Sunday, April 22, 2007


Last night we wrapped. Although I didn't see the final show, I know it was sold out, and I gather it went extremely well. Monica suffered one final costume malfunction, and that threw her off for the last 15 minutes or so, lending a strange, almost manic energy to the couple's decline and fall. The other actors were excited, in a way, as though that simple mishap had opened up new doors of possibilities which we could have explored, if we'd had another week of shows. As for Monica, I think she was just happy to be done, and to be wearing a 21st century brassiere at last.

The strike was absurdly simple, since we were instructed to leave most of the set in place for a fundraiser next week. So that left lots of time to drink and party. Unfortunately, I was bone tired from ushing at a friend's wedding earlier in the day, so I couldn't stay too late. I managed to hold out for a few hours, though, chatting with various actors and watching them get even goofier than usual as they drank. Each time a cast member would depart for the night, the rest of the team would yell "SALUTO!" and drink to them. When I left (at 3am or so) I got a great big group hug. Nice.

So, that wraps up that show. I don't really feel like doing an autopsy on it right now, partly because it's still fresh, but also because I feel like even though I may not have done everything right to my satisfaction, the show still rocked. Therefore, any critical analysis I do at this late hour would be introspection at best, and self-flagellation at worst. I'm better off accepting that this was a great show, and who cares if it was because of me or in spite of me?

Actually, maybe I can answer that. I don't usually give much credence to reviews, but the reviews of A&C were revealing, because they said what they always say about my Shakespeare productions. They called it fast-paced, poetic, and accessible; and then they slammed it for failing to achieve whatever they consider "authentic Shakespeare" (one reviewer called it "the Coles' Notes version" of the play, and another paradoxically declared "Shakespeare's language is beautiful, bit [it] drowns out Antony & Cleopatra"). In other words, the show lacked the emotional "weight" that contemporary Canadian reviewers associate with Shakespearean tragedy.

This is my perennial weakness, if the critics are to be believed. So I can take the blame for failing to imbue Antony & Cleopatra with tragic "heft" or emotional "weight."

But hold on: does anybody (other than the critics, it appears) really want to endure two hours worth of "heft"? Does anyone enjoy leaving the theatre under five acts' worth of Shakespearean "weight"? Or would they prefer to feel uplifted -- to experience something light but thoroughly accessible? Again, since the reviews always seem to arrive at the same conclusions, I suppose I can take responsibility. I wanted to make this story feel real, to make the "immortal longings" of the two larger-than-life leads into something modern audiences could understand. And I think that's exactly what we ended up with.

So, saluto, my cast; and my wonderful crew, and everyone else who helped to make this show a hit. Saluto, until next time.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Infinite Variety

Tonight was the penultimate show. I came back to see it after being away for nearly a week (the last show I saw was the Sunday matinee). I love coming back this late in the run, to see how many moments have solidified, strengthened, grown. I loved the jaunty bounce in Antony's step as he entered wearing Cleo's robe, and the change that suddenly came over him when he read the scroll that informed him of his wife's death. I loved Eros's flirtations -- how easily he got distracted whenever an Egyptian body part drifted past his periphery. I loved Cleo's struggle to control her tears after Antony has died and Caesar has invaded her monument. I loved the dawning horror with which Iras and Mardias awaited the arrival of "the worm."

And the audience loved it too. I suspect that many of the people there tonight had come with high expectations -- word-of-mouth is a powerful factor at this late point in a run -- and they threw their energy out onto the stage as soon as the lights began to dim. The actors knew what to do with it. It was a rugby game from start to finish. The laughter came freely, generously -- and at all the right times.

It may seem strange to welcome laughter when Antony botches his suicide, or when Agrippa walks in on the final tableau of corpses and says, "How goes it here?" But I think those moments of levity are necessary. They offer much-needed relief for an audience that is suffering along with the characters. Shakespeare knew this was important (consider the Gravedigger in Hamlet, or indeed the Clown/Soothsayer in this play), and I believe he would have approved of the dynamic we've created.

This performance confirmed everything I had hoped for this production. The audience understood, they were engaged and energized, and they were gratified to have been drawn in to so glorious a tale. Not only would Shakespeare have been pleased, but Antony and Cleopatra themselves can look down from their immortal perches and can grace us with applause.

Am I putting myself, or my show, on a pedestal? Perhaps. Just for tonight. Because tomorrow at this time, it will be less than a show. It will go the way of all art in this ephemeral medium ... it will be over.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Run: First Weekend

I've been purposefully distant from the show for the past few days, giving the cast and crew time to gain a sense of ownership for the play. When I stopped in before the run on Saturday night, I could see that ownership was in full swing. The Thursday night show had been lower energy, but from the sounds of things, the Friday show was exciting and instructive for the cast, helping them to understand and clarify moments like never before. They were jazzed about the reportedly large house for Saturday night's run; just before the show, I listened to them shouting out their pre-show mantras, and I was delighted to hear "Go Big or Go Home" in there, but even more pleased to hear a lot of stuff that they generated for themselves. As it should be.

After the run, spirits were mixed. I had told them that this show was being videorecorded, and I think that made a few of them anxious. Besides, they said, the energy was ... odd. Moments happened differently, they said (different than what? The night before? Different than ever before?). That, plus a minor costume malfunction that may have gotten a bit exaggerated in the reporting, made some of the actors feel, I think, as though they'd passed their peak.

But they haven't. They're just exhausted, having been running the show non-stop since Monday night. Today's matinee will be a struggle to get through, I expect; but then they'll have a dark day, finally, and the climb will begin again. By next weekend, I predict new heights, new delights, and, yes, lots of different moments again -- but hopefully they'll be embraced, not feared.

There were two reviews printed yesterday, in the Journal and the Sun. I can't stand reviews, and I feel particularly resentful of the sorts of equivocating write-ups that we seem to get in community theatre. They're not willing to admit that there was anything outstanding about a show, but they can't bring themselves to slam it either (since they're "amateurs," they don't know any better, it would break their little hearts, etc.). But perhaps the cast won't see them, or they won't read into them the same faint-praise tactics that I detect.

In any case, it's the word of mouth that's gonna sell this show.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Opening Night

Wow. Just wow. I must confess, after the sputtering starts of the first two previews, I was not expecting the show to click into gear so quickly, so thoroughly. After the performance, I intercepted several actors grousing about very minor things that went wrong -- mostly line glitches here and there. But that's what actors do; they focus on the things that went wrong, and somehow fail to miss the vast tapestry of things that went right.

So, what went right? Well, tech, for one thing. I didn't catch a single late cue. And the show's pace was amazing; transitions were sharp and tight, and energy rarely flagged within the scenes themselves. I did not hear much shuffling from the audience, even towards the end of the 2 hour running time. The ASMs got all the actors stuffed into their costumes, and all the props in their hands. And when the whip broke onstage (very thoughtfully waiting until the last moment of the last scene in which it's used), the actors grinned, went with it, and then worked together to cover it over.

But these are all the technical things. What went right in Shakespeare-land? It's difficult to quantify, but what I found was that the words and the movements always had meaning, specificity; and that the meanings were clearly and cleanly connected to the energy onstage; and that the energy was shared, it was collective, it got passed back and forth fluidly, like the rugby ball that Kieran brings to warm-ups.

You can do Shakespeare with meaning, but no energy. And you can definitely do Shakespeare with lots of energy, but very little meaning. But the pairing of the two is rare; and to have it continue throughout an entire show -- especially one with this many transitions, shifts, ups and downs -- is truly extraordinary. Considering the sheer volume of words and shapes this cast has to deliver, the fact that everything felt clear and meaningful? Miraculous.

Now, I'm not the best judge of clarity of meaning, since I've been living with the play for many months. But the feedback and the impressions that I got from the audience supported my feelings about the show. I can always tell when an audience feels delightfully surprised that they actually understood Shakespeare. They feel like they've been introduced to a whole new world of possibilities. And so they have.

So, wow. I'm hyped. I expect the energy will flag tonight -- it always does -- but by the weekend, and certainly towards the end of the run, it will be back, and probably bigger than ever. The actors will surprise themselves by going places verbally and physically that they didn't think themselves capable of. And word of mouth (not to mention the lovely spread in the Edmonton Journal yesterday) will help bring in great big audiences to share the magic.

There are aspects of this process that I'm already second-guessing. But when the product comes out looking and sounding this good, it's hard not to rest on your laurels for a bit. So that is what I'll do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Two previews have come and gone. Monday night was a small house, mostly friends of the cast; there were quite a few dropped lines, but the energy was strong, especially in Act Two. The actors know their stuff: they're comfortable with the script, the set, their costumes, and each other; but the presence of an audience is just enough of a variable to throw you off. But that's what previews are for.

Tuesday night is the "artist's preview" -- each show, we do an Art in the Lobby display, and the artist invites friends and family to see the art, and the play. They're usually very enthusiastic, if for no other reason than because they're getting to see a show for free. This group was a bit dead, although there were definitely one or two Shakespeare aficionadoes (you could hear them laughing at the bawdy puns).

Yet, despite the cold-fish feel that I got from the house, the actors hit their stride. Cues were tight, energy was high, and it was clear that everyone on stage was having fun -- which is actually pretty remarkable, considering it's only their second night before a crowd.

I realized tonight that I'm really pleased with how effortlessly this diverse group became an ensemble. I don't give myself enough credit to assume that I was in any way responsible. No, it's just one of those things that either happens, or doesn't; this time, even though the cast was split up for much of the rehearsal process, they found ways to connect, to work and play together onstage and off. For a show like this one, it's vital; it gives everyone the confidence they need to push themselves in new directions.

Now, I can only hope that pushing continues throughout the run. My job is pretty much done...but these guys and gals have lots of time left to play.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Tech Dress...And Away We Go!

Like it or not, it's out of my hands.

And I do like it. I liked an awful lot of what I saw during Saturday's tech dress. The actors adapted quickly to their costumes, and to the lights and sound (even though there were still tweaks and adjustments going on with the latter two). They put all petty frustrations and anxieties, and went for the gusto. I saw glimpses of moments and energy in some scenes that I hadn't seen since the early days of scene work, lo those many weeks ago. The fact that they did this without any kind of pre-run pep talk from me stands as testament to the fact that they don't need a director hovering over them any more.

So that's a relief. There were other, mostly minor, frustrations during the run. The slide projections (part of the reason why we constructed our entire set around a big, blank sheet of canvas) didn't arrive until intermission -- and, even then, not everything we needed was in place. And Antony's "bloodied" tunic was white as snow.

But these are minor, minor things -- the sorts of oversights that only directors would even pick up on, much less gripe about. The fact is, Antony & Cleopatra has everything it needs to wow an audience: snazzy costumes, a bold soundtrack, a colourful, soaring set -- and a huge cast full of energetic, committed, hard-working actors, whose clear, articulate delivery carries both the poetry and the tragedy across without a hitch. It's an exciting show, because the play itself is done so rarely, and because, let's face it, nobody expects a show this big to get done this well by a community theatre.

But it's great. We've pulled it off. And now, all we need is that aforementioned audience to wow.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dress Run

Confession time. I love actors, really I do; I love watching them explore and test out a role, make discoveries, and finally dive in and make a character their own. I also love watching them get so wrapped up in their process that they forget about everything else around them. Non-industry observers would mistake this for egomania, but in most cases, it's just attention to detail.

But I also enjoy the foibles of actors, particularly their relationships to other parts of the theatrical process. They crave anything and everything that will help them to define their characters; yet they are uncomfortable with those parts of the process over which they have no control -- and, if you're an actor, you know there are a lot of them. As a result, they end up loving and hating all the stuff that's going on around them: the set, the lights, the sound, and so forth.

Nothing illustrates this more than costumes. Right from the start, actors ask me, "What will our costumes be like?" Sometimes these questions relate to very practical concerns (ie. Will I be able to see/move/fight/dance easily?), and once in a while, it's a matter of vanity (although I don't detect a lot of divas in this cast). But usually, I think that actors' curiosity about attire stems from the connection between costume and character. Some actors feel like they can't really embrace their characters until they see themselves in costume.

Consequently, actors await the first dress rehearsal with bated breath. Because it comes so late in the rehearsal process, there's a lot of excitement built up around it. In some cases, they convince themselves that, as soon as they slip on that dress/tunic/breastplate/hat, they will magically unlock all the secret parts of their character, and their performance will achieve escape velocity, and head for the stars.

In reality, the opposite is true. The first dress rehearsal is usually the most awkward, uncertain, stumbly of all the tech-week run-throughs. Some of the stumbling is literal, of course (ie. How come my dress is so damn long?), but it's psychological as well. Actors who expect a miraculous transformation are disheartened to discover that their costumes feel not liberating but, well, weird. After all, they aren't designed to feel great; only to look great. And the actors aren't in the audience, so they can't see how good they look.

And they do look good. Melissa has done a fabulous job, not only with the leads, but also with the soldiers, the Egyptian women, and even walk-on characters like banquet servants. But I had to smile, watching the Romans and Egyptians recede into the background, replaced by a stage full of slightly bewildered actors. By Saturday, they'll be comfortable, and the energy and characterization will return. They might even find ways to use the costumes after all.

But, just like there are no easy solutions to directing, there are no short-cuts to characterization. The costumes don't sell the show; they're just the wrapping paper, to decorate the presents underneath. Ditto the set, lights, sound, props. By Saturday's run, the ball will be back in the cast's court. Go big or go home.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cue to Cue

Monday and Tuesday night was cue to cue. Pretty painless, all in all. I always find the first 40 minutes or so of cue to cue excrutiating, mostly because I'm a fifth wheel, sitting on the sidelines while SMs, ASMs, and techs scuttle around, sorting out who's doing what, and how. This time, I busied myself by typing up the line notes from Sunday's run -- a task which became considerably harder once the house lights had gone down. So much for multitasking.

But the actors were incredibly patient and good-spirited, and once the techs found their groove, they boogied through the first act in a couple of hours, leaving us in good shape for Tuesday night. We moved just as smoothly through act two, although we still hadn't found the magic music that would give the final tableau its due. Phil had a few options, and I think we've found the right one. Maybe we'll try it out tonight; if not, tomorrow.

It's strange, seeing my play carved up into a series of transitions and tableaux. I guess it shouldn't be odd, since we've been rehearsing it in shreds and patches since the very start, and only recently have begun to put it all into a single narrative whole. I guess the weirdness stems from seeing the moments from a technical perspective -- not as dramatic turning points, but merely as cues for lighting or sound stuff to occur. It's going to be like that from here on in, for me, at least. Until the tech, and set, and costumes, and props are all settled and in place, I will be unable to see past those absences. It's like the big, white curtain sitting upstage, waiting for projections to illuminate it (which won't happen until Saturday). Until it serves some dramatic purpose, it sticks out like a big, white, thumb.

But soon, very soon, that will change again. I'll be able to see the show through an audience's eyes...and everything will be different.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Meet the Block

Yesterday we moved downstairs, into the theatre proper. It was a bit of a traffic jam, because set construction and painting continue. But we've done everything we can in the rehearsal hall, and if we spend much more time upstairs, we're liable to get complacent with that (smaller, flatter) space.

The Walterdale space is something of a character unto itself. Its low grid, slightly uneven floor, and broad, curving apron make for a unique acting environment. It's difficult to forget that you're surrounded by walls and audience members -- a restriction which can make it hard to generate the breadth and grandeur of a play like A&C, but which can work to one's advantage, too. Remember that Shakespeare's theatre was open-air, and the audience was totally visible and mere inches away from the stage.

So the actors got to meet their acting ally, the stage. Plus several other new members of the cast: the pillars, the platform, the curtain (hastily and temporarily attached so I could play with the shadowscreen), and the block. This latter set piece really is like a character in the play; it moves, thanks to an ingenious rolling system devised by Erik and Doug Verdin; and it is used, at different points in the action, for sitting on, standing on, scrambling or leaping across, marching up and down, and dying upon (and against). It's much bigger than the bench we've been using so far, which was itself bigger than the two plastic chairs we started with. It's going to take some adjusting too, although the cast already seems to be getting the hang of it.

Finally, we met some of the lighting effects, in the form of a fairly loose tech run (I had expected sound also, but in retrospect, I'm glad we didn't have it -- the cast had plenty enough to worry about). Some of the levels will need to be boosted, I think, but overall we're in good shape in that department. I've also been informed that our costumes are now pretty much complete. Cool!

I think that puts us in very good shape for our cue to cue. With a little bit of luck, tech week will be a breeze.

Friday, March 30, 2007

'Twas the Night Before Tech Week

We had another run on Thursday night, in the rehearsal hall upstairs. I told the cast that this was their last chance for a run "with no surprises" -- no new costumes, set pieces, lighting or sound cues appearing unexpectedly to disrupt their performances. Consequently, I said, this is the last chance before our previews to go big or go home.

They went for it, and the result was full of energy, and yet still clear and meaningful. I think that, in a lot of cases, there are emotional highs that have yet to be hit, but those heights might not be attainable until close to the end of the run. In any case, there's not a whole lot more that I can do at this point, without creating changes and setbacks. They know their characters better than I do now; it's up to them to figure out what notes to play, and then to play them as loudly/sharply/strongly as they can.

Tonight, Friday, was a free night for them, but I was at the theatre, along with Roy, Janine, and Jenn, building lighting cues. Roy is a veteran lighting designer, and he's done a million shows in Walterdale, so he was able to move through the various configurations with lightning speed and efficiency. Janine and a volunteer named Chelsea walked the stage for us, so we could see how the bright, warm washes of Egypt and the sharp, cool washes of Rome would strike our actors' faces. Meanwhile, Erik strolled in and out of the shop, experimenting with glow paint for no real reason.

The set is nearly complete, although painting will continue through the weekend. The lights are mostly in place, although we'll try to integrate a projector soon. Sounds sound good. Costumes are being sewn and stitched. There's a real momentum, now, to the whole enterprise. I can't wait to see all these pieces of the puzzle come together.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Run Time

Monday night, we ran through the whole play for the first time in weeks. Tuesday night, we did an Italian run, condensing the two-hour play into one swift, slightly slurred sixty-minute span. Along the way, I also managed to accomplish the following:
  • Tighten up the fights (and suicides) with Calvin, our fight coach;
  • Confirm the bulk of our sound design with Phil;
  • Approve a few lighting arrangements with Roy and Janine (since I happened to be in the theatre while they were testing washes);
  • Talk hair with Sue, and costumes with Melissa and Geri;
So things are heating up. The Playhouse feels energized, lots of actors and designers scurrying around. Even the actors who have long stretches of time with nothing in particular to do still seem excited.

The danger now is loss of focus -- not just for the actors, either, but for me. We need to stay focused on our goal, and on our timeline. I need to be able to decide when to stop nit-picking and making adjustments, when to step back and let the momentum of the show carry us through to opening night. If I had to make a guess, I'm thinking my last chance to be a finicky director will be Thursday (another run). After that, it's sailing -- and whether it's clear or bumpy, it doesn't matter. There ain't no oars.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Goin' Big

Fun times. Two run-throughs of Act Two this afternoon: first, a blocking-focused run, which ironically had more line-related glitches than anything else. Good thing I've got an Italian line run scheduled for Tuesday.

Having reassured myself that the blocking was in good shape, I told the cast that our second run-through would be a chance to cut loose: to Go Big, or Go Home. That has been my mandate from the first day of rehearsals, but I've discovered how easy it is to lose sight of it, especially when you don't have a chance to see the "big picture" of the play. Now that all the scenes are settling into order, it's easier for the actors to find their objectives and play their arcs. And, for these characters, the arcs should break through the stratosphere. Hence: Go Big...

The change was remarkable. As I said after the second run, "it's a whole different play." Octavian's rage, Cleopatra's increasingly desperate histrionics, Antony's bipolar (or alcoholic) decline, send out shockwaves through each scene. The supporting characters were equally outstanding, going from mere witnesses to active participants in the catastrophe. This was especially true of Cleo's ladies and Antony's "sad captains", all of whom I've blocked as silent witnesses for many of the later plays. Thanks for reminding me of everything you have to offer these scenes!

Everything is coming together; even the Roman marching which caused such mathematical consternation clicked effortlessly into place during the warm-up. Today has left me optimistic as we move into the rocky period preceding our opening.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I'll Mend It, Then I'll Play

Big call tonight -- just about everyone, except Antony, Enobarbus, and Eros -- the ones who have died before the play's finale. Tonight, we killed the rest: Iras, Charmian, and Cleopatra.

Everyone worked well this evening, although we were getting a bit punchy by the halfway point. I think my references to Raiders of the Lost Ark didn't help matters any. In spite of silliness, we got some great work done, including some stellar performances from Cody and Monica as Octavian and Cleopatra face off at last.

Costume and prop items are finally beginning to trickle in, and the set, while not yet done, is starting to look like a set (the pillars are settling into their assigned places). I know the cast is at the point they need to be in order to open in two and a half weeks; and I'm confident that the rest of the show can catch up. There are still lots of little things to mend, but gosh darn it, I think we might just have a play.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Left Ourselves to End Ourselves

We made quick work of Antony's attempted suicide scene tonight, plus the scene which follows it (with soldiers helping him off to find Cleopatra). I've been sending John in some unusual directions, and tonight I discovered that I'd unwittingly maneuvred two actors, John and Jennifer, into playing almost entirely against the lines to each other. I'll explain.

First, my partial solution to the problem of Antony's yo-yo emotions in the second half: booze. It's a bit of a cheat, but several characters in Act One do reprove Antony for partying too much in Egypt; and he himself admits at one point that he neglected important duties because he was too hung over. When he rushes back to Cleopatra, it makes sense that he would also be rushing back to Egyptian wine...and that would lead to a loss of emotional control, and eventually to bad choices, like we see in both of the battles.

John has no problem adopting this approach, and it's easy as pie to work it in -- we just make sure Antony has a goblet in his hand as often as possible. But it does change one thing -- namely, Antony's degree of blamefulness increases dramatically. His accusations to Cleopatra become cheap attempts to displace the blame that he clearly deserves for these significant screw-ups. When he flees from the battle at Actium (after watching Cleopatra retreat), he says

, you knew too well
My heart was to your rudder tied by th’ strings,
To tow me after.

And, since Cleopatra is crying "Pardon!" it's easy for us to forget that Antony is the military general, not Cleo. Similarly, in the second battle, when he briefly perceives that he might be gaining the advantage, Eros points out that the Egyptian reinforcements have not embarked. Why not?

EROS: You never gave the order, sir, to launch.

Nevertheless, Antony blames Cleopatra -- accuses her of "packing cards with Caesar," even. This sort of loose, desperate blame-calling isn't Antony's style; but then, as he keeps reminding us, Antony is "not himself" anymore. He has drunk himself into oblivion.

An intelligent alcoholic knows they are at fault. Antony says "Betrayed I am," and the line refers to Cleopatra -- but inside, he knows better. And here's where things get tricky, and the line readings begin to bend around backwards, to the point where they're nearly 180 degrees.

Cleopatra re-enters, and Antony curses her with words he knows will drive her away:

Vanish, or I shall give you your deserving
And blemish Caesar’s triumph. Let him take you
And hoist you up to the shouting plebians!
Follow his chariot like the greatest stain
Of all your sex; most monster-like be shown
For poor diminutives, for dolts, and let
Paitent Octavia plough your visage up
With her sharp nails! You’ll die for this!

On the surface, these lines mean exactly what they sound like. But, if Antony knows that she's not deserving of any such fate -- if he knows that he is to blame for their downfall -- then the intention changes. Now, he wants to minimize any further harm to Cleopatra. His alcoholic's mindset says "I'm cursed, I'm useless, I'm a bad egg. Anyone who sticks with me will sink along with me." And therefore, Antony's intention is to drive Cleopatra from him so that she might retain a fighting chance of surviving Caesar's invasion.

Antony carries this intention into the next scene, and when Mardias enters, he curses Cleopatra thus:

ANTONY: She has betrayed me and shall die the death!

Subtext: keep her away from me, or she'll get hurt. But Cleopatra, who misinterpreted his rage, sends Mardias after him to tell him she has slain herself. Jennifer (who plays Mardias) long ago established that she disapproves of Cleopatra's emotional games, and this is the worst game by far. But she does her job, and shows up to inform Antony that

Death of one person can be paid but once,
And that she has discharged. The last she spoke
Was “Antony! Most noble Antony!”

When we ran it tonight, I told Jennifer to play against the line. Her job is to tell Antony that Cleopatra is dead; but her intention is to convey the opposite information: this is a ruse, this is a game, Cleopatra needs you, go to her.

Antony, however, misses the subtext. Suicides ensue. And there you have it: two desperate characters, saying the opposite of what they ought to be saying. Will the audience penetrate all that subtext? Ah, who cares. Either way, it's a stirring scene. And there are swords. How can you go wrong?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Advance! Surround! Retreat!

A long, busy rehearsal today -- our first five-hour one, although more than a few actors curtailed that length by accident (check your schedules, please!). Most of the time was spent on battle scenes, and we managed to get through all three of them, plus a few surrounding scenes along the way.

Some thoughts about battles. Shakespeare didn't do 'em. He apparently felt his company's resources were inadequate, and even asked for his audience's forgiveness in Henry V for having "dared / On this unworthy scaffold, to bring forth / So great an object" as the battle of Agincourt. Mostly, his skirmishes were confined to offstage alarums and occasional, one-on-one scuffles (which, as often as not, started onstage but quickly moved offstage, as if even the combatants were embarrassed or shy).

This is odd, because overall, Shakespeare really seemed to dig spectacle. Elaborate pageants, parades of kings and princes, witches' dances (okay, the dance in Macbeth may have been written after Shakespeare was dead...but he probably would've liked it). The duel at the end of Hamlet is chock full of pomp and circumstance, with cannons firing, trumpets sounding, and of course plenty of poisoned, unbated fencing foil a-flying. Why, then, did he deliberately push all his wartime spectacle offstage?

Having incorporated stylized battle sequences into both King Lear and A&C, I believe I can provide an explanation: they're bloody hard. Pageants and dances are difficult enough to choreograph, but the thing about them is, they're meant to be aesthetic and symmetrical. War is messy, random, chaotic. Choreographing chaos is hard.

But, as always, my actors were troopers, and we got everyone's roles in the chaos straightened out. I think the results will be -- well, not exactly stunning, but impressive. Ultimately, they feel as though, for a few moments, the rigorously structured world of Rome and Egypt shudders, threatening to collapse. And that's what war should feel like: the potential decimation of society. Now, as long as the play doesn't collapse, we've done our jobs.

Oh, and I think I've started to devise a solution to the Antony trajectory issues I mentioned in my last post. More on that soon.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ups and Downs

It's been an interesting week -- trying to keep things on schedule despite occasional cast absences and a minor crisis with another Walterdale show (back on track now, I think) -- and creeping once again towards the final scenes of the play, which we haven't worked in a while, and which I don't feel like I have a much firmer grasp on, even now. I reassure myself my observing that some scenes, especially emotional ones, don't usually gel until you're in the space, surrounded by costumes and props and even an audience. Even so, it's nerve-wracking.

Working through the scenes that would have comprised Act Four in Shakespeare's version of the text, I notice a pattern starting to emerge. Antony enters, actively trying to generate high spirits and confidence (in himself, in Cleopatra, in his troops). Minor comic moments as his enthusiasm wavers. Then, a serious blow: Enobarbus has defected, or Caesar refuses to fight with him face to face, or Cleopatra never launched her ships. And, in each scene, Antony's spirits are crushed, and he leaves the stage convinced that he's going to die, and that it's all his fault (or, sometimes, possibly, Cleopatra's). And all these scenes are intercut with short scenes of Octavian gloating, or Enobarbus dying, or "the god Hercules" deserting Antony (via spooky music).

This pattern might be partially my own fault, since I did shuffle some scenes around, and since we're making some interpretive choices about tone, etc. But regardless, I can't help feeling that Shakespeare has gotten ahold of a great big hammer labelled "Antony is Doomed!" and is spending the act beating his audience over the head with it. Yes, Will, we understand. Antony is doomed; we've known this from the start; it is a tragedy. Get over it!

Or maybe "Get over it" should be directed at Antony himself, who seems to confront his oncoming defeat with nothing short of whiny, self-indulgent angst. This isn't John's fault, I hasten to point out; he seems to be much more comfortable with Antony when he's in full Roman mode, and whenever I offer him the opportunity to act rage, he delivers admirably. In other words, it's not the actor who's despondent, it's the character. Antony wants to be Hercules, but the circumstances (The fates? The gods? The author?) have turned him into goo.

I'm afraid this is not very satisfying, but I don't know what else to do. I've been looking for moments of humour, largely because watching forty minutes of self-important melancholia would be unbearable. But the more humour I inject, the more I make Antony's ups and downs into a farce. And, in another few scenes, he's going to undergo one of the most farcical deaths in all of Shakespeare: a botched suicide. I'd almost rather stage exit, pursued by a bear.

In one respect, this is what Shakespeare wanted: to show a potentially great man devolve into a disgrace. I just don't know how far I should go, and I don't feel like I'm in control of the trajectory. I'm terrified that, when he dies, at last, in the arms of Cleopatra, the audience's response will be: took him long enough!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Roman Physics 101

Roman Physics CI, Final Exam
Question I (XX marks)

Two triumvirates are marching away from one another at right angles. They will travel a distance of XII feet, marching in unison. Each triumvirate has between I and II soldiers marching behind them (this fact may or may not alter the experiment). If the triumvirates need to arrive at the same point simultaneously, and turn so as to face one another, how many steps much each one take? Should they each start out on the left foot (according to the traditions of Roman, and Canadian, marching), or should the triumvirate who will be turning right need to start out on the right foot?

Show your work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

After a hectic banquet rehearsal last night, we had an altogether relaxed rehearsal tonight, focusing mostly upon relative newcomer, Helen Klemm, who is playing the Soothsayer and the Chorus. Helen is wonderful -- over twice my age, and yet she's never acted in a Shakespeare play before. Yet she approaches her lines with a grace and pleasure that, I am sure, will affect the audience as soon as the lights come up. It's always nice when one can exploit the Walterdalians' inherent enthusiasm for being on stage.

I wrote the two chorus speeches, in order to give the action of the play a bit more context to those who may be unfamiliar with the story. The first one begins with my favourite line from Act Five: "I dreamt there was an emperor Antony." The dream is coming true, slowly but surely.

The second act speech starts with the line, "In dreams begin responsibilities." This line isn't Shakespeare's, but it isn't mine, either. William Butler Yeats wrote it, in 1914, describing it as "an epigraph from an old play." Somehow, I feel it applies to A&C perfectly; every night, I watch as the main characters struggle between their dreams of happiness and their obligations.

And then there's me, just over a month from opening. My dream to produce this play has unleashed a flood of responsibilities -- not just for me, but for everyone in the team. Now is the time to buckle down and face the tasks ahead (unlike Antony, who runs from his responisibilities, leading to his ruin). We can make this dream happen. It's just going to take a lot of work.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Winds and Waters

In some respects, it feels as though we're simply whizzing along. In other respects, the show remains huge, and time is starting to slip away (this Sunday is one month away from opening night). I try to stay steady and focused on whatever task, or scene, is in front of me. God -- and Shakespeare -- is in the details.

Monday night involved the Octavia scenes from Act One and early Act Two -- the first time I'd actually seen them with all the actors present, believe it or not. I made a lot of blocking adjustments and ran them, probably fewer times than I should have.

Tonight we were in Egypt, but Calvin came by to block an early fight (more of a scuffle, really, as Cleopatra flips out at Eros when she learns that Antony re-married). It's nice to get a wee bit o' violence into the play. He'll be back next Monday to do more bits.

We also ran a short scene in which Cleopatra interrogates Eros regarding Octavia's appearance. It's a very funny scene; I think it will be a highlight of the first act. Never mind that it's essentially about a jealous, spurned lover having a hissy fit; this is Cleopatra, after all; as Enobarbus says, "We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Cleopatra Trap?

I was not in very good shape this afternoon, but I managed to keep it together through a four hour rehearsal. Everyone's patience helped a lot, despite their being left, in some cases, for long stretched of time without anything to do. All in all, we managed to firm up the blocking of four big units -- the whole first Egypt sequence, essentially -- and made a number of useful discoveries along the way.

Unit 5 was the most taxing, because it involves high emotions (Antony's wife is dead, Cleopatra is about to lose him to Rome) and a lot of dime-turn tactics and deliveries. The tendency is to play emotional subtext close to one's chest, yet these scenes call for a lot of histrionic acting -- and not just the bits where Cleopatra is showing off, either. In fact, I'm starting to worry about whether or not the audience will be able to distinguish between feigned emotion and genuine distress. At one point, I told Monica that Cleopatra is a lousy actress -- but only because she has to be, because her "acting" needs to be so much bigger than her (already big) delivery that it's tantamount to stuffing all the scenery into a blender, mixing it with ham and cheese, and drinking it for breakfast.

Is that really what I want to end up with in my show? Am I falling into a Cleopatra trap -- the reason, perhaps, why so many critics despise her (because she encourages overacting)? Or will the audience exult in it, because it's giving them what they want -- ie. a diva?

Well, we'll see. In the meantime, the love games they're playing (snakey-liony-hissy-growly-chasey-wasey) are, for better or for worse, subdued. Nothing kills a bedroom game faster than hauling it out of the bedroom (and onto the stage).

Poster Draft

After the unfortunate incident with the snake, Randy (our poster designer and incoming Artistic Director) tried a different approach: a metallic snake on a posed model (I didn't want to haul Monica out on an off-day again, and as you can see, most of "Cleopatra's" face is out of frame in any case).

For some reason, Blogger seems to want to upload it in blue, instead of fleshtones. So this image shows you the shape, but not the natural colour, of the poster. Even so, you must admit, it's pretty natty.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Roman Drift

Back to Antony's arrival in Rome tonight -- the council scene, where Octavian and Antony square off, and only the promise of Octavia allows them to resolve their petty differences. It's a tricky scene, in a way, because it involves three great men (O + A + Lepidus) arguing over petty slights and character flaws. You want to shout, "Get over it!" and just move on. But Cody, John, and Allan did a fine job giving these characters some depth, at a point in the play where they haven't had much chance to develop yet.

I also enjoyed watching Matt, Denny, Kieran, and Erik work on the soldiers' stuff, both in this scene and in the next (featuring Enobarbus's famous "The chair she sat in" speeech). Keeping them marching in unison is always a challenge (I think we need a rule about always wearing shoes, or something), and I also noticed a phenomenon which I've dubbed "Roman drift" -- the tendency for soldier actors to mysteriously wander downstage as scenes unfold. Someone suggested that it was indicative of the inevitable expansion of the Roman Empire, but I think it's just that every Roman, whether high-born or low, thinks he all dat, and wants to be centre stage.

You'll get your chance, Roman homeys.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"The Sea is Mine"

Good, brisk work on two short scenes. The introduction of Octavian and Lepidus is important, because it brings Rome onto the stage for the first time. And the scene with Pompey, Menas and Menecrates introduces the first major sub-plot, and the antagonists of Act One. In a way, the scenes are both about Antony (all the other characters refer back to him constantly), but it's also nice to make them clear and distinct introductions of all these other rich characters.

And rich they are. Even though I spent most of the rehearsal fussing over Roman marching and other blocking minutiae, all the actors were clearly making leaps and strides in characterization and delivery -- thanks in large part to Sarah's work downstairs, but also to the actors themselves, for taking me at my word and using the repetition of the scene work to explore, take chances, and go further. My private ambition is to not get bored with any of these scenes. So far, so good!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

All Together Now

A lot has happened this week, and it's only Tuesday.

Last night we moved into the space. After a tour of the theatre by Leland, the building manager, we launched into a line run. The first day off-book is always nerve-wracking, but I was impressed -- amazed, in fact -- at how far along the cast is with their lines. Even the heavy lifters were at least 80% off-book. Kudos, everybody. It makes my job -- and yours -- a whole lot easier from here on in.

Monday also saw visits from Theresa, our production manager; Melissa, our costume designer; and Sue, our hair & makeup lady. Plus the cast met Helen, our new Soothsayer. A busy day, but spirits were high as we wrapped things up at 10.

Tonight, we launched back into scene work. I started with a Soothsayer scene, to get Helen acquainted to the layout of the stage. I also wanted to revisit Cleopatra's coterie of ladies, to observe how they interact -- and this turned out to be not so easy, as two of them weren't there. But we managed to get a lot done anyway.

What really seemed to work well tonight was sending actors off to work in pairs. Kieran and Denny worked out a petty rivalry between Enobarbus and Ventidius that really clarified the opening of the play. And Monica and Vanessa worked together to give Eros his hands full when delivering messages to Cleopatra. It's great to see the cast supporting one another, taking risks, and making discoveries -- and much of it without any prodding from me! If this keeps up, I'll be able to slack my way through the next month and a half; this show will direct itself!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lady with Snake

I hate poster photos. With a show, you have months and months of rehearsal to get things right -- or else, lots of time to reconcile yourself to not getting them the way you pictured in your head. But poster photos, and other elements of publicity, never seem to work out the way I imagine them, and since they're often practically an afterthought, they fly past me so quickly I don't really have a chance to wake up, smell the coffee, and acknowledge that my brilliant ideas might not have been so brilliant after all.

Case in point: the A&C poster. Randy, our designer, asked me for a dramatic, pre-climactic image from the show that we could recreate. "Cleopatra with a snake in her hands," seemed the obvious answer, even though the actual show will be snake-free. And so, last night, Monica and I found ourselves trying to get a dramatically posed shot with a snake that (surprise surprise) would not stay still.

You know the old film rule about never working with children or animals? It goes double in the theatre...and quadruple for snakes.

Monica was a trooper, but my photography skills are questionable at best, and the snake didn't feel like posing. I'm hoping that Randy can trim and Photoshop my shoddy work into something a bit more striking. In the meantime, here's a candid shot of Monica making friends with Smaug. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Eternity was in our lips and eyes"

A rare treat today. Instead of fretting over blocking, or barking orders to phalanxes of Romans, it was just me an' Antony an' Cleopatra.

That's not to say I don't enjoy working with everybody else in the cast, because I surely do. It is a daily delight to see what everyone is bringing to the table, and already I feel like a grain of sand on a vast beach (a very talented beach...hmm, no, my metaphor has stalled). But it's also nice to work closely with just a couple of actors now and then, to eke out of them more intimate performances when they don't feel as though all eyes are watching them. Which is an odd thing to say, because of course acting is all about all eyes watching you...and so is being Antony or Cleopatra, for that matter. But it's a funny thing about actors -- they tend to be very shy right up until they're primed to hog the limelight.

Anyway, John and Monica did some lovely physical work, distinguishing the different "modes" of their characters (Antony in command, Antony furens, Antony discandying; Cleopatra performing, Cleopatra stalking, Cleopatra stripped). They figured out how to manipulate or steer each other into different modes. They got really silly, like lovers do, making animal sounds and gestures (I fully intend to hang on to some of that stuff for the show -- it's simply too precious). They also looked at some of the later, harsher scenes, to figure out how they can really hurt each other. So, to the moon and back, essentially.

A lot of good stuff happened. Good, exciting stuff. Both actors are concerned that their physical and vocal choices are too big, too broad -- at one point John cracked a joke about William Shatner -- but I have every confidence that, if and when the time should come, they can rein it back. But until then, the second Golden Rule of Shakespeare rules the roost: Go Big or Go Home.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Roman Drill!

I wasn't sure quite what to expect tonight, as Sam the drill instructor visited to put the Romans through their paces. No need to worry, as it turned out. Sam has trained in the Canadian military, so she was able to show our Roman actors how a real soldier moves. We went through all the basics: standing at attention, standing at ease, turning, marching in straight lines, marching in curves. The actors cheerfully forgot everything I'd tried to develop with them and embraced the new form of movement.

Afterwards, Sam said to me that she'd never taught drill to a more enthusiastic group. "Actors," I told her, "are like sponges. Give them something that might help their characters, and they'll soak it right up."

The trick, now, is retaining all of that soaked material. I will try to be rigorous about having them do drill as part of their warm-ups. By April, they'll be ready to ship off to war -- or, at the very least, to go on parade. Dismissed!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Into the Valley

Things are moving quickly, as usual. This week, we managed (just barely) to finish blocking the second act. When we got to the run-through on Sunday, there were many empty spaces: people who hadn't been able to attend rehearsals, or else actors that I hadn't called for scenes in which they appeared. We spent the first 90 minutes filling in the gaps, and then ran the second act (at about 52 minutes, a very nice length).

It looks good. There are definitely some rough patches, most particularly the battle scenes. These roughnesses are no one else's fault -- everyone did a great job remembering their blocking, and following my (sometimes contradictory) instructions. It's only that I can't necessarily tell how things will look until they're up and running. This is especially true of large-cast scenes like the battles. Sails are up, swords are flashing, characters are shouting their lines out into the audience ... it's chaos, just like war is chaos. But we have a story to tell, too, and into each of those battle scenes, Shakespeare has inserted important plot points. How do I make sure the audience gets the message?

Other challenges and anxieties at this stage of the game: movement work is moving forward slower than I'd like. We have spent a few rehearsals doing Egyptian movement work, and we're doing a Roman marching session on Tuesday. But it feels like, the moment a run-through begins, all that historical/cultural physicality melts away, to be replaced by modern-day Canadians walking like themselves. I expect this will improve once the scripts are out of actors' hands, though. But that raises the next big question:

February 26 is our off-book date. It never happens exactly when it's supposed to, and I've become accustomed to sacrificing the week or so following off-book date to the usual ferrago of stumbles and frustrated shouts of "Line!" It's part of the process. But if we don't get off-book soon, then, I feel, we really can't move forward: connecting the words with the movements, connecting with other actors onstage, and starting to bring the larger-than-lifeness of the play out in the open -- all these things depend on the cast's confidence in themselves.

It would also help them, I know, to have some sense of what they're going to be wearing. Melissa, our designer, has been busy with other shows; and then she got very sick. I hope and pray that she will resurface this week, to start the design process. Only after blocking did I realize how many scenes revolve around costume items -- the process of arming or unarming, or the gender play of Antony and Cleopatra in the first act -- even the "Romanness" and "Egyptianness" which I'm constantly shoving down actors' throats will become so much clearer for them once they have costumes.

This is, in many ways, the most frustrating point in the process for me. Tech week, I can handle. Opening night, no problem. But I hate the valley of uncertainty when you know you have a cast, a script, and a series of scenes...but you don't yet have a play.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Set Maquette

I've had this now for awhile, but I didn't get around to posting it until now. It's a miniature model of Alli's set.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Crown o'th' Earth does Melt

We're into difficult territory, faster than I'd expected or prepared for. Last night we worked Antony's death scene -- and, yes, in the original play, he dies at the end of Act Four, leaving the final act for Cleopatra. But no matter how you slice it, it's approaching the zero hour of the tragedy.

At this point, lots of practical considerations come into play. Death onstage is always difficult; plus, I've decided to use the stage in some new ways, opening up a discovery space upstage to represent Cleopatra's monument -- but since I'm not 100% sure how that part of the stage will be configured, there are a lot of physical uncertainties for the actors to contend with.

In spite of these obstacles, the cast has been really strong. It's a juggling act: remembering blocking, trying to get off-book (hence struggling with scripts), and trying to plumb the tragic depths of Shakespeare's majestic poetry. I'm awed by their devotion to the task, and it buoys me up as we move even further into tragedy -- ie. Act Five.

Meanwhile, good news on the design front: our last designer is in place. Please welcome Daniel Koyata, our props master. He's a MacEwan theatre production grad, and he seems very keen to join the adventure. Welcome aboard!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Enobarbus in the Ditch

Far less prepared than I should have been this evening. The scene in which Enobarbus dies (of a broken heart?) snuck up on me, and I didn't get a chance to look it over this afternoon. Likewise two scenes leading up to it -- bad show, Mr. Director. Fortunately, everyone else is on the ball: Cody had strong suggestions for his Octavian scene, Kieran knew exactly what he wanted to do with Enobarbus, and everyone else was on task and energetic. We blocked all 3 scenes in about an hour.

Things are going so well, I'm starting to get worried. I'm going to miss tomorrow's rehearsal (Sarah's filling in), and then back for Thursday...and could that be the end of the play already? Surely not. I really must set aside some extra time soon.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Act One, Under Wraps

A long rehearsal this afternoon. A number of cast members were sick, and I've seen far better days myself; but we pressed onwards, and managed to get through the entirety of Act One -- twice! I'm impressed by how quickly the cast has internalized blocking, especially in some scenes which were never very specific to begin with. A few gaps remain, but then we've blocked a bit of Act Two, also, so it kind of balances out. It's a nice benchmark.

The cast is becoming more comfortable physically, and the language also feels more natural. Status is generally clear, although I think bigger choices could reinforce it more often. I'd like to keep reinforcing these things, but I also want to have time to dive deeper into the language and into characterization -- to make the rhythms, movements, and images translate into profound character moments for everyone.

Luckily, we do have time -- over two months, still. But I know it will fly by.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Slink, Whip, Limp

Steady progress this week through a whole bunch of scenes. We did most of the Act One Egypt scenes on Tuesday, skipping over a fight scene but managing to insert a lot of great physical comedy (Eros's pelvic thrust, on "For the best turn, i'th'bed", was a stroke of genius). Then into Act Two yesterday and tonight, focusing on Antony and Cleopatra back together again, sliding inevitably into tragedy. Tonight Antony got to meet his "sad captains," Silius and Philo, who turned out to be the least inspiring soldiers one could ever imagine. Nice work, fellows.

Sunday, we stumble through Act One! There are large blocking gaps, I realize, but it will be good to fit these pieces together, and to remind ourselves of the basic rules of the play's world: Egyptians slink, Romans march (except when they limp).

P.S. We got our swords this week, too! They're fantastic! I can't wait to show them off on Sunday.

P.P.S. Wouldn't the title of this entry make an excellent tongue twister?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Memorizing Lines

Since the cast has about a month to get off-book, I thought I'd share some of my observations about memorization. Because I'm a bit pressed for time, I've taken the easy way out and copied out some text from an article I wrote about a year ago for the Walterdale newsletter. As you read, actors, think about the techniques we've already been using in rehearsal: identifying the rhythm of the lines, walking them out through to get them into your muscle memory, and shaping the lines to give yourself specific visual associations. You'll be surprised to see how close these techniques are to the oldest surviving system of memorization known to man:

There are, of course, many tricks and techniques, and most experienced actors have found one or two approaches that work best for their finicky brains. Repetition by rote is the most common, if you can find a quiet space to repeat the lines without driving family members crazy. A lot of actors will record their own voices reciting their lines, and then play the tape back to themselves in the car or on the bus. Thanks to the invention of headphones, this trick is less likely to annoy those within earshot; but heaven help the actor to misspeaks one of his lines onto the tape, because there’s no way he’ll be able to correct himself after he’s listened to the wrong version 200 times.

Another time-honoured tradition, and one which relies less upon modern technology, is writing the lines out longhand. This technique is slower, and it does not focus upon the sound of the lines per se; but it does help an actor to increase her comprehension of the words she’s soon to speak. Copying out one’s own lines (instead of writing out the entire play) allows an actor to create the modern equivalent of a Shakespearean “prompt-book”—which is not only easier to lug around than a full-sized script, but makes for a great souvenir once the show has closed.

Whenever I’ve had to memorize lines, I employ a technique which uses sleep cycles to transfer items in my short-term memory into my long-term memory. It sounds scientific, but it’s really very simple. If I can read quickly through five or six of my lines each night right before I go to sleep, then I’ll usually discover that I have those lines memorized the next morning. The only drawback of this method is that you end up dreaming about the play—but for a lot of actors, that’s already a given.

However, one of the oldest methods of memorization is even more scientifically sound. I’m talking about The Art of Memory, a technique employed over 2000 years ago by Ancient Greek and Roman orators who were preparing to recite lengthy speeches on the subjects of politics or law. This method sounds a bit complex at first, but once you’ve got a personal system worked out, it ends up being a remarkably efficient way to commit large passages to memory.

The Art of Memory uses mental architecture combined with visual metaphors to create a symbolic landscape with the keys to all your lines laid out in order. First, you choose a real-life environment with which you are extremely familiar; you might select your house, or the school you spent a lot of time in as a child. Next, you imagine yourself moving through the environment in a fixed path. In each room or area, you pause just long enough to remember a line from your speech.

The familiarity of the space helps you to recall the order of the lines; but what about the content? For each line, you need to create a visual image which corresponds to, or evokes, part of the content. For example, here’s a famous speech from Hamlet:

To be or not to be; that is the question;
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

The images don’t have to be literal; they could be metaphors or puns, or anything that prompts you to remember the content of the line. For the first line of Hamlet’s speech, I might picture a man holding two bees in his hand, and scratching his head, as if pondering a question. When I turn to the second line, I might envision a crying (suffering) brain (mind) with a crown (noble) on top. The third line might conjure up an image of Mr. Burns (outrageous fortune) wearing a sling and clutching an arrow. And so on.

It sounds crazy, I know. But there are two subtle psychological tricks at work. First, the fact that you, the actor, are responsible for creating each visual metaphor makes it a snap for you to decipher them. An outsider looking at my rebus puzzles would have a hard time translating them; but since I made them myself, I have a built-in decoder.

The second part is where the real whiz-bang science comes in. According to psychologist Allan Paivio, the process of remembering involves two separate mental systems: the imagery system and the verbal system. In other words, we remember words and images with different parts of our brains. But the two systems can work together, searching simultaneously through two filing systems of memory, working twice as fast and doubling the chance of finding something that will stimulate the right thought.

I must confess, I haven’t run into a lot of actors who use this sort of system on a regular basis; but since I’ve begun to brag about my own successes in using the Art of Memory, a number of my actor friends have tried it and found that it not only makes the memorization process more reliable, but even makes it a bit more fun. If nothing else, it certainly equips you with an interesting answer for the next time someone asks, “How do you remember all those lines?”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

HBO's Rome: Season 2

The second season of "Rome" is broadcasting on HBO right now. Episode 2 was just aired, and it contained a few interesting pre-A&C moments, including the first official meeting between Antony & Cleopatra (in Rome, not Cydnus), and a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Antony and Octavian. This sort of dirty, bloody work is typical of the series (which also isn't afraid to sprinkle the dialogue with 4-letter words). It's a sharp contrast to the grandeur of Shakespeare, but it might be worth a look, just to see how nasty, brutish, and short life was back then.

If anyone in the cast wants to borrow a copy of this episode, let me know.

"How Have You Come From Egypt?"

A productive afternoon rehearsal today, in a freezing room (sorry about that, everyone!). We blocked three and a half units -- about a third of Act One -- including the banquet-on-the-boat scene, which may be the most complex in the play. Despite the chill, everyone was energetic and focused, and we got things blocked efficiently. It was fun watching the stolid Romans degenerate into drunken revelers; we shall have to go back and reinforce their serious demeanours earlier on, in order to make that contrast more satisfying for the audience.

Today also marked the first rehearsal for Sheila, who is playing the Soothsayer. Doing her scenes out of order (we had planned to work her first scene on Tuesday, but the rehearsal got cancelled) made it a bit odd for her, I think; but in a way, it was a nice touch to have her appear so unexpectedly in a room full of "veterans" -- in much the same way as her character pops up amidst the Romans. It's always neat when life imitates art (just so long as our production doesn't end in tragedy, that is).

Coming soon: memorization tips. I promise.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Roman and Egyptian Gods

Here's an impressive list of gods and goddesses from the Roman and Egyptian pantheons, compiled by Giorga, our dramaturge. I'm going to ask the cast to look through the lists in search of gods which they feel their characters might worship, or even just relate to. Then we can use the imagery (animals, objects, activities) of the gods to inform how the characters look and act onstage.

I've included links to the Wikipedia pages that describe each of these gods, so that the cast can get even more information, and hopefully images as well. There are probably lots of other online resources to tap.

Roman Deities

Apollo (aka Phoebus) is the Greek god of the sun and light, music and poetry, healing, and the flocks. The Romans adopted their worship of him from the Greeks and he has no Roman equivalent. He is portrayed as the image of idealized male beauty.

Cupid is the Roman equivalent to Eros, the Greek god of love, although the Roman incarnate propagated only sexual desire. The Greek Eros symbolized all attractions that provoke love. Both the Greeks and Romans saw him as cruel and disruptive, and he is portrayed as young and beautiful.

Faunus (aka Lupercus) is a god of the forests and fertility and is opposed to civilized society. His temple, Lupercal, is the cave in which Romulus and Remus (characters in the foundation myth of Rome) were suckled by the she-wolf. He is associated with the Greek Pan and is represented as half man, half goat.

Fortuna is the goddess of fate, chance, and luck. A golden statuette of Fortuna always had to remain in the sleeping quarters of Roman Emperors.

Hercules is derived from the Greek Heracles, who was originally a hero (mortal man with godlike powers born to a human mother and a god) and later developed into a immortal divinity with a cult. According to the Greek myth, Athena, who guided him throughout his life, brought him to Olympus after his death. He was thought to have the ability to avert evil and is the patron of military training. He was recognized and worshiped as a god by the Romans and later emperors often identified with him. He is primarily associated with the activities of men and not considered important to women.

Janus is the god of all doors and gates, of departure and return, and is associated with the key. He is also the god of beginnings as he presides over daybreak and the month of January and is considered the father of the gods. He was Chaos at the beginning of creation, then his Janus form emerged. Normally he is represented with a double face (to represent looking both ways as a door does and the confusion of his state at creation) or as an older man with a beard.

Juno is the goddess of light and childbirth (newborn baby is brought into the light); she is the feminine counterpart to Jupiter with respect to light. She is the goddess and symbol of the Roman matron and is important to ceremonies of marriage and married life. She is the sister and wife of Jupiter and mother of Mars.

Jupiter is associated with the Greek Zeus and is king of the gods and the god of light (sun and moon) and celestial phenomena (wind, rain, thunder, tempest, lightning). He was the patron of the violent aspect of supreme power but also a political god who symbolized great virtues such as justice and honor and exercised his power within the law. His symbol is the scepter, the Roman symbol of power, and is the protector of the Roman empire. He is usually represented as bearded older man.

Oceanus is the Greek personification of the world’s great ocean, which was believed to be a great river encircling the world.

Orcus is a god of the underworld who carried the living to the Underworld by force.

Mars is the most important Roman god after Jupiter. He is an important figure in the history of Rome since he is the father of Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. His primary function is to be the god of war and battle but he may have originally been the god of vegetation and fertility; the warrior function may have evolved as Rome became a stronger conquering nation. He is associated with the Greek god Ares.

Mercury is the god of merchants who presides over commerce and messages. He is portrayed as beardless, with a winged staff entwined with two snakes, winged sandals, and carrying a purse.

Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, warfare, and handicrafts and protector of commerce, industry, and schools. She is associated with the Greek Athena and is represented in a similar fashion, with wings and holding an owl.

Saturn is the god of agriculture, a working god and a vine grower. He has the same status as Jupiter and Janus.

Venus is the goddess of love and beauty and patron of all seductions and is associated with the Greek Aphrodite.

Vesta is the goddess of the hearth and fire used in the household and religious ceremonies. She is a virgin yet also the symbol of ideal motherhood because fire nourishes. She is considered among the most beautiful of divinities but always represented as veiled.

Vulcan is the god of destructive fire and worshiped to avert fires. He is identified with the Greek god Hephaestus.

Egyptian Mythology

Amun is the king of the gods who represents the forces of generation, reproduction, and renewal. In myth he is a universal god who permeates the cosmos, a god of fertility and sexuality, and a solar god. As a solar god, he takes on attributes of Ra to become the composite Amun-Ra. The most powerful Pharaohs are considered his sons and he gave them victory. He is represented as a human with bronzed skin and kingly attributes (royal headdress, sitting on throne); sometimes represented with the head of a ram.

Anubis is the god of the dead who opens the road of the other world for the deceased and ensures that offerings for the deceased reach them. Upon Osiris’ death Anubis invented funeral rites and bound Osiris’ mummy to preserve him. He was born of Nephthys and abandoned, and was raised by Isis. He is represented as black jackal or black-skinned man with head of jackal or dog (the dog is sacred to Anubis).

Anhur (aka Onuris) is the god of battle, war, and hunting. He is often associated with Ra, as a warlike personification. He is represented with warrior traits—warrior headdress, long embroidered robe, brandishing a lance.

Hathor is the goddess of women, motherhood, and female sexuality as well as joy, dance and music, and foreign lands. She is a protector of women and a mother goddess associated with all aspects of childbearing. Her maternal roles include being a mother to the Pharaoh and nourishing the living with her milk, and being the mother to Horus in myth. She is also said to be a creator goddess closely associated with Ra. She is usually represented as a human woman similar to Isis, but is also represented as a cow or cow-headed woman.

Horus is the god of kingship, the son of Osiris and Isis, and avenger of Osiris. His presence in the palace indicates the Pharaoh as a mediator between the heavens and earth. He is represented with the head of a falcon.

Imhotep was a high official of the Pharaoh Djoser of the 3rd dynasty who was eventually raised to god status after his death. He was likely a highly skilled physician and as a god is the patron of medicine, whom worshippers pray to for healing. He was also an architect and highly learned and is a patron of writing and knowledge.

Isis is the most important Egyptian goddess, the sister, wife, and consort of Osiris. She helped in his civilizing of Egypt and revived Osiris with magic. During the late period of Egypt she absorbed the qualities of all the other goddesses. She is mother to Horus and his protector until he was old enough to avenge his father. She is also an archetype of the mourner and the protector of the dead in the afterllife. She is represented as a human in a long sheath dress and a throne crown or horns and a solar disk (appropriated from Hathor).

Khnum is a god associated with Nile, its fertile soil, and the creation of life. He is portrayed as potter who shapes all living things at his wheel. He is usually depicted as a ram-headed man.

Maat is the goddess of law, truth, and justice, and represented the universal order and balance.

Nephthys is a funerary goddess who is subordinate to her sister Isis. She is also sister and wife of Set, but unable to bear his children, so she made her other brother Osiris drunk and had a tryst that resulted in Anubis. She represents the desert’s edge, typically arid but fruitful when the Nile floods are high.

Osiris was originally a god of nature and vegetation that ceaselessly dies and born again. Later he became the god of the dead and achieved first rank in Egyptian mythology. According to Egyptian myth, Osiris instituted the cult of the gods, building the first temples and sculpting divine images, and abolished savagery and civilized Egypt, then wished to spread civilization around the whole world through nonviolent means. When he returned to Egypt he fell victim to a plot by his brother Set, but was resurrected by his wife Isis with the aid of Thoth, Anubis, and Horus. He did not return to ruling Egypt but instead became lord of the Underworld.

Ra (aka Re) is the sun god, lord of the sky and heavens, and supreme creator of the world. Originally he ruled the earth but ascended to the sky when he became too old and weary. He is considered the father and ancestor of all Pharaohs. He is usually depicted with a solar disk above his head, and sometimes with the head of a falcon. This deity can be fused with Amun to become Amun-Ra.

Sekhmet is a goddess of war who has both a violent and destructive aspect and a protective and healing aspect. She is the patron of the military and a symbol of the Egyptians’ military power. She is represented as lioness or human with head of a lioness.

Set is the god of violence, chaos, and confusion. He is Osiris’ evil younger brother, born violently with white skin and red hair, which was an abomination to the Egyptians. He was jealous of Osiris and assassinated him. Originally he had a cult but was driven from the pantheon in the tenth century and made god of the unclean and enemy of all gods. He is associated with the ass, the antelope, and other desert animals as well as the hippopotamus, boar, crocodile, and scorpion, animals in which the god of evil takes refuge. He is usually represented as an unidentifiable animal (or man with the head of this animal) with a thin curved snout, square-cut ears, and a stiff forked tail.

Thoth is the god of writing and knowledge as well as the patron of history, the kingdom’s sacred scribe, keeper of divine archives, and herald of the gods. He is vizier to Osiris and later Horus. He is endowed with complete knowledge and wisdom, invented hieroglyphics and all arts and sciences, and is associated with truth and integrity. . He was also lord of time and measured time into calendar divisions. He is represented with head of an ibis (wading bird with long downward-curving bill). Seshat is his female counterpart.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Cleopatra's Women

Good progress today on a number of fronts simultaneously: Christine came in to do more bellydancing movement work with the Egyptian ladies; we figured out how the various Romans reacted to Egypt's culture; we worked through and semi-blocked several early Egypt scenes; and John, Monica and I started to crack the complex, ever-shifting relationship between Antony and Cleopatra.

Monica, Beverly, Leah, Erin, and Jennifer did some great work in building a coherent Cleopatran entity--moving in unison, or building off each other's movements, in a way which really captures the stage. Then the four waiting-women had a conversation about their respective characters. Hopefully, they'll share some of their observations and discoveries on this very blog...?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Walk Like a Roman

All boys tonight: Antony, Octavian, Lepidus, Enobarbus, Ventidius, Agrippa, and Gallus strutting about the stage like they owned the place. And they do. When in Rome, every gesture and movement should suggest that power. And when they travel to Egypt, hopefully they will retain some sense of that authority, if only so that it contrasts more sharply with the world of the East.

Tonight we started to practice group movements, with Antony leading and Enobarbus and Ventidius falling into line. Cody made an excellent observation/suggestion: if the cast (and not just the Romans, but everyone) can communicate and share the stage, if they can signal their movements and intentions to each other, then they really can coordinate their movements, even on the fly. I find that notion terribly exciting. Not only does it suggest a well-oiled Roman machine, but it suggests a well-oiled cast, and an energetic, synchronized production. I look forward to seeing where it can go from here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Week Two: Walk Like An Egyptian

Yesterday, I couldn't make it to rehearsal (I was celebrating my wife's successful Ph.D. thesis defense -- hurray!), so I left matters in the capable hands of Sarah and Christine Frederick -- the latter being a longtime friend and a skilled bellydancer. They split the actors up into Romans and Egyptians, and worked out a series of movements that could help to distinguish them onstage.

Comments this evening were varied. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, but the women found the bellydancing daunting -- they all agreed it was a complicated business, and they'd need more work before they could do it onstage with confidence. The men seemed impressed enough by what they saw, though -- apparently it was difficult for the Roman soliders to remain in rank & file while all those Egyptians were sashaying around them. I think this angle bears more investigation.

Tonight, we read through two thirds of the play, walking on each line and talking about the shifting status in the play. Interesting thoughts about the relative culpability of Antony & Cleo -- everyone agrees that she's manipulative, but opinion seems divided over whether she's really to blame for Antony's downfall. John said something interesting: "Both of them are narcissists, and they see themselves reflected in each other." Sounds like a recipe for disaster, indeed.

I like where we're at, but there's a lot more work to be done. The rhythms and movements are still just vague sketches; they need precision and confidence. And the characters will, of course, have to be bigger -- always bigger. But tonight, I saw some flashes of the potential heights to which this cast can climb. Onwards and upwards!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Second Rehearsal: Room Fulla Ducks

Tonight we heated up the chilly Avonmore Hall by scanning, walking, and shaping our lines. I always admire the confidence and trust shown by a new cast. Here they are, still mostly strangers, and already they're strutting around the room like ducks on acid, muttering Shakespearean lines out of context. It actually didn't look that silly (yeah, it sorta did).

But the unselfconscious display paid off: by the end of rehearsal, I could see light bulbs starting to click on as people saw that status, rhythm and imagery can connect to character -- indeed, may even provide a short-cut to character, rather than all that convoluted Stanislavskian psychological whatnot.

Yes, but (as one actor asked me after we'd wrapped) "won't we look silly"? If we continue to strut about like ducks, then yes. But by the time April rolls around, the rhythms that now feel awkward and obtrusive will be totally internalized, a song that plays itself while the action unfolds.

P.S. I can tell, from the choices of movement and shaping shown by most of the cast, that they're also eager to explore the "lust" and sexuality inside the play. That, too, requires trust, and maybe a bit more familiarity. But I can already tell that, once that impulse starts to grow, this is gonna turn into one seriously hawt play.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

First Rehearsal: Honour and Lust

I've been feeling a bit out of sorts over the play for the past few days, and a part of me dreaded the prospect of bringing that ennui into tonight's rehearsal. But, as it turned out, the source of my problem became apparent immediately -- and then resolved itself at once. I needed my cast! My excitement over the show had stalled because I couldn't move any further forward without having a cast around me. Now that's been remedied, and I feel great.

We had a strong turnout tonight, despite the crappy winter weather. After I babbled for a bit about "rules for directing" and "rules for Shakespeare," we got down to business. First we had an interesting discussion about the play, revolving chiefly around the notions of "honour" and "lust" -- not only sexual lust, but also lust for power, lust for life, and maybe even a general "life force" (which is the term Marvin Rosenberg uses in The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra).

I was able to correlate these two concepts to the public/private dialectic; that is, I argued that "honour" is a public force because it requires outside observers in order to confirm it (ie. you can't be "honourable" unless others think you are), whereas "lust" is a private affair. If this is true, then it strikes to the heart of the conflict in the play -- not just Antony's, but everyone's. What is more important: public honour/responsibility/loyalty, or private lust/love/need? How does one decide?

After that, we did some name & line exercises, and started to invent a system of visual status for the world of the play. I'm excited to see where that goes (I only got a glimpse of each one tonight). I'm equally excited to watch as this cast gets acquainted and begins to bond. I can already sense the stirrings of a wonderful ensemble.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Making History

So far, when I've spoken to people about my "concept" for A&C, there's one idea which I keep reiterating. The scope of the play, I say, is big, and the characters know this. Not only are Antony, Octavian, and Cleopatra aware that their decisions and gestures will have broad and long-term consequences; but even the minor players recognize that they are standing next to the titans of their time -- perhaps of all time. They're making history with every breath.

But how do you communicate this to an audience? The first step is to have the cast deliver lines and actions as though they are literally larger-than-life...but this is also the first mis-step, because it can easily read as the worst sort of Shakespearean ham-acting. You have to distinguish between actors who act like they're the most important people in the universe, and characters who know they're the most important people in the universe. And that's a subtle, tricky distinction.

I've also talked about blocking the play to create tight groups of characters, usually clustered around one of the power players. I'm pretty confident that will help to create the larger-than-lifeness. But will it say anything about history? What I'd really like to do is find a way to suggest that these characters understand their roles in posterity. At some level, conscious or otherwise, they understand that their words & actions will be replayed over and over again for thousands of years, on stages throughout the world. I'm not sure that's something actors can readily communicate.

So it may be time to impose a little business on the play. I've got this great big open stage, and I've got plenty of bodies to fill it why not make those bodies do some things that can, perhaps, elucidate this notion. Like what? Well, one suggestion my wife made (from a production of A&C that she saw in England) was to have a character following the big cheeses around the stage and recording their speeches. In my version, it would have to be a soldier, probably Gallus or Agrippa; and they would be alterately welcomed (by characters like Octavian, who loves his popularity) or begrudged (by Antony, who frequently seems a bit awkward with his status as a living legend).

Another thought I had, which would also play to Octavian's vanity, would be to have him posing for a painting or (more likely) a sculpted bust. I don't know how practical that would be on stage; I guess a vaguely head-shaped prop could be constructed out of papier mache or styrofoam and then padded with clay. Those sorts of high-maintenance props need to have some sort of payoff, however; I wouldn't want to tax my designers with creating a bust and then only use it for half a scene.

A third, very vague, thought: near the end of the play, Cleopatra expresses her horror at the idea that "comedians / Extemporally will stage us and present / Our Alexandrian revels." She's referring specifically to the revels that would accompany her arrival in Rome, if she allows herself to be taken prisoner by Octavian. But she is making a choice about how she will be remembered by history -- not as a caricature of an Egyptian courtesan, but rather as a queen and a goddess. Is there some way that I could build this idea, and this transition, right into the business of the play? I'm imagining some little interlude, an "Antony & Cleopatra" puppet show that Cleo could interrupt, replacing the diminished & ridiculous Cleopatra with her own grand self.

That would be a nice, physical realization of the size & scope theme. It even renders visual Cleo's vision of Antony: "His legs bestrid the ocean" (ie. he's a giant when compared to these paltry little puppets). But where would I fit it in?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Designer At Last

My sleepless nights are at an end, and I can put aside all my desperate and speciously-justified alternative plans. We have a costume designer! Melissa Cuerrier, who designed King Lear last year, has graciously agreed to supervise the design process. This is good news because she is tremendously talented and comprehensively competent (I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but I wanted the alliteration).

The only problem is, she's also very busy. To be specific, she is designing two musicals at Grant MacEwan college this year. So she'll still need a lot of help to get the actors fully clothed. But we have a number of volunteers who are willing to help out, just so long as there's somebody supervising the endeavour. I'm now wayyy more comfortable with how things will work out.

Plus! Jenn, our SM, found us a master builder (Erik). So our production team is, suddenly, almost complete!

In other news, our cast has undergone a few tectonic shifts. Hopefully it will settle in time for rehearsals to start next week. Here's the current roster:

Allan Stoski: LEPIDUS / PHILO

David Cairns: POMPEY / SILIUS

Bonni Clark: OCTAVIA

Nathan Coppens: MENAS / SCARUS

Denny Demeria: VENTIDIUS

John Dolphin: ANTONY

Vanessa Lever: EROS

Erik Martin: AGRIPPA

Kieran O’Callaghan: ENOBARBUS

Jennifer Peebles: MARDIAS

Cody Porter: OCTAVIAN

Monica Roberts: CLEOPATRA

Matt Robertson: GALLUS

Erin Voaklander: ALEXAS

Leah Wilburn: IRAS

Beverly Wright: CHARMIAN