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
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.
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 (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!