Henry V: Into a Thousand Parts Divide Eight Actors

Hello again, Constant Readers! We Happy Few’s resident Blogslave Keith Hock here, freed from my Blogcage for our second weekend of performances! I have been ungagged and a keyboard placed in front of my fingers and now I can share with you some of those neato secrets that I couldn’t talk about until after the show opened. The fun concept I wanted to look at in this blog is something that is, by now, somewhat of a calling card of a We Happy Few show; our approach to multi-casting. We are no strangers to playing around with our actor tracks to unearth interesting nuance between different characters or highlight a particular aspect of a production, whether that’s the pervasive magic of Prospero’s island in The Tempest or Juliet’s relationship with her nurse and her cousin Tybalt. This play is no different, and I wanted to walk you through some of the thought process behind it.

**400-YEAR OLD SPOILERS BELOW**

There are three major communities in this play that we had to account for: the French court, the English court, and Cheapside. For this play, because we were paying such close attention to class dynamics, we thought it would be informative to make the doubling happen along a haves/have-nots axis wherever possible. [We also did this out of necessity; scenes generally take place between members of the same class and when you only have 8 actors and you take your Henry out of contention by having him observe just about every scene in-character you will run out of actors before you run out of roles. But I’m getting ahead of myself. -KH] Take, for instance, doubling Montjoy with Quickly.  First and most importantly, these characters would never, ever, appear in the same scene, so we knew that Riley Bartlebaugh would be free to do both. Second, Montjoy’s role is that of messenger for the French and since the French “desire nothing but odds with England”, her job is principally to carry insults from the Dauphin and Constable to Henry, engendering and encouraging the conflict. By contrast, Mistress Quickly’s (dramatically expanded) role in the English camp is that of peacemaker, keeping the Cheapside boys’ spirits up and their knives away from each other’s throats. Through her doubled eyes we see both a war begun out of pique and boredom and the ravages that same war wreaks on a family that found themselves dragged into it.

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Riley Bartlebaugh as Quickly, from We Happy Few’s Henry V, 2017. Photo by Tori Boutin

Sometimes, as above, we double to examine the differences between two characters. Other times we seek to explore unexpected similarities and create vicious ironies, as by doubling Exeter with the Boy. As before, their paths do not cross in the story so we knew we were free to send Tasha Gallop to do both. In addition, this doubling forces the audience to consider the similarities between Exeter, Henry’s uncle and most trusted advisor, and the Boy, Hal’s onetime Cheapside companion and an unwilling apprentice in blackguardy. Exeter has enough of Henry’s faith to speak for him in both parley and at the negotiation table and it is, if anything, an understatement to describe the Boy as the wisest, maturest, and most competent of the Pranksters. Considering her monologue about the worthlessness of her associates and her desire to extricate herself from their villainy, the Boy seems on the path to straighten up and make something of herself. Until she is killed in a war that Exeter helped to start.

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Natasha Gallop as The Boy, from We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Doubling also allow us to tell the story without dumping our actors into minimal roles, and keeps everyone’s business about equal. For example, our concept largely neuters the English nobility with the exception of Exeter, but there still needs to be a court around when Henry wants to say badass things like the St. Crispin’s Day speech. And for as fun and important as Nym and Bardolph are to our play, they just don’t have a ton to do, especially after they get themselves killed. So we doubled Westmoreland and Gloucester with Nym and Bardolph, to give us a chance to see how Hal’s old drinking buddies match up to Henry’s new royal associates. Then, when we saw how much fun Josh Adams and Niusha Nawab were having together, we tacked on the Constable and Dauphin to those tracks as well. For comparison, because Pistol actually makes it through the entire play and gets a nice juicy scene right at the end, there was no need for us to find another supernumerary English lord to give to Wyckham Avery to fill out her business. Pistol and Alice combined to keep her busy enough.

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L-R: Josh Adams as Nym, Niusha Nawab as Bardolph, Wyckham Avery as Pistol, Kiernan McGowan as Henry, Natasha Gallop as Boy, Riley Bartlebaugh as Quickly. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

Speaking of Alice, the last pieces of the cast puzzle are the French royalty Katherine and the King, and the middle class Captains Fluellen and Gower. Raven Bonniwell as Katherine finds herself doubled with Captain Fluellen, for several reasons. One, as always, Katherine does not encounter Fluellen in the play. Two, both characters serve predominantly as comic relief, and both do it through their preposterous and overblown voices. Shakespeare wrote Katherine’s scenes in bad French to be funnier, and replaced every ‘b’ that Fluellen would say with a ‘p’ to replicate the silly-sounding Welsh accent. And three, the most serious reason: Fluellen and Katherine have the two closest relationships with Henry. He has cut his ties to Cheapside, callously sending Nym and Bardolph to their deaths, and his court is filled with allies and advisors, not friends. But Fluellen and Henry share an easy camaraderie, bound by their joint Welsh heritage. Katherine, meanwhile, is Henry’s “capital demand” in conquering France and based on his mumble-mouthed wooing seems to have quite enchanted the otherwise eloquent Henry. These two characters do more to humanize Henry than the whole of his “Upon the King” soliloquy.

This leaves Bob Pike having drawn the unenviable task of being the two straight men in the play. France is sober and conscientious. He bases his measured actions on advice from his court and his own wisdom while corralling his hot-blooded son the Dauphin. Gower in turn is a no-nonsense professional soldier who, in our story, largely exists to keep the Cheapside boys under control and listen to Fluellen yammer endlessly about whatever she feels like talking about that day. They represent gruff, unyielding, and unsmiling authority, of the sort that Hal used to rebel against in Cheapside and is still fighting in France.

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L-R: Raven Bonniwell as Fluellen, Robert Pike as Gower. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Henry V. Photo by Tori Boutin

This ended up being a lot longer than I thought I would be able to squeeze out of this topic. I was going to get into how this multiple casting called for us to occasionally play with our quick changes but I suppose that topic will have to wait for another day. If you want to see what I’m talking about, or you want to fact-check what I said here (smart money says I got something wrong), come see the show!

CHALK: The Medium IS the Message

Hello again adoring fans! Keith Hock here, and I wanted to tell you some more about our critically acclaimed play CHALK, playing now at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. In earlier posts I had wanted to keep some secrets from you all in order to preserve the element of surprise when you came to see the show, but since the run is now two-thirds over I am assuming that most of you have already come to check it out, and hoping that this introduction serves to shame the rest of you into coming in this final week of shows. To that end, I am going to talk to you more about set design, chalk, and the role that the latter can play in the former than you ever wanted to hear. Please note that if you don’t want to have a SUPER COOL element of the show spoiled for you, it would be advisable for you to stop reading until you have a chance to come see it for yourself.

If you have seen the show, or, like, any of our promotional materials, you will know that chalk drawings feature prominently in the set for CHALK. We Happy Few stakes a portion of its considerable reputation on the minimalist nature of its sets; this show probably has our second-largest set besides Tempest, and this set is a couple of platforms, a diagonal wall with some doors and a tower, and some stools. To supplement this design and to help establish a sense of place we have a bunch of drawings all over the walls, some of them chalk sketches and some white paint cleverly disguised as chalk sketches. These drawings help to clarify where we are and what’s going on on-stage; a town, a pillar, a cart, some doors. In the distance a mountain range. These drawings are not strictly necessary to indicate what’s going on; we can, and have, done shows with less set dressing than this. But it certainly doesn’t hurt the piece any to have them there, and besides prettifying the stage and indicating that sense of space, like I said above, they give us an opportunity to do something super neato with the set that a show can’t ordinarily do, which I will get to after another paragraph of explanation and scene-setting.

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CHALK backdrop. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Tori Boutin.

It is in the nature of black box shows in general and We Happy Few shows in particular to be tricky to indicate changes of scene, location, and the passage of time. You can use lights, you can shift around what little set elements you may have, and you can have your characters exposit. We are supremely fortunate that we are able to work with one of the best lighting designers in the city, Jason Aufdem-Brinke, so our light game is and always has been on point. Character exposition is both the clunkiest and the most ubiquitous method of indicating those changes; you would be hard-pressed to find a play that doesn’t use dialogue to either imply or flat-out say where and when the action is taking place, because plays are written to be seen, not read, and audiences don’t have those convenient stage directions at the beginning of every scene to contextualize the performance unless your director is REALLY pretentious. So we fall on even footing with context clues as well. But We Happy Few really can’t compete with a full ‘drop curtain, wait 20 seconds, the corn field is now a bustling frontier town’, ‘turntable rotates from Skid Row to the interior of the dentist’s office’, or ‘a whole new backdrop flies in from the ceiling and we are now in the King’s Palace in Siam’ style transition such that a company with a full stage crew or using a fully kitted-out stage would use.

So we did what we always do; we improvised. We knew already that there was going to be a scene where the Judge would draw a circle on the floor, for the climactic moment in the play. We said “why not do, like, a whole bunch more of that?” We already knew drawing, having the characters interact directly with and add to the set, is going to be a part of the world, so we decided to lean into it, and we started drawing all over the stage. Want to set the city on fire? Scribble red and orange chalk all over it and smear it a little. Need a river? Some blue chalk on the floor and hey presto! a river appears. Script says a scene is happening in a bar? Write BAR on the wall after you enter. We’re in the countryside now? Here’s some flowers to prove it. Props budget a little tight and we can’t afford any dummies to drop from the rafters in a grisly facsimile of a public hanging? Draw up a hangman, an image so simple and evocative that we literally use it as a game to teach spelling [which, come to think of it, wow, right? ed.]. This genius decision allowed us to expand on that sense of place that the artwork was creating. It also gave us the opportunity to democratize the space; the actors are not trapped in a static world, they are in control of their own environment, and can affect change on the world around them.

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CHALK. Pictured: Raven Bonniwell. Design by Adelaide Waldrop, picture by Tori Boutin.

One of the beauties of chalk as a medium is that it is dry, so it can be applied, seen, and interacted with immediately without making a huge mess or damaging costumes. Another is that is cheap, so we can use it to approximate props or set pieces that would have broken the bank or we just couldn’t have had otherwise; I don’t know HOW we would have done a bridge without the chalk conceit. A third is that it can be cleaned and wiped away with relatively little effort, which is why we as a society use it to teach math and spelling to children and announce the specials at bars restaurants, and why we as a company thought it would be perfect. Draw everywhere for the show, wipe it clean at the end of the night, start with a blank slate the next day!

It turns out it is not quite as simple to clean up as one might believe. The last time the walls of the stage were totally clean was the first time we came into the space after our chalk artist, Adelaide Waldrop, had added her drawings, but before the actors started drawing everywhere. What we had failed to realize was that, if the set drawings are chalk, and OUR drawings are ALSO chalk, when we try to clean it up we will obliterate the nice professional drawings that Adelaide along with our slapdash mid-show sketches. This problem is assuaged somewhat by the fact that Adelaide used some mysterious substance called “chalk markers” which isn’t affected when wiped with a dry rag. It IS, however, just as vulnerable to water as normal sidewalk or school chalk, so we wouldn’t wet-wipe the walls as we wanted [this clause brought to you by the letter W!]. We realized this about halfway through tech, so we had ourselves a desperate little pow-wow about what we should do about this conundrum. Wet-wiping AROUND the permanent art every night would have taken for-damn-ever and ran the risk of accidentally erasing part of the artwork. The designs are too elaborate to erase and re-draw for every performance, even if Adelaide had been willing to do so, which we were reasonably confident she was not. We started to go over the designs with paint to em-permanent them all but realized we wouldn’t have time to go over everything, and thought that it would look bad if part of the set was restored to pristine blackness and part was left dusty. We were at a loss.

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CHALK. Pictured: Bridget Grace Sheaff. Design by Adelaide Waldrop. Picture by Kerry McGee.

What we decided to to, as you can see, is nothing. We leaned into it again, a favorite tool of mine, because it lets me be very lazy. It occurred to us that it made a lot of sense to the themes of the show for there to be physical evidence of previous performances on the stage. So much of this play is about cycles of history, about gradual change and the way that the past echoes in the future. The ever-present chalk dust establishes that on both a textual and metatheatrical level. Our city of Tuzla and the surrounding countryside is permeated with the dust of revolutions past; every action anyone takes, every thing they draw, is happening on top of what happened before. Zeke and Natalya both recall the rebellion in Persia, and they trace clear parallels to the current uprising. That rebellion was put down but the memory of it echoes in this one, and the memory of this rebellion will echo in the future. No matter how hard you try, you can’t completely erase the past, you can’t start over with a clean slate. From a metatheatrical level the mess of chalk dust hanging around the space reminds the audience that this is not the first time we’ve done this. The performance you’re watching isn’t the only performance we’ve done, and it didn’t just happen. The dust looks back at the show the night before and the week of tech rehearsals in the middle of June, and reminds us that the show didn’t always look like this, and it might not look like this tomorrow. Theatre doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it would be a mistake to forget that. When rehearsals started in mid-May the play was still being written. The purpose of rehearsal is to learn how to tell a story, so things by necessity will change. Then tech started, and we had to learn how to fit the story into our space and integrate technical aspects. And then we found out what works and what doesn’t with an audience on opening night. The chalk dust reminds us how we got to where we are, and that things are neither as permanent nor as transient as we may believe.

I hope reading this has been as illuminating and enjoyable for you as writing it was for me. If you had no idea what I was talking about, it’s probably because you haven’t seen the performance yet and don’t have any context for what I was saying. But fear not! We still have a week’s worth of performances left in the run, from this coming Wednesday the 6th until Saturday the 9th over at CHAW. There is still time to see it, but that time is running out, so don’t delay! Come on by sometime this week and check us out! Tickets are available HERE. Mention that you heard about it from Keith when you come! It won’t, you know, matter, we won’t do anything special for you, but it’d make me feel good if you told everyone the reason you did something was because of what I said.

The Winter’s Tale: Putting the “Few” in We Happy Few

Well, hello again, adoring fans.  Fancy seeing you here, on our blog, of all places.  It’s still me, your handsome, clever and oh-so-humble production manager Keith Hock, with another blog entry, just in time for our second weekend of shows.  After our opening night last Friday I was sat in front of a computer and told if I didn’t write another post by the next weekend I would be fired realized that this show’s aggressive double-casting gave me a wonderful opening to put together another blog post to share with you all.

Surely some of you, as you left our shows last weekend, had wondered why we would take a play with a cast of 18 named characters and innumerable Guards, Lords, Ladies, Mariners, Gaolers, Shepherdesses, Satyrs, etc., and attempt to put it on with only six people.  And doubtless you would cast your mind back to our previous shows (as I have no doubt you are all long-time fans and have seen all of our performances) and you would be struck! astounded! to realize that, why, we’ve never had more than eight actors in a show!  How can such a thing be?  Well, don’t you all worry your pretty little heads, I’d be more than happy to assuage your fears and give you all a peek behind the dramaturgical veil as to how, and, more importantly, why We Happy Few puts on plays with so few actors. (There’s some arts-management reasons that I’ll go into as well, but that’s not NEARLY as sexy as the phrase ‘dramaturgical veil’).

As you have all noticed, in the narrative I have constructed to frame this blog posting, all of our shows have been notoriously light on actors.  Our last three shows, Duchess of Malfi, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, all had only eight actors, while our debut, Hamlet, tied Winter’s Tale with six!  For reference, going on their Dramatis Personae pages, those shows called for 15 (Duchess), 20 (R&J), 12 (Tempest), and an astounding 22 (Hamlet) named characters*, not to mention anywhere from a magical island to an entire vendetta-fueled city full of supernumeraries.  The Tempest made up for its relatively light 12 characters with a veritable brugh’s worth of fairies, spirits, nymphs and reapers to fill the stage.  We very cleverly sidestepped that issue by turning all of those fairies into Ariel, and then also casting everyone in the show who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel, but how do we deal with the apparent 45-person cast list that Shakespeare [or Webster] has presented us with?
*I say ‘named’ characters but I’m also counting significant characters.  In Hamlet, the gravediggers, the head player, and the priest are all nameless, but since they play substantial roles in their respective scenes (more important than some with actual names, as you’ll see below) they all got counted in my census.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines.  Foreground: Andrew Keller

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines. Foreground: Andrew Keller

The answer is we don’t, neither us nor pretty much any other theatre company in the world.  As cultured citizens of the world I am sure you all go to see plenty of plays that AREN’T We Happy Few-produced, and I’m equally sure that you’ve noticed that the actor bio sections of the programs aren’t 20 pages long and filled with Servants, Soldiers and Guards.  There’s a reason for that.  Did you remember that there was a character named Fortinbras in Hamlet?  What about Voltimand, or Cornelius?  Sometimes we realize that a character doesn’t need to be there, or a scene goes on a little too long, so we do some cutting and combining.  Instead of Reynaldo (Polonius’ servant, apparently) and a whole crowd of other, nameless servants jostling around in Elsinore, we just use Reynaldo, whenever a servant appears.  Or we decide that the play can survive without servants, and we ditch them altogether.  I’ve seen full-stage, big budget productions of Romeo and Juliet that just completely did away with Paris.  Our own Hamlet excised Horatio, and nobody missed him.  It’s not that these characters and scenes don’t serve a purpose in the text, Shakespeare did little needlessly (I’m ignoring Timon of Athens when I say that).  They just don’t serve a purpose in the story we’re telling, so off they go.

All theatre companies do it, but we have to do it more than most.  As a predominantly Fringe company, with a stated focus on creating “stripped down, small cast, ensemble productions”, our timing and manpower is intentionally limited.  We bring all of our shows down to 90 minutes by the time we open, and we do it by scrapping every beat, every moment, every character, that isn’t completely necessary to telling the story we want to tell.  Sometimes that can hurt.  Did you know there was a surprisingly prominent Duke Ferdinand/werewolf subplot in Duchess of Malfi?  I did, because I watched us gradually pare it away in rehearsal as we fought to get to 90 minutes.  In addition to being crazy badass, it was powerful character development for Ferdinand, who loses his already-tenuous connection with his humanity after the barbarism of his parricide and talks himself into the belief that he is a wolf.  We were all sad to see it go, but we knew that it was a few minutes worth of dialogue we couldn’t afford to tell the story we needed to tell.

Don't judge me.

Greater Werewolf, 5th Edition, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Dennis Detwiller

Cutting characters and scenes is all well, and it certainly helps us lower the cast requirements (which you’ll recall is the point I’m supposed to be making in this post), but it only gets us so far.  What we really do to cut that down is double-cast, have one actor play two (or more) roles.  This buys you a lot of space, as many of your actors in smaller roles can serve double duty.  Sampson done being in the play after Act I?  Stuff him in a monk’s robe and he’s Friar John!  All your sailors drowned at the beginning when Prospero brought forth the storm?  (they didn’t, re-read Act I Scene 2, but they’re never seen again so its the same thing)  Roll them in glitter and now they’re spirits!

Combining these two things, cutting and double-casting, can usually get you to somewhere around 12-15 actors.  That’s pretty good, and it works for other companies, but it’s not enough for us.  We take our double-casting a step or two further than a lot of other companies.  Earlier I mentioned that the actors that are double cast are usually the non-leading parts, because they have fewer lines and are in fewer scenes; their casting is a matter of convenience.  OUR double-casting is deliberate and ubiquitous, especially under the guidance of director/producer/founder/superhero, Hannah Todd.  In her productions the only characters we have NOT double-cast were Prospero in The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet in… Romeo and Juliet; Prospero to emphasize his control over everything that happens on the island, and the star-crossed teens to point out their solitude as the only lovers in a city full of hate (My astute readers will argue that Hamlet was single-cast as well, but our Hamlet also spoke the lines for his dead father.  Whether or not the ghost should count as a character in OUR interpretation is up for debate, but since he had two character’s worth of lines he counts as double-cast for my purposes).  Everyone else has been at least double cast, and most of those casting choices have been meaningful, not just a consequence of what scenes happened when.  It was no coincidence that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were also Ophelia and Laertes, or that Tybalt was also the Nurse, or that, as I mentioned earlier, everyone but Prospero, even Caliban, was Ariel.  These choices serve a greater thematic purpose and say more about the show than simply what actors are available for those scenes.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Raven Bonniwell (Ophelia), Billy Finn (Laertes).

From We Happy Few's 2012 Hamlet.  Left-Right: Billy Finn, Chris Genebach, Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Billy Finn (Rosencrantz or Guildenstern), Chris Genebach (Hamlet), Raven Bonniwell (the other one).

But we have attained more saturation with our multi-casting for The Winter’s Tale than with any show before.  If you saw it already, surely you realized how significant it was that Kerry McGee embody both Mamillius and his sister Perdita, or that Kiernan McGowan play both the doomed Antigonus and the servant who relayed his demise, or that Raven Bonniwell portray both Hermione and Camillo’s mirrored punishments.  How fitting that Nathan Bennett give us both the prideful, paranoid, appearance-obsessed Leontes and the ludicrous cross-dressing confluence of Dorcas and Mopsa.  How touching that Katy Carkuff deliver the baby Perdita as Paulina, and raise it across the sea as the Shepherd.  And how truly remarkable that William Vaughan’s nameless lord (guard?) who comforts Mamillius in the beginning, turn out to be none other than Perdita’s love Florizel at the end.*  I told you last time there was magic to be had by the double handful in the Romances, you just have to know where to look.

*If you didn’t realize how all this was to be significant, or haven’t seen it yet and have no idea what I’m talking about, tickets are still available for all our upcoming shows here!