Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Staging Session II

Deb Streusand is back! This afternoon I’ll be liveblogging Staging Session II from 2:30 pm to 3:45 pm. This session is taking place in the King Theatre at Stuart Hall School.

Instant!_Shakespeare: Make Students’ First Readings Staged Readings
Becki Jones, Thomas Dale High School

Jones conjures the picture of a student struggling through a dreary, solitary reading of his or her first Shakespeare play, and contrasts this with her own recommendation for a first class on a given play: a lively staged reading of one scene, plastic swords and all. She cites several experiences, including work at the Globe and seeing Patrick Tucker’s Original Shakespeare Company perform without rehearsal, that gave her faith in the ability of a staged reading to create engagement with the play regardless of the degree of preparation. She demonstrates preparing the students by telling them the story of the play up to the scene they will be reading. The students from Stuart Hall School do their reading of the final scene of Hamlet, working out the blocking as they go; the sword fight is the only portion that they have prepared, for safety reasons. Jones gives them limited instructions as the scene goes on, but only where it is necessary for the scene to operate properly. Making sure that Hamlet and Laertes do change foils, for example, aids students’ understanding of the scene without disrupting the flow. Jones describes the advantages she has perceived from doing staged readings before students begin reading on their own. She gives the audience practical advice on how to prepare for this type of staged reading, and provides a handout for this purpose. Sally Southall, a fellow teacher at Jones’ school, provides an account of how this process has worked for her. She reports that she has found it quite successful in engaging even students who have studied Shakespeare before and have not particularly liked it. Jones concludes, “Instant Shakespeare! Just add students! Try it today!”

Touring and Original Practices: The Grassroots Shakespeare Company
Alex Ungerman and Mark Oram, Utah Valley University

Ungerman and Oram describe their experience founding the Grassroots Shakespeare company. Oram discusses his visit to the ASC in 2008, and the powerful effect that elements such as universal lighting, minimal sets, and doubling had on his experience. He saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Revenger’s Tragedy in the Actors’ Renaissance Season; he praises the “beautiful chaos” of this experience. Inspired by the ASC, he returned home and started an Original Practices company. The principles of Grassroots Shakespeare include role doubling, cue scripts, not having a director or any designers, and using limited rehearsal time. Oram and Ungerman describe their learning process as they worked on creating and using cue scripts, having actors design their own costumes, and coordinating rehearsals as a group.

Oram describes the challenges of using original practices without having a resident company, and explains the casting process that they have devised to make this possible. In the initial audition, they bring in groups and have the members of the group give each other notes on their monologues, allowing them to assess the actors’ potential as ensemble members. Ungerman describes a callback exercise wherein groups create jigs to popular songs and perform them. After further monologues and feedback, the company selects itself by popular vote, so that the actors know they have been chosen by their peers, setting up an immediate sense of collaboration. The company casts the show itself in the same way, working with sides and feedback, and the process again culminates in a popular vote and, if necessary, discussion until consensus is reached.

The presenters next discuss how their rehearsal process works. Their primary principle is that all actors must come to the first rehearsal prepared with a “first draft” performance, with their lines memorized. (There are about two weeks between casting and the first rehearsal.) They must also be prepared to receive and implement peer feedback. All actors are required to watch their fellow actors and give them feedback, emphasizing positive reinforcement and language of collaboration. They find that this atmosphere creates a better show and a more positive experience for the actors. In rehearsal, actors first perform a scene once through uninterrupted. The entire company then works with that scene collaboratively, trying to establish an approach to the scene that feels good onstage and looks good from offstage. Once the scene is put together, they perform it again to commit it to memory.

The presenters describe their two basic rules for their actors. 1)You must try any suggestion once, even if it is totally absurd. 2)Actors have final authority over their own performance. They note that once the company comes together, it creates a synergy and trust that makes actors responsive to each other and determined to make things work.

They next discuss the logistics of company work. Since there are no designers, the actors choose their own costumes, bringing a first draft in and then getting feedback on it. Without a stage manager, actors rotate through being “captain” for each rehearsal and performance. Actors are also responsible for marketing and publicity. Oram reports that in a group of 15-20 actors, he finds that there is an expert on just about anything. By making collaboration a part of the design, they achieve great results.

The presenters tell us how created their own stage to bring with them on tour. They describe several influences on their staging practice for tours, including Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour and other modern companies, as well as Elizabethan images of touring stages. They created a design inspired by these influences, with primary elements including wooden planking, curtains for a discovery space, ladders to provide levels, stairs up to the stage, trestles as a base for the stage, and, the innovation of which they are proudest, placing their stage on top of barrels to create the feel of early modern performance at an alehouse or inn. Their practical considerations include negotiation of the relationship between an early modern aesthetic and modern construction materials, creating universal lighting even at night with 360-degree lamps, and easy assembly and disassembly of the stage.

Oram and Ungerman share some of their company’s successes with us. They describe productions of Much Ado about Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, illustrating the evolution of their staging practices. They share some of the ways they encourage audience engagement, and provide data about the growth of their audience. Oram tells us about Grassroots companies he started in Exeter and London, which are going strong without him due to the collaborative nature of this approach.

They conclude with the principles that are most important in their approach: autonomy for the actor, enlisting everyone in the collaborative process, and synergistic collaboration. They again acknowledge their debt of inspiration to the ASC.

We have some time for questions. A questioner asks Ungerman and Oram if there is anything they would have done differently. Ungerman describes starting over from scratch with each new company, and starting troupes in different locations, so that in effect, they get to revise their approach each time. Another questioner asks about the financial elements of the work. Oram describes their beginning as a sharers’ company, and how this approach did not work so well, which led them to become an unpaid company, with a Pay What You Will policy for most shows. Another questioner asks about how they build their audience. Oram explains their use of social media and email databases, and the enthusiasm their audience engagement creates, which encourages audience members to bring their friends next time. The final questioner asks about their growth plan. Ungerman reports that they will be doing workshops with Tiffany Stern in the spring and touring in the summer. Oram tells us that they are thinking about starting Grassroots companies in San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

Brett Sullivan Santry of Stuart Hall School and Mary Baldwin College moderates this session.

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