Actor-Scholar Council, 28 January 2011

This week we are focusing on the Actor-Scholar Council — Since 2007, ASC actors have met with scholars to discuss the unique experiment of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. The mission of the Council is to provide participants with the opportunity for discovery related to the process of mounting plays and performing them at the Blackfriars Playhouse, to provide participants with the opportunity to explore their overlapping areas of expertise in order to garner avenues for para-professional friendship, and to create a record of conversation for future study. Tune in to our podcasts to hear our other meetings for yourself. I’ve compiled these notes, with the help of Christina and interns Natalie and David, to bring you a comprehensive summary of last week’s discussion.

On January 28th, the Actor-Scholar Council met to discuss The Malcontent. The actors present were Ben Curns (Malevole), Patrick Midgley (Ferneze and Guerrino), Alli Glenzer (Maquerelle), Miriam Donald (Bianca and Maria), John Harrell (Mendoza), and Jeremy West (Pietro). The scholars present, drawn from the MBC MLit/MFA program, were Asae Dean, David Santangelo, Rachel Ratkowski, and Johnathan Haas. Paul Menzer, head of the Master’s program, was this session’s moderator.

The session began by questioning what the appropriate collective noun for a group of actors is. Suggestions included “an affectation,” “an arrogance,” or “a conceit” of actors. Paul then prefaced the conversation by considering the unique theatrical style of the Actors’ Renaissance Season, which exists “in stark contrast” to the rest of the artistic year. He suggested that the easiest place to begin might be with the “prosthetic personality” of the ARS — meaning the tendency, more than in the other shows of the year, to use wigs and exaggerated makeup as character signifiers. As examples from The Malcontent, Paul mentioned Ben and Jeremiah Davis in wigs, Alli’s bawd makeup, Paul Jannise’s wig and makeup combo making him look “like a powdered doughnut,” and John “in a moustache that I think can only be described as icky.” Paul asked, “Is that deliberate? Has it evolved?” and wondered if the reliance on external augmentations might be a product of the compressed rehearsal period, as a shortcut to character.

Ben spoke first, about his choice to use an auburn curly wig (the same as he has used in and in Cymbeline and in The Revenger’s Tragedy), primarily because the wig is easily removeable and reattachable for reveals. Alli commented that, for characters for whom the choices were not related to disguise, the over-the-top costumes and makeup indicated “something about the world in the play breaking down, no longer living up to something… Ever since we lost the Duke, we’ve been a society that care about the wrong things.” She also noted that, for her character, the makeup is written into the text, as the artifice of the bawd was a common theme in Jacobean dramas. As for the troubling moustache, John admitted that he was “flummoxed by the character” for a while, that he “couldn’t figure out what Mendoza’s deal was.” The moustache became a way, not only to differentiate John-as-Mendoza from John-as-gallant seen at the beginning of the play, but also to signify Mendoza as someone “trying for style but not quite ‘hip’ with style.”

Paul pressed further on the question of to what degree the creation of theatrical style is a conscious decision versus an organic growth. John commented on the freedom of being “not answerable to someone who may not match with you aesthetically.” The tendency to go towards stock-character-based interpretations, he says, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially because plays of this period “were written before the concept of stock characters came under fire.” He explained it more as a use of semiotics to convey ideas to the audience. Jeremy stated that the company discussed thematically the frivolousness of the society, and then, when they pulled costumes, they gravitated towards the opulent look of Restoration and French pre-Revolution era costumes. This contributed to what Paul called a “creeping coherence of design” that still retained “a provocative incoherency.” Miriam noted that while Patrick’s costume as Ferneze, leather pants and sunglasses, comes from a different world, it still fits in, somehow, to the overall play. In response, Patrick said that his costume makes it apparent that Ferneze is “an outsider, lascivious, like I’m a charade.” This incoherence, in Jeremy’s words, “bleeds into the acting style,” because the nature of the ARS, with actors learning from cue scripts and then putting the pieces together in rehearsal, creates “less necessity for acting style cohesion.” He notes that his character, Duke Pietro, is “kind of in the wrong play” theatrically, as a melancholic figure, which gives him the freedom to embrace a different acting style.

Conversation turned next to the masque at the end of the play. Asae asked how those stylistic choices worked with the masque, which had, in the Jacobean period, its own distinctive set of conventions. John’s answer was to go for something incongruous to the rest of the play, something “inescapably a different world.” Ben stated that the masque is yet another layer added to the levels of artifice in the play: “Marston seems to be saying that your job as a thinking human needs to be to see what’s underneath. This play seems to say, rather than slaughter everybody in your way, the harder job is to get them to fix themselves.”

Consideration of the masque segued into a question posed by one of the ASC’s followers on Facebook, Clifford Garstang, who wondered how the actors deal with the requirements of such a complex scene without a director. John stated his belief that it’s “a misnomer to say ‘undirected,’ they’re self-directed.” The actors are open to input from each other, but “also totally comfortable ignoring each other.” Particularly for the complex scenes, though, it’s helpful to know that someone is keeping an eye on business. For the masque in particular, Alli noted, they “all knew it needed to happen,” particularly since dialogue occurs during the masque, adding another degree of challenge. As Alli was not primarily involved in the masque, had studied the pavane, and had music to choose from, she took charge of that scene. The repeatable nature of the pavane made it easy to learn and to plug into the scene, and the movement of the dance, allowing different couples to come to the forefront at different times, made it a good choice for highlighting dialogue. During the ARS, as Ben noted, the actors tend to choose “crazy stuff” when dance is called for, such as the swing dancing in Romeo and Juliet or the hip-hop in The Changeling. With that in mind, “the craziest thing we could do is a period pavane.”

The pavane choice generated a lot of conversation. John noted that a prevalent idea exists that “that style of dance is lame,” which Jeremy thought is because it gets associated with boredom and which Paul thought grew out of the use of pavane-style dances in theatre and film as “a short hand for a kind of restriction.” The reality, however, the actors discovered to be quite different. “Dancing it is a lot sexier than you would think it is,” Miriam said. “There’s a lot more warmth than I had anticipated.” Ben stated that “the grace of the dance is deceptive to what is happening.” The actors also thought there’s a lot to be said for the stage picture that the pavane creates, with eight people on a stage as intimate as the Blackfriars’s.

Paul next brought up the “gestural vocabulary” of the ARS. John responded that he thinks it’s more of a different “floor pattern vocabulary” which he seeks to “really deliberately destroy.” He used the example of the “quincunx” (think of the five on a die) which is easy to “flop” into. Ben talked about how thinking about these stage pictures makes him consider the difference between lays written for the Blackfriars as opposed to plays written for other spaces. Plays like The Malcontent, Paul noted, feel more like chamber-pieces, “at home in the Blackfriars.” On the other hand, Look About You, which the actors are currently rehearsing, in Ben’s opinion “probably had a much bigger space, probably had pillars to hide behind.”

Paul commented on The Malcontent as a play that “excites an audience expectation that’s not satisfied… which is blood.” MFA student Glenn Schudel, who assisted John in cutting the script, commented that the play is “not what it promises to be,” and Asae questioned the difficulty created when the play holds out so long on providing important characters. Mendoza only appears at the end of the first act, and Maria, much-discussed but little-seen, comes in much later on. When Asae asked how the actors gave presence to those parts when the characters were so absent, Ben replied that it had been a problem, and that they had revisited Maria’s first scene after the preview performance. “I guess the answer is we’re not done,” Miriam added, speaking to the ability in the ARS to respond to what’s not working and fix troublesome bits over the course of the season.

Wrapping up the discussion, Paul asked what audiences should be looking for in Look About You. John suggested that the discussion on style might be even more relevant after Look About You goes up, as it relies even more heavily on typed characters and overexaggerations. Jeremy suggested that audiences look for the incongruities. “I knew nothing about this play coming into it,” he said, but working through the play has given him the idea that the anonymous play may have been a collaboration between two or more authors.

The next Actor-Scholar Council, focusing on Look About You, will be recorded for podcast on February 11th, featuring John Harrell (Skink), Chris Johnston (Redcap), Miriam Donald (Lady Marian), Jeremiah Davis (Prince John), and Paul Jannise (Henry II and Block).