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.