Introducing Anessa Johnson, answering some questions about her first Pigeon Creek production The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

When creating a Shakespeare character, do you start from the “outside” (voice and physicality) or the “inside” (relationships and motivations)? Why?

With any character, I start from the inside. I begin with the script to learn what they say about themselves, what other characters say about them, and how the playwright describes them, and from there I can begin to determine what their motivations are and what is important to them. These factors can tell a lot about the “outside” elements – for example, a bold and confident person usually presents themselves very differently from someone who is quiet and timid. I find once I learn who my character truly is and what their goals are, it’s easier for me to figure out how they might move and sound.

What is your favorite “Original Practice” (audience contact, cross-gendered casting, live music and sound, etc.) and what exactly do you love about it?

I absolutely love the flexibility of roles. Actors are often restricted in terms of roles they can play – you play your gender, in your realistic age range, with few exceptions. In this show, though, we have lots of character doubling, women playing men, people playing dogs, etc. It’s a fantastic way to “flex our acting muscles” and really focus in-depth on our physicality to create differences on-stage.
Also, I’m kind of obsessed with the music. The songs are always so catchy and get stuck in my head for days! They’re an interesting way to get the audience excited, and they’re lots of fun to watch (and to perform)! We’ve got some really awesome songs in this show.

What was the last role you played (for Pigeon Creek or any other company)? If that character and your current character got into a fight, who would win?

The last role I played was Mayzie LaBird in Seussical The Musical, and I can confidently say Lucetta would kick her tail in a physical fight – although I doubt it’d get that far. While she isn’t trained to fight, Lucetta is quite smart and quick-witted, and she’s kind of tough from moving benches for her mistress all the time. Mayzie, on the other hand, only succeeds by manipulating others, and she’s an excellent diva but is absolutely a coward.
If they happened to cross paths, Mayzie would say something bratty, Lucetta would quickly put her in her place, but Mayzie wouldn’t get it and would sing a dramatic song about how amazing she is. Then Lucetta would make a sudden movement, and Mayzie would flit off to find some guy to protect her before there could be any physical altercation. There would be some really awesome rhyming, though!

Kristen Ripley talks about creating multiple characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

When playing a character onstage, it is essential that the actor take time to discover as much as possible about whom the character is.  Character research for me usually begins with the following questions:

  1. Who does the playwright say this character is?
  2. Who does the character herself say she is, through her words or by her actions?
  3. Who do the other characters in the play say about her?

Once I’ve established these basic ideas, I move on to the question that will drive all of my character’s choices onstage: What does this character want?  The answer to this can be very broad at first (love, money, freedom, control, etc.) but then needs to be narrowed to a precise and situation-specific goal.  For example, one of my characters in Two Gents is Panthino, advisor and household manager to Antonio, a wealthy father living in Verona.  What Panthino wants is for Antonio to send his son, Proteus, to Milan where he can be educated, make connections, and gain experience that will help him in the future.

Next, I think about the motivation.  Why does this character want that specific thing?  In this case, there are several options that would make sense.   Perhaps Panthino wants Proteus gone out of jealousy; he wants Antonio to be focused more on managing the household affairs rather than his son. Or it could be because of pride; Panthino serves in the only house among Verona’s wealthy that hasn’t sent their son abroad to be educated, and this is embarrassing to Panthino in conversations between other household managers.   Or is it because having observed Proteus from birth, Panthino genuinely cares about his well-being and is concerned he will miss out on these valuable opportunities?   Any of these is a valid choice, provided it does not contradict any lines or anything else that takes place in the play.  But it is crucial that the actor understands the character’s motivation so that the audience is able to understand it as well.

At this point, I can finally look at individual lines and actions of the character and choose a tactic or action for each of them.  Each of these choices needs to be strong, precise, and a step towards achieving the character’s goal or desire.   In Shakespeare’s plays, the structure of the lines can often help with these decisions.  For example, if a character seems to be listing items, what is the purpose of the list?  Is it to entice another character more and more as each example is laid out before them, or to warn them of the worsening perils of a choice they have made?  Or is it because the first example did not have the desired effect on the other character, and more is needed in order to convince him or her?  Whatever the reason, I need to fully utilize the lines to tell that part of the story.

The final thing I do is to think about the physicality of the character.  What specific physical traits and idiosyncrasies does this character have?  How does he or she move differently from me, and from other characters onstage?  I consider how different types of physicality and movement might affect my character’s chances of achieving his or her goal, and try to make a choice that is unique and that will be interesting to the audience.   One thing I am really enjoying about playing three different characters in 2 Gents is the fact that the physicality of each of them is quite different.  Proper and straight-laced Panthino is very different from the scrappy Outlaw and athletic Eglamour.  Hope you enjoy the show!

Frequent PCSC actor, Kyle D. Westmaas (Hippolyta/Oberon) talks about the differences between working with original practices with PCSC versus other companies

There is an inherent challenge for any theatre artist whenever they approach a production of Shakespeare, and I’m not talking about the language.  At this point, Shakespeare’s productions have been around for over 400 years and have been produced by theatrical artists all over the world and through many different times and genres.  In other words, they’ve all been done before.  So when a new production of one of Shakespeare’s plays comes about, whoever is producing it must answer a question: how are they going to approach it?  What are they going to bring to the table to make the show fresh and accessible?  The answer to this question will make or break the show: stray too far from the original play in an effort of creativity and you may lose is message and intention.  Don’t plan at all and the language and the scope of the play will drown its performers.  So it is that every company that makes the attempt at one of his plays must figure out the question for themselves: how are we going to do Shakespeare?

At this point in time, I have done quite few productions of Shakespeare, all with varying levels of success.  I have done the big budget museum pieces, experimental abstractions, and even small scenes in coffee shops.  A lot of my work, however, has been with Pigeon Creek and original practices, and it is their approach that has most resonated with me and that I have carried with me to whatever production I’m involved with.  What is that approach, you may ask?  To put it as simply as possible: Shakespeare’s approach.  When Shakespeare wrote his plays, he had a very particular expectation for how they were to be staged.  Action motivated through language, audience interaction, universal lighting, thrust staging: all of these were inherent to the words that he put down on page.   Starting with and using this sort of foundation means that whatever idea you put on top of it will not get in the way of the play itself and it’s message: the language will not be lost.  Shows that I’ve been involved with that haven’t been successful have let whatever idea they have for the production get in the way of this foundation, of the language and the intention.  With Pigeon Creek, this doesn’t happen.  While the shows may not have the budget or flash of some, the story and language are one thing that is never lost.  The goal of every show is to make sure Shakespeare’s words and intentions are communicated clearly to the audience, perhaps making it so they hear it truly for the first time.

As I have said; I have been in many productions of Shakespeare.  But what makes Pigeon Creek different, and the reason that I keep on working with them is that I know that whatever else happens, the play will always be the thing.  There will be fun and there will be laughter, all wrapped in a layer of professionalism that can only come from experience, but at the end of the day, the play will always be the thing, and  Shakespeare’s story will be told.

Introducing Steven J. Anderson (Peter Quince/Egeus)! A Midsummer Night’s Deam is Steven’s first production with PCSC.

I’m playing the parts of Egeus and Peter Quince in this production. One of the first things I noticed about Egeus is that he’s very terse. He comes straight to the point and expresses himself directly, with very little rhetorical adornment. Here’s an example:

Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.

Now compare these lines from Twelfth Night:

Be Mercury. Set feathers to thy heels,
And fly like thought from them to me again.

This is far more typical of Shakespeare’s writing style, heavily laden with metaphor, simile, and symbolic thought. This is also what makes Shakespeare challenging to play, and, sometimes, difficult to understand, lots of metaphor and indirect meaning; levels and levels of symbols crammed into very few lines. The actor must consciously and deliberately understand all of this as he performs. I can’t help thinking that by having Egeus express himself in a way that runs so contrary to his own style, Shakespeare is trying to let us know that Egeus is a bit dim, the sort of person whose first approach to solving his problems is always brute force.

Now, on to Peter Quince. What we see Quince and the rest of the mechanicals repeatedly doing is what my acting teacher would have called a miss. We see phonetic errors, missed communication, mistaken assumptions, etc. There is something very satisfying to audiences about a miss when it’s done right. Think of Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau spinning his globe and then trying to lean on it, or almost everything Buster Keaton over did on film.

There’s one more thing I want to say about the mechanicals. One of the most interesting Shakespeare does is put a play within one of his plays. When he does this he tells us a lot about what he thinks about the stage, how acting should be done, what good acting is, what bad acting is. Plainly the mechanicals are not very good actors, but, I think, Shakespeare sort of loves them in spite of themselves. I think he wants us to see that there’s something deeply lovable about these folks just because they’re making on honest effort to present something worthwhile on stage, regardless of how well they succeed.

Introducing Janelle Mahlman (Titania/Theseus)! A Midsummer Night’s Deam is Janelle’s first production with PCSC, so she’s answering round one of our Acting Questions.

1. How do you typically go about preparing a Shakespearean character?

It sounds cliché, and every Shakespearean actor will tell you this, but that is because it is true, I start with the text. When preparing any role the actor must begin with the words the author provides, but this is particularly true with a Shakespearean role because the Bard gives you everything you need. The nature of the character, her motivation, her style, even her movement can be gleaned from the words, the rhythm, and the relationships that Shakespeare has created.

I always begin by reading a play out loud and I listen to the rhythm of the language, be it poetry or prose, and from that I usually have a visceral or physical response, a sense of how the character moves or how he stands. Following that first physical impulse are the questions of objective and motivation and other necessary actor choices.

2. What do you find to be the most helpful part of PCSC’s standard rehearsal process?

The best part of Pigeon Creek’s rehearsal process is the freedom and support to try things, to make bold—or maybe crazy—choices and just see what happens. With this wonderful group of artists I never felt the fear of judgment or criticism, but rather the joy of encouragement and the generosity of other actors responding to the choices that I made and giving wholeheartedly of their own ideas and creativity.

3. What do you like to do for fun outside of theatre?

I enjoy spending time with my family, most especially my amazing husband and my beautiful niece and nephew. We read books and ride bikes and go to the theatre.

My faith is important to me and I spend a good deal of time volunteering with my church, planning worship and using my passion for theatre and storytelling to bring the drama of scripture alive.

4. What is your day job? What do you want to be your day job?

I am the Assistant Marketing Manager for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

5. What theatre plans do you have in the next couple months?

The life of an actor … auditions, auditions, auditions …

Frequent PCSC actor, Kate Tubbs (Puck) talks about the challenges of creating a non-human character.

Puck is the first Shakespearean Fairy character that I’ve played, so preparing for this role has created a lot of new questions for me and has been an exciting challenge. The first step in creating a non-human character is to determine how your character is different from humans, especially the characters he/she interacts with. In creating Puck, I started by deciding how my character is different emotionally and physically.

Fairy characters don’t feel emotions the same way that humans do. While Fairy emotions can be extreme, they are not as complex as human emotions. For instance, a fairy can get extremely angry or sad, uncontrollably happy or tired, but he/she can’t feel complex emotions like shame or regret, and cannot empathize or sympathize with humans. So this informs how I interact with and treat the human characters. Puck’s detachment makes him a playful plot advancer who is intensely curious to see things play out.

Similarly, magical or non-human characters have different relationships with their environment. Puck moves differently than humans. He positions himself differently and has different opinions on what is appropriate/normal for interactions. He also has a small amount of magical power. Sometimes he can bend the laws of physics, other times he can control the flora and fauna around them. This has to be a part of my physical performance.

Overall, I tend to think of non human characters as less limited and usually more powerful than human characters. This creates a lot of opportunities for actors to give a unique performance because we can make bigger or more drastic choices. We can raise the stakes much higher and go farther outside of ourselves. We can be as weird or crazy or active as we like. So we have a much larger foundation to build our character on. Our character’s pool of resources is larger and deeper so there are so many things to try.

But even though there are lots of new possibilities when playing a non-human character, in some ways, it is very similar to creating a regular character. You still must understand your character’s storyline — his arc throughout the play, what he does and why and how. Non-human characters don’t necessarily always have exciting story lines or arcs themselves, but they do often have a lot to do with plot development. So the actors have a myriad of whys and hows to choose from. That’s what makes these roles so much fun!

Introducing  Antonio Royce Copeland (Lysander)! A Midsummer Night’s Deam is Antonio’s first production with PCSC, so he’s answering round one of our Acting Questions.

1. How do your typically go about preparing a Shakespearean character?

I approach every character I play from a similar jumping off point. Our actions as human beings are based on needs and wants (be they realistic, necessary to survival, or otherwise), so it is necessary for me to flesh out all of these first. Then I have to determine whether or not they are fantastical or within my reach, and just what I’m willing to do to get them. Once a character is driven, and those things are rooted in something; the actor – or vessel as I like to describe our part as performers – can personally connect with the character begins to take shape. As always much respect is due to the text (particularly when good ol’ Billy is involved), so you take care to fully understand The “givens” (i.e. who, what, where, when, and why). Once I get a grip on the environment I’m playing in; I focus on how the character is seen by those around him (or her if I’m lucky), and I decide which things are true, which things I’m aware of and how I react to said person as a result. The finishing layers such as physical traits, accents, and the rhythm/music of the dialogue, all fill out the role and let it become a living, breathing entity unto itself. So basically I read the script and wait for the director to tell me what to do. ;-)

2. What do you find to be most helpful part of PCSC’s standard rehearsal process?

It’s very apparent that the members of PCSC are also educators in one way shape or form. The rehearsal process is a safe space where EVERYONE is encouraged to provide input into not only their specific role, but anywhere they feel they can help. I imagine it’s what a brain storming session involving the writers for 30 Rock or The Golden Girls must have been like! Just someone saying, “it’s okay… just let your juices flow.”

3. What do you like to do for fun outside of theater?

I enjoy baking, and the Disney Channel…it doesn’t go much deeper than that…

4. What is your day job?

What is that?

5. What theater plans do you have in the next couple of months?

I plan to be singing and dancing wherever anyone will permit me. I feel the most like myself when I’m pretending to be someone else, so be it a gig at Tibbits Opera House (fingers crossed), or on the corner of 28th and Division if you belt it, they will come.  Or at least honk or throw something at you as they pass by!

Introducing  Chad Marriott (Flute/Peaseblossom)! A Midsummer Night’s Deam is Chad’s first production with PCSC, so he’s answering round one of our Acting Questions.

You must respect the Bard -  that is first and foremost.

When preparing for your character he has already done most of your work for you, but why did good old Billy have to be so smart? I’m not sure, but I know when I begin working on Shakespeare I start by figuring out what my character is saying. From there I figure out what they want and decipher how they are trying to get it.

After doing my text work I get to do, what I consider, the fun part. I put my personal twist on the character. For example, during Much Ado about Nothing (directed by PCSC’s own Katherine Mayberry at the Grand Valley Shakespeare Festival, 2013) I spent a lot of time figuring out what Conrad was doing and what he wanted, essentially what his role was in his group. After that I decided how my character felt about that. I played around with things until I found one that fit and took that and ran.

One of the interesting things with Shakespeare is that he forces you to use external techniques. I’m an internal process guy, but Shakespeare makes me do more external exercises than I typically would do.

At Pigeon Creek I’ve found that the directors’ openness has been really helpful. Knowing that I’m not going to be told “Do that again, but different” is definitely a helpful thing. They are straightforward with you, but not rude. This adds up to an encouraging environment for creativity.

I’ve also enjoyed working with a multitude of acting exercises. I once had a professor who said that he was giving us tools and if we liked them we could keep them and if we didn’t we could throw it away. We’ve worked on things like Laban’s movement tendencies, text work, and internal things, like head, heart, gut, and groin.

This is a great trait for a company to have because not every actor has the same process and being able to get across to all of the actors is vital to a show.

Our newest Rep. Company member Zachary Johnson (Hector, Calchus) answers our second round of acting questions.

1) When creating a Shakespeare character, do you start from the “outside” (voice and physicality) or the “inside” (relationships and motivations)? Why?

Inside. It kind of has to be with me. Mostly, I am going to be sitting alone reading these words over and over again…all by myself…thinking about what the hell any of them could possibly mean. In that way, I am already having the internal monologue that is required to feel out the character’s motivations. For example (after reading the play through from Hector’s perspective):
Me: So, Hector seems pretty pissed off at his entire family nearly the entire show.
Me Too: Yup.
Me: But everybody’s always talking about he’s so honorable and virtuous and patient and moderate
Me Three: (Offstage) Yeah, gallant’s the word!
Me: So, what the hell?!
Me Too: …I dunno. Bad week?
Me: …Gotta be. Bad week it is!
You see? How could I work on my physicality and voice that early when I’ve already got several people screaming opinions about the character at me in my head? It doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation. When I’m sitting on the toilet wondering what the word “tenth” means and how I should go about coloring it (quick hint: tenth doesn’t mean what you think it means), I have no time to devise a specific posture. All that comes later, when the other actors and rehearsal space exist.

2) Is there anything about Shakespeare’s language you find especially helpful in preparing for a role? Anything that is always challenging?

My answer is the same for both things; implied stage directions.  On the one hand, I love it because, when I understand what stage direction is implied, it eliminates at least one of those “uhh, I don’t know what to do with my hands right now” moments from the play.  I especially love false exits.  Any time my character says goodbye even twice or more, I typically try to make a run for the exit after the first farewell.  The concept of making another actor have to force you back onstage after you try and just leave is really fun for me.  Unfortunately, things get hilarious in a more at-my-expense kind of way.  I end up looking confusedly at someone for several seconds before they just come right out and say, “You should probably be stopping me from ripping her eyes out of her skull right now.”

3) How do you prepare differently for an ensemble directed production versus a production with a director?

I don’t know that I change very much between ensemble and “nonsemble” directed shows.  More likely than not, I will just pose all of my questions throughout the process to the directors as opposed to taking them to everyone around me.  Directors have their own overall plan, but an ensemble just needs to talk more in general to each other to establish their own overall scheme together.

4) What is your favorite “Original Practice” (audience contact, cross-gendered casting, live music and sound, etc.) and what exactly do you love about it?

I would say audience contact, but I typically end up struggling with it too much still to really admit to it being my favorite.  Soon, maybe, when I’ve got it all figured out, I will appreciate it better, but for now I am going with live music.  For one, I always end up involved in some way.  Most often I am on drums, which might be one of the most rad things that I’ve gotten paid to do.  However, sometime I get the pleasure of learning one of the ridiculous instruments that PCSC has at their disposal.  My favorite example of that would have been in Love’s Labour’s Lost when I got to play three different songs on the concertina.  It’s like an eentsy, uncomplicated accordion, and it rocks my socks.  I even managed to work in “Epona’s Song” from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as I entered a scene with that instrument.  Nothing beats it: walking around crotch-first and half-naked while playing a Nintendo love song about a horse on a wang-shaped instrument.  I felt like I had made it…like I had finally made something of myself.

5) What is your dream Shakespearean role?

King Lear.  Is that everybody’s?  I wouldn’t be surprised.  I have never actually seen the show performed, but it has always been my favorite since we read it (we of course read it last, after Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew, and Merchant of Venice) in high school.  I had always actually liked the Fool the most as far as that play goes, but as far as dream roles go Lear is way superior.  You get to be an ornery old man as well as hang out with the Fool for the entire play, and then there’s all the madness business when he gets naked in the rain.  The people that go nuts are always especially fun.  And then, in the very end of it all, you get hit with some seriously heavy drama.  Dude feels so bad about mistreating his not-evil daughter that he dies!  That all wrapped up in one guys seems pretty dream-worthy to me.

Rep. Company member Janna Rosenkranz (Ajax, Deiphobus, Cassandra) talks about the challenges of doing battle onstage.

From Couch to Greek Warrior in Six Weeks: Stage Combat for the Morbidly Sedentary

I couldn’t have been more surprised when I was cast as Ajax and Cassandra. The later character, Cassandra, is the type of character that comes easy to me in that I know what it feels like to be a woman whose voice is not always (for poor Cassandra never) heard or counted. Ajax, on the other hand, through me for a real loop. I had nothing, internally, to really explore for Ajax, so I took a very simple outside approach with him and played up his cartoon like Football Joe/Meathead characteristics. (No insult is intended towards football players named Joe or Meathead). It also must look ridiculous, as I’m the complete physical opposite of the men I’m fighting, however, as that lends itself to the fact that Ajax is a joke, and is made fun of by virtually everyone in the play.

With the help of our wonderful directing team, Angela and Francis Boyle, I was able to find some specifics to help with Ajax’s character, but besides the acting challenges, there was a huge physical challenge. I’m a 48 year old, overweight, Netflix addicted, un-athletic woman! I’ve taken some stage combat (around 15 years ago) and once even took a fencing class (in my last year of college for a required PE credit), and done some minor combat with PCSC in Henry IV, 2 and Macbeth, but I’ve never had to really have a serious stage fight before, and now I was faced with three serious fights. I was lucky to already have acted with the three men I’d be fighting with, Scott Wright, Killian Goodson, and Zachary Johnson. I knew them and trusted them. I was also extremely lucky to have Francis as our fight coordinator and Steven Schwall as our fight captain. I felt a kinship with Francis and Angie immediately and Francis was very clear with his instructions. Trusting your fellow artists is half the battle. I thank them all for their professionalism and camaraderie.

Facing my fears of anything movement related was a huge part of my challenge. Over the last ten years or so I’ve become a very careful mover, watching every step for fear of what my husband calls “tipping over.” Basically, I’m a huge klutz (I take after my Jewish mother) and I fall. A lot. Like a lot. During PCSC’s production of The Merchant of Venice I fell down a set of stairs and caught myself with my face. I had a huge lump on my forehead and two black eyes as a result. In Henry IV, 2 I had one tiny fight during an excursion and I think I managed to mess it up in every performance. I did better in Macbeth, but only had one or two parries and a duck. I still am not quite sure how The Powers That Be at PCSC would even trust me with a sword, let alone cast me as a character who is in three fights!

Learning and rehearsing fights is like learning a new dance, there are beats, positions, intentions; basically lots to think about when you are fighting. I’m lucky to have a muscle memory of dance and gymnastics from my childhood; I’ve even been told I still sometimes move like a dancer, despite my more recent commitment to the good fight against gravity and being a highly ranked officer in the eat masses of carbs army. Like dance, you start getting the fight into your body and get some muscle memory established. Of course this means loads of repetition. The fight choreographer and captain (Francis and Steven in our case) model the moves of the fight beat by beat, and then the actors repeat what they did beat by beat. Since we’re doing live theater, we, rehearse the fight before each show with our fight captain observing. Since anything can happen during the fight, the more practice we get, the more we have the moves in our muscles, the more predicable the fight will be and the more we can deal with adjustments on stage.

We are currently in our final stages of rehearsal before we open and although I’m still nervous about my combat, I’m very excited. There is so much I don’t know and so much I learn every time we do fight calls and runs. The most important thing is that NOBODY gets hurt in any way, shape, or form, but for me, this experience has been so much more than just some fights in some play, it’s become a new source of mental, physical, and emotional confidence and  self-assurance.

The confidence that PCSC showed in me helped me gain more confidence, both in myself as an actor and in my own body. My appreciation for my body has also risen exponentially, and of course getting in a little better shape doesn’t hurt anyone. Both roles were great acting challenges and I am honored and appreciative that everybody at PCSC trusts me with helping them tell the stories of these wonderful plays.

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