Season Eight: Week 16


This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 18 / 2018
Written by Frannie

After a long check-in (good news, bad news, a beautiful poem, and more), one of the women asked why we don’t ever perform the No Fear “translation” of the play. Several women jumped in to give their reasons, which mostly have to do with how much of the original text’s richness is lost that way. “They might be smart, but they get some things wrong,” one woman said about the authors. “If we did a translation, we would have to do it ourselves,” said another woman.

The woman who’d brought it up explained that her concern was really about friends in the audience who’ve had a hard time following the plot and remembering who the characters were. Anonymous surveys each year tell us that the majority of audience members follow along just fine, but we don’t want anyone left out!

The women started throwing out ideas:

  • A prologue to explain the plot and characters? Too time-consuming: we’ve only got 90 minutes, period.

  • A synopsis in the printed program? We’ve done that for years, but it’s too much to read in too little time. We’re going to see if that info can be given to the audience ahead of time this season.

  • A narrator throughout the play? This would also add too much time.

A quiet member raised her hand and floated the idea of having a few zannis doing a “Mystery Science Theater”-style running commentary at points when we feel the audience might get confused. This seems like a great solution, as it fits the concept we’ve already developed and shouldn’t add much time.

A longtime member then said that the audience understands the plays better when the actors are fully committed. She demonstrated by performing nearly all of one of her monologues from last season, which was great! I added that there are techniques we can use in our acting and staging that will help the audience, too—but it’s going to take an even fuller commitment to the work than she’d been talking about. “You can watch any play in any language—” I began, and a newer member piped up, “Or no language!” I nodded. “Or no language!—and still understand it if the artists are doing the work.”

There generally is a bit of a lag in the spring, when rehearsing becomes challenging because people are in and out of the room for various reasons, or they’re absent and we don’t know if/when they’re coming back, or they get busy with other things and “slack” on learning their lines. Just one or two people can affect the entire ensemble this way, and it makes it tough for everyone to give it their all. Our performances are always joyous and uplifting, but they usually don’t reach the full “artistic potential” the ensemble knows they’re capable of achieving.

This year, though, there’s already been a push to up the ante on work ethic and dedication. We’ve recognized that our play requires a lot of physical comedy and prop-work, so we’ve set a much earlier off-book date than usual: we want to have lines memorized in March, three months before performances (and much sooner than even I had suggested!). Attendance has been stellar for most ensemble members, and, as we’ve noted before in this blog, there is an incredible, palpable sense of warmth and enthusiasm for the work and each other.

“So,” I said, “We’ve always done great work, but it sounds like we want to make taking care of the audience a bigger priority this year.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “It’s gonna take even more commitment on our part, then, to bump our performance up to that next level. Are we all in?” We sure are.

What better way to segue into officially staging the first scene of our show? We’d decided to flip the first two scenes, so the play begins with Viola’s arrival in Illyria. We gathered in the house and closed the curtain, talking through basic staging “logic” (for example: making sure locations are clear and consistent) and brainstorming ideas of how we could begin. One woman suggested that Viola, the Captain, and the sailors stumble in from the back of the house and play the scene on the apron and the floor in front of the stage. Great idea!

Then, of course, we started collectively overcomplicating things. How about adding some dialogue for the sailors? some business for the Captain? What order should people enter in? Should the sailors stay or leave? Do they need to be there at all?

The ideas began to stray pretty far from the text, and I called a hold, reminding everyone of an immortal ensemble member quote from last season: “Don’t. Add. Shit. To. Shakespeare.” When we start piling “stuff” on, we obscure the play itself—and we love the play itself! Some goofiness and ad libbing will enhance the piece, but too much will overwhelm it. We backed off of the ideas that seemed extraneous and agreed to “just try” the scene. And, lucky me, I got to be a zanni!

The Captain and one sailor entered through the house left aisle, while another sailor and I, followed by Viola, entered through the right. Right away, the sailor near me “fell” on her face, and, as I struggled to edge my way around her, I burst into exhausted tears. We made our way to the stage, where one sailor knocked water out of her ear and emptied sand from her shoe, while the other picked seaweed off herself, and I continued to cry while fighting off seagulls. Viola and the Captain met in front of the stage, and we bungled our way through the scene. Only at the very end did I realize that Viola had had only one shoe on the entire time.

It was a mess, but we all agreed that there were things to keep and build on. After problem-solving a bit, we tried it again. We sailors kept a lot of the same business, but we were more unified this time. Viola and the Captain were clearer when delivering their lines, so much so that a bunch of us got information from the scene that we’d missed before! And Viola took things a step further by throwing her shoe on the ground at a key moment (though I can’t remember which one!) and getting very excited on her line, “He was a bachelor then!” It was super, super funny, giving us even more ideas, not just for comedy, but for making things clear for the audience and further developing the characters. (It seems that this Captain and these sailors may actually be pirates…)

The standout moment of the final run was definitely when one sailor, totally committed to chasing down some “coins,” dove to the floor and army-crawled under the curtain after them. “Could I please make it through this scene without laughing?” chided the Captain. “It just came over me!” the sailor exclaimed. “I can’t even with this lady!” laughed another woman. “I’m-a send you some Bengay!”

Friday / December 21 / 2018
Written by Matt

One of our new members talked during check-in today about being “thrown off” by a new face in her unit. “You can’t steal my Shakespeare sunshine!” she said to the newcomer. “I think you found your calling,” suggested another relative newcomer. “I think so, too!” was the reply.

To start out, we ran through the ensemble’s goofy performance piece again. Predictably, it was pretty rough after a week of neglect. A couple of the veterans started whipping people into shape! One of the women who was observing the process leaned over to a friend and whispered, “She’s such a director,” pointing at one of the ringleaders.

After running through it until it went smoothly, we picked up again at the top of the play (Act 1, scene 2, which is our opening). It was just as funny as it was last time, and there were just a few notes, including a really good one given by one of our longtime members about making sure that the sailors, who add a lot of slapstick energy to the scene, were helping tell the story instead of just goofing around.

Up next was Act 1, scene 1, and right away we could feel that it was going to be good! Our Orsino got the idea that her throne would be comically high for her--she’s short, and the “throne” was a stack of plastic chairs--so, when the curtain opened, she was struggling to jump up into her seat. She’s got great instincts and a clear voice, so she was able to shout and whine with gusto, even rolling around on the floor. By the end, everyone was laughing. “I knew you’d be a good Orsino!” shouted a woman from the audience.

“I feel like you portrayed a pathetic guy who’s in love with someone,” said a veteran, “and there’s no hope.” Then, she gently nudged our Orsino to keep the energy but make sure the audience could hear and understand what’s going on. Another praised Orsino for her decisions: “I love how you were venting to the musicians like they’re your best friends!”

On a second run-through--just as funny as the first, and more disciplined--the same woman who had praised venting to the musicians noted that we weren’t using levels very well. She demonstrated how to create visual interest by consciously mixing up who is sitting, standing or kneeling at any given time.

As Valentine, I was planning on providing a serious foil to Orsino’s over-the-top emotional delivery. However, the woman playing Curio gave such a beautifully dry performance that I realized I could never top it. On a whim, I bolted out of the door and went over-the-top, like Orsino. After the scene was over, I mentioned that my entrance had been a last-minute decision, inspired by Curio. “I saw her and I thought, ‘Man, I cannot out-deadpan that!’”

On the third run-through, it was even crazier! There’s still a lot of polishing to do, but it was pretty close to where we’ve wanted it to be. We had to hurry to wrap up before our time was over, but it was really encouraging. The lesson of this season has always been to get out of our heads and just do it! Today was no exception.