Archive for December, 2011

Kyle Walker (Petruchio / Page) on Character Interpretation

‘Tis the Mind…

There always seems to be one line that comes to define my interpretation of a character. For Petruchio this one line has come to define not only the character but my view on the play itself:

For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich,
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honor peereth in the meanest habit.

While The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy full of slapstick humor and mistaken identities, I also think it asks the question “What is it that defines who you are?” The Induction scenes are a clear demonstration of this notion. Does Christopher Sly, in his mind, truly become a lord? Or is it just a dream? Or has he dreamt till now?

Petruchio constantly plays with this idea. He bends the truth, lies, and manipulates people to his own enjoyment. He knows exactly who he is and enjoys coaxing people into questioning themselves. He believes marriage is a complete sham and love is just an excuse. He comes to Padua not to find love but to “wive it wealthily.” He is only in it for the money; the wife is merely a place holder, a technicality.

All of this changes when he meets Kate.

The plan was simple. Attain the father’s consent. Cunningly keep Kate off-guard. Trick her into marrying him. Collect the dowry. Live happily ever after with his money. But as it turns out, he mistakenly falls in love with her. His entire reality is thrown into chaos. The way in which he defined himself has been questioned. He has caught himself in his own game.

But it’s ok.

His honor, his mind, his true self, can peer through the darkest clouds, right? Or perhaps the character that he has been playing is now playing him. If a kind, thoughtful, and caring man pretends to be a womanizing, arrogant, and chauvinistic man and if he plays that character long enough, does he become that man? Can someone become lost in a character? Are we defined by what we do? Or who we think we are?

Strangely enough I think this makes Petruchio love Kate even more. His game has always been to confuse, startle, and shock people. Kate joins him in his game and she does exactly what he’s been doing to her and everyone else. She understands him; even though now, he might not fully understand himself. A woman who can do that to Petruchio has truly won “the burden of his wooing dance.”

Joel L. Schindlbeck (Baptista / Lord in the Induction / Haberdasher / Widow)

In the beginning of my acting process, I’m asking myself the question, “Why is my character saying these lines.” That question could keep me busy for weeks, and often it does. Using it as a battery for my rehearsal time, I march through the scenes, exploring and discovering exactly why the words are coming out of my mouth. But we’re a little under two weeks from opening the play. My use of these question has near run it’s course and so, we venture to the next question.

“Why is this character in the play?”

Luckily, to spur the creative mind, the answer is not simply, as in the case of Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew, “Because without this character, Katherina and Bianca would have never been born.” Yes, that is certainly a true statement, but couldn’t the play then have gotten along just as well without Baptista actually being around? We don’t see the birth of Katherina and Bianca, so obviously Shakespeare choose to not delve into the importance of birth and parenting.

“Why is my character in the play NOW?”

I believe that Baptista is the world of the play. He has created the rules of engagement for his daughters, he has set the bar for the courtiers and he referees the entire process along the way as a means of not only controlling the future of his family, but also establishing the base moral code for how his family WILL create their future. He is the thread on which the plot builds as a candle builds from being dipped into melted wax. Every act, every scene, every interiour French scene brings another aspect of life choices made by characters which alters the world of the play, putting on another dipping layer of wax for the final candle.

For example:

*We first see Baptista quieting the suitors and reminding them of the marriage rules that he has set forth for his daughters.
*Immediately, the suitors plot means of cheating the rules in order to achieve the desired end.
*This drives them to seek out a suitor for Katherina.
*This drives Petruchio to decide to woo the wild beast that is Katherina.
*This drives a formal engagement, through lies and deception of the rules, between Katherine and Petruchio.
*This frees up Bianca to be married.
*Problem solved!

(Except, as we lovingly see from any comic farce on life and love…not playing by the rules requires people to be on their toes and create diversionary tactics in order to by them time to achieve their ends without disrupting the world and rules set out for them. I mean, wouldn’t it completely have been simpler if the suitors simply hired true instructors to teach Bianca, hired Petruchio to win Katherina and then wait patiently as Baptista assesses their true dowries and makes the choice he intended to make. I’m digressing, but the point remains that Baptista has created the world of the play at the beginning, not necessarily a fair world, but the rules nonetheless. Without these rules, the following four acts wouldn’t need to happen.)

So, there’s a beginning answer to the question. Baptista serves as the world of the play, or keeping my simile, the wick of the play. But then what? I mean, all of that could be delivered in one speech and I could go to the bar while everyone else plays around for two hours and meets me there after the audience leaves.

This is where Baptista, as the world, must respond and/or change the world to match new realities that occur. He is the reactionary character. Not only is he the common foil to most characters’ ruses, but he is also the person responsible for seeing that progress has happened according to his rules and setting forth the next step of the world.

Using a similar example as above:

*Baptista’s Rule: Bianca may not marry until Katherina does.
*Petruchio will marry Katherina.
*Baptista, satisfied, allows for the suitors’ assets to be analyzed. Bringing his next rule…
*Lucentio (Tranio is disguise) may marry Bianca is his father promises the dowry even in the case of Lucentio’s death.

Thus: THE DIRECTION OF ACTION IN THE PLAY CHANGES WITH NEW RULES!

We have been whipped up in the courting of Katherina in order to complete the first milestone of the play. That being over, we now get TWO PLAYS to watch: The Taming of Katherina via Petruchio AND The Cozening of Baptista via Tranio’s lies of the Pedant being Vincentio (Lucentio’s Father.)

Having decided this, my next question is more meta-theatrical: Is a reactionary character a form of audience surrogate? I’m still working on it. Come find out.

Brooke Heintz (Katherina / Biondello) on playing the Shrew.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of those shows where we feel as if we are going to have a number of audience members coming to watch the finished product who already have very strong opinions on the content of the play. Like The Merchant of the Venice, which gets looked at over and over in the light of whether the play is anti-Semitic, etc., Taming of the Shrew is equally considered controversial when examined through a modern perspective on the relationship between the sexes. Many people who are familiar with the play have had to face the difficulties of our present day discomfort with a show that ends with a woman bending knee to her husband and proclaiming his right of dominance. The fact that the play was written ‘in the past when things were different’ shouldn’t be a throwaway excuse for that level of discomfort, and audiences shouldn’t be expected just to accept that this is a play about people who thought in vastly different ways than we do now. Pigeon Creek especially prides itself on making characters and story lines accessible to audiences now, and I think taking that kind of approach to it would have precisely the opposite effect.

Going into this production, I was interested to see how the rest of my cast wanted to approach this. It’s become almost standard fare nowadays to insert some kind of gimmick when staging the play, to either highlight its themes as misogynistic, or to find ways to subvert Kate’s final speech in its entirety, such as throwing in a wink at the end of the monologue to show the audience that she didn’t mean a word of it. Honestly, I’ve always found these things to be the less interesting choices, and unnecessary pandering to the audience’s need to feel ‘comfortable’ with how things tie together.

Kyle Walker (Petruchio) and I have had many conversations about what it is that Petruchio and Kate end up getting out of this relationship, and how it changes both of them, which I think is part of the key to accepting the play for how it’s written, rather than attempting to impose a modern lens on it. It’s important to look at what kind of characters Petruchio and Kate both are – both of them make extravagant decisions that seem out of place in any sort of logical world, and both seem to possess a natural streak of sadistic humor. As far as Kate goes, her temperament is something that’s so far beyond how any normal person should behave (male or female), that trying to defend her too much turns into making excuses for her unacceptable behavior. Even with the psychological impact of not having a mother figure around, of dealing with the favoritism shown to her sister, etc., she still desires to rule over everyone and everything, and doesn’t understand what it means to bend for anyone. Her actions are incredibly self-centered, and she has only one tactic for getting what she wants: behaving as a shrew. Since no one has proven a match for her tongue or violent actions, it’s managed to work for her just fine – until Petruchio comes along. Not only does he prove her equal in wits, and possess the strength to keep an upper hand on her in terms of her many physical threats to his well-being, but because of this, she’s forced to learn new ways to get what she wants that are equally satisfying once she learns to take ownership of them.

Playing Petruchio’s own game with him and taking it a ridiculous degree is her own way of rebelling and maintaining her sense of who she is, and he doesn’t mind when she does it this way. It isn’t a particularly healthy arrangement, but neither character is particularly emotionally stable at the onset, either. Petruchio doesn’t want to extinguish the fire that makes her Kate – he encourages her when she’s ready to fight the widow at the final banquet, rather than scolding her, and finds the whole situation humorous. The very nature of ordering Kate to give the other women a verbal lashing proves this as well. He doesn’t desire a woman who is meek – but he doesn’t want his marriage to be a constant state of war either, and through getting her to adamantly defend defined gender roles in public, Kate’s granted an armor for her pride that allows her to renounce her old tactics and adopt more socially acceptable ways of getting what she wants. There’s still something discomfiting in this, but there can be, just as there can be something unsettling in The Merchant of Venice that leaves the audience uncertain of how to feel about the characters in the play and their own emotions about what just happened. That sense of uncertainty leaves an audience thinking, rather than just laughing at Kate having ‘pulled one over’ on Petruchio at the end, which I personally think is a much more provocative and meaningful use of the play.

Of course, in the end, our audiences may entirely disagree. Either way, I’m very interested and nervous to see how audiences will react to seeing the play handled in what we considered to be a ‘straight’ fashion. And I hope it leaves you all with something to think about!

Scott Wright (Hortensio / Sly / Grumio / Vincentio) on managing rehearsals for six people.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…

In the weeks leading up to the beginning of rehearsals for The Taming of the Shrew, I put my hand up for the job of Rehearsal Coordinator. I’d been allowed to “assist” the rehearsal coordinator on a past production but in truth, that was really more about officially observing the RC than what I’d been doing – which was watching & learning by experience how it all worked.

As the very small cast was set and rehearsals began, the first job was to lay out the schedule – particularly for the short-term (i.e. the next few days) – which is really a maze of conflicts, scene labels (do we work on I.iii or III.i …?), and dates. Not to mention the schedule of performances.

It’s a very eye-opening experience doing this job. I found that I made a number of miscalculations about the amount of time certain scenes would require (and possibly about how much time the characters in our cast of actors would require for debating character and scene choices…) Some scenes are significantly longer than others, and when looking at the list of scenes it was far too easy to make the amount of rehearsal time for II.i (which is ALL of Act II) the same as for IV.iv (a comparatively short scene.)

Something else that took me by surprise as a relatively new Rehearsal Coordinator was when, as we finished the time period allotted for a particular scene and the talk and debate and brainstorming (and laughter…) came to a natural ebb. Everyone turned and looked at me expectantly as if to say, “Ok, what’s next…?”

Good thing I had it all worked out…

As Many Of Your Players Do

When the small-cast concept for The Taming of the Shrew came up I couldn’t help thinking, “Six…? How is that gonna work…?” I’ve done The Taming of the Shrew twice before this, and there are a number of scenes where there are at least seven main characters on stage. This play also has a scene for Shakespeare’s typical army of servants and attendants, and in the final scene almost the entire cast of characters is supposed to be at table for dinner!

The small-cast thing is something we’ve done before too, but when we did it with The Tempest in summer 2010 there were a few differences. There’s generally a smaller cast of characters in The Tempest, and there are two fairly distinct groups of characters who don’t interact much but appear in alternating scenes, with the big exception of the final scene where, again, everyone appears on stage.

The challenges in The Taming of the Shrew for doubled actors in a very small cast are, as always, to make very distinct character choices that help the audience recognize who’s speaking at any particular moment. The addition of hats, costumes, and props help to further differentiate characters, but the demands of a small-cast production make it necessary for those costumes and things to be especially simple and specific.

This particular challenge – of making very clear character shifts, sometimes very quickly within a scene – has been, and continues to be, really tough for me personally. As our show continues to come together and prepares to open the first weekend of January, we’ll be working to make all those elements come together to make this familiar, funny, and fast-paced story come to life in the way you’ve come to expect from us.

Scott Lange (Lucentio / Gremio / Pedant) on the rehearsal process of a six-person The Taming of the Shrew.

It wasn’t until the first week of rehearsal that I realized how much work this production was going to take. Not just from me, but the whole cast. My first thought when we decided to produce a small cast show (and I maintain that thought is a correct one), was that we had a cast of smart, talented, Pigeon Creek veterans who would easily bend the production to their will.

For the most part, it has been smooth sailing. Only a few scenes have given us fits about the staging, conversation and discussion has been free flowing, and we’ve been able to have quite a bit of fun while staying (mostly) productive.

But there are a few challenges that I never expected. With our typical cast size (about 12 people) every actor has just about equal stage time, but everybody gets a break at some point. But when the cast is half of that, everyone is pretty much on stage through the entire play. With an ensemble directed cast, when an actor is not on stage, they are designated as an outside eye to assist the scene. But with a small cast, there are rarely any scenes where more than one or two actors have been able to step back and look from an audience perspective. So even when we are not on stage, we need to be active participants in the rehearsal process. There’s no sitting back and letting someone else do the work.

What this results in, at least during rehearsal, is a lot of tired actors. We typically rehearse four hours a night. By the time we hit that fourth hour, everyone looks pretty spent. It takes a lot of energy and mental fortitude to work with this type of show.

There are also on stage challenges. Everyone is doubled to the extreme. So actors may be playing two or more large roles. Sometimes this results in instant on stage costume and character changes. There are only a few of those in the play, but we have had to take a really close look at those to make sure they are clear and precise. With those instant changes, the actors have to work harder to make each and every character distinct. We always maintain that a change of costume indicates a change of character. That is still true with this production, but there will be fewer costumes to help with that. We need to make sure that the audiences can tell when a new character is on stage, even if there was no costume at all. This has been difficult for me to wrap my brain around. I always base my characters physical and vocal attributes on my own. This way, what ends up on stage is me, but not me, at the same time. I feel like with this production I have had to push that farther that I normally would. It has been hard, but I am always happy to be pushed and challenged in ways I never expect.

We have not had anyone outside of the cast come in to watch our craziness yet. I know that day is coming. I am always slightly frightened when that happens. I feel very vulnerable the first time I present my work to a new person. But the point is for someone outside of the process to come in and help us determine what parts of our concept are working, or perhaps not working. They’ll help us edit, embellish, and perhaps alter our work if necessary. In the end, it will be for the greater good, and will help us put on the best production possible.