Archive for April, 2006


April 29, 2006

No post last night, just this tonight.  Busy.  And I have a bunch of papers to grade before Tuesday, so Blogging the Dane might be a little light for the next few days.

In the meantime, Lucas Krech linked to me in a blog post yesterday, comparing BTD to another director's blog — Lucas says I focus on blunt realism as opposed to Isaac's "abstracted metaphorical perspective".   Lucas has a great abstracted metaphorical perspective as well. 

And he's right; this is a blog about the nuts-and-bolts process of directing, and specifically about directing Shakespeare.  I like a good manifesto as much as the next passionate young visionary, but I also really enjoy talking about practicalities and process.  And doing our best work is at least as important as anything else in fixing whatever problems we see with theatre in the 21st century.


callbacks part two

April 27, 2006

Here's how callbacks worked.

I was in one room, the director of the other show was in another room. The actors waited in the lobby and hallway in between, where the stage managers were checking people in, passing out sides, and keeping things running as smoothly as possible. The actors knew which parts they were called for; they got their sides, found a partner, and came in to read for me one pair at a time. I had several short scenes picked out and copied, most under two pages (not much point in going over two pages with a callback scene — long enough to have a couple of meaty transitions, short enough that everybody gets to play). The actors had a lot of waiting around, but at least they could go back and forth between the two directors. The costume designer was in another small room taking everyone's measurements, so that she can go right to work as soon as everyone is cast.

Everyone I called back was a solid actor — a good voice, able to handle the language, physically engaged, having demonstrated some passion or at least some energy with their monologue in their first audition. I gave all sorts of notes, sometimes to get the actor closer to how I see the character, but much more often just to see how they respond to different types of direction. For example, I gave some of the Gertrudes a note about using "thou wilt not murder me" to treat Hamlet like the whiny seven-year-old he used to be, dismissing his threat completely, only to see something in his eyes a moment later that turns the tables and makes his threat very real. I may or may not end up wanting that line to be played like that in performance, but watching the Gertrudes take the note and run with it told me a lot about what it would be like to work with them (and they all handled it beautifully). I gave some of the Ophelias a very specific and niggly note about making "No more but so" mean "No more than what we just talked about, but also no less, right?" Again, a choice that could go either way in performance, but I need to see how an actor handles a note with that level of specificity. In rehearsal, I won't get anywhere near that specific on every line — but the few times I do go there, I need to know the actor can understand what I'm asking for and make it her own.

After each scene, I told the actors which scene I'd like them to read next, and sent them out to track down the sides and a partner. Eventually I wanted to see people with specific partners — would these two work as brother and sister? Would these other two play well together as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Since Hamlet has already been cast, he was in there with me reading opposite everyone.

My favorite scenes were when the actors had practiced with their partner outside beforehand — some of them worked out little moments and bits of blocking that brought their scenes to life. And the strongest actors kept discovering moments like that throughout their scenes, taking my notes and playing off of each other all the time.

At the end of the night, we gathered in the big room — the two directors, the two stage managers, the production manager, the Artistic Director, and the actor playing Hamlet. The Artistic Director brought out some beers as we lay the headshots out on the floor of the stage, adding post-it notes with characters' names and then moving them around (both the notes and the headshots themselves) again and again in different combinations. The Artistic Director had watched some of the callbacks for each show, and offered up her thoughts. Our Hamlet shared what it was like to play off of the various Ophelias and Gertrudes and Rosencrantz and Guildensterns. We asked the stage managers if anyone had been difficult to deal with. We talked about a few more actors who had had legitimate conflicts that night but were still interested in being in the show; it looks like we'll be seeing a few more people in the next few days. We didn't make any final decisions last night — but we got a good look at what are options are, and figured out how to proceed.

Most of the cast is still up in the air. The doubling is going to be very complicated. The Player Queen is a good example of what I'm struggling with now — it's an awfully small role, but also a very difficult role to double with anyone else (she's on stage at the same time as Ophelia and Gertrude, and Horatio, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). In theory, I could follow Peter Brook and have just two Players, one for the Player-King and the other playing both the Queen and the Poisoner (and Laertes is available to double here). But using a man for the Player Queen goes against the art nouveau style we've been imagining for the play-within-the-play. I'm now thinking about casting a woman as Osric, and doubling her as the Player Queen, though I had been thinking about having Osric on stage all the time as an attendant to the King, and this would take away from that at least a bit. It's also possible that someone would accept a small role in Hamlet if they're also playing a larger role in Comedy of Errors. I could go on and on like this for hours about all the characters and all the possibilities, but I think you get the idea.

As I said in yesterday's post, we saw some fantastic actors. I'm crossing my fingers that everyone we offer roles to will accept — though there were more strong actors than leading roles, so some actors that I would happily cast in a lead will be offered smaller roles instead, and some great actors won't be cast at all. Much as it sucks to have to turn down actors I'd love to work with, this is a pretty great problem to have.

callbacks part one

April 27, 2006

Just got back from callbacks; it's 2:30 in the morning and I am exhausted.  I'll try to do a full post tomorrow talking about the callback process.  For now, the news summary:

  • saw some really solid work from some great actors — more great actors than I have roles for.  Five or six potential Ophelias that just rocked.
  • will be seeing a few more actors (who had conflicts with tonight) in the next few days, so casting will be delayed for at least a few roles if not for everyone.
  • a stage manager has been hired, and she is amazing and wonderful.
  • my head is spinning with all the possibilities.  I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do, but I definitely need to sleep on it.
  • it was a ton of fun to play with this text with these actors.  I can't wait to get into rehearsal.


April 25, 2006

"…one vital element in this kind of irony is enjoyment. It's an odd sort of enjoyment and in this case it's a kind of enjoyment of one's own bitterness. Hamlet is full of that. It's often a mistake with Shakespeare to just act bitter. There has to be a zest in verbalizing the bitterness…"

-John Barton, Playing Shakespeare, 1984

Auditions: Day Two

April 25, 2006

Lots of no-shows last night — that's the other problem with online submissions. But we saw some fantastic people. All in all, we have some solid choices and I can't wait to get into callbacks.

Auditions: Day One

April 23, 2006

We saw about sixty people tonight. A wide mix — lots of people I could cast, a few that seemed underprepared, and some that I really liked but that might not be right for any of the roles (which is always frustrating). Also a few old friends from past shows, and a couple of people I've seen at previous auditions. Everyone had one minute to do a Shakespeare monologue, and we asked some people to do a second piece or to do their first piece again with a note if we felt we needed to see a little more. A lot of the notes were simply about volume — for an outdoor play, we need to be sure the actors have some pipes. It's always surprising how often the second time through will be significantly better than the first (which makes me wish we had time to ask everyone to do their monologue twice). Sometimes the notes we give really make a difference, but I think most of the time it's just about the actor getting past the initial nerves of the audition; the second time through they relax and have fun with it.

I'm sure most directors have their own shorthand for taking notes at auditions. For me, I have a few qualities that I'm specifically keeping an eye out for, and a letter corresponding to each one (this idea came from Jon Jory). If they have a great voice, for example, I'll write a "V" in my notes. And I'll draw an upside-down letter, or sometimes the letter crossed out, if they have a particularly hard time with that quality (if they don't stand out either way, I just don't write that particular letter). For Shakespeare auditions, the qualities I'm most keeping an eye out for are voice (V), speech (S), how they handle the language (T for text), and (E)nergy level. The other big one is whether they're playing transitions — probably the quickest way to tell if you're looking at a good actor is by watching for how they handle beat changes (again, thanks on this to Professor Jory). I have a little arrow symbol for this, with a line through it if they specifically fail to play the transitions.

Other qualities I might note down are whether they're (F)unny (if they try to be funny and aren't, I draw an upside-down F), physical work (P or B for Body), whether they take (D)irection well, and whether they seem like they might be (C)razy or (W)ierd (I'm sure this sounds harsh if you've never watched a full night of auditions, but you've got to be thinking about spending the whole process with these folks). I don't have notation for this, but I also tend to make notes about whether they have spark or charisma, and whether they're "busting out" (I don't know why I started using that phrase, but I'm always pleased when I see an actor really busting out at an audition).

Sometimes I'll put down something about their appearance (especially if they don't look like their headshot, which happens way more often than it should), or about what monologue they do, to help me remember them later. Sometimes I'll make specific notes, like "rushing" or "indicating" or "cerebral" or "good variety", but there's not a lot of point in going into detail at a first-round audition. It's all about whether to invite them to callbacks at this point, and that's the final thing I mark down (along with what role or roles I want to read them for). Tonight I had one mark for definite callbacks, and another mark for probable callbacks, both these marks being made off to the side for easy reference later on.

It seems like every time you hold auditions you end up seeing the same monologue way too many times. I don't know how it is that so many actors end up choosing the same piece. Tonight we had about six Iagos and a ridiculous number of Helenas from All's Well That Ends Well. At least it's Shakespeare — with a contemporary play, it's always a ton of Jane Martin or the same three unpublished monologues off the internet that must come up first in a Google search.

We have one more night of first-round auditions. After that, I'll sit down with the Artistic Director and the director of Comedy of Errors and we'll decide on who to call back — enough to give us some options for each role, not so many that callbacks become impossible to handle. Right now, there are a ton of potential Ophelias but only a few choices for each of the other big roles.


April 22, 2006

Ophelia's the kind of character that I always find tough to crack. I feel like she's important on a thematic and emotional level, but that the role itself is almost underwritten. She's so much in the power of other characters that her actions — which are always my way in to understanding a character — seem overwhelmed by her obstacles, and it's hard to tell what she's specifically trying to accomplish. The plethora of flower images that Shakespeare associates with her from the very beginning of the play certainly make her character more vivid, but offer no easy and straightforward analytical assistance.

Ophelia is initially defined by her relationships to other people in the play. She is Laertes' sister; they seem on happy terms, able to joke together even as he warns her to watch out for Hamlet. She has something romantic happening with the Prince, and it's unclear how far this has proceeded. A case could be made that some lines imply a physical relationship is already under way, but on an explicit level it's all about his courtship of her. And she is the daughter of Polonius. I've already written about how I think Polonius does care about her, but that he has a difficult time expressing that kind of emotion. No mention is made of Ophelia's mother.

I take it as given that Ophelia and Hamlet do really love each other, and that if Old Hamlet had lived eventually they would have gotten married. A contrary interpretation is possible, but would lower the stakes tremendously.

In her first scene (other than a possible non-speaking appearance in the first big court scene), we see her exchanging farewells with Laertes, and we see both Laertes and Polonius warning her that Hamlet does not really love her. Polonius specifically orders her to stop accepting his courtship, and she meekly agrees to obey. She breaks up with Hamlet offstage, and we next see her rushing to Polonius after a confrontation with the apparently mad Prince. She describes Hamlet's mad behavior in great detail, leading Polonius to admit to her that he was wrong — that Hamlet must really love her after all, and that her rejection of Hamlet is likely what has driven him mad. So from very early in the play, the heavy weight of responsibility is placed on Ophelia's shoulders. As far as she knows, her obedience to her father caused her to drive Hamlet insane.

As I wrote that last sentence, I realized that I've said the same thing about each of the three characters I've broken down so far. Polonius, Gertrude, and Ophelia each believe they are the cause of Hamlet's madness.

Next, Ophelia goes along with her father's plan to prove that Hamlet's madness is caused by rejected love. Gertrude's line implies that Ophelia might be able to bring Hamlet back to sanity, and perhaps that is exactly what Ophelia is trying to do. Interestingly, she begins her staged confrontation with Hamlet by returning his love letters, reprimanding him for treating her unkindly. Perhaps she is trying to provoke a display of madness here — perhaps returning the letters was Polonius' idea. On the other hand, she could be genuinely reprimanding him for his previous mad behavior towards her. In the offstage breakup, she could have told him she was only doing this on her father's orders and that she would like to stay on good terms. If so, his bizarre treatment of her would earn him this kind of reprimand.

Either way, her lines here provoke a completely unexpected reaction from Hamlet. He's relating everything she says and does back to Gertrude, and to what Hamlet sees as Gertrude's betrayal of her first marriage. Perhaps his lines about honesty are his rather oblique way of explaining to her why he can no longer allow himself to love her — a strange twist, given that she's the one who has broken up with him. He tells Ophelia that he did love her, then that he didn't, and then tells her to enter a convent (the bawdy interpretation of "nunnery" in this instance is thoroughly and convincingly debunked in the Arden). He says he's a bad person, and that she should not want to have children with him — or indeed with anyone.

Then he seems to figure out that this entire confrontation is a set-up, that Polonius is listening in (the Arden's argument against this is entirely unconvincing, especially taking into account the shift in emphasis of her lines following this moment, which show that Hamlet has suddenly put back on his guise of madness). Just before leaving the scene, Hamlet specifically says that Ophelia's womanly behavior has made him mad — I believe this is intended to throw Polonius (and, through him, the King) off the true scent, but Ophelia might well take it as further confirmation that she has caused Hamlet's madness. I've cut her soliloquy here, for which I now offer my sincere apologies to whatever wonderful actress I end up casting in this role next week.

Ophelia is flirted with quite bawdily by Hamlet at the play. She is polite, and tries to contain his antic disposition. And that's the last we see of the sane Ophelia, unless I steal a bit from the Campbell Scott Hamlet (and probably many others) and have Ophelia witness Hamlet's joking about stowing Polonius' dead body.

Ophelia's madness is no mystery. Her boyfriend murdered her father in a fit of madness, and so far as she knows his madness was caused directly by her actions. To be honest, I've never found her mad scene particularly compelling — we get it, it's sad, let's move on — and so it became an obvious candidate for the many many cuts I've had to make. It's still there, but greatly compacted. The Arden spends fifteen full pages analyzing her songs and her distribution of flowers. My feeling is that it's great to know that her reference to the baker's daughter might hint that she's lost her maidenhood to Hamlet, but that all a modern audience really needs to get is that her mind and then her life are casualties of Hamlet's delayed revenge.

That's Ophelia's function in the play — she is what's at stake for Hamlet, and she helps motivate Laertes' desire for revenge. Hamlet's inability to commit to a course of action leads directly to her death, and his understanding of this enables his transformation of awareness by the end of the play. That's all well and good, but to direct her scenes I need to know what she's trying to do herself. As of now, I think her greatest want is simply to please her father and everyone else. She wants to make people happy; she wants to do the right thing. In doing so, she accepts the changes her father pushes on her, and this causes conflict with change-abhorring Hamlet.


April 22, 2006

Hamlet appeals powefully to our sense of the mystery of life, but so does every good tragedy; and it does so not because the hero is an enigma to us, but because, having a fair understanding of him, we feel how strange it is that strength and weakness should be so mingled in one soul, and that this soul should be doomed to such misery and apparent failure.

-A. C. Bradley, 1904

Progress Report

April 21, 2006

Met with the costume designer this afternoon at her shop. She has a great set-up in a warehouse in Carson, several rooms filled with fabrics and costumes she’s made for past shows. She showed me suits and dresses from a recent production set in a similar period. We’ve been talking about using the play-within-the-play to really bring out the art nouveau look; she showed me some more research and possible fabrics for that. We chose a bunch of samples for the various characters, and talked through all the choices we’ve made so far. Good stuff.

Auditions are coming up this weekend. In addition to the headshots and resumes that people mailed in, we’ve been wading through a few hundred electronic submissions made through casting websites. Online submissions are great in theory, but these websites haven’t figured out the process yet in a way that makes identifying the people that fit our needs as quick and easy as it should be. In all fairness, though, I’m sure they’re designed for casting directors looking for hot people to be in commercials and sitcoms, and if all I needed to see was the headshot it would work fine.

I’m getting very excited about starting rehearsals. I always do. I’m such a geek about this that I’m even getting all excited about the prospect of getting to work with actors on scenes from the play during callbacks.

If anyone out there reading this is interested (or knows someone who might be), we’re still looking for a stage manager, a costume assistant, and a sound technician — there is pay. If you’re interested in auditioning, we may still have slots open — especially for people old enough for Gertrude, Polonius, the King, and the Ghost. Let me know.


April 20, 2006

The facts first. Gertrude has been the Queen for a long time; she was married to Old Hamlet, and is the mother of Prince Hamlet. After Old Hamlet died, she quickly married Old Hamlet's brother — it's unclear whether this marriage took place just before or immediately following his coronation. The text does not rule out the idea that she may have had some sort of mutual attraction or even affair with Claudius before Old Hamlet died — but the text doesn't directly support this idea, either (and I don't find it all that useful as of now). The text does make it fairly clear that Gertrude had no part in and did not know of Old Hamlet's murder.

It's no great leap to suppose that Gertrude had multiple reasons for marrying Claudius so soon after her husband's funeral. From the point of view of the people of Denmark, the marriage solidifies and justifies the succession, and Claudius specifically acknowledges the advice he was given to marry Gertrude. Whether or not she loved or was attracted to Claudius, she may well have seen the marriage as her duty to her country. And part of that duty would be avoiding any sign of excessive mourning for Old Hamlet.

This puts her on a collision course with Hamlet. Her first scene (and Hamlet's) sees her trying to get Hamlet to stop mourning and to "look like a friend on Denmark." Hamlet wants her to mourn, she wants him to let go. Shakespeare has set her up as the contrast to Hamlet — he refuses to accept the new order, she has embraced it. They both think they're doing the right thing, and it hurts each of them to see the other making the opposing choice.

Throughout the first half of the play, Gertrude is firmly on the side of the King; she participates in all the scheming and spying (briefing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, planning with Polonius). But she has her own reasons for this. Where the King is faking concern for Hamlet's well-being to mask his fears that Hamlet is on to him, Gertrude's concern for Hamlet is genuine. She wants to know the cause of his madness so that she can help bring him back to health. And like Polonius, she fears that she may be responsible for it:

I doubt it is no other but the main,
His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage.

She likes the idea that rejected love might be the true culprit; she later tells Ophelia she hopes this is the case so that Ophelia might

…bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honors.

…which sounds like a hint that she's rooting for Hamlet and Ophelia to get together, as she confirms at Ophelia's funeral.

At the play, she asks Hamlet to sit by her and is later carefully polite about the thinly-veiled and deeply offensive attack on her in the play's dialogue.

Gertrude's turning point comes in the famous 'closet scene.' She has agreed to confront Hamlet with Polonius listening in, and she begins by chastising him for his rudeness — I think she's trying to break through to him, to help him by getting him to see how dangerous and offensive his behavior has become. She probably hopes that if she can get Hamlet to behave rationally, Polonius will report to the King that sending him to England will be unnecessary. Hamlet ups the stakes by threatening her physically, and her cry for help flushes out Polonius; she is horrified by Hamlet's violence against who he clearly believes is the King.

When Hamlet tells her that his father was murdered, she seems genuinely surprised and hurt — at one point he even accuses her of killing Old Hamlet, though he knows it was Claudius. But what Hamlet is really angry at her about, and what eventually causes her to break down, is simply that she went from Old Hamlet to Claudius. He accuses her of betraying her marriage vows, but what gets her is the two portraits side-by-side.

This was your husband. Look you now what follows:
Here is your husband… Have you eyes?
O, shame, where is thy blush?

O Hamlet, speak no more.
These words like daggers enter in mine ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.

She has been living in the world of Claudius, the world Hamlet has refused to accept. She has accepted change, Hamlet has denied it. Just as Hamlet is rubbing her face in this, the ghost appears to get him back on track for revenge. Gertrude can't see the ghost, and Hamlet spends the rest of the scene convincing her he's not actually mad and getting her to agree not to tell Claudius. There's surprisingly little substance to what he asks her to do — stop sleeping with Claudius and not tell him Hamlet's sane are the only tangible tasks. The rest of it seems to be about remembering which side she's really on.

She agrees to all of it, and in a scene I've (unfortunately) cut she immediately backs up Hamlet by telling Claudius that Hamlet murdered Polonius in a fit of madness. She's on Hamlet's side now.

Hamlet's gone for Act Four, of course, and Gertrude is left to deal with Ophelia's madness (shortened), Laertes' rebellion (cut), and Ophelia's suicide (the big speech is cut). We see her briefly at Ophelias funeral, and then at the fencing match.

Does Gertrude figure out that the drink is poisoned before she drinks? In Peter Brook's Hamlet, she clearly suspected it. Maybe by drinking the poison she's protecting her son. And maybe she feels so horrible about marrying the man who killed her husband that she's ready to die. The more I think about this, the more it seems right — it's something tangible she can do for Hamlet as a result of the closet scene. I like the way that connects the dots through the play.

Gertrude's greatest want is to help her son. When he's sad, she wants to help him let go and be happy. When he's mad, she wants to find the cause and to cure him. And when it turns out that he's not mad after all, she wants to back him up as best she can.