Blackfriars Conference 2011- Staging Session III

Hi, Deb Streusand here. This afternoon I’ll be liveblogging Staging Session III at the Blackfriars Playhouse from 2:30 pm to 3:45 pm.

Staging Banquo’s Ghost
Nicole Ricciardi, Monmouth University

Ricciardi describes the particular interest of Macbeth 3.4 and the question of “to see or not to see the ghost”–which is scarier for the modern audience? Also, how do we see this scene in terms of actor-audience relationship? She discusses modern productions that make use of stillness, contrasting them with those that use paranormal movement and activity. James Keegan, John Harrell, Gregory Phelps, Miriam Donald, and Chris Johnston perform the scene in stillness and with an invisible ghost. The audience finds a surprising amount of humor in this version of the scene. Ricciardi asks Keegan, who played Macbeth, for his reaction. He describes making the choices of how to imagine the ghost in terms of making choices for an actor who is not there. Ricciardi discusses the insights this version of the scene can provide about purpose of this scene in terms of the play’s structure, specifically as an echo of the dagger, which we also do not see. She considers that it does not take the story where it needs to go, however, and requests that Rene Thornton join the scene as the Ghost, first as a silent and unexpected visitor and then as summoned by Macbeth. Before the actors perform, Ricciardi asks, “why a ghost? Why Banquo? Why does he come back twice?” She describes the second visit as necessary to help the audience move through a progression in its relationship with the actors. After the actors perform the silent and unexpected visit, Ricciardi reminds us that we are looking for the answer to “why twice,” positing that in terms of the progression from the dagger, this experience spurs Macbeth on to the next murder. The actors discuss why Macbeth seems to see that the table is full but not to see Banquo at first, and ways of staging this phenomenon to make it believable. An audience member asks about Sarah Siddons’ innovation of having Lady Macbeth see the ghost as well, wondering if anyone else has done the same. Ricciardi does not believe so. She discusses having Macbeth appear to conjure and then dismiss the dead with the Ghost’s second visit, using the toast to Banquo as the summons. If Macbeth is showing this power of conjuration and dismissal off to the audience, he is working with them within the relationship that the dagger soliloquy establishes between actor and audience, and advances it to a necessary step for the progression of this relationship. An audience member brings up the implications of exactly when Banquo leaves the second time. The actors perform the conjuration version of the scene, wherein Macbeth summons the Ghost for his second visit. In closing, Ricciardi draws our attention once more to the crucial question of how this scene moves the story forward, and how we can stage its paranormal nature for the modern audience.

Rehearsal of Philaster 4.5
Lois Potter, University of Delaware

Potter describes seeing Actors’ Renaissance Season rehearsals this spring and wanting people at the Blackfriars Conference to be able to see the process. She decided to stage for the conference a rehearsal of one scene from the beginning using cue scripts, and chose Philaster, which the actors will perform as part of the Actors’ Renaissance Season this coming Spring, with Gregory Phelps in the title role. Potter briefly summarizes the plot and the present situation before the actors perform. The actors first read through the lines to see how they will fit together, pausing to make sure they understand what they are saying, and sometimes to enjoy the humor of the lines. They work on figuring out who is talking to whom and when. Next, they stage the scene. Miriam Donald, today playing Arethusa, discovers that she needs a stick to serve as a sword for Philaster, and finds a pencil for the purpose. John Harrell and Rene Thornton discover that a line of James Keegan’s includes embedded stage directions for them, specifying where they should look. Thornton amuses the audience by taking some time to figure out that he is speaking to Chris Johnston on one line. The actors discuss the differences between this workshop and the rehearsal process, explaining that they would ordinarily have done a read-through beforehand, and one actor would have cut the play for performance, so that he would have greater knowledge of it. The actors discuss the textual aspects of their process, responding to a question about when they do and do not use cue scripts. John Harrell describes his process for cutting Philaster, saying that he was not able to make cue scripts because he could not obtain a good electronic edition of the play. The actors discuss the experience of their improvised blocking in this workshop and the questions they need to answer to make things move more smoothly next time. They chat with the audience about how they make their different conceptions of the blocking fit together, and what actors do while other actors are speaking. Harrell describes how his cutting process involves a lot of envisioning how to make the play work for the company on a practical level. He tells the audience about how important it is for ASC actors to be good readers and to think carefully about genre. Phelps discusses the importance of understanding the whole story when acting any given scene, “to play honestly to everything that happens, and not throw it away.” An audience member asks about the creative potential of keeping mistakes that actors make in rehearsal, and Harrell confirms that this type of choice happens frequently in the Actors’ Renaissance Season. An audience member asks about how much the Renaissance Season has revolved. Donald describes initial struggling over who was going to act like a director, making decisions about the play as a whole, but that this approach did not work, and that as they have started to make decisions about individual scenes instead of the whole play, the process has become much more effective. The actors reminisce about the amusing aspects of everybody’s trying to be director in the first Renaissance Season. An audience member asks about whether Ralph Cohen or Jim Warren (the co-founders of the American Shakespeare Center, who often direct the plays when it is not the Renaissance Season) are involved in this process at all. The actors explain that Warren takes care of casting, and is able to pass a very occasional veto on a choice the actors have made, but other than that, the actors have total autonomy. The audience and actors chat about the experience of learning to do things this way. Chris Johnston describes his learning process, and how Phelps helped him work with the difference between “your problem,” an actor’s individual difficulty, and problems that affect the company as a whole. He describes how the actor playing the largest role typically ends up organizing rehearsals for practical reasons.

Moderator Terry Southerington encourages questions for both presenters.

Question for Harrell and Phelps (playing lords who could not see the Ghost) about the Banquo scene: What changed for you having him visible and not visible? Harrell says he finds it more helpful to have someone there so that he knows where not to look. An audience member comments that having a ghost gives the audience more things to track, and different ways of reading the lords’ not knowing what is happening. Phelps discusses the value of the lords’ being inconspicuous, and how having Banquo present draws the audience’s gaze to the lords, making it more difficult for them to ignore what is happening.

Question for the actors: For how long have they been doing Renaissance-style runthroughs of shows that they will later work on with a director? Dr. Cohen answers that the ASC has been doing so since at least 1995, and that when they were first starting to do the Actors’ Renaissance Season, their experience with the Renaissance runthroughs made them confident that the actors would be able to do well without a director.

Question for the actors: When do you start using props, doing fights, etc.? Donald answers that they start using props as soon as possible, but fighting requires more preparation. In response to another audience question, the actors explain how they find their own props and then make them fit together, and how they differ in their approaches to finding costumes.

Question for John Harrell: How did the Spring 2011 Actors’ Renaissance production of Look About You come together? Harrell discusses the importance of costumes for plays involving disguise, and how for that play, they used costumes quite early in the rehearsal process.

Question about fights: How does the choreography work? Phelps mentions the actors’ varying levels of experience and how they affect the process.

Question for Ricciardi: How does the phenomenon of doubling with a character who dies early on affect the reaction to ghosts, since in either case we see an actor who “died” returning? She describes the importance of timing and the choices that are made about how to portray the Ghost. Thornton mentions how Falstaff haunts Henry V, and an audience member talks about the role of Will Kemp’s departure in determining Falstaff’s absence and how it is handled in the play.

Terry Southerington of Mary Baldwin College moderates this session.