Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Actor-Scholar Council 3/4/11

Last Friday’s council focused on 3 Henry VI, which opened last week. Actors in attendance included Tyler, Ben, Sarah, Greg, and Alli. The ASC is working its way through Shakespeare’s two tetrologies of history plays, doing a play from the War of the Roses each Renaissance season and play from the Henriad each fall season. Dr. Menzer, who led the council in Dr. Ralph’s absence, said that it has become fashionable among theatre companies to do the whole set of history plays in one season or festival. The Royal Shakespeare Company has done this twice in the past decade. I’m glad the ASC isn’t doing that, because I don’t think I could sit through eight two and a half hour plays.

The only character who appears in all four plays of this tetrology (the three parts of Henry VI and then Richard III) is Margaret, played by Sarah Fallon. Sarah feels the Margaret in Richard III (which the ASC will perform in the 2012 Renaissance season) is hard to understand unless a person has seen the Henry VI plays. Carrying the character through the tetrology proves difficult, partly because a year separates the staging of each play. Also, a lot of Margaret’s story in the first two parts revolves around Suffolk, who is killed at the end of Part 2. Instead of focusing on him, Margaret must now focus on her son Ned.

Greg, who previously played Suffolk, now plays the titular character. King Henry, he thinks, differs in this play from in the others. He sees the king as someone who never wanted for power or kingship and must try in vain to explain to those around him, who seek just that, that other things have greater import, such as stopping all the killing. Greg calls Henry a “good king, in the wrong play.”

Ben, who plays Richard Duke of Gloucester (later to be Richard III), also played the former duke of Gloucester, Humphrey, in parts 1 and 2. This correlation gives him a lot to draw on, especially in the contrast between the two. Humphrey always tried to do right (and gets killed for it—which explains why Richard at first thinks Gloucester too ominous a dukedom to accept), while Richard does only wrong. Ben argues that Richard only becomes so bloodthirsty after Clifford brutally kills his father and little brother. Before that, he focused on getting the crown for his father, York. With them dead, he feels free to be vicious. Viewers of last year’s Part 2 will remember that the seeds of viciousness were visible when Richard impaled Somerset on his sword and hoisted him over his head.

One part of rehearsing that makes history plays unique among the ASC show: they have tech rehearsals. All the fighting, sound cues, and stage directions make them more complicated. Henry VI Part 3 has over 70 sound cues, all of which are done live by actors. They have almost no down time backstage and must work hard to bring it all together. This show even included blood, mostly in the scene of Clifford’s death. The actor playing Clifford really wanted the blood, and the scene comes just before intermission, which gives the stage managers a chance to clean up the blood. The actors would have loved more gore, but technical, costume, and time constraints prevented it. Time constraints also prevented them from having a big celebration at the end of the play, when Edward gets crowned and everyone thinks the War of the Roses ends. While this leaves the ending more open to the violence of Richard III, the actors wish they could have ended with a jig.

The actors talked about the importance of heart and emoting in making the play work. By emoting, they keep from going into what Dr. Menzer calls “historical pronouncements,” or from making a blatantly allegorical scene seem overbearing. The actors need to find out how the action relates to their characters personally, and the audience will feel their emotion. The audience may not follow all the complicated family ties, but they understand the concepts, like family or civil war. If each actor knows how he or she feels and has a firm internal grasp on the character’s history and family, that will be enough.

Today’s podcast also featured a discussion of comedy in Henry VI Part 3, some hilarious banter from Dr. Menzer, and Greg’s fascinating extended conceit about . . . toast? So be sure to listen to the council’s podcast, available soon on the website.

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