Archive for April, 2011

Kathleen Bode as Portia

When the 2011 season was announced, I immediately said that I wanted to play Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She is a fascinating character, and I have wanted to play the role all my life. I was thrilled to have been cast as Portia, and could not wait to start rehearsals. I had read the play so many times, and studied this character so much, that I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the her, and how to play her.

The best laid plans…

It became very clear to me at our first read through that I needed to throw all those ideas out the window that I’d had about what I thought this character was. Until we started really working closely with the text I had never really realized how terrible all of the characters in this play are to one another, and Portia is one of the worst. As our Executive Director and Text Coach said “there is not a single redeeming character in this play”. I wholeheartedly agree.

One of the major themes in this play is racism. Most strongly between the Jews and the Christians, and we spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about this and about the impact it has on us as a contemporary society. What other words could you put in place of “Jew” in any of the lines that might make us think about our own prejudices against the people around us?

But religious racism is not the only form of racism in this play. The first scene with Portia she laments to her maid, Nerissa, how much she loathes all of the suitors that have come to woo her. While the scene is a great one to warm up audiences and get people laughing and engaged, she does it at the expense of others. The stereotypes that Shakespeare plays with still make us laugh today; the drunk German, the Englishman who is to proud to learn another language, the effeminate Frenchman, etc., and modern audiences love them. These stereotypes, however, are (at their very core) racism. Though they are a great way to bring the audience in and really connect with them as an actor, they are sometimes hard to make light. It is not until Portia’s lines about the Prince of Morocco that the audience starts to realize that she isn’t as sweet as she seems. My goal with this scene is to make as many people laugh at these suitors as possible, but also to see if any of them realize what that says about themselves.

In examining the character of Portia more closely, I found it harder and harder to like her. Which made it harder and harder to play her. How do you make someone so cruel be likeable? It seemed as though the more I got into the “head” of the character, the more loathsome I found her to be. I had to really focus on getting into the “heart” of this character in order to bring some sincerity and sympathy to her.

In attempting to bring this character to life on stage, I found it to be an emotionally draining experience. To try and find a balance between the two sides of Portia: ruthless and (ironically) unmerciful vs. vulnerable and kind, was no small feat, and I hope that I was able to do the character… justice.

[ed - in lieu of an actor's blog this week, we decided to article the weekend we have planned in honour of Shakeys' B-day. If you're in the West Michigan area this weekend, you're in for a treat. If not, please please please find some celebration in your own town, or make your own and reply to us. Maybe we'll put it up on the website with your photo if it's really fun...]

Here’s the laydown on perhaps the busiest Shakespeare weekend on earth (a.k.a. his Birthday weekend!)

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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
(Shakespeare’s most controversial!)
Dog Story Theater
7 Jefferson SE
Grand Rapids, MI

Friday Night: 8pm
Saturday Night (Gala Night-see below): 8pm
Sunday Afternoon: 3pm

Music and Prologues start 10 minutes to curtain!
Special “Bard Beyond the Boards” lecture series offered before each Saturday performance (EMO Series included)!

Visit Dog Story Theater for tix and info!!

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ACTORS NEEDED

Auditions for CYMBELINE; 7 men needed for a ALL-MALE experiment in original staging practices. Auditionees need resume, head-shot and a 12-15 line verse monologue prepared.

11am – 1pm – DOG STORY THEATER (no appointment necessary)

Check out the PCSC website for more information: PCSC AUDITION GUIDELINES

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Christopher Marlowe’s THE JEW OF MALTA

A staged-reading via our E.M.O. (Early Modern Others) Series

3pm, Saturday, April 23rd
Tix are “Pay What You Will”

Visit Dog Story Theater for information.

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AND THE PINNACLE OF THE WEEKEND!

SHAKESPEARE’S BIRTHDAY GALA

Watch Saturday, April 23rd’s performance of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE…

….then stay for cake, punch and wild entertainment (i.e. deleted scenes, outtakes, parody sequels and more) in honour of our Lord Patron Saint William Shakespeare’s Birthday.

Visit Dog Story Theater for tix.

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Hope to see you all there to celebrate 447 years of the Bard,
The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

John Wier as Bassanio.

Hi! John Wier, here, reporting from my time playing Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. A unique experience in many ways, working with Pigeon Creek on this production has been and continues to be a tremendous way to learn. We have investigated many of the original practices of Shakespeare’s company in our time together as an ensemble, adding a certain authenticity to the practice. As an ensemble-directed cast without one person in the role of ‘director,’ the cast is left to their own creative devices in order to make the show work. What I find great about this organic style of theater is that people from all walks of life come together and combine their varying creative influences with the greater goal of making the show come to life in an entertaining way. In our cast, while we have many different levels of experience in acting, everyone throughout the rehearsal process was still given creative rights in making the show their own, the result being a combination of great ideas and lots of experimentation.

One thing that Pigeon Creek focuses highly on is a thorough evaluation of the text. Looking deeply into every line of the play and paraphrasing the meaning of the dialogue into our own thoughts were both helpful tool we used in understanding the language of Shakespeare’s time. By utilizing this, we came across aspects of our characters that we hadn’t thought of before; i.e. their motives, emotions, and even pieces of inner dialogue our characters may have that influence the way that they react physically during a conversation or a monologue. These reactions add a certain aspect of realism to the show, making it seem as if the script is not memorized but that the characters are actually thinking of what they are about to say just as it is happening, and the actors around the speaking characters are reacting as if they are in fact hearing all of this for the first time. As my first experience with these sorts of textual exercises unfolded with Pigeon Creek this year, I found them to be fun and highly beneficial in learning to play the role of Bassanio.

While preparing our minds with the information within the text, we also prepared physically for the show by doing warm-ups often throughout rehearsals and always doing them before every show. I appreciated doing this with an ensemble-directed cast because with all of our theater experience combined we have now learned a slew of different tricks to get the body into a relaxed posture and to get the voice onto a level to be audience-ready. What I like about warm-ups is its basically a once-a-day relaxation seminar. Who would deny that?

In summation, acting with Pigeon Creek has been a blast- a “true-to-the-times” Shakespearean adventure with a talented group of actors. I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to learn so much and look forward to auditioning for more shows in the future!

Kat Hermes as Gratiano

When Pigeon Creek announced their 2011 season and asked what I might be interested in playing in The Merchant of Venice, I said I’d either like to play Jessica (since they haven’t let me be a pretty girl for over a year!) or that one guy… I forget his name, you know, the most obnoxious one? At auditions, I ended up reading for neither part. That should have been a hint. From previous experience in ensemble directed shows like this, the entire PCSC board knows that “boorish loudmouth” is well within my emotional range. [ed. It’s true.]

So, in this production, I play Gratiano. He’s “that guy,” the one that you’re friends with but you’re not really sure why. The one who makes you look pretty suave and together in comparison, no matter what kind of trouble you get into.

One thing that was very important to me throughout the rehearsal process was that the audience be able to see themselves reflected in these characters. If our audience sees this play as a period piece, if they shake their heads at how racist and oppressive society was back then, then we as an ensemble have failed and the play has lost much of it’s power.

This is a play about a group of wealthy, entitled young men (and women) who move through the world as they please with no awareness of the unearned privilege that allows them to do so, and no concern for the others they harm along the way. Such people exist as much today as they did in the 16th century. But if the costumes are late medieval, the setting is Venice, and the language is full of Early Modern “thee”s and “thou”s, how do we say to a 21st century Midwestern audience, “This could be you, these could be people you know?”

The answer I found was to find places in which to use gestures and/or vocal patterns that are distinctly modern (but not enough to be wildly incongruous with the setting). We also spent time discussing modern versions of the scenarios the characters work through. Going to a mask was likened to going to a bachelor party. I won’t repeat in this family-friendly blog what we decided Lorenzo and Jessica were up to in Genoa.

I’ve been asked how I could stand to be “so mean” to Shylock in the trial scene, and didn’t I feel bad about having to say “those things”. The answer is similar. I came up with a modern equivalent, a financial institution that I would love to humiliate in an official setting — my bank. But I know that really, that’s not what the questioner was getting at. She was really asking what it feels like to act in a play about racism, and have to say the kinds of ugly things that I’d never say in real life. For me (I’m sure the other actors have their own strategies), it’s all about what I discussed above. I think this play has a lot to show an audience about privilege and oppression, and the most effective way to do that is to be exactly as ugly as the language demands.

Claire Mahave as Nerissa

As Nerissa, I am on stage for nine of twenty scenes, but I seldom speak. Nerissa is Portia’s maid, and ever by her side. It is surprisingly difficult and tiring to play a character that is largely silent and mostly reacts. It is essential to remain engaged and attentive throughout each scene, whether one speaks or not. It is also critical to understand your relative importance in the scene; sometimes background actors have reactions that are so big that it distracts from the other actors and what they are saying. There are moments at which it is appropriate to be a little distracting, but most of the time (and particularly in Shakespeare, whose language is so beautiful and so important), background characters must stay in the background.

There’s also a tremendous freedom to be had in playing a character like Nerissa, though, to be seen in the wide variety of interpretive choices that the text allows. We know several things about Nerissa that are embedded in the lines. We know that Portia is close to her and relies on her. With few exceptions, Nerissa speaks only to Portia and only when the two are alone. Finally, we know that Nerissa defers to her mistress, with no complaints and no questioning of motives.

As an actor, though, it is not enough to know these things. The primary question an actor must answer is why? Why does a character say (or not say) or do (or neglect to do) a particular thing? Why is one road taken instead of another? Does Nerissa love Portia? Is she motivated instead by duty to Portia’s late father? Does she see Portia’s uglier qualities, or is she as completely captivated by Portia’s charms as is everyone else in their world? Is she motherly, a friend, a reluctant ally? With such a vast imbalance of power, can they truly be friends, or is that merely Portia’s illusion, fostered and humored by Nerissa?

I have played with various interpretations and have decided to make Nerissa quite a bit more sympathetic than many of the characters. She is naïve and sweet, eager to make Portia happy and glad to stay in the background. This makes the last scene particularly fun to play as the balance between pleasing Portia and satisfying her own nature cause conflicting impulses.

Ah, Pigeon Creek: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I now conclude my show with Pigeon Creek,
Saddened by the fact that I must leave.
Exposure to this world of Shakespeare Chic
(Superior to aught I could believe)
Has given me a thirst for more Creek shows
And let me to a great epiphany:
That I shan’t rest for feeling so morose
And craving for their august company.
I love the friendliness and sense of pride,
Support and wisdom given out to all,
Camaraderie and kindness bona fide,
No divas to make anyone feel small.
There is but only one thing left to say:
Post haste, please cast me in another play!

(Editor’s Note: Regardless of Ms. Mahave’s foray into blank verse, we’ve already cast her in our summer show this year, Henry IV part i.)