop itself, but at least one row will be real). Upstage, the pillars will converge upon an arch, which from the sounds of things will contain a sort of screen, used to receive projections (more on this below). The arch-and-screen will cover the upstage exit (so it becomes, in effect, two entrances, as characters can come in around either side of it). There are also exits to the lobby on stage right and stage left, plus I talked Alli into adding a couple of "servant's exits" along each side of the backdrop. This makes a total of six entryways, which is plenty for my purposes.

The stage floor will be painted to look like water, possibly reflecting the pillars. Mostly, the centre & downstage space will be bare, but Alli has added one more set piece--a large trapezoidal block, about 5 feet wide and 3 feet high at its largest end. Based on the model, it looks like a cross between a divan and a sarcophagus. It's also sloped, so that it can create the effect of, say, a gangplank. Basically, it's a multi-purpose set piece, and once I convinced Alli to make it able to rotate, I began to see a million different uses for it. There aren't many moments in the play where characters have to sit or lie down (although Cleopatra could certainly afford to do some reclining from time to time), but having actors use the block for height and status could be very useful.

I mention the gangplank in particular because one of the challenges Alli was trying to resolve was the scene on Pompey's barge (it's Act 2, Scene 7 in the original, or Unit 16 in our script). In my revision, Pompey meets an untimely (and fictional) end, getting his throat cut and his body dumped overboard. The need to have an "overboard" onstage--that is, a thing behind or beneath which one could fall--led Alli to create the trapezoidal block (although there's not really much space behind it, so Pompey would still likely be visible to the audience once he fell).

But in a Shakespeare play space, like time, is fluid. The stage can represent a ship in one scene, and then dry land in the next--or can even shift within a single scene. And when I started to think about the possibilities of some of the other parts of Alli's set, I realized that a literal throat-cutting and overboard-dumping may not be necessary, or even ideal. I'm thinking now about that aforementioned screen upstage.

Roy Jackson, our lighting designer, is intrigued by the possibility of having projections be part of the show--possibly to reflect the shift in settings, or else simply to convey thematic moods. I like the idea, but once I saw the screen, I started to think about other ways in which it could be used. Two of my previous Shakespeare shows (Macbeth and Othello) have used back-lighting techniques to good effect. There's just something about the menace and anonymity of silhouettes and shadows that evokes the tragic mood. So I suggested to Alli that, when the screen wasn't being used to receive front-projected images, it might instead be used to receive back-projected silhouettes.

I haven't thought the idea through completely yet, but off the top of my head, there are at least two moments that could really benefit from being back-lit, instead of enacted directly onstage. The first is Pompey's murder: for one thing, a throat-cutting is far less effective onstage, when there's no blood; and, as I said, dumping the body becomes much easier when you don't have to worry about where the body ends up. With back-lighting, an actor can easily drop down beneath the throw of the lighting instrument, effectively disappearing from the projected image. Add in a "splash" sound effect, and you've got your dumped corpse.

But the other back-lighting moment that sprung to mind is, I think, the most profitable discovery of the evening. For weeks now, I've been going back and forth on one key question: to snake or not to snake? In other words, what should Cleopatra use as an asp in her death scene? In an intimate setting, rubber fake snakes ain't gonna cut it; they'll defuse the tension and grandeur of the moment in a heartbeat. But a real snake is infinitely more problematic for all sort of reasons. Even if there weren't any ophidiophobes in my cast, you can bet that, some night, someone in the front row will panic when that snake comes out. And sooner or later, you know it's going to escape from its cage...

What I need, then, is the illusion or suggestion of a real asp. And if I can't get that onstage, then the next best thing is to do it through back-lighting. I imagine Cleopatra proceeding up, behind the arch, in a stately fashion, speaking her lines...and as the back-light comes up, we see her lift her hands up, and we see the (rubber) snake twisting in her (expertly rehearsed) fingers... and if we never see the snake itself, then it will stand out that much stronger in our minds.

So that's the new plan. I still need to go back and examine the text, to see if that staging will work. And there are still plenty of other blocking challenges ahead--sequences I plotted out in my mind without knowing what my set would look like, which I now need to re-block (or even re-edit). But I've got a lot to play with, now.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Our Masthead

Still very busy, but I have good news: Antony & Cleopatra finally has a production manager! Theresa Kind, who stage managed my Fringe show, has agreed to take on this vital task. Along with the director and the stage manager, the PM is one of the "holy trinity" of any theatre production; it is her job to gather designers and technicians and to supervise production meetings and budgetary issues. Hopefully, her arrival will make the team-building process much smoother and less stressful.

Speaking of our team, here it is, at the moment:

Director: Scott Sharplin
Assistant Director: Sarah van Tassel
Production Manager: Theresa Kind
Set Designer: Alli Ross
Lighting Designer: Roy Jackson
Sound Designer: Phil Kreisel

(I apologize if I've forgotten anyone!)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Full Speed Ahead, Slowly

A long-overdue update: I've been busy, but A&C has not been my priority. The school term started three weeks ago, and I have a nearly full course load this year, teaching a couple of courses I haven't taught before. Busy, busy, busy.

Walterdale's season is also getting into gear, and there's an exciting buzz about the Playhouse. Our first show, Steel Magnolias, opens in just under a month, and from all reports, it's going very well. The cast and director are having a grand old time. We've also just finished casting Show #2, A Child's Christmas in Wales. The casting process was a bit stressful for me, because our director came on board rather late, and we still don't have a Musical Director (Interested? Know anybody? Give me a shout).

Plus, the show calls for a lot of children--which I somehow never realized until we were in the thick of auditions. I haven't worked much with kids--at least, not since I was one of them--so I felt a bit overwhelmed. But a quick trip to Vic, my old stomping grounds, reassured me; even though I'm no longer a kid, I still share the same enthusiasm for theatre that I had when I was 16. It gives me and the kids something in common, which makes me feel young.

Anyway, that show is cast, and rehearsals have begun. One more round of auditions (the hotly anticipated Les Liaisons Dangereuses), and then it's finally time for A&C to find a cast. In the meantime, I have confirmed Roy Jackson as our lighting designer, and welcomed Phil Kreisel on board as sound designer. Still required: a Production Manager, Stage Manager, Master Builder, and Costume Designer. Keep your eyes peeled!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fringey Come, Fringey Go

Sorry it's been awhile. I got distracted by (of all things) theatre -- a lot of it. The 25th anniversary Edmonton Fringe Festival wrapped up this weekend, and I'm only now starting to reorient myself and look towards future projects.

It was a great Fringe, by the way. Not only did my own play, Purity Test, receive a lot of good reviews and popular acclaim, but a lot of other local shows got showered with praise as well. It's a bit pointless to provide full coverage after the fact, but just for the record, some of the shows I enjoyed included How I Learned to Drive, Down Dangerous Passes Road, Tales of Death, Finer Noble Gases, How Not To Suck (featuring former Walterdale AD Sam Varteniuk), and Catch/Jolly Jumper. I also had a good time at the Fringe Forums, where artists and aficianadoes got together and debated the past, present, and future of Fringe.

In the midst of all this theatrical madness, plans were quietly being laid for Walterdale's next season. The new website is now up, and it looks lovely: you can visit it at We're also just about to have auditions for our Christmas show, which is a musical adaptation of A Child's Christmas in Wales. Auditions are on September 10 and 11; if you want to come and try out, email Janet at

Antony and Cleopatra is still on my radar, but I doubt I'll have a lot of time to think about it soon, since I'm also just about to start my teaching term at Grant MacEwan. But when thoughts escape, I'll direct them here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Utah vs. Stratford

To add insult to injury, my wife just got back from a lengthy stay in England, during which she saw two productions of Antony & Cleopatra--one at the New Globe in London, and one in Stratford-on-Avon, starring the mightly Patrick Stewart! Both productions were strong ones, the Stratford show in particular. Sheila very considerately brought back programs, posters, and postcards from both shows--and will be providing detailed reports on both shows. But it's still ironic, I think, that we both flew out of Canada and saw A&Cs, and I ended up with the short end of the stick.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Utah, Part 2

In my last post, I outlined some of the things that went wrong in the Utah Antony & Cleopatra. Here's one or two things they did right:

--The relationship between Octavius and Octavia. Even though neither actor was very strong, the director used blocking to communicate Octavius's reluctance to let his sister become Antony's wife. This is easy to overlook; but Octavius isn't the one who suggests the marriage (Agrippa does), and he spends almost exactly the same amount of time bidding farewell to Octavia as Antony does in a later scene (when he's planning to return to Egypt). The director kept having Octavius interpose himself between Octavia and Antony, until finally the frustrated Antony, crying "Come, sir, come, I'll wrestle with you in my strength of love" grabs Octavius and pulls him away. He turns it immediately into a joke, but it also served to reinforce Octavius's dislike and fear of Antony.

--Also, calling "Octavius" "Octavian." It's easier to say, especially the possessive.

--The scene in which Cleopatra learns that Antony has remarried (2.5), and the scene in which she quizzes a messenger about Octavia's appearance (3.3). Lots of inherent comic irony in these scenes, and a chance to show both the best and worst sides of Cleopatra. In Utah, the messenger was a great comic actor, easily tempted by offers of gold, and then terrified when he thinks he's said the wrong things. In 3.3, he kept looking back to Charmian and Iras before answering Cleopatra's questions:

CLEOPATRA: Is she as tall as me?
MESSENGER: She is... [Behind Cleopatra, Charmian and Iras shake their heads] not, madam.
CLEOPATRA: Didst hear her speak? Is she shrill-tongued or low?
MESSENGER: Madam, I heard her speak; she is... [Charmian and Iras gesture to the floor] low-voiced.

This went on until the Messenger, getting cocky, said, "And I do think she's thirty" in a sneering tone of voice that suggested any woman over thirty must be a hag. Cleopatra grew cold, and the Messenger tensed up, expecting another violent assault like the one in 2.5.

--The Soothsayer. In Utah, he was tall and thin, with dark circles underneath his eyes. He spent most of his scenes staring up at the sky (which, in the open-air pseudo-Globe, actually contained stars), and only reluctantly read Charmian and Iras's palms. His presence alone onstage book-ended the production, as if he were a reticent sort of chorus figure. But more interestingly, he reappeared twice in the second half of the play: once as part of the "hautboys" scene, and again disguised as the clown who brings Cleopatra's asps.

The "hautboys" scene (4.3) features Antony's night watchmen reacting to strange, ethereal music (according to Shakespeare's stage direction, "Music of the hautboys under the stage"--hautboys are like oboes). One soldier declares, "'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, now leaves him." In Utah, they gave this line to the Soothsayer--very clever, I think, since no ordinary soldier should be able to read such omens or portents.

As for the Soothsayer/Clown doubling, I had already planned to do that for practical purposes; but now it occurs to me that it might be valuable to make it plain that the Soothsayer is providing Cleopatra's means of achieving immortality. His lines are goofy (and not terribly funny, although the Utah audience did chuckle once or twice), but I think they could be delivered with a hidden earnestness that suggests the speaker knows Cleopatra's plan.

Humour in the play is a problem which I'll have to address sooner or later. I was very pleased with how much levity I could wring from King Lear--but then, that tragedy has a Fool as one of its major characters (for the first half of the play, at least). In this play, we have one Clown in one short sequence near the very end of the play--not enough laughter. Enobarbus may draw out a few guffaws, but even he gets pretty serious in a hurry.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Egypt in Utah

Just got back from a three-day Shakespeare conference in Cedar City, Utah. I presented a paper on "Hamletmachines and CyberDanes" (something from my grad studies), but the main reason for going was not the paper, nor any of the other academic shenanigans. Mainly, I wanted to check out the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and in particular, to see their production of Antony & Cleopatra.

You see...big confession here...I'd never actually seen a live performance of the play until now. Hence the need to fly 500 miles (including one hop in a tiny twin propeller plane) to the hot red desert (not Egypt; the other one).

How was it? Well, Cedar City is pretty...and the conference was OK, although there were only a handful of papers about A&C--most of them dealing with film & TV versions, not stagings. The Shakespearean theatre was lovely, a quaint, open-air riff on the original Globe (without the "pit" for groundlings to stand in). I saw a very fun production of Merry Wives of Windsor...

And then there was A&C. Oh, dear. What a travesty. Antony was a hulking boor with a radio announcer's voice and a tendency to sway, as if drunk, even at the character's most sober moments. Cleopatra was a strong actress (she'd done a great job as Mistress Quickly the night before), but she seemed unfocused, shiftless--generally lacking in either authority or sex appeal. Octavius was similarly vague. Octavia was unspeakably bad. And the costumes...oh my god... it was like they threw every style from East Indian to Cavalier England into a tie-dye machine.

But a show with a few bad actors and a nightmarish design concept might still be saved, if the director knows what he or she is doing. This guy didn't. As a result, the blocking was mostly unmotivated (and poorly suited to the thrust stage), and the actors' gestures lacked specificity and realism. This trend reached its nadir when Cleopatra plucked a rubber asp out of the basket and held it like it was...well, a rubber toy, instead of a deadly serpent or her ticket to immortality.

Yipes. Just yipes.

For all that, there was a handful of interesting moments, and I feel no remorse about stealing or adapting them into my own production, mainly because I can't help feeling they were either accidental, or ripped off themselves. I'll describe a few of them shortly. I also have some reports from Sheila, my wife, who just got back from England, where she saw two productions of the play (at Stratford and the New Globe), both light years better than the one I suffered through.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Lighting Designer

Another team member has come on board for Antony and Cleopatra: our lighting designer is none other than Roy Jackson, Walterdale's technical director and the guy who knows that venue better than anyone on earth. I think Alli's set and Roy's lights will make for an outstanding combo. Slowly but surely, the big picture comes into focus.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cleo the Goddess

Slowly reading Michael Grant's biography of Cleopatra. Early on, he describes the Ptolemaic dynasty of which Cleopatra was a part -- a Greek dynasty, descending from Alexander the Great, but having adopted many of the customs and beliefs of their Egyptian surroundings. One of these beliefs was that monarchs were the earthly manifestations of gods and goddesses -- both Greek gods, like Dionysus, and Eygptian ones, like Osiris and Isis (being the manifestation of more than one god sounds like a lot of work to me, but nobody said it was easy being queen!).

There are obvious political reasons for associating oneself with gods, but the practice had been ongoing for so long (inherited from the Pharoahs) that I can't help but wonder if the Ptolemies believed their own hype. Particularly someone like Cleopatra, who was born and raised to believe her father was the mortal embodiment of Dionysus, and that she would one day become queen, and therefore, a goddess also.

This seems relevant to the play, not because it feeds Cleopatra's ego (no need for help there), but because it reinforces the "immortal longings" which motivate her suicide. I keep coming back to that moment because -- well, partly because I'm afraid of it, but partly because it epitomizes the "larger-than-lifeness" that the play seems to demand. If Cleopatra has always believed that she was destined for godhead, then her decision to die may be misinformed, but it is far from cowardly.

What's more, I think her attitude constitutes a return to form. In the middle of the play, Cleo seems far from divinity, indeed -- capricious, jealous, unsure of herself and her love for Antony. But the ending must provide a restoration, in which Cleo can accept and embrace her love and all of the decisions she's made because of it, and incorporate all of that into her vision of herself as Isis.

(On another note, Grant comments on the Ptolemaic inclination towards incest, and speculates that "certain elements in her character may have been due to this persistent in-breeding -- notably her total absence of moral sense, and a tendency to murder her brothers and sisters which may have been partly an inherited family habit." Sounds like her gene pool had a crocodile problem!)

Friday, July 21, 2006

Purity Test Website Up

Hey, the first online sign of life for my Fringe show has arrived. Our producer, Michael Cowie, has designed a lovely, funky little site for Purity Test, which is running August 17-26, 2006. More information about Purity Test will follow here...but if you're impatient, you can visit the site at

And if you have no idea what a purity test is, you're in for a dirty treat!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A&C: First Set Meeting

I met with Alli Ross, the set designer, for the first of what I'm sure will be many fruitful design meetings.

We agreed that a nautical theme was a good place to start, although the set obviously needs flexibility or abstraction, to keep audiences from thinking that the whole play takes place on a ship. Alli is keen on using one or more broad white sheets to simulate sails; she described a process that could be used to fix them in a "billowing" shape, so that they wouldn't require wind to look full. We also talked about using the cyclorama, or cyc, to project various background lighting effects (warm sunset colours for Alexandria, cool blue skies for Rome). I've never done a show with the cyc before, so that will be neat.

As for the stage itself, we agreed that platforms are de rigeur. Alli suggested jutting wooden platforms that resemble gangplanks (or just plain planks). I agreed, adding that "as long as they're big enough to fit three or four actors standing close together," we should ideally have a number of them, set at different levels around the stage (this, again, is ship-like, and it can also simplify issues of rank and status when it comes to blocking).

I am picturing more and more of these tight clusters of people, now. My earlier neuroses about not having enough bodies to suggest armies has given way to a fairly basic principle of composition: three or four actors in a very tight cluster looks like a juggernaut, especially when contrasted to a solitary figure placed elsewhere on the stage.

Lots of possibilities emerge: when Antony is in Alexandria, his status is visually weakened because his soldiers tend to stand apart from him, whereas Cleo's retinue always sticks very close beside her (I'm even picturing them standing in a vertical line, waving their arms like Vishnu). In Rome, Antony and Octavius both have bodyguards who stick to them like glue, but gradually Antony's "mass" begins to shrink, while Octavius's only expands. At the climax, when Octavius captures Egypt, Cleo's maidens may be scattered...but when it comes time for her to kill herself, they reunite to create a living frame for Cleo's picture-perfect suicide.

Lots of good stuff to ponder, when I have the time...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Cleopatra the Junkie?!

I've been watching the excellent HBO television series "Rome," which traces the same history as Shakespeare's two high Roman plays, Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. It's only one season old, and it's taking its time to arrive at the events which Shakespeare used as his focus -- but that's probably a good thing, since it's also telling a number of other stories amongst the lower ranks, all of which are just as interesting.

I've just seen Episode 8, "Caesarion," where Cleopatra is introduced. Julius Caesar has come to Alexandria in pursuit of his Roman enemy, Pompey Magnus, and ends up interceding in a family dispute amongst the Ptolemy dynasty. He sides with Cleopatra because, well, who wouldn't?

The first impression of Cleopatra is not a favourable one. She is disoriented, flighty, and when men come to assassinate her in her tent, she barely seems to care. She is, we quickly learn, an opium addict.

Now, I must admit to being a bit remiss on my history. For two months now, I've had a biography of Cleopatra by Michael Grant sitting on my shelf, but I haven't had the time to crack it open. I can't speculate (yet) whether this detail is historically accurate. I know the next one definitely isn't: at the urging of her slave woman, she has sex with a centurion so she will conceive a child, which she will later announce is Caesar's son.

I have absolutely no objection to the series playing fast and loose with historical details. In a lot of ways, it's part of the fun (especially since we know the centurion she picks). What I'm more concerned with is the way Cleopatra is portrayed here. "Rome" is full of scheming, conniving men and women, many of whom use sex for political ends. Cleopatra should, in that respect, be no exception. Why, then, have they made her an air-headed junkie? Why does she need her slave woman to tell her what would be politically expedient?

She's young, I guess -- another historical detail which many (including Shakespeare) overlook. But I must confess to being disappointed; I had hoped that, after 7 episodes of reptilian Roman politics, Cleo would slither in and out-snake them all. Maybe that will come.

In the meantime, James Purefoy's Mark Antony is a splendid bastard, more unscrupulous than a boatload of Cleopatras (Cleopatrae?), and revelling in his bastardy to boot. I look forward to seeing how the character evolves once Caesar gets the chop.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Shows to See

I have realized that reserving this blog exclusively for content which pertains to Antony & Cleopatra isn't paying off. My A&C brainstorms aren't coming often enough to justify its existence. And besides, I chose the name "Stage Whispers" so I could comment on anything theatre related (with particular focus on Walterdale's upcoming season, which has the same name). If I'd wanted an exclusively A&C-related blog, I would have called it "Salad Days."

So here are notes about a couple of other shows in town which anyone who happens to be reading ought to see..

First, the last show of my first season at Walterdale is running until July 8...and it's fantastic! Actually, it's The Fantasticks, the smash hit Broadway musical that ran for 45 years or some insane length. My beloved Grade 8 Language Arts teacher introduced me to this play, and it feels like a weirdly satisfying personal achievement to have been instrumental in bringing it to life. It's a very sweet, charming, high-spirited and good-hearted play, and this production (directed by Martin Galba) has a lot of lovely touches, including some big show-stopping numbers where so much is going on all over the stage that you want to be able to hit rewind and watch it again.

On the other end of the comic-tragic spectrum, I went to the opening night performance of Free Will Players' Hamlet in Hawrelak Park. John Kirkpatrick plays Hamlet, and he's one of the most energetic and accessible Danes I've seen (and I've seen plenty in my time). I also loved the costume design, especially Julien Arnold's Ghost costume -- he's a bronze statue come to life (well, not quite life...he is a ghost, after all). The first half of the production took H's line "Time is out of joint" literally: the clock above the stage kept spinning and skipping, and several scenes involved "time jumps," with the actors "rewinding" and playing snatches of lines again. It was an inventive device (reminded me of Donnie Darko), and I wish they'd found a way to make use of it in the second half too (imagine sword-fighting done backwards!).

I recommend both shows--although I have to give preference to The Fantasticks, of course, since it's my baby.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cleopatra's Victory

Here, alas, is another writer whose views of the play I find totally at odds with my own.

Thomas Price's book Dramatic Structure and Meaning in Theatrical Productions attempts the unthinkable: it creates a system with which to classify absolutely every play written. It's written like a logical syllogism; one of the theorems is about Action. I'll translate the theory-speak as we go along:

"The dramatic character's overriding wish [ie. their objective] must be deduced from a realistic assessment of his actions, just as his success or failure at attaining that wish must be determined from his deeds within the larger context of action and counteraction. Errors in dialectical placement will otherwise often result from taking too seriously either the character's own rationalizations for his actions."

Still there? Essentially, Price is saying that deeds speak louder than words. So far I agree; drama is about action, and it's way too easy for a character to talk about accomplishing great things while doing absolutely nothing (Falstaff bounds to mind).

Where Price and I part ways is the section where he uses Cleopatra as an example of a character whose self-justifying language misleads the audience into thinking she's achieved her goal:

"Commentators have ... allowed their judgment of the drama's action to be distorted by the Egyptian queen's eloquence ... [their] approaches to the play are predicated on two unspoken assumptions, namely, that poetical rationalizations for deeds are more important than the deeds themselves, and that the love-death motif automatically infuses the work with an ethos that elevates Cleopatra and her concubine to the status of true martyrs. Slighting the drama's actual events, such critics choose to discount the unromantic Octavius' dialectical victory."

Translation: first, Cleopatra talks big, but all she's really doing is taking the easy way out -- what Price later calls "the least painful possible of suicides." Second, Cleopatra isn't scoring any sort of victory by cheating Octavius of his famous prisoner. But she spins such a great speech that everyone onstage, and everyone in the audience, misses the fact that Octavius wins. Which, according to Price's methodogy, makes him the protagonist of the play.

Why is everyone so determined to take Cleopatra down a peg?

Octavius isn't the protagonist of Antony & Cleopatra. Price can produce as many dialectical studies as he likes, but no audience will ever find themselves rooting for him, no matter how sympathetic the actor who plays him is. And even though he's the last monarch standing, he doesn't win. If his objective were to conquer Egypt, then yes, he gets what he wants. But it's not. His objective is to conquer Cleopatra.

Does Cleopatra take the easy way out? As Price points out, the final scene contains a lot of negotiatons between Cleo and Octavius that make her seem very petty and cowardly. But it's equally possible to read these sequences as a ruse, another one of Cleopatra's mind-games -- not only buying herself time and space but actively persuading Octavius to assume that she will not attempt suicide. Because after all, what suicidal queen would try to hide money from her conqueror?

Cleo's suicide is not a gesture of defeat. She is actively accomplishing the things she has sought throughout the play. It's what Price dryly calls the "love-death ethos" -- Cleo wants to be with Antony forever, in a boundless and eternal expression of their love for one another. The only way to do this is to join him in heaven. But it's even cleverer than that; by choosing to die in a spectacularly memorable fashion (who cares if it's painless or not?), Cleo is assuring her place in the history books -- and denying Octavius a place (as Cleo's conqueror):

CLEO (to the asp): O, couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass

In a nutshell, Cleopatra's objective trumps Octavius'. She wants her love to be immortal. Does she achieve it? The very existence of the play itself says yes. The fact that it's still being produced, the fact that any 10-year-old knows who Cleopatra was (and most 40-year-olds have never heard of Octavius), says yes.

So, rag on Antony all you like. He's got plenty of shortcomings. But lay off Cleopatra, already! Geez!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Masks of A&C

Marvin Rosenberg was an esteemed Shakespeare scholar with an unusual critical approach: his series of "Masks" books ("The Masks of Hamlet," "The Masks of Macbeth," etc.) compiled an impressive range of commentary on production techniques and staging approaches. Instead of speculating about the "ideal production" (as far too many scholars do), Rosenberg beat the bushes until he found a sufficiently broad sampling of moments from actual productions. Only once he had this stage-based evidence in hand did he start to speculate about what Shakespeare might have intended with any given play, scene, character, or line.

For a director, these books are a gold mine of great staging ideas, ripe for the stealing. I made good use of "The Masks of King Lear" in last season's production, and I was disappointed that Rosenberg had died without publishing a volume on A&C.

And then, my Shakespeare listserv informed me that "The Masks of Antony & Cleopatra" had just been published posthumously! That's the good news. The bad news is, it's a massive hardcover volume, and it's priced for academics, not for freelance directors like myself. I'll have to poke around local libraries to see if volumes appear soon enough to make any use of them.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Redgrave on Cleopatra

Vanessa Redgrave has, it turns out, played Cleopatra five times, and directed the play at least once. You'd think her insight into the Egyptian queen would be tremendous. Not so much.

She certainly gets off to a good start by making the comparison between Cleo and Elizabeth I; yes, I agree, that's probably what Shakespeare had in mind. The problem is, she seems to get stuck there. She does admit that her "view of Cleopatra is that of an Englishwoman," but surely there must be something more resonant in Cleopatra's character than a portrait of a 400-year-old royal spinster.

Things get worse. She observes that Cleopatra has a strong combination of "sophisticated intelligence and simple, direct humanity"; she thinks that Cleo can see through Antony's political posturing, and knows that he doesn't truly love her; but then she maintains that Cleo loves him anyway, even when he threatens to kill her. This doesn't sound like sophisticated intelligence to me; it sounds like a victim of psychological abuse. Worse yet, Redgrave writes, "She is frail in that she fears violence, and turns her ships away from battle because she is -- a woman."

But where I part company from her entirely is when she describes Cleopatra's suicide as a mundane gesture, achieving "the true nobility of seeing herself as merely a woman." Based on what she's already written, I'm afraid I don't see the nobility of womanhood; but never mind. The fact is, Cleopatra's death transcends humanity; she is becoming immortal, becoming a goddess, and rising, not falling, to meet her dead lover. Her reputation is going to live forever, and she knows it. Her death is not an ending, but a beginning.

Redgrave does include a short final chapter with some useful observations about the political, economic and scientific status of Egypt in Roman times; and she draws a very lovely parallel between Antony's descent into superstition (and the power of superstition to defeat science) and the witch-hunts and persecutions of James I. Not much of that is inherently playable, however. I was hoping for some cogent acting tips beyond "sophisticated intelligence and simple, direct humanity."

If there's one thing which Cleopatra never, ever, ever is, it's SIMPLE!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Antony's Arc

My mind has been elsewhere (along with my body; I've been on a writing retreat), so I haven't written much lately. But rescripting proceeds apace, and I'm managing to adhere to my own strict requirements of cast size and running time. I start to realize now that I'm worrying far too much about the literal size of armies onstage. Theatrical audiences are trained to understand that one or two soldiers stand in for an army, just like a throne stands for a court, or a man with a ring of keys stands for a prison.

Meanwhile, I've started reading Vanessa Redgrave's thin volume on A&C, which was published by Faber and Faber as part of their "Actors on Shakespeare" series (Redgrave directed A&C, and starred as Cleopatra, in Houston in 1997). Her first, surprising, assertion about Antony's character is that he doesn't love Cleopatra -- at least, not at first:

"The text in my view reveals a man who is fascinated, impressed, knows how to flatter a queen, and is not in love."

Antony's skill in flattery is an extension of the diplomacy which keeps him alive throughout Julius Caesar, and the political manipulation that empowers him to turn the citizens against Brutus in his famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. And it certainly makes sense that the middle-aged general would bring that same acumen with him to Egypt. But does that really mean he doesn't love her?

Assuming that he doesn't, the next question is: why doesn't Cleopatra see this? She is, after all, as much a political animal as he is? I wonder if it's possible that both of them think they are fooling/controlling the other, trying to maintain an emotional distance while drawing their partner deeper into their political webs. If this is the case, Antony breaks free of Cleopatra's control as early as Act One, when he learns of Fulvia's death and decides to return to Rome.

But something happens to him while he's away from Egypt. Redgrave hasn't put her finger on it yet -- and, indeed, I think Shakespeare is a bit cagey about exactly when it happens. But clearly, Antony finds it impossible to get Cleopatra out of his mind, and at some point he must realize that he really is in love with her, after all. It is this movement that provokes Antony's doubts and causes his missteps in later acts.

Redgrave writes that Act III, Scene vii "illustrates the change that has come upon him -- from his confidence in Athens in the preparations for the coming war (in Act III, scene iv) to his present doubts surrounding the outcome of the battle." Is it a superstitious fear of Octavius that causes this (he does comment on Octavius's daunting luck)? Or an aging man's fear of youth? Or is it because he knows that he can no longer wage war with the fearlessness that soldiers need -- because he now has something to lose, or something to go back to when the fight is over?

If I had to pick a moment when his eyes are opened to his love for Cleopatra, it would be Act II, scene vii -- the remarkable banquet scene aboard Pompey's galley. Cleopatra isn't mentioned in this scene, but Antony must surely feel her absence at a feast of such bacchanalian intensity. As Lepidus quizzes him about Egyptian geography and zoology, he responds in riddles that seem to evoke his inability to articulate (or forget) Cleopatra's greatness:

LEPIDUS: What manner of thing is your crocodile?
ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
LEPIDUS: What colour is it of?
ANTONY: Of its own colour too.
LEPIDUS: 'Tis a strange serpent.
ANTONY: 'Tis so, and the tears of it are wet.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Set Design: First Email

My email to Alli (with the script enclosed):

A couple of notes re: set. There are a number of banquets, and a number of battle scenes. For both, I think it would be fine to create the impression that a lot of the action is taking place just offstage (in fact, I've structured the battle scenes to suggest exactly that). That's not to say that we cannot have a banquet table onstage--but it may be equally effective to have the banquet goodies paraded across, from one exit to another. What we probably will need is a number of vantage points, where soliders can look out at the action of a battle, etc.

Two particular challenges spring to mind. The end of Act One (Units 15-16 in my script) is set on a ship. At one point, somebody gets assassinated and dropped into the water. So we'll need some sort of elevation, and a place where an actor can "fall" and disappear.

Similarly, the end of Act Two (Unit 32) involves a famous and annoying scene where Cleopatra and her servants are "aloft" in her "monument" (probably a tower of some sort) and Antony (dying from a self-inflicted wound) is "raised aloft" by soldiers, so that Cleo can kiss him farewell. I say it's annoying because, well, lifting actors anywhere is troublesome on a good day. And here, we need a platform with some sense of height to it, which is large enough to contain Cleo, her servants (2-4), and Antony, lying prone.

So I guess what this all adds up to is: levels. Having pointed out the ship scene, I think it would be a lovely challenge to go somewhat nautical with the whole set (a lot of the play's language is about seafaring and oceans). But of course, most of the play properly takes place on dry land, either in Rome or Egypt--usually hopping back and forth between the two with dizzying rapidity.

Welcome to the world of Shakespearean setting.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

21st Century Cleo

Spoke a bit more with Alli last night, at the One Acts opening night reception (the show is going well, by the way, but the houses are small; come see it, everybody!). She confessed to having done a bit of reading and research on A&C since the last meeting, which I took to mean she's pretty much on board.

"I've seen pictures of productions where Cleopatra looked like she was wearing some sort of 18th century dress," she said. "Why would they do that?"

Good question. Lots of Shakespeare plays get set in lots of crazy times and places, but this one doesn't strike me as inherently transplantable. Never the less, I cooked up a half-baked explanation on the spot, because, well, I'm a windbag: "I think in Shakespeare's time, Cleopatra was meant to have a particular resonance for his audiences. They had just lived through the reign of an exceptional female monarch, so I think Cleopatra probably reminded them of Elizabeth, and Shakespeare meant it that way. So...maybe other, later productions also associate Cleopatra with contemporary figures."

A good theory, I think, in retrospect. But it begs the question: who does Cleopatra resonate with today? I'm not suggesting that I dress her up like some contemporary celebrity or other (especially if the rest of the design stays Roman/Egyptian). But I do think that audiences like to be shown glimpses of their own historical moment reflected in Shakespeare's dazzling stage mirrors. So who would we be reflecting to them?

Antony could be any number of young, ambitious military or political figures. But there seems to be a shortage of female potentates in this day and age. Well, if Cleopatra can't be found in the corridors of political power, how about cultural power? Do any of Hollywood's stars measure up? Is Madonna the new Cleopatra? Angelina? Demi Moore? (shudder) Reese Witherspoon?

Or, I suppose, another way to look at it would be: if they were making another Cleopatra film, who could they cast who would do the role justice?

Any suggestions?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Potential Set Designer

It's been awhile since I've had a chance to think about A&C; I moved this month, plus Walterdale has a show opening in, like, days: The Evening of One Acts. Come and check it out! Three very neat new plays by local writers. It runs from May 8-13, 8pm nightly.

We're also starting to make plans not only for our next season (which is poised to launch; the brochures are done, and they look great), but also for our 50th Anniversary Season, which is in 3 years. I won't be the AD by then (it's a two year term), but I will be in on a number of the early fundraising activities, including a fashion show gala which is currently being planned for late April 2007. Since that's right after A&C closes, I suggested that the set for A&C might conceivably be servicable for the fashion show as well (I was completely talking out of my ass, but since I'd already nixed suggestions to hold the fashion show this fall, I was trying to be accomodating).

This led to questions about the nature of A&C's set. I stuttered something about levels and ramps, and then I realized that, right there at that very Fundraising committee meeting, I was sitting across from Alli Ross, one of Walterdale's foremost set designers. She did this year's set for You Can't Take It With You, and even built a set once for a show I wrote (Peep Hole Stories).

"Say," I said, as subtle as ever, "You and I should talk about sets sometime."

"Sure," was her reply, "I'd love to work on Antony & Cleopatra. It's the right time of year for me."

And that was that. I think. Sometimes Walterdale members leap onto a wagon before they've really had a chance to see where it's going, so I won't hold her to any promises if she checks her schedule (or reads my blog) and then decides to back out. But it would be excellent to work with Alli again...and since I gather she usually works with master Master Builder Joe Isserliss, that may mean I'll soon have two team members already in place!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How to REALLY Scare A Costume Designer

Now, I realize, if I'd really wanted to terrify Geri, I should simply have shown her this photo of Theda Bara as Cleopatra, and said, "I want it exactly like this!"

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How to Scare Away A Costume Designer

I had a chat recently with Walterdale's resident costume goddess, Geri Dittrich. She just finished designing costumes for The Skin of our Teeth (including utterly fabulous dinosaur and mammoth costumes!), and I caught her momentarily at rest between projects. Geri has been a costume dynamo at the Playhouse for years, often working single-handedly late into the night to indulge the whims of eccentric directors like me.

I knew that Geri had already expressed an interest in designing Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and since that show will be running just before A&C, I didn't think it was fair to expect her to do two complex shows in a row. But since she knows Walterdale's wardrobe inventory better than anyone, I figured I should pick her brain on behalf of whoever happens to be my designer.

"No togas," she said, before I even got a full sentence out. "We could build some, pretty easy, but there's nothing to start from. Will we need a lot?"

I refrained from giving her the full details of the casting conundrum. Instead, I told her it was a big cast, but that we could afford to double-up and re-use a lot of basic costume components throughout the show. But even as I was saying this, I knew it might not be the case; you see, I've had a costume concept brewing in my back-brain for awhile, and I realized that I might, even now, be making unofficial commitments which would determine the design direction of the show. If I wanted to make my crazy, half-formed idea work, I would have to articulate it now, right now, or else forget about it.

So I took a deep breath, and said, "Basically, I think there are three ways to go with this show." This was my way of softening the blow, I think, because I'd save the really crazy idea for last.

"First, we could do it all in period: Roman and Egyptian, togas and robes." Geri interrupted here to speculate on where we might be able to rent or borrow some togas. Lots of churches, apparently, retain stocks of Roman costumes, for Passion plays and the like.

"Um...the show goes up in mid-April. Just after Easter." I winced. So much for that.

I pressed on. "Option number two would be somewhat abstract: you know, a more conceptual design that doesn't rely on any specific period. See, I was sort of thinking, these characters tend to think of themselves as sort of larger-than-life, you know, like Greek gods or something..." This petered out quickly, since I didn't really have much of an idea here--and besides, as Geri was quick to point out, Greek gods wore togas too, or toga-like robes. What's the difference?

Okay. Another deep breath, damn the practicalities, here goes: "The third option is really ambitious. I kind of see these characters as taking huge strides, making enormous gestures, right? So I thought that maybe their steps could sort of...transcend history. Or move across different time periods. So that Act One might be set in Rome and Egypt, right, but by Act Two or Three, we've sort of moved into another time--medieval, maybe, or the Renaissance. And then another leap, and we're in the Napoleonic wars. And then maybe we end up in World War II, or something. Basically," I quickly added, "we draw on whatever periods we have costumes for, in the wardrobe, already." Ah! There, a practical justification for what was, otherwise, a completely daft request.

There was more to this concept, but I felt I should stop there. I didn't tell her about the image I had of a triumphant Octavius descending upon Alexandria in Act Five like George W. Bush stepping onto the aircraft carrier in full flight gear, declaring "Mission Accomplished!" Nor did I mention a potential to loop back in time when Cleopatra says, "Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me."

And I should have said that, actually, because it's really the word immortal that clinches this whole concept for me: the idea that Antony and Cleopatra know they'll live forever, if only in legend, and that the world moves too slowly for titans like them. "I dreamt there was an emperor Antony ... his legs bestrid the ocean ... " Yes, and his glories are larger than any one empire or civilisation or time can contain.

I should have said all that, because Geri's a smart cookie and I think she would have understood where I was coming from. As it was, all I really left her with was the crack-pot notion of costuming one show four times over. Maybe, once I secure my own costume designer, I can set it all out in a way that makes sense.

Although, even then, and no matter how many damn time periods I try to cram into one play, sooner or later we're still going to have to find, or build, some togas.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Season Brochure Photo

This weekend, a group of Walterdale regulars gathered for a photoshoot. We'll use the posed photos in our season brochure--once again, the theme and the motif is "Stage Whispers."

The photo of Cleopatra was the best of the bunch, and I thought I'd reproduce it here. The gorgeous gal in the headdress is Christine Frederick; her whispering confidante is Janine Hodder.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Problem of Scope

I realized that both of my recent dilemmae (concerns about cast size and the number of soldiers onstage, and concerns about sets and geographic distances) are issues of scope. Not the mouthwash; I mean "the sweep or reach of mental activity, observation, or outlook."

Most of Shakespeare's tragedies are both microcosmic and macrocosmic at once with respect to social events and their consequences. In Lear, family squabbles (macrocosmic society) lead to the collapse of a kingdom, and maybe the end of civilisation (microcosmic social order).

I don't think Antony & Cleopatra really has much in the way of microcosm, though. It's all big. In this play, relationships that we tend to think of in small, intimate terms are still writ large: Antony and Cleopatra's adulterous relationship, for instance, never seems like a "quickie" or a dalliance, or anything remotely small and sordid. Similarly, Antony's remarriage to Octavia is a political maneouvre, and everyone acknowledges it as such; it's not designed to provide Antony with domestic bliss, it's designed to lend Rome some stability.

I'm reminded of the Greek gods, whose smallest gestures can level mountains or demolish cities. These characters have either deluded themselves into thinking that they are the earthly equivalent of gods...or else they really are the earthly equivalent of gods. Even though Shakespeare is quick to point out their mortal foibles and shortcomings, I think he still inclined towards the latter. After all, isn't Zeus a randy bastard, and isn't Hera a jealous and vindictive wife?

So, one way or another, the play needs scope. So far I've been thinking about it in fairly realistic (if impractical) terms: scope equals lots and lots of soldiers, scope equals vast exotic settings... you know, Lawrence of Arabia-style scope. But I don't think it's gonna happen. So I need some other way to convey scope, and the macrocosmic sweep of the play. What are some metaphors for "big"?

(I just had an image of a stage floor shaped like the apex of a globe, curving down in all directions, with the continents and oceans painted on. "His legs bestrid the ocean"...)

Friday, March 31, 2006

Setting the Scene

Antony and Cleopatra takes place all over the Mediterranean basin. Most of it takes place either in Rome or in Alexandria, but Shakespeare seemed to feel a rather uncharacteristic need for historical and geographical accuracy when he was writing this play, so he sends his characters on errands to Athens and Parthia, and sets battles in Actium and Thessaly. You almost need a big map in the program, so audiences can connect the dots.

There's a good thematic reason for this geographic abundance: the stakes of the little love-game being played out are enormous. One of the most oft-repeated words in the play is "world." Shakespeare doesn't want us to forget that these are the titans of their time, and the scope of their actions and decisions are tremendous. Antony, Octavius and Pompey are engaged in the first and only live-action version of Sid Meyer's Civilisation (or Risk, for the non-geeks among us).

Shakespeare never intended any of his exotic locales to get reproduced onstage. His stage was a bare platform, and the only sets and settings were in the imaginations of his audiences. That's why he had the luxury of leaping back and forth across two continents throughout the play; there was nary even a potted plant or a cardboard tree to transplant.

Many modern productions of Shakespeare's plays adopt the same minimalist approach, or else they settle on a single, flexible--often abstract or impressionistic--set where all the scenes will occur. Gone are the days of massive backdrops and ten-minute set changes (popular with the Victorians, who loved their historical realism). Any sane producer, looking at a play like Antony & Cleopatra, would agree: this play has to take place nowhere, so it can take you anywhere.

The only problem with this is: the Walterdale community loves to build sets. Well, they gripe and moan about it an awful lot, but underneath they love it. What's more, they're really, really good at it. The sets for Lear and Skin of our Teeth were, quite simply, some of the best sets I've ever seen on stage. Our designers are inventive, our builders are tireless, and unlike most theatre companies in town, we actually have robust production budgets.

What we do not have, because of the configuration of our Playhouse, are wings or a fly gallery. That means we can build huge, elaborate sets, but they have nowhere to go. Neither do we have a curtain to close; so even if we wanted to shift our set around, we couldn't hide it from the audience. As a result, Walterdale has developed an aesthetic for "box sets": highly detailed, usually highly realistic, and utterly immobile sets.

By now, you can probably start to see the dilemma. I have an opportunity to make this production the big, elaborate, glamorous affair that it deserves to be. But the nature of the play, and the nature of the playhouse, are contradictory. A&C can't take place in a "box set", but that's the only set we could create that would do a play like this justice.

I'm sure there's a solution. Like my last dilemma (the size of armies), it may involve puppets. I hope not. In any case, I suspect it will take a while to come into focus.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Updates and Seasons

I feel as though I've been neglecting the few of you who check here regularly, so here's an update on my various theatrical adventures. Even though the next Walterdale show is poised to open (it's Thornton Wilder's Skin of our Teeth, and it's going to be breathtaking, so check it out), I've been primarily preoccupied with putting together the show after that, which is our Evening of One Acts. It's a bit like running a miniature theatre festival--which I've done before, actually, although not in a long while. Mainly it's just a question of trying to balance the needs of the playwrights with the habitual production demands of Walterdale shows. More on these plays later, as they take shape.

Last weekend, I ditched Walterdale altogether and went down to Banff for a board retreat for Alberta Playwrights Network. Our mission was nothing less than total reassessment of everything the organization stands for and everything it does. This turned out to be a bit hefty for me, because, although I've used APN's services a lot over the years, I only joined their board last month--yet here I was, one of five guys in a room trying to plot a long-term future for the 21-year-old institution. It ended up being exhiliarating and very productive--but anyone who wasn't a playwright may have found the semantic haggling a little more frustrating.

The APN re-structuring will continue for awhile (more board meetings and retreats will follow), and we'll hopefully unveil our new approach to play development sometime this fall.

And speaking of unveiling, I might as well spill the beans on next year's Walterdale season. We're technically not announcing the season until May, but buzz has already begun to circulate around the Playhouse, as actors stumble upon the cardboard box filled with photocopied scripts. I don't mind if the word begins to spread; it's more exciting for everybody if it's supposedly a secret.

So, here's the secret. I don't have the exact dates in front of me, so you'll have to check the Walterdale website after May if you want to mark them all down in your calendar (which you should):

#1: Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling
October 2006

#2: A Child's Christmas in Wales (a musical version based on the story by Dylan Thomas)
December 2006

#3: Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton
February 2007

#4: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakepseare
April 2007

#5: From Cradle to Stage: Three New One Act Plays
May 2007

#6: The Trial of Salome by Scott Sharplin
July 2007

That's right, I got my Antony & Cleopatra. And I even managed to smuggle on of my own scripts into the mix too. I think it will be a strong season for Walterdale, and one that both our members and our audiences will enjoy; but I don't mind telling you, it's a pretty Sharplin-friendly season as well. What can I say? I love what I do, so I do what I love.

Monday, March 13, 2006


The Walterdale board met last night to decide next year's season. It was an exciting and challenging process, but I think we managed to address and resolve most of the thorny issues. As it turned out, the focus was almost entirely upon other plays and scheduling issues, and Antony & Cleopatra slipped through with nary a comment.

I'd like to claim that was my deliberate strategem--to get A&C a green-light using my powers of misdirection--but in truth, it just worked out like that. But I'm certainly not complaining; and now I can stop thinking of the show as merely an idea, and start approaching it like a bona fide project.

Once the scheduling wrinkles have all been worked out, I'll post the entire season here. The official season announcement probably won't occur until May, but I need to offer some kind of incentives for people to read my blog.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Casting Breakdown

I've looked through the play in some detail, and I think the smallest cast I could work with would be about 18. Well, OK, that's far from true--I have, after all, directed Macbeth with a cast of 6, The Tempest with 4, and Othello with 3. I'm sure I could come up with some highly theatrical conceit which would allow me to do Antony & Cleopatra with some insanely diminished number of actors. But not only would that prevent me from dramatizing the whole "army shrinkage" issue I've been on about, but it would also put an unreasonable limit on the number of Walterdalians who get to come and play.

The main reason I haven't tried to do this play before now is because I think that, even more than Lear, it needs to have scope. A big cast isn't the only way to create that effect, of course--a one-person play can have scope, if they talk & act big enough, and if you throw lots of streaking clouds across the cyclorama behind them--but it's the way Shakespeare intended his play to be done. And while I frequently and unrepentantly diverge from what I think are Shakespeare's original intentions, I'd rather stick to them here.

Anyway, the cast breakdown will look something like this (first males, then females):

ANTONY (the play's largest part, at 766 lines--that's way less than Hamlet but slightly more than Lear).
OCTAVIUS CAESAR (the third largest part; he's a young bumbler in the first half, but quickly grows into a tyrant near the end).
LEPIDUS (this grey-bearded fellow is the third part of the "Triumvirate" who rule the civilized world at the beginning of the play. He drops out of sight mid-way through the action, so I might double-cast the part, if I need a senior citizen soldier or something).

Antony's followers: The main ones are ENOBARBUS, VENTIDIUS, and EROS. There are lots of others (PHILO, SCARUS, SILIUS) which might require double-casting.
Caesar's followers: AGRIPPA and GALLUS are his most devoted. There's another one whose name I like (THIDIAS), who might turn up in the play's second half.

Then there's POMPEY, the upstart rebel whose threats to attack Rome are what draw Antony back from Egypt. He has two pirate buddies, MENAS and MENECRATES, who could easily be cut, but who strike me as fun characters. All three of these guys are gone by the intermission, so they could easily be double-cast with soldiers in the second half.

CLEOPATRA (at 622 lines, she's Shakespeare's second gabbiest gal. Of course, these numbers will inevitably shrink when I set about cutting the play down to size).
OCTAVIA (a small role, and she may have to get even smaller. But I'm confident that I can find a way to make her attractive and rewarding for a young actress to portray).
The SOOTHSAYER (who can be doubled with the CLOWN, another asexual character who smuggles Cleopatra's asp in to her, so she can kill herself).

And that's 18, believe it or not. I'm also contemplating adding a Chorus character, to help fill in some of the gaps I will necessarily be creating when I cut. Unless that character were double-cast, that would bring the cast count up to 19--which, at one higher than this year's Lear cast, seems appropriate somehow. What good am I, if I'm not constantly topping myself?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Casting Questions, Continued

The other casting issue, for Walterdale at least, is the gender breakdown. As I said, the majority of roles are men's (at a ratio of 15: 2). Anyone who knows much about Shakespeare's theatre (or has seen Shakespeare in Love) knows why this is the case: Shakespeare had no actresses to play in his productions, only boys dressed as women. Of course, for this play, he must have had at least one staggeringly talented young man, to play the complicated leading role of Cleopatra. It was probably the same lucky lad who originated the other great female roles from this same period, including Desdemona and Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare's confidence in this boy (whose name is lost to us) was so great that he even slipped a clever meta-theatrical reference into the play. When Cleopatra has been captured by Caesar's army, she recoils at the idea that she will be led in triumph back to Rome, like a piece of precious booty. She concludes her nightmarish prophecy thus:

Nay, ‘tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth; and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'th' posture of a whore.

Whether played by a boy or a woman, Cleopatra is unquestionably a great role. And there are at least a couple of other strong parts for women, most notably Cleopatra's servants, Charmian and Iras. The fourth part is Octavia, Caesar's sister and Antony's second wife (his first dies off-stage as the play begins). It's not a bad part, but small.

I suspect the first thing I will do is increase the size of Cleopatra's female retinue by switching the genders of a couple of characters. There's Alexas, who is officially one of Antony's men, but who spends more time running errands for the Queen. His name won't even have to change. Then there's Mardian, who, as a eunuch, is already half-way to womanhood. Rechristened Mardias, she will be a quieter member of Cleopatra's boisterous clique. I'll have to cut out a couple of eunuch jokes--snip, snip--but I doubt anyone will miss them.

Who else? There is a Soothsayer who appears twice early in the play. Like the Soothsayer in Julius Caesar who says, "Beware the Ides of March," this character is genderless, and could just as easily be an old woman as an old man (who knows? Perhaps they are the same character, always popping up to intone seemingly meaningless but ultimately significant warnings).

That brings the female count up from 4 to 7, at least. Then there's always the possibility of cross-casting some of the soldiers. But it would be nice to maintain a clear gender divide between Egypt and Rome. This is emphasised in the imagery of the play: Rome is cold, sterile, rigid, logical, and violent. Egypt is warm and fertile, teeming with life and colour and emotion. The longer Antony stays in Egypt, the more he feels like he's becoming "womanish." This character transition, although it might be seen as somewhat sexist, is important, and I think it might undermine it a bit to have a bunch of Amazons bouncing around in Rome.

(Forgive my choice of words, but I'm sorry; a woman in a toga is a woman, and no amount of tenser bandaging or penciled-in facial hair will fool an audience with eyes.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Casting Questions

Antony and Cleopatra has 34 major speaking parts: 30 for men, and 4 for women. By "major" I mean anything more signifcant than a nameless Messenger, Servant, Sentry or Guard. Most of the male characters are soldiers, either in Antony's retinue or in Octavius's. Although they seem a bit flat on the page, they have inventive names, many of which are rife with possible interpretation on the part of creative actors and directors: Scarus, Silius, Agrippa, Gallus, Ventidius, Taurus, Eros.

It might be possible to slim the retinues down to two or three. But one of the key (and oft-repeated) themes in the play's second half is Antony's diminishing support. In Acts 3 and 4, it seems like every scene, another member of Antony's army has defected to Octavius. Antony even encourages them to do so, whenever he's depressed or in his cups. Obviously, the only way to dramatize this progress is to start with Antony surrounded by supporters, and then gradually thin out his ranks until he's only got one devoted servant left (Eros, who dies by his side).

I faced a similar casting challenge when I did King Lear. Here, again, Shakespeare starts the king off with 100 knights--a nice round number--and then slims his ranks (in a neat arithmetic reduction) till he's left with only Kent and the Fool (in my production, I also gave him one last knight, called Gargrave).

Is it worth having a gigantic cast, just to get the visual effect of a shifting balance of power? Isn't it enough that Shakespeare tells us, in the lines of the play, that this is happening? But does it really have the same impact, the same thematic resonance, when Antony bewails his drooping fortunes to the same two dudes who have been with him since Act 1?

Maybe some of the early scenes could be done with big puppets, or with silhouettes back-lit upon a screen? Then you could create the impression of a huge throng to cheer Antony on.