Archive for June, 2011

Dan Christmann as Cornelius

I am, at this particular moment in time, in a bit of a rut. I cannot for the life of me figure out a single topic or experience to write about. Not that my time working on Cymbeline has been uneventful. Far from it. I think the real problem is that there are too many for me to choose from, and none of those topics will adequately describe my experience to the reader. Ah, the eternal curse of the postmodern writer. You, my reader, have probably read many blog entries on character creation, actor processes and, even analyses of Shakespeare’s text. But what few of us have actually touched on is how the actual process feels, how it moves and transforms us into the people we will become. As I am a dramatic, and even poetic, being by nature, I think it would be the best option for me to focus on this aspect of our process. Perhaps, by using this text as a single part to an even greater whole, you will come one step closer to piecing together the puzzle that is our time with Pigeon Creek.

One of the strongest feelings I get when I’m working with the guys is a sense of camaraderie. Now, the very nature of any theatrical process is that it brings people together, unless you have some preconceived grudge against any of the other ensemble members. However, at this point in the process, I think its safe to say that this camaraderie we have built is of a different nature. The hierarchy based on how large one’s role is virtually absent from this production. People here seem to realize that the size of a part does not necessarily reflect on an actor’s skill, nor his importance in the production as a whole. This allows those who would normally squabble in petty ego-games to get down to their work and actually create characters that work right off the bat. Furthermore, everyone in our cast seems to genuinely like each other, and I think I can go so far as to say that we’re all friends. Now, I’m sure this is common in many tight knit companies, but for many of us, Cymbeline is our first show with Pigeon Creek. To gain the friendship of so many in so short a time is a wonderful experience, and I think one partially unique to this cast.

Performing a Shakespearean soliloquy is probably one of the most challenging, and exhilarating, experiences of my life. Even after doing six of them for nine performances when I played Hamlet a few months ago, they still have not lost their appeal for me. However, at Pigeon Creek, the soliloquies that I do take on a different, more unique flavor. If you didn’t know, one of the original practices we do at Pigeon Creek is “audience contact”, which basically means that you, the audience, are part of the show. You don’t have any lines, but we still feed off of your reactions and what you do. This also means that I, as an actor, can walk up to someone in the audience and deliver my words directly to you. For me, this gives those words much more weight, as if I know that because I am directly speaking to an audience member, I am telling them exactly how I am feeling at that point. The feeling of looking into someones eyes as you deliver those lines, seeing them react and give you the energy of their understanding is something akin to magic. It’s as if you have connected yourself to them with a cord of life through which you share your understanding of the world, but only for a brief second. I know it sounds a bit far fetched, but that’s how it feels.

I could really go on for pages about my experiences and how they’ve felt. However, there is really only one more that I find exemplifies my time at Pigeon Creek, so I will finish up with that instead of boring you with the little details. This type of show was a new one to me, not only because I get paid (an added bonus for something I’d probably do for free) but also because we are traveling to so many venues. Obviously, I haven’t finished this experience; we have 3 more venues after Dog Story. However, I can tell you how interesting it is for me to play in more than one community. Each place that we travel to, whether it be to Saugatuck’s Red Barn Theater or Midland’s Creative 360, has a different kind of stage, and a different kind of audience. You might not think it, but this is actually quite exciting for me. It means that we actors get to show off how adaptable we are, something that many of us who only perform in one place to one audience seldom get. If we don’t have that adaptability, then we get to develop it over time. I tend to believe that each production you work on gives you a little bit to take away with you, but this is an added bonus that I doubt any of us new company members could have foreseen. Plus, it’s a great time, and I enjoy meeting people all around Michigan who are willing to come out and see some great Shakespeare.

Maybe one of these days I’ll get to meet you!

Joseph Valente as Arviragus

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline tells the story of the family of King Cymbeline as his daughter, adopted son, and two unknown sons search for their purpose and place in life in the midst of major international pressure, as well as villainous trickery and deception. Though royal, the family displays many relatable qualities present in many families. I play Arviragus, one of the lost princes, unaware of his royal birth, but searching desperately for his identity and purpose in life. Wearing a kilt (NOT a skirt!), and living in the wilderness with his older brother and adopted father, Arviragus longs for a life of significance and valor where he achieves his true potential and ensures that his actions will survive after he himself has succumbed to his own mortality.

Often, Shakespeare was commissioned to write his plays for the noble and royal, hence he deals with the issues of bloodline and birth in many of his plays. Unbeknownst to Cadwall, he and his brother are the lost sons of King Cymbeline, stolen by Belarius (Morgan) as revenge against his master for unjustly banishing him as a traitor. Shakespeare cleverly pleases his employers by implying that the princely blood within Guiderius and Arviragus emerges even in their rustic surroundings, somehow elevating them toward honor, courage, and valor. However his portrayal of Prince Cloten as an oafish, deplorable character of noble birth, hints at a satire of this belief that noble birth somehow grants one excess honor and greatness over others. Lines such as “…mean and mighty rotting together have one dust…” further emphasize the view that birth matters little, it is one’s actions, both small and large, that determine true nobility, honor, and greatness. Shakespeare provides the implication that Belarius has taught the princes these ideas, as evidenced by their disdain of money, and lack of respect for Cloten, despite his princely birth.

With this perspective in mind, I realized that Arviragus was truly similar to every other young man or woman searching for a path in life and a way to distinguish oneself. The brothers are unsatisfied with their rustic existence because it offers little hope for a better future where their struggles and accomplishments will survive their own mortality. They have not been beaten down by the world, as has their adopted father. There is a strong, youthful idealism about Arviragus, as he searches for something greater in life, something beyond his own knowing. He conceives himself in all manner of tales of glory and valor in war. In this way he is similar to many mythic characters who reside in ordinary surroundings while longing for adventure and experience beyond the ordinary. Encountering his sister in disguise as a man is joyous to him, as he believes that this individual provides an opportunity to enter a new world outside of the one he knows. Hence his grief at her apparent death is all the more painful, as he has pinned all his hopes and aspirations on this strange individual that has provided variety to his routine-oriented life. The battle with the Romans provides another such opportunity to break out of his world, and he remains determined to seize it this time and use it to begin a new life of valor and significance. He will not remain “a poor unknown” any longer. This quest for fulfillment defines his character, and is relatable as every individual seeks out their full potential as they go through life.

Belarius scoffs at the restlessness of his sons, as the idealism he once harbored was crushed when he was unjustly banished from Cymbeline’s side after many an honorable deed. However this cynicism has been unable to touch his adopted sons, as their yearning for something more remains strong. Yet Belarius has taught them that nobility and birth truly mean little, it is how one lives life that defines an individual. By foiling the brothers with Cloten, a man who places all his stock in his birthright, Shakespeare implies that this social education will ensure benevolent rule from the brothers when they take their place at Cymbeline’s side.

Shakespeare often deals with issues of identity, especially when concerning royalty and nobility. Arviragus and Guiderius are struggling to find their purpose, and yearn for opportunity to distinguish themselves. The revelation of their princely birth only comes after they have taken a valiant part in the British victory over the Romans. This is fitting, as their nobility comes not through birth but deed, an idea Shakespeare hints at throughout the play. They possess the same desire for purpose as all human beings. It is implied that this human solidarity they have been taught by Belarius will benefit the kingdom when it comes under their reign after Cymbeline’s death. This has truly been a great journey for me in discovering this complex character, and I look forward to opening night this Friday. I have been truly impressed with the performances of all my fellow cast members, and am humbled to have been able to work with such talented, dedicated people in this production.

Cordello Jones as Caius Lucius

Cymbeline. Is it a masterpiece or a stepping stone of tricks and devices not fully stylized by the Sir William Shakespeare? There’s always that cliche at stake. Is it pure genius or complete madness? “…has he reached a point to where he can no longer see the end?” If my opinion has any validity, I say, simply, Shakespeare knew what he was doing.

This is what makes it difficult to perform today. Shakespeare is more than the language, I’m afraid. The Theatre must understand soul and spirit language to give any meaning to the characters. Today actors are told that the “Who, What, When, Where, and How” interprets the character, and from this can you create actions. All of this is a petty human conflict. It is everywhere and everlasting. We need something that changes man indefinitely. The mere modern character analysis will not measure up.

Example: a Roman soldier. It is logical that he cares about matters of the State. This is a good conclusion, but not necessarily appropriate. Being a soldier was a duty, not a motivation. Briefly, the Roman soldier is looking for divinity and justice, his duty is a means to that end. He’s looking for the God, Jupiter. This journey, cannot be discovered in his relations with the other characters. It is the inner voice each character has.

One absolute truth about all Shakespeare’s characters is they all speak their true selves. Each character wants satisfaction from the gods. Imogen wants true love to live “by the gods.” Posthumus thanks the gods, saying “by their grace I will keep her.” It is remarkable how they speak their inner voices so freely. These are explicit examples of the characters motivated by the spiritual and soul-in-tuned voice. Their true inner voice that heightens the stakes for each character and the scenes.

What Shakespeare has reminded me, and hopefully those who watch his work, is that it is more than what people and human nature do to each other that drives a story forward. Instead, it is what people do to each other for the sanctity of their soul and spirit. We all want to be saved by something. The difference between today and Shakespeare time (or the time he captured) is we believe in Hospitals, “Hey Doc!” and they lived knowing…“Thou art the comforts the gods will diet me with.”

Ben Cole as Imogen

Here’s a concept: A man playing a woman who dresses up as a man: playing Imogen in an all-male production of Cymbeline.

Okay, so last time I checked I was a man. (Pause) Yep, still a man. So, how did I come to start working on playing one of Shakespeare’s most challenging female heroines? Well, it all goes back to playing dress-up as a kid. With two older sisters and parents who were into encouraging imagination I had lots of opportunity to play dress-up in dresses and learn to feel comfortable making a fool out of myself.

Unfortunately, Imogen is no fool. She, like most Shakespeare characters, is a multi-dimensional person deeply committed to the pursuit of her desires, and flabbergasted at her opposition while unwilling to passively accept any changes in her situation. She takes action to try and change her misfortunes. Things don’t just happen to her; the complex web of real people making real choices influences her tragedies and redemptions.

Imogen goes from marrying the lower-class, underdog, love-of-her-life, only to have the marriage scorned by her father. Her evil step-mother, in true Princess fairy tale style, secretly plots to kill Imogen or take control of the throne by ignoring the fact that Imogen is already married and pairing her up with Imogen’s dunce step-brother Cloten. As if dealing with a grouchy dad, a psychopathic step-mom, and a doofus step-brother trying to seduce you weren’t bad enough, Imogen’s husband is banished and bets that no one can break her loyalty to him. So, of course, some guy in a bar takes up this bet and travels to Britain to try and seduce Imogen, too. Even though Imogen “passes” the test, like any jealous guy, her husband gets the facts wrong and decides Imogen needs to die for her unfaithfulness. Imogen’s only friend, her husband’s servant, is now cast to carry out the revenge murder.

In the words of Tammy Wynette, “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.”

So, of course, I get to dress up as a man to try and better my situation. Then I get to be a man, (yep, still a man) playing a woman who dresses up as a man. To make matters more hysterical, coincidentally, everyone is even MORE attracted to Imogen when she’s a man!

That’s the plot, at least from my character’s perspective. Kind of overly complex for Shakespeare’s attempt at a fairy tale. It’s no wonder that scholars are confused what to categorize this play as. In it’s first publication, the first folio of 1623, the play is titled The Tragedie of Cymbeline. Most of the characters are happy at the end, so I’m not sure its all that much of a tragedy. But it certainly isn’t a comedy with attempted rape, attempted murder, a beheading, war, and drug induced “likeness of death”. I guess we’ll call it a romance! Hmm. That’s a little unsatisfactory for me. But then again, I am playing the woman… I suppose I can accept the term more when defined like this: “Romances are impossible fictions woven around real people.”

As my favorite of current Shakespeare publications, the Arden, suggests: “The play presents a conflict between the tendency to escape from everyday life and the tendency to remain in it, and moves towards a repose achieved in spite of violence, the brutal action which constitutes the substratum of experience, ending with a suggestion of rebirth, in a static tableaux from which previous suggestions of savage farce have been carefully obliterated.” Wow! What a sentence. Yes, I feel the desire to escape life now and again. Life can be a real mess. And yes, I desperately want to remain in life, despite that half tragic, half farce it often appears to be.

So perhaps the Renaissance Humanist perspective of life can give me a better clue to how I might play the role of Imogen, or perhaps give myself, and the audience a clue as to how this dark fairy tale might apply to all our lives today. As one internet history of Renaissance Humanism suggests: “The ideal life was no longer a monastic escape from society, but a full participation in rich and varied human relationships.”

This is what life is. We can no longer escape society. We are in a global society full of new challenges everyday. It is only through experiencing new perspectives, discovering others ideas, and creating new bonds that we might find compassion with one another. I understand Imogen’s desperation for acceptance at the beginning of the play. Perhaps we all go through her journey, in some way or another, before finding the true hope for a better future surrounded by friends and family.

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company offers heart-felt shows that may truly reach you in a way you’ve never experienced before. Become a follower, a fan, and change your future. Take the opportunity to see this unique production. Do as Hamlet says: “Ha! Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be but I am pigeon-liver’d!”

That sounds like a great quote for a t-shirt. Hey out there, please comment on this blog. Let me know that you’re listening, or that you’re interested in seeing the show, or that you have further insight into Shakespeare’s dramatic works.