The 2017 Summer/Fall Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse kicks off this weekend with performances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Much Ado about Nothing. Today, we’re catching up with Much Ado‘s director, Jenny Bennett, to get some thoughts on the show’s opening.
This is your third time directing at the Blackfriars Playhouse. What do you most look forward to about directing here that is different from other venues? What is similar?
I love getting to play in Shakespeare’s staging conditions, especially the #SharedLight. (Wait- is that a real hashtag? If not, it should be: #SharedLight #ftw.) There’s no distance between the actors and the audience here: they see us, we see them, we see each other seeing them and each other. In the shared candlelight of the Blackfriars, we are all right here, right now, making this story together on the great words of these great plays. It’s some ultimate theatremaking, in my opinion.
I’m a big fan of making theatre that makes the most of the medium, that uses artistic elements that can only happen/that happen best on a stage full of powerful actors inventing a story with the audience right exactly now. As an audience member, I love it when a production trusts me to imagine along with it—“Oh – that actor I recognize who was just the delighted ingénue in the last scene now has on pants, stuffed her hair in a hat, and is a whole new person called Boy? And I’m to believe that just because she and the other actors say so? On the power of their word? Yes, please. Awesome! We will imagine right into that, thanks; we will absolutely join in making this play.
We are so game out here in the audience – we’re hungry to participate in something big and smart and beautiful. In this Playhouse, we get to unite for a few hours, bound together by a great play spoken by great actors who we imagine along with in #SharedLight (look, I did it again). It doesn’t matter who we were when we walked into the Playhouse; by the time we’ve walked out of it after the show, we’ve helped make a play out of nothing. Well, nothing but words spoken and listened. Shakespeare might relate ‘words’ to ‘wind’, though, and wind is air, and air is airy…nothing. Far from diminishing the value of the word, what I take from him is that all human possibilities come from the word. We exist in language, in a theater or not. We exist, because we say so.
What about Much Ado about Nothing is different from the two other plays that you’ve directed here (The Winter’s Tale and King Lear)? What are you most looking forward to about this play?
You know, it’s interesting that all three of these plays I’ve gotten to direct here have featured moments of the idea of ‘nothing’ (just a few examples – Leontes’ big WT speech beginning 1.2.284 ‘Is whispering nothing?’; KL sequence beginning with Cordelia’s reply to her father’s request for public love 1.1.87 ‘Nothing. Nothing? Nothing, my Lord. Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”; Much Ado….about Nothing.)
‘Nothing’ is an idea Shakespeare was very interested in, if you measure interest by the frequency the word and its puns show up in the canon. I could be projecting, for sure: I’m definitely interested in this idea. No – thing. Absence of something. Infinity. Possibility. A moment of creation from which tales can be spun toward harmony or chaos, depending on the spinner (and the listener).
When you add in the accent of English spoken by Shakespeare’s actors at the time, of course, you get all these homophone puns on ‘noting’, too – what we ‘note’, what we pay attention to, or not. It’s explicit in this play on multiple occasions – Balthasar’s song intro in 2.3, ‘noting’ the daughter of Leonato in 1.1, the Friar’s ‘noting of the lady’ in 4.1.
Much Ado about Noting. Much Ado about Nothing. Which is it, do you think? I think it’s both. How great is that? Thanks, Will.
Directing in the Blackfriars is a collaborative process. What is it like to work with actors who have been on our stage for so many years?
I love these rockstar nerds. (And I mean ‘rockstar’ both literally and figuratively: the ASC troupe of actors is my favorite band. ‘Nerds’ I mean literally, my highest praise.) Acting in these staging conditions attracts the brave. It fosters that courage to be present and spontaneous over a five-month run with a few hundred people looking you right in the eye. The confidence in being, the trust in an audience that comes from long experience on this stage is a precious gift. The staging conditions are very much about the actor and the text – just the way I like it!
Directing is always a collaborative process wherever it happens — the Theatre itself is a collaborative medium full of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, producers, and a variety of staff, and a play doesn’t happen without all of these contributions. The whole ASC team and the artistic community they make together is a delight to get to be a part of as a guest. I’m so excited to see the ASC bringing playwrights into the mix with the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project, too! They’re gonna have a blast, writing for the possibilities of this troupe, where the words have power and the actors are game.
Do you have a favorite scene or line from this play? Have any become your favorite through the directing process?
My favorite line and scene is all of them. That’s what usually happens to me through the directing process, alas! But here’s a list of dozen delights that leapt to mind at your question. I’ll let readers listen for who says them in the show, or let readers guess the speaker, if they’re a lovely supernerd who likes a Shakespeare line quiz:
“Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”
“One doth not know how much an ill word may empoison liking.”
“Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending.”
“Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”
“For it so falls out / That what we have we prize not to the worth / Whiles we enjoy it“
“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much.”
“If her breath were as terrible as her terminations there were no living near her: she would infect to the North Star.”
“He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.”
“Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it.”
“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”
“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”
What scene or characters should audiences specifically look for?
Audiences want to look out for the wittiest couple that ever sparred in Benedick and Beatrice. Throughout the whole play, in fact, every character has some kind of Euphuistic wordplay. The topic setup, volley, volley, volley, SPIKE of puns, twists, and other feats of wit in this play have tickled audiences into high hilarity for four centuries!
Another thing that I love about this play is the notion that since we’re all invented out of nothing, we can reinvent ourselves out of nothing, too. Several people in this play are confronted with a rebuke of who they are, or how they’ve been behaving – they overhear people talking about them or are directly told they’ve made a terrible error. The real mettle of a person is revealed by what they choose to do with that information. Grace is available to those who take action to repair what’s broken, to be available to Love, to be ‘good men, and true.’ Along these lines, I’m quite fond of our 5.3 Tomb scene. Chris Johnston, Music Director, wrote the most beautiful song. I won’t spoil it here, but I hope you love it as much as I do.
You’re ending this play with a big song and dance number. What inspired that choice?
Benedick did. He says ‘Play music!’ and so I said, okay. We’re fair giddy at that point (that’s his conclusion, anyway), so we went ahead and danced, then, too. It’s a couple of lines earlier than the Folio’s [Dance] instruction, but we start dancing again there, as well. Though for the other two songs in the play we chose to keep the text and write the tunes (Tim Sailer composed the delightful ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ that he sings as Balthasar; Chris Johnston composed the gorgeous Tomb Song), the ASC often takes on musical moments in the plays as they would have been taken on in Shakespeare’s original staging –contemporary, known to the audience—something I’ve always loved as an audience member here. That guide felt like what was wanted in this exuberant moment, so I looked for a contemporary song. The one we picked I came upon while on the treadmill (which I stumbled off of, happily thinking this might be it). I wrote Chris Johnston and said ‘this?’ and he said ‘YES, PLEASE!’ Gotta come to the show to see what it is, though.
Anything else our audiences should know?
“We are the only love gods.”
“And if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!”
Much Ado about Nothing is on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse through November. More at –> amshakes.center/MuchAdo