Archive for August, 2011

Sarah Stark as Worcester

I have to be honest. My favorite aspect of Henry IV Part 1, has been the chance to play a man. It is neither the first time, nor the last that I will do so, I am sure. It is an intriguing challenge, to take a history so swollen with testosterone and physical combat and place it in the delicate hands of an all female cast. As a female actress, the question of how you are to represent a man is a tricky one. In my character preparation, I found my mind racing through my personal history with men. It was easy for me to fall into the trap of creating a stereotypical imitation of masculinity (i.e.: a wide-legged walk, a deep voice, and a bit of a confident swagger.) However, as I explored the character of Worcester I found he could not be pinned into the “High School Quarterback” type of man. Rather, he was a deeply bitter man obsessed with political machinations and willing to manipulate others even at the cost of their lives. A type of man, thankfully, I have never encountered.

Herein lies the beauty of Shakespeare. Every nuance of your role is provided in the text. You simply have to look hard enough. I typically begin my character work by slowly reciting my lines until I begin to apprehend the rhythmic exchange between every single consonant and vowel. Consonants convey energy and force as they halt or explode the breath, while vowels stream and poof air, giving them a more emotional quality.

The first thing I noticed about Worcester was how poetic his language is. A bit unusual for a man, I thought. The second thing was how many vowels he utilized. Initially, I imagined his powers of manipulation would reside in force, which would merit a more consonant-heavy speech pattern. He chose vowels, however, and shaped them to frame his purposes with a nice, emotional gilt.

Touching on acting centers of the body, I began to realize that he was head-lead, occasionally dipping into the gut and groin when glimpses of his terrible rage surfaced. His thoughts were too cohesive and slick to not be planned. As rehearsals progressed more evidence unfolded for me. For example, in a crucial scene of political negotiation, Worcester – the highest-ranking rebel present – allows Hotspur to address Blunt, the Kings’ noble messenger. Another signal appeared to me in the fact that he was not portrayed in combat at the end, rather we, the audience, witness his capture. Initially, I envisioned him as a man of brute force but the text lead me to see a slicker, stealthier rebel; a mad, mastermind unflinching in the pursuit of his retribution, allowing the thoughts and actions of others to be his tools. The image of a rattlesnake arose in my mind.

As vicious and animalistic as Worcester seemed, the fact of the matter was that his anger and abuse of others stemmed from pain. The desire to avoid pain is a universal human motivation, transcending the matter of gender. On a pure level, Worcester had a wounded spirit, believing that love and acceptance have been denied and refused to him. In his mind, love was worth fighting for, even if it involved all of England with a bit of help from the Scots. Cueing into this very human and familiar desire does a world’s worth more then any analytical conception of masculinity. Perhaps, that is the most powerful aspect of an all-female cast for Henry IV, Part 1; the discovery that gender is merely a term, which seems to separate human beings. In reality, the natural desire of our hearts proves that we are all ultimately connected.

Katherine Mayberry as Hotspur

Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 is one of his most brilliantly structured plays. Like many of his comedies, this history follows parallel plots which move towards each other, finally coming together in act 5 and climaxing in the battlefield face-off between Hal and Hotspur. One plot is the story of Hal’s personal rebellion against his father, his friendship with Fallstaff, and his ultimate reformation. The other plot is what I like to call The Tragedy of Hotspur.

Of course, every actor wants to think the play is all about her own character, but I also say this because Hotspur functions in many ways like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. He has multiple chances to avert his tragic ending, and makes choices which bring about his own destruction. He doesn’t turn over his prisoners to the king, he plots rebellion, he refuses to back down when his father doesn’t show up to the fight, he insists on beginning the fight against the advice of the other rebel leaders, and he rejects the king’s offer of clemency carried by Sir Walter Blunt (although Worcester does manipulate this response a little bit). He is determined to run headlong towards the clash with Hal.

The trap of playing Hotspur is that it would be easy to just play “angry” for 2 1/2 hours, and I have no desire to scream my head off for the entire play, nor do I want audiences to have to sit through that, so in rehearsals, I have focused on finding the variety in the character.

Shakespeare’s text actually shows a lot of depth and variety in Hotspur. He isn’t a villain, but a foil to Hal, who even calls him “my factor.” Whenever I read the play, I have to confess, I’m a little bit in love with Hotspur. I think it’s the sarcastic sense of humor. I greatly enjoy playing the comedy in act 3, scene 1, in which Hotspur encounters Owen Glendower, the Welsh warlord who claims that he “can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur’s response, “Why so can I, or so can any man,/But will they come when you do call for them?” is a perfect example of the wry and sardonic humor that he uses throughout the play.

Shakespeare also does the actor playing Hotspur a great favor by putting a scene of his domestic life on stage. The scene with Lady Percy doesn’t advance the play’s plot at all. It offers a glimpse into the characters’ personal relationship, and Amy McFadden and I have tried to create an image of a passionate marriage. The scene involves a confrontation in which Lady Percy demands to know what has been preoccupying her husband, and he refuses to tell her. This scene has been one of the hardest for me to play in terms of being a female actor playing a male character, because there are some ways in which Hotspur is being a real jerk. He ignores his wife’s pleas for information and calls in a servant to get out of the conversation. When Lady Percy persists in her questions, he explodes and tells her “I love thee not.” What he is trying to do, in a clumsy way, is to protect her. He has been plotting a rebellion against the king, which is treason. His plot would put Lady Percy’s brother, Edmund Mortimer, on the throne. If Lady Percy knows anything about the plot, she too is guilty of treason. She is safer if she doesn’t have any information. The scene presents Hotspur handling this situation badly, a nice flawed, human moment.

Another moment that I feel is crucial to the character’s depth is the moment when Hotspur receives the letter from his father Northumberland which says that Northumberland is not bringing his army to fight against the king because he is “sick.” I try to imagine the punch in the gut Hotspur must feel when reading this letter. Essentially, Northumberland is willing to abandon his son to a traitor’s death rather than bring his army to fight against the king. From Hotspur’s point of view, Northumberland is pretending to be sick so that he can see which way the initial battle goes before deciding which side he will be on. At this point in the play, Hotspur has committed his treasonous plots to paper and raised an army. There are only three possibilities for him: kill both the king and Hal in battle, die on the battlefield, or be executed for treason. I have tried to have these realizations within the scene. This scene is Hotspur’s one moment of hesitation and fear. He initially reacts to Northumberland’s absence as “A perilous gash, a very limb lopped off,” but then insists to Douglas and Worcester that their forces are enough to take on the king. He responds to his own fear and feelings of betrayal with bravado, using his habitual cockiness to convince not only the other rebel leaders, but also himself.

From this point on, Hotspur is moving inexorably towards his confrontation with Hal, rejecting any possible means of avoiding it, because he has something to prove. He is no longer sensible to reason, but driven by his anger at the king, and his disgust for the “sword and buckler Prince of Wales” who holds an exalted position in spite of his “libertine” life and lack of accomplishment. Our fight choreographer, Michael Empson, has created a combat sequence that makes an excellent contribution to the story as well, with Hotspur so blinded by rage that he tries to kill Hal with his bare hands. I hope audiences will enjoy seeing this production as much as we enjoy performing it.

Amy McFadden as Douglas, Lady Percy, Lancaster et al.

What is the difference between men and women? I mean other than the usual bath towel inventory, matching sets of lingerie vs. boxers or briefs and how excited we get when a baby who does not share our DNA is born. I am generalizing, maybe even sex-role stereotyping, but when you have a group of females telling a male-dominated history riddled with political alliances and vicious battles, differences must be considered. And overcome.

Physicalization is one of the primary jobs of actors playing any role. Many of us have been taught to “strip” ourselves of all habit, stance, stride and facial expressions that are “ours”-our “real life” physicalization. That is NOT an easy job, as these things are subconscious and deeply embedded. One leg up women have over men in this process is that we have to learn to walk in different heights of shoes and lengths of skirts, so we tend to have some experience in consciously changing our posture, gait and strategy for sitting with decorum.

When the casting for Henry IV, Part I was announced, I was relieved to be playing Lady Percy and four male roles including the Scot, Archibald Douglas. I figured I’d be wearing a skirt for at least two of my five characters! As for the rest of the work, I got some fundamental advice from one of our well-trained actresses : “Just figure out right now how big each of your male character’s penis is and everything else will fall into place.” Sound advice. Especially when I discovered in my research that The Douglas lost a testicle in battle against the English. His stance now shifts lighter on the left.

Fast forward six weeks. Opening night I was standing backstage, ready to enter as Lady Percy (the only female character I play) and realized that after a month and a half of preparing to play mostly male characters, I actually felt uncomfortable in my skirt. Ha! I shot a quick “thank you” to the theatre gods that The Douglas ended up in pants instead of a kilt, opened the curtain and entered, hoping I didn’t have visible panty-lines.

Owen McIntee as Guiderius

Three months ago, I was strolling through the beautiful Aquinas College campus when I came across an audition notice posted on the wall of the theatre annex. It was for some play called Cymbeline, through some company called Pigeon Creek. I had never heard of this particular Shakespeare piece, but having never had the experience of acting in a show by the world’s greatest playwright, I immediately began shuffling through my head for an appropriate audition monologue and marked the date in my calendar. Did I mention there was a short sentence at the bottom of the notice that read, ‘actors will receive a paid stipend’? Oh yeah, I was definitely interested.

Unfortunately life had other plans. Around the same time I was told I needed surgery under my left shoulder. The procedure was very minor, quick and painless and the recovery went as smoothly as I could have possibly hoped. But due to poor timing more than anything else, I was rendered unavailable for an audition and my hopes of getting my first Shakespearean role were quickly dashed. I was bummed of course, but soon forgot all about it and shifted my focus to the upcoming week of finals.

Fast forward about five or six weeks. Heading into the dog days of summer, I was surprised by a phone call from Katherine Mayberry, executive director of the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company. She told me a cast member had to drop out of Cymbeline, and asked if I would be interested in coming to a sort of impromptu audition for the part. “HELL, YEAH!!!!”, I said, in the most professional tone of voice I could muster. The next day I came in for the most completely blind audition I’ve ever had, stumbled my way through a few sides, and somehow managed to win the part.

Talk about baptism by fire. I soon learned that the show opened in approximately 20 days. My first day of rehearsal I walked in, was handed a quarterstaff, and tried to learn my first fight in about a half an hour. Let’s just say I’m glad no one was videotaping- we may have had the next version of Star Wars kid on our hands. Over the next couple of weeks I was to scramble to learn my lines, blocking, music, fights and choreography (that’s right, there was even dancing involved). Being a nervous, constantly worrying person by nature, I feared I might have a complete meltdown before we even made it to Saugatuck.

Looking back, I have to smile. From the very first moment I walked into the rehearsal space, Bob Jones and the entire cast made me feel right at home. Everyone went out of their way to help me get into the swing of things however they could, and I never once felt like “the new guy” or the “replacement.” I was treated with the utmost respect and professionalism throughout the process, which only encouraged me to work my butt off to catch up. Although Bob usually had copious amounts of notes for me, he never seemed worried at all that I wouldn’t be ready in time, and was so patient, helpful and calm that I was able to relax and focus. More than anything, I am grateful to all of the guys for keeping my mind at ease and allowing me to work at a comfortable pace. All in all, I think it went smoothly.

My character, Guiderius, is a rugged mountaineer, sort of like a “Lost Boy”, not a typical character for me. Fitting, since this wasn’t a typical show. As we prepare to close our production at C3 Exchange in Spring Lake, I can’t help but be proud of what everyone’s hard work has culminated in, and will never forget one of the most unique, challenging and just plain fun acting experiences of my life.