Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Musings from a Dramaturg

As dramaturg of Othello, I got to do a lot of fun and interesting things like writing up explanatory notes for the middle and high school classes who will see the play. But by far the most fun was working with the actors. Early on in the rehearsal period I spent a couple of hours with the cast, answering questions and providing background information on the play, Venice and race in the Italian Renaissance.
Even though it was the first week, the actors had all obviously spent a lot of time thinking about their characters and they had tons of questions. They wanted to know all kinds of things—we talked about whether Shakespeare thought of Othello as purely African or more Arabian (the word “Moor” was used about both in the time period), about the system of ranks in the army and whether or not Iago was right to expect promotion, about Bianca—prostitute or girlfriend and, either way, why she’s upset about Cassio’s request to copy the handkerchief pattern. I tried to provide modern day examples because I firmly believe that while the specifics of behavior have changed, Shakespeare is writing about universal feelings. With Bianca I said “Imagine you’re in love with a guy, but you aren’t quite sure how he feels. One day he hands you a cell phone. For a second you think it’s a gift and then he says “I really like this model and I think they sell it at your store. Could you pick one up for me?” And then he takes off. Imagine how crushed you’d feel.”
I love working with actors because they care passionately about the play—the language and the characters—in a different way than the scholars I usually work do. Instead of looking for symbols and themes, actors want to understand motivations and behaviors. They want to give the characters life and make them rich, three-dimensional people we all recognize. Being part of process of fleshing out the characters is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.
- Annalisa Castaldo, Dramaturg

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Creating a New World: Musings on Building Scenery

As Production Manager and Technical Director for The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, I coordinate and facilitate for all areas of production. I keep an open line of communication between the set designer, lighting designer, scenic charge, costume designer, sound designer, properties master, and director. For our season, we produce two shows in rep and we use the same scenic and lighting designer for those shows; the other designers and directors are different for each show. There are many challenges when creating a show in our space. One of those challenges is building the scenery.

The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre does not have a scene shop nor does it hire a shop to build its sets. We build them right here. Where do you ask? Right on stage! This is my first season here and I had to assess the situation. What tools do we have? What kind of storage is available? Where do I order my lumber? Where do I store the lumber when it arrives? How do I organize the space to create an efficient building environment? How much dust am I going to create? How much noise will I make while the admin is working in the offices? What kind of music will I listen to? Obviously, these are all very important questions.

If you have ever been to this theatre, it is easy to see that there is not a lot of storage. A quick tour backstage will show you a green room, two dressing rooms, a tool room, the dimmer room/wardrobe storage, three offices, and a super-secret staircase to the men’s bathroom, and the kitchen/paint room/sewing room. When you are in the house, what you see is what you get. Before the build and before lumber arrived, we moved everything from the stage space into the dressing rooms, the only rooms not dedicated to anything while there is no production in place. The lumber: 16 sheets of ¾” plywood, 35 sheets of ¼” luauan, 33 sheets of ¼” Masonite, 5 sheets of bendable plywood, 4 sheets of ½” plywood, 3 sheets of homosote and 87 sticks of 1x4x16. Miraculously, it all fit! The stage was left completely clear to accommodate the build.

Before we made a single cut, we covered all of the seats in plastic. Less mess now means less to clean later. The first order of the build was to make work surfaces. We created a table for the chop saw and run off table for the table saw (which doubled as a work table). Just making these two things created a more efficient working environment. Let the building begin!

The schedule for the build this year was shorter than normal. Rehearsal was moved up two weeks and due to prior obligations, I was not able to build until the beginning of January. From January 2nd through January 31st, we built, painted, loaded in scenery, loaded in lights, and focused lights. So this process, which is normally done within 9 weeks, was completed in 5 weeks. This breaks down to 15 days of build, 11 days to paint and load in the set, and 4 days to load in and focus lights. There were no weekends.

What is that you ask? “Why is everything finished so early when the first show doesn’t open until March 13th?”  Good question. Due to the limited amount of space, all rehearsals are done on-stage. So now, the performers not only get to rehearse on stage, but also with the scenery for their show! This is fantastic for the performers because it only gets more real when the audience is watching. This is also a great opportunity for other designers to view the rehearsal process on set.

This brings us to my favorite day of build. In our last full week, it seemed to get hotter and hotter inside every day, despite the falling temperatures outside. For those of you who don’t know, the theatre is located on the second floor of a historical church. The church controls the temperature and there are no thermostats on our level, so whatever temperature they want, they get. During that week, I brought in sandals (that fully covered my toes), cut my pants to make shorts, and wore t-shirts. But none of that was good enough on Saturday. I admit, when I turned 30, my internal body temperature went up, but this was out of control. I couldn’t last long. When I came in that morning, it was already sweltering. I opened windows where I could and changed in to my shorts and sandals. Still not good enough. Fortunately, I was working alone this day and was not expecting anyone to come in. So I decided to take my shirt off. But my feet were sweaty. So I took my sandals off. But I was still hot. It’s January. It’s below freezing out. And I am sweating. So finally, I took my pants off. (NOTE: This method is not recommended for safety standards, but for comfort standards, it was awesome.)

I am pleased to report that despite the obstacles of storage, organization, heat, no weekends, and time constraints, we met our goal of getting all technical elements ready for first rehearsal tomorrow.  It was a fun and tiresome adventure, and yes, when you come to see the show you will see a set built by a man in his underwear (sort of).
- Raj Shah, Production Manager/Technical Director

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What Do You Want? Carmen Khan on Why Philadelphia Needs a Great Shakespeare Theatre

Why should Philadelphia have a great Shakespeare theatre?

I want to answer that question with a question. What do you want? After our basic needs have been met, what is it we want? I think we are all seeking meaning in our lives-to have access to and participate in something deeper than the everyday. Humans from the dawn of time have been seeking this meaning. From the first exquisite lines we drew in the caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, we have been trying to give expression to our humanity-our imaginative impulse.

We weren’t trying to explain the hunt when we drew on those cave walls, we were trying to find the meaning of the experience. That was the beginning of a tradition we would carry through the ages.

When this creativity is nurtured, we see the development of great civilizations. When you think of all of the great civilizations, what do you remember about them? The highest expressions of their arts and culture. Blossoming creativity made these civilizations great not only aesthetically, but also economically, because innovation, collaboration, and invention were prized. When we think of ancient Athens we remember the vases, the buildings, and the art.

We, even today, visit the great cities of the world simply because of their arts and culture–Paris, London, Rome, cities throughout China, India.

I love Philadelphia and I'm sure that you do too. So many of us have spent our lives in efforts to uplift the city. We all want it to be a great city and we've made great strides towards that goal. We have over 400 cultural organizations, many of international renown-one of the best orchestras in the world, an internationally renowned art museum, the Barnes with the largest collection of Cezannes in the world, and dozens of performing arts institutions.

So, why should Philadelphia have a great Shakespeare theatre?

Simply put, he is the best.

Shakespeare is the pinnacle of expression of the English language. He is not only the greatest of English poets, he is also a global phenomena, he's translated into over 80 languages. Fifty percent of the worlds children study Shakespeare. A Zulu king in the late 1800s translated Shakespeare into Zulu because he thought it would uplift his people and become part of their higher education. This global Shakespeare was celebrated at the cultural Olympiad in Britain last summer when all 37 of his plays were produced by 37 companies from around the world in 37 different languages.

Shakespeare has achieved this global influence by being an extremely personal author. It is more than likely Shakespeare's plays have been taught to you at some point in your life. If you, like me, love his work, there was a moment that elevated him from old words on a page to something that lives inside of you. Mine was when a teacher read words that appealed to how hopeless I felt growing up poor in England, words that related to how bleak I felt my future was.  They were,

           Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

            Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

            To the last syllable of recorded time;

           And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

            The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!

            Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

            That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

            And then is heard no more. It is a tale

            Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

            Signifying nothing.

Those words lifted off the page and sunk into me. It’s an experience I have not been able to shake since. Even though I felt hopeless, and even though the words were hopeless, having my feeling expressed so exactly, as if my very nerves were framed and hung in a gallery, made what I was feeling that much clearer and less frightening.

Have you had an experience like that?  If yes, you know why Philadelphia needs a Shakespeare theatre.  If no, you are why Philadelphia needs a Shakespeare theatre.

- Carmen Khan, Artistic/Executive Director

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Cramlet": A Commentary On Fitting Shakespeare’s Longest Play Into A Half an Hour

  The character of Hamlet speaks about as many lines as make up the entirety of A Comedy of Errors, which clocks in at about 2 hours. It was, then, with equal measure of delight and dole that I shouldered the task of cutting all of Hamlet down to a half an hour to use in our education programming. Delight in the challenge of it, and dole in the... challenge of it. The end goal of the endeavor was to have a version of the play without narration that high school students can perform at the end of a week long Shakespeare residency taught by a tag team of their classroom teacher and one of our teaching artists.
  It’s a noble goal but it sometimes seems impossible. It would be easy to condense the play if all that I had to care about was plot: The ghost of Hamlet’s father tells Hamlet to revenge his murder, Hamlet’s like, “Heck yes I’m gonna avenge your murder, also blooblooblooblah, I’m actin’ crazy”, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, Hamlet doesn’t avenge, HAMLET AVENGES, everybody dies. See, easy. The problem is that what’s great about Shakespeare isn’t his plots, which often seem to be held together with Elmer’s glue and bits of cello-tape (I mean, really, send multiple copies of that letter, Friar Laurence); what’s truly astoundingly magnificent about Shakespeare is the way he uses language and develops compelling characters. Hamlet uses his 1,438 lines to develop a character so complete, on leaving the play it’s hard not to think a little bit like him. It’s as if his mind is transparent and we can see a complete human being’s cogs turning and neuroses bubbling about. Not only that, the words! Oh the words words words! 

            What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!

            how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how

            express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

            in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the

            world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,

            what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not


  I mean, that’s just... I mean, READ THAT!  Read it over and over again! Read it out loud!
  The problem is, as I’ve just demonstrated, to educate someone in Shakespeare, you can’t just give them a large chunk of text and exclaim in all caps, “READ THAT.” It’s not helpful. If a student doesn’t care about Shakespeare, reading a large block of antiquated, overly loquacious text isn’t going to open their eyes and make them sigh in profound, revelatory beauty no matter how enthusiastically you endorse it. You have to espouse in them their own love of Shakespeare through inviting them to engage in it. So, allowing students to perform Shakespeare: good idea. Giving them way too much complicated text: bad idea. The complexity is clear, my job in cutting 7/8ths of Hamlet is to preserve the spirit of Shakespeare, but in a manageable dose. The quotation above remained in its entirety, but the 11 lines that sat above it in the original text which are equally good, are gone. 

  At times, cutting the play can feel perverse (splicing and recombining swaths of text like a taxidermist configuring a jackalope) and at other times liberating when the sense of a scene or a monologue suddenly resounds significantly more clearly and attainably. I know I have a responsibility to give young people an invitation into the ranks of Western Culture. Who cannot quote Hamlet? Only children. By the time you enter adulthood you know the phrases, “To be or not to be,” “To thine own self be true,” “The play’s the thing,” “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” They’ve grown into your mind like roots and shape your thoughts without you even knowing it. Exposing young people to these foundational lines is essential, but in palatable dosages. Knowing what to cut is a matter of knowing what is most significant. The lines can’t stand without the story, but the story’s junk without the lines. In other words, my task in cutting Hamlet is to find more art with less matter.     

- Tessa Nelson, Company Manager and Dramaturg for Much Ado About Nothing

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Combat Choreographer Michael Cosenza mentioned in 'Art of the Duel'

Mike Cosenza has been working with The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre for years staging realistic looking fights and scuffles. Recently, he spoke with Inquirer columnist Howard Shapiro about the art of the duel:

"'We want to create a system for actors where they can succeed in doing the same thing over and over again,' says Michael Cosenza, fight director for Twelfth Night, in which he must stage a funny fight between two characters who should not be involved in any potentially lethal pairing."


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Congratulations to our Sonneteers!

Two amazing sonnets have been chosen as the winner of our contest! We have posted them below for all to enjoy!

Doubts and Wishes
By Bud Koenemund (The Mad Sonneteer)
For Kymberly Hollander, Il mio respiro

Oh, Cupid; why must you make me captive
To those hot twins of passion: love and hate?
Shall my heart burn e'en as my mind misgives?
Will my wit to madness be subjugate?
Archer, aim thy arrows some other way,
Lest I be shipwrecked on rocks of regret;
Left alone to drown beneath waves of pain.
Thou seest I dread thy infection, yet,
If music be the food of love, I pray
Thee, direct a symphony for the ears.
Bestow thy gift on my heart that it may
Kindle a new flame to wither all fear.
Grant thou a hand to hold, and lips to kiss;
A soul with whom to share eternal bliss.

For Robert By Anat Eshel
How could I express my love for thee, dear?
I could bake a cake, serenade a song,
Buy thee a German film, and kiss your ear.
Or! I could write thee a love sonnet- long.
T’would start with these romantic lines on scroll:
“Our love can survive the worst of shipwrecks
Whilst we dance to’the music of our twin souls.
You’re my world, when in the world we're just specs.”
Oh! But alas, it t’will never occur!
For I am but a terrible writer.
Writing this sonnet may have been an err,
But rest assured, my love for you is bright'r.
Is my writing comparable to'the Bard’s?
Tis not, but I love you with all my hearts.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Learn About Original Pronounciation

We found this excellent video from Open University about The Globe's efforts to create an authentic experience.

Take a look!