Archives For Shakespeare

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For me, the greatness of Britain isn’t defined by family ancestry, its political history or imperial might, as fascinating and checkered as that topic can be. Rather, it is Britain’s cultural contributions that continue to entertain and inspire me. The Beatles and Belle & Sebastian, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course, Mr. William Shakespeare.

It is 2016, and that means that William Shakespeare has been dead for exactly 400 years.

It is my second night in England, and I am watching a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. A Play for the Nation.

I listen to the lines of the play roll out from the actors’ mouths. I recognize Peter Hamilton Dyer’s voice even before I see his face. “Full of vexation come I, with complaint against my child, my daughter Hermia.” I am pulled back suddenly to the Globe, in London, and it is 2002 and Dyer stands at the edge of the stage, as the Fool, Feste, verbally sparring with Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night. It is a warm summer’s night and I am on my first solo trip to Britain.

“How now, spirit? Whither wander you?”

Puck enters. The words continue to ring out, familiar and comforting, this most familiar of plays.

We are backstage in a bombed-out theatre, apparently sometime in the 40s, during the war. The fairies resemble child evacuees, sweater vests and brown leather shoes. Titania and Oberon otherworldly and exotic, India and Africa, reminders of Britain’s colonial empire.

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The Mechanicals scatter. The Lovers battle.

Nick Bottom dreams.

It is 2003 and I am directing my first show by Shakespeare. Titania and Oberon spar over a child. The Mechanicals rehearse. The Lovers wed.

Bottom dreams.

Midsummer 2

It is 2012 and I am again in the wood, with the fairies and the lovers and the actors. “It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.” It is 2014 and I am back at the Globe, saying hello to one of my British heroes, Mark Rylance. It is 2011 and I am directing Feste and Olivia and I am saying goodbye to the only family I created.

It is 2016 and I am in London at the British Library, walking through ten acts of Shakespeare. Vivian Leigh stands imperious and commanding as Titania. Peter Brook strips everything away but the truth and tells his Midsummer in a white box. In the next room I stare at Rylance’s original costume for Olivia.

It is 2016 and I am again at the Globe, watching another performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this play for the nation, England or Britain, a no-longer united kingdom that today has voted to leave the European Union and bring about its eventual destruction.

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Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and yet his life and his work lives and breathes everywhere I look. His words transport me through my own life, across stages and classrooms and cast parties. He reminds me over and over again about the importance of art and dreams and stories, and the responsibility I have, with my own small talents, to keep telling those stories to new audiences. He reminds me to give dreams to people.

“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

Bottom wakes.

It is 2016. I am behind the wheel of a brand-new BMW 3 Series. I am driving on the left. I am terrified and I am exhilarated all at once.

I am heading north.

 

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We begin in an airport bar, as stories like these usually do. I am sipping a beer and writing in a notebook, watching hot, tired, and cranky people pass me by. I can’t tell who’s starting their trip or ending it. Airports generally bring about the worst sort of resignation in people

And as all stories about me and my wanderings go, we must begin with exposition and a soliloquy and establish internal struggles.

I have a job. I teach mostly math, and a bit of reading, to gifted kids. I am now known as a somewhat-expert in the field of gifted education. Endorsed and whatnot. A while ago I told myself it was time to start specializing in things, pick a lane and go. Gifted was one, drama another, history is in there somewhere as well. The gifted thing is fine, but these days there is little room for drama and history in gifted education. The era of STEM.

And so I teach Math. And I find ways to be creative. My fourth graders wrote a play, and it was wonderful. The kind of thing worth getting out of bed for in the morning.

It is time to board my plane.

I stare out the window at a darkening sky and I fly east, as a continent rolls away and a great ocean stretches endlessly before me. I sit in silence. I read, a little. Try to sleep, and fail to do so. The plane is dark as the people around me sleep and dream or pretend to sleep and dream.

I am thinking about a conversation I had with a former student the other night. A former student, a former member of my theatre company. No – I am the former member. We are recreating a scene from a play I wrote 13 years ago. She is giving me counsel. She, like so many others, is wondering where I’ve been. I have barely left my house in three weeks.

I have not been myself lately. Or, more to the point, I have been too much of myself lately.

I am on a train. I am in England. Green, lovely England.

I have been awake for over 24 hours. But I’ve done this many, many times, and I can function well on autopilot. Grab my bag, find an ATM, top up the local SIM-card-with-unlimited-data-in-Ireland-and-the-UK.

It is sunny in Stratford-upon-Avon as my bag rolls along the cobbled high street and I pass the home where William Shakespeare was born. I arrive at my hotel only to find out Google Maps has directed me to one of TWO hotels in Stratford with the name Premier Inn, and so, sweating and becoming more and more exhausted by the moment, I walk another ten minutes and finally arrive.

There is time for a shower and a meal in the hotel restaurant before I collapse in a wide bed with white sheets and soft, plush pillows.

It is nine pm, and I sleep deeply, and I dream.

Tomorrow a woman named Jo Cox will be murdered on the street while visiting her local constituents as an MP of the British government. It will be the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.

I mentioned in my last post (Part One of this trip to London) that I was over to do some “independent study” of theatre. That’s quite true. Since I don’t see myself coming up with the cash and time off work to finish the degree I was working on in 2012, the next best thing is to continue my studies on my own. And since all that was really left was the massive research paper, which I didn’t want to write anyway, I’d say traveling around and going to actual shows is the next best thing.*

So aside from living the quiet life in Terenure, I’m also here to see a massive amount of theatre. Here are three I saw in June, along with a few brief thoughts of my own.

The Drowned Man, by Punchdrunk Theatre

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This was the show I was most excited to see, and the one I was most disappointed with. Punchdrunk stages their shows in massive spaces like old hotels and abandoned warehouses, and transforms them into interactive worlds where the audience and performers share the same space. All audience members are masked at the start and then set loose to wander through multiple floors of an imagined Hollywood film studio in the mid-20th Century. Few words are spoken, and most of the action is done via dance and mime. You are encouraged to wander freely through the space, creating your own version of the show, which will be different than everyone else’s version. Some audience members attend multiple stagings, searching for new scenes and clues, dissecting everything on Tumblr, desperately trying to figure out what it all means.

But, as many a rabid fan of shows like Lost or Twin Peaks (which The Drowned Man owes a lot to) can admit to, obsessing about the forest oftentimes means missing out on the trees right in front of you. I had no idea what the show was supposed to be about**, and instead just enjoyed the intricate set design, the expert choreography, and the overall spooky mood of the show. There’s something interesting about the audience members wearing masks, and how the anonymity allows you to, in a sense, become part of the show. My own movements became a bit more smooth and sinister as I moved from room to room, stumbling upon a scene in media res, or surprising a couple of audience members rifling through desk drawers, searching for those ever-elusive clues.

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In the end, though, a little of that type of show goes a long way. After a while you want some Story to suddenly step in amidst all the artful clutter and creepy straw men. The same basic conflict was repeated over and over again, and I grew bored watching couples flirt, fight, and murder each other.

King Lear at The National Theatre. Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Mendes

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Now this was more like it.

There’s a reason these 400-year old plays by Shakespeare are still being performed in the West End, on Broadway, in parks and schools and studied in classrooms around the world: the man knew how to write a good story.

Lear was directed by Sam Mendes. You might know him as the guy who directed American Beauty, and Skyfall, but he’s got a rather extensive theatre background as well. This was at the National Theatre, the one with the statue of Laurence Olivier out front, so you walk in with certain…expectations. And boy were they met. I’m fairly new to Lear, having never been assigned it in school or seen it performed live before, or even on film. The closest I came was my old gig as Colin Firth’s stand-in for A Thousand Acres, a forgotten film based on Jane Smiley’s novel (which is based on Lear the stage play) about a farmer who divides up his land amongst his three daughters.

In the original, though, Lear is an English king who divides up his kingdom amongst his three daughters, and then everything falls apart. Lear quickly succumbs to dementia and madness, is cast out, and by the end of the play most everyone is dead. Typical Shakespearean tragedy.

There’s lots I could say about the show, but I figure most of my readers started to fast-forward once I busted out the phrase “in media res”, so i’ll wrap this up and just say I thought it was great, and Simon Russell Beale, as Lear, was heartbreaking. As someone who has seen a grandparent suffer and die from Alzheimer’s, I can say very truthfully that he got it. 

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Julius Caesar at Shakespeare’s Globe, Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of The Globe.

Later that night Kevin and I attended the third show we had booked, a Renaissance-staged production of Julius Caesar at the reconstructed Globe Theatre. I could probably write an entire post just on The Globe, and maybe I will someday, because I need to give a proper telling to the brief hello I was able to give Mark Rylance that night. Chills and butterflies, people.

Anyway, what the Globe does best is show how well Shakespeare’s plays work when presented in their original setting. There are no lighting tricks, no real scenery to speak of, just a bare stage where the actors make the words come to life. It’s all you need with him. Story is everything.

Not much needs to be said about this one. Most people know the plot, and I’ve directed it in the past, so part of the fun was seeing how the pros do it, compared to my own (former) youthful company of players. We didn’t have actual seats, but went the cheap route and bought groundlings tickets and stood stock-still the entire time. The air gets rather close inside that wooden O, and a few people had to leave because they were about to faint. One guy fell right to the ground right next to me, but that might have been because of the “blood” in the play.

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There’s Kevin! Actual proof that he and I were in London together.

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I have more to say about this remarkable place, and more about the London trip in general, so I’ll write more tomorrow. I’m heading back to London next week to see three more shows, including Antony and Cleopatra back at The Globe.

This time I’m sitting down, though.

 

*I bring this topic up, partly because I wonder how many people look at my time over here in 2012 as a sort-of failure. “Ah, he ran out of money and didn’t finish the degree. Poor, poor Brian.” It’s hard to control the narrative of your life, but I’ll tell you, it was the smartest move I could have made. I avoided a LOT in student loans and got the credits I needed for a theatre endorsement (which is all I really wanted or needed.) I had a lot of pining away for more time over here, though, and that’s why this summer has been so enjoyable. I’m filling up the cup nicely.

**I mean…I do, but I won’t bore you with all of my theoretical thoughts on a show no one else saw.

 

To the Elephant!

October 24, 2013 — Leave a comment
Shakespeare in the Park

Sitting in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens, watching The Tempest with a few friends.

 

It’s fall play season for most high schools, and tonight Oswego East debut’s She Stoops to Conquer, while next week OHS will put on You Can’t Take It with You. I saw the latter done by OHS way back in ’95, but I’ve never seen the former done around here, so fair play to OEHS for choosing something reasonably obscure. Both plays will be featuring many performers that were part of my old acting company, and hopefully I’ll make it to both of them to say hello and show some support. This time of year is always tricky, though, because oftentimes my sister and her family come up for Mom’s birthday. And… it’s harder than one might think to see some of your old gang in plays that aren’t your own. Difficult to explain, but it’s just how it is.

Most likely each group has had a great experience working on their shows, although the last week or so of rehearsals are always very stressful, when everyone wants to quit the show and they’re all sick of each other (and the director), but then the curtain goes up and the show goes on and they take their curtain call under the lights and after the show they scream and hug and get flowers and then that show becomes The Greatest Show They Ever Did. Until the next one, which will then most likely become The New Greatest Show They Ever Did.

I am not directing anything at the moment. I seem to be in a state of semi-retirement from directing theatre, but it’s only temporary. We’ll get into that another time.

Last Friday I wore my show shirt from the last play I did with Limelight, and the kids asked, “What’s ‘To the Elephant! mean?” As you can see above and below, it’s emblazoned onto the front of the shirt for Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare comedy I directed in the summer of 2011 about love, mistaken identity, and the dangers of pomposity. One of the characters, Malvolio, is taken down by a Fool and a couple of drunks for his tendency to chastise others and flaunt his intellect and virtuousness. (Watch The Colbert Report tonight and see Stephen Fry talk about playing Malvolio on Broadway, in the same production I saw eleven years ago in London. Probably my best theatrical experience ever. I’ll tell that story another time as well.)

Anyway, the shirt! The cast and I were trying to decide what to put on the shirt, and that summer most shows were going with famous quotes from the play. With Shakespeare, and theatre in general,  it can be real easy to get real pretentious, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that once or twice in my career. We debated various lines from the play, such as “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” It’s a good line, but it wasn’t my style. Instead, I gravitated towards this exchange:

Sebastian: I’ll be your purse-bearer and leave you for an hour.

Antonio: To the Elephant.

Sebastian: I do remember. 

That’s it. It’s just two people talking about where they’re going to meet up, at a pub called The Elephant. I found it kind of ridiculous, and so I decided to put it on the shirt.

What it really was, though, was my farewell message to my company. “To the Elephant!” had become a rallying cry for me, said at the end of rehearsals or before a performance, and it summed up my state of mind at that time. To the Elephant: to new places, to new adventures, and to new ways of thinking. Don’t sit around and do the same thing for the rest of your life, and for pete’s sake, don’t take yourself too seriously. Get out there and see what that big ole goofy world has waiting for you.

 

 

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Ian and I (sort of) in Prague.

Tuesday

September 26, 2012 — Leave a comment

Like Monday, I woke around 8 am and made coffee in a cheap coffee maker I bought at Tescos for 12 Euro. It doesn’t keep the coffee very hot, so I drink it quickly in my mug before it gets cold. The rain continued to come down steadily; I don’t think it had stopped since Monday.

Tuesdays are devoted to Text Analysis and Performance. Currently we’re working with Frank McGuinness on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Identifying who drives the story, is it a comedy or a tragedy, how would we stage it, etc. It’s just myself and one other woman in the class (who also does youth theatre), so we get a lot of one-on-one instruction, and it’s pretty great. Frank suffers no fools, so you have to be on your game in that class.

After class finished at noon my classmate and I headed into town to see a show called The Boys of Foley Street. (By the way, heading “into town” means heading into the Dublin city centre. Back in the states I suppose we say “going downtown” instead.) The show was a site-specific show; that means that everything took place in an “actual” location. There were only four people in the audience per performance, and you went from alley to car to dingy apartment and experienced a rather uncomfortable story about inner-city poverty, drugs, and violence. (And that’s all we need to say about that, former students. Stay in school and make good choices, right?!)

After the show we grabbed a bus down to the main University College Dublin campus at Belfield to hold auditions for our fall semester director projects. I have to be evaluated on two projects: one where the professors watch me rehearse a couple of scenes, and another where they view a finished project. I’ve been assigned two “classic” pieces, and I’m not exactly happy about the choices, but ahh well, “Theirs not to reason why” and all that…

We had a nice turnout and moved through about twenty people rather quickly, doing some improv exercises and cold reads from Chekhov. I would have liked to have had more time with the actors, maybe run a callback session, but I was just working with what I was given. It’s all been pretty confusing and hazy, and half the time I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing with a particular project or assignment.

And that’s probably the strangest thing about being a full-time student: the realization that I’m not in charge of the content or the process anymore. As a teacher and a director, I always ran the show, but now I’m back to just doing what’s assigned to me.

And to be honest? I kind of hate it.

The washing machine is IN the kitchen!

Procrastinating

August 28, 2012 — 4 Comments

The view from my window yesterday

Here’s a little secret:  I’m not a very good student.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I’m smart enough, and I know how to write, and I can think at a reasonably deep level when I need to. But at the same time, I tend to get distracted easily, and I enjoy learning about what I happen to be in the mood to learn about, as opposed to what’s been assigned to me. During my freshman year of college I was supposed to be studying genetics and geology and Othello, but I was more interested in absorbing as many classic films as I could get my hands on.

I’m supposed to be reading a large stack of plays right now, before school starts properly, and I am…trust me. I just don’t burn through them like I should. I’ll read one, and then think about it for a while before moving on to the next one. I should have read more of The Merchant of Venice today, but instead I took walks and did some food shopping and organized my home a bit.

Oh, and I watched a few episodes of The Simpsons. From 5:00 – 8:00 pm you can catch, like, five episodes, easily.

During my time in youth theatre, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of great people. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to list all of them, but I imagine they’ll get brought up from time to time on here. Although I don’t plan on having this thing be just a bunch of “remember when” stories. No point in continually looking back to what’s already done and over with. Time marches on, life goes forward and all that. But you put the years in, and you wind up meeting some remarkable people.

I’m thinking of a couple of guys who have had some good fortune come their way lately. Kevin is a young guy I worked with on quite a few shows over the years, and last week he found a full-time job teaching history and running the drama program where I graduated high school. (It’s also where I got my start directing youth theatre as well, but I’ll save that tale for another time.) His first show will be one we did together back in 2005.

 

Adrian only appeared in one play I directed (he played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but he was involved with Limelight for other shows, including his fantastic work as Music Director/Choreographer for Lumberjacks: The Musical! (Limelight’s first all-original musical to come from a casual joke made about an overflow of flannel shirts in the costume room.)

Anyway, Adrian was just nominated for a Jeff award for his performance in “tick…tick…Boom!” earlier this year. It’s a big deal, but honestly, if I know him, he’s more excited about the fact that he’s going to become a father for the first time later this year.

And that’s just what’s happening this week. There are others who are also doing great things out there, but this post has enough links and references for now. But Amanda and Tiffany and Anthony and Kris and Leslie and many, many others amaze me every day. ‘Nuff said.

Did I have much to do with their successes? Not really. (Definitely not Adrian. He came in already far ahead of anything I could teach him.) Hopefully I provided a place for them to be a little creative, to try something different, for one show or for many.

Even with this degree I’m about to start, I don’t expect to have a future that involves Jeff nominations or joining Equity. I’m a teacher. I’m good at it. If anything, I’m hoping to translate this into something where I can teach drama on a more full-time basis. I spent too many years in theatre while also trying to teach full-time. That wore me out.

So we’ll see where life takes me. Time is short, though, and sometimes I forget that I’m not a young guy in his twenties anymore. Right now, I have a big stack of books I have to read, and I should probably get working on that. But I was thinking about those two guys today, and I’m very proud of their successes, and what’s coming for the both of them.

 

(It’s a BIG stack.)

Knowing the Ropes

August 15, 2012 — 12 Comments

The first time Limelight tackled Shakespeare was in 2001. I ran a one-week workshop where we took The Tempest and cut it down into a faster, easier show for young actors to perform. I then turned it over to another director while I busied myself with getting The Hobbit ready for its debut.

The kids that were a part of that show always liked to laugh about how in the opening scene, during the “shipwreck,” they had to pretend to be working the ropes for the sails, shouting and pulling and grabbing at nothing. It was always told as part of the, “look how silly and low-budget our early shows were” conversations that would pop up from time to time.

Last Saturday I caught an open-air production of The Tempest in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin. And during their version of the opening scene, they didn’t bother using actual “ropes” either. Just some guys yelling and a few simple set pieces to suggest a ship’s prow and the waves crashing over them.

It was very reassuring to see, actually. I’m over here to dig deeper into my theatrical knowledge, which has been an exciting and terrifying experience so far. I like knowing that even in a well-publicized production in Dublin, Ireland, they still have guys grasping at nothing. It reminds me that I might actually be able to do this thing.