Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Director's Nightmare

Annie, Reg & Sarah.
(Erin Cameron, Scott Kern & Becky Carson)

The very first time I directed a show was senior year in high school, Living Together by Alan Ayckbourn. There were three performances on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in early 1986. Opening night I sat in the middle of the house. There was a point during the beginning of the second act where Norman (Steve Pack) was splayed out on the floor, intoxicated, and someone could not remember their line.

I do not know who it was, and even if I did I would not rat them out here. But for a long, awkward moment two or three actors stood over him, looking down, none of them saying anything. My heart was beating in my throat, and the next line was on my lips. I had never been in this experience before, and I did not know what to do. I could have blurted out the line myself, "prompting" them, but I thought that would suck terribly, if I did that. So I didn't. Someone jumped to the next cue, the scene continued. That horrible moment was over, and there was not another like it during the entire run.

It is odd to think that my company for Henry VIII last performed that show a week and a half ago, not to perform it again until this Saturday night in Mentor. The other night I had a dream that this next performance was actually in a theater (not outdoors) and probably my high school stage. Just as the Queen's Vision was to begin, one of the Cleve Shakes company members - not an actual company member, I have no idea who she was supposed to be - wearing a tank top, cut-offs and flip-flops ran out onto the stage with a styrofoam cafeteria tray.

It was a segmented cafeteria tray, but not an ordinary cafeteria tray, this one was about the width of a picnic table. It had on it a grilled sandwich, about the size of a small child, and some enormous kettle chips. This intruding stagehand began to roll the sandwich in the chips. Then she got on the tray and rolled around on the tray herself.

I have no idea what the symbolism is here, all I can tell you is that she was ruining my show.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

As You Like It: Opening Weekend


Friday night, opening night of Henry VIII, marked the first moment since the beginning of 2012 that I have been without a production. From Styles to Autumn to Henry VIII I have been in-process; revising, acting, memorizing, editing, directing, always thinking, obsessing. Fortunately, absolutely none of it was onerous. Three just fabulous productions for me, each in their own way. I could not have known this at New Year's, but I did hope, and I am satisfied.

Having nights free doesn't mean actually having them free, it means working with the wife in negotiating everything she has been doing almost entirely on her own. Right now that means swimming lessons, music lessons, baseball and whatever else populates the world of our children.

During baseball practice last night I abandoned my charge and headed over to Notre Dame College to see how tech week for As You Like It is proceeding. It was like the bizarro world, most (all but two) of my cast is in AYLI. The costumes are as good as those for Henry -- we have the same designer -- but a very different setting. The show opens tomorrow at 7 PM, and I am really looking forward to seeing it. Word is it clocks in at around an hour forty, which is amazing, I've never seen As You Like It performed with such speed.

Next to Hamlet, I believe I have seen As You Like It more than any other Shakespeare play. That is not because of any affection for the play on my part, just because it is performed so damn often. At Central Park with Elizabeth McGovern (1992), Stan Hywet (1993), Great Lakes Theater (1996), Cleveland Public Theatre (1998), Great Lakes Theater (2005) and also the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival ten years ago in 2002.

At that time, I was emerging from a year of mourning, and looking forward to "coming out" as an actor again. I hadn't performed in a play since Bad Epitaph's Cloud 9, two years earlier. I thought I would make an excellent Jacques. However, the guest director packed his cast with his students from the CWRU grad program. The role I wanted went to Rich Sommer.

Harry Crane:
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part.

Ah well. Sorry you missed that. One thing that last CSF production has in common with this year's is Bobby Williams, reprising the role of Amiens, the balladeer, and you do not want to miss that. Director Dana Hart calls AYLI "Shakespeare's Musical" and it does have a great deal of songs, and there will also be dancing! I love good dancing in shows, non-dance shows, it just makes me smile.

I noted in an earlier post how Sarah was choreographing happy, festive dances for this show on the same evenings she was creating Katherine's vision for Henry. However, I did want to state for the record that I was careless and unintentionally allowed audiences -- and critics -- to think she also put together the breakdancing. Sarah did not choreograph the breakdancing. Bill, Steven and Brian made that shit up.

Earlier I mentioned Hamlet, and in discussions with others this week I was not the only one to compare the role of Rosalind to that of Hamlet. They each carry the show on their backs. They also must successfully traverse a wide range of emotions, and deliver pithy, witty, heartfelt monologues and soliloquys. They both lecture others. A lot. Rosalind and Hamlet are know-it-alls. Shakespeare makes us care about their fates, but it takes a rock star performer to carry that performance, and the entire show depends upon them.

"How tastes it? Is it bitter?"
Old Young Lady in "Henry VIII"

Fortunately, Dana has Valerie C. Kilmer, an outstanding young actress in that pivotal role. One of the things I have really enjoyed about this repertory process was how Dana and I negotiated and shared our casts, and as a result were able to offer actors who may not have been interested in schlepping scenery and putting up tents all summer in exchange for a lead role, a sizeable role in one show, and a supporting role in the other. Lucky me, I had the opportunity to offer the part of "Old Lady" to Valerie on the same day she was offered the part of Rosalind.

Now, get me drunk and ask me what I think of the character Touchstone.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Talespinner Children's Theatre

One year ago, during the Cleveland Public Theatre annual artists' meeting, artistic director Raymond Bobgan raised a very good question: What does the Cleveland theater community not already have, that it might benefit from? There were many interesting answers. Somebody suggested a children's theater.

Ali Garrigan was not the person who made that suggestion. However, she was the person who not only could not stop thinking about it, but who resolved virtually that moment to make it a reality.

She wasn't "stealing" any ideas from CPT, the whole point of a professional children's theater is exactly that, to be a theater whose sole mission is to produce works for the entertainment of a child audience, and CPT was not going to become that.

In 2007 when visiting my brother and his wife in the Twin Cities, they took us to the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis, where we saw an adaptation of Sally Wittman's A Special Trade. It was an eye-opening experience; the theater is in a wing of the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, a charming, intimate space with a variety of seats that range from floor cushions, which get taller and taller as they move back row after row. "Big people" are instructed to sit in the back, where their charges can see them, but you know, out of the way. The performance is for the children.

The other major Ohio cities have them -- The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati, the Columbus Children's Theatre. Well, for the past twelve months, Ali has been working tirelessly to make this happen, and she has had enough experience working with theater start-ups (most of them mine) to know the right way to go about it, establishing an identity, a mission, raising funds, going non-profit and finding a permanent home first, before even opening a show.

Talespinner Children's Theatre officially opened this weekend, their inaugural production an original adaptation of the Bantu fable The Tale of the Name of the Tree. The family asked what I wanted to do for Father's Day, and that's where I said I wanted to go.

What we shared was remarkable, at once simply-told, and yet packed with energy. Five performers played all of the animals, and though the script was created by local artist Michael Sepesy, each actor (several of whom I am familiar with) seemed to have had the character written especially for them, as each animal tapped into some special talent uniquely their own.

The space is right downtown, off the Shoreway, in the Reinberger Auditorium in the West Side Ecumenical Ministry building at 52nd and Detroit. Even the space is special, at once appearing as a traditional, three-sided space, and yet with dimensions that make it feel intimate, close, homey, and with excellent sight lines for small people. How do I explain it, the action is so close, but not too close, if you follow me. That has a lot to do with the gentle, welcoming touch of the performers, and their director.

The Tale of the Name of the Tree continues Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM, with 7 PM evening performances on Fridays and Saturdays through July 8. If you have small children, you must go, it's absolutely delightful.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Henry VIII: First Dress

We moved into the Notre Dame space last night, our first time working through the show with costumes. The acting company is also the backstage crew. Responsibilities include setting up the tiring house tents, which serve as "offstage" space, setting props and costumes, running cable for sound and lights (should need arise for lights, which there won't) and the set. There is no set.


Costumes are gorgeous. Heather Brown has done a spectacular job with what I assume is a very challenging task ... if the costume design is contemporary, and the scene is the halls of power, then that requires a lot of men in suits, who must look good and monied, not rumpled or cheap. In addition, they must be stylish, with some flair, because audiences want to feel they are seeing something special, and not the same thing they just saw back at work. This is the theater, after all!

There will also be surprises.

Stunningly, our run-through last night was shorter than the second run-through on Sunday. Taking Monday off appears to have paid off. The entire show remains safely under 90 minutes.

Tips for audience members at the Notre Dame site: A well-manicured lawn serves as the audience seating - no seating on the bricks or sidewalk. Bring your own chair, or a blanket. If you plan to bring a blanket or otherwise be sitting close to the ground, find a spot close to the pavement or some jackass will plant a chair right in front of you at 6:58 PM. Count on it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Henry VIII: Double Run-Through

On witnessing the 1996 RSC production of Henry VIII ...

"It makes you realize how little things have changed. When one is born into a certain position you have people advising you all the time, whispering in your ear. It's only when you get to my age that you begin to work out who's telling you the truth." - Charles, Prince of Wales

This morning the company of Henry VIII performed a double run-through. We planned to run it out of doors, but the neighbors finally got the CHPD to order us to no longer rehearse out of doors, at all. We had violated the 9 PM "noise curfew" ordinance two weeks ago, which brought the original complaint. For last night's dance call we moved indoors at 8:58 PM, but honestly I do not blame those living in the larger homes along Euclid Heights Blvd. if one more rotation of Portishead's Hunter had them scrambling for the Seconal.

Just as well we were in the auditorium today, with highs in the upper 80s. I am concerned about what kind of weather the company may face this summer. Tomorrow is "dry tech" or more to the point, a night off for the actors while I get a tour of the Notre Dame space.  In that way, the company will have had at least one night off before they open -- and then immediately resume dress rehearsals, this time for As You Like It.

It is supposed to rain tomorrow night, and Tuesday, but then clear up for the weekend. What can I do about it, anyway, I am a director, I'm not God. Wait, that's a line from something, right?

We are in a fine place, considering. The show is complete, and in good working order, leaving only the addition of costumes. Back in April I condemned this script as "terribly complex and stupifyingly boring." While I will admit it is lacking in any fight scenes, this production more than makes up for it with a song and a dance, passion, betrayal, loss and remorse, anger, humor, and the most annoying hipster you will ever meet. It is tight and brisk and just as long as it needs to be, and not a moment longer.

How has this worked out so well? Because I am OCD, or so I have been described, I don't know. And because I have sought the not just learn from past mistakes, which is easy, but not to repeat them, which is much, much harder. Unlike my previous efforts at directing Shakespeare (and Bromley) I did not "make an effort" to keep the show under 90 minutes, I edited the script so that it would be longer than 90 minutes.

I want seamless action and an uncluttered stage. There is no furniture. Okay, there is one piece of furniture - but I insist it does not represent a "set" It is a prop.

And there is truth in that old saw, 99% of directing is good casting. When you are putting together a repertory, as we have, it affords the possibility of offering meaty roles to great actors in one show, and then asking them to do a walk-on in the other show. For example, I had the great fortune to nick Rosalind and Phoebe from AYLI to play a set of put-upon interns in Henry VIII. I am very happy with the entire company.

It's taken fifteen years for me to finally direct a production for CSF, which is odd when you think of it, because practically everyone else has. At least once. Usually only once. But at least I have taken that time to scrutinize what CleveShakes is, what its limitations are and its strengths, and tried to use them to my best advantage.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Henry VIII: The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The Queen's Vision (rehearsal - complete)

I am not the first to suggest Henry VIII had a seriously fucked-up mid-life crisis.

Henry Tudor was 41 when he decided to divorce his wife of almost 24 years, Catherine of Aragon. In order to facilitate this separation, he sought to separate his entire kingdom from the Catholic Church. His father, Henry VII brought the “War of the Roses” to a conclusion, ending a century of British civil conflict. Desiring a fresh young wife, Henry VIII made a decision which again pitted brother against brother in prolonged, violent hositilites.

His marriage to Anne Boleyn (not his divorce, which in the eyes of the Church did not actually happen) compelled Pope Clement VII to excommunicate the King. Their first child was a girl, Elizabeth. The second, a boy, was stillborn. This was not working out as Henry had planned. A few weeks prior to their third anniversary, Anne was convicted of trumped up charges including adultery, incest and treason. She was beheaded, but not before their marriage was annulled.

As Anne had been one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, and Jane Seymour had been one of Anne’s.  All these pretty ladies-in-waiting in the wings. Ten days after Anne’s death, Jane and the King were married. Katherine had been a princess, Anne the daugher of a Lord. Jane was the daughter of a lowly Knight, but she did what no one else could, she gave birth to a living male child, a year after the marriage. Twelve days later, she died. As might be expected, Henry loved her most, the nly of his wives to receive a proper Queen’s burial, and when he finally died, he was buried next to her.
That’s a tip, ladies. Give the man what he wants. And then die.
Anne of Cleves was German Princess. Legend has it she was ugly, but lets be honest, every white person in the 16th Century was pretty disgusting. Whatever the case was, she came to England, and shortly thereafter was offered an annullment with generous monetary benefits she was only too willing to agree to. She was 25, he was 49. Do the math, then tell me things worked out so well for her because she was ugly. She and the King remained on very friendly terms, outliving all of his wives.
Catherine Howard. They were married a year and a half, she was accused of adultery, he had he head cut off.
When Henry VIII married Catherine Parr, he was 52 years old. She herself was in her 30s, widowed twice already, and the King had enough faith in her to bestow upon her the kind of responsibility he once gave to Catherine of Aragon, appointing her Regent when he was abroad, and making condition for her to reign as Queen in case of his death until Edward came of age.
Henry VIII died at the age of 55, horridly obese, Catherine the Last providing serves more along the lines of nurse than baby-maker. His last spoken words were, "Monks! Monks! Monks!" Hilarious! What a dick.

Double run-through rehearsal tomorrow, "Henry VIII" opens Friday.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Henry VIII: Synopsis

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII -or- All Is True


King Henry’s most powerful advisor is Cardinal Wolsey. The Duke of Buckingham, having spoken too loudly of his hatred for the Cardinal, suddenly finds himself imprisoned, and soon after, executed.

For over twenty years, Henry has been married to Katherine, daughter of the King of Spain. She has performed as advisor, ambassador, and even as ruler when he is abroad. Together they have had one child that survived to childhood, the princess Mary.

Katherine persuades the King to repeal a sales tax that Wolsey had recently imposed without the Kings knowledge. Irritated by the Queen’s interference, Wolsey plays upon the King’s anxiety to sire a male heir by suggesting the possibility of an annulment, to be sanctioned by the Pope in Rome.
Wolsey plans to arrange a politically advantageous marriage between Henry and the sister of the King of France, however, one evening the King and some of his men attend a party in disguise, and Henry meets Anne Bullen (sic), one of the Queen’s assistants.

Divorce proceedings commence, confounding the Queen, who defends her fealty to the King. Henry argues that as Katherine had originally been married to his elder brother, now deceased, their marriage has displeased God and left them childless. (See: Leviticus 20:21) The accusation has even been made that Mary may not be his daughter.

Wolsey and his associate Campeius, sent from Rome to oversee the proceedings, visit the Queen to urge her to consent to the divorce. Defeated, she relents.

Wolsey’s grievous error comes when, hearing that Henry desires to marry Anne and not the woman that he has selected, Wolsey sends a message to Rome expressing his opposition to the divorce, which ends up in the King’s hands. Outraged, the King relieves Wolsey of his responsibilities, and names Cranmer, to serve as head of the new Church of England.

Henry marries Anne Bullen, and she is coronated. Katherine falls into an illness, has a vision of beautiful women, and soon after dies. Certain elements conspire to try the protestant Cranmer as a heretic. Henry comes to his defense, ending the cycle of scheming and betrayal which has infected his office.

Queen Anne gives birth to a girl, Elizabeth, and Cranmer foretells this female monarch’s 40-year reign, one which will transform England from a backwater island to the greatest empire ever known.

Monday, June 4, 2012

As You Like It: Choreography

I should write an essay about the grand history of Henry VIII (All Is True) and how our modern adaptation is a legitimate continuation in a grand, historical tradition of political pageantry. And maybe, eventually, I will.

But right now I am sitting the courtyard outside Coventry Elementary watching CSF actors dancing a Virginia Reel to the recording of a song composed and performed by area high school students. This isn’t for Henry VIII. These actors, most of whom are in the company of Henry VIII, have simultaneously been rehearsing As You Like It, which opens the following weekend. Same choreographer as for the Queen’s Vision, only a much happier dance.

So cute!

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, actors are working with director Dana Hart on scenework. The doors are open, the breeze comes through, the sound of music and laughter -- and birds -- from the courtyard floats through. The mood is casual, cheerful. The space is buzzing with activity, focused, professional activity, but cool. These are good reasons to rehearse summer, outdoor theater. Sometimes I forget to notice.