Podcast Archives: 2010

2010 Actors’ Renaissance Season

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2010 Summer and Fall Seasons


Comedy and Tragedy in Early Modern Drama

This evening, I’ll be conducting the Inside Plays lecture for The  Maid’s Tragedy, and I’ve decided to use it as an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite pet concepts: definitions of comedy and tragedy.'Maid's Tragedie'

This all stems from a class I had with Professor John Morreall back in undergrad. We spent half the semester breaking down what makes something comic or tragic, then the second half applying those concepts to various religious worldviews. What I find particularly interesting, though, is how those concepts apply to early modern theatre. Despite our tendency to break Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries up into neat boxes labeled “Comedy”, “Tragedy”, and “History”, very few plays fit comfortably into those slots. Hamlet has plenty of funny moments, and Much Ado about Nothing has some real heart-rending moments.

The dichotomy is particularly noticeable in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy. At a glance, this is definitely what it says on the tin: a tragic play. All the characters seem hellbent on drastic actions, the fate of a kingdom is at stake, and by the final scene, the stage is littered with bodies. And yet, when I saw the play on its opening night, there was laughter. A lot of it.

Laughter can come from different places, of course, and I’m sure plenty of those laughs were nervous or awkward, a helpless response to the heightened emotions displayed on the stage. But I think there are some genuinely comic moments in this play, whether for their bawdy humor or their sheer absurdity. It’s not just a rollercoaster for emotions — it’s more of a yo-yo.

When a play presents such extremes, I like to go back to the same checklist I used back in Professor Morreall’s class. This list breaks down the biggest differences in the tragic-comic binary — convergent vs divergent thinking, focus on the spirit vs focus on the body, order vs chaos, etc. Analyzing a play, a character, or even an individual moment through this lens helps me see the often complex interplay between genres in early modern plays. Are there some characters with comic worldviews trapped in a tragic play? Are some of them so tragic, in such overblown ways, that it strains our capacity to sympathize and instead renders them comic? What makes us laugh in those funny moments — and how fast does the situation bring us back down, and why? And, most importantly, how can actors use that dichotomy and its attendant expectations to generate a variety of audience responses?

Blackfriars Conference 2013 –Paper session IV

Hello!  Whitney Egbert here again, live blogging our fourth paper session at the Blackfriars Conference from 2:00pm to 3:15pm today.  Our session is being moderated by Amy Cohen of Randolph College with paper assistance given by OCS actors Emily Brown, Ben Curns, Rene Thorton Jr., Rick Blunt, and Patrick Midgley.  (I am posting a little early so that those here at the conference can get the handout for the first paper electronically if they so desire.  Check back after two as the session gets started for further updates.)

Leslie Thomson, University of Toronto
“Give me the light”: Illuminating Discoveries on the Early Modern Stage

(Please see Leslie Thomson handout)

Leslie Thomson is discussing the use of light as a sign of darkness and illumination, the idea of the light as both a figurative thing and a literal thing.  In addition, she will explore the idea that the light may have been used in the dimly lit discovery spaces of the theatres where light was provided by candles or natural light.

The handout has six scenes Thomson will use as examples – the first three for outdoor spaces, the second three for indoor spaces.  The first scene is from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II – an exchange between Gurney and a character named Lightborn, an obvious indication of the topic of light as well as the language used about light in the scene.  The second scene Thomson uses is from Romeo and Juliet where Paris indicates he sees a torch coming towards Juliet’s tomb (indicating Romeo’s approach).  Thomson also points out the further use of indicating needed light for the tomb scene.  The third scene is fromThomas Heywood’s The Rape of Lucrece where a taper is used to illuminate the bed behind the curtains.  The fourth scene is from John Fletcher’s Monsieur Thomas – another example of a playwright helping the audience better see what is happening onstage by calling for additional light for a specific moment.  The final two examples are from Fletcher’s The Knight of Malta and Heywood’s Love’s Mistress in moments where additional light is needed again to help illuminate a moment for the audience.

Torches and lamps being used as practical items as well as illuminating truths is an intriguing idea as an actor that I will definitely be taking with me into future exploration of plays.

Ian Borden, Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, University of Nebrask-Lincoln
Rebooting the Stuart Stage: An Examination of Early Modern Thrust Staging in the Restoration Theatre

(there is a handout for this presentation which will be made available at a later time)

All our actors join us to kick off Ian Borden’s discussion of how proscenium and presentational staging changed theatre and the problems that they might have possible posed.  Borden wonders if the Stuart houses would have changed for the new style – what would you have done about the doors for entrances, the sight lines for balcony scenes, etc.?

Borden discusses many examples of stage directions written in scripts that create many complications when compared with the pictures and drawings of the stages and performances.  Borden is using all five of the actors and the Blackfriars stage to show how complicated and confusing the new style might have been.

One of the examples Borden uses is a scene where you would have EIGHT fighters onstage at the same time – a moment that Borden questions as a fight director who is not allowed to knick the set which would be difficult to avoid with so many swords present.  Borden leaves us curious and interested in what all the change in styles might have meant.

William Proctor Williams, University of Akron
“Where’s a parking lot when you need one?”: What Happens to the Princes in the Tower Onstage

William Proctor Williams discusses the murdering of the two York princes in the tower by Richard and his cohorts across three different plays: The True Tragedy of Richard III by an unknown author, Shakespeare’s Richard 3, and Thomas Heywood’s Edward 4.

Williams is most interested in what each play says is done with the bodies after the boys have been killed – burying them under the stairs in one versus being brought onstage (our actors bring in large stuffed monkeys to represent the two boys) and leaving them for a priest to bury in another.  In this later example, the bodies are not, according to the script, taken offstage at the end of the scene and the next scene must enter and walk over or around them.  Not an easy feat for actors or directors and Williams calls for ideas and help on the matter.

Melissa Aaron, California State Polytechnic University at Pomona
The Fortunate Comedy: The Financial Rise of All’s Well That Ends Well
(Please note, this is a different title than listed in the published program, which was the title of Melissa Aaron’s paper presented in 2011)

Melissa Aaron starts off by saying that All’s Well That Ends Well (abbreviated here after as just All’s Well) is a play about money (not the unfortunate comedy as it is often known) – follow that money trail!

Aaron talks about the curses of Macbeth and an opera referred to as “The Unfortunate One” and of All’s Well where the  curse was found in the box office.  Aaron argues that this is not true and that many other factors played into this history for All’s Well, things that can be, and have, changed.

Aaron uses the OCS as an example with information from Dr. Ralph Cohen – when you are doing three shows a year, you have specific types that you are trying to hit every year that maybe All’s Well doesn’t fall easily into; when you start doing more productions each year, you can start doing some of the lesser known plays or plays that don’t carry the major names that are read by every high school student across the country, such as All’s Well.

Aaron is walking us through several recent productions of All’s Well and the finances that the producing companies had for that production year – she is using the OCS,the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Globe, The National, and The Royal Shakespeare Company.  All of those companies had good financial years in the seasons where they produced All’s Well.

Aaron has earned herself some extra time by bribing the bear with honey!  Well played Ms. Aaron.  Well played.

Aaron has left me with the thought that maybe it is time we stop avoiding some of the lesser done plays merely because they are lesser done and people don’t know them as well.  Maybe it is time to start diversifying the shows we teach in school, maybe it is time to broaden our horizons.

Evelyn Tribble, University of Otago
Where are the Archers in Shakespeare?

Evelyn Tribble will be discussing the of archers in Shakespeare’s Henry V, both the lack of their presence onstage in the battles and yet the presence of deaths by arrow.

Tribble’s first example is Clifford’s death, when he enters with an arrow in his neck (Clifford portrayed by Curns).  Then comes the parody of that – Blunt as a character named Ralph (from a play who’s title I did not catch) with a forked arrow through his head.  Our third example brings the first appearance of a long bow in the hands of Hercules which is actually shot in the scene to kill a centaur – a staging challenge to be sure but made easier by the centaur being offstage.  Our final example is of a scene where both the shooter and the victim are visible on stage when the arrow is shot and strikes which our actors played with the shot going into the discovery space.  I am unsure how you might actually shoot an actual arrow as that would be a very special kind of stage combat staging to make sure it got off stage without hurting anyone.

Tribble’s final points are on the fact that arrows make no noise for stage battles and that Shakespeare may have been making a statement about those who used them.

James Keegan, University of Delware
A Piece of Cake, a Bit of a Dance, and a Fat Suit on Its Knees: Staging the Epilogue of Henry IV, Part 2 at the Blackfriars in 2010

(please see James Keegan Handout)

James Keegan illuminates the staging of the epilogue based on his experience here at the OCS after having played Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV.

There were script cuts made merely for time – indicated on the handout – but Keegan’s main concern will be how do you indicate the actor without the character with only 13 lines between the exit and the re-entrance.  Keegan talks about the choice to quick change out of his costume and into an outfit that an actor might wear into the rehearsal room while creating a Falstaff puppet of sorts that could be brought on at the same time so that the audience could see the actor and the shell of Falstaff all at once.

The more Keegan describes the final moments of this play, the more I am saddened at having missed the production.  It sounds beautiful and poignant as a visual to end the Henry 4 plays.

Keegan describes the final moments as a wake of sorts – a chance for the audience and him as the actor to bid farewell to the character.  In reference to the lines indicating dancing (Kemp, who would have been delivering this originally, was a skilled dancer), they developed a moment where Keegan would pick up the kneeling puppet of Falstaff and waltz with him as a final dance.  Keegan closes his presentation with a touching recounting of the timing of his mother’s death on the opening of the production and how, in the final moments, it was not just one good-bye, not just one more dance, but two.  A truly touching end and moment.