Friday, November 21, 2008

The Three Musketeers

When The Actors Shakespeare Company formed about eight years ago, the founding members were excited to be taking the performance of Shakespeare to "new heights."  Of course this is what we imagined we were about, having gleaned from various sources and our own conjecture, a notion of Elizabethan theatrical performance.  This much was certain: public performances took place in daylight and the audience were free to eat and drink during the show.  It was apparent that strict observation of the "fourth wall" barrier between the audience and an imagined world on the stage had, though it brought a new degree of realism to the theater in the early 20th century, was not useful to us because it served to isolate actors and audience.  This isolation made any interaction between the lit stage and the dark house only incidental, representing a break in the world of the performance.  Further it weakens, in my opinion, such essential elements of Shakespeare's work as the soliloquy, forcing it into an overly broad spectrum of cerebral introspection, rather than an active argument with the audience, cast as something like the jury of a character's conscience.

We were eager to reexamine staging principles, delivery of text , voice and movement in the Renaissance model, which I am happy  to say has caught on.  All over the US and Europe the example set by the reconstructed Globe Theater in London is redefining performance techniques.  The RSC has even redesigned its main stage to reflect this new sensibility.   In regional theaters all over America actors are looking their audience in the eye and asking "Who calls me villain?"  The feedback ASC has received since we started has as few common themes, among them: humor (even tragedies have light moments) and accessibility.  Which brings me to Panto.

Shortly after drama school I was working as an actor in London when an actress with whom I shared an agent got a job in a Christmas Panto near my apartment.  Now, the term "panto" was rarely uttered by any of my British colleagues, I observed, with out a roll of the eyes or at least an ironic tone, much as many New York actors react to the idea of soap operas.  Well, I had seen my great-grandmother's favorite soap before I was old enough to object and knew such a popular genre was not popular for nothing.  I therefore took the opportunity to see Dick Whittington, my first panto, and broaden my horizons a bit.   What a treat!  The production was a flood of stimulation  - none of it accidental: Sarah the Cook (played by a man) threw candy to the kids, led a sing-along and shot sexual innuendoes and double entendres in every direction.  The audience had a shouting match with King Rat (during his soliloquy) and was encouraged to shout advice to Dick Whittington's (sexy) cat, played by my actress friend.  There were dresses, fights, jokes and romance in abundance and, having enjoyed a cup or two of wine during the performance, I left in a real "holiday" mood.  

A little research into the origin of the modern Christmas Panto suggested its roots were in commedia dell'arte and had traveled to Britain from Italy in the 16th century.  Another Renaissance form of entertainment, which worked wonderfully well today.

Panto is now considered family theater, but very different in my view from theater merely intended for consumption by young people.  It was after seeing a particularly thin "young people's" dramatization of The Three Musketeers that I decided to pick up the book.  My reading confirmed that the book didn't belong just in the juvenile section of the library, but as many great works of fiction, it had appeal across the generations.  I had seen a few film versions and it was clear from the variety of popular interpretations, that the novel was a rich vein from which many different elements could be mined.   There was of course action - lots of sword fighting, which I always loved - so it had appeal for boys.  There was sex - which everybody likes... pretty much.  Period dresses were, I had observed, very popular with girls.  Throw in a bare chest or two, some of Dumas' clever repartee and as well as some of the book's tasty romance and you've got a family show.   I therefore set about writing a new stage adaptation of the novel.

As I waded though French and English versions of the text, I began to see more than just a series of pleasant sensations for the reader.  Without attempting to adapt Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, I will simply suggest that we all to the theater or the movies for stimulation - of all kinds.  This stimulation: emotional, intellectual or sensual can include revulsion, embarrassment and anger.   Thus the uncooked fish I got to be brought out by the fishmonger in the London scene.  We like pleasing images, noble actions and words and happy or funny outcomes of course, but we do like to be reviled a little as well I think.  The fish, though far from a graphic image of gore or depiction of extreme emotional cruelty was meant to add a touch of bitter to an otherwise rich dish.  On balance, I believe now my script could use a few more pinches of that kind of seasoning, especially if the Parisian baker and London apple seller had been able to distribute their wares to the audience as was intended.  No eating or drinking allowed in the theater seats, alas.  The actor who plays the fishmonger opted for a stuffed catfish toy rather than my frozen dorade in the end as well.  Put off by the smell, alas.  Alas.

Timur Kocak

Monday, May 12, 2008

And now, a word from our Playwright...

One of the best things about ASC's The Play's the Thing New Work series is working with a playwright who isn't dead. As much as we all love Shakespeare, we do often wish we could sit down and pick his brain on the motivations, detail and origins of his works.

So, we did just that with Sean Michael Welch, author of the latest new play in the series, Pompey :

My final performance at the University of Michigan-Flint was in the role of Pompey in Measure for Measure. Pompey is designated as the clown character in the work, but I took a different approach with him, portraying him as a more manipulative and seductive person. Now, in the final act, I had no speaking lines, but was on the stage as an observer. As I sat there, night after night, watching the action unfold, I found the whole end to be deeply unsatisfying. As an actor I understood the metaphor of God's justice, but as a character living in this world, my concern was with the reality before me.And that became the inspiration for the piece.

I has started writing Pompey in 2000, before I moved to New York. I turned out three pages, and then realized I didn't know what I was going for. The concepts were not solidified in my mind, so I left it alone. In 2005, having lived in New York for four years, and seeing more and more ridiculousness in politics, I found that I finally had an angle to work with and a solid concept to work from.

So, Pompey is my voice against the manipulations of powerful people and the use of wealth and influence to escape justice. Not God's justice, but a justice that was meant to incorporate everyone on a level playing field, which is what the American legal system promises to do. And who better to lead us through this exploration than a criminal?

The reading of Pompey is May 14th at 7:30PM at the West Side Theater, 285 West Side Avenue, Jersey City, NJ.

You can read more about ASC here, and more about Sean Michael Welch here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


The Play's the Thing is ASC's series of readings of new plays. This year we are proud to feature a new play by Sean Michael Welch, Pompey.

Pompey is a darkly funny look at what happens "offstage" in the Venice of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Welch's play shows a city and its people struggling with issues of sexuality, vice and crucially, class.

Pompey features the talents of Elizabeth Belonzi, Cindy Boyle*, Justin Gibbs*, Michael Hajek*, Jonathan Hopkins, Natalie Lebert*, Patrick McCarthy*, Esau Pritchett*, James Rana*, Colin Ryan*, Ron Sanborn*, Paul Sugarman, Raymond Wortel, and Jessica Weiss.

The reading is May 14th at 7:30PM at the West Side Theater,285 West Side Avenue, Jersey City, NJ.

You can read more about ASC here, and more about Sean Michael Welch here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday, February 15, 2008

Working with the Original Folio and Quarto Texts

Some words below from Paul Sugarman on ASC's text process, and particularly the Folio and Quarto texts we have been using on Merchant of Venice. Paul has been an ASC actor for several seasons now, and is Salanio in Merchant. He is also the company's resident text expert, which is saying something, considering the general level of Shakespeare nerdiness and self-dramaturgy at ASC! Paul was an editor of the immensely useful Applause edition of the First Folio, and he publishes his own pocket editions of original texts under his Raw Shakespeare imprint.

One of the things that I find most exciting about the Actors Shakespeare Company is that we work with the original published texts of the First Folio and Quartos to get closer to Shakespeare’s original intent. The First Folio was the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623, seven years after his death. It included 36 plays, 18 of which had never been published. The book was edited by members of Shakespeare’s acting company and it is believed that the theatre companies prompt scripts were used as a reference, since the stage directions are often quite specific about what needs to be done. The Quartos were texts of individual plays. Most people are probably unaware of how much the modern texts of Shakespeare have been cleaned up and edited to make Shakespeare into a neat literary package. The First Folio and Quarto texts are much messier but with many clues for actors.

Recently there has been a lot of interest in looking at the clues for actors in these early texts, thanks largely to the work of Patrick Tucker who wrote “Secrets of Acting Shakespeare” and Neil Freeman who has compiled “The First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type.” The spelling in these original texts is often quite bizarre as you have to keep in mind that this was more than a century before the first English dictionaries, many times these spellings suggest how the words sound. There are also clues for the actors in punctuation and capitalization. Since there was precious little time for rehearsal in Shakespeare’s time (as they could often put on 10 different shows in a 2 week period) there needed to be clues for the actors to pick up their parts quickly. Capitalizing a word in the middle of a line can be a suggestion that the word should be emphasized. A colon can be an indication of a change of approach or a physical move.

Actors Shakespeare Company uses Patrick Tucker’s Folio “kits” which include a master script and cue-scripts, or sides, for the actors, which contain only the character’s lines and their cues, as well as cues for exiting or entering. In Shakespeare’s time that would be all the actor would get, because of the amount of work involved in copying the script and because of the fears of the script being stolen and published in a pirate edition. Working with these “cue scripts” gives us a chance to use some “original practices” by attaching them onto dowels these sides become “rolls”.

Paul Sugarman, in a less scholarly mode

The benefit for an actor of just having your own “roll” is that you only have your own lines and cues to focus on and to have them make sense. It forces the actors to listen for their cues. Being open to the clues in the original text often solves many problems for the actor. Almost all the actors who work with the original text find that these clues often help. Working on these plays in this way it becomes clear that they were written to be performed and were made by the consummate man of the theatre, William Shakespeare.

The Merchant of Venice was popular in Shakespeare’s lifetime and was published several times in “Quarto” form. This gives us and added text to reference along with the First Folio. Many Shakespearean scholars believe that the First Quarto of Merchant is the closest to Shakespeare’s original writing and a better text than the First Folio. Most of the play is the same but there are some key differences. For our production we have started with the First Folio but all the actors were given copies of the First Quarto so that they could refer to it and update their texts if desired.

There will be an Actors Shakespeare Company Quarto published of our performance text of Merchant of Venice with endnotes indicated the textual choices made.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Merchant Rehearsals Officially Begin

Monday Night was the first full rehearsal for ASC's The Merchant of Venice. ASC first rehearsals are a bit different than many other companies', and come from our history with Unrehearsed Shakespeare. After weeks of private study, as well as one-on-one and small group coaching, the whole cast meets and does the entire play. On their feet. With no rehearsal or set blocking. The result is sometimes messy somtimes sublime, but never boring.

A few pictures of the event from our own "Jessica", Beth Ann Leone:

Justin Gibbs (Bassanio) and Elizabeth Belonzi (Portia)

Jonathan Hopkins (Lorenzo)

Jessica Weiss (Nerissa) and Michael Hajek (Stephano) sing

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First Look at the Merchant Set

Our talented set designer for The Merchant of Venice, Timur Kocak (also our Salerio!) has shared his latest sketch for the design of the set and floor painting. As usual, it's a lovely thing:

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shylock Speaks

A few thoughts from Peter Galman on his preparation for the role of Shylock in ASC's upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, opening February 21st:

Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is the voice of oppressed, the trod upon, the rejected, the categorized, the object of scorn that all striving humankind can relate to. Somewhere deep inside us comes a voice that cries out in defense of ourselves when victimized by hatred or even when slighted for one more preferred. It comes from the same place in us that wants a second chance, for the tables to be turned, for a second opinion, for an apology, for vindication. Shylock is presented with such an opportunity, and we see him with it right at the beginning, at the introduction of his character in the play. He senses the rich opportunity of that moment and revels in it. It's what attracted me to him in the first place. This voice compels hearing and demands attention.

"Like my fellow Jews, I may be confined to a ghetto and relegated to the un-Christian business of moneylending, and my words are steeped in deep resentment of my plight, but my spirit yearns to walk the earth as one of God's creatures, in communion with my fellow human beings."

What I am discovering as I go deeper into the development of character is my dual nature. Shakespeare may not have had much experience with Jewish idiosyncrasies, but in the very first scene he hits upon one of the most typical: that of saying one thing but meaning something else! This strikes to the heart of the Jewish stereotype. After I vent to the offer of Antonio all the bilious reasons why I would reject a transaction with the Christian, I do an about face and confide I would be friends and have Antonio's love. That's just the start of exposition to my dual nature. I am torn by a passion, by a conviction that compels me to "use or be used". I have a choice all the way down to the lines at the end and I think if I stay with that dynamic throughout it will make for a compelling characterization.

I am now reading of Shylocks played in past productions, and it amazes me how each, whether it be Edmund Kean, or Sir Tree, or Sir Henry Irving, or Jacob Adler of the great Yiddish Theater in the early 20th Century, becomes a statement of the way to play him as to appeal to the audience of their respective theatres. Irving was all dignity in the face of indecency. Adler edited the play so that he was on stage half the time, and was patriarchal, biblical, a tower of strength, patience amidst suffering. A response to the opinion of some that the play is anti-semitic? Perhaps, but Shakespeare's Jew is loaded with humanity and needs no revision to be given "size". Others may make the argument that Shylock's actions are not true to the Jewish identity, but Shakespeare is not writing to an ideal, but to the idea that we are alike and resemble each other in action within a given circumstance -- "to the time and pressure", one of his great themes.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Justice and Mercy

Some thoughts from Colette Rice, ASC's Artstic Director and Play Master of The Merchant of Venice:

I’m well into individual actor coaching for Merchant. What a joy to work on this play! I honestly had no idea how much I would come to love it. It has always perplexed me. So many productions seem to miss the mark. Yet, I haven’t ever felt certain about what that mark is, exactly.

Working with the actors on individual roles has helped to raise many questions. What does The Jew represent in the play and what does The Christian stand for? Why is it that so many of the characters make less than honorable choices? Is there a “good guy?” How does the plot of the three caskets fit with the Antonio/Shylock plot? Oh, there are so many questions… Today I’ll share a few initial impressions based on our coaching to date.

Shylock may represent the letter of the law in Venice: that within us which is inflexible, rigid, intractable, myopic, greedy, and that which feels it must be “right” at all costs. If we are to realize our potential and unlock our higher natures from the lead caskets in which they are all hidden, these parts of ourselves must be either transformed or rooted out. Shylock has a lot of very good reasons for being how he is and Shakespeare spells those reasons out. Yet, in the end he must be changed, or all is lost.

Shakespeare does an interesting thing in this play. He gives us an antagonist in Shylock about whom an Elizabethan audience would have had very strong and specific judgments. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta had been exceedingly popular for several years, and depicted a Jew who was merciless, cruel, vicious and miserly – and who gets his comeuppance at the end of the play. The Elizabethans were generally very xenophobic people, regarding strangers of all sorts as suspicious and dangerous. Shakespeare’s audience would “know” Shylock before he even began to speak, and he is somewhat true to form. He tells us that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian and because he lends money as a charity and not a business. He would have been a very easy character for the audience to peg: The Villain – The Other who is not like me.

But, as he often does, Shakespeare adds a twist. He gives us this villain and antagonist, and then has him turn around and accuse us, along with all of the Christian characters, of being exactly like him. I don’t think that Shylock’s most famous speech is so much a plea for understanding as it is an accusation and bitter pill of truth: we are all Shylock.

Certainly the Christian characters in the play, with whose ambitions we seem to be meant to sympathize, are hardly without human frailties. Shakespeare’s Venice is a land famous for its laws and the laws are followed to the letter. Mercy doesn’t seem to be in great abundance, though there is a great deal of hubris and blame. The Venetians of the play seem to live beyond their means and to judge anyone who is not exactly like them. They are hardly living from any ideals of Christianity, despite their protestations of their faith. And then Shylock holds Hamlet’s famous mirror up to their natures – and ours. He tells us to take a look at what made him the way he is. Take a look inside ourselves.

And what is needed in this world of judgment, cruelty, avarice and spite? Divine intervention. Portia serves as a sort of Deus ex machina, descending from Belmont (“beautiful mountain”) to Venice and entering the court disguised as a man to transform the events and characters of the play. She introduces Mercy into this world of fierce justice, first challenging Shylock and then Antonio to find that divinity within that allows us to bestow mercy. Her disguise is necessary in order to enter the court at all – as a woman, she has no place there. Yet it is, in part, her womanly nature and understanding that is needed in the moment. Her heart and her mind are both essential in solving the problem of the bond.

There is so much more to discuss. The play is a bottomless well of wisdom and opportunity to learn about ourselves. We’ll be posting more observations as we delve deeper into coaching and rehearsal. We look forward to seeing you at our opening in February.

-Colette Rice
Producing Artistic Director
Play Master, The Merchant of Venice