Archive for January, 2012

Scott Wright (Sly / Hortensio / Grumio / Vincentio) on the challenges of being doubled.

Try this on for disguise…

It always interests me to see how much of what we discovered, tried on, or experimented with during our initial read-through and in the early phases of rehearsal made it into the final production.

Especially with a very-small-cast where each actor, doubled into two or even more major roles, is asked to make character choices that will make it very clear to the audience who is being portrayed.

Some of the choices are easy and obvious, given to us in the text – the older men for example. The “Old Master Vincentio,” accustomed, by virtue of his age and wealth to deference and obedience, is taken by surprise when he stumbles into the topsy-turvy world of Kate & Petruchio and the goings-on in Padua.

As Kat Hermes has mentioned already, one of our tactics is to choose one character that will be simply be the most like me – that will speak in my (mostly) natural speaking voice and be mostly just me physically.

Grumio seemed the obvious one : self-aware (but not self-conscious…), smarter than average, fun-loving, attuned to what’s going on and to the people (…and their motives…) around him, and well adapted to the unique circumstances of living around Petruchio.

Well – maybe I’m not always all those things, but a little positive self-image never hurt, right…?

I’d never thought much before about Hortensio. Never had to. In my previous experiences with this play I’d seen Hortensio as someone Grumio has possibly ingratiated himself to or as one of the pawns in Tranio’s ex-machina.

But in our first read-through, under the pressure to come up with yet another character (especially one that someone else hadn’t already played with that evening…), just having a bit of fun and trying to make my cast-mates laugh, I tried on something so ridiculous, so completely improbable – something I was fairly sure at the time wouldn’t end up working…

The feedback was immediate (the expected laughter) and unequivocal as later review of what we had done and discussions about how to implement this crazy concept made it clear that it was something we would be keeping.

So then I had to start wondering – what is Hortensio’s deal…? There’s plenty in the script – Petruchio’s “best and most approved friend,” a man of higher social class – an at least moderately wealthy resident of Padua, and most notably – in love with Bianca, or at least in love with his ideal of what Bianca represents… and utterly blind to the fact that she just isn’t really interested in him.

So as I thought more about it, my very different characterization of Hortensio (…not that it’s never been done – I’ve just never seen it done…) sort of started to make sense.

It sort of fit with the way other characters treat him, and it made perfect sense that Bianca might prefer a young, good-looking (if somewhat thick-witted) gentleman to an effeminate, lisping, not-so-good-looking man who might one day be caught trying on her clothes.

You still have one chance to get out and see our zany experiment in small-cast Shakespeare at the fabulous Grant Fine Arts Center in Grant, MI next Saturday January 28th. You may never see these particular characters again… :)

Scott Lange (Lucentio / Gremio / Pedant) on the process of finding humor.

Humor is a funny thing. Or perhaps I should say SENSE of humor. It’s a funny thing that is totally unpredictable.

The Taming of the Shrew is classified as one of Shakespeare’s comedies. There are many funny things about the play (i.e.: the characters, the language, and the situations), but it can be nearly impossible to tell what the audience is going to find funny once you actually get to performances. I feel as though this production was especially challenging in that regard. For instance, we didn’t have any outside eyes on the show until the week we opened in Grand Rapids. And even then, it was only one person at a time that would watch the show, and give us feedback.

When you perform a comedy, laughter is an essential part of the show. Both in terms of getting the timing of your performance down, and helping fuel the energy of the show. We didn’t really get to experience our first real dose of laughter until opening night. Like I said, we had some outside eyes come in during production week, but there wasn’t a great deal of laughter on those nights. That’s not to say that the people watching the show didn’t enjoy it or that it wasn’t great to have an audience, but when you are one of a few (or the only) people watching a show, the impulse to laugh heartily isn’t quite as strong. There’s something about a crowd that makes it easier to laugh.

So you may be asking yourself: “Scott, what do you do when you are rehearsing an hilarious Shakespearean comedy without an ever present audience?” Well the answer is that you try to make each other laugh.

Comedy can be very subjective. What I think is funny, you may find crude or tasteless (this happens to me often actually…hmm.) And what my friend thinks is funny might be pretty dull to a lot of other people. It takes a lot of experimenting with the play to really figure out what the largest majority of people find amusing. Even then, you can’t please everyone. Mostly what we do at Pigeon Creek, is to make each successive choice for a character more and more ridiculous. Often my goal is to find a way to make my fellow actors break character in the middle of the scene. If I can make one of my fellow professional actors lose their concentration, I’ve done my job.

Usually once we reach that point, we do need to pull it back a bit. Sometimes the things that make us laugh the most often can’t be done on stage. It could distract from what the other characters on stage are doing, or it might just be too much over the top. I personally have two moments in this show that get pretty good laughs that came from some over-the-top experimentation. They are a bit ridiculous, but I’m glad I got to keep them in the show.

But sometimes you can’t beat having an audience. Kat Hermes and I were just having a discussion the other day, about lines that we thought were funny, but that we haven’t been able to coax a laugh from our audiences yet. The conversation centered around how exactly we were attacking the lines; on what word we placed the emphasis, volume, funny faces, etc. Again, it focused on the experimentation we had done with the play, but also highlighted the fact that we really had to think about how to make things funny.

Like I said, humor is a funny thing. Sometimes it takes a lot of work.

Kat Hermes (Bianca/Tranio/Curtis) on Playing a Playmaker

When I was originally cast in The Taming of the Shrew, I was cast as Bianca, and expected to be doubled into one or two other minor roles. As anyone who’s read this blog or seen the show knows, things didn’t turn out that way. On our first night of rehearsal, I learned that I would be playing another major role, one that’s actually much larger than Bianca; Tranio, the conniving servant of the hapless male ingenue, Lucentio.

The clever servant who aids, but also manipulates, his less-intelligent master is a stock comedic character. But the interesting thing about Tranio is that while he’s smart, he’s not especially funny. Most of the good one-liners go to Petruchio’s servant Grumio or Lucentio’s other servant Biondello. Tranio gets a few deadpan asides that can earn a chuckle from the audience, but he spends much more time hatching plots than cracking jokes.

In a way, Tranio is what’s called a “playmaker” character; he writes the script from within the play and drives the action to achieve his own ends. But unlike other playmakers, such as Rosalind in As You Like It, Richard in Richard III or Falstaff in Henry IV (a role I played this summer for Pigeon Creek), Tranio doesn’t share the game with the audience. The audience gets to watch and enjoy his plots unfold, but isn’t invited to be his accomplice. In contrast, Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew’s other playmaking character, makes a point of including the audience in his plans, telling them exactly how he plans to woo and then tame the shrewish Kate, and even asking their advice on his methods.

I bring up all this textual analysis to try to explain why Tranio was an especially challenging role for me. He’s a comic character who doesn’t make jokes, a playmaker without the playmaker’s usual connection to the audience; he doesn’t share any more information with the audience than he does with the other characters on stage. He’s hard to get a handle on. It’s much easier to play a liar who’s not very good at lying than it is to play a character like Tranio, who lies so well it’s difficult to tell from the text whether he’s ever telling the truth.

When playing multiple characters, as I certainly am in this production, I like to pick one character that is closest to my own physical “default” setting, which is usually the character I spent the most time as or the character who is the most like me. Because Tranio is my largest role, I chose him as my “default” character, so most of the physical work I did was in creating two different variations on that, Tranio as himself and Tranio in disguise as Lucentio. So the outside, the “what” of Tranio was fairly easy to come to. The inside, the “why,” was much more difficult.

It is possible to take him at face value when he says “I am content to be Lucentio, because so well I love Lucentio.” If everything he does is truly done out of devotion to his master, everything he does makes sense. But it is equally possible to imagine that he manipulates Lucentio into switching clothing and identities with no intention of ever actually switching back. His actions also make sense with that motivation. Going on the theory that complexity is always more interesting to watch, I decided that Tranio lies somewhere between these two extremes. He does genuinely care for his naive and gullible master, but at the same time is not above taking advantage of him for personal gain. When doing my actorly work of deciding my character’s intentions and tactics, I’ve thought very specifically about which actions Tranio takes to help Lucentio, and which actions he takes for himself.

I’ve also thought a lot about where the fun for the audience is in watching Tranio. You’re not really invited to laugh with or at him, you’re not included as his co-conspirators. You’re simply asked to watch, and hopefully enjoy watching, the cleverness with which his plans unfold and with which he adapts to obstacles.