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.