Archive for the 'directing' Category

This Dane is Blogged

September 30, 2006

I’m loving my new job as Education Director of the Marin Shakespeare Company, but it’s quickly becoming clear that I’m not going to be able to continue regular posts about Hamlet. Which, considering the show closed a month and a half ago, is probably appropriate anyway. I’ll leave this blog up, and I’ll continue to post erratically — when I can’t sleep, or when something occurs to me, or when the official archive photos finally come in, or when I finish editing more of the video. But no more trying to post something every week.

I’ve had a great time writing Blogging the Dane, and the process of articulating all my thoughts about the play here had a definite positive impact on the production — a huge percentage of directing is simply articulating ideas (to actors and designers, and through them to the audience), and anything directors can do to improve their ability to articulate themselves will make a difference. If, in addition, this was entertaining or enlightening to anyone who happened to read it, so much the better.

Eventually, I hope to create an index for this blog that I can show to prospective employers. For now, this archive is a good place to start.

I love Shakespeare. I want more people to love Shakespeare, and that means making better and better productions of his plays. This is how I’ve tried to do it — this time. Onwards.

The play’s the thing.


Video: Act II, Scene 2

September 12, 2006

This is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first scene with Hamlet. In this production, this was their first entrance; the earlier scene with the King and Queen was cut.

My goal here was to set up a strong relationship between Hamlet and his old friends — see this post on my analysis of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and this post about directing this scene.

A bit about the technical aspects of the video below.

This is cut together from two different performances. I shot one with my shitty camera, sitting close to the center front part of the audience. I borrowed two cameras from actors in the show to shoot another performance with a total of three cameras — the nice camera (thanks, Crystal!) was house left, another was at the back of the main audience area, and my crappy camera was house right and gave me almost unusable footage (you can see a few shots that I had to rebalance the contrast in Final Cut to use at all). There was heavy wind the night we had three cameras, which plays havoc with the sound. And theatre on video always seems to magically sap the chemistry and vitality that makes live theatre work.

Still, I think I’m fairly happy with how this turned out, all things considered. This was one of my favorite scenes in performance: I love what the actors do with the language, and I’m happy with the rhythm and staging choices we made. Hopefully some of that comes across in the video.

Acting the Paraphrase

September 5, 2006

A very smart director friend, who doesn’t direct Shakespeare himself, was telling me about a Shakespeare production he saw that wasn’t very good. His criticism of that production was incisive and points to something widespread.

The cast of that production was filled with actors who have had some success on screen — not movie stars, but people you might recognize from appearances on sit-coms or what have you. He said they were strong, confident actors who understood the circumstances and what was happening in the scene. The problem was that they weren’t actually using the words Shakespeare gave them to pursue their objectives — they were “acting the paraphrase,” if I remember my friend’s words correctly. It’s as if their preparation for the role included rewriting Shakespeare’s words into more familiar language; they did this accurately, but then they failed to make the leap back to the words Shakespeare actually chose. The result was intense, committed, connected performances with flat and disconnected language. It sounds like a paradox, but it’s something I’ve seen all too often.

The best acting of Shakespeare, for my money, happens when actors own the language. Another common way of describing it is that the words Shakespeare chose are the only possible way to express what the character is trying to express — the paraphrase never means exactly the same thing. The sounds of the words, the vowels and consonants, carry their own meaning that supports the intent.

Shakespeare gives actors so much to work with. It’s a shame when they don’t use it.

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.

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.

Going away party

July 15, 2006

I saw the show again last night for the first time since opening. It’s looking good. Afterwards, the actors threw me a going-away party at the local dive bar. It was very sweet — several actors from previous shows I directed in LA and Anaheim over the last couple of years showed up, along with a couple of friends from out of town. Lots of drinking and talking and reminiscing.

I moved to LA three years ago with my wife, who was starting grad school (for Epidemiology) at UCLA. I had just finished my MFA in Directing in Seattle, and had no theatre connections in LA. The first year here was almost completely dry for me career-wise, which was incredibly dispiriting after just having completed an intense three years of training. I was trying to find directing work the hard way: sending out resumes to theaters where I didn’t know anyone. Eventually, I did get a couple of gigs that way, and both those gigs led to more gigs, and then people I met doing those first gigs set me up with other gigs, and I ended up working nonstop for the last two years.

Now my wife is done with school, and we’re moving back up to Berkeley (where we’re both from). I have more connections there, but I’m still expecting a delay before the directing gigs start coming.

Ultimately, I’ve been very lucky in southern California. I’ve worked with amazing, kind, generous, talented, intelligent people, and I’m proud of the theatre that we’ve made. Seeing so many of these people all together last night was humbling and inspiring and wonderful. Here’s hoping my luck continues up north.

missing shows

July 5, 2006

It’s a strange feeling to be somewhere else while a performance you’ve directed is going on.  After opening night, I went out of town for a few days and missed the next two performances.  Apparently Saturday night was a great show, with an audience of over 500 and a performance that really clicked.  I wish I had been there.

Now I’m leaving town again, and will miss this weekend’s performances as well.  I won’t see the show again until next week.  I talked to my Hamlet today on the phone; after six weeks of constant contact in rehearsal, suddenly the show opens and we don’t see each other for two weeks.  I’ve also been in email contact with other cast members.

This is how it goes, but it still feels strange.


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?

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.

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.