Back in the Day
Actors in Shakespeare's day were able to put on ten or more different plays in the space of two weeks. There are several factors that could have made this possible:
1. They had a large volume of plays in their repertoire--and while they rarely performed the same title on two consecutive days, (Or even in the same week) they did on occasion resurrect a popular popular show for an encore performance.
2. The actors consistently played similar types. We know that Will Kemp played such foolish clowns as Dogberry in Much Ado, Peter in R and J, and Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant, while Richard Burbage was known for playing strong leads such as Othello, Richard III, Hamlet, and Lear. If an actor was accustomed to playing a specific type, it would have required much less time and effort for him to learn and develop the part.
3. The actors worked under a company system, and were used to working closely and cooperatively with one another. They must have had an enormous trust and confidence in one another's abilities in order to produce with the speed they did and under the rigorous conditions they worked in.
What does this mean for Grassroots?
Well to begin with, we do not have a large repertoire, but we will be attempting to remount last year's production of Romeo and Juliet in the spirit of those early companies.
Second, we will be casting our shows democratically--which tends to favor and encourage the sort of type casting that would have been prevalent in Shakespeare's day. More on that in another post.
Third, while we do our best to work under a company system, our track record thus far has been less than ideal. At the beginning of our second year, we had only two of our original twelve company members return for our second season. This year is a little better: We have six of last year's thirteen coming back for another season.
Our first two companies were hand-picked by the producers. This was done in an attempt to ensure that we were getting actors who were not only talented, but had somewhat of a history working together.
This year, in an effort to be more open and inclusive of all hoping to join the company, we held our first ever open auditions. This is a huge risk for us, as speed of rehearsal and production is of the utmost importance for us.
We've planned just ten short rehearsals for each of our new shows this Summer.
How will we beat the steep learning curve that accompanies the rehearsal process for actors unaccustomed to working with one another?
We've decided to take a bold risk in a gambit to build maximum company solidarity in the shortest possible amount of time.
Open Auditions and Callbacks
We held our open auditions and were pleasantly surprised by the volume of interest from the community. We ended up inviting back about twenty-eight people for callbacks.
Here's where things get interesting:
Many of our former company members were among those who auditioned and were invited to callbacks. No one got a free pass. This year instead of inviting everyone back, we invited back no one. Everyone, including former company members had to prove themselves valuable and committed to the group.
Callbacks were full of great energy and competitive talent right from the start.
We were interested in seeing how well people could work together under limited time, so we randomly divided into groups and gave each one a copy of Sonnet 29 and allotted ten minutes of rehearsal to develop the text into some sort of performance.
Some groups focused on choral reading and movement. Other groups divided up the lines and worked on characterization. Each piece was unique and fascinating to watch. Things were off to a great start.
We then switched gears to give every individual present a chance to show their stuff.
Each participant got one minute to perform a Shakespearean monologue we had asked them to come prepared with. Then the entire crowd gave feedback: everyone raised their hands and the person performing was allowed to choose three people to deliver feedback or suggestions. After hearing suggestions, the performer was given thirty seconds to incorporate the suggestions in performance. It was fast-paced, energetic and full of creative choices on the parts of both performers and crowd. We saw some of the most entertaining and colorful performances I've ever seen in a callback. Everyone was given the chance to shine and most did so in a way that delighted and surprised all present.
Then came the hard part. Everyone had performed and seen every performance. It was all out on the table. There was no director there to impress or perform for, and no committee to make the decisions. At this point, we passed out ballots to all the performers present at callbacks and instructed them to vote for the ten individuals who gave the strongest performances and worked best with the group.
As we collected ballots, I thought: "I've been a part of this company for two years now. What if I get voted out?"
And that was both terrifying and exhilarating. All the members of the board had agreed that this was the system we would use to determine the company, and no one would be given special treatment.
It was an agonizing evening as we all waited for the results to be calculated.
Finally, when all the numbers were added, we had some pretty definitive results. Most of our former company members who auditioned made the cut, but we did lose one, and that was painful. But there's also a huge payoff here. Everyone who made the company made it because they were voted in, and there's a sense of gravity to that. There's also an automatic sense of camaraderie because when it comes down to it, I'm here because you voted for me, and you're here because I voted for you. There's no director or producer to owe, only a sense of collective obligation and respect for one another from the responsibility that comes from mutual selection.
So when does the payoff come? Well we sat down and had our first company meeting this week, and it went better than planned. There's already a great chemistry and excitement in the group that we can only hope will endure and increase.
But at the end of the day, the payoff can only truly be measured by the quality of our product. If our company puts on a good show, then and only then can we know that we're a good company.