Oi! For a Muse of Fire

 

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Wyckham Avery as Pistol. From WHF’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Hey folks! Keith Hock here, back again for the final week of our critically acclaimed Henry V! Last week I promised I would talk about our quick-changes and their function in our concept. I’m a man of my word, so I’ll get into them here, but since a) I don’t think even I could spend a thousand words talking solely about the concept of quick-changes and b) there has been an elephant in the room for this whole production that I have mentioned in passing but never addressed in the blog, I want to talk about it in light of another context; Punk Rock. In fact, I’ll do you one better, and I’ll bring EVERYTHING back together under this punk umbrella. Sound good?

Much to 14-year-old me’s disappointment I am perhaps the least punk person I know. I love rules, my concealed-by-work-attire tattoos are about being a contributing member of society, and I got my ear pierced at the mall. My whole lifestyle and aesthetic falls somewhere between “nice young man” and “lovable oaf”. But I’m not exactly a Chinese or Balkans scholar, either, and that didn’t stop me from dramaturging CHALK. So I bit the bullet and set out to learn all that I could about punk. Which I did in, without a doubt, the squarest and LEAST punk of all possible ways: I read about it. I went to my job at the library and I went to our catalog and I typed the words “Punk” and “Class Conflict” in the search engine and I read all the books and articles that popped up. Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye would not approve.

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“Shame on you, nerd.” Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins

Nevertheless, my nerd research pinged onto a key aspect of the punk philosophy, one that spoke deeply to We Happy Few’s collective heart; an aggressively democratic, improvisational, anti-authority, do-it-yourself attitude towards creating art and just generally living life. There are no barriers to creating punk art. All that is important is the desire to do it, and the wherewithal to follow through on that desire. Failure doesn’t exist. If you do a bad job all that happens is you made some bad art, and you learn from the experience and get better. [Or you don’t, as cast member and punk survivor Wyckham Avery pointed out to me in a rehearsal. Maybe you don’t get better. It doesn’t matter. Between quality and authenticity in punk culture, quality is the less important attribute by a wide margin. -KH] The point is no one can stop you from doing something you want to do, no authority can tell you that what you made was right or wrong, good or bad.

There is a lot of good stuff to unpack from this philosophy but the one that I really want to focus on is the egalitarian aspect. Why do you think we did away with the Chorus? The expository scenes at the beginning of each act and end of the play are all supposed to be delivered by a (confusingly-named) single Chorus character. But that’s boring, and who is this guy who gets to tell us all what’s going on? HE isn’t the one telling the story, HE wasn’t there. You know who WAS there? Pistol, and Nym, and Alice, and Quickly, and Gower, and the Dauphin, and Exeter; the ensemble. Likewise with “Once more unto the breach”, traditionally a Henry monologue that we broke up across the whole army. Henry isn’t a god, he’s just one man. He is no more important in this battle than any of his soldiers, so his second-most-famous battle cry gets spread around to everyone doing their own bit of fighting. [Henry gets to keep St Crispin’s Day because he is openly trading on his royal status in that one -KH] Long-time fans may recall this trick from our Tempest days, when we cast everyone who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel. The thematic thrust was different (creating a community versus demonstrating the ubiquity of magic on the island) but the tool was the same.

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L-R: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, Britt Duff. From We Happy Few’s 2013 The Tempest. Photo by Jon Harvey

You might, by now, see the skeleton of how this is connected to quick changes and multiple characters. You may even see how it is tied to the illusory nature of theatre and why this play, in particular, rewards acknowledging the deception that I talked about on opening night. These conceits—democratizing the stage, drawing attention to class divides through intentional multi-casting, and openly acknowledging the artifice of the play exposed by Shakespeare’s own language—allow us to have our characters change appearances on the fly, sometimes even mid-scene. This was not exactly new territory for us, having cut our teeth on this very conceit in Hamlet, but it had been a while since we were able to do it with such clarity and intent.

Here as elsewhere we found ourselves a mighty ally in the Prologue’s metatheatrical reminder that the audience is watching a play. Thanks to the Prologue, we had fourth-wall-breaking playwright permission to appear as Actors on a Stage from time to time. We didn’t need Hamlet’s insanity nor the dream logic of The Tempest and Winter’s Tale to explain the rapid changes. This time they were actual costume changes in the context of a play. They just happened in broad view of the audience, rejecting the audience’s assumptions about how a play is supposed to be staged. This gave us some leeway in facilitating some quick scene changes; for example, we could have Kiernan traipsing around the French camp as noted coward Le Fer while carrying his Henry robe, because he won’t have time to get back where he stowed it before his entrance for St. Crispin’s Day. It also gave us more opportunities to play with our doubling, letting us do fun things like turn the Boy (on lookout duty during some nefarious dealings) into Exeter, the exact sort of Authority Figure she is supposed to be looking out for.

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L-R: Natasha Gallop as the Boy, Niusha Nawab as Bardolph, Robert Pike as French Corpse. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

This is what I was talking about when I said it was so difficult to examine one aspect of this play without bringing up two others. The punk framework of …rejecting traditional frameworks dovetails perfectly into the Prologue’s acknowledgement of artifice and our own exploration of the clear but underrepresented class divide in the show. Our own propensity for multicasting and on-stage character changes lends itself equally well to examining class divisions and reminding the audience where they are and what they’re doing.

If you would like to see this seamless combination of form and function on stage, time is running out! We are running for the rest of this week and then MUST CLOSE on Saturday the 29th of April. Don’t miss your chance! Tickets are available HERE!

Henry V: Making Imaginary Puissance

Hey there, folks! Dramaturge Keith Hock here, just checking in on you to see if you’re as excited for We Happy Few’s production of Henry V to open tonight as I am. I doubt you are, not because of any lack on enthusiasm on your part, but because I am SUPER EXCITED about this show. There’s a lot of great stuff going on in this show, which ironically makes it harder to write about. For one thing, some of it is so cool that I don’t want to spoil it before you get a chance to see it. I’ve been sitting on a couple different angles until after we open so I don’t ruin some of the magic that Kerry and the actors and the designers and the stage manager (really everyone in the company but me) worked so hard on. For another, we they have done such a good job of understanding and synthesizing the different concepts and aspects of this show together that it becomes impossible to talk about any one aspect without bringing up at least two more. But there IS one thing I can talk about that should get you all good and excited without spoiling your appetite for the show itself; the subterfuge inherent to any piece of art, and how theatre, Shakespeare, Henry V, and more particularly OUR Henry V, acknowledges and rejects that subterfuge.

All art is contrivance. It literally comes from the word “artifice”. Michelangelo can wax poetic about how all he did was see the angel in the marble and carve until he had been freed, but the reality is that he worked and worked and worked and worked and worked until he had mastered his medium, and then he projected his will onto a block of marble and turned it from a featureless lump of stone into a piece of art so magnificent as to bring a man to tears. He labored to conceal the work that goes into the creation of a masterpiece, the errors and missteps and practice, in order to make the art itself appear all the more miraculous. We use phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “disappears into the role” and “transportive” and “verisimilitude” and “cinema verite” to describe the ways we conspire with artists to conceal the effort that goes into crafting a piece of art. It is a common practice in many forms of artistic endeavor to hide the seams and create the illusion that art sprang, fully-formed and perfect, from your genius, like Athena from Zeus’ brow.

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Michelangelo’s Angel, 1494/95.

Common, but not universal. Live theatre by its very nature precludes the complete concealment of the craft that goes into it. You simply have to look up to see the light grid or closely at the actors to see their mic packs and safety pins. It will also vary from performance to performance, depending on, among other things, the energy of the audience, and from staging to staging, depending on the company and directorial vision. A sculpture or a movie or a book remains the same from its creation to its destruction, but a play is ephemeral and open to reinterpretation. It will never be the same performance twice, and so is noticeably “imperfect” as compared to static forms of art. Because it is impossible to conceal the nature of the illusion, many playwrights and directors address this issue with my favorite device: they lean into it. They acknowledge the illusion and allow it to guide them. Instead of being limited by attempting to hide the seams, they make the seams an integral part of the final design.

Shakespeare in particular was no stranger to exposing the artifice of his plays. His characters routinely use theatrical metaphors and allusions to discuss identity and illusion. It was a favorite device of his to insert another play into his own works, turning his characters into actors and audience and reminding his actual audience that they, too, were watching a play. It shows up in Midsummer and Hamlet but was perhaps pursued the most aggressively in the seldom-performed prologue to The Taming of the Shrew, where con man Christopher Sly is conned in his turn into…being a rich man? Watching a play? (There’s a reason people don’t usually include the Kit Sly framing device). Nonsensicality of the scene notwithstanding, it very aggressively calls out the nature of the theatrical illusion, and all but calls the actors con artists and their audience marks.

But Henry V does it one better, though in a more forgiving manner. The text openly acknowledges its craft in its masterful Prologue. By encouraging his audience to see the stage for what it is, a “wooden O” peopled by a handful of “crookèd figures” who “strut and fret their hour upon…” [Oops. Wrong play. -KH]. By entreating the Muse of Fire, the Chorus immediately signals the audience to recall where they are and what they are doing. Though the text of the scene may beg the audience’s forgiveness for not being princes and dukes on a French battlefield, its actual purpose is the opposite. It would be easy for a king to act like a king, but for an actor to create that same grandeur? To bring an audience to tears over an imagined death? Now that takes skill. Calling out the illusion draws attention to the craft with which it is created.

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From We Happy Few’s Henry V, 2017. Foreground Kiernan McGowan. Background L-R Robert Pike, Riley Bartlebaugh, Josh Adams, Raven Bonniwell, Wyckham Avery, Niusha Nawab. Photo by Tori Boutin.

Which, is of, course, where we come in. Shakespeare has issued this challenge to everyone who would stage this play: match my expectations and live up to the Chorus’ promise to the audience. I certainly believe that we have done so, but it is not my place to judge my own company’s skill. It’s yours. We open tonight, why don’t you come see if we accomplished our goal?