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.)