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 with...so 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