Actor Kat Hermes weighs in on The Tempest:
That comedy is harder to perform than tragedy is a pretty well-known theatrical adage. Whether or not it’s true, I think that comedy is certainly harder to rehearse than tragedy, as I discovered over the last month.
In Pigeon Creek’s production of The Tempest, which opened last night, I play two characters (and one unnamed dancing nymph). One is Gonzalo, a counsellor to the King of Naples, who is first presented to the audience as a figure of fun, mocked by Lords Sebastian and Antonio for his seemingly inexhaustible ability to see upside of dire events. He also, however, presents a utopian vision of island life in opposition to the colonial regime imposed by Prospero. He acts a sort of moral compass to which the actions of other characters are compared.
As a young woman playing an old man, I was concerned with finding a physicality that would convey my character’s age without over-emphasizing it to the point that it became more about watching Kat pretend to be old than about watching the character. I also worked to make sure that I was equally committed both the ridiculousness of the character (his commitment to social decorum, even on the deck of a sinking ship, his immediate, unreasoning embrace of every new spectacle the island puts before him) and the wisdom. I wanted the audience to laugh at Gonzalo when the play encourages them to, but also be able to take seriously his thematically important speeches.
The other character I play is Trinculo, the fool, and this is where the “comedy is harder to rehearse than tragedy” theory becomes important. While playing Gonzalo mostly involved figuring out what they text was asking me to do and committing to doing it, much of what makes the “clown” scenes between Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban funny is the physical comedy that punctuates the line.
Some of the physical action is discernible from embedded stage directions. When both Stephano and Caliban refer to Trinculo’s “trembling” and “shaking” it is pretty clear what I need to be doing. Apart from those select moments where what I have to be doing is written into the other characters’ lines, I was pretty much on my own. With the help of the rest of the ensemble, I came up with several “bits” for each of my scenes, and then…
Well, and then, we rehearsed. So I played to a room of people who already knew exactly was I was going to do, had seen me do it several times. Eventually, as we moved from scene work into full runs of the show, I played to empty chairs. I found that I had no idea if what I was doing “worked” (i.e. if it was funny). Just as having an audience hang on your every word and gesture is a great theatrical high, giving your all to a room full of people who stopped laughing at what you’re doing a week ago is a great breeder of insecurity.
So, in conclusion, you should all come and see The Tempest, either at the Dog Story this weekend our at one of our other venues throughout the summer, and laugh at me. Because comedy is impossible without an audience.