Archive for June, 2006

up and running

June 30, 2006

We’re off!  Opening night was a blast.  The actors did great (a couple of first-time-in-front-of-an-audience hiccups, but nothing anyone would notice).  The set and costumes are gorgeous.  We’re telling the story.  The audience (almost 300 people on a Thursday night) seemed engaged — they were laughing in all the right spots, and there were definitely some tears at the end.  Lots of hugs and kind words and flowers and cards; this is a great group of people.  Much as I’m excited to move home to Berkeley next month, I’m also sad to say goodbye to this crew.

This is not the end of Blogging the Dane.  Lots of catching up to do on posts I never got around to, and who knows what else.  Sometime I’ll probably do a big summary of the whole experience.

This was a good one.


we open tonight!

June 29, 2006


The greatest play of all time, in a beautiful park, free admission. Come on down.

Dress Rehearsals

June 28, 2006

Here’s how our three days of dress rehearsals generally go:

mid-afternoon: drive down to San Pedro (leaving before 3 means beating most of the traffic)

late afternoon: frisbee in the park with the other actors who don’t have day jobs or can get off early

5 or so: sweep up the weird fig-like seed pods that drop from the big tree onto the stage

5:30 or so: start pulling out all the platforms and legs and sound equipment and lights from their storage space inside the bandshell.
6: actors called.  Set-building begins in earnest.  Legs onto platforms, platforms placed and bolted, facing and stairs attached, poles attached, lights hung and focused, speakers and mics placed, sound booth set up, etc etc etc.

7: fight call.  We run the duel at least three times.  We’ve also been spending significant time on the Polonius kill and a bit where Hamlet draws Marcellus’ sword on the battlements, because they involve new props and set pieces.

up until 8: actors into costume, work any other bits that need attention

8: start the run-thru

10: finish run-thru.  Sound system must be turned off (for the neighborhood around the park).  Work any bits that need attention (putting Ophelia into the grave, etc)

10:30: break down the set

11: quick meeting in which we go over any business and I give a couple of general notes, then release actors

11:05 tech notes

whenever I get home: type up all my notes for the actors and email them out

then: drink a beer, go to bed.

rehearsal photos

June 28, 2006

A bunch of photos from Monday night’s partial-dress rehearsal are up on flickr.

We should have good quality full-costume press photos after tomorrow night.


June 27, 2006

I suspect that most if not all directors have a bit of the control freak in them. I know I do. We get involved in theatre in one way or another — I started as an actor — and sooner or later we realize that we wouldn’t have to second-guess everything all the time if only we were in charge.

The wonderful irony of becoming a stage director to satisfy your control-freak urges is that, of course, at the end of the process you have no control at all.

Having a week off right before going into the last three rehearsals messed with my head. Once I took care of my sound design notes, there wasn’t a lot of work I could do on the show. So I thought and thought and thought about all the little things that we haven’t yet had time to work or fix. I planned out a whole sequence for last night that would allow us to fix everything and still do a full run. And of course, we weren’t really able to do any of it — getting the set up took too long, various pieces weren’t ready, etc etc etc.

It was frustrating, and I let my frustration show more than was really necessary. Sometimes, it’s important for a director to show some frustration — you need to let the whole cast and crew know that you care about the project, and that you expect everyone to bring their best game. But it’s also important to pick your battles; one of my teachers said that directors get one temper tantrum per project, and have to pick very carefully when to throw it so as to get the best results. That makes sense. I didn’t quite throw a tantrum last night, but I did get more upset than events really warranted. It wasn’t the right time to play the tantrum card — it was the control freak in me panicking over how little I could do to make things happen.

Ultimately, this is why theatre is a good profession for control freaks. At first, we get to make a bunch of big decisions; we collaborate with everyone, but we do have the final say. And then we have to let it go. On every show, we’re faced with our greatest fear. What could be more exciting than that?

Kevin Kline’s Hamlet

June 25, 2006

Watching another Hamlet on my last day off before opening was probably not the best idea. I couldn't finish it. I should have watched something with lots of explosions instead. It was impossible for me to just enjoy the story without jumping on every little thing they're doing differently from our production. A beat change? On this line instead of that line? What are they thinking?

It's a video of a stage production, filmed without a live audience. The feel of it is very similar to Jacobi's — especially in the set design (and the instant set changes; I wish they had shown how they handled those). The staging is extremely static: the actors get into a position and stay there for lines and lines and lines. The costumes are early 20th century, not all that different from our production.

I've always liked Kevin Kline. How can you not love him after A Fish Called Wanda? It took me a while to get used to him as Hamlet. He does well with the language, though he has a tendency to elongate vowels more than is really necessary for emphasis. And he cries all the time. There are literally tears running down his cheeks in every soliloquy. Still, he's doing solid work.

Overall, it felt safe; almost tentative. But again, that's probably because I've spent so much time thinking about all the risks I'm taking in our production. Oh, well. I can at least say this — if you're only going to watch one Hamlet on video, I'd say track down a copy of Peter Brook's. Kline's is further down the list; somewhere above Mel Gibson and below Derek Jacobi.

Music and Sound

June 24, 2006

I am not a music guy. When I was in the fifth grade play, the music teacher asked me if maybe I could sing a little quieter. In eighth grade, I was directed to speak the lines to my song while the cast danced behind me. I played Bernardo in West Side Story my senior year of high school, and they gave my solos to one of the other Sharks. I don't know if I'm tone-deaf or what, but I've never been able to understand what's really going on with music.

So I have a bit of a mental block about it. I listen to music all the time — indie rock, some electronica, a little hip-hop. But I have no background in classical music, and finding the right music for a play set in the past is always a big challenge.

My usual technique is to look up what composers were popular in the period, and then search the web for samples. I've heard it said that strings work best as score for live theatre, as opposed to a full orchestra — and that matches with my experience. So I often end up on Amazon, listening to the 30-second samples of a CD from a string quartet performing music from the period of the play.

Since Art Nouveau is already an influence on the design of the show, I tried to determine whether there was a musical side to the Art Nouveau movement. This didn't lead me very far — either there wasn't much of a corresponding musical movement, or I couldn't track it down. But Lucas advised me to check out Erik Satie, and that name came up in my research on the period as well. An Amazon search for Satie turns up all kinds of recordings. The one that caught my interest is an album recorded by a jazz saxophonist collaborating with a string quartet, in which they take French Impressionist music pieces and use them as a basis for jazz-like improvisations. The result is beautiful, haunting, melancholy, and just strange enough to place it outside the usual classical music sound.

Despite my inability to understand what's actually going on musically, I love sound design. The software programs available for editing and mixing sound are just incredible (the same part of my brain loves video editing on the computer as well). Whether using music that a friend has written for a production, or taking cuts from previously existing tracks, sound design software makes it possible even for someone like me to create professional-quality sound cues for a show.

The sound for Hamlet is relatively simple. There are no long transitions — one group of actors leaves as another enters. But I've put in very short (on the order of five seconds) bits of music between each scene; just using simple fade in and fade out functions in the sound software. In some plays, I mix in a "whoosh" or cymbal sound at the beginning or end of these kinds of clips to give it some extra oomph or to cover an awkward edit. Some of these transitional cues are longer, to cover a pause at the beginning or end of a scene (Laertes takes a moment at Ophelia's grave, for example). All of these short clips are chosen specifically to land the scene that has just ended, and to begin the following scene with the right energy.

There are also several sound effects in the show. The most annoying for me is the fanfares and flourishes; I've spent way too much time searching for trumpet fanfares that didn't sound too medieval or too ridiculous. When the Players arrive, Guildenstern hears a flourish and says, "There are the Players." Instead of another trumpet, I researched the kind of horn a car in the 1890s would use, and found a sample on the web — it's a little silly, but I think it works. And I'm using a spooky tonal sound underneath the ghost, and in Hamlet's freezes. That particular cue is one I've used in multiple shows in the past (Marisol and The Diary of Anne Frank); it comes in handy.

The last line of the play is, "Bid the soldiers shoot." It seems an odd way to end the story. But the King is also always shooting off the cannon as a toast, and Hamlet complains about the King's excessive drinking and toasting to Horatio. So ending the play with those same cannons being shot off in an ironically inappropriate memorial to Hamlet seems right. The cannons bang three times, very loud, and a bit of music from the end of a track fades in with the third bang. The music has a long tail; it should let the audience know very clearly that the play is over.

another article

June 23, 2006

This one's from a column in the Daily Breeze, and it's all about the Artistic Director and how she makes the festival happen every year. 

There is madness, then there is the fine madness of Lisa Coffi, an altogether intelligent, charming and ambitious woman who should know better than to try running a summer Shakespeare festival. Seriously, can you think of a better way to lose money?

That is, if she was even charging money.

Only she's not.

It's a neat little piece laying out just how ridiculous it is to try to make money doing theatre in our current environment, and it includes a plea for more donations.  Lisa only gets paid if she raises enough money for everything else first.  The actors get paid shares of pass-the-hat audience donations at the shows — it should be enough to cover what they're all spending on gas.  The stage managers, designers, and directors each get a stipend.  Everyone on the production has the chops necessary to do this at a fully professional level; for now, working on great plays with great people in a great location will suffice.

hats and skulls

June 22, 2006

Final dress for Comedy was tonight (Wednesday). Come on down to San Pedro on Thursday (or Friday or Saturday) and see it!

Hamlet and Laertes did a long fight call on the grass in the park — they're getting very comfortable with the duel. It's looking good.

Laertes had a fitting. His olive-green plaid suit is looking great, and very right for the character. The forest-green derby isn't working well with the olive green of the suit. I'm not sure how that happened, because I remember looking at the swatches with the costume designer before we ordered the (expensive) hat. Not sure what's going to happen there — the three possibilities at this point are to somehow paint or dull down the hat, to add forest green trim to the suit to make it match the hat, or to cut the hat entirely.

The most fun tonight for me was finally working with Hamlet and the skull. I wasn't thrilled when I first saw the prop skull that we're using — it's from a Halloween shop. It's much better now that one of the actors took it home and gave it a very nice paint job. But at least we now finally have the real prop to work with, and time with Hamlet where we're not doing a run-thru.

My idea from the beginning has been for the Gravedigger to stick the skull on the end of his shovel, handing it to Hamlet like that. As Hamlet describes Yorick and plays at speaking to him, the skull becomes a puppet. I stole this basic idea from Peter Brook and Adrian Lester's Hamlet (they didn't use the shovel, but they did something similar in the stage production; it's not in the video, though). We waited to really work that bit until we had the actual skull.

I love the way it's turning out. Hamlet really brings Yorick to life, and the lines in the scene make so much sense when played this way. We blocked the skull as another character in the scene much the same way we blocked everything else — the actor tried things out, I offered suggestions, and through trial and error we built a whole little sequence of looks and bounces and nods and head-shakes and takes to the audience.

At the bar after rehearsal, I was crowing about how cool that bit is going to be, and I said something about how it's such an important scene. One of the actors asked me why I think that scene is so central to the play. The play (for me, for this production) is about change — it's about Hamlet learning to accept change. Death is the ultimate change, and in that scene Hamlet literally comes face to face with death. He sees it for what it is, and it's not all that terrible. In Hamlet's following scene, he has the "fall of a sparrow… the readiness is all" speech, demonstrating an acceptance that I don't think he had in him before the encounter with Yorick.

No rehearsals at all, not even on the side, until Monday. I can't wait.

Come see Comedy this weekend. Here's the link for directions and whatnot. It's free.

The King’s first speech, inside-out and outside-in

June 21, 2006

Comedy of Errors opens Thursday, so I can only work this week with the actors not cast in both shows. But I did manage to schedule an early rehearsal with the actor playing Claudius, to work on his first speech. Something was missing from it — it felt static and low-energy. The actor told me he wanted to find more fun it in. We talked at the beginning of rehearsals about Claudius as the party King, but we hadn't built any of that into the play.

We met an hour or so before he was called for Comedy, working on the bandshell stage before putting up the set. His ideas were good; more than anything else, he seemed to need to be given permission to make bigger choices. I haven't figured out yet whether this particular actor responds best to notes that work outside-in or inside-out — so I gave him a bunch of each to see what would stick.

What I'm calling "outside-in" notes are about external choices — what he's doing physically, which words to emphasize, whether to use an upward or a downward inflection at the end of a particular line. "Inside-out" notes are about the internal life of the character — what the character wants, the circumstances of the scene, what the character is expecting and what's making it difficult. Some actors respond better to inside-out notes, finding the externals on their own by extrapolating from the internal notes: if saying this line isn't enough for my character to get what he wants, then I should use an upward inflection to show that I still have more to say. Other actors take the external notes and apply them inward: if I play an upward inflection here, it must mean I have more to say because I haven't yet achieved my objective.

Now the speech is much more fun. The King is telling the court that even though they're supposed to be in mourning, they're going to celebrate regardless — and he's now playing a lot of the lines about mourning as jokes. Being in a position of such power allows you to make jokes that would be inappropriate for anyone else. Old King Hamlet didn't joke like that, and Claudius is gently mocking him and establishing himself as a new kind of King. All of this, of course, will only make Prince Hamlet all the more miserable.

We also did a fight call (on the grass) with Hamlet and Laertes, worked some Polonius stuff, and did a run-thru of the whole play with just Hamlet, Laertes, Polonius, and Horatio. The other roles we divvied up between those actors and the stage manager and myself. It was fun, and no doubt very good for the actor playing Hamlet to get a chance to run the whole show on his feet in the middle of this crazy week. The costume designer was there, doing final fittings with various actors. I'm heading down to the park early today to set up the sound system and set levels with the stage manager, and then we'll work more Hamlet and Laertes during Comedy's final dress tonight.