Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Passion and Purpose Speeds the Plough Forward

                              ....then there
                              was a star danced, and under that was I born.

     Directing a classical theater company is no simple task.  Such a company is a complex organization, and leading it requires building a complicated network of resources.  This is not a job for the faint of heart . . . or for the faint of skills.  Directing a classical theater company requires an elaborate – and rare – composite of background, a nexus of experience, talent , intelligence, common sense, and tenacity.  The director needs be as complex as the organization, a person who can manage finances, entertain the community, attract and curry donors, counsel personnel, engage in politics, and foretell the future; and if that person wants to remain sane, h/she must also be able to retain an inner smile over the course of an unparalleled roller-coaster ride that can ascend to the heights of euphoria and descend to the depths of despair in a single breath.  It’s a tall order, and anyone who takes it on has to be equal parts starry-eyed optimist and grounded pragmatist at all times.  In other words, one needs to be the likes of Colette Rice, Producing Artistic Director and Playmaster of the Actors Shakespeare Company at New Jersey City University. 
            Colette didn’t set out to helm a theater company in Jersey City.  In fact, she divided her early professional training between music and the theater.  Rice left her home in Sacramento, CA, to study acting at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, and then to attend Northwestern University,  where she earned both a Bachelor of Music and a Master of Music degrees, with an emphasis in Voice and Opera Performance.  “My roots,” she says, “were always in the theater.  I loved the theater, and I was, even as a youngster, in love with Shakespeare’s language, with the drama of his plays.”  But it was music that brought her east.

In New York, Colette continued to pursue her opera career, auditioning, competing and performing in metropolitan area and regional venues.  Winning the prestigious Liederkranz Foundation Award in New York City afforded her the opportunity to perform at Alice Tully Hall.  Opera was the focus of her life.  At the Sarasota Opera, Rice met John Basil, Artistic Director of the American Globe Theatre in New York, who was directing the production of Simon Boccanegra in which she was featured. After talking extensively about the art of William Shakespeare with the director and taking his classes, she felt, she says, "like I'd been let out of a cage."  She knew then that she had to return to acting, especially to Shakespeare.
“I rediscovered Shakespeare through Opera,” says Colette.  “And through that, I was understanding that opera was not necessarily where I belonged.  My inclination was to turn down roles that were musically appropriate for my voice in favor of roles that had more meat to their characters.  And an opera singer who chooses roles based on character rather than on music probably should reconsider her professional choices.
“So there I was in an interesting predicament.  I was totally enthralled with Shakespeare, was passionate about the work.  But I didn’t have a track record.  I wanted to be doing Shakespeare, but my tangible experience had been elsewhere.  How was I to make that transition?”
Colette got lucky at that point.  She met a group of like-minded actors, who joined together and founded a theater company to produce Shakespeare's plays; that group disbanded eventually, but a sub-group decided to establish another organization, this one dedicated, at least at first, to producing the Shakespeare canon; they founded what eventually came to be known as the Actors Shakespeare Company.
“At that point, I was the one with the most extensive background,” laughs Rice.  “I had coached singers and actors,
had studied a LOT, and I had acted in more Shakespeare than many of the original actors. Also, I had worked both in business and in the world of grant making; I was the only person everyone felt would be capable of leading the new organization, and that’s how I became the Director.”
Colette Rice had done what most artists do – she had taken day jobs to sustain her pursuit of her artistic career.  And on the way, she had accrued skills and knowledge that had preened her for the job she now cherishes at the ASCNJ.  She  worked for Morgan Stanley and for Credit Suisse and was instrumental in establishing the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.  “I remember thinking ‘why me? Why am I here at Doris Duke – which I loved, by the way – when I really feel like I'm supposed to be an artist? '  But I know now that it was all kind of meant to be – I was gaining skills for running the organization I now run.”
Despite the extensive preparation, the part of her job Colette finds most challenging is the fundraising.  Fine Arts fundraising in any economy is difficult at best, and in these troubled times, it is a constant trial, a never-ending juggling act.  Operating under the aegis of a university, as the ASC does – the New Jersey City University  – helps but is not a panacea.  The company director must decide daily what she can cut and still keep going, what to do to be prudent with a smaller and smaller pool of money.  “You apply for grants, you seek sources in the world of finance, and you just soldier on.  It’s the most difficult thing to do day after day without getting discouraged.”
Which is why Rice dwells most on the positive aspects of her position. “You know, when I first got into this, I thought I was doing it to be an actor.  I thought I would love the acting the most.  But I discovered that I love directing, LOVE it.  As a director, I get to act out all the parts, to explore all the motivations not just of character but of plot and staging as well.  That’s a gift, a true gift!”
Rice says she is committed to creating a judgment-free environment in which her actors can experiment freely, can examine, scrutinize, personalize their roles.  “We have great trust for one another, the actors and I.  We also have great trust in our literature.  I know that the actors know how to deliver performances that are true to the text and the story, and they know that I can both lead them and listen to them as we find the way together.  It’s a remarkable freedom to have such a relationship!”
On March 16, Colette Rice’s production of Macbeth premiers at the Westside Theater, a production Rice is particularly proud to be mounting.  “We have seven actors playing all the roles, telling the story through a ritual circle-storytelling style.”  There will be a flow of the characters and a dedication to the crux of the story, which, according to Rice , is the coexistence of good and evil in everyone.  “The thrust of the main story,” she says, “is encapsulated in the witches’ line, ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair.’  Nothing is what it seems, no one ever says exactly what they’re talking about because there is always an underlying motive, an underlying fear, a ‘something else’ that belies the words.  This play’s a great warning.  We must all stop using euphemisms and see things for what they are.  We must all acknowledge that we are capable of great evil and must recognize what it is in each of us to do our best -and our worst! - and shed a light on our own motivates for choosing righteousness or ill.”
Rice really appreciates the discovery.  She revels in the process of uncovering the meaning of a play, of finding that portent in the marrow of the individual parts of the play, and she exults in sharing that process with an audience.  “I really believe that the audience is capable of so much, “ she says as she launches into her explanation of No Holds Bard, a program she’ll host and facilitate on the 26th of January. 
Through a fully staged though impromptu reading of Much Ado About Nothing, members of the audience will be invited onto the stage to see why “the play ’s the thing. . . “  Members of the company will execute the key roles , but instead of passively watching, anyone in the audience who WANTS to climb onto the stage and participate will be welcome to read, wander through the play and exhilarate in the revelation along with the actors.  Afterward, actors – including those from the audience – will meet with the audience in an informal discussion/refreshment session to discuss the experience from both sides of the stage.
In a way, No Holds Bard, the innovative and exciting project Rice designed, represents a coming full circle for the multi-faceted Producing Artistic Director and Playmaster.  “I played Beatrice in one of our early productions.  I love this play, and I am prepared to do a little directing, a little coaching and a lot of casual playing as we go along. Also, as ASC was developed from an unrehearsed company, it feels like a not to our beginnings to experiment with that form again.  The difference is that this time, we are inviting everyone to jump off that cliff with us."
Colette Rice has found the essence of being the very model of a modern major general at the Actors Shakespeare Company.   She has found the music in the words and the rhythm in the practice.  She effuses energy and thereby infuses both her company and her lucky audience with a theater experience that is alive and ever-evolving.

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