Saturday, June 14, 2014

Shakespeare's Audience (book)

A couple months ago I met with a professor of mine, it was the first time in over twenty years we had been in each other’s company. He looks the same, though he was much younger than I am now when he was my director, theater history professor, and curriculum advisor. His hair was thin then, and it is the same now, whereas mine is just gone.

Dr. William Faricy Condee is today Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University. During my time as an undergraduate I spent sophomore year in his theater history class (for which I read absolutely nothing) and I took a course of his on theater architecture. I also like to brag that I am the only person at O.U. Ever to be directed by the good Doctor twice, as a sophomore in The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and as a fifth-year in the world premiere of The Hanged Angels by W.R. Smiddie.

Condee's expertise is in theater space. He has written two books, Coal and Culture: The Opera House in Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2005) and Theatrical Space: A Guide for Directors and Designers (Scarecrow Press, 1995) in addition to numerous articles on the subject.

The architecture course I took was a summer course, so I and a classmate were the only actors in attendance, with a dozen or so “others” who were complete to fulfill liberals arts credits. Condee impressed we two to make a few points abut the relative importance of space. He chose a scene from a translation of the original Medea, and the "Gentlemen Caller" scene from The Glass Menagerie, and asked us to perform each in a small, windowless office in the basement of the T-Com Building, and by the light of a candle. The Tennessee Williams piece played quite well, but we were never loud enough the suit the Doctor for Euripides.

Then we took the class to Peden Stadium and we stood at the fifty-yard line and performed both scenes again.

One way to look at is is, you have to consider the space when choosing which production to mount. But the more basic observation, though not obvious to me at first, is that these plays were written for their intended spaces. Nobody wrote intimate plays in Ancient Greece (that we know of) because they were producing work for the “theatron”.

Currently I am tossing ideas around my head for a new play about The Globe playhouse, the theater for which Shakespeare wrote his plays. This is why I finally, at long last, got in touch with my mentor. That’s a lesson, kids. Stay in touch with your mentors.

On the date in question, last April, Condee had an hour to spare and I had a lot of really, uh, super questions prepared … like, what effect did the space have on Shakespeare’s work?

He said, “I have no idea.”

That was like, the best question I had.

However, the hour passed quickly, as I told stories from the past twenty years, to kind of justify my existence, and he gave me a bibliography. He strongly recommended Architecture, Actor and Audience (1993) by Ian Mackintosh, and also Shakespeare’s Audience (1941) by Alfred Harbage, among others. It was this second that I went through rather swiftly, for though it is an academic investigation into the demographics of the audience for the Globe theater, it is charmingly written, easy for the layman, full of facts but also colorful details.

I did begin the Mackintosh book, and now intend to finish it. The view from the Globe “tiring house” and stage is very different from that of its audience.
“Their builders succeeded in getting as many people as close as possible to the actor without jeopardizing the actor’s primary task of communicating with every spectator, however distant.” - Mackintosh, p. 10
Such was the feeling I had a couple weeks back, standing on the stage of the Hanna Theatre, upon the thrust stage. I was leading a small tour through the all the Playhouse Square theaters, and as is my wont, began in the massive 3,200-seat State Theatre and concluded in the intimate 550-seat Hanna.

Looking out, from the edge of the platform thrust (the only such professional stage in Cleveland) I had the sensation that the balcony was leaning towards me, a feeling at once emboldening and vertiginous.
Planted upon this scaffold,
A swaying sea of ragged heads at my feet,
I feel twenty hands high.
The eyes of merchants without number,
Men of means within the galleries,
So close that I could slap the wig off of a lord.
Slap it right off. Not only with my words --


My words.


-- But with my mitts. That close.

David Hansen
© 2014
Early estimates (dating from early last century) of the size of that crowd were based on modern fire codes or a basis of contemporary seating, one which includes seats. Those scholars suggested the Globe held around 500 as well. Since that time, we take into account the fact that those in the pit stood, fire codes did not exist, and that even the galleries were packed. A contemporary account suggest a number as high as 3,000 but was probably two-thirds or half that. That is still an awful lot of people in an intimate space.

One of the things I truly enjoyed about Harbage’s book is that it dispels certain points of conventional wisdom, and in doing so honors the Elizabethan people, and the reputation of Shakespeare himself.

When speaking of Shakespeare’s audience, the opinions of members of the clergy are often quoted, those who despair at the den of sin and vice represented by the theater. In this case, they are speaking specifically of the building itself, and not the content of the work.

Harbage’s careful examination of contemporary accounts provides no indication that more crimes took place in a public theater than anywhere else. If anything, it indicates the opposite. He could also find no indication that those who publicly warned against the attendance at the theater actually ever went there themselves.

Of the private theaters, they said nothing. When the working class were priced out of attendance, and only those who could afford could attend, apparently everything was copacetic within the hall. But Shakespeare did not write for those houses, he wrote for the Globe. And Shakespeare was and is the more popular playwright.

As Harbage puts it, “The difference between Shakespeare and (John) Fletcher is, in some inverse fashion, the difference between a penny and sixpence.”

The documentable fact is that Shakespeare was popular in his own time, and very popular. The conclusion based on the assumption that those in the higher (more expensive) galleries were erudite and intelligent and those in the pit a mob of cat-calling thugs is that that Shakespeare wrote part of his play for one class, and part for another.

But that would make as little sense then as it would today. The so-called “groundlings” were intelligent, they were trained professionals, craftsmen and apprentices, and most likely regular theatergoers. Listening to plays was something they (unlike you) did very often. They were self-trained in hearing, in listening and appreciating.

William Shakespeare was successful because he wrote everything he wrote for everyone.

To be continued.

"Shakespeare's Audience" by Alfred Harbage
Columbia University Press, 1941

"Architecture, Actor and Audience" by Ian Mackintosh
Routledge, 1993

Friday, June 6, 2014

Creative Workforce Fellowship

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture is reviewing the role of individual artist funding as it relates to its mission. CAC’s board will discuss this topic at its September board meeting. There will be no Creative Workforce Fellowship application deadline until Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has completed its review.                                 - Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, June 6, 2014
 The Creative Workforce Fellowship has been suspended.

As an honored recipient of a fellowship in 2010, I would like to make clear my deep appreciation for the opportunity this award provided me in pursuit of my work.

The award means money, to be sure, which means freedom. Freedom to take time from my regular work (for which I must thank my employer, Great Lakes Theater) to engage in research and travel, which resulted in several new works.

New writing materials (which I still have and use and care for) continue to facilitate my work, four years on. 

I had the opportunity to experience more plays, from immersive house performances to Broadway productions of award-winning works and everything in-between.

Most, most importantly, however, was how this fellowship changed the way I think as a professional artist, living and working in this region. Prior to my CPAC fellowship, I was fortunate to produce one work a year, or every two years. 

Since 2010 I have had five plays produced, two solo performances remounted, one play published, one production in New York City, another in California, one of my scripts has been produced in high schools across America, another in England, and also a fully-realized workshop of a sprawling, large-cast play I had always hoped to create, and will someday beat into submission.  And the work continues.

All this, in addition to having joined the Dramatists Guild of America, increasing my production with the Cleveland Play House Playwrights' Unit, participating in the development of a Broadway-bound play script (as an actor) and all the several shorter works I have provided to companies across Greater Cleveland.

I used to say I write plays. Now I am a playwright.

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture has a very important job ahead of them, in educating the voters of Cuyahoga County how an unqualified success their organization has been. No one I know questions how fortunate our region has been for this remarkable funding. We are the envy of arts communities around the nation.

An important part of that success, however, has been the individual funding provided through the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. A shortlist of fellowship recipients include nationally recognized artists as playwright Eric Coble, fashion designer Valerie Mayen and dancer David Shimotakahara. (Complete list available here.) Their work has been fostered through this program, also, to the benefit of our larger community.

I will make sure the CAC board has heard my opinion prior to their September board meeting. Please be sure they hear yours as well.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Breaking Point (1989)

This entry is adapted from a piece originally composed in Spring, 2008. The source material for the work that is the subject of this piece was a comic strip I created for The (Ohio University) Post for two quarters in early 1988.

In spring 1988 (before the strip concluded) Scott K. asked for material to use in his radio production class. I adapted the original short story for which I created a character named "Kael" -- something I wrote freshman year -- into a brief script for his radio production class.

The story involved Kael and a mysterious woman named Carolyn with whom he was "psychically linked." Yes, very romantic. I wrote a paper on astral projection senior year in high school and used a lot of the business I picked up during interviews as the basis for my nonsense.

Scott produced the piece which featured himself, Ben D., Monique W., Andrea W. and myself. Kael was played by a friend of Scott's whose name I forget, but I remember his face (which you cannot see in this picture) because he was the drummer in The Humbert Humberts in Springfest series of strips.

Photo: Does the pose look familiar? See below.

As my junior year progressed, I became increasingly obsessed with my comic, which was cancelled without explanation at the end of the school year. I decided to propose a studio production of an adaptation of the Carolyn story, crossed with the Bob/Barbara series for Spring quarter, 1989. So, in addition to performing on main stage in a small role in Romeo & Juliet and a core acting requirement of a Shaw one-act with an MFA director, I was offering to not only write, but direct my first play at O.U.

The faculty actually called me in for a meeting - just me and all of my professors and advisers, where they told me they didn't think I could manage this. I told them I could. Somehow I convinced them. I do not know how.

Having almost suffered a nervous breakdown in fall 1988, this turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to my psyche. I had little sleep, but I spent all my time dedicated to these three productions (skipping Elvis Costello at Mem Aud!!!) learning how to take effective, ten-minute naps, and just having absolutely no social life whatsoever. It kept me out of the apartment, in which the atmosphere was entirely toxic at this point, and that was a good thing, too.

My friends were sick of the strip. When the play was accepted into the spring playwrights' festival, one said, "Good, good. And then will you drop it?"

Did I deserve that? Of course I did.

Promo photo by Sal, which was duplicated on stage for pre-show (see below.)

The play takes place during the same period as the strip - spring 1988. I even incorporated some text from the practice strips I did in 1987 as a flashback. Our cast consisted of fellow school of theater people like David L. as Simon, Nancy F. as Cheryl, and Jill C. as Barbra and Carolyn. That's right, one woman played both love interests because all women are the same woman ... except Cheryl, who is just a doormat. This was something I became embarrassingly aware of during this process, my inability to write women.

We also met some non-theater majors who always wanted to try acting, like Jon M. as Wilson (a big, TALL, imposing Wilson) and the unbelievably awesome Ron C. as Bob. Scott appeared as Roger, which was fabulous because he not only did the best impression of himself, but he also played guitar between scenes in "The Tavern" with drummer Keith H., who we all met through the radio program Sunday Progressions on WXTQ.

And finally, casting Kael. Originally I had promised to role to a good friend. But I discovered very late in the game that due to his poor studies, he had been banned from performance for the year.

Photo: Final dress, from left: Drummer Keith, Ron heading to front door, Brendan on couch, Jill and Jon at right. Note Keith's Church T-shirt.

Instead, a friend suggested Brendan M., who I had met at School Kids Records. Not an actor, Brendan was quiet and unassuming, and not at all the type I would have imagined as the lascivious twerp from the strip. He was sweet, slinky, and game.

Keith and Brendan met through this production, and shortly afterward formed the band Bingo Smith, for which Brendan played bass.

The most important member of the team was my stage manager, Maiharriese. I'd never had a stage manager before. I didn't know what they could do for you. She took full responsibility for assembling a team of artists to do the tech work, which shocked me because I figured I would be doing all of that because, well, who else would?

I was a junior. In the theater department. I still had no idea how these things worked.

The space was what was used to be called the "Little Theatre" in Kantner Hall, which was a tiny, proscenium stage with a working curtain and fifty seats fixed in position facing the stage. In the early 90s it was remodeled into a proper, fully-flexible black box, much more suited to a professional theater school.

The big question was whether or not anyone would see it. Sure, my fellow theater chums would, and that might be enough. There was no money to be made, these were free performances, open to anyone, it's a school, after all. But few outside our community generally attended these studio productions, if they even knew about them.

Opening night, Sunday, May 14, attracted about half a house. That was good. But the next day, there was a photo in the A-News of Brendan as Kael lying on the floor from an overdose of muscle relaxants. That afternoon, we had to turn people away.

For what was supposed to be our final performance on Tuesday, there were enough people in the courtyard to fill another house. And so we were given permission to announce an additional performance the next afternoon.

None of this suggests the show is any good, just that there was real publicity for it. Even THE POST was caught off-guard, reading in the A-News that a comic strip from their paper had been turned into a play. They sent a photographer for the final performance and I got an interview out of it, after the show had closed, which was a delightful vindication.

In addition to directing, which I was terrible at (pacing was really slow) I did all the graphic designs myself ... stand-ups of the characters, the Peter Gabriel and Cure posters, The Tavern logo, all life-size. I remember working on the floor of the Little Theater, by myself, listening to Oranges & Lemons, Three Feet High and Rising, Disintegration and the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Vanessa's costumes were just perfect in spite of her working against the fact that so many of my characters wore nothing but jeans and white T-shirts. Bob's chino-commando outfit was particularly brilliant, and Ron wore it so well.

By the time it was through, I guess I really was ready to "drop it." And I had made it through the most taxing quarter of my career at O.U. getting As in every course - except R&J for which I got a B+ because I missed one costume call. Or because I am a terrible actor. Who cares, it was twenty-five fucking years ago.

Through Facebook I have managed to reconnect with many of the original company members.

Brendan died of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1997.