Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Staging Session I

Cass Morris back again, and I’ll be covering the first of our Staging Sessions. In these sessions, scholars and practitioners get to bring specific staging issues to our actors and work through them. We have two running concurrently today, one in the Blackfriars Playhouse, and one at the King Theatre at Stuart Hall School, just a few blocks down the road. From 2:30pm to 3:45pm, I’ll be covering the session at the Playhouse, moderated by Matt Davies of Mary Baldwin College.

Matt opens by remarking that he presented at one of these staging sessions back in 2009, and he jokes that while Sarah Enloe assured him that he knew what to do to introduce one, he thinks the best thing to do is just get to the staging as quickly as possible. He points out that both companies ran Kickstarter campaigns in order to reach the Blackfriars Conference this year. Both staging sessions will run in succession, and then Davies will moderate a group discussion. The presenters in this session are assisted by Greg Phelps, Daniel Burrows, and Dan Kennedy.

Lee Benjamin Huttner, New York University: “Mirrors in Richard II

Huttner is a graduate student in both literature and drama at NYU and Tisch. He will be examining the “mirror-breaking” scene and the famous deposition scene, 4.1, of Richard II, and he believes that this scene may never have been performed on the early modern stage, due to censorship issues. He looks at mirrors as an organizing principle for Richard II, not just literally, but as “the fundamental disjuncture that occurs at an encounter of the self”.

Huttner begins the scene at Richard’s entrance. Greg as Richard II encourages the audience to respond when he calls out “God save the king!”, which he then immediately denies being, prefacing the tug-of-war that will occur over the crown with Henry Bolingbroke (Dan Kennedy) later in the scene.

“There are a number of choices to be made during the scene,” some of which Huttner admits he did not anticipate, “which is why we’re here.” He brings in the idea of role segregation — the idea of the self being separate from one’s role. Richard in this scene exists between the two roles of subject and king. Huttner argues that he is not distanced from both, but rather has to try to fulfill both simultaneously. Huttner explores some ideas of metatheatricality, looking at ways in which human life can be construed in terms of performance, scripting, and “backstage” actions. Nothing, he argues, distinguishes the ritual performativity of the stage from the ritual performativity of life. This concept brings the idea of mirrors back into play (via a short detour to Hamlet’s ideas of holding a mirror up to nature); Richard sees himself in the glass as others see him, seeing the self that he presents to others.

Huttner relates this disjuncture of self with the disjuncture of the crown (and thus of the role and assumed self) that we just saw in the deposition. He describes Richard and Henry as “a living chiasmus … simultaneously linked and thrust apart by the crown, by the ‘I’.” He interrogates the idea that Richard and Henry might have to both hold on to the crown for an extended length of time during the scene. The chiastic structure comes back into play with Richard’s response to Henry’s question, “Are you content to resign the crown”: “Aye, no; no, aye” (or possibly “I know no I”, bringing the signification of self back to the forefront). Taken out of his roles, Huttner argues, Richard “considers himself erased.” Huttner then discusses how Richard pre-emptively “ghosts” himself — and will, in fact, become a ghost that haunts the rest of the tetralogy, his legacy weighing heavily on Bolingbroke’s son Henry V.

The actors confer for a moment and stage the scene again, incorporating ideas from Huttner’s presentation. This time, Richard requests less of the audience initially, and his approach to Bolingbroke is somewhat softer (though also quite bitter). Both men cling tight to the crown throughout the verbal negotiation over it. Richard re-crowns himself (acting, as Huttner earlier pointed out, as both bishop and king in an instant) and then holds the crown out to Bolingbroke, though does not relinquish it throughout his long speech. Dan Kennedy’s Bolingbroke seems impatient, even exasperated, with Richard’s indulgence.

Beth Burns, Hidden Room Theatre: “Original Practices at Hidden Room”

Beth Burns introduces her support team from Hidden Room, noting that she met her dramaturg for The Taming of the Shrew at a previous conference. She positions herself clearly on the side of practitioners as opposed to strict academics, but states that she tries to make her practice as well-grounded in scholarship as she can. She thanks the scholarly crowd for “letting me steal your work, as I do do and will do today.”

Burns discusses her experiences with Original Practices and notes that, while different companies and scholars have different views on what that means, they all come down to: “let’s not fight the text; let’s go with it.” She’s curious about the idea of “male playing female, and what that does to the text,” particularly what it does to jokes — which she doesn’t like to cut just because the reference isn’t relevant. She wondered if the idea of men playing women would balance out the gender issues in Shrew. “What I found instead was, actually, a love story. A really sexy love story.” It also produced a theme of identity.

She noted two challenges: 1) to get the audience to believe the man playing a woman as a female character, and 2) to make the audience perceive the relationship displayed as a heterosexual one, not a homosexual one. Her actors from Hidden Room then present the introduction between Kate and Petruchio (2.1), in (as in her production), late-sixteenth-century costumes and (lead-free) makeup. The scene is fast-paced and full of action, with a Kate visibly enjoying the challenge of sparring with Petruchio, and a Petruchio utterly unwilling to part company with her. Kate also seems moved (though somewhat uncomfortable) by a Petruchio speaking to her sexually — as, this staging seems to suggest, no other man has ever done.

Burns notes that the scene is “a veritable cornucopia” of the techniques they use. She notes that, to make the steaminess palpable, they don’t just go for the obvious sexual jokes, but also those words that “sound sexual” by virtue of their sonic qualities or the face-shapes the sounds cause. They also explored “non-standard touch”, to break the expectation of the usual courtship interactions. She moves to the next scene, which she hopes will cause us to look at gender role and power.

In the “sun and moon” scene, 4.5, Kate’s concession to Petruchio’s declarations comes with more than a light touch of sarcasm — but she laughs when Petruchio address Vincentio (an impromptu substitution of Matt Davies) as a fair mistress. When Kate gets the joke and flirts with Vincentio, Petruchio intervenes a bit hastily, to cut off a kiss — which represents, as Burns points out, that she’s now playing on an even field with him. They move to the final scene: 5.1, on the street — the “kiss me, Kate” moment. Their frenetic energy slows to tender regard, but loses none of its passion.

Burns brings her actors out and first asks Ryan (Kate) about building the character. He talks about placing her “center” low, to ground her and also give her grace. Burns and Judd (Petruchio) talk about building the “uber-macho” Petruchio, who Judd describes as “the archetypal alpha male” who goes beyond the typical plateau of gentlemanly behavior.

Matt Davies opens up to questions from the audience for either presenter.

Q: Has Hidden Room yet done this with tragedies, and if so, how was it the same or different?
A: Short answer is no. Will be doing “Rose Rage” in July.

Q for Beth: How early in the process did you get into costume?
A: Ryan responds that the skirt and the shoes were really important — He gave himself permission to go there early on, not just for himself but also because he felt it helped his castmates see him as Kate, not as Ryan. Judd adds that it changes the way you carry yourself. Beth clarifies that they got Ryan into a skirt on Day One, and that their Bianca had to shave an enormous beard before they could start her love scenes. Matt comments that competing beards could create “a Velcro situation”.

Q for Beth: Would you consider casting a prepubescent boy whose voice has not yet cracked?
A: Beth says was not willing to go “that far down the rabbit hole”. Afraid that less-experienced actor might not get the quality needed, also that a prepubescent boy might get them in trouble with all the steamy bits. Matt adds his wondering if, looking at plays like Antony and Cleopatra, if the boys got given better female roles as they got older, and thus were no longer prepubescent or even pubescent.

Q for Greg: Struck by first version, when he came out to the audience, with the scene moving to such a solipsistic moment — interesting counterbalance to the mirrored exchange. Wondering if that was scripted as part of rehearsal?
A: All respond that: There was no rehearsal.
Q: Matt adds, does the direct address come into contrast with those introspective moments, asks Lee how he would deal with that in rehearsal.
A: In early modern environment, there’s no huge distinction between stage and audience. Richard speaks of notions of embarrassment and of deference — thinks deference particularly important, especially with regard to reflection of how audience defers to actors on stage. Thinks the interplay of ideas only works in an environment like this.

Q: Wonders what he thinks about how the direct address would have functioned with the Essex performance?
A: “Well, there’s a lot to say about that.” Discusses the possible explanations regarding the censorship.

Matt suggests that discussion of the Essex Rebellion continue at the bar.