Archive for April, 2013

Steven Schwall (Duncan, Porter, Murderer, Caithness) is not only an actor in Macbeth, he’s also the Fight Director. Here are his thoughts on choreography for this production.

Hi, I’m Steven Schwall and I am designing the violence for Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This production has a number of parameters which take me outside the “traditional” methods of fight choreography. I’m here to share my experiences with you.

To start with, Pigeon Creek is an original practices company. This poses several conditions which force the fight choreographer to adapt. Thrust staging (or full round for that matter) always complicates things, because it is harder to stage the violence so that it looks real without being real. Universal lighting makes it even more difficult to accomplish. So there is a lot of viewing from several angles and adjusting to keep it visually true.

The short rehearsal periods mean having to force the issue of training. The easiest aid in this is applying the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. The most fabulous choreography in the world will look stilted and fake if there isn’t sufficient time to rehearse it. Also, brilliant choreography will not necessarily make a fight. The object of the fight is to physically dramatize the conflict and if we lose sight of the conflict, we lose the story. Simplicity is key.

Cross gender casting creates another problem. Pigeon Creek not only casts men in female roles, but women in male roles. While I have nothing against female actor/combatants – I know several who can kick my butt – many female actors are not involved in martial or sporting activities as much as their male counterparts, so they might be unprepared for the movements that they are going to be asked to make. This translates into a longer learning curve, so keeping the movements simple gives them time to learn and embody this new movement method

And then there is the design concept. Traditionally, the fight arranger works with swords, knives and guns. The weapons are designed to balance and flow, and have smooth edges. The steampunk concept has forced me to design weapons that fit into that style. Regular weapons would not have looked “right” and taken our audience out of the world of the story. The new weapons I have created for the play function similarly to regular weapons, but not always, so adjustments are continually made to the techniques of wielding them so that they look natural.

Lastly, this production is ensemble directed. That means there is no one decision-making authority. While this is very freeing for actors, who can develop their characters as they see fit, as the fight arranger I do not necessarily know what choices they have made. So I can design a fight, but if it flies in the face of a character’s trait as the actor has developed it, the movements will not ring true. So I must be flexible in my approach, and ask questions of my actors to be sure that the fight I am giving them tells the story in the character they have developed. A couple times in the process, an actor has come to me and asked if a change can be made in order to fit with the character they are attempting to portray. If I refuse, I become a totalitarian tyrant who is placing his own work above the good of the whole project. In ensemble direction, even someone in a directoral role must also be willing to take direction. In the end, it is the actors, and not my work, that must shine. We all work toward the good of the whole.
So, keeping flexible, keeping it simple, and being a part of the solution are the keys to functioning in this slightly unusual set of parameters. And that in itself is a learning and growing experience.

Pigeon Creek Rep. Company member Sarah Stark (First Witch, Doctor, Murderer) has already answered our basic acting questions, so in this entry we’ll delve a little deeper into her process.

1) When creating a Shakespeare character, do you start from the “outside” (voice and physicality) or the “inside” (relationships and motivations)? Why?

I tend to begin from the inside. In my first few readings of the play an image, line, or idea will stand out and attract me to the character. This attraction inspires and impassions me, firing up my imagination and excitement to explore. I find creative daydreaming about the character to be one of my most effective tools in the early stages. I do so because I need the fantasy to evoke the outside form, to articulate it in my body.

2) Is there anything about Shakespeare’s language you find especially helpful in preparing for a role? Anything that is always challenging?

The language is everything to me. I feel that the character is laid out fully by their word choice and speech patterns. I commit to the belief that the character is using precisely those words for a reason. My task is to find, specify, and convey that reason. I have to continually look, listen, and speak their language until I can do so with strong clarity. I also need to grasp the language of the whole play to arrive at a fully integrated comprehension of my role.

For every character I will always have at least one phrase that is difficult to comprehend or that feels clunky to me for quite awhile. I think part of it is the distance between Shakespeare’s language and ours today. However, once I do get it, often in a moment of flash recognition, it reveals something very impactful about the character that was previously hidden to me.

3) How do you prepare differently for an ensemble directed production versus a production with a director?

The cultivation of an ensemble directed production relies more heavily upon the perspectives and insights of the group, rather then a single person. Therefore I feel a greater responsibility to cogitate on all scenes in the play. In preparation I repeatedly read the scene prior to its rehearsal for comprehension then contribute any impressions that strike me after witnessing the scene performed as an outside eye.

4) What is your favorite “Original Practice” (audience contact, cross-gendered casting, live music and sound, etc.) and what exactly do you love about it?

Audience contact. Honestly, it took me some time to warm up to it because it can be jarring when that self critical voice in your head tries to make snapshot assumptions based on what you perceive in the moment of contact. However, I love theatre because I believe it is powerful. It can be redemptive, prophetic, and pressing. Communion ignites the impact of it all. Without an audience there is no significance. The opportunity to share a story that is common and truthful to every single one of us and to communicate it directly to the audience, eye to eye – that is essential and life giving.

5) What is your dream Shakespearean role?

Cleopatra. I love the raw turgor Shakespeare expresses in this woman who is historically embedded and inflated in myth and distortion. Shakespeare is a master of characterization because he portrays the conflicting oppositions that lie in crux of his characters’ hearts and how that tension propels them to make the choices they do. Cleopatra is strongly alluring to me because her struggles are very real to me. Ultimately this powerful woman has always fascinated me, and I feel that out of the vast arrays of imaginings of her true nature, Shakespeare came the closest to the truth.