This weekend, while the Grassroots Shakespeare Company performed its EPIC original-practices treatment of Romeo & Juliet, I found myself experiencing a strangely similar theatrical adventure: a 24-hour Shakespearean marathon beginning with the random selection of a Shakespeare play, and culminating in a fully-staged, uncut, off-book performance of that play. This nod to original-practices at the University of Exeter is called "Shake-in-a-Day."
As fate would have it, the play that was randomly selected on Friday was Two Noble Kinsmen. The reason you've never heard of it: there's not a more obscure Shakespeare play that actually shows up in the Complete Works. Act 1 and Act 5 were written by the Bard, but the middle was actually penned by a guy named Fletcher. The story is based on Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and the play basically fits in the "Romances" category, with Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. It's essentially a story of courtly love gone awry, when two noble kinsmen (the title is so apt) both fall in love with the same fair maiden, and end up being forced to duel to the death for her hand. There's also a crazy girl, a dancing troupe roaming the forest, and a baboon. It's a rare gem.
The play was cast, and parts were given out at 7pm on Friday night. Then, rehearsing scene by scene, the show was blocked over a roughly 18-hour process. When you weren't on stage, you were memorizing, and when you weren't memorizing, you were fading in and out of consciousness. Yes, it takes a special kind of insanity to enjoy this.
Unlike our Grassroots workshops, this play was cast in the typical fashion, with any given role being played by a single actor, and plenty of doubling. Also, the rehearsal process was overseen by the "Master of the Play," a term taken from Shakespeare's day to describe someone roughly responsible for stage management. On the Shakespearean stage, a different play taken from the company's repertoire was performed nightly, with a new play being introduced every couple of weeks, and there was very little company rehearsal - probably 9am to noon at best. Those rehearsals were less about simple staging, and more about fights, dances, and other group scenes. These rehearsals were overseen by different people, including a "prompter," who had a full copy of the script, and probably acted like Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream, who seems to manage the "mechanicals'" rehearsal. That was essentially the role of our "Master of the Play."
As night turned imperceptibly into a dreary, stormy day, rehearsal continued, until finally we reached the last scene. Then, after having run each scene a few times in rehearsal, it was time to put down the scripts and run the show. This is where, as you can imagine, things get interesting.
There is no way to memorize 15-25% of a Shakespeare play in 24-hours. Not word-for-word, anyway. So the run-through, and the performance at 7pm on Saturday, became a raucous, improvised, interactive experience much like a Grassroots workshop strung out on Thrillionaires. It was by turns a delightful, obscene, hysterical, and even touching evening of theatre, in much the same spirit as I believe Romeo & Juliet was played that same night.
This riff on original-practices further confirms my notions about its relevance in today's postmodern theatre landscape. It's not necessarily about a reconstructed Elizabethan space, authentic Early Modern clothing and instruments, or facsimiles of Folio texts. While those things are all really fascinating , I think original-practices is really about the spirit of play, of collaboration, of experimentation and improvisation in a safe, supportive setting, employing some of the foundational practices of English drama, not as a constraint, but as a context.
But what do you think? Do you feel like Grassroots is providing that kind of experience? What do you like about what we do, and what can we improve on?