Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Two Noble Comedies of Errors

Several weeks ago, my wife Stephanie and I went to Regent's Park in London to see some Open Air Theatre.  Their production of Comedy of Errors was big - like, a cast of 21 people on a huge stage in front of a gigantic billboard welcoming us to Ephesus big. That big.

A week later, we found ourselves in a park in Taunton, seeing Shakespeare's Globe on Tour, also performing Comedy of Errors, and their production was really small.  Like, a cast of 8 people on a tiny stage in front of a shabby-looking tent small.  That small.

While both productions were well-acted and full of comic moments, the Regent's Park show felt a bit lumbering at times.  Its pace was just a bit too slow, and as a result, nearly every joke fell flat.  And I honestly think it had something to do with the scale of the production, because where the Regent's Park version struggled, the Globe's pared-down version soared.

Ralph Alan Cohen, founder of the American Shakespeare Center (and my friend on Facebook!), argues that original practices can free actors from the fetters of modern theatrical conventions.  In his view, all those fancy lighting cues, concepts, set pieces, and so forth, can actually detract from the storytelling process.  Think about it - these plays were written for a particular kind of theatrical experience - one in open-air, with natural light, surrounding a small and sparsely-decorated cadre of performers on a simple scaffold.  Perhaps the plays actually work better under these original conditions?

Well, I found that such is the case, at least with these two productions.  The Globe's touring version is every bit as vibrant and memorable as Regent's Park's behemoth, but it has something more.  It has the life and energy of original practices - the fast pace, the genuine audience interaction, the lightness and freedom of play.

Take-home message: smaller can be better!

And that's the aesthetic that the Grassroots Shakespeare Company was born to embrace.  The small, simple, and unpretentious feel of an Elizabethan touring company. Simply a group of actors who come together and offer what they've got, creating something that lives most vividly in the collective imagination of the audience, the actors, and the playwright.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How Grassroots Workshops Began: Throw a few cue scripts out and see what happens

Who in their right mind wouldn't want a crack at playing Hamlet?

Last summer, during our tour of Much Ado About Nothing we found ourselves with an open week in the middle of June. Several of our cast members had committed to other projects and were unavailable to perform and we had all this great momentum coming off our first two weeks of shows. We were so excited about the response Grassroots was receiving, and we wanted to keep the excitement up in any way we could.
The following is a gChat brainstorm between Mark Oram and myself where we discuss how to get the word out about Grassroots during our week without shows.

8:27 PM
mark: i want to organize some kind of advertising blitz. see if we can get fans to help spread the word... so if you think of any ideas along those lines, let's talk about them. i was thinking maybe another event, uploading some posters and flyers to the blog, and urging people to help us get our name out...a grassroots campaign, if you will. thoughts?
alex: hmmm.
an event this week is out--unless we combine it with one of the shows at one of the fests...
we could have some sort of non-performing event next week...?
mark: oh, i just meant a facebook event, but a bbq or something for the fans could potentially be fun, although probably not cost effective.
unless we made it a fundraiser too...
alex: what if we held some sort of workshop for people who were interested
mark: ooooooh, that's a cool idea!
alex: I've had a lot of people come up to me at shows saying "I want in, how can I get involved?"
mark: yeah! same. we could totally do something like that... throw a few cue scripts at them and see what happens...
alex: yeah, that could be super fun to try out another one hour cutting via cue scripts...
really time intensive to prepare, but it could be a blast
and could help us fill that dead week
mark: right. right.
alex: and cast attendance would of course be voluntary
mark: yes. (totally unrelated ps)\ - did you watch this yet?
it's hilarious.
anyway, i think we should do this. totally.
alex: what if: we get a list of people who would be committed to participating, and divvy-ed up the script and had each person only memorize one scene--switch out roles every scene.
that's a riot
mark: it would be easier to hand out cue scripts at the event, but it would be more fun if we had committed people who could come memorized... do you think we could get such people?
alex: if they only had to memorize one scene--yes
mark: okay, let's try it.
alex: but for that to work, we need to either a) get a LOT of committed people so that we'll have enough for everyone to play one scene or
(more likely) b) we'll have them memorize some of the more exciting/memorable scenes from the play and just fill in the others on book.
by the by--if you have any down time at work, there's a book you've GOT to read
it's worth ordering off amazon
Peter Brook's 'The Empty Space'
just brilliant, you'd love it.
he's a former RSC director and the book is a collection of lectures he gave on the nature of theatre--really incredible insights
mark: thanks for the recommendation, i'll look it up!
also, b) sounds like a good mix.
alex: yeah, I think that could work.
I think it could be fun to pick a tragedy
mark: i was thinking the same thing.
alex: awesome. I knew there was a reason we were friends.
mark: hamlet, othello, lear?
alex: what about a week from thursday, in the evening. 6-10
mark: let me check that date...
Yep, June 18th looks good for me.
alex: just thinking out loud--a week day could be better than a friday or saturday evening because no one wants to give up date nights
mark: yeah, i think you're right.
alex: and good luck doing anything with a large group of people on sat afternoon--it's the default scheduling landfill of the week
what about trying a lesser known
there's so many that I've never even seen before
I'd love to expand the repertoire
and workshop could be a good time to do it
mark: sure, but we don't want to spend all our time untangling a plot at the expense of fun characters...
alex: true true
so true
mark: so histories are out.
alex: for sure
what about winter's tale?
on second thought--hamlet could be a great draw
who in their right mind wouldn't want a crack at playing one scene as hamlet
in fact what if we only gave out hamlet's lines to memorize?
everyone else plays auxillary lines on book
mark: that sounds GREAT. also, gender-blind okay with you?
alex: absolutely! that's what would make it fun!
mark: fantastic.
alex: also, what if we ask Chris Clark if we could have permission to use the Young Company cutting of hamlet?
mark: good call, that would save untold hours.
alex: so we can spend our time on cue scripts versus cutting
mark: yeah. 
alex: I'll bet we can get all the c-web kids in on this
fading flower cast members too.
mark: Absolutely. Yes. Oh, this is going to be good.
alex: we should try to extend individual invitations too before we send out an e-blast
could help our attendance
mark: for sure.
alex: ring. "Hello?" "hi! we want you to play hamlet!"
who wouldn't bite on that?
mark: agreed. it's a great draw. i'll get that script from Chris and start the cue scripts cooking. tonight we could get cast members calling around, and then this weekend we could create that e-vite to get everyone else...
alex: SO
let's start calling/messaging peeps and see what kind of a response we get
then we'll distribute cue scripts on monday(?) to give everyone enough time to memorize a scene for thursday
mark: hopefully i can get them out before then, but yeah, monday is a good deadline.
alex: and on second thought, perhaps we should try to get entire scenes memorized--I mean all the parts--it would work so much better for a workshop format
that way we can actually block and tweak some scenes
AND get through the whole play
mark: it would definitely work better. are we supposed to cast it, then?
alex: let's see who we can drum up--and then draw names out of a hat
I don't know
mark: :) casting is always the best part.
alex: yeah--let's cast it
we know we want to.
mark: alright, and depending on interest, we have a different cast for each scene? or at least different principles?
alex: yes--I think that's a great idea
mark: alright. let's get our list of takers, divvy up the parts, and make it happen.
alex: done and done.
now to figure out how to sell it...
9:16 PM

And that was the beginnings of our workshop experiences. Hamlet turned out to be such a great success that we kept on doing workshops all year long, following with A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Winter's Tale, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Julius Caesar.
Last week we opened enrollment for our eighth Play-in-a-Day production by revisiting A Midsummer Night's Dream in a new workshop cutting--which will rehearse and perform on Saturday July 31st.
Participation is, as always, open to all.
Come play with us!

Check out details for A Midsummer Night's Dream on Facebook, then sign-up here to participate as an actor!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grassroots grows in England!

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, 
This other Eden, demi-paradise, 
This fortress built by Nature for herself 
Against infection and the hand of war, 
This happy breed of men, this little world, 
This precious stone set in the silver sea, 
Which serves it in the office of a wall, 
Or as a moat defensive to a house, 
Against the envy of less happier lands, 
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!
-William Shakespeare (Richard II; 2.1) 

It's official.  The Grassroots Shakespeare Company, Utah's only free outdoor Shakespeare troupe offering "original practices" theatre, has started a new troupe in Exeter, England.  We couldn't be more thrilled!

See, I'm across the pond studying Shakespeare at the University of Exeter, and during my summer break I wanted to see if the Grassroots seeds we sewed last May in Orem would grow here on the Bard's home turf as well.  So, on a bit of a whim, I contacted the Bike Shed Theatre and arranged to perform as part of the first-ever Exeter Fringe Festival.  They were delighted.

As the festival grew near, we assembled a cast, picked a play, and began rehearsals.  This was on a Wednesday - our first performance was to be that Saturday.  You can see where this is going.

After four short rehearsals, Romeo & Juliet opened in Exeter.  Of course, the Grassroots troupe in Utah had been performing the same play... but ours was a bit different.  Juliet/Mercutio, for example, was played by Tom:

This, and other experiments with gender-blind casting, gave the show a very playful feel.  And with only a few hours of rehearsal, our performances stayed nice and loose as well - just the way we like it.

We had a successful run, with highlights including the words "live long and prosper," and "Isengard" being seamlessly integrated into Friar Lawrence's torrents of bad advice.

We also had some pretty legit fight choreography, courtesy of a couple local professionals who generously donated their time and talent on our behalf.

And finally, we had an onstage Prompter, played by our lovely RADA grad Siobhan, who kept the audience apprised of scene changes, entrances, and in one particularly awkward moment - exits as well.

Happily, our audiences took the journey with us.  The show was funny, unpredictable, and always fresh.  As we vacated the stage after our first performance, someone in the audience offered the first review of Grassroots in the UK: "That was the weirdest Shakespeare show I've ever seen."

Much obliged.  :)

As a result of our first show in the UK, we've been invited to perform an outdoor comedy in Kingsbridge later this month, and to produce a Grassroots version of King Lear for Exeter College in September!  Look for it!

Can Grassroots grow in England?

Forsooth, we can!