Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hamlet: Opening Night Remembrances

Pittsburgh Classic Players opened Hamlet last night at The New Bohemian, a tattoo parlor and performance venue in an old Czech Catholic church in the heart of the North Shore. I had placed Hamlet in 1970s Lower East Side Manhattan prior to our securing the venue and I can only thank the theatre gods for the alchemy between my conception of Denmark and The New Bohemian. In one of the earliest conversations between myself and Hamlet, I had said that I wanted Denmark to be a vibrant place that dies before our eyes.

Everything about The New Bohemian from the stage’s marble floor to the thrust’s red carpet to the stained glass windows in the house appear rich and run down. There is something strange and audacious and fitting in a new theatre company beginning their life with a play as preoccupied with death as Hamlet. If theatre is an affirmation of storytelling and storytelling is a means of remembering, where better to begin than an elegy?

PCP Co-Founders pow-wow before setting props, costumes, and the like.

The production runs three weekends. I have no doubt the run will simultaneously exhilarate and exhaust the actors: there are eight of them performing twenty five roles. That number is another happy accident. I flew to Pittsburgh intending to cast twelve; a slender and standard number, enough to minimize doubling and still fill the stage with the court of Elsinore and Fortinbras’ army. How twelve became eight is a story for the bar, and you’re buying. I count the ends, though, as another gift from the theatre gods.

There is something fitting in having the same actors who play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the friends Hamlet accuses of playing him as though he were a mere pipe, double as the Players whose entry Rosencrantz and Guildenstern announced to Hamlet’s delight. And, in our staging the Players are paired as two couples: Aeneas and Dido and Gonzago and Baptista.

There is something haunting about the actor who played Ophelia’s father, Polonius, being the one to silently attend her in the mad scene, and something wickedly funny about that same actress standing beside him as the pair of them dig Ophelia’s grave, something heart-wrenching about them being the ones, at Laertes instruction, to lay her in the earth.

Last night, I had to say goodbye to the cast. Projects in Portland await, as does my lovely-and-forever-generous husband. I would love to have the resources to return and see the show later in the run. Alas, I do not. So it is goodbye, the best kind of good-bye, the one where there are tears in your eyes yet your heart is beaming. Directing Hamlet has brought the words of one of the most exquisite plays ever written into my heart and soul. And as for Pittsburgh Classic Players? This is only the beginning.

The Ghost (Adam Huff) confronts Hamlet (Johnny Adkins)
Photo (c) Heather M. Hensen

View between Chicago and Portland on November 2nd,
the day I wrote this post.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Hamlet and The '70s

Not our base text for Hamlet, more a decorative reminder of the task ahead.
October finds me in Pittsburgh, in residence at the Manchester Art Farm, directing Hamlet for Pittsburgh Classic Players. There is no website for the Manchester Art Farm and you won’t find an entry for it in that yellow-paged relic of the pre-digital era. It is a nickname the landlord gave but it suits this beautiful red-brick home and the garden that surrounds it. You can find Pittsburgh Classic Players online and I hope that you will. They are an ambitious new company founded by three fellow alumni of Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance program and it is such a privilege to join them as the director of their inaugural production.

When you consider directing a classic, you know that you will be asked that fair but petrifying question: what are you going to do with it? The fear around the question is not just the terror of the white blank page or the knowledge that you will have to live with and be accountable to your answers. The fear also revolves around your suspicion that secretly the world thinks you have no business directing that classic work of staggering genius unless you are also a staggering genius who has something new to offer – and when it comes to Hamlet, well, it’s been done. Trust me, it’s been done. Of course, things do not have to be new to be worth doing. We read things that have been read before, cook things that our great great ancestors cooked. None of us, alive today, discovered sex and yet…

Defenses and tangents aside though, you are doing something with that play, at least you should be. The beautiful thing about plays as rich as those Shakespeare wrote is that there is more to do with it than one could possibly, or wisely, do in one production. – There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio (1.5) – The question, what are you going to do with it, is really an invitation to preview the story you are about to toil so hard to tell.

So what am I doing with Hamlet? Well, I am telling a story of family, loss, grief, sorrow, love and despair. There is deep love and ambivalence in the Hamlet family. These are relationships haunted by specters of disappointment and disapproval. There is a trend in modern productions of Hamlet to minimize Hamlet’s depressive nature and play up his agency as a kind of would-be action hero. (It can be done and well. It’s just not what I want to do. Not this time). A friend pointed out to me that you can say a lot about Hamlet by calling him a feminine revenge hero and it occurs to me that the very characteristics Hamlet is criticized for early in the play – his caution, his sensitivity – are qualities we more frequently associate with women. I want a Hamlet that embraces and explores those qualities. And though I tried for awhile to ignore the influence of Patti Smith's Just Kids on my imagination as I prepared for Hamlet, I soon realized that my Hamlet would have been at home (still tortured, but at home) on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1970s. To me that is where all the Wittenberg kids hang out spouting philosophy. 

And though I am emphasizing the personal in Hamlet, I have not cut the political: it informs the characters’ sense of self and means their decisions reverberate in a terrifying way. Denmark is a country in the midst of a tumultuous transition: trouble abroad, political intrigue at home. Hamlet is a kind of a canary in a coal mine; though of course the colors are inverted as he wears his suits of black and the kingdom tries to soldier on with pomp and pageantry. I can see Gertrude wearing Pat Nixon's canary yellow mimosa silk satin encrusted with Austrian crystals inauguration gown. I am not planning a direct transplantation of the play; Claudius is not Richard Nixon, and there are no guns in this production. Still, it is useful to ground my thoughts on the play in a specific time and place.

The disconnect between the court’s sense of self and the erosion of the state is not the initial reason I chose the 1970s with the Nixon White House and New York City’s Lower East Side as my main source of inspiration for the look and tone of Hamlet, and yet, there it is now staring me in the face: it was a tumultuous and transitional time, a time of corruption and disillusionment. No wonder Hamlet is fighting not to be king but to go back to Wittenberg. Hamlet is a play of poets and politicians, neither of which save Denmark. That's the story. At least that's where I'm starting.

Oh, and here is a taste of what I'm obsessively listening to...

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Joys of Summer

Summer is my season. I love the world most when I have no need of a sweater and when the day stretches into the evening, making that 6 am alarm and the subsequent shift at the survival job seem like a distant memory, a prologue to the real day. For the second year in a row, there are few rehearsals this summer, planning takes their place.  

Last year, it was finding venues for How I Learned to Drive, Cressida, Helen, and Fool for Love. Of those four projects, only Helen did not come to fruition. I had to put her on the shelf and there she remains, for now. This year, I have a venue – The Backdoor Theater – and a company –
Salt and Sage Productions – and there is even more planning to occupy the long summer days.

We are preparing for a tour of Jenny’s solo show, Cinnamon and Cigarettes, followed by three full productions – The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Ginna Hoben, Great Falls by Lee Blessing, and What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne – and a reading series of Jacobean sex tragedies. Our to do list, though terrifying in length, fills me with glee. I cannot wait to be back in the rehearsal room exploring addiction, broken promises, bad dates, relationships, road trips, trauma, survival, pregnancy, travel fantasies, adolescence, and friendship. It is quite the season. 

In addition to all the planning, I have devoted time this summer to two complimentary forms of training: Linklater and Alexander. Linklater is a vocal technique and Alexander is a physical technique, however, both at their core are all about breathing. We do a lot to inhibit our breath and undoing those inhibitions and engaging in new ways is alternately terrifying and exhilarating with these two states sometimes living within seconds of one another.

As I spend the summer planting seeds for future theatrical endeavors and training my body to breathe freer, I feel a bit like the gardener in Paisley Rekdal’s poem, Happiness. In the poem, Rekdal speculates that her neighbors may be offended by the time and effort she pours into her garden. She admits that her garden takes her away from their concerns, telling them: “I can wait longer than sadness. / I can wait longer than your grief.”

The gardening of the poem is no mere act of escapism, it is a way of connecting – “If I could not have made this garden beautiful/ I wouldn’t understand your suffering,/ nor care for each the same, inflamed way” –  and an accomplice to her inner demons: “there is no end to ego, with its museum of disappointments.” The garden is a landscape of beauty and the site of suffering as the sparrows fight there. 

Rekdal’s garden is both a metaphor for poetry, itself, and the inner-being of the artist: there are noble and less than noble elements to both pursuits; neither is pure, “selfless” and “selfish” intentions commingle and there is a certain absurdity, a beautiful humor to it all: imperfection is natural, our best intentions and our worst selves live side by side, and our dramas are – well, kind of funny.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Love Fool Dreams

Tommy Harrington as Martin (L), Jenny Newbry Waters as May (C), Arthur Delaney as Eddie (R). Photo Credit: Ari Grey, Graphic Design: Linden Kueck, Tickets available here.

Fool for Love opened last weekend. We play two more weekends with eight more performances. I wish it were two more months with eight shows a week: the play is teaching me that much and I love watching it alongside an audience. To stay with the numbers for a minute, or rather a paragraph, Fool for Love is my eighteenth directorial outing, twentieth if you count the two plays I directed in high school, and fourth since graduating with my Masters of Fine Arts. Fool for Love is, also, the first show of mine to hit its fundraising goal with forty-three individual donating amounts ranging from five to five hundred dollars. Twice is the number of times I came home and sobbed my heart out from tech week stress.

How does it all add up? I could have told you without counting the productions on my resume that directing is the passion and vocation that I hope blossoms into a career. I could have told you that there are people out there passionate about the same kind of theatrical work that I find so exciting, people who would want to see this production of Fool for Love succeed, even if they could not actually make it across the country for the show. And my husband could tell you that I always cry at some point (or multiple points) during a process because I take the work to heart, because I set a very high bar for myself in terms of not just the product but the process, and it rattles me when I fall short. There is a gulf between knowledge and experience though and to quote one of my favorite character's "joy's soul lies in the doing." I may have known those things, dreamed about them, doing is another (and richer) story.

So what next? I have a few ideas. For now though, I want to savor the two more weekends and eight more performances of Fool for Love. In case you can’t make it to the show or are thinking about making it and need a little persuading, here is a little list of things, in no particular order, that excite me about the show:

1) Sam Shepard’s dramatic structure is incredible. Fool for Love is not a plot driven play, rather, there is an accumulation of emotion through a repetition of actions. Eddie and May go in a big circle. Their present is their past and possibly their future. Shepard calls for Fool for Love to be “played relentlessly and without a break.” Our production comes in at about 65 minutes and takes me on a new emotional journey every time.

2) Fool for Love is incredibly tactile. Our scenic designer installed two rope walls that both mimic the horizon line of the desert and allow Eddie and May to literally tangle themselves up as they try to disappear in, or stand out against their environment, or gain the upper hand on one another. May and Eddie may be out of touch with many things but they are in touch with their bodies, there is a constant physical dialogue between them and every surface they encounter.

3) Eddie and Martin. May’s ex-lover and her current boyfriend size each other up in a hilarious and strange battle of wits that is rife with sexual innuendo. As a woman, I sort of feel like the play has let me into the guy’s locker room. The bond between Eddie and Martin is both sudden and profound. Eddie needs this man as his confessor and it’s beautiful to behold.

Martin (Tommy Harrington) and Eddie (Arthur Delaney) going over what exactly the reason is for taking a girl to the movies. Photo Credit: Matt Schneider
4) Fool for Love is filled with shadows. The Old Man haunts Eddie and May; he is both himself and a figment of their imagination. Eddie and May live in the shadow of their parents’ love and its disasterous end. Our lighting designer installed a single overhead practical as the main light source for May’s motel room. The centrality of that single bulb can make the space feel confined in the manner of an interrogation room, or later like the epicenter of an expansive wild fire. The blending of the intimate and the mythic is one of my favorite things about storytelling, about drama, about Fool for Love.

Sometimes a production feels like more than just another production, sometimes it feels like a sign post, an anchor for what you want your work to be about, for how you want to work. Fool for Love is one of those productions for me. Working with this cast – Jenny Newbry Waters, Arthur Delaney, Brian MacEwan, and Tommy Harrington – has been a complete delight. The designers – Megan Wilkerson and Molly Browne – have rendered the emotional core of the play in visual terms that I never imagined. So yes, before thinking about what comes next, I am going to enjoy the hell out of what is currently before me. We play two more weekends, if you find yourself in Portland, Oregon between now and April 21st, you should join me at The Backdoor Theater! Tickets Available Here.

Eddie and May coming together over the objections of The Old Man. Photo Credit: Matt Schneider

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Home and Shepard

PDX Airport
I just returned to Portland. I spent the past few days in Staunton, Virginia, staying with two of my closest friends and collaborators, seeing shows at the American Shakespeare Center, and reading more of Shepard’s substantial body of work in preparation for Fool for Love.  

I decided to direct Fool for Love almost a year ago. I had just seen the film version of Fool for Love and taught Shepard’s Pulitzer Prizewinning Buried Child in a introduction to drama course. I had been a fan of Shepard’s plays and prose prior to this paired encounter, however, something about Shepard at that moment got under my skin. There is a restless quality to Shepard’s writing which felt apt as time alternately skulked and sped toward graduation and my subsequent move from a small town in the Shenandoah Valley to a moderately sized city in the Pacific Northwest. That Shepard’s characters often pass through New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment (or Entrapment as locals sometimes quip), where yours truly was born and raised, also contributed to my sudden affinity for his particular brand of story-telling.

Dulles Airport
Still, I had never produced a show on my own. I needed someone else on board, a person with whom I felt inspired to work, and to whom I would feel a disappointment if I did not manage to bring the production to fruition. Actress, Jenny Newbry Waters, who had played Don John in the Much Ado About Nothing I had directed for Portland Actor’s Ensemble, came immediately to mind. Don John is a great villain with a limited range: Jenny is a great actress whose range extended far beyond one of Shakespeare’s more cardboard villains. I approached Jenny with two titles I was considering – Fool for Love and Pinter’s Betrayal – and a time frame – the upcoming fall – for production. Jenny wanted May in Fool for Love, however, fall would not work for her. She was leaving town to teach at the University of Idaho. Would I wait and do Fool for Love in the spring? Yes, I found another title for fall, How I Learned to Drive, and pushed Fool for Love into the spring.

And now rehearsals are beginning! Arthur Delaney, who just closed Cressida with me, is Eddie, May’s sometime lover and half-brother. (Arthur also played Claudio in the aforementioned production of Much Ado.) Tommy Harrington, who was Alan in Feral and Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive, is Martin, May’s current boyfriend. Brian MacEwan is The Old Man, the father of May and Eddie and a product of their collective imagination. I cannot wait to get to rehearsal and be reunited with so many of my favorite collaborators. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain thrill to doing a show with an entirely new group of actors. It requires a kind of bravery and clarity that is both challenging and energizing. However, there is also an enormous reward to working with the same artists again and again. Jose Rivera puts it nicely in his 36 Assumptions About Playwriting: “Find your tribe” then “stick to your people and be faithful to them. Seek aesthetic and emotional compatability with those your work with.”

Just as my trip to Ashland felt like an appropriate retreat prior to rehearsals beginning for How I Learned to Drive, my visit to Staunton was exactly what I needed to clear up some emotional space and catch my breath before Fool for Love. On the flight going from Portland International Airport to Dulles, I finished Don Shewey’s biography of Sam Shepard. The following quote that Shepard gave an interviewer in 1979 lept out as central to this particular journey:

“I feel like I’ve never had a home, you know? I feel related to the country, to this country, and yet at the same time I don’t know exactly where I fit in. And the same thing applies to the theater. I don’t know exactly how well I fit into the scheme of things. Maybe that’s good, you know, that I’m not in a niche. But there’s always this kind of nostalgia for a place where you can reckon with yourself. Now I’ve found that what’s most valuable about that place is not the place itself but other people; that through other people you can find a recognition of each other. I think that’s where the real home is.” (97)

In flight from Denver to PDX

I have called many places home: Albuquerque, Portland, Staunton. However, Shepard is right. And trite as it might sound, my home is my husband reading Moby Dick to me before I go to bed. My home is eating waffles with dear friends while lesson planning Othello. My home is in rehearsal. Tonight I come home. Again. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2013: Plays and Caffeine

Saturday was filled with coffee. The cup I drank when I got up at 6 am to prep for a meeting about a guest visit to a class on Shakespeare’s Comedies and a design meeting for Fool for Love. Both these meetings took place at coffee shops, so…more coffee. And then there was that cup I drank before heading out for the closing night of Cressida. There was also laundry and husband time and thai food with family and drinks with friends. It was as fantastic a day as it was a long.

There have been a lot of long days lately, most not as balanced (or varied) as Saturday. I am still at the full time survival job and two plays I directed opened in January: Feral and Cressida. 

Production Photo by Rio
Feral premiered as part of Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works at The Bob White Theater Warehouse. Compass Works produced the play, written by their very own artistic director Bruce Hostetler. Interviews with homeless and formerly homeless individuals provided the raw material for Feral. Bruce conducted some of those interviews, the rest came from an interview project done by Sisters of the Road. Feral rehearsals began January 2nd. The show previewed on January 24th. Whirlwind.

Rehearsal Photo by Heath Houghton
Cressida opened at The Headwaters and ran three weekends. The show was a remount of my MFA thesis production with a new cast and a few revisions to the script, including my music director’s brilliant idea to add some of Emilia’s speech into the Othello willow song that Cressida sings on her voyage from Troy to Greece. We began rehearsals for Cressida in October, mostly finished the play before the holiday break, and came back for pick up rehearsals in January. Cressida opened January 24th. Crazy.

And now both those shows have closed and my desk looks like this:

Yes, the mug has coffee in it.
Fool for Love rehearsals begin February 26th. Before then, there is a fundraising campaign to launch, design meetings to attend, costumes to shop for, and a get away trip so that I can catch my breath.