Archive for August, 2006

Shakespeare In The Bush

August 29, 2006

Someone forwarded this to Shakespeare-by-the-Sea’s Artistic Director, who passed it along to me. It’s an account of an American spending some months with a remote West African tribe, and winding up trying to tell them the story of Hamlet.

I protested that I was not a storyteller. Storytelling is a skilled art among them; their standards are high, and the audiences critical–and vocal in their criticism. I protested in vain. This morning they wanted to hear a story while they drank. They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine. Finally, the old man promised that no one would criticize my style “for we know you are struggling with our language.” “But,” put in one of the elders, “you must explain what we do not understand, as we do when we tell you our stories.” …

The old man handed me some more beer to help me on with my storytelling. Men filled their long wooden pipes and knocked coals from the fire to place in the pipe bowls; then, puffing contentedly, they sat back to listen. I began in the proper style, “Not yesterday, not yesterday, but long ago, a thing occurred. One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”


This reminds me a lot of my attempts to summarize the story of the play as a pre-rehearsal directing exercise.

Are Shakespeare’s stories truly universal?


theatre without lighting

August 25, 2006

Lucas Krech, a lighting designer, blogger, collaborator, friend, and frequent commenter here, wrote on his blog the other day about a play I directed several years ago in a community center under the room’s flourescent lighting — he’s interested in why that worked, and in the idea that “Any show should be complete and dramatically compelling when performed under worklights and in rehearsal clothes.” Go read his post. I touched on this idea in a post a while back about the Richard Burton Hamlet.

Our production of Hamlet this summer had very minimal lighting — eight ungelled instruments on two poles. An actor with some tech background was in charge of hanging and focusing them during the setup each night, and his job was to make everything visible. We had no lighting cues — not even a blackout at the end of the show.

I love having good lighting in the shows I direct. But I also like the challenge of sucking the audience in without it. Shakespeare wrote for sunlight.


August 22, 2006

My brother-in-law, Reuben Margolin, designed and built this:

It’s a little hard to tell from the photos what exactly is going on here. It’s a giant mechanical wave that undulates hypnotically. It will soon be on display at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. It is art.

What I Learned, Part One: Nuance in Outdoor Theatre

August 21, 2006

At the risk of starting another Part One without a Part Two, here’s the first in a series of posts about what I learned on this production. My original plan for tonight was to just post a list, but I think I’d prefer to take these one at a time and go into a little more depth.

Calibrating the actors’ work in an outdoor space is more difficult and complicated than I expected. I’ve directed in outdoor spaces before, but rarely in an environment as variable and unpredictable as this. We had very little control over the locations — we were constantly dealing with a different combination of traffic, wind, a problematic sound amplification system, large audiences in public spaces, and so on. The result was that the work couldn’t get precious. Nuanced, tight, specific moments were possible in that situation, but they required a lot more rehearsal than would have been necessary in an indoor, 99-seat sort of space. In other words, I found that big, loud, energetic moments could be played spontaneously each night, with shifting emphasis and timing, whereas small, quiet, detailed moments got lost if they weren’t very specifically staged.

The “play upon this pipe” sequence, for example, was a big, energetic moment. The actors knew what had to happen, but it didn’t always happen the same way. We took our intermission right after this scene, so I wanted it to have some serious punch to it — and the actor playing Hamlet delivered. Because he was so energized there, and because he was, simply, loud, the actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could roll with whatever he threw at them. If he emphasized something differently, or moved in earlier or later, they could respond appropriately. The same could be said about Hamlet’s humiliation of Polonius early in the play, or a number of other scenes.

The closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude provides a counter-example. That’s a difficult, complicated scene with all sorts of nuances. Even having staged it outdoors, the transition from a private parking lot to a public park for dress rehearsals changed everything, and threw the actors off. Suddenly, moments that had been working felt off-target — the actors couldn’t hear each other, couldn’t give each other the kind of tight focus that it takes to negotiate through such complicated dialogue without a much more specific map of choices than would be necessary in a controlled environment. In an indoor space, or even an outdoor space with a little more control, the actors can play these kinds of moments with more freedom.

The next time I direct in a situation like this, I’ll plan to spend extra rehearsal time on the small, subtle moments. The danger — and this happened to an extent on this production — is that the nuanced work gets thrown out the window in exchange for something big and broad, because big and broad can be made to work with less time and energy. It’s always a balancing act.

…I was interrupted while writing this post by the surprise arrival at my new apartment in Berkeley of three of the Hamlet cast members, stopping by on their way up to Ashland. Apparently we had planned this at the bar after closing night, but I had completely forgotten. Anyway, I asked them about this idea and they didn’t agree at all — they all felt that each moment was just about listening and connecting to the other actors, and there was no consistent corrolation between the size of the moment and the amount of change that could happen from performance to performance. So maybe I’m off target here. Then again, this could be one of those situations where the actor needs to look at it from a different perspective than the director.

Closing Night

August 12, 2006

It’s officially over.

We apparently had an audience of over 700 last night, back in the park in San Pedro where we opened. Of the performances I saw — less than half — this was definitely the strongest. A beautiful windless night allowed the actors to listen to each other a little more closely, and to hit each moment with the energy it needed without striving against the weather. I sat in the front and just enjoyed the show.

My wife and I leave for Berkeley on Monday.

This has been said a million times in a million ways, but there is a kind of magic that happens with a group of people working on a show. Depending on each other, placing trust in each other, taking risks together, and just rolling up your sleeves and working your asses off together for a few weeks in a row… I don’t know anything else like it. A group of strangers come into a room — or a parking lot — with a common goal. Everyone has something to contribute; the success of the group depends on each individual member working hard, sacrificing time and energy, and taking risks. Sometimes there are people who don’t pull their weight, who keep to the sides and hold back and the group never really comes together. Sometimes it feels like everyone is holding back. Other times, though, it’s a group of adults who have chosen this life because they love the work, and they’re all willing to give what it takes and let down their walls and take the risks and support each other through it.

And at the end, everyone goes their separate ways. On to the next project, or the next city. It’s sad. But it’s the good sad, the healthy sad. It means we came together, we gave it our all, we did a show we can take pride in, and we’re leaving on a high note, wanting more. I hope so much that I’ll be able to work with these people again.

Newport Beach, Photo Call

August 6, 2006

I saw the performance in Newport Beach last night, my first time back at the show in a few weeks. It’s looking good — the actors seem even more comfortable in the text, and they’re attacking their roles with confidence and enthusiasm. It’s been a long summer for them, especially the ones that are also cast in Comedy of Errors. They’re holding up well.

We did a photo call after the show for archive shots; we had two professional photographers. Photo calls on a big show like this always take at least half an hour and can be much longer. It’s frustrating for the actors, especially knowing that after we finish they still have to get out of costume and break down the set. Generally you start from the end of the show and work backwards, because that minimizes the set and costume changes that have to happen. For each set up, the actors get into their positions for a certain moment and then freeze for the cameras. I sometimes have them go slowly through their staging for a key part of a scene. The photographers move around, getting close shots and wide shots.

I had made up a list of all the setups I wanted to get — Hamlet with the skull, the play-within-the-play, Hamlet and Gertrude with the lockets, etc etc etc. I tried to get my list in an order that would allow for all the costume changes that needed to happen. It ended up being a few big moments with large numbers of actors (the ending, Ophelia’s mad scene, the opening tableau, etc), interspersed with moments with just two actors (Hamlet and Polonius with the book, for example) while we were waiting for other actors to finish their costume changes. I think we got some good shots, though afterwards of course I thought of a few more I wish we had done (Horatio about to drink the poison).

It’s all winding down.  Just one more performance.  If you haven’t seen the show yet, please come on down to San Pedro this Friday night!