Actor Notes – Tim Sailer on Boyet in LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Ah, “honey-tongued Boyet”!

Whenever I mention I’m playing him in Love’s Labour’s Lost, I’m met with impish grins and arch eyebrows. An aura of mystery and mischief swirls around Boyet. Before I started preparing for the role, I had an inkling of this and was excited to explore it.

I found him to be exceptionally wry and dignified, so I focused my portrayal of Boyet as a sardonic courtier. But I soon realized this wasn’t going to be sufficient.

We had been rehearsing for a couple of days. Allison Glenzer (who plays Katherine) asked: “Who is Boyet? Is he our chaperone or our confidante? Is he like Touchstone?”

Those are the questions.

Touchstone from As You Like It is a good model—up to a point. Shakespeare wasn’t writing professional fools this early in his career. And Boyet’s job isn’t solely to entertain or having license to say what others can’t. His official duty is to attend the Princess on a diplomatic journey to Navarre. But that single role is slippery. Notice how saucy the language is once the Princess leaves the scene in Act 4 (the footnotes in the Arden edition are hilariously clinical). Clutching onto the image of dignified courtier belies the whimsey that occurs in other parts of the play.

Boyet is a chaperone, confidante, entertainer, and more. Normally, I’d be bothered with that open-ended ambiguity. That can make for some muddled storytelling. But, in this case, I began to embrace the fun of leaping from role to role, depending on the situation.  It started to feel like this was the key to playing Boyet.  

Language gave me this permission.

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Tim Sailer as Boyet in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Boyet often speaks in iambic pentameter. But frequently, when feeling particularly giddy, he’ll shift to anapestic tetrameter. This is what our director, Matt Davies, calls “the anapestic gallop.”

Boyet:   If my observation (which very seldom lies)
By the heart’s still rhetoric disclosed with eyes,
Deceive me not now, Navarre is infected.

Princess:   With what?

Boyet:   With that which we lovers entitle affected.

Folks, we’re veering near limerick territory!

Boyet further describes the King’s infatuation with the Princess with the following:

Why all his behaviors did make their retire
To the court of his eye, peeping thorough desire.
Methough all his senses were locked in his eye
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy….

For this speech, Matt encouraged me to take the stage and slow down. I imagine a literal spotlight shining on Boyet at this point. That’s when I realized that this is when Boyet is the star of his own comedy special.

And that’s just one of the many roles he plays in his first scene. Others include an advisor, a courtier, a sass, a diplomat, a jester, a pander. In other scenes, he’s a gossip, a cupid, a libertine, a know-it-all, an audience member, a spy, an interpreter. To reduce Boyet to any one of these roles eliminates the joy and depth of which he’s capable.

Now, these leaps from role to role aren’t random. I’m focused on the ultimate goal of the marriage of the Princess and Prince Ferdinand. And I think I’m keeping it within the parameters of his class and status. Or maybe I flirt with those boundaries. This involves a tricky combination of poise and play—a challenge Boyet is thrilled to take. The union would likely give him a prized position in the French court (ever the opportunist).

He plants the matchmaking seeds from the beginning. When charged with providing the king “such acquitances” (receipts), Boyet admits that the “packet is not come.” The Princess is miffed. But then, quick on his feet (or is this on purpose?) he says to Prince Ferdinand: “Tomorrow you shall have a sight of them.” Boyet knows that if he can stall at least one day, the possibility of marriage is stronger.

And it is. The antics continue with hunting excursions, misdelivered love letters, love tokens, disguises, dancing, a play-within-the-play. It seems like this marriage is well on its way. Too bad Marcadé’s news of the dead King of France obliterates the fun. Boyet is gutted and leaves to prepare for the journey back to France. Love’s labors are lost indeed.

But until the end, I have a blast. It’s not often that my job demands for me to be delighted for two and half hours. And a delight it is to leap from role to role. The language is champagne and amuse-bouche.

And I will continue to resist pigeonholing other characters in the future. This kind of exercise may not be useful for a role like Fortinbras, but it sure would for someone like Polonius (yes, I’m playing both Fortinbras and Polonius in the Ren Season. And yes, I’m in my early thirties; that’s another blog post). Polonius plays a similar variety of roles in Hamlet. The exploration of that variety makes for dynamic and compelling storytelling.



TIM SAILER

THIS SEASON:
Alf in Peter and the Starcatcher; Balthazar, Antonio, George Seacoal in Much Ado about Nothing; Dull, Boyet in Love’s Labour’s Lost; and George in The Fall of King Henry (Henry VI, Part 3).

PREVIOUSLY WITH ASC:
More than 37 roles in 25 productions, including Solanio in The Merchant of Venice; Menenius in Coriolanus; Sir Benjamin Backbite in The School for Scandal; Cassius in Julius Caesar; John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest; Horatio in Hamlet; Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing; Adam in As You Like It; Flavius in Timon of Athens; Truewit in Epicene, or the Silent Woman; Paris, Sampson in Romeo and Juliet; Crewman in Return to the Forbidden Planet; Second Dumaine Brother in All’s Well That Ends Well; Aeneas in Troilus and Cressida.

OTHER THEATRES:
Chorus in Henry V, Verges in Much Ado about Nothing (Houston Shakespeare Festival); Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, Hastings in Richard III (Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, Conway, AR); Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (Charlotte Shakespeare Festival); Hovstad in An Enemy of the People, Erhart Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman, Jim Curry in The Rainmaker (Commonwealth Theatre Company, Lanesboro, MN); Simon Bliss in Hay Fever (Theatre L’Homme Dieu, Alexandria, MN); Polyphemus/Mantios in The Odyssey (Park Square Theatre, St. Paul, MN); Brutus in Julius Caesar, Andrey Prozorov in Three Sisters, Touchstone in As You Like It (University of Houston, Houston, TX).

EDUCATION:
MFA in Acting from the University of Houston Professional Actor Training Program; BA in Theatre and English from Concordia University, St. Paul, MN.

Co-Director Jenny Bennett talks FALL OF KING HENRY

Team York or Team Lancaster?

Team Henry Tudor!

(I also firmly align with Henry (Lancaster). And Rutland (York). And Warwick (the Kingmaker). And Margaret (Lancaster). And Richard (York). And Elizabeth (York). And most especially with some specific Fathers and Sons in this play who show up in 2.5—Henry is the one who’s most aligned with them, it seems to me, and so I’m often most aligned with him. But like the ‘what’s your favorite line’ question, a hazard of directing a play is loving all of them—especially in a play by Shakespeare, the master of argument.)

This play is packed with bloody battles and relentless backstabbing.  What are some stand-out moments audiences should pay special attention to?

The play begins with a peace treaty of King Henry’s making – a compromise that, like most diplomacy, satisfies neither side fully, but absolutely ends this war in Act 1 Scene 1. It takes immense courage, humility, and sacrifice to achieve that peace—it takes immense strength of character. That moment goes to the heart of the play’s investigations into leadership, power, and the nature of ongoing war. Throughout the play, I invite you to notice how many times we can say: the War is Over!

I think King Henry gets a really bad rap. He’s often referred to as a weak king, a bad king, a wimpy king. Part of this is historical – his dad was super-soldier Henry V ‘who made the Dauphin and the French to stoop’. I mean, it’s not really possible to argue that Henry VI was a terribly effective king, for sure – lots of infighting and power grabs likely doomed any chance of his being a calm and powerful reign when he was crowned as a baby. But as he is in this play, made up of the words and deeds of this Shakespeare-created character, I find a full-throated argument for peace, and actions to back it up. In any conflict, if you want to resolve it, someone’s got to go first. Someone’s got to be the first one to put down the sword. Gosh, what a risk. What nerve. What character it takes to do that. And it comes with a cost.

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Chris Johnston as Henry VI and Allison Glenzer as Margaret in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

How are Shakespeare’s Histories distinct from his other plays?

Well, it’s like how Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln is distinct from Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Both of those are masterpieces. Both of them allow audiences to wonder into the nooks and crannies of rich, wonderful characters in high-stakes circumstances. Lincoln, though, populates its story with real people who affected the history of us – people whose actions were prologue to the history we ourselves are making today. Another consideration for Shakespeare’s (or Spielberg’s) histories is that they are still, to a large extent, historical fiction. Just ask the folks at the Richard III Society (who argue that Shakespeare’s plays have long maligned the true character of the good king) or many Civil War scholars (who resist the hagiography of Lincoln typified in that eponymous film’s gorgeous score and structure).

I love the History plays, and this is one of my favorites. It’s got tragedy, comedy, history— even a little pastoral! Some of the best dramatic speeches in all of Shakespeare:  Margaret’s ‘Brave warriors,’ York’s ‘She-wolf of France’, Henry’s ‘So many hours’, Richard’s ‘Tut!’, Henry’s ‘And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war/ Be blind with tears, and break o’ercharged with grief’ and all of 2.5… the list goes on and on. This play also has some weirdtastic comic scenes – that wooing scene between Edward and Lady Grey (3.2) sounds like it came right out of Much Ado, except the sparring is more regularly matched (and in verse)! But the main distinction is that the history plays take a look at how we got to be who we are now – and that’s always a compelling question.

The Henry VI tetralogy is often presented as a conflation.  What is the benefit to seeing these plays in their full glory?

The benefit is… seeing these plays in their full glory! Some of my favorite speeches, complex arguments and turns of phrase are in this particular play: from Henry, Margaret, Richard, Warwick, York, Fathers & Sons, Edward, and Clifford. In a one-production conflation of all four plays (Henry VI parts 1 + 2 + 3 + Richard III), or a conflation of all three Henry VI plays paired with a standalone Richard III, you sacrifice an awful lot of the nuance, argument, and poetry that everybody gets in this play on its own. These plays are already conflations: conflations of several years’ history squashed down into each single play.

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Greg Brostrom and Shunté Lofton in THE FALL OF KING HENRY.  Photo by Lindsey Walters.

In a pivotal moment, Richard whispers in his younger brother’s ear and changes the course of the scene.  The whisper isn’t included in the First Folio but appears in other editions.  Why did you choose to include the whisper in this production?

In preparing this script, co-director Jim Warren chose to use parts of the first known printed version of this play, the 1595 Octavo version (he wrote a terrific intro to the Octavo in his program notes). The Octavo text, in general, is often more efficient/ blunter throughout the play than the Folio.  In rehearsal, the actors and I discussed the differences, and sometimes swapped in an Octavo line that Jim hadn’t initially picked, and sometimes restored Folio text we preferred ‘on our feet’. Those choices in rehearsal come down to serving the play’s clarity for the audience, and an X factor of juice and playability for the actor – sometimes, we just liked one version better! We use about 50 lines’ worth of the Octavo text – from a single word or phrase to a few lines, sometimes up to six lines in a row. **Speculation warning: I have no evidence to support this theory except study of the text and its variants, but to me, the Octavo text feels like someone went to the playhouse and wrote down what they heard and saw there, with the technical speed of, you know, quill and ink and memory. It’s such a fascinating glance into how the play was originally perceived, thinking of it that way!

Most often, bits of Octavo text are deployed in this production to help achieve a cut (we cut 30+ minutes from the play that got us to the ASC’s ‘two hours’ traffic’ standard).  But there are a few other differences, and this stage direction is one of them: ‘Richard and Clarence whispers together’ at that crucial point in 5.1. In rehearsal with the actors, we did look at that moment on its feet with that stage direction and without it, and discussed the difference it makes in the characters of all the brothers. Especially in this Playhouse, I’m interested in the staging conditions of these plays – notably, any rarely occurring, explicit stage direction. “Exit, pursued by a bear” in The Winter’s Tale, to take the most famous example, is not the same thing as We See Antigonus Get Eaten, or Antigonus Nobly Fights The Bear and Loses, right? One of those explicit stage directions is this one that implies that George changes his mind after what Richard whispers to him, which has profound implications: it means that Richard makes the difference. Even if George is on his way to making that choice to restore his familial honor, with that stage direction, Richard’s whispers are the final straw in choosing a course that changes the outcome of that battle. Since the ASC is on a four-play arc that culminates in Richard III next season, and given that the structure of Henry VI, Part 3 really does ramp up to that, the Richard-prompted action makes all kinds of sense.

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Rene Thornton Jr. as Richard Duke of Gloucester in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

This play is one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and it’s terrific historical fiction about one of the juiciest games of thrones in English history – The Wars of the Roses. Here’s another way to think about that: this play was one of those early few that got playgoers all abuzz about some new kid on the playwriting block, William Shakespeare. If showbiz hasn’t changed much in 400 years (and since that biz is rooted in human nature, I doubt that it has), that means this play really is one of a few plays that launched William Shakespeare, got him more collaborators, more access to venues, patrons, and players. It certainly got him some bitter rivals! We know so little from the printed record about Shakespeare the person, but one of the few existing references we have is from jealous playwright Robert Greene, who paraphrased a great line from Act 1 Scene 4 of this very play in order to deride our Will in print. He warns his fellow “real” poets in his 1592 Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit:

‘”…there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

Dang, Robert! ‘Johannes factotum’? That’s quite the beef. You’re Greene with envy.

I suspect this play changed the world a little when it premiered.  Its characters were known figures from playgoers’ not-too distant history (these civil Wars of the Roses happened 140-ish years prior to the first possible performance of it—a similar time relationship as we in the States have right now to our own Civil War.) To crib a bit from Harold Bloom’s argument in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in a society whose understanding of what we now call Psychology was about as complex and compassionate as the Humors of Blood being treated with leeches, and where literary characters on a stage were quite often a Type that would behave predictably within their Good or Bad, Villainous or Innocent, Lawful or Lustful or Heroic boundaries, our Will peopled this play with characters who have contradictions, flaws, heroic impulses and nefarious deeds. And to go back to your original question, with these conflicted, complex characters who persuade and inspire us one moment and horrify us the next, we easily find ourselves switching sides with them, in their battles for peace. (And in that irony lies the human condition.)

Come see the play that made Shakespeare’s fellow writers jealous!  

 

Dr. Ralph’s 10 Things to Know about THE FALL OF KING HENRY

These notes originally appeared in the 2010 Actors’ Renaissance Season program. 

1. When was the play first performed?

It must have been before 1592, when a pamphlet by Robert Greene, a rival playwright, bitterly paraphrases a line from the play and calls Shakespeare “a Tiger’s heart wrapt in a Player’s hide.”

2. Where was the play first performed?

Probably at the Theatre in Shoreditch (north of the City wall) by Shakespeare’s company, then Pembroke’s Men.

3. How does this play fit into Shakespeare’s career?

This play, among Shakespeare’s first, is part of Shakespeare first “tetralogy,” a set of four plays dealing with the historical period from young King Henry VI’s reign through the death of King Richard III, who will here become a major character.

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Chris Seiler as Richard and Greg Brostrom as Clifford in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?

Like the other early histories it is packed with action, overtly drawn characters, flamboyantly decorative verse, and strong dramatic irony. On display is Shakespeare’s usual taste for paradox and contradiction.

5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?

All of the Henry VI plays are different from Shakespeare’s other plays because the major protagonist shifts each time one of them dies in the packed storyline. It falls to the weak king and his ferocious wife Margaret to provide continuity.

6. What do scholars think about this play?

Most think it the best of the trilogy of Henry VI plays. Here we see Queen Margaret in full throat, and here Richard “Crookback” emerges in Technicolor verse — “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile.”

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Rene Thornton Jr. as Richard Duke of Gloucester in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

7. Is there any controversy surrounding the work?

No. Greene’s snide remark (see #1 above) seems to confirm Shakespeare’s sole authorship.

8. What characters should I especially look for?

Queen Margaret and Richard Duke of Gloucester (future King Richard III), but you won’t need to look for them; they will be no harder to find than the Wicked Witch of the West or the Joker.

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Allison Glenzer as Margaret in THE FALL OF KING HENRY. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

9. What scenes should I especially look for?

The play is chock full of great scenes, but two of the most memorable scenes are at the beginning of the play: the “Molehill Scene” in Act One, scene four, where Margaret torments the Duke of York; and Act Two, scene five, in which the miserable King Henry watches the war being waged in his name.

10. What is the language like?

Lots of chewy speeches, playful rhetoric, and black humor.

 

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Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen is Co-Founder and Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, author of ShakesFear and How to Cure It, and Gonder Professor of Shakespeare in Performance in the Master of Letters and Fine Arts program at Mary Baldwin University. 

Audience Spotlight: Completing a tour through Shakespeare’s Histories

ASC Audience Member Robert Hoyle completed his journey through all of Shakespeare’s Histories with The Fall of King Henry (Henry VI, Part 3) in late September.  He has been attending the American Shakespeare Center since our opening in 2001.

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Greg Brostrom as King Lewis XI and Shunté Lofton as Lady Bona in The Fall of King Henry (Henry VI, Part 3).  American Shakespeare Center.  Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Congratulations on completing your personal quest to see all of Shakespeare’s Histories.  What draws you to them?

The history plays teach us about the Middle Ages and early Renaissance political life of Britain.  They are a blend of intrigue and excitement.  Shakespeare’s Histories introduce us to unforgettable characters and real life royalty.  Thankfully, they also are both tragic and comic in spots.

Do you have a favorite of the Histories?

Though I enjoy all of the history plays, I especially love Henry V and Richard III.

Now that you’ve completed your tour of the Histories, are you setting your sights on the full canon?

Actually, I have seen all but two of Shakespeare’s plays; many of them I have seen multiple times.  My two remaining plays are Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus.  I had reserved seats for last year’s production of Coriolanus, but, sadly, a spring snowstorm prevented my coming to the American Shakespeare Center.  I live about 4-5 hours away near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  I do hope to see these two remaining plays at the American Shakespeare Center.

You’ve been attending plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse every year since we opened in 2001.  What keeps you coming back?

I come once or twice a year, seeing two plays during each visit.  I keep coming because the productions are exceptional.  The actors are absolutely amazing.  I have seen them so many times that I have come to think of some of them as a second family.   Their professionalism is unquestionable, some of the best acting I have ever seen.  I am also impressed by their musical talents.  I enjoy the musical interludes.  

Do you have an all-time ASC favorite production?

Choosing one all-time favorite play is impossible.  I have never been disappointed and always leave more than satisfied.  Sometimes I bring friends who are astounded.  I am a retired English teacher (35 years), and I have occasionally brought students with me.  They love the experience.  For one last note, I have also read all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.  I am now working to complete his major poems.

On the Road with Pat and Bob Schieffer

Our administrative assistant Sarah Stone reflects on her experience driving the Schieffers to and from Staunton for the 2017 American Shakespeare Center Annual Gala.

IMG_3806.JPGThe plan was to get there fifteen minutes before I needed to be there, but I pulled up to their building five minutes late. The whole way to DC in my little grey car, I could hear my dad’s voice in my head reminding me to be focused and calm when operating a vehicle, but sometimes it takes a lot of energy to heed that advice he gave me so many years ago.

Today, I was stressed about the heavy traffic and the timing kerfuffle, but the cobblestone drive, the circular fountain, and the uniformed doorman calmed me down. “I’m here to pick up Bob and Pat Schieffer,” I told him. “I’ll just use my cell to call them to let them know I’m here.” He nodded and stepped back into the lobby while I waited for their voicemail greeting to finish. Then, as if he had taken my initial words as a request, the doorman presented The Schieffers and their luggage. We loaded up – Bob in the front and Pat in the back – and started the journey to Staunton, VA.

You know who knows how to get around DC during crazy events? People who live there. Amid roadblocks and half-naked runners, I would have been lost if Bob and Pat hadn’t steered me beyond where my iPhone was telling me to go.

Once we got out of DC, the conversation flipped from frustrations about DC traffic to excitement about the ASC Gala, college life, various productions of Hamlet, and books (those we’ve read and those Bob has written). As I-66 turned into I-81, we discussed the beauty of Virginia, the delight of Staunton, and any imaginable opportunities that lie ahead. And dogs. We chatted about our dogs.

“What kind of dogs do you have?”

“Two mutts, both about 30 lbs, which makes them great apartment dogs. What kind of dogs do you have?”

They’ve always had beagles, but they haven’t had dogs for 13 years.

We’re nearing Staunton, but amid roadblocks and witches and wizards, I wasn’t worried about getting to the Blackfriars Playhouse to drop the Schieffers off for the Gala rehearsal. Because you know who knows how to get around Staunton during the Magic and Mischief weekend? People who live here.

I dropped Bob and Pat off at the entrance to the Playhouse and waved goodbye. I saw them briefly at the Gala, but between conversations and pictures (and a starring role in the Gala performance for Bob), they were in high demand.

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Bob and Pat Schieffer at the ASC Gala. Photo by Lauren Rogers.

After brunch the next day, I picked Bob and Pat up from their hotel. After we pried Bob away from a few conversations, we three loaded into my little grey car and started back for DC.

“I’m relying on you two to be my GPS,” I said. “Is that OK?”

Pat smiled. “We’re just going back to our house? Oh, yes, we can get you there.” Good.

Our conversation started with my hopes that they’d had a good time at the Gala, which was greeted with enthusiastic (but exhausted) comments about what an enjoyable evening it was. We reviewed the people they met, the things they learned about the theatre, and the possibility of coming back to see Hamlet at the ASC after the New Year. As I-81 turned into I-66, we discussed the various unions associated with the performing arts, Pat’s newly acquired producer credit, professional next steps, and coffee.

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Co-Founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, Burbage Award recipient Lesley Currier, Goodfellow Award recipient Robert C. Vaughan III, Honored Guest Bob Schieffer, and Managing Director Amy Wratchford. Photo by Lauren Rogers.

Traffic started to bottleneck as we reached DC; there were fewer roadblocks, but just as many delays as there were the day before. With the turn of the wheel, the car entered the serene environment of Bob and Pat’s driveway. As we got out of the car, the doorman greeted us: “Same girl!”

“Yep! Same girl as yesterday!”

Bob and Pat got out of the car and collected their belongings. We hugged, and I agreed to call them next time I’m in town for any length of time.

“You were a good driver,” Pat said as they turned to go into the building.

“Thanks. My dad would be very pleased to hear that.”

I waved goodbye, got in my little grey car, and quietly drove back to my two 30lb mutts in Staunton.

Sarah Stone is from Cleveland, OH and lives with her husband and two dogs in Staunton, VA. She likes to talk about food, classics, and rules that are bendable.

 

 

Photo Blog: 2017 Gala Highlights

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had!” -Bob Schieffer, probably just being really polite

This past weekend the American Shakespeare Center held its annual Gala, a weekend full of activities including one-night-only performance performance of Emma Whipday’s In Search of Shakespeare, featuring renowned newsman Bob Schieffer in full Elizabethan garb.

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Bob Schieffer and David Anthony Lewis in In Search of Shakespeare.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

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Guests enjoy In Search of Shakespeare.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

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Allison Glenzer in In Search of Shakespeare.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

The performance was followed by dinner, award presentations, and dancing at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.

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Table design by Amanda Williams.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

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Co-Founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, Burbage Award Winner Lesley Currier, Goodfellow Award Winner Robert C. Vaughan III, Honored Guest Bob Schieffer, and Managing Director Amy Wratchford.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

Burbage Award recipient Lesley Currier is the founder of Marin Shakespeare Company in San Rafael, California.  She leads the company’s Shakespeare for Social Justice program which uses drama therapy techniques with acting instructions to give inmates the opportunity to study and perform Shakespeare, learn teamwork and positive goal-setting, practice self-reflection and self-expression, and build emotional competency and empathy.

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Leslie Currier.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

Robin Goodfellow Award recipient Robert C. Vaughan III is the Founding President and CEO of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

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Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen and Robert C. Vaughan III.  Photo by Lauren Rogers.

The evening capped off with some solid dance moves.

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Photo by Lauren Rogers.

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Hidden Figures author Margot Shetterly and Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove doing the Wobble.  Photo by Jeremy Douylliez.

A special Sunday morning brunch followed the next morning featuring a conversation between Ralph Cohen, Bob Schieffer, and Robert C. Vaughan III.

 

 

 

The Next Generation of Playwrights Has Arrived

IMG_3730.pngIt’s been long anticipated and highly publicized, and now the wheels are officially in motion. Anne G. Morgan, our Literary Manager at the ASC, is beginning to sift through play submissions for the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project.

Take Note

Launched in April of this year, the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries (SNC) Project is an initiative to develop one new play to respond to each of the 38 plays in Shakespeare’s canon. The project is a competition: in addition to a $25,000 prize, the winners will get their plays produced at the ASC in repertory with the play it stems from. This year, Anne is searching for companion plays to Henry IV (Part 1), The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, and The Winter’s Tale, two of which will be produced in 2019.

“Before you read it, any play you open could be the next great play,” Anne says. “There’s so much potential in this early phase.” Anne started working at the ASC at the beginning of September, and she’s already got her rhythm: in addition to reading play submissions, she’s refining the application form, answering emails, and absorbing as much institutional knowledge as possible.

On February 15, Anne will send viable play submissions to a group of readers who will help determine the list of finalists. “I am really excited about the moment we start to narrow down the pool. When the reader reports come back in, I’ve done my own reading, and it starts to become clear that we’ve got some good options, that’s the moment that’s really exciting to me.”

Mind the Gap

Fresh from the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Anne has plenty of experience with new play cultivation through her work with its National Playwriting Conference. While at the O’Neill, she was able to sharpen her skills in application management and in advocating for living playwrights; these skills will come in handy during her work on the SNC Project.

She ends up being a customer service representative, an agent, and an editor for each winning playwright. Anne notes, “It’s really important to me that, not only am I taking care of the playwright when I sit down and read their play. . .I’m taking care of the writer the moment they email me with any question they have in the application process. . . .And then after we select [a play], I want them to feel taken care of with any notes that we have, in the rehearsal process, and all the way through opening night.”

Anne is excited to be involved with a playwriting initiative that is so specific: rather than putting out a general call for new plays, we are asking for plays which accommodate a large cast, walk hand-in-hand with a Shakespeare play, and utilize universal lighting.

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The call for play submissions is open, meaning anyone can submit. Anne has some advice for submitters: “Read all of the information on the website…and articulate how [your] play can speak to the Shakespeare play to which it is corresponding.”

All Aboard

Now that the wheels of the SNC Project are moving, Anne is excited to engage more than just budding (or established) playwrights. Over the course of the next year, ASC fans can get involved with the SNC Project both by spreading the word about the project and by coming to the theatre to see the plays during the rehearsal process. “One of the exciting things about new plays is that they’re not finished…so having an audience is very helpful for a playwright to hear, for example, where the laughs happen and why… so they can make rewrites.”

As the wheels of the SNC Project start their 20-year run, they promise to turn quickly. By September 2019, the ASC will have produced two world premieres of new plays, have two more plays chosen to produce in 2020, and be in the process of selecting two more plays for 2021. So take note and mind the gap; all aboard! It’s going to be a fast ride.

How We Teach Teachers

Google “Shakespeare on your feet” and the first page of search results will reveal that entities from libraries like the Folger, media outlets like PBS, and theatres like the Actors Centre advocate teaching Shakespeare through “play” or “up on your feet” or “actively”. At the ASC, we certainly use that language as well, but the driving idea behind our approach is more about context than the work we see elsewhere.  Context is a term we take very seriously; it involves more than asking students to build models of the Globe or talking about Elizabeth’s life during the era. It really comes down to teaching our teachers and students to think like Shakespeare’s actors did when they approached the text.  Look around you and see the wooden platform, the audience in the light, the clues in the text (for those who don’t have a lot of time to rehearse), so that performance of the words is at the top of students’ minds.  

ASC’s approach to teaching teachers and students is rooted in fundamentals of classroom practice and an understanding of the demands placed on teachers’ time, students’ interests, and Shakespeare’s plays.  We consider setting, context, methodology and materials and address assumptions teachers may have as well as the unique world of the Shakespeare classroom.

Setting: The ASC acknowledges that most of the teachers we work with operate in English classrooms which feature desks, and that there is some difficulty in getting open spaces in many schools.  So our lessons work within those parameters. We believe that learning is individualized, so students can learn most deeply in situations which invite inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to encourage the exploration of scene, arranged in thrust so that students are closer to Shakespeare’s theatre’s architecture.  We advocate for avatars and actors to demonstrate and help define the information but do not advocate that all students must be on their feet at the same time — something that is difficult to do in an English classroom and is not conducive to all students’ engaging with the text in context.

Context: We believe that context is everything. Context means we believe in treating the plays as plays, plays that were written for specific theatrical conditions that students benefit from knowing, and leaving the text in place in the lesson. This means that we do not employ “insult generators” or pull lines out of speeches to “throw them at each other”.  We do not advocate for separate lessons on Shakespeare’s biography, but fold the fact that he was a working actor into every exploration and note that his monarch and the political climate of early modern London may have had an impact on this character or that scene, as it arises. We consider the staging conditions he considered, as a means to get the students and teachers we work with closer to the performance Shakespeare imagined as he wrote the plays.

Inquiry (infinite variety): We create a world of many, many right answers, and we suggest a method of inquiry-based learning — where each student’s answer may differ.  Shakespeare wrote incomplete works; he needed the actors he worked with and the audiences he played for to finish them.  Students are the actors and audience, and they can answer the questions that lead to the infinite variety of choices that continue to make his plays fascinating 400 years later. We encourage students to consider a number of choices — if video comes into our lesson, we use several clips from many different productions to emphasize how many choices are available.

Materials: We provide teachers with materials that are complete and formatted for ease of use in the typical English classroom (black and white, because most schools copiers are not color; few pages dense with information to save paper; and we are working to envision more in the digital classroom — white boards, etc)

Teacher Experience: The ASC realizes that the vast majority of teachers working with students on Shakespeare’s plays have had few classes on the subject and are not versed in theatrical techniques (nor do many want to be; they teach English because it is their passion). We believe that teachers desire to deepen their own learning and knowledge in order to deepen their students’. We recognize that they have limited time in which to add to their knowledge, so we strive to make every minute that they spend in our professional development programs immediately applicable to classroom practice and to their own and their students’ enrichment.  We take the approach that if teachers know more about how these plays work and worked on the stage, they will have a richer understanding of why the plays are worth studying and be able to communicate to a diverse body of learners

Respect:  We believe that teachers’ time is precious and that they learn the most from fellow educators — educators who have the time to prepare detailed and specific lessons and handouts that they can immediately deploy in their classroom. We model those lessons so that teachers can see one approach and adapt each activity to their own style and purpose.  We arrange the lessons in an accessible way so that they can teach the unit in any order and blend the lessons together as they choose, but also provide a scaffolding section (The Basics) so that teachers have a baseline of knowledge from which to begin. We test the lessons and conduct focus groups, then we adjust them as needed, constantly improving the materials we provide and our approach to them. And, we enhance the lessons with feedback and input from our actors and the events that transpire in a rehearsal room, so that we are speaking truth and giving students and teachers the very important insights our actors share in classroom applicable ways.

In short, we aim to create an atmosphere of learning that makes gaining knowledge and engaging in exploration irresistible.  A space in which students dread the final bell because they will have to leave the topic, a room filled with voices and opportunities to state one’s thoughts — while realizing that difference of opinion is beautiful and can be shared respectfully.  A place where the learner can become the teacher and the teacher learns something every time the class convenes.  We believe the way to do that is by empowering teachers, giving students agency, and providing them with tools to examine words and meaning that stretch well beyond the classroom walls.  Even to a 400 year-old theatre, perhaps.

You can learn more about each of these and participate in an active and hands on model of practice at our teacher seminars offer 4 times annually at the Blackfriars in Staunton (the next one is August 3-4) or on site in your district.  Contact sarahe@americanshakespearecenter.com for more information.

Behind the play: Matthew Radford Davies talks LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Love’s Labour’s Lost joined the repertory of the Summer/Fall Season last week.  Today we catch up with director Matthew Radford Davies to hear his thoughts on the newest addition to the Blackfriars Playhouse lineup.

You’ve directed the Mary Baldwin University MFA company in the Blackfriars Playhouse, but this is your first time directing the resident troupe.  What’s different?  What’s the same?

Working with the resident troupe, I find myself practicing what I preach during the semester, which is an enabling experience.  The professionals are skilled musicians, not just of instruments, but also of the sound box that is the Blackfriars stage.  They play the frets that we spend time locating in class.  One of the central tenets of our MFA approach is collaboration, which is a buzzword in theatre pedagogy but which is even harder to effect than to spell.  I’m delighted to affirm that the collaborative spirit as the ASC, to which our students aspire, is alive and well.

You mention in your director’s note a 1930 quote from Harley Granville-Barker. “Here is a fashionable play now three hundred years out of fashion.”  Why was he wrong?  What makes this play fashionable in 2017?

I don’t think Harley G-B was wrong.  (Is he ever?)  But plays have their times, their kairotic moments, and just as quickly find themselves out of joint again.  Coriolanus, a long-neglected play, is everywhere at the moment, perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.  As the world stumbled from Edwardian excess into a Great Depression, and the threat of war began to rear its head once more, it’s easy to see why theatregoers might struggle to care about the emotional anxieties of la jeunesse doree.  Post-war, I suspect the play started to re-engage with sexual politics, feminism, and the battle of the sexes.  Meanwhile, the slipperiness of the language and the generic uncertainty of the ending clearly appealed to the postmodern sensibility that favored skepticism and heterodoxy over conformity and hierarchy.  Beneath its elegant exterior and its plotted edicts and male-directed mandates, lurks a roguish energy of doubt and questioning that, I think, contemporary directors find intriguing and appealing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often heralded for its linguistic brilliance.  We’ve been calling it “Shakespeare’s most exuberant word-fest.”  Shakespeare is, of course, known for his mastery of the English language.  What is it like working on a play that’s particularly spectacular even by the high standards set by Shakespeare’s other works?

I remember once reading that language in LLL is a character in its own right.  If so, then this character is as intriguing and untrustworthy and compelling as all the others in the play.  Throughout the canon, Shakespeare displays the fabulous paradox of an author both enamored by and deeply skeptical of, the written language.  In Love’s Labour’s, as in so many of his plays, letters are the guarantors of disaster, but in this play the spoken word gets equally challenging treatment, since what the characters say is as untrustworthy as it is seductive.  So, as theatre makers, we need to do more than just say the lines clearly, we need to luxuriate in them, their syntax and sound, their rhetorical dexterity.  Not surprisingly, amid such linguistic opulence, the simple lines — often short and expressed in Anglo-Saxon terms – land most powerfully.  One of my favorite lines in the play, in the entire canon, in fact, is Berowne’s simple, sudden exclamation, “ — O, my little heart.”  But that purity of expression gains its power, its energy, emerging from its rhetorically dense context.

We think Shakespeare may have written a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there are no surviving copies.  Some scholars believe LLW might actually just be Much Ado about Nothing.  Do you think there is any merit to that idea?  Is it special to direct a production of LLL playing in repertory with Much Ado?

While the RSC recently staged this clever conceit, with the same actors “appropriately cast” across the two plays — Benedick/Berowne to Beatrice/Rosaline, for instance — with the narrative conjoined, or divided, by the Great War — I strongly doubt that Much Ado is LLW (which quite possibly existed and is now lost).  I am, however, delighted that the ASC is bringing LLL and Much Ado together in one season, especially as they’re both in period dress, since audiences can judge for themselves how well the plays work as companion pieces.  I am personally as struck by the differences as well as the connections, and the way the two productions ask us to view a similar theme and cast of characters from very different angles.

What scenes or characters should audiences specifically look for?

In this production, we have worked extremely hard to fashion individuals from a formulaic plot structure.  While the lovers are clearly patterned in groups, their concerns echoed and enriched by the “rusticals,” we also wanted to ensure they had their own arcs and expectations.  Not only do the lords and ladies each have journeys to travel and lessons to learn, they all pursue their developing loves in subtly different ways.  We’ve also worked to tie the comic subplot, featuring the love triangle between the hearty Jaquenetta, the lusty Costard and Armado, the Spanish knight down-on-his-luck, as tightly as possible to the main plot. Comedy, romance, and potential tragedy (in the form of a melancholic undertow), intermingle in this play of sophisticates, sophists, and simple rustics, and we want you, the audience, to never quite know what will float to the surface at any given moment.  We hope that the characters constantly surprise you, and challenge all of our easy expectations.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up.  Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery.

A Moment about “Still Star-Crossed” – and other Shakespeare adaptations

Countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays span hundreds of years, and the likely candidate for most adapted play is Romeo & Juliet. Most recently, “Grey’s Anatomy” creator and prolific TV producer Shonda Rhimes explores the world of Shakespeare’s classic post tragic deaths.  Aptly named Still Star-Crossed (the show draws its name and plot from author Melinda Taub’s 2013 young-adult novel), Rhimes’s latest work joins the consistently expanding realm of film and television adaptations of Shakespeare.

In her book Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, Margaret Jane Kidnie terms adaptation “an evolving category…closely tied to how the work modifies over time and from one reception space to another”. Accessible to audiences beyond academia, Still Star-Crossed does an admirable job of staying true to the play’s dramatic pathos, while keeping intact the flesh of well-scoured soap-operatic fascinations with shifting alliances that have characterized Rhimes’s evolving television repertory.

The show focuses on named characters Rosaline and Benvolio, who take the place of Romeo and Juliet as Verona’s eponymous star-crossed lovers, and explores their connections to both warring, shambling families.  Still Star-Crossed lifts characters’ names and statuses from both the “original” work (“original” in quotes because even Shakespeare lifted from other sources), and Taub’s book.  

Though it lacks iambic pentameter, there’s a lot about Still Star-Crossed Shakespeare enthusiasts can find to love: integrated casting (an enduring, welcome fixture of Rhimes’ shows), central female characters, brewing political intrigue, and varied romantic relationships.

The show follows a female character who has little to do in the original and is therefore ripe for development. Rosaline (who in Shakespeare’s work was discussed but is not even included in any stage direction, much less possessed of any lines,) is the show’s main female protagonist.  She exhibits qualities evident from Shakespeare’s other heroines while maintaining her own story arc.  As played by actress Lashana Lynch, Rosaline is headstrong, independent, pragmatic, and loyal.  

As in As You Like It, the show features more than one strong female, and she shares qualities with characters such as Lady Macbeth and Volumnia (of Coriolanus). Princess Isabella, the sister of the feud-frustrated ruler of Verona, as played by Iranian actor Medalion Rahimi, is exacting, ambitious, and operates from Verona-walled shadows.

The concept of copyright was foreign to the people of early modern England (approximately the late 15th century to the 18th century).  Plays were licensed, but were ultimately the property of the playing troupe – not of a single author (a practice which fellow early modern playwright Ben Jonson heavily challenged during his time and beyond).  Plays vibing off of Shakespeare’s work proliferated from the early modern period onward. Two examples include John Fletcher’s 1647 The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed (a continuation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) and Nahum Tate’s 1681 The History of King Lear, (in)famous for its happy ending.  Adaptations have also carried over to films in the early 1900s.  Although the mediums are different, observing the plot-related elements present in Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s trilogy Throne of Blood, Ran, and The Bad Sleep Well (adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet, respectively) next to Tate’s Lear shows the similarities in the practice of adapting.  Beyond, similarities, though, the choice to include distinct elements, such as some from Japanese Folklore, in the films, influences the action, if not necessarily the events from the plays they borrowed or re-purposed.  Though not influenced by folklore, by contrast, the direct changing of a plot point in Tate’s Lear–that of going from a tragic to a happy ending–subverts the conclusion in ways that can be both shocking and delightful”.

The adaptation train shows no sign of slowing down.  Indeed, our own Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project at the ASC seeks to build of modern canon of contemporary companion plays that vibe off and are inspired by Shakespeare’s work.  Recent concern has been expressed of Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries being cast out of theatres in favor of their modern day kin, perhaps most notably after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Initiative launched in 2015. But there’s no cause for concern, dear friend. Past and future adaptations of Shakespeare’s works are beautiful reflections of his masterpieces, and they can only help us recover the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s plays.

Still Star-Crossed airs Saturdays at 10|9c on ABC.  Full episodes are online at ABC.