During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!
Julius Caesar has been a part of our Dangerous Dreams tour and the 2016 Spring Season, closing this week. It also featured in 2015’s ASC Theatre Camp. Ellis Sargeant is an ASCTC alumnus and a student at Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School.
Theatrical Duality: On- and Off-Stage in Julius Caesar
by Ellis Sargeant
A hush falls over the crowd, a low chant rises from the discovery space, and the cast strides onto the stage. Julius Caesar begins.
We arrived at camp three weeks earlier, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on whatever challenges we encountered for the next three weeks. The murky cloud of untold possibilities facing us was the same one that the characters of Julius Caesar grapple with.
Both the journey of our production and the play itself begin with tension. We walked into auditions excited and anxious, hesitant and eager, with anticipation for a future we could not see. We took our seats, hearts pounding, and waited to audition in front of our directors and peers. Likewise, in Caesar the Roman senators walk the streets, excited and fearful, with anticipation for a future with Caesar as king. They sit in the Senate, hearts pounding, and wait for Caesar to inch closer to ending the Republic. Both of these tense moments are preamble leading up to the main action: at our auditions, our play hadn’t yet begun, and in Caesar, the senators’ worry is the backdrop to the play’s opening. This duality of on and off-stage experience is something that echoed throughout our exploration of the play.
Julius Caesar is a play draped in background. The play only makes sense in light of Roman history and culture. All of the characters’ choices are inseparably tied to their idealistic view of Rome. Each character in the play is convinced that Rome is the greatest city in the world, that it represents what is good in humanity. Conflict arises over that definition of “good.”
Our rehearsal process opened with a read through. We needed to get a feel for our characters in order to begin exploring the play. Similarly, the play opens with Flavius and Marullus giving background. Shakespeare needs to provide his audience with a feel for the wars that have just ended and the current political situation. Our cast then moved into rehearsing our first scenes. The plebeians party, Caesar strides onstage, and finally only Brutus and Cassius are left. We stand onstage, facing each other and the end of Rome as we know it.
Caesar is a play about the state versus the personal. Every character has to weigh what Rome itself is worth and what they would be willing to sacrifice to preserve Rome. Happiness? Security? Their own lives? The life of a best friend?
We faced similar questions during camp: What are the actors willing to sacrifice for the sake of our play? How much sleep will you give up to learn your lines? How much pride will you swallow to accept your director’s notes? How much of yourself will you give, every day, to your fellow actors and the work you are doing together?
Caesar is a play about intense decisions and life-changing events. Every conspirator has to make the decision to kill Caesar, but how do they decide? Some hate Caesar; one loves him; some love Rome; some only love themselves. The same is true for us actors. What motivates us to come to rehearsal every day and give our best? Do we come because we want applause, or do we come to build something beautiful with our castmates?
Caesar is a play about violence and chaos. It examines why people react with such anger and aggression. Retaliation, revenge, bloodlust, it’s all there. Underneath the exterior of every noble Roman is the potential for a butcher.
In the second week of rehearsal, we played a game. Our director gave us foam swords and had everyone form a circle around two people who are fencing; the first to three points wins. Then he took it up a notch, instead of three points, we fought to the death, actually acting out our wounds. Terrifyingly easily, even with foam swords, we were driven towards our killer instinct. In just a few short minutes, I went from mild-mannered camper to deadly hunter.
After the death of Caesar, Mark Antony gives the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech as a eulogy for Caesar, but what he really wants to do is drive the plebeians into a frenzy. He wants them to become a mob of rage and grief that he can direct at the conspirators. He takes ordinary people and fills them with enough rage that they murder a man just for having the same name as a conspirator. Antony taps into their killer instinct through grief and turns them into a frenzied mob.
Caesar is a play about justice, war, and conflict. Right before the war, Brutus and Cassius have an argument that almost turns deadly. They argue about whether they can compromise on the ideals that justify their murder of Caesar. Cassius wants to excuse an officer for taking bribes because it is impractical to punish him. Brutus refuses to accept that. He argues that they cannot claim they murdered Caesar for a higher good if they can’t stick to those ideals. When does a just war stop being just? When does turning a blind eye negate our ideals? How can we reconcile our ideals with pragmatism? Actors face questions not about war, but about ego: When is an idea worth fighting for? When do I have to set my own pride aside for the good of the cast? When do we have to sacrifice a concept because of the limitations of time and space that we have at camp?
Caesar is a play about duality. Although the first half may be what everyone remembers, there is an entire war after Caesar’s death and the funeral orations. Thus, there’s a story that everyone remembers and a story that everyone forgets. There is also a duality in our perception of the characters Brutus and Cassius. Even though Shakespeare gives them a fair treatment and shows the reasons why they chose to kill Caesar, throughout the Renaissance they were hated. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante places them as two of only four people evil enough to be in the final circle of Hell, along with Satan and Judas. Their struggles, their stories were largely forgotten outside of their role in Caesar’s death. Thanks to Shakespeare, in modern times, we remember the ideals they struggled for and not just their monstrous deed.
There is a duality to every theater production. The story that audiences see is the one that is there when the curtain opens, not the one that is played out in the rehearsal process. That behind-the-scenes story is full of struggle and failure and pain as well as fun and success and joy. Our audience never sees us arguing about our opening song or wondering if we would be able to pull it all together in time. Our families don’t know that one cast member became gravely ill during the curtain call. They also didn’t hear the actors playing with their stage daggers and yelling “Stabby STABBY!” or see our director launch into an impassioned ten minute rant about the problems with the Game of Thrones series. We could only give the audience one glimpse of all the work and love that went into our play, and one chance to see the conflicts and questions of the world through Shakespeare’s eyes for a single glorious hour on a Sunday afternoon as we strode onto the stage and performed Julius Caesar.