Archive for April, 2012

Rachel Pineiro as Benvolio

When I accepted the role of Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, I naturally assumed the part would be changed to Benvolia. Obviously, I was not well acquainted with Pigeon Creek’s practices: e.g. embracing the traditional tragi-comical gender-bending of the Renaissance era with the unabashed use of drag. In the 21st century, of course, the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company has the wit to employ this ploy by casting women as men in addition to men as women. Had I perceived the magnanimous task I was agreeing to espouse at its inception, I might have hesitated for a moment and raised an eyebrow.

It wasn’t until the read-through that I realized what was about to happen. I had contracted myself to delve into the mysterious and daunting realm of the male world, to unsex myself (as they say), and sacrifice my femininity on the alter of the theatre gods. I could not (and would not) look pretty on stage. Nay. I would steep myself in a culture of shoulder punching, loogie spitting, rough-housing male adolescence, peppered indiscriminately with early modern locker-room talk.

Egads!

Something deep down inside told me to run away. I ignored that voice and chose instead to sink my imagination into the vast and daunting mystery of masculinity.

I discovered many things. The first was an epiphany that I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never been around a group of guys when there were no women present, and there was no way for me to determine how men behave under the influence of unadulterated, pure testosterone. Trying to imagine the situation nearly caused me to seize up, and I promptly sought out fresh air. While strolling the streets of Grand Rapids, I considered what lengths I would go to in order to achieve the resemblance of cross-gendered truth. Could I infiltrate male-dominated spaces, in disguise, and note the untainted distinctiveness of males in their natural habitats? Certainly not. The idea was deviant, and amusing at most. Could I adopt masculine social attributes, attempt to create Benvolio as a contemporary in West Michigan, and try out my alter-ego in public places? Again, no. I realized that hitting on women at the bar or engaging in street fights would not assist my character development so much as it would get me into trouble.

At some point, I came to the conclusion that boys are not alien creatures. They are human beings much like women are, and furthermore, I’d been studying males all of my life, being surrounded with them and communicating regularly. Letting the culture-shock wear off, I decided that I did not have to worry so much about “putting on a boy character” as much as stripping away my own mannerisms that were specifically feminine. I practiced holding a stance with weight equally distributed on both feet, and walking without turning my hips. I tapped into my athletic side and pumped out 50 push-ups every rehearsal in order to focus on the existence of arm muscles; and to experience tautness in my gestures, since I realized that it was feminine to have superfluous arm or hand movements. I wanted to achieve an energetic sturdiness, capable of climbing a tree or drawing a sword at a second’s notice.

With all of my focus on physicality, I certainly had a masculine image of myself painted in my head. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the reality of my appearance did not match up with my imagination. Benvolio’s embodiment within myself had no facial hair, stood only 5′2” high, and weighed about 1/3rd of the nurse. Thus, at age 23, I realized the most I could pull off was a prepubescent, 13-year-old version of Romeo’s friend. Barely a pin-prick of a man. But I began to fall in love with the idea that Benvolio has a big heart, and that he is more than he seems. I decided to play Benvolio in an in-between phase, moving toward manhood with his perception of social responsibility, but still possessing all the wiliness of boyhood and the awkwardness of adolescence.

It has been quite the adventure exploring the idiosyncrasies of Benvolio’s character, moment by moment, and working with and learning from the dynamic cast of the Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company. I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity the company has given me to experience Shakespeare beyond the bodice and on the side of sword-wielding wilderness. Thank you to the company for giving me this experience!

Scott Wright (Friar Laurence) on his “back-side”

To stage actors whose experience is mostly in the traditional proscenium-type set up of modern theaters, the world of thrust-staging and ensemble directing is a strange and alien place. Not being told by a director exactly where to stand or what to do is unusual to say the least, and having an acting space where the audience seems to be close at hand on every side can feel downright strange.

A few years ago as a newbie to these staging conventions it took considerable effort to get out of the old habits of standing in horizontal lines, slightly turned out downstage. With eyes and ears wide open I quickly learned that thrust staging offers a number of interesting spatial relationships for scene partners, and that the best way for the majority of spectators to see you and your scene partner(s) is to stand on diagonal lines. Turning one’s back downstage – something that the experienced proscenium-stage actor knows never to do, is so common on the thrust-stage as to go almost unnoticed. On the thrust-stage one often finds oneself standing in a down-stage corner looking (diagonally) up toward a scene partner and also finds that this position offers virtually all of the audience a particularly interesting spatial picture and a good view of all of the characters in the scene.

One may also notice at such a time that some of the audience are close enough to see and/or sense very small details, and some of the audience might have a particularly good view of your back-side.

I – for one – don’t think my back is necessarily my best side…

Our production of Romeo and Juliet had a director, and to be sure, there is something a little comforting about having someone there who’s job it is to decide where everyone should stand, to keep actors reaching for something more – something better, and perhaps most importantly, to decide just how best to tell our story.

Working with Alisha was great, but there was one note that I have to admit left me bemused and puzzled.

When encouraging us to avoid the often habitual turned-out, horizontal lines of proscenium style staging she told us not to worry that we were turned to face up-stage, but (to paraphrase) to act with our backs and our butts and the backs of our heads… Obviously, when working with a great director, an actor often has to make the extra effort to deliver – sometimes finding new resources within, discovering unexpected meanings in the text, or even learning new skills – and I often found myself outside of rehearsal mulling over Alisha’s suggestions.

But this business of acting with my back-side seemed to pose the greatest challenge of all. How in the world does one do that…? And, as often happened with Alisha’s advice, while pondering how to do it – sort of visualizing seeing myself from that perspective while performing one of the scenes where it seemed my back was the most visible part of me, I had one of those, “Of course…!” moments.

As I saw myself – the actor performing the scene, initially as though through a camera focused close on the back of my head and shoulders, or (ridiculously) on my behind, it occurred to me as the camera seemed to pull back enough to see the whole actor, that I could still see his gestures, see the energy in his posture and movements, hear his voice, and see (at least a little of) his facial expressions. Things that I would still be seeing if he were facing me. Just as an actor’s facial expressions alone don’t tell his character’s story, the actor’s back isn’t all you see when his character’s turned away from you…

So perhaps I was already acting with my back and didn’t even realize it…

Though I think my back-side’s skills could use a little more work… :)

Kilian Thomas G. (Paris) on the Original practices

As an actor, what I really want to achieve is the ability to say that I’ve told a good story. Stories are our pasts relived for us, parables manifested, and lessons to be learned. In ancient times, storytelling kept the records of history and keeps local culture alive. Each civilization had it’s own stories and ways of telling them. I could just volunteer to read story books at the library, but the thrill of being in front of an audience and the prospect of helping them enter into an imagined world is far more appealing. Pigeon Creek has given me the opportunity to do this, and has challenged me by doing it in a way more concurrent with traditional Shakespearean practices.

I have mostly worked with proscenium-style theatres, so when I was introduced to thrust staging, certain aspects didn’t quite jibe with what I had learned in the past. Fundamentals of Original Practices (i.e. foot placement, diagonals, and audience interaction) were mostly a new frontier for me. However, as the rehearsal processes progressed, my comfort level with the space grew steadily. The space in a thrust stage is always dynamic, filled with constant movement or powerful three-sided pictures, a right-in-your-face sense of theatre. Being that close to an audience means that one truly needs to be able make the acting shine from every side of their body. Front side, left profile, right profile and back side. How interesting is it to look at the cape of a man just standing there? Instead, what working with the company taught me was how to find focus, and power with stage placement and eye contact.

There are many more aspects of the rehearsal process that have helped me grow as an actor (and specifically with Shakespeare’s text) such as: learning better techniques for dealing with the lofty language, better combat experience, the difficulties adherent in working with a traveling show, teaching myself valuable lessons about acting and time management, and finding the places in those areas where I can still improve. As story tellers we always want our stories to be told to the best of their ability, and the best of their ability is the best of our ability. I also believe we should always be trying to raise the bar for ourselves, and strive for excellence. I hope you come see the show and that you enjoy our world of Verona. Let us tell you a story.

Alisha Huber on Directing Romeo and Juliet

As I was getting ready to direct Romeo and Juliet, one concern kept running through my head: What do you do with a play that everyone knows? If you didn’t read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, you are in the extreme minority. If you can’t come up with a couple of lines from it off the top of your head, you are officially not drinking the same cultural groundwater as the rest of us. It’s probably the most frequently produced play in the English-speaking world. On a sitcom, if the high-school-aged characters need to be in a play, it’s going to be Romeo and Juliet (no pesky royalties, no need to waste valuable space in your twenty-two minutes helping the audience figure out the plot of the play-within-the-episode). There’s even an episode of Hey, Arnold! where the kids act out the play.

I asked people what they remembered about Romeo and Juliet, and what they thought they knew about it before they got into high school and read it. Everyone, even small children, knew that the title characters were famously in love with each other. Those who had been through high school remembered the feuding families and the fact that they both died at the end. About the rest of the play, people’s memories were fuzzier. They knew that Romeo and Juliet both died, but couldn’t remember how or why. Very few people remembered the key detail that they actually got married. Almost no one remembered anything about any of the play’s other characters.

This gave me somewhere to start. Many cuts of the play that I’ve seen in performance remove the scenes that humanize Lord Capulet and pull the focus entirely to the young lovers. My cut tries to spread the attention and stage time around to many characters, often by leaving in lines or scenes that I literally have never seen performed. I was able to work with the actors who played the various supporting roles to clarify what their characters wanted and needed from this situation. Sometimes, this ended up being funny things that the audience will probably never really see—for example, we decided that Benvolio loves to dance, and a lot of his actions early in the play have to do with convincing his friends to help him crash a dance party. Others, I know will be clear to the audience. Katherine Mayberry and I worked a lot with Lady Capulet’s clear discomfort with her daughter, her longing for closeness with her, and the oddity of her relationship with the nurse—the woman who bore Juliet, and the woman who raised her.

The problem that was hardest to tackle was certainly that of Romeo and Juliet themselves. Audience members come in with expectations of what the lovers will look like, how they will talk, what kind of personalities they will have. Most of my work was to throw out those preconceptions and dig in to the text. “Trust the text,” I tell actors all the time, but in Romeo and Juliet, I was the one who needed that reminder. Here’s one fun fact that I bet you didn’t know: Romeo totally says funny things all the time, especially in the balcony scene. One of my favorite moments in the entire production is where Sean Kelley, as Romeo, says, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” It’s a line everyone knows (I bet you even know the next one). He delivers it in an unexpected way—as a command to the audience, telling them to SHUT UP—and it always gets a laugh. Kat Hermes, as Juliet, found that Shakespeare’s Juliet is not the pale, doe-eyed, simpering girl popular culture would have us believe. She is smart, funny, and very much in control. Remember, Juliet proposes to Romeo, not the other way around. She’s also young and inexperienced. May of her best lines come out of the fact that she’s used to knowing exactly how things are going to go, and the depth of her own emotions surprises her.

Chaz Albright as Tybalt

Is life fair? It appears not… Are good deeds rewarded? haha…

Tybalt. King of cats. That’s my name. Many consider me a hot-headed, vengeful hooligan! WOW… I am all those things… but I am such in the spirit of honor, I am not some common murderer! Nothing about me is or ever will be common, I am a Capulet! This is my blessing and my curse. I cannot simply behave as common people do. Oh no, all of Verona’s eyes gaze upon my family and me. I, unlike some other family members, have learned to embrace this fame and flaunt it. If everyone already assumes you are one thing, why waste your time trying to change their mind? Fear seems to be the emotion that I inspire in people, so fear me they shall!

A few days ago while walking through fair Verona I found myself facing a quarrel in the town square. The fight was between some guards of my uncle Capulet’s house, and those despicable Montagues. No doubt those bastards were the ones that started the fight. As I strolled in to punish the dogs, that child, Benvolio, appeared right before my eyes with his sword drawn and ready to strike…AGAINST SERVANTS! Of course I was not going to let this poor excuse for a boy make worm’s meat of my dear Uncle’s men, so I did as all bearing the great name Capulet should, I drew my sword in pride… until our “proud” Prince came to part us, knowing not the occasion of the brawl.

After retiring to my Uncle’s house, I was once again scolded for being temperamental, hostile and violent. I know not what is in that old, clouded head of my Uncle, but he has clearly grown too effeminate to end this feud… The Montagues deserve not this mercy.

Though I did not agree, I left the old man to prepare for his wondrous masquerade that was to begin in a few short hours. After preparing myself for the party and rousing my dear friend, Juliet’s Nurse, I headed to the hall to have a feast and dance the night away. Upon arriving I was only lucky enough to dance with the beautiful Nurse for a few short moments before my night was spoiled. I was in a world of dancing bliss until I heard the pathetic peep of a young and foolish Montague named Romeo.

We have been in a blood feud with the house of the Montagues for years, and my thoughtless Uncle still allowed that Romeo bandit to enter the party. It was a disgrace to our family! And when I tried to make that “well educated young man” leave, my uncle Capulet forced ME to go…

The morning after that piteous party I thwarted my uncle and took matters in to my own hands, sending out a written challenge to that same Romeo who did intrude upon our solemnity… It has now been several days and I have heard no word from the coward. This is not the time to sit aimless by as this boy insults my family and my honor, this is the time for vengeance, which I will now with furious hands carry out.