Friday, January 28, 2011

Actor-Scholar Council 1/21/11

According to Dr. Ralph, the Actor-Scholar Council has two purposes: one, to give students the opportunity to ask about the Actors' Renaissance Season (ARS) and its rehearsal process, and two, to give actors the opportunity to ask any questions that they have about the shows. Today’s council focused on The Comedy of Errors and, to a lesser extent, The Malcontent. Actors in attendance included Tyler Moss, Sarah Fallon, Jeremiah Davis, Greg Phelps, Chris Johnston, and John Harrell.

We were lucky to have both Dromios and one Antipholus from The Comedy of Errors, allowing us to discuss how the actors played twins. Tyler and Greg (the Dromios) are both experienced clowns and went for a classic clown look. They used a lot of broad gestures, each one mirroring those the other used in other scenes, to get laughs and to establish their relationship. The ARS affords so little rehearsal time that actors who aren’t on stage together seldom get to see each others’ work. Both Dromios, however, even went to see the other’s rehearsals so they could play off what the other did.. While establishing their similarities as twins, the two maintained their individualities. Tyler’s Dromio was more of a clown, while Greg’s was a fool. By happy accident, John was cast as the Antipholus with the clown Dromio, and John claims to love beating on Tyler. This pairing led to a memorable scene in which Antipholus beats Dromio with a rope during Dromio’s monologue.

While the Dromios played up their similarity, the Antipholi played up their difference, relying chiefly on matching costumes to identify them as twins. One moment that struck John came when he realized that one twin is having the best day of his life, while the other is having the worst day. The Dromios had more extensive conversations about their relationship than either the Antipholi or the two sisters, based on what John and Sarah said about these latter pairs.
The council spent a lot of time discussing men playing women. Dr. Menzer wanted to know if there was any ethical consideration of casting plays thus in view of the shortage of female roles. Sarah pointed out that women can play men’s roles. The repertory system seems conducive to this cross-gender casting. Jeremiah pointed out also that men are generally only given small female roles. Tyler, wondering what would happen if men received female leads, mentioned how interesting it would be to have a man play Lady Macbeth, and one participant commented that that would lead to “a lot of pissed off actresses.”

Men playing women often disturbs audiences. Jeremiah, who plays Emelia in The Malcontent, found that men from the audience wouldn’t look him in the eye after the show. The ASC has taught by sufficient examples, one person argued, that it is okay for women to play men, but not the other way around, and a man playing a woman almost always gets a laugh. This rule is less universal in a tragedy, such as the current ASC touring production of Macbeth, in which (at least at one show) nobody laughed when a male Hecate entered. An interesting sidebar came up in the discussion of non-traditional casting: boys playing women in Shakespeare’s day struck audiences as erotic.

Jeremiah plays a theatrical rather than realistic woman in The Malcontent. He has few lines, so voice proved less important that physicality. Some of his decisions resulted from his costume, there being only one dress in our stock that fit him. He uses a fan either to hide or to accentuate his beard. Chris, on the other hand, plays the courtesan in The Comedy of Errors as a geisha, making it clear that he is really a guy, which Antipholus apparently doesn’t realize. At one point he takes off his wig and delivers a speech as a man. The choice proves interesting, and although men have played the courtesan in other productions, the geisha characterization is without precedent.

Tyler asked if the ARS is less stressful than the Summer and Fall seasons, which have a director. Opinions divided over this. Some actors thought it is. Sarah said it’s a different kind of stress. Chris finds it stressful, but enjoys the stress relief of the ARS. The rehearsal process for the ARS is so short, the first show opening after two to three days. If something doesn’t work in the rehearsal process, the actors must quickly change it, leading to stress relief when it turns out right. In comedies, it’s especially obvious when something doesn’t work because it doesn’t get a laugh..

Owing to the minimal rehearsal time, a Shakespeare play must open in the first slot. The ASC does this because the actors already know them and more of their speech is in our vernacular compared to the plays of his contemporaries. Also (scholars argued), Shakespeare was a superior crafter of plays. They also said that Marlowe and Jonson, were more skilled than, say, Massinger, so their plays, like Shakespeare’s, are easier to stage. Although Shakespeare’s characters are three-dimensional, character typing is especially useful, say the actors.

One last question which we addressed at the session was which scenes in The Comedy of Errors took the most time. Act 5 and “the door scene” (with one Dromio inside and the other out) took the most time. The actors blocked both early on in an effort to get group scenes out of the way. In contrast, last year the actors worked their first play in order. This turned out the better method, as this year they had to go back and reblock the two scenes once all the characters were established. These were the main points of last Friday’s productive and informative actor-scholar council, our first of 2011. If you would like to hear the entire session, it will be available as a podcast on the ASC site.

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