"Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds, but Harry Harry": Political Rhetoric in Inaugural Speeches

Last week, America engaged in one of its grandest celebrations of the power of democracy: an inauguration ceremony. Amid the pomp, parading, and pontificating, I started thinking about transfers of power and assertions of the right to rule in Shakespeare. How do various rulers express themselves, what does a ruler’s first speech tell you about his or her intentions, and how can actors use that information on the stage?

I began with a rhetorical analysis of President Obama’s 2009 and 2013 inaugural addresses. (A note on attribution: While I am aware that the President employs speechwriters, since I don’t know how much of this might have been their work and how much was his input, I shall err on the side of treating the speaker as I would a character). What sticks out to me the most is that President Obama is a man who appreciates the Rule of Three. Tricolon, the repetition of words or syntactical structures in series of three, is a powerful device. The human brain likes sets of three, though the precise neurological reasons why this may be the case are indistinct. Three is enough items to define a series and show some sort of progression from start to middle to end, which may provide the brain’s reasoning powers with satisfaction (especially in persuasion or in comedy). It may also relate to human memory storage, as three seems to be  an ideal number for the brain to hang onto. President Obama uses this structure many times in both inaugural addresses. Examples often come in threes — “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall;” “from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown” — as do predicates to a single opening subject: “We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address

The President also has an interesting relationship with polysyndeton, the repetition of conjunctions, often buckling it together with the tricolon. When he speaks of the hardships the American people have faced in recent years, he often injects more conjunctions into his sentences: “these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked;” “none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” He also uses this when he talks in broad strokes about what the future will need (“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil”) and when appealing to America’s plurality (“what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names”). Using polysyndeton in this way underscores the tricolon, making the listener hear each unit separately. While it can often be a device which indicates a speaker’s lack of control over his words, President Obama’s employment seems deliberate. He seems to invoke it when he most wants to appeal to a sense of larger community, to the things that bind the entire country together, rather than those things which affect particular regions or groups. The expansiveness of the device mirrors the expansiveness of his message.

He also seems to appreciate anaphora, the repetition of beginning words, phrases, or structures — often in threes, as with “Together, we determined; Together, we discovered; Together, we resolved.” In his 2013 address, he begins many successive paragraphs with “We, the people,” invoking one of the most recognizable phrases related to our government and one which emphasizes the collective nature of the American populace. In what was probably the climactic paragraph, he used “our journey is not complete” five times, each with a predicate addressing a different challenge facing American citizens today. He also employs judicious use of epanorthosis, addition by correction, generally at the end of paragraphs, to strengthen a point already made or to add evocative details. That epanorthosis often blends with anadiplosis, repeating the last word or structure from the end of one phrase at the beginning of the next, a technique which chains thoughts together in a way that allows them to build and expand while still retaining a strong connection to the initial message.

President Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Address

The specific words which the President repeats are also significant. The Wordles of both speeches show, unsurprisingly, the repetition of words like “America,” “nation,” and “people.” What I find to be the interesting difference are the two words with the largest change between 2009 and 2013 — “new” and “must.” President Obama’s 2009 speech keyed in on the differences between what he offered and what the past eight years had been, as well as on the implications of America electing its first black President. “Newness” was a big deal in 2009. Now, in 2013, his message has shifted somewhat. “New” is still there, but smaller, while “must” has grown to be the largest and most-repeated word, outstripping even “America” and “nation.” The greater focus is on action — on what he believes America must do now to move forward. Other repeated words like “journey” and “requires” echo this shift from imagination to deed, from optimism to practicality, from the first step of a process to an effort begun but not yet completed.

So what is the ultimate synthesis of all of these devices? President Obama, in his inaugural addresses, speaks to the “united” part of United States, employing rhetorical figures which expand rather than those which narrow. He uses far more devices of repetition and addition than of omission; devices of direction tend to build or to create contrast, not to disrupt expected syntax structure; his devices of substitution mostly involve a typically political use of the passive voice, not a reliance on metaphors or symbolism. (See the ASC’s Roads to Rhetoric for more information on these categories). The overall effect is expansive and inclusive. His adherence to the Rule of Three not only creates harmony for his listeners’ brains, it also allows him to provide details in a meaningful way, calling on the experience of as much of the audience as possible and thus drawing them in to his message.

Despite the many transfers of power in Shakespeare’s plays, he rarely gives us a speech of the inaugural sort. More often, when a new king takes the throne, we next see him in conversation — either with his peers, his family members, or with dissolute characters that he needs to do terrible things for him. Only a few characters make public addresses, either to the court or the commons, immediately following their ascension to the throne (and obviously, there are a few key differences between our method of choosing new rulers and the methods that typically occur in Shakespeare’s plays).

One of the most overt examples of this kind of speech in Shakespeare is, itself, a kind of second inauguration. In Henry VI, Part III, Edward IV does not give a big speech when he first takes the throne from Henry VI, but he does address the court when he wins it back after Henry’s brief reclaiming. The speech (left) is somewhat flowery, full of metaphors for his own party and for their vanquished foes. He arranges a series, listing those he has conquered. The series decreases in number, from threes to twos, but increases in nearness to himself, as he moves from those not directly related to him to his cousins Warwick and Montague. Edward provides each set of foes with a vivid descriptor of bravery and honor. Should an actor color these descriptions with pride, with regret, or with some combination of the two? Shakespeare leaves the choice of why Edward feels compelled to list his fallen enemies to us. Does he mark out these deaths because he feels secure now, or is he remembering how tenuous his hold on the throne has been? Is he more reminding himself or his audience?

He then abruptly turns personal, addressing himself not to the court at large but to his son in particular. Whether or not the conversation becomes private at this point or not, however, is a determination for an actor and a production. Edward could as easily be using the address to his son to underscore his own line of succession, demonstrating to all observers that he has reclaimed the throne not just for himself but for his dynasty, as he could be offering young Ned private advice. Is the shift in focus more personal or more political? Shakespeare leaves that open for our interpretation.

Perhaps the most famous political evader in all of Shakespeare is Claudius in Hamlet. Sarah and I frequently use him and his first public speech as king as an example of how Shakespeare uses rhetoric to demonstrate that a character is being deliberately difficult. Claudius comes to the throne under circumstances that would be awkward even if he weren’t a murderer: marrying his dead brother’s wife, leapfrogging over said dead brother’s legitimate son, and doing it all with unseemly haste. So when it comes time for Claudius to address his court, he does his best to bury the lead:

CLAUDIUS
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.

Claudius’s full text from Hamlet, 1.2

It’s no wonder that students take a look at that and panic, and I imagine Claudius’s courtiers would have been just as bemused by his linguistic acrobatics. I encourage students to untangle sentences like this when they encounter such disordered syntax (hyperbaton in general, or anastrophe, if only two words are inverted), to put them back together in the order that makes the most syntactical sense — and then to ask why Shakespeare, who was perfectly capable of writing simple sentences, chose to have a character speak in this fashion instead. In this case, that exercise would yield you something like “Discretion hath fought with nature so far that we think on Hamlet, our dear brother, with wisest sorrow together with remembrance of ourselves, though the memory of his death be yet green, and (though) it befitted us to bear our hearts in grief and (for) our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe. Therefore we have taken to wife our sometime sister, now our queen, the imperial jointress to this warlike state, as it were with a defeated joy, with an auspicious and a dropping eye, with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, weighing delight and dole in equal scale.”

Even untangled, it’s a bit of a mess, but flattening out the kinks does help you to see exactly what Claudius has done, especially in the second sentence, where he moves the subject (“we”), verb (“have taken to wife”), and object (“our sometime sister, now our queen”) as far away from each other as possible and also puts them in the wrong order. By the time any listeners have ironed out what he said, he’s on to the next part of his speech, concerning a potential invasion by Fortinbras of Norway. It’s an impressive dodge, though not quite the sort of thing you’d hope for in a politician’s inaugural speech.

King Henry’s full text from Henry IV, Part 2, 5.2

Another semi-public speech has the ruler addressing the matter of his deceased predecessor, though less scurrilously than Claudius. In Henry IV, Part 2, the title character dies, allowing his son, Henry V, to take over. Father and son had a contentious relationship (in Shakespeare, at least, less so in history), but Henry didn’t murder him, so he has nothing to hide in this first speech. Henry’s challenge is rather to assert his authority when for so many years he has allowed both his family and the public to think of him as a wastrel. Now is the time to “pay the debt [he] never promised” back in Henry IV, Part 1. Similar to President Obama, Henry takes a few moments to set out what he intends, and he uses tricolon to do it: “And with his spirit sadly I survive, / To mock the expectation of the world, / To frustrate prophecies and to raze out / Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down / After my seeming.” We also see an example of polysyndeton in this speech: “Let us choose such limbs of noble counsel / That the great body of our state may go / In equal rank with the best govern’d nation; / That war or peace or both at once, may be / As things acquainted and familiar to us.”

Henry uses a lot of hyperbaton and anastrophe, but not in the way Claudius does, to tangle his meaning. The disorder rarely extends out of a single line or clause, and the irregularities are simple to understand and to unravel, unlike Claudius’s deliberate verbal entanglements. These inversions are of the pattern that Dr. Ralph Cohen has suggested are indicative of an education in Latin (a syntactically unfixed language, where adjectives generally follow nouns and verbs their objects), generally used in Shakespeare by rulers or by clergymen. They express formality, education, and high status; Henry begins with fewer of them and more of his old conversational tone, peppered with oaths and parentheticals, but as he transitions further into King Mode, he uses hyperbaton and anastrophe to signal both his awareness of his new status and his capacity to fulfill it.

Yet even with this intention, the erstwhile cheeky Prince Hal can’t seem to keep from messing around with people. In the first section of this scene (right), he addresses his brothers — several of whom have been more dutiful sons than he, the heir, had been. What’s most interesting to me in this segment are the frequent reversals. Look at all the times Henry begins a clause with “Yet” or “But.” Each of those marks a shift in focus, as Henry moves from telling his brothers to grieve, then not to grieve, then back again. Is this genuine conflicted emotion on Henry’s part, or is he yanking his brothers’ chains? It depends on the sort of Hal the production wants. He then moves on to mess with the Lord Chief Justice, feigning anger and resentment against him because the Justice brought the law down on Hal’s head in his younger days — only to perform a heel-face-turn after the Justice explains himself, commending the magistrate’s sense of duty and impartiality. The prince’s pranks were written in larger and cruder strokes, but Henry the King retains an impulse to manipulate people into corners to see how they will react (as we see further in Henry V, when he similarly tricks the soldier Williams). How much Henry is enjoying this is something the actor can use those “yets” and “buts” to show. The frequent diminutives, turning his proper name “Henry” into the informal “Harry,” play into this as well, undercutting his authority even as he asserts it. How much of an invitation to formality is this? He can call himself Harry, but how well would he take it from someone else, even one of his brothers? And how does it play different from when he calls himself Harry in front of his troops in Henry V? Those answers depend on the Henry in any given production, but the rhetoric devices in play indicate that, from the start of his reign, Henry seems determined to keep others on their toes.

Shakespeare also gives us one interesting female example of the assumption of power, and that in a comedy: the Princess-turned-Queen in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Her speech is not public in a grand proclamation sort of way, but nor is it entirely private. She addresses it largely to the King of Navarre, deferring his declarations of love until a more fitting time, but there are both nobles and commoners present as well, to witness her first moments as a sovereign monarch. She uses some of the same devices as Henry, particularly with regards to hyperbaton and anastrophe (“Your oath I will not trust”; “There stay”; “Change not”), but she also uses epizeuxis, immediate repetition, twice (“No, no” and “Challenge me, challenge me”). This forcefulness may be necessary to exert her will against a fellow monarch’s. Perhaps Navarre is trying to interject, but her repetition prevents him. Perhaps she has to reinforce these things for herself.

Whether a head of state has been democratically elected, taken a throne by force, or inherited it from a predecessor, his or her first official speech in office can bear great weight as the first chance to influence the public or to display newly-assumed power. What a ruler chooses to display — or to conceal — in that first public speech can provide a lot of character information about that figure (whether real or fictional), and examining the rhetoric of those speeches can help reveal those clues.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Rehearsals – Special Effects

Just because the Blackfriars Playhouse is a theatre which embraces Shakespeare’s staging conditions doesn’t mean that we don’t use technology in our shows; it means that we use technology that would have been available to Shakespeare and his company, and in many cases, those techniques can produce dazzling effects. Watching the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season troupe rehearse Julius Caesar allowed me to see the wonderful resourcefulness and creativity that goes into creating a spectacle on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage.

Dan Kennedy and Rene Thornton Jr.;
photo by Jay McClure

I talked in my last blog post about the traffic patterns backstage, and those patterns are particularly important during the storm scene in Julius Caesar — which actually crosses over parts of four scenes, from 1.3 through 2.3. Even when only two or three characters appear on-stage, every actor in the troupe has something to do, either creating special effects or preparing to enter — or, very often, one and then the other, in rapid succession. It puts me in mind of a swimming swan: the surface image may be polished and serene, but underneath the water, there’s an energetic whorl of action. Conversations during the storm creation process then depended largely on who could be where when and for how long. Alli Glenzer, for example, is creating a visual effect using the Rose Window, which is a bit of a hike from the stage, and so she had to figure out how much of the storm she could create that effect for in order to leave her enough time to make her entrance in 2.1. Who could take over the thunder sheets so that Ben Curns could get downstairs for his entrance in 2.2? How long should the ocean drum keep going before it becomes distracting? Is this “thunder and lightning” cue long, short, or medium? The troupe had to negotiate all of these considerations to form a coherent scene.

Many of the special effects also demonstrate the benefit of a repertory troupe. While putting the storm together, I heard John Harrell say, “Remember what we discovered last year, about the bass on the piano?” He set to work re-creating that sound, and Friday night, I heard another audience member commenting on it as part of the soundscape. Other influences came from recent productions both in Ren Seasons and Summer and Fall Seasons, from The Tempest, from Dido, Queen of Carthage, from The Roman Actor. Conversely, for the battle noises in Act Five and the flourishes throughout, the troupe consciously chose not to use the same effects they have been using in the past. For four years now, the Ren Season has featured the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, and those plays have used similar soundscapes, creating a coherent thread throughout the tetralogy: identifiable trumpet calls for coming and going, the clashing of swords backstage accompanied by shouts to create the alarums. For Julius Caesar, the troop decided to use different musical cues for flourishes and to keep up a military stomping backstage during the battle scenes. The effect is striking, invoking the lock-step precision of the vast Roman legions without ever needing to see more than a few soldiers on-stage. The march took a lot of practice, though, and as Alli Glenzer pointed out, several scenes’ worth of stomping gave her character Strato a perfectly good reason to be falling asleep while Brutus is trying to find someone to assist his suicide. When the soldiers in 5.5 enter tired, the off-stage needs of the show have informed their on-stage performance in an unexpected way.

Ronald Peet, Chris Johnston, and Grant Davis; photo by Jay McClure

Almost all Shakespeare plays call for more sound cues than I think most of us are aware of when we just read the play, and it isn’t just for the “big” moments like storms or battles. All of those stage directions for flourish, sennet, tucket, alarum just sort of fade into the background. As I sat watching our troupe walk through the cue-to-cue Julius Caesar on the Thursday afternoon of their three-day rehearsal process, I became consciously aware of just how much has to go on back-stage to make the story on-stage make sense. In order for Cassius to say “the clock hath strucken three,” someone has to be upstairs striking a chime. Before Brutus can tell Lucius to see who’s at the gate, someone has to knock. Almost every scene has some such requirement, and at the ASC, none of those noises are electronically-generated or automated. Music forms part of the soundscape of the play as well, both during the pre-show and interlude and within the play itself. Julius Caesar opens with “Clap Your Hands” by The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a wonderful piece which calls for clapping, stomping, and cheering from the audience, setting the mood perfectly for the jubilant chaos of the first scene. As Lucius in 4.2, Ronald Peet plays Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” as a “sleepy tune,” and the lyrics (“It’s not what you thought when you first began it,” for example) perfectly suit Brutus’s increasingly difficult situation.

Not all of the special effects in Julius Caesar are auditory in nature or occur from off-stage. While in many plays, you can get away with leaving blood out of murders and battles, in this play, the text calls too much attention to the viscera. At least in Caesar’s assassination, the audience needs to see the red run. While some productions in recent decades have chosen to stylize the blood, using cloth or ribbons, our actors opted for liquid. It makes sense with the text, since Shakespeare makes so much of the ability of blood to transfer visibly from Caesar’s corpse onto various hands and daggers. In order for those “purpled hands” to “reek and smoke,” in order for Antony to shake all those “bloodied fingers,” the audience needs to see what a mess an assassination makes. Our Caesar, Ben Curns, worked with Costume Manager Erin West to create a trick shirt — identical to the white dress shirt he wears throughout the rest of the role, but in which he can conceal six blood packets, one for each conspirator. In Shakespeare’s day, these blood packets might have been actual bladders filled with pig’s blood procured from the local butcher’s shop. Today, we use a laundry-friendly syrupy solution.

Chris Johnston, Sarah Fallon, Ben Curns, Grant Davis,
and John Harrell; photo by Jay McClure

The effect when all six blood packets pop is delightfully gruesome, but getting all six to pop took some practice. It adds an additional level of difficulty to the combat of that scene — already tricky, given the number of people involved. Each of the actors not only has to be exquisitely precise about how they place their hands and daggers, but they have to find a way to squeeze, smack, twist, or otherwise puncture the blood packets, and they only have a brief second or two in which to do so. The picture at left shows what happened during the first attempt, when several of the cast members had trouble. By Saturday night, however, they had it — all of the packets popped to great effect, allowing Ben to clutch at his supposedly spilling guts, then touch René Thornton (playing Brutus), leaving a visible streak on his face. The conspirators had plenty of blood to bathe their hands in, and the scarlet sheen glinted off of their daggers. It makes their exit a more striking image, and I realized, from a practical standpoint, why Shakespeare might specify that they exit “waving [their] red weapons o’er [their] heads” — it keeps them from touching any doors or curtains before they have a chance to wash up. Caesar lay bleeding on the stage for several minutes more, and when Antony and a servant dragged him off at the end, a vivid smear trailed behind him.

These special effects under the creative constraints of Shakespeare’s staging conditions illustrate clearly the blend of practicality and theatricality that dictates production at the ASC all year, and which drives shows during the Ren Season in particular. The actors are looking for simple answers to their problems, yes, but without sacrificing impact to the audience. Sitting in the rehearsal room during the building of the storm, I could feel the actors’ excitement building over the discoveries they were making and the solutions they were building. There was a current of satisfaction as it came together, with several of the actors commenting on how very “cool” the effects were. This is part of why we, in ASC Education, encourage teachers to explore the value in Shakespeare’s technology. Sometimes the challenge of working as Shakespeare’s company would have yields results that are all the more impressive and more satisfying.

Adventures in Dramaturgy: Rehearsals – Taking Shape

Julius Caesar is now up on its feet, and as dramaturg, I bore witness to the orchestrated frenzy that put an entire show together in three days of rehearsal. For any readers unfamiliar with the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season, it is the time of year when we employ some of Shakespeare’s rehearsal conditions in addition to the staging conditions that we embrace year-round. Our actors direct themselves, determine their own schedules, plan their own music for the preshow and interlude, pull their costumes from our stock — and do it all in a fraction of the rehearsal time as the shows in our Summer and Fall Seasons. Since we began the accelerated start-up and short rehearsal time for the first show of the Ren Season in 2009, that first show has typically been a popular comedy that our actors are familiar with and can put up quickly (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado about Nothing). This year, the actors take a crack at Julius Caesar in the first slot, a show which was last performed by the 2006-2007 touring troupe, and which has not been part of a Summer and Fall Season since the opening of the Playhouse in 2002. This choice thus provided a few extra challenges for the troupe: a historical tragedy, complete with multiple fights, suicides, and an assassination involving a minimum of seven participants, and a show that the ASC has not put on since 2007.

Alli Glenzer, Dan Kennedy, and Ben Curns; photo by Jay McClure

Time is at a premium, particularly for the first show of the season. The troupe had eight hours Tuesday, eight hours Wednesday, and four hours Thursday before their first dress rehearsal, followed by another four hours to tweak and clean up on Friday before the first Pay-What-You-Will preview Friday night — and after opening weekend, there’s no respite, as they held their first read-through of The Country Wife Sunday evening. Scheduling becomes hugely important. For this show, one actor (René Thornton, playing Brutus) volunteered to take charge of plotting things out — and then made adjustments based on what the rest of the troupe thought necessary. As a sample, here’s the schedule for the first day of rehearsal:

10-10:45 – Morning Meeting
10:45-12 – violence – suicides, Caesar kill, Cinna the Poet, Act 5 skirmishes
12-12:30 – 1.1
12:30-1 – 1.2 A and C
1-2 – 1.2 B and D (stage) – music (Tyson)
2-3 – lunch break
3-3:30 – 2.1 C and D (stage) – 1.3 A and C (Tyson)
3:30-4:15 – 2.1 A and B
4:15-5 – 2.2 A (stage) – 4.2 B (Tyson)- 2.4 (lobby)
5-5:15 – 2.2 B
5:20-7 – 3.1 A-D

So that was the first half of the play, shot through in eight hours. The morning meeting was longer on the first day than any other, simply because it was the beginning of the season. The entire production team — including Artistic Director Jim Warren, Associate Artistic Director Jay McClure, Costume Shop Manager Erin West, Properties Manager Chris Moneymaker, and dramaturg yours truly — had some notes to give to start things out. They also started throwing together a music list on the whiteboard, knowing that music rehearsals during the Ren Season can often be catch-as-catch-can, and that the earlier they had some ideas to start on, the more prepared they could get by Friday.

This schedule also points to what the issues of largest and most pressing concern often are: the most complex scenes, with the most bodies on stage and with more elaborate blocking needs. Anything involving combat takes additional time to choreograph so that it will be both safe and entertaining. Ben Curns took responsibility for fights for this show and had already blocked some things out in his head, but they still needed to set aside a lot of time for the actors involved to learn the movements — and for adjustments to occur.

Sarah Fallon, Ben Curns, Rene Thornton Jr.; photo by Jay McClure

As I watched the rehearsals, the phrase I heard over and over again was: “That’s a shape.” The actors would invoke this phrase when they had gotten to the end of a scene with something workable, usually in regards to the blocking. The scene wasn’t finished, it wasn’t perfect, but it had a shape — a general outline, an idea of who needed to be where when. Hearing that phrase over and over again got me thinking about the ways in which shape and place matter, both on-stage and off-, during the Ren Season.

Often, more time goes into rehearsing entrances and exits than into the meat of the scene itself. (This only works, of course, because ASC actors are already well-trained in textual matters, and it’s part of the reason all members of ARS troupes are veterans of the Blackfriars Playhouse). Julius Caesar features a lot of group entrances and a lot of scenes with between 6 and 12 bodies on stage. Looking at that schedule for the first day shows that: 1.1 only has four characters on stage, but the audience is involved as well, one actor had to change into a costume from the pre-show, another had to get downstairs after playing music, and the actors had to negotiate props on top of it. 1.2 involves a ceremonial entrance and exit Caesar and his train, off-stage shouting, a flurried re-entry of all the characters who just went off, and their final exit. It also involves a long conversation between Brutus and Cassius, but, while René and Sarah Fallon worked that on their own, the most stage rehearsal time went to choreographing those group entrances and exits. 2.1 involves all of the conspirators coming to Brutus’s house — another mass entrance, with specific costume and prop needs — as does 2.2, and 3.1 is the largest scene in the play, with the most characters entering simultaneously, several exits and re-entrances, and, of course, the assassination of Caesar. (1.3 through 2.3 also involve a storm, but more on that in another blog post). And that’s just Day One — the second half of the play features the famous plebeian mob and a whole lot of combat.

It takes a lot of work and communication to make all of that run smoothly — and actors won’t always nail it on the first try. Some of those entrances they re-worked Friday afternoon, after the dress rehearsal, and some they tweaked along the way. The flow on-stage isn’t the only problem, after all, and some issues only became apparent during the dress. Grant Davis and Ronald Peet, for example, realized that they needed more time after their exit in 1.1, so on Friday afternoon, they worked with Alli Glenzer and Dan Kennedy to figure out a way to hustle them off-stage faster, giving them more time to change. Other problems are architectural in nature, examples of the space itself influencing the work. Greg Phelps, as Antony in 3.2, only has about two lines to get from the balcony down to the stage, and he has to be there in time for the plebs to notice him and crowd around him. The plebeians had to test out a few different ways of delivering their lines in a way that gave Greg enough time to get down the stairs. Altogether, they probably spent more time on 3.2 than on any other scene in the play. The timing of the plebeians’ responses and movements has to be so precise in order to work the way they were hoping for, and as a further complication, many of the lines sound so similar or provide repeated cues. “Wow. That’s a lot of ‘will’s,” Greg observed in the middle of one sequence where he heard the word “will” from the plebs eight times, correctly cuing him only twice out of the eight. Finding the right rhythm for the scene took quite a bit of time, effort, and reiteration, but the resulting shape drives the audience along an exhilarating path.

Greg Phelps, Tracie Thomason, Abbi Hawk, and Grant Davis;
photo by Jay McClure

Blocking is a concern off-stage as well. Traffic patterns backstage can be as complex as those on-stage. Especially during Act 5, which involves a lot of rapid entrances and exits, skirmishes, and dragging dead bodies off-stage, I heard the actors discussing who could be in the discovery space or not at which times. But beyond that, the space in the rest of the theatre matters as well. As anyone who has ever taken a Playhouse Tour knows, the actors and production team arrange props and costumes methodically backstage. Chris Moneymaker had to remember to move the ARS props-gathering table away from the area of Tyson inhabited by the Tempt Me Further tour until they head back out on the road, to avoid any collisions or mix-ups.  I heard John Harrell refer to the “band corner” — a section of the downstairs area set aside during this time for instruments and music rehearsals. All of these little considerations build together into the background flow of the play, the moving pieces that the audience never sees but which are absolutely critical to a smooth performance.

Throughout the rehearsal process, what struck me most was the blend of communication and organization that makes the Ren Season run. These actors work well together and share a common language, making them a well-oiled machine — even though this precise troupe has never worked together before. Sarah and Dan are returning after seasons away from the ASC, and Ronald, Grant, Abbi Hawk, and Tracie Thomason were all here in 2012 but are new to the Ren Season. The ASC embraces the ensemble nature of theatre and performs in repertory year-round, but the Ren Season brings all of the necessary components into sharper focus. The result is a season unlike any other, full of its own special (and sometimes frenetic) energy.