March 10, 2010

“The Two Hours’ Traffic of Our Stage” and Other Dirty Filthy Lies

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 4:40 pm

Shakespeare, in general, is known (among his other accomplishments) as a writer of long plays. If you’re going to see Shakespeare you know it’s not a 90 minute / no intermission deal. That being said, Romeo and Juliet is not particularly known as being one of his longer plays. It says right there in the prologue:

“[really long run-on sentence about dead lovers]
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.”

I’m not much of a scholar of Elizabethan theatre, but I think this has perplexed people for some time, since we as modern theatre artists can’t seem to stage Shakespeare’s work without cutting it heavily or making it four hours long.

I spoke with a gentleman at a recent venue who was lamenting that we had made some cuts. Now some of our changes have to do with adapting to the size and gender makeup of our cast, but we have definitely made a lot of cuts for time. I explained all this, and he was still sad that we had felt the need to cut it for time. Our show is already three hours long. I refrained from starting and ending my argument by saying “BECAUSE IT WOULD BE FOUR HOURS LONG!!!”

I’m sure there are people who would love to pay to see a four- or five-hour unabridged (which is a tricky word with all the various folios and quartos) production of a Shakespeare play (hell, I might if I didn’t have to see it every day — or twice a day — can you imagine?), but there are overtime fees for actors and stagehands, there are time schedules to be kept between the end of one performance and the time it takes to drive to the next venue by 8AM, and the school groups have to go to class at some point in their day. Most people we encounter are shocked the show is as long as it is.

Anyway, a friend recently recommended I read Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, which debunks a lot of the myths about Shakespeare and lists the very few facts we actually know for sure about him. One of the things he talks about is the possibility that the printed versions of the plays might have contained additional text that was never performed, or perhaps never meant to be performed. So sort of like when they include deleted scenes on a DVD, or a bonus track on an album. It’s an interesting concept.

In my own mind I’ve always wondered if the acting style was much less naturalistic and they all just talked faster. I can see where, with different choices, an hour could be cut out of a show. If I had a time machine, the first place I would go would be to see a premiere of one of Shakespeare’s works, mostly out of curiosity to see if I’m right, and to see how much else we’ve gotten wrong in our assumptions about how his plays were performed.

But the idea that some of the scenes were kind of background material that audiences never saw live was rather shocking to me. It also goes against something that’s said a lot (and comes up frequently in our talkbacks), that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, not to be read. The only people who published them (we think) were unauthorized publishers during his life, and some of his collaborators who compiled the folios after his death.

Of course if I did a show, and years later the writer was hailed as a genius with almost a religious fervor, you can bet I’d be digging through my files for any old pages and music from cut scenes and songs, to provide an even more complete collection of his works, even if some of them never made it to an audience. I guess like us, maybe sometimes Shakespeare had to cut stuff in previews, so to speak.

December 14, 2009

The Friar Laurence of Stage Management

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 2:16 am

One of my favorite parts of the process is table work. This is where we sit around and read the play several times, while discussing anything that comes to mind about the text, character development, the meaning of the language, and plot points. It was during this time that I found the one character that truly speaks to me.

About Friar Laurence

One of the things we explored during table work for Romeo and Juliet is the arc of the supporting character of Friar Laurence. He is the confidante of both Romeo and Juliet, and throughout the play spends pretty much all his time trying to untangle the complications that prevent R&J from being able to happily marry, publicly declare their love, call off Juliet’s wedding to the eligible young nobleman to whom she has been betrothed, and end the ancient feud that has been dividing their families and disrupting the entire city of Verona with violence. With skills in spiritual matters, politics, and botany, the friar actually does a remarkable job of getting the young lovers out of some difficult situations.

So why do R&J, and a bunch of other people, end up dead after all?

Well it seems that every time Friar Laurence comes up with a brilliant plan to fix everything, fate intervenes to screw it all up again, usually worse than it was before. It was determined that the subtext of this situation is that every time this happens, Friar Laurence should say, Will Ferrell style, “SON OF A BITCH!!”

Let us examine:

Romeo comes to him with girl problems: he’s in love with Juliet, but their parents are not going to be happy. So the Friar sees this as an opportunity to fix everything by marrying them in secret, at which point they can consummate the marriage and it will be too late for the families to object, and suddenly they will all be in-laws and the feud will be over. Right?

So far, so good. They just need a few hours for the marriage to be consummated. And somehow, on his way home from the secret wedding, Romeo manages to kill Juliet’s cousin, which makes him a less-than-ideal son-in-law for the Capulets, and gets him banished from Verona. Oops. Problem #2. SON OF A BITCH!

No problem, Friar Laurence is on it. He hides Romeo at his cell, and in cahoots with Juliet’s nurse, arranges for Romeo to sneak into Juliet’s bedroom at night to say goodbye until they have time to explain everything and get Romeo’s name cleared.

So they say goodbye, and after Romeo leaves, Juliet is upset. Like really upset. Mom and Dad of course don’t understand why, so they’re like, “Hey, you know what’ll make you feel better? We’ve arranged for you to marry this guy Paris — two days from now!” SON OF A BITCH!!

So now there’s a very short timetable for the Friar to solve this problem, or else Juliet will be married to Paris, which is not only bad cause she doesn’t love him, but also a personal problem for the Friar because Juliet is already secretly married to Romeo, and for the Friar to knowingly marry her to two guys presents a serious religious dilemma. Oh, and on top of that, Juliet is holding a knife to her breast and threatening to kill herself if she has to go through with the second wedding.

But again, the Friar knows just what to do. He’s got a sleeping potion that Juliet can take on the night before the wedding, that will make her appear dead just long enough for her to be interred in her family tomb, after which point Romeo can bust her out and sneak her out of town. It seems like just sneaking her out of town awake would be easier, but I guess he likes the elegance of also convincing everyone that she’s dead so nobody bothers looking for her. The craziest thing about this plan is that it WORKS! Even when the wedding is moved up by a day (mini-son-of-a-bitch!), Juliet has the potion ready to go.

Woohoo! Good job, Friar Laurence! That one was really impressive. He’s covered all his bases here. He sends another Friar with a letter to Romeo explaining the whole plan, so that Romeo doesn’t freak out and think she’s actually dead, and will know to come to the tomb to rescue her. Except that Friar John gets delayed and doesn’t quite grasp the urgency of the letter, so it never gets delivered. And the whole wedding/death thing happens a day earlier than it was supposed to. SON OF A BITCH!!!

But it’s OK, the Friar will just have to get to the tomb in time to wake Juliet up and then they can wait for Romeo and fill him in.

Meanwhile, Romeo’s friend Benvolio thinks he’s doing a big favor by rushing to Mantua with the news that Juliet’s dead. So together they hire some fast horses and go immediately to the tomb so that Romeo can kill himself over Juliet’s not-really-dead body. SON OF A BITCH!!!!

But Juliet herself is still alive, and Friar Laurence tries to help her out to become a nun, until she finds out that Romeo’s dead, at which point she stabs herself. SON OF A BITCH!!!!!!

So as you can see, what we have here are a number of people who are all trying to do the right thing, and all do quite well at compensating for the obstacles in their way, but through a series of misfortunes outside their control, still manage to get totally screwed by fate.

Now About Me

It occurred to me this past week, as I was trying to schedule conference calls, that I am the Friar Laurence of stage management. My whole job is to solve people’s problems. And honestly I think I’ve been doing a nice job of it, but just when some extremely complicated situation has been perfectly arranged, something happens to ruin it all, and now I have a new problem to solve, and usually less time in which to do it. So I have taken some comfort in the shared plight of Friar Laurence, and the knowledge that even if some people can’t make the production meeting, or the rehearsal shoes arrive a day late, at least it’s highly unlikely that all my actors will wind up dead before opening night. And really, there’s a lesson in that for all of us — sometimes no amount of preparation can save you from pure bad luck. And in most cases, no matter how frustrating your day has been, Friar Laurence is having a worse day.

January 25, 2009

A Sonnet

I call this: mac,On the Road Again,phones,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:47 am

Tonight I write a poem with pen and pad
Upon this two-show day of Henry V.
My iPhone rests behind my chair plugged in,
The cord supplied of insufficient length.
O what can I with simple paper do
Of import that would match my Facebook’s state?
An email might for many minutes sit
Unknown, unread, devoid of swift reply.
Tomorrow’s weather stays a mystery,
No picture sent to Flickr when it’s took.
I fear a post comes from my favorite blog,
And yet I’ll know it not upon this hour —
Perhaps to wait until I reach my home.
And oh for shame, however will I know
One of my apps perhaps is obsolete,
An update waiting in the App Store now
That was not there to get an hour past.
The world is changing, yet I can’t be told,
But sit and call a show five centuries old.