Monday, June 24, 2013

A & C 2013 - section four Antony and Cleopatra

In this section I will write just a little about our "Antony" portrayed by Berynn Schwerdt and "Cleopatra" portrayed by Denby Weller.

Two important points to start with: 1) Berynn and Denby were arduous in the preparation and development and performance of their roles of which I will write more in a moment, and, 2) they were extraordinarily generous in performance/rehearsal with every single actor with whom they were onstage with. Oh if only every actor were so generous to other actors.

We had about three weeks to rehearse A & C, part-time!! Monday to Thursday 6pm to 10pm. And Saturdays 10am to 4pm. I asked the actors to cooperate by learning their lines prior to the first day of rehearsal. Naturally when we are all freelancers trying to get by and pay the rent etc it can be very challenging to learn ones lines by oneself. Even more so with Shakespeare in that there is such an intimacy between the shared text in every scene. So learning a Shakespeare monologue/soliloquy is one thing - learning a scene is a different intellectual challenge. The larger swathes of text belong to Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, Caesar. Some of the actors played three or four characters so in some cases there was a significant amount of text for them.

Berynn and Denby were excellent to work with. My work with them can only be understood in the 'secret ways of theatre'. Amongst the most important thing was to understand that I was to support them. It was their project. I shared their project and they were generous to me, very generous in terms of trust and support for my artistic drive(s). I've had the opportunity to teach and work with perhaps 3000 actors. I was one of Berynn's teachers at NIDA. He was OUTSTANDING at 19 years of age (maybe he was 18 or 20??? when I taught him). I worked with him for a few days on a film on which I was the choreographer. We would see each other rarely, occasionally and have a coffee, or a meal. I saw him 'last' in Titus Andronicus at ATYP around 2011 when I was directing in Sydney and teaching a short workshop on Shakespeare. I really loved the Titus production. Everyone did a fine job - the actors, the director, the designer. It was the first time I saw Helmut Baktis (sp?) act. He was also the teacher of the director. Berynn was wonderful!!! His "Antony" was HIS!!!!!! Wonderful. Berynn is very knowledgeable with Shakespeare and many aspects of acting and theatre. For our play reading I deferred any questions of pronunciation to Berynn. He went far with the mercurial, emotional shifts of "Antony". As with any Shakespeare play or character one can see and benefit from cross-referencing other plays by Shakespeare and other of his characters. There were scenes and moments for Berynn/Antony when I thought of Macbeth, others when I saw Richard III, others Falstaff. With other actors in our A & C I would see other such cross-references. For "Lepidus", and I know this is stretching an already stretched tether but I did say to Branden regarding "Lepidus" that maybe, m-a-y-b-e we could view him as having a bit of "Polonius". Maybe. That was a director's creative suggestion, not a literal one. Likewise I said to Jonathon who portrayed "Caesar" perhaps p-e-r-h-a-p-s he is more like Paul Keating. For Berynn we didn't chit-chat much about his "Antony". It was a giant role and so complex an experience within my conceptualizing. So we did things on the floor. At times I played the taboo pesky nuisance crass director with no borders.  He was tolerant and playful. He also I hope and trust was able to use his rich knowledge of Shakespeare to help others in the production with their questions. I preferred that. I trust him. He is good and understanding and I am certain he helped folks. On the other hand we had wonderful young actors such as Robert and Jonathon who are also quite savvy with Shakespeare. None the less I think every single actor got a stretch in their beliefs and understanding not only of their roles in A & C but also in the play and in the breadth of possibilities with Shakespeare that rarely get challenged. Really I frame it thus - "I think mostly what is going on in Shakespeare in Australia is a year-ten sophomore in high school mentality. It is like 'the bible tells me so' or 'my father told me so it is must be'. I think many Shakespeare productions are anal retentive. Conservative, boring, much of the same or on the other extreme people being adolescent and doing what they will with it as if that is interesting." 

For Berynn, he's 45 now. When I taught him I was 33. He's lived and he should be able to grapple with this giant role and enjoy the 17 relationships with the other actors and myself and our glorious Stage Manager Ruth Horsfall!!!! Berynn, and Denby excelled in their creative and intellectual relationships with each of the other actors and their characters. In many ways it was this work that was 'unique' in our production as compared with the overwhelming majority of productions of Shakespeare that I have ever seen.

Another line in my theories about working with Shakespeare is that repeatedly in Australia and often in the USA and even too often in the UK even with the so-called 'top' companies (ugh!!) so much focus in the directing is about and around the protagonist. I find that approach so extremely limiting and even totally inaccurate to the richness of every single play by Shakespeare. To me, the greatest beauty is not Antony and Cleopatra per se but how the actors Berynn and Denby connected - REALLLY connected with EVERY single character and every single actor in the play.

Berynn was one of Denby and Brinley's teachers. He may have taught others too at the Actors Centre. Robert also is a graduate of ACA's Journey. So here was a rare three-generation production with me as one of Berynn's teachers and he a teacher of several of the others. Likewise with Natalie and Ms Lopes' Troupe - I was one of her teachers at CSU and she had four of her pupils in this production.

..... must stop writing for a while.... to be continued

I will write more about Berynn's "Antony" later when I look at some scenes individually.

Now a few thoughts about Denby's unique "Cleopatra". It is interesting - sort of - to hear theatre practitioners pontificate about their 'real knowledge' of particulars of plays and theatre practices such as staging, acting, voice, characterization - as if there weren't a vast, unlimited range of possible interpretations and breadth of aesthetics. Denby has the most beautiful combination of a vastly savvy young person of achievement in several fields (writing, producing, communication, articulation of ideas, mountain climbing, martial arts, and all things current be they politics or cinema or fashion or food), and, all that is combined with an open, honest, playful curiosity that borders on innocence and naivety.

Like most actors I deal with, we find ways together to encounter the training they have had before an experience with me. Inevitably I see benefits in any and every acting/theatre training. However, at the same time we discover together (without discussing any of the details) that in fact some aspect of their training may have involved a fallacy. In this case we were dealing with Shakespeare. I have a concept "Shakespeare as a Tool for the Theatre". I am not concerned with the normal sense of 'really do a good or even a great production of a Shakespeare play'. I hear the beat of a different drummer because that other idea of 'good' drummed into us at school, by professional directors, etc is out of tune - as far as I am concerned. In Yiddish we would say it is "drechk".

So with Denby we located a wild and wise yet vulnerable yet street wise "Cleopatra". Much more important than having a young Australian actress portray a long dead Egyptian queen is for a young Australian woman to learn to be more herself in all her glory. I have ZERO interest in a 'real good' portrayal of ANY of Shakespeare's incredible, vast, array of characters. I want to see that living breathing actor before me exude their own individual glory as a person and as an artist, an authentic artist of the stage. Through and via this truth the real glory of Shakespeare's wisdom breathes on a stage. Mostly we get very competent, professional actors acting like they are Shakespearean actors in a Shakespeare play. Generally it is awful work we see. We see it over and over not only via the Bell Shakespeare Company but mostly by their derivatives and so-called countr companies who imagine they are doing so much better than the BSC. I have recently seen Shakespeare productions from 3 European countries that were utterly and totally phenomenal on every level of acting, theatre, production.

We, and I say this as an Australian citizen and someone who started touring to Australia in 1981, we still need Australian voiced Shakespeare productions. Rex Cramphorn(e) apparently was ushering in such a voice and no doubt others have. None the less - when I am talking about the Australian voice I am referring to the actors own voice and all of its nuances that get shaved away be 'good voice' techniques. It is pompous malarkey to believe there is a standard for voice training. It is a fallacy. So ironically even though our 'voice' work in A & C was minimal (as was everything else) the actors all, each, had their own totally distinct Australian voices. A few who had 3 or 4 characters chose to put on an accent for some characters. Fine. That is them working as an artist to find, to discover their own ways and means vocally to differentiate their characters. For Denby she had one character with a multitude of voices and moods. She honoured the text and the text honoured her. That is the magic of Shakespeare. He was a bard. A real one and at the time when bards existed. He wrote at during the absolute peak of commedia dell'arte. Supposedly there were two actual Italian troupes that came to England during the time when Shakespeare would have been able to see them. There is at least one scholar that provides 'evidence' that Shakespeare was very likely in Italy for three years. This is yet to be proved beyond a doubt, yet, there is possible evidence. An unusual number of his plays located outside of England are placed in Italy, and they clearly and obviously have commedia elements. Although Antony & Cleopatra has scenes in Rome - I view that A & C has possible elements of commedia incorporated. In commedia the individual lustre of an actor create differences even in the stock characters. Denby showed an intellectual and creative and emotional acting range that any commedia actor should admire. What is important is not formal training and not an 'accurate' portrayal of our cliché image of an Egyptian queen. We can see in the antics of Prince William and Harry - children of Diane and Charles - they have noble and larrikin qualities. They are busy becoming themselves. Likely so was Cleopatra, so is Denby. It was her authentic drive and search for how to execute every single second of this topsy-turvy antics rich character that made her a queen, it made her glorious in her weaknesses which a second later shone to become a young master of the stage. Still for each actor every performance was a struggle - as in sport - they were all alive and yes, it did help to have a director with courage in their corner coaching them for the next round. So many directors are actually scared of actors thus they learn how to laud over them in subtle yet no uncertain terms. I enjoy meeting the actor head on in strange and unpredictable ways. Unpredictable even to myself. Denby is both a sweetheart of a person and a person with unlimited veracity in life - as her sports of tae kwan do (past) and mountaineering (current) reveal. There were hundreds of moments of shapeshifting that she mastered in this singular role. There were certain patterns as per the text that reveal an observable character.

But for me, the most important thing was, that a young Australian woman was genuinely allowed, guided, and cajoled to find her totally unique "Cleopatra". Was it Shakespeare's "Cleopatra"? Who gives a flying stuff about that? I don't. What counts is Denby.  She and Berynn were the people I made 'the three musketeers' pledge with. She's a young intellectual artist with guts galore who wanted to take a punt - and put her own money and time and energy into. Most actors are remarkably gutless. They've been primed to be useful tools for the industry, for directors, agents, and teachers to pay their pay their own mortgages.

Denby, like each of the actors had resistance training from me. Each had at one point or many a chance to stand up to and with me. Not against me nor I against them. The actor needs a director who can provide resistance not opposition. Why? In the end, at the beginning :) I coached the actors to know "you are the artists and I am just here to help facilitate your art work", and, "in the end it is your show, you will be on stage, it is you who have to own the project".

Denby and I worked together hard to resolve several artistically challenging scenes. For example the scene when the messenger can seemingly do no right and "Cleopatra" has to belt the "Messenger" who in this case was a youngster. The others in the scene had to patiently wait as layer after layer revealed itself in an organic mise-en-scene. I definitely directed but via ensemble participation.

One of our early breakthroughs was from my insistence that any sympathetic and romantic portrayal had to be removed before we could discover the romance of passion and conflict and needs. Each section and each scene when the light bulb appeared for Denby was remarkable and suddenly at every step she was leading the other actors. Yes, she was the queen - the leader of her people. Yet, Shakespeare has given us an immensely human portrait of what happens behind closed doors. At times according to the text as I sensed its unfolding - suddenly Charmian, then now Iras would leap ahead and 'manhandle' their mistress. And God does "Cleopatra" need manhandled! As she tells Caesar at one point "Wert thou a man" causing him to take action not towards her but for her. A very Lady Macbeth moment of demanding action from a man.

One of many beautiful experiences in rehearsal was when I asked Denby to please belt one of the young little sweet innocent blonde youngsters full on in the stomach for her insubordination as a guard. I asked young Brydey if that was okay with her. Her pupils dilated an expectant pleasure. Yet at the same time there was a hesitant air in the room generated by everyone's thought 'ok Ira's going too far this time'. So we gave it a go, and, importantly Denby gave it a very gentle go. We three began to work our way thru the mechanics of the punch. I wanted it active enough that Brydey would feel motivated to collapse on the floor. Then we integrated the text and moments leading to and after the punch. When we finished about 5 or 10 minutes later - "whatever it takes" - I asked Brydey if she felt this was okay for her. There was yet another young Aussie gal having a total ball. She jumped up and down a bit and exclaimed that this was now her most favourite scene she was in. Denby found exquisite ways of portraying every second around that, just as she sought every second in her portrait of "Cleopatra" to be fully alive, real, and integrated to each fellow actor's work.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A & C 2013 section three

Amongst the anomalies in our production that are a reflection of my particular eccentric or eclectic view about the nature of theatre... Artistically I lean towards meta-theatre as a preferred style. Meta-theatre lets practitioners and audiences admit that above all the reality is only that we are presenting or observing a play. That is the only truth. Mark Antony died eons ago and does not stand before us. Who stands before is an actor who is person who is portraying or specifically pretending in an artistic way to be Mark Antony. I have long sought a way for actors to take back their indigenous nature, their ability to mimic, embody, embrace, pretend, enact, dance any character they choose or are chosen to portray. So here I hint at very big theme - I believe that the Indigenous actors and theatre in Australia has a treasure chest of performance modalities and sensibilities that we, the non-Indigenous artists can learn from. Not to copy their culture but to understand their greater potency as actors even when in some cases they are clearly not trained. As NAISDA happened to have been the fertile ground from where the Page brothers emerged to create Bangarra - I think that there is a more general and broader growth, in part inspired by the Page brothers and Bangarra's many great artists who effect an development in the Indigenous Australian theatre.

I will return to 'anomolies' and then I will briefly discuss the voices of the actors in A & C 2013.

One of the most blatant oddities was the overall reference to obviously female actors as 'sir', 'he', 'man' etc as was written in the text but certainly was not intended for woman to portray male characters. So clearly I took liberties with the author's intentions. Or did I? As is well known in Shakespeare's time and company and plays in their original period all of the female characters were known by the public to be portrayed by Boy Actors. Now some of them may have continued to play female roles past adolescence and past their change of voices, and these actors may have even used falsetto to continue to play female characters. So I simply allowed this to happen in reverse. I have done so when I deemed it appropriate due to the practical choice of what actors were available whether they were male or female. Once when directing Pericles I asked a male actor to play a female character, in a dress, but not to shave. I did that for a very capable actor who I thought simply would benefit by doing a project where he could think out of the box of what is deemed "good theatre". Sometimes you have to be bad to be good. Think Boy George etc.

In one case the actors in a scene decided to change the 'him' and 'he' etc in reference to Enobarbus (played by a woman in our production) - to 'her' and 'he'. It started with one or two actors having made that choice. I said nothing as they were experimenting with their own decision. In this case I chose to not interfere, but, other times in other productions I certainly to interfere with an actors choice if I think there is clearly a better alternative. In this scene then the last and third actor in the scene also changed the him/he-s to her/she-s. This may have likely been for harmony in that particular scene and by verbal agreement between the three actors. That was Act 4, scene 6. However, only a few scenes later a different grouping of three actors kept the him/he even though in this case Enobarbus was actually in the scene and clearly a woman (portraying a scripted male character). I never discussed this matter with the cast. I certainly would not be surprised if the cast discussed this extreme anomaly amongst themselves. In its own way this is one of the more extreme things I have ever allowed/done with a text's expandability. The later was Act 4, scene 9. In this scene the meta-theatre was held purely by the honest, naïve, and well acted if not sincere acting by 3 of Ms Lopes' Troupe. In our small theatre and in my staging when the young actors sidle little more than 1 metre from the ailing/dying Enobarbus. At the same time Brinley who portrayed "Enobarbus" gave a gut wrenching rendition of the inner turmoil with moans that some of you may know happen only in your worst, most private loss of love. This happened in each rehearsal and each performance. In this case I said very little, hesitating to give open and full complements lest I tamper with her deeper work of art and craft in this scene. This was ancient acting, of an indigenous nature, as one may easily image Elenora Duse or Sarah Bernhardt. Yes it was 'melodramtic' but it was unique, personal, and spell binding. Something that the youth actors will likely remember possibly for the rest of their lives. This is 'Hamlet' in the sense of the Player King's enactment of the story of Hecuba. The theatre protocol allows us the indulgence of the Player King because Hamlet then is so moved as to comment on it. Yet, we are so weak and scared of critics (our colleagues as well as those folks employed to write theatre criticism) that we shy away when a young actor still has the courage to make their own deep discoveries. My job in this area is to allow the actor maximum freedom so long as they feel the inner truth of indigenous portrayal and pretending.

As with all of my on-the-floor direction I may come right down on the floor, and did so, at times when the actor is clearly deep in emotion and give a practical direction or two right inches from their face as I whisper the direction the beauty with Brinley and Berynn who also had such charged emotional scenes was that they not only tolerated my "Ingmar Bergman moments" but were kind and mature enough to use both sides of their brains to incorporate an occasional 'in yer face' direction. Ingmar Bergman would at times have his face intimately close to two lovers while directing as can be seen on some documentary footage of him in action. I have no interest to imitate his mastery it is more about the allowance for the actor and the director to do what ever seems best and to explore to find what might, possibly, work.

Brinley (Enobarbus) and Paul (Agrippa) had a rich scene - the end of Act 2 scene 2. One day early in rehearsals when it came time to run that scene - they did it more or less non-stop as a fully choreographed tango. What the?!? This was one of the first moments for actors to test and see that with me there is no limit how far they, we, or I am willing to take things or to support an actor going for an extreme fulfilling interpretation. Mind you I am not for any jackass clown actor just doing what ever they feel like whenever. I only ask that the actor is anchored in their own integrity, their own artistic exploration with a purpose defined by them, and the text, the situation, the drama, the character(s), and the relationship. As I have mentioned elsewhere (Director's Notes) - Shakespeare above any writer I have so far encountered can withstand almost any extremity of interpretation - provided the experiment is still anchored in the text or the textures of the images.

When I asked  Brinley and Paul how on Earth they accomplished this fantastic exploration and realization - Brinley replied that they thought about something that I had said. I explained that one of my stream of theories about Shakespeare (i.e. working with the scripts of Shakespeare) is that one should examine each scene as if it were a different style. To explain further here, it is as if each scene were in individual play within itself, or, as if each scene were a short film, or dance. So somehow they hit upon a lark - to try it (T-R-Y) as a tango. I later asked if either of them had ever done tango. Essentially they had not. They looked at videos and took the moves.

That scene 2.2 was a type of crucible for the production. Certainly for most of the audience they could easily comment that it was one of the highlights of the production. I didn't do it. I allowed it and encouraged it. Brinley and Paul accomplished the great task. My next task was how to make their choices work. And by work I don't mean work for some of my professional theatre colleagues who just don't get it - I mean work for our experiment. Certainly numerous theatre professionals LOVED that scene and dance!! So my task and it was a large one - how to make their beautiful efforts work. How to frame. So I asked Yiss to play a rhythm that I had the nerve to give him. I then had him play it more fervently. Quite like the horrible acting parable when the director doesn't know what to say and blurts out "Just act better". I told the musician to play stronger. It worked and he got the feel. Of course he did, he's a gifted musician. Then I started to push Brinley about the rhythm, I started to do the other no-no for directors and began to give her the exact way I foresaw that the rhythm of the text in this particular scene would work. So the aesthetics became a beat-box (literally), tango (literally), rap (literally). On top of this the acting of Brinley and Paul was romantic, erotic, passionate, and was most importantly anchored in the text. Not to boring as batshit belief system of 'how the text works'. It was anchored in the actors and the musicians bodies. It was palpable and had the most wonderful cool-down first from Paul "... Whilst you abide here" after he had tossed Enobarbus' sexually soiled and sweat wiped suit jacket and Eno replied in orgasmic exhaustion "Humbly, sir, I thank you".

Note that also in this scene 2.2 Paul as Agrippa also spoke the ten lines of Maecenas.


A & C 2013 - 2nd section

In the previous post Antony & Cleopatra 2013 I dealt with the beginning, how the production came about, the casting, the auditions and the beginning of the hard stuff.
The hard stuff is dealing with the naysayers. Those are particularly the theatre professionals who assume because they have read, studied, or seen the play then they know it. Many scholars note a bit of comedy or absurdity in A & C. I have not made an extensive scholastic survey of the breadth of writings about the play. So there may be a scholar out there who has written more extensively about the comedy within A & C, if you know of one (or some) please forward their name and the name of the written article or book to me at

Of course beEsides the theatre practitioners (some) who are naysayers and who insist along with most scholars that A & C is a formal tragedy, there is the dilemma of the theatre critics who may or may not be actual theatre practitioners. Certainly I generally consider reviewers in a positive light in that they provide a service to the industry and can assist and prod things along at times. Of course one can clearly seen a pattern of any single reviewer over time. One can see their leanings, preferences, and whose "pockets they may be pissing into" or who provides them the best premiere/opening status.

I hold scholars (not academics, who may now be closer to bureaucrats than to scholars) in high esteem. It would be virtually impossible to present any production of Shakespeare without extensive notes provided over decades by scholars. The language has changged and evolved since Shakespeare's time and the political and social context of each play is woven in layers of assumed knowledge of the time of the original writing and earliest productions.

I have had the opportunity on several occasions to readdress several 'problem scenes' of Shakespeare. Certain scenes particularly in the longer plays are regularly cut or edited down. Many smaller characters are cut or edited out. So in fact when someone says they have seen a certain play by Shakespeare there is a much higher likelihood that they have not seen the play but have seen a cut, abridged, edited version of the play - especially any of the longer plays. Even Hamlet THE play has very rarely been performed in its fuller exposition. There are difficulties in saying what the whole play of Hamlet is since there are at least two versions and they may need to be cobbled together to provide the 'whole' of Hamlet.

Our version was the 'whole' play with the most minor exceptions. For example I did not have an actor play Taurus so those few (VERY FEW) lines were left out. In another scene again for the practical needs of not calling on an extra actor nor wanting to call upon any actor to play an extra character - in another scene calling for three characters I had the character who spoke most simply incorporate the lines (VERY FEW) of the third character. The text of that scene was such that this could be done and did not lose the sense. Though naturally as per the writer's concept the more minor character would have added a reinforcing voice. The scene I am referring to is Act 2 scene 1 and we gave Menecrates to the actor playing Menas.

Antony & Cleopatra 2013

Antony & Cleopatra 2013 Directed by Ira Seidenstein, PhD
How did this project begin?
In 2012 I had directed the third play by Valentino Musico in Sydney. A friend and former student from NIDA, Berynn Schwerdt said he would come to see the play, and did so. He came with his friend Denby Weller. They liked the direction and we chatted afterwards. Berynn and Denby said they had a whim to act at Antony and Cleopatra. We discussed that briefly and did a Three-Musketeers - "all for one and one for all" type of agreement. We followed up on it. I asked Natalie Lopes who was acting in and assisted in producing Musico's play if she may be interested to help produce A & C. We discussed the possibility of her also acting in it. I said we should have a workshop asap. Denby said she had a friend Brinley Meyer who was interested to play Enobarbus.

At the workshop was Denby, Natalie, Brinley and another associate of mine Alice Williams. The workshop that dealt with the relation of movement, voice, acting and Shakespeare and my creative method of interpretation on the part of the actor. Berynn could not make the workshop so at the end I read in for "Antony" in the single scene I selected to examine as an example of the way I approach discovery of a text in an ensemble context.

After a few minutes some bits started to fit into a mise-en-scene/staging logic. At least a few possibilities. This was Act 3, scene 11 that starts with Antony and Attendants, shortly Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, Eros enter. My main edition of the play has Iras listed thus "[Ira]", another edition has Iras listed thus "[and followed by Iras]". At any rate we started to make headway to see some 'humorous' possibilities. For example we see that Cleopatra's attendants actually cajole or perhaps even argue with her. We saw that Antony is a 'case'. I went so far as to say that he may be bi-polar. He is pouting like an adolescent. The attendants of Antony (Eros) and Cleopatra (Charmian and Iras) are trying to get the lovers together. It is absurd, sad, pathetic, comical a slice of a domestic kitchen drama. Shakespeare lets us see in this scene the total vulnerability of the super elite.

That was the beginning. The next phase was the casting. I could see that Natalie would be the ideal Charmian. We set a date for the auditions. As soon as the first notice went online within a few minutes Tammy Brennan who had recently completed my Quantum Clown Residency #4 wrote and asked if she might be considered for an audition. She was cast as Octavia.

Section Two - Casting/Audition
Even the folks who I asked to be in the production I also asked to present a Shakespeare monologue. They were free to choose any monologue/soliloquy. In auditions I try to work with each actor about 10-15 minutes. In that time I run it as a workshop and also explain that I am auditioning for them. I show them a sample of how I work and if they don't like that way then please do not do the production. In recent years I have joked that I am a "prodologist" that is I prod and provoke the actor to give more of what they are really capable of rather than just giving what they were taught to give. Remarkable things can happen in those 10 or 15 minutes. So even the few folks who I asked to be in the production have not been directed by me before in a Shakespeare play so the specific issue was around the combination of; Shakespeare, the actor, and, my method(s).

Denby (Cleopatra), Brinley (Enobarbus), and Natalie (Charmian) had already been in a Shakespeare workshop with me and we knew what they would play. Natalie was teaching the day of the audition so Denby and Brinley assisted me by welcoming people, handling the CV/Photos, and being witness to each audition. More importantly, I wanted them to assist to witness the transformation that each actor would make in a few minutes - to see what would be possible in our few weeks of rehearsal. I worked each actor 'hard' thoroughly. Each actor gave a lot, was challenged and was positively supported by me.

The others who I asked to be in the production included Bruno Lucia, Bron Lim, Erin. I asked my friend Aku Kadoggo who was newly returned to Australia to play three parts however she had a work commitment exactly during the time of our performance season. Then I thought I could play those three parts and was going to, but, Slava Polunin the Russian clown, asked me to fill in for a few weeks for one of the Russian actors in his "Slava's Snow Show". The first week of that gig was the second week of A & C and I thought it would be good to give the actors a break from me seeing every show. It also had the potential to be good publicity to be involved with the two shows. But also I realized this coincidence was an ideal way to celebrate my 40 years in theatre and to celebrate one of my key philosophical ideas of the value of relating acting (classical acting as in A & C) and clown (classical as in Slava's Snow Show). Then I had to get someone to take that set of three characters: Soothsayer, Mardian, Clown. So I asked a young actor I had taught one day - Yiss Mill. He had never really been in a full play with professionals. But I suspected he would offer something unique and he certainly did.

Bruno played four characters and Bron played three. So in a way Bruno, Bron, Yiss became a triumvirit of character actors. A character actor in olde school acting was a type of clown/actor who could transform themselves completely into a role.

There were other actors who also played several roles but they are a different nature than the classic character actors. And each of those who played several roles did fine jobs!!! I think the character actor is one who will simply radically shift their body language and vocal tones. Yiss was the least experience but he travelled a huge creative and technical distance in rehearsal. The others who played several roles were Brendan, Robert, Lara.

Already early in the casting process Enobarbus, and Alexas (Bron Lim) were going to be played by women. I cast one man as Eros but he could not adapt his financial work for the artistic as we were doing a co-op and likelihood of earning anything with 18 actors and a stage manager and a director were slim. Then Berynn wrote to me that just in case - I should know - that he had a sister who was an actress and had fairly recently graduated from WAAPA. She was the single person I cast without having met - and that meant I had not auditioned for her with my method. So that required for us each to travel a special route and after two weeks or so she got stronger and stronger in every single rehearsal and was well on her way to her own breakthrough. Even when an actor makes a breakthrough with me, it is then still totally up to actor themselves to honestly realized what they have discovered about their own creative potential and most importantly how to negotiate that.
I think the two adult actors (we had four youth actors in our ensemble) that I haven't mentioned yet who played a single roles were Jonathon Dunk (Caesar) and Paul McNally (Agrippa). They each had a big journey to completely locate their characters, that is, their unique and personal expression of 'Caesar' and of 'Agrippa'.

So that is a bit about the Beginning, the Audition, the Casting.

Natalie Lopes (Charmian and the co-producer with Denby) and I discussed the possibility of working with four of her youth acting students. Natalie is a Drama Teacher in a school and also has a private acting school with about 120 youths. She selected four of her private students and got permission from their parents. I referred to the group of four as "Ms. Lopes' Troupe". The members of the troupe were Miranda, Millie, Brydey, Harry. Their ages were 13-16. They played the messengers, guards, and servants. Their participation brought an exceptional grace to the ensemble. I cut them no slack but respected their youth and managed not to swear too much, too often.

The fact that all the actors had to be 'mindful' as there were youths in the rehearsal room and project helped to bring about a heightened awareness and generosity. Mind you on the very first moments of rehearsal one of the actors let out a right full ribald exclamation. Well that border was crossed over. The 'kids' were delighted. And that was one of many moments of locking in the ensemble. Tammy (Octavia) was one of two actresses with a child (Bron has two) and due to her house arrangements and philosophical outlook her daughter 5-yr cheeky as could be Pebble came to rehearsal when Tammy did. Ms. Lopes' Troupe automatically looked after the 5-yr old. Erin also was very active to keep Pebble entertained and out of the way. The scoundrel who did not get Pebble out of the way at times was me, Herre Direktor. Amongst my several eccentricities in theatre and rehearsals I actually like it when things go astray a bit. So when Berynn was practicing dying as "Antony" Pebble decided it was a nice time to play skip-to-the-loo-my-darling RATHER close to Berynn a'dying which he was unbelievably tolerant of and I was totally delinquent in delight of the extreme of absurd rehearsal methodology. But there was at least one worse incident with the glory of a delightful freeform 5-yr gallivanting during a tragedy (one I can only refer to at best as a comic-tragedy or an absurdist play). So when "Antony" in Act 3 scene 13 has "Thidias" whipped our two servants a'whipping were two of the young lasses of Ms Lopes' Troupe and in one rehearsal only one was available so Pebble (ye olde 5-yr olde) knew the cue and the fun action so she helped escort the ragged and whipped "Thidias". This perversity of our sacred theatre is actually the only sacred theatre where all humans are welcome to participate. I have for decades said that "real theatre should be at least three generations if not four". When I started in theatre at college (university) we had a wonderful deeply humane director Trudy Scott and we had a fine eccentric group of zanies as the acting group and this included Bonnie Gilmore who though likely only 21 years old herself, had a 5yr olde we called "Baby Jennifer" who was more often than not in rehearsals. This to me is 'real' theatre where the norms of society don't fit and each ensemble or project can make up their own rules of conduct. Fortunately Berynn and Denby our protagonists and lead actors had the most accommodating demeanours on many levels.

Another organic happening was for some reason that Ms Lopes' Troupe took an extreme liking to Tammy (Pebbles' mom) and many a time they were all in a group having found a number of common interests and chatting away. All these little nuances to me were like theatre heaven. Or at least one form of it.


Peter Brook in a book "Conversations With Peter Brook" (2000) by Margaret Croyden has a chapter of the interview that preceded the premiere of Brook's Antony & Cleopatra. He said "We've never seen the play.". He meant that at least up until his production the play had been interpreted so incorrectly that in fact everyone in theatre thinks they know the play but they don't. I think what folks have in mind is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - so to speak. That was a movie, but, somehow in our consciousness we think we know the play. Most productions of A & C are cut and edited and shortened versions. I have seen the play three times. All pretty horrible. But the one at the Globe in London 2006 had a fantastic Cleopatra - Frances Barber was glorious and as I had long believed and insist - Cleopatra is a form of a clown. A clown not in a ha-ha sense but in the sense of a free though troubled spirit who will do anything at any moment even if it is inappropriate or ludicrous. I also liked that the Clown in Act 5 scene 1 who brings the basket of figs and asps was dressed as a traditional party clown circa 1970s. The rest of the production may have been the Cecil B. DeMill-esque version, but, boring, straight, conservative.

To be sure, A & C is wonderfully complex. The cross themes of war, love, politically plotting, and here I make my claim of infamy, comedy. Comedy? But isn't it a tragedy? Is it? If it is, fine, ok, but why is there a clown at such an auspicious moment? I think that clown's appearance is very suspicious. I think, what I really think, is that there is a LOT of comedy in William Shakespeare's 'tragedy' Antony & Cleopatra. I am not saying it is ha-ha-ha-ho-ho-ho raucous knee slapping comedy. Not at all. However, there is plenty of comedy. Where? Actually the interesting point is why to most productions try so hard to stomp out the comedy? That's actually the question because I don't think there is a question about A & C being at least part comedy. I grant the possibility as previously mentioned that the play is a tragi-comedy or an absurdist play. But I am not sure that it is really a tragedy. I think four exchanges between Antony and Cleopatra initiate a comedy. But the stage is set before that in the 'prologue' by "Philo" whose ending is "Take but good note, and you shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool. Behold and see." Just after that in rapid fire are several points of contention between Antony and Cleopatra which she taunts and plays with - dare one say - clowns with.  That is just scene 1. Scene 2 (Act 1) has even more clear signals of comedy ushered in particularly by "Charmian" and reinforced by the ensemble of and with the Soothsayer who can't get a word in because "Charmian" beats him to the predictions, yet, at the same time clearly (according to the text - the words spoken) frequently she keeps pulling her hand away as the Soothsayer tries to grasp it to read her palm. This scene in fact is broad comedy and borders on or can easily be portrayed in a slapstick fashion. Though of the Noel Coward witty type supported also by some comic physical repartee.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reviewing the Reviewers

Prior to becoming a resident then citizen of Australia I worked in an avant-garde world of theatre where, at the time, reviews were largely irrelevant. That was then and now is now. On the few occasions that my shows were reviewed in Helsinki once and Auckland a few times and once I think in San Francisco - in those I survived in good reports.

I was encouraged by four particular people to 'set up shop' in Sydney. They encouraged me to move from New Zealand and to set up my teaching, directing, and performing in Sydney. One of the four was the long time stage manager, assistant, director of Barry Humphries. That was Ian Tasker (R.I.P). The other practical encourager was an 'original' of Circus Oz - Stephen Champion - who had decided (like most of the originals) to leave a somewhat dysfunctional 'family'. In the end only one of the originals who remained, and remained, and remained. The other two who encouraged me to stay in Sydney were Indigenous 'elders' - one was Ted "Gaboo" Thomas who mentored me in certain ways, and the other 'elder' was Norm (?) who had been a tap dancer vaudeville style and was the counsellor at NAISDA.

Reviewers in Sydney became interesting for me as I read two papers each day - The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. So on the days that there were theatre or dance reviews I read all of them.

The first show I was in, in Sydney that was reviewed was An Imaginary Life at Belvoir St Theatre. Now to get to my point(s). Perhaps I read various reviewers 50 or 100 times? I read other reviews too from other papers such as The Daily Telegraph, or The Bulletin magazine, or sometimes in other cities. So one could start to see patterns in their thinking. Back in the day - mid to late 1980s there was a big transition away from the 'olde man' Harry Kippax who had a lot of reviewing clout. Bob Evans came in and cleared the air. James Waites. Pamela Payne. and several others ALL did a good job!!! All were truly theatre lovers. Bob and James became more outspoken and were genuinely trying to usher in a new movement in local and national theatre. They were very important. There were some vociferous conflicts between them and some theatres or some theatre practitioners. But the theatre really needed a shakeup even though many aspects of the theatre culture were shifting. David Malouf I think reviewed for The Australian for about one-year. I believe my solo show received his last review.

However, for my show "The Battler" that went thru a few short phases with several colleagues/friends sitting in for one session each... the show developed a bit organically. It had its first full incarnation sponsored by Belvoir St - specifically be Chris who was manager circa 1986+ who was there when I was in "An Imaginary Life" and who was a 'fan' of many of us back in the day. So she invited folks to a one-off Monday night performance of "The Battler" in Upstairs Belvoir with a full house of about 300 or 350 whatever it held. My friend Fred helped with my set change between act 1 and act 2. There were 3 acts. Our friend Theo ran the lights. And both Fred and Theo helped me with talking through my plan of action. We were doing that in my room at the share house in Clovelly on Walker Avenue - seafront. Suddenly a set of dialogue/text in various languages came through me and suddenly act 2 had text!!! That was in the show that night. Some day I will write a description of "The Battler".

I didn't tell anyone, but, although I had a creative impulse to do a trilogy I really held to that form as a test. I had been in Australia long enough to have some insight, a bit, as immigrants need to simply as an act of survival. At any rate, although I had an ever growing (and still is growing) list of Australian theatre practitioners who I admired... I also noted that frequently there could be these extreme opinions one in opposition to the other but each voiced as if the speaker was really the only person in the room who really understood totally. Maybe that is just human nature. But nature had landed me here and here was my concern.

So I knew or suspected with reasonable odds that various theatre practitioners were going to tell me which of the three acts was 'the best' and why, while others would say a different act and would have just as valid a rationalization.

In fact, all three acts were totally unique in clown theatre. Each had a specific quality and aesthetic. So I had a tee-hee-hee experience of seeing exactly how much hubris was dominating the frontal lobes of our theatre practitioners. I argued with no one (those were the days) and just listened to each persons opinion. My teacher Carlo Mazzone-Clementi warned his students not to be sucked in to professionals opinions voiced as expertise.

There is more I will write about reviewers, but, this is a prelude to writing about my most recent collaborative project Antony & Cleopatra.