Confusion Now Hath Made His Masterpiece

Hello everybody! We are halfway through the run of our critically acclaimed Macbeth, and you know what that means! I am finally free to discuss some of the staging decisions that we made, instead of focusing on tangential aspects of the show’s history or our concept for it. Instead of discussing the play Macbeth, I can discuss our production of Macbeth. Which is very exciting, because I’ve wanted to discuss this topic since I walked into the theatre for tech rehearsal and saw the stage for the first time.

This show actually has one of our more traditional stagings. I think it is the closest we’ve ever gotten to actually using even the suggestion of a proscenium [don’t tell Hannah I said that or she’ll fly back here and re-stage it -KH]. All we did is turn the theatre around. And I can imagine, if this is your first experience in the space at CHAW, you might not notice that anything is different. But if you’re familiar with that theatre, and you walked in and saw the room rotated 180 degrees, and then took a seat on the stage, where you normally watch the action happen, and watched the actors moving up and down on the risers that you normally sit on…its a profoundly disorienting sensation. It isn’t disorienting in the ‘takes you out of the world of the play’ way, our space is still recognizable as a stage. Only its backwards, and that feels…wrong.

I don’t mean to imply that the staging makes the audience complicit in the action, or suggest that in fact THEY are the ones who are being watched. There is certainly space in Macbeth to explore both of those ideas; any show that features violence inherently makes the argument that its watching audience at least passively approves of the violence, and the Weird Sisters’ nebulous existence in the universe of the show (along with, metatextually, its built-in audience of ghosts) give the enterprising Panopticon enthusiast enough ammunition to do themselves some serious harm. But our show doesn’t bear out either of those interpretations. We are much more interested in the sense of unfamiliarity that the change engenders, with the idea of losing control of your surroundings and losing touch with reality.

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Danny Cackley as Macbeth. From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Macbeth. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

On a less meta-theatrical, more staging level, our establishment of an actual set, with a chair and empty picture frames on the wall and all that, is ripe with opportunities for disorientation. It is easy to understand how the stage can be Duncan’s (later Macbeth’s) throne room and the Macbeths’ sitting room. It’s not that far of a stretch to make it the Macduff estate and Macbeth’s banquet hall, as well. But when the stage is supposed to be the witches’ heath, or England, or Birnam Wood, it becomes a little more…incongruous. Certainly on one level the central presence of the throne makes a straightforward point about the dominating power the kingship holds over the play as a whole. But on a less metaphorical level, the throne doesn’t belong there. The picture frames don’t belong there. It creates a cognitive dissonance, a sense of confusion about where we really are. A simple blackbox would be less confusing, because the audience would be forced to imagine ALL of the set pieces and environs. But instead, this design forces the audience to un-see portions of the set, to ignore what their eyes are telling them is right there.

Messing with the playing space is only one of the ways we played with a sense of discomfort, disorientation, and confusion in this show. Much has been made of our sound design for this performance, and all of it deserved. Sound is a tempting and powerful but notoriously difficult beast to harness for this sort of disorienting performance [I speak from 4 long years of college soundboard operating experience -KH]. Many companies, ourselves often included, will shy away from a concept so reliant on pre-recorded sound, eschewing it as both high-risk and insufficiently…earthy, DIY, visceral, actor-generated, however you prefer to conceive that in your mind. But sometimes, like for this show, the risk is worth the reward, because it allows you to blur the line between diegetic and nondiegetic sound. If a character brings a drum on stage and bangs it, everyone else on stage can and must hear it. But when the sound of a drum just…starts…playing, it is open for interpretation who, if anyone, can hear. And if a character can hear something the audience can hear, but the rest of the cast can’t, what else are they aware of? Can they see the audience too? The miracle of pre-recorded sound also opens the door for all manner of shenanigans about who is speaking, and where the sounds are coming from. When Macbeth hears his wife’s voice on the wind, or his own, whispering to him about a title he has not yet earned, he is understandably unsettled. When we in the audience see a character in front of us, and then hear their voice coming from behind us, we are likewise discomfited.

But let’s set aside the technical aspects of the show for a second and examine how the text and action also push and disorient us. This show intentionally tells us very little about the passage of time. We have no idea how long Macbeth reigned. In the source material, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Macbeth had a reasonably prosperous 10-year reign before being overthrown, but in the play we are given no clues how much time passes. We know that the assassination happens a few days after the prophecy, and we are given to understand that Macbeth’s coronation takes place shortly thereafter, but nothing after that. This can be seen as an issue with the text, and is often a problem in other productions; Macbeth has a reputation for dragging in the second half, as it wades through interminable meandering paranoia with no clear sense of time. Macbeth could have reigned for years, and it certainly feels like it sometimes. But when you cut a show down to 90 minutes that meandering suddenly picks up a breakneck pace. You’re still lost, but it feels much more frantic. Instead of losing momentum in the wake of his ascendency, our Macbeth gains it, hardly taking his seat on the throne before he begins to worry about the threat allegedly posed by Banquo, and then can barely turn around but he runs to the forest to learn new things to fear from the witches, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the doom at the end of his prophecy. It feels like the entire show happens in a bare handful of days. Instead of the lack of time sense dragging the play down, our production leans into it and allows it to mean that almost no time has passed. Like running headlong down a hill with no way to stop and no idea what’s at the bottom, Macbeth hurdles through the second half of the play, having unwittingly surrendered control of himself to his ambition. And the audience finds themselves dragged with him, trying to catch up or at least catch a breath as the play rushes to the end, only to SLAM into “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, when it drops back to a well-deserved crawl for its final scenes, a final moment of emotional clarify for Macbeth but a tremendously disorienting snap of pacing whiplash for the audience.

All of these things, the sound and the set and the timing, all serve to disorient the audience and keep them on their toes. Some might say that trying to confound and discomfit the audience is a bad thing, but Brecht and I would argue otherwise. We aren’t quite going for a Brechtian level of alienation in this production but we’re certainly in the same ballpark. But aside from arguments of theatre as a tool of class pedagogy, this is a play full of magic, ghosts, witches, and unintended consequences. It should be difficult and unnerving, and it should keep you off balance. Macbeth’s actions have disrupted nature itself; the night of Duncan’s murder the world is shaken with wind, thunder, and lightning, and his horses EAT each other. Macbeth’s sin has thrown very world off balance, as the creators of Macbeth’s world on the stage it is our responsibility to mirror that imbalance however possible. If you think it sounds fun to be disoriented and confused by the staging of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, why don’t you come see it? We’ve got a show TONIGHT, and more shows until March 30th! I hope to see you there!

Macbeth: Superstition

Theatre people, much like the criminals with whom we have long been associated, are a superstitious, cowardly lot. But unlike our felonious brethren, we are not frightened of a psychologically damaged billionaire wearing a bat costume, no matter how many gadgets he possesses. We are much more afraid of the spaces where we work, the shows that we perform, and the ever-present menace of the audience. Things can go wrong on stage. Disastrously so. In an effort to mitigate these risks or feign control over the uncontrollable, we have devised any number of superstitions and rituals to placate whatever malevolent or hubris-punishing spirits would seek to ruin our shows. But surely there could be nothing foolhardy or dangerous about explaining all of these fears and superstitions before the opening of a famously cursed play, right? …right?

I am aware that even writing this blog is a gamble, but I am putting my faith in faerie tale rules, where naming a thing gives you power over it, instead of horror rules, where mentioning a thing draws its attention to you. If I am wrong I beg indulgence of Thespis, and beseech Saints Genesius and Jerome to protect our humble company and me, personally, from the consequences of my arrogance.

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Icon of Genesius, patron saint of actors. Image commissioned by the Fraternity of St. Genesius, 2007.

Like I mentioned above, things can go very wrong in a performance. A lot, a LOT, of moving parts go into every show, and any of them can go off the rails at any time. And Murphy’s Law tells us that ALL of them will go wrong. It is therefore an article of faith that as many of those things as possible should go wrong during the dress rehearsals. What better time could there be to jump some lines, to burn out a lamp, to rip a seam on a costume, to miss a cue? As humans, our faulty comprehension of probability tells us that if an unlikely thing happens it is guaranteed not to happen again for a good long while, whereas if something HASN’T happened for a some time, we may well be due for it. That’s why a bad dress rehearsal makes for a good opening night. It is an opportunity to burn through a bunch of mistakes in a controlled environment so we don’t have to be afraid they will happen while the audience is watching.

Another of the myriad things we fear is the sound of whistling. Unless the play specifically calls for it, whistling is verboten anywhere on- or backstage, and, to be safe, anywhere in the theatre at all. The possibly-apocryphal reason for this injunction lurks in the fly loft, the network of ropes, pulleys, curtains, weights, sandbags, lights, and scenery pieces that hangs like the Sword of Damocles above many stages. When theatres began hanging scenery above the stage to raise and lower into the audience’s field of vision, they routinely hired sailors to run the complicated rigging, sailors being second only to perverts in their familiarity with ropes. These sailors imported their use of whistling as signals to each other of when something needed to go up or down. An errant whistle could therefore result in a flat embarrassingly rising at the wrong time, or more dangerously in an unexpected sandbag hurtling to the ground. Although no company to my knowledge retains such an archaic and distracting cueing system, and many theatres do not even have a fly loft, including our own home base of CHAW, the theatre has a long institutional memory and being safe is generally preferable to being sorry.

We are also afraid of g-g-g-ghosts. Every theatre I have worked in has had at least one resident ghost, although I only ever met one, working late on a paper in my college theatre [s/o to Harper Joy! -KH]. Sometimes they’re helpful, other times…less so. Most of the time they show themselves late at night when people are alone, and so their appearances are usually a hint, subtle or otherwise, that you need to go home and get some sleep. In addition to every theatre’s Ghost-in-Residence, we also have the spectre of Thespis to contend with. Thespis, the (Western) world’s first actor and the namesake of the word “Thespian”, haunts the theatrical and performing-arts world on November 23rd, the date when he first stepped out of the chorus and delivered lines as a character in a play. His portfolio is more mischievous than our resident ghosts, concerned, like the good Greek Tragedian he is, on exposing hubris and encouraging humility. Fortunately for us he seems to have mellowed in his old age, because his lessons tend to be merely embarrassing, and not as lethal as his former colleagues Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides might prefer.

Sports Night Thespis

L-R: Jeff Mooring as Dave, Felicity Huffman as Dana Whitaker, Joshua Malina as Jeremy Goodwin, Ron Ostrow as Will. From Sports Night, Season 1 Episode 8, “Thespis”, 1998.

While Thespis is simply a force who must be endured, resident ghosts are more easily placated. What they want is to get to use the stage again every once in a while. That’s why they chase us home if we’re around too late, and it’s why we leave them the ghost light, a light that stays on in the middle of the stage all night when the rest of the lights are off and the theatre is (or, at least, supposed to be) abandoned. Often, but not always, a bare bulb on a floor lamp, the ghost light lets the ghosts see and put on their own shows in the space while we are at home asleep. Very conveniently, the ghost light also illuminates the stage for any mortals who are inadvisably wandering through the theatre late at night. A dark stage is rife with potential hazards, including open trapdoors, the orchestra pit, and loose tools and pieces of scenery, just waiting for a careless or overtired technician, stage manager, or actor’s legs to trip and neck to break.

Ghost Light

Image from ramagrrl on Flickr.

Speaking of breaking bones, one of the best-known theatre superstitions is the phrase “break a leg”. Used instead of the prosaic “good luck”, it is a defense against jinxing, a reproving assertion that a good show doesn’t need luck to be successful, and a bit of gallows humor. It may also be related to failed actor but successful assassin John Wilkes Booth, who injured his leg when he leapt down to the stage after killing President Abraham Lincoln at a production of Our American Cousin [which, along with RUR and The King in Yellow, routinely tops my season proposal list -KH]. The French, because they simply MUST be different, instead say “merde”, literally “shit”, allegedly a roundabout reference to the hope that there would be many carriages dropping patrons off in front of the theatre and, therefore, a good deal of horse manure on the street. And I am given to understand that Australians say “Chooka!” instead, for reasons perhaps best left to themselves.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the play Macbeth itself, which has a sinister reputation. Besides being notoriously difficult to execute well, it is believed to be actively cursed, perhaps on account of the witches and ghosts and blood that permeates the show. This curse has been around seemingly as long as the show itself, and it seems to me that every person and company has a different theory about how the curse came about. Maybe Shakespeare, intentionally or otherwise, included real magic spells in the text. Maybe a local coven took offense to the portrayal of witches on stage and hexed it. Maybe Thomas Middleton’s alteration of the text angered Shakespeare’s ghost. Whatever the reason, strange things undeniably happen during Macbeth performances, including bankruptcy, actor injuries, fires, and disappearances.

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Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth, in Folger Theatre/Two River Theatre co-production of Macbeth, 2008. Photo by Carroll Pratt

One piece of lore universally agreed upon is that saying the name of the play is forbidden. It is a sure-fire way to draw the unwanted attention of whatever actual witches or murdered Scots or discontented actors have seen fit to torment the foolish. It is instead referred to as Mackers or the Scottish Play, and the characters as Lord and Lady M [or, if you’re me, Mr. and Mrs. Scottish Play -KH]. The more astute among my audience will recognize that such a blanket ban on both the title of the play and the name of its main character would make it impossible to rehearse, advertise, or perform, so it should be noted that the ban only applies onstage when not rehearsing or performing the show itself. Fortunately, and very unusually, this curse comes with a countercharm. While the details vary from company to company, the basic form calls for the offending party to immediately exit the theatre, run around it three times, and spit or curse. Embellishments may include nudity, quotations from other Shakespeare, holy scripture, a slap, or permission to re-enter the space. In this way the curse will be satisfied and disaster, hopefully, averted.

Your belief in these superstitions may vary, but I assure you they are real to us, and despite my tone we do take them seriously. I myself wear a tie line bracelet as a good luck charm that I never remove, because things can always go wrong and you never know when a length of tie line will come in handy. If you have any charms or rituals you’d like to share I’d be thrilled to hear about them at the show, for which tickets are available now! I’ll be working the box office for Scottish Play most weekends, and if you come on either the 15th or 22nd of March I am hosting a talkback after the shows! In the meantime, keep us in your thoughts but whatever you do, don’t wish us luck.

Macbeth: Prophecy Lesson

Tarot

Happy February, everybody! Well done on making it through January, the worst month of the year! Now we’ve just got another month of winter left before March arrives, bringing with it spring and cherry blossoms and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the Studio Ghibli festival at E Street and all good things in the world. This year March heralds even more good news than usual, because our production of Macbeth begins then! We start rehearsals today and so, as is my wont, I will now begin sharing play-adjacent and contextual blog posts to whet your appetite for the show.

There’s a lot going on in Macbeth. It is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it also happens to be the shortest (possibly because we are missing parts of the play). It is also one of the most explicitly magical, which as you might imagine is of great interest to me. Part of the magic in this play, and also the inciting action of the story, is in the prophecies that Macbeth and Banquo receive from a trio of witches at the top of the show: that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, and that Banquo’s descendents shall reign though he does not. Macbeth later demands (and, surprisingly, receives) additional prophecies later in the show when he somehow tracks down the witches in Act 4, unintentionally revealing the seeds of his own destruction to those with the knowledge to read their auguries. Macbeth, to his woe, cannot interpret even the most straightforward of prophecies and leaves himself wide open for his tragic demise. But hopefully, once you finish this blog post, you will be able to read these signs for yourself and plan accordingly, should you receive any prophecies in the future.

Roll the Bones Gabor Hearthstone

Roll the Bones, from Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne. Original art by Gabor Szikszai

There are two prevailing arguments on the nature of prophecies: either they are objective truth, or they bring themselves about by the hearing of them. In practical terms there is little difference, except that it gives people a chance to argue about it, as Macbeth director Hannah Todd and I have done at literally every opportunity: I am of the opinion that they are objectively true, whether they are heard or not, while Hannah maintains that once the subject of a prophecy hears it they set into motion a series of events that will lead to its fulfillment. Unfortunately the realities of storytelling mean that in order for a prophecy to exist in the world of a story the audience and at least one other character must ‘hear’ it. And due to the linear nature of time we can only ever see one path from prophecy-dictated to prophecy-fulfilled. It is therefore impossible for us to know which theory is correct. [mine -KH] Conveniently for us, though, the arcane and unknowable rules governing fortune-telling are not relevant for understanding those rules from a practical/narrative perspective, so this will all be helpful no matter what theory you believe.

This is going to sound obvious but it is a good place to start and is worth really hammering home. Prophecies must happen. It is impossible for a prophecy to not come to pass, regardless of the mechanism by which it does so. Once a prophecy is made it cannot not happen. It is information about the future that the characters KNOW to be true, unless they heard it from Cassandra, in which case it is no less true but they refuse to believe it. Prophecies are not ‘likely’ or ’probable’ or any of that equivocating garbage, they are The Truth. And that is a hell of a thing for a character in a story to know. It is one thing for us to sit on our genre-savvy high horses and posit that of course Harry Potter will kill Voldemort, because that is what the heroes of YA fantasy do. It is another thing entirely for Harry Potter himself to wrap his head around the prophecy and understand that the outcome WILL BE and MUST BE and CANNOT BE OTHER THAN one of them killing the other.

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Chapter illustration for “The Department of Mysteries”, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Art by Mary Grandpre.

The argument can be made that this ruins the story, especially when the prophecy is more final than ‘one of you will die’. Predictability is the enemy of excitement, and prophecies are nothing if not predictable. It’s why you read the last page of the book last. Merlin knows the entire time that he will be imprisoned in a tree by Nimue and it saps every adventure he goes on beforehand of any tension, because we know he has to survive and make it to that tree. This is what makes prequels bad; there are no stakes. Everyone you already knew will live and, most likely, most of the new characters will die.

If properly used, however, their inherent inevitability can play a key role in a prophecy’s value, despite this narrative risk. The Greeks, as I’m sure you remember, were especially partial to prophecies, serving as reminders of the inexorable will of the gods. The Curse of Oedipus comes part and parcel with not one but two fatal prophecies; that Laius’ son (Oedipus) would kill him and marry his wife, and that the sons of Oedipus (Polyneices and Eteocles) would kill each other. In both of these situations the victim of the prophecy knew the prophecy in advance, but not the manner in which it would be fulfilled, and their reactions tell us everything we need to know about defying the gods. Laius, knowing the prophecy, sent his son out into the wilderness to die, and believed he had beaten the gods at their own game and was therefore invulnerable. It must, therefore, have come as a tremendous shock when he was murdered in the open road. By contrast, Eteocles is fully aware that he must kill, and be killed by, his brother Polyneices, so he consciously arranges for their single combat during the defense of Thebes. Knowing as he did that circumstances would eventually align such that they killed each other, he chooses to accept his fate and meet death in a manner of his own choosing. Attempting to subvert a prophecy either, depending on what theory you buy into, leads directly to the prophecy being fulfilled OR forces the universe to construct a more and more elaborate series of events in order to bring it about, Final Destination-style. There is no running from your fate.

That it not to say that prophecies cannot be manipulated, though, if you are savvy enough. It is wise to pay exact attention to the language used in prophecies, because they are as literal as can be, and they reward close readings. This is the same method by which faeries so easily escape contracts and wish-givers grant ironic rewards, but it can have more serious consequences as well. When the Witch-King of Angmar issued his challenges to Earnur, last king of Gondor, he did so secure in the knowledge that “not by the hand of man will he fall.” This prophecy kept him safe for almost a thousand years, until he was blindsided by some unexpected combatants at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. This example is interestingly complicated by the fact that that setting has two different meanings of “man”, i.e. the Race of Man or the male gender. And as the eventual fall of the Witch-King involves both a non-human male AND a human woman, the exact nature of that prophecy remains unclear.

Eowyn Witch King

From The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003. L-R: Miranda Otto as Eowyn, Lawrence Makoare as the Witch-King.

Which is a perfect segue into my next point: this sort of interpretation cuts both ways. The Jedi Council okays the training of Anakin Skywalker because he is prophesied to “bring balance” to the Force. But they, blinded by their arrogance, fail to consider that the balance he brings might break bad for them. [This sentence brought to you by the letter B! -ed.] It is STILL not clear exactly what sort of balance the Curse of the Skywalkers is meant to bring to the Force, as the saga isn’t complete yet, but obviously it started with the fall of the Jedi Order, which is probably not what they had in mind. A prophecy may be a useful tool, but it is also a dangerous one, and it is never more dangerous than when its wielder thinks they understand it.

There is a reason I have referred to prophecies twice in the context of curses. By and large, if you are the subject OR object of a prophecy, it is bad news. In every story I have mentioned in this essay thus far, the only character for whom things have gone not horribly by the end was Harry Potter, and even he got his parents killed because he MIGHT have been the Chosen One. Macbeth thinks he has been given a boon by the witches when he receives his prophecy, but in reality it drives an otherwise honorable and loyal man to regicide, paranoia, and child-slaughter.

Come and track that descent into madness and death with us at the show! We open on the 6th of March and run until the 30th, and tickets are available even as we speak. Until then, try to avoid learning what will happen to you in the future, no matter how tempting that sorcerer’s offer sounds. It will not go the way you think.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Thrilling Adventure Hour and a Half

Good morning/afternoon/evening/sleepless midnight hours, whenever you do your independent-theatre-blog-reading. Its Tech Week here at the We Happy Factory, which means while everybody everybody else in the company works very hard to iron out any kinks in the production and make sure the play is the best it can be, I sit in a corner of the theatre and hope that someone has a historical or textual question that I can answer. I like to use this time to put together a blog post so it feels like I’m accomplishing something to draw upon the creative energy in the room and distill it to infuse some enthusiasm into my dry and staid prose.

Pericles has a lot going on. More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, more even than the other Romances. While he didn’t strictly obey the Aristotelian Unities of Time or Place, generally Shakespeare constrained himself to a handful of fairly nearby locations (sometimes as small as a single castle, city, or island) and a relatively brief timeline, not more than a few days or weeks. Some of them are a little more spread out, such as the Histories (and Lear) set in France and England, and sometimes, like Hamlet, their sense of time is more ambiguous. But none of them range as far afield and with so many different settings as in Pericles, not even Julius Caesar or Winter’s Tale, and only Winter’s Tale features such a tremendous time-warp in the middle of the play.

Time Warp

Its about time we did another Time Warp. From Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975.

That’s because Shakespeare was drawing on an ancient and well-pedigreed storytelling tradition when he wrote this play, a genre he otherwise avoided. Pericles is, to my mind, Shakespeare dipping his toes into what I like to think of as the Fantastic Adventure story. These stories are typified by a young hero either travelling by himself or being separated from his companions, encountering fantastic and mysterious circumstances, and triumphing over them. Repeat as needed. Pericles spends the play wandering the Mediterranean and searching for glory, fleeing villainous monarchs, rescuing cities, miraculously escaping storms, mourning…He fits the literal archetype of the Adventurer.

Arguably the first and most famous Fantastic Adventure, and the one which shares the most in common with our story, is Homer’s Odyssey. As you all doubtless know, this is the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey from the Trojan War to his home in Ithaca, and the trials and adventures he encounters along the way. Relevant for OUR interests, Odysseus too finds himself at the mercy of the divine, aided by Athena and opposed by Poseidon. Pericles’ adventures may be less fantastical than Odysseus’, he doesn’t blind any cyclopes or tie himself to the mast to hear the song of the sirens, but the two of them would be hard-pressed to determine whose tribulations were more punishing before they were reunited with their families.

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The Blinding of Polyphemus, by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-1551

The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other similar Classical stories set the stage for (or, more likely, revealed parallel cultural evolution in) Celtic stories such as the legends of Cuchulainn and Beowulf and King Arthur, or Arabic stories like Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. This introduces a minor complication to my constructed through-line of the adventure story, in that the earlier Classical stories I cited were singular and self-contained, while the medieval ones are looser. The Odyssey is one continuous story with a beginning, ending, and continual forward progress in between, while Arthur or Robin Hood or Sinbad stories can be read out of order and independent of each other, having introduced and resolved their problem within the same story. But I would argue that the older Classical stories, and our own example Pericles, are also more or less episodic. While they are all marching towards a coherent goal (reunification with family, escaping Antiochan assassins, founding of Rome, etc), each of their individual adventures happens in a vacuum, and the accompanying stories can be told without any more backstory than “Pericles discovered himself shipwrecked”. The more you know about the character the better you’ll understand his actions, just like the more stories you’ve read featuring Gawayne or Alan-a-dale the better handle you’ll have on them, but the stories themselves are designed to be enjoyable without any context.

Alan_A_Dale

Alan-a-dale from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). I will never pass up an opportunity to include a picture from this movie in the blog.

We can trace this kind of story all the way to the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite genres; the pulp adventure story. It is really here that we see the pinnacle of the Fantastic Adventure take hold, embodied by characters like Tarzan, Solomon Kane, and Conan. These stories are utterly episodic; consequences seldom carry over from adventure to adventure, new allies and enemies alike are killed by the end of the story, and the hero finds himself in the exact situation he was in at the beginning. Looking forward and expanding your definitions a bit you can see this tradition continued in the original Star Trek, where no story lasted longer than two episodes. Clearly the Fantastic Adventure has got some legs.

James T Kirk

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, from Star Trek (1966-1969)

‘Why does this matter?’, I can hear you asking. ‘What’s so important about Pericles being an adventure story that you felt the need to say a thousand words about it at us?’ Aside from that I think it’s super neat to be able to trace a genre from the fires of a Greek basileus or Saxon mead-hall, through the Middle Ages, across the boards of the Globe Theatre, all the way to Conan the Cimmerian and Captain Kirk, it represents an unusual departure in form from Shakespeare’s usual style. Unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, which create a single problem which is resolved by the end of the play, Pericles allows the audience to accompany the protagonist as he encounters and solves multiple problems. [Stay tuned later in the week for a potential reason this play is conceptually unique in Shakespeare’s canon -KH] We get to see our hero deal with a number of different situations, romantic, tragic, comic, and absurd, before the story concludes. We have a chance to get to know Pericles better than any other Shakespearean character, because we see more of his life than anyone else.

If YOU’D like to get to know Pericles better, your chance is coming soon! Tickets are on sale NOW and performances begin this Wednesday the 16th! I’ll be there, you should be too! Won’t you come on an adventure with us?

What Makes Vampires So Monstrous?

Hi there, everyone. Blogslave Keith Hock here with a SPOOK-tacular October blog post! I’m sorry I couldn’t give you anything creepy or scarifiying last week, focused as I was on historiography, so this week I tried to make the blog extra terrifying to make up for it.  Last time I talked to you about vampires I told you about one of their most important and recognizable trait (their sexiness) and the way that that separated them from the other monsters. Today I want to talk to you about something they share with other monsters, and their OTHER most recognizable trait: the blood drinking. Or, to broaden the synecdoche a little bit, people-eating. Anthropophagy. And, most importantly, cannibalism, because Dracula and his coterie at one point WERE human, even if they are no longer. That ‘if’ is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.

Eating people is shorthand for monstrous. Always has been. It is a simple shorthand: to give a good indication of how awful a creature is, have them not merely kill people but to devour them as well. It makes audience understand exactly how dangerous the creature is, and how little regard it has of the rules of society. The first thing that Grendel does when he assaults Heorot is snatch up a warrior to eat. Ancient Greece abounded with these monsters. Seemingly half of Hercules’ quests revolved around him dealing with some sort of man-eating animals, be they horse or bird or lion, and between Scylla snatching sailors out of his ship, the Laestrygonians spear-fishing his crew, Polyphemus gobbling up his men in the cave, and Circe’s abortive barbecue, it seems likely that Odysseus had more men eaten by monsters than killed in battle during the Trojan War. Fairy tale giants and witches from Jack’s Beanstalk to the Baba Yaga would literally announce their intentions to cook and eat their victims. It is hard to think of a monster that DOESN’T eat people.

To Serve Man

“To Serve Man”, The Twilight Zone, 1962.

But what happens when the the man-eater is human? There is precious little stopping one sufficiently motivated person from eating another, after all. We are little more than skin suits holding together a heap of muscles and fat cunningly wrapped around a skeleton in such a way that it becomes ambulatory. It’s not like human bodies are poisonous (unless you eat too many brains) or made of wood or iron or something indigestible. From a purely practical perspective there is no reason for humans to NOT eat other humans. And yet, with a few isolated cultural exceptions such as [allegedly] the Caribe and New Guinean mountain tribes, cannibalism is regarded as an ultimate taboo. Eating manflesh serves as an indicator of abandoning your own humanity. To treat your fellow man not as a fellow traveller but as a source of food suggests that you have surrendered your commonality with him.

Allow me to present some examples, starting where else but Ancient Greece and my second-favorite cursed bloodline, the Atreides. This familial curse began with Tantalus, who killed and cooked his son Pelops into a dish as a sacrifice to the gods. Why exactly he thought the gods would like this the stories do not make clear. The gods, being gods, immediately knew what he had done and were horrorstruck by it. Again, being gods, they resurrected Pelops, and then laid a familial curse on the bloodline and sentenced Tantalus to eternal torment submerged up to his head in water he could not drink and surrounded by grapes he could not eat. But wait! Having somehow not learned the lesson from his Grandpa, family namer Atreus took revenge on his brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and crown by killing Thyestes’ sons (Pleisthenes and another Tantalus), cooking them into a pie, and feeding them to him. You may recognize this plot point from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where it serves a similar purpose: to explore the hideous depths of depravity, the risks to one’s own soul, that will be explored in the search for revenge. Atreus, like Titus, took care to ensure that Thyestes actually ate before the secret was revealed, and Thyestes was rewarded for his accidental cannibalism with exile and a doubling-down of the familial curse. Atreus would go on to be killed by Thyestes’ other son Aegisthus, who would be killed in HIS turn by Atreus’ grandson Orestes. I find it particularly striking that even the Greek gods, perhaps the most deviant pantheon I can think of, drew the line at cannibalism, and even the accidental consumption of human flesh called for expiation.

Saturn Devouring His Son

But perhaps they had a reason to dislike the idea. “Saturn Devouring His Son”, Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823.

Lest you believe that the only thing I know anything about is the Greeks and Shakespeare, let me share a non-European example as well. The Wendigo is a Native American legend from the Great Lakes region, occupying the nebulous territory between a monster and a curse. A Wendigo encountered in the wild, as it were, was ash-grey and rail-thin; think a skeleton that has been wrapped in skin and then vacuum-sealed. They were voracious man-eaters who thrived on winter, cold, isolation, hunger, and darkness. But the more interesting element of the Wendigo, especially for my purposes, is not this “monster-of-the-week” aspect, but their cultural cachet. There was a pervasive idea in the Algonquian tribes that a human could become a Wendigo if they were overcome by greed, or ate human flesh. The need to consume would trigger a transformation within them, and their humanity would be surrendered in exchange for an unending hunger, an insatiable need to have more, and more, and more. The Wendigo legend is not dissimilar from the European werewolf, as it depicts a human literally abandoning their humanity in the service of their dark appetites.

Wendigo Souza

“Wendigo”, by Marcelo de Souza, 2010.

Cannibalism appears in modern culture, too, except that instead of legends and fairy tales we have movies and tv shows and books. Cannibalism is used as shorthand for an abandonment of civilization, the rejection of and contempt for rules, norms, and mores. Often in post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Neil Marshall’s Doomsday or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is an acknowledgement that society has abandoned them, and so they are right to return the favor. In science fiction scenarios, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or (with a somewhat different intention) Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it carries the idea that the cannibals think they have more important issues to think about than their humanity. In suspense and crime thrillers, like the various iterations of the Hannibal Lecter character and the tv show Bones, it signifies a character believing himself to above the rules, too smart to be tied down by the laws of society that keep the ‘normals’ in check. In each of these settings the cannibalistic characters believe that they have something to gain by losing their humanity. It is a clear trade that is being defined in each of these situations, and it is a trade that they are all glad to make because they place no value on their conscience.

Wolves

Dracula and his vampiric children fit very neatly into this trade-off. Dracula consciously and positively identifies himself with predators, particularly the wolf. In his mind the human world is little more than a herd of sheep or cattle for him to toy with and prey upon at his leisure. He willingly accepts the gifts of the monster, the strength and cunning and charisma and ruthlessness, and regards the faith and compassion which he has lost as liabilities. Because he has willingly surrendered these human traits he holds them in faint regard. But his scorn for humanity, especially human companionship and loyalty, ends up being his downfall.

If you want to SEE this downfall, you’ve still got a couple more chances this month! Dracula will be returning to Spectre Arts down in Raleigh this weekend if you feel like taking a road trip down to beautiful North Carolina. If travelling to the Tar Heel State is not in the cards for you, fear not! We have a few additional performances here in the Nation’s Capital as well, including one at the Southeast Public Library on the 26th and another at CHAW on the 30th. I hope to see you there!

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!

The Winter’s Tale: What Makes A Romance?

Hi, everybody!

::Await obligatory ‘Hi, Dr. Nick!’ callback.::

My name is Keith Hock and I am the production manager and technical director for your favorite Capitol Fringe company, We Happy Few Productions!  We’re about halfway through the rehearsal process for our upcoming presentation of The Winter’s Tale, and while our Periscope videos (accessible through twitter, if you follow us) have done a great job of introducing you to the creative process behind the making of the show, they haven’t really delved too deeply into what this show is and why we would choose to do it.  So at our last production meeting I drew the short straw and got roped into willingly and totally without coercion volunteered to put together a brief breakdown of how The Winter’s Tale fits into Shakespeare’s bibliography and our own ethos.

The table of contents, as it were, of the First Folio

The table of contents, as it were, of the First Folio

The shows that We Happy Few has done, to date, have been Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, The Duchess of Malfi and, soon, The Winter’s Tale.  Of these plays, three are classified as Tragedies; Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and The Duchess of Malfi, and the other two as Romances (Duchess is anomalous in this list because it was written by Webster, not Shakespeare, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more tragic play than The Duchess of Malfi.  For more information about THAT show please look back into our archives and read the posts by my blogging predecessor, the inimitable Alan Katz).  When we began our career with Hamlet we established our love of tragedies, the darker and more brooding the better; this led us in turn to the hormone-laden blood feud of Romeo & Juliet and the old-school revenge tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi (fun fact: revenge tragedies are also known as Tragedies of Blood!  This should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Duchess last summer).  So how do we reconcile the blood and hate of these tragedies with what you suspect to be the tedious, cloying will-they/won’t-they love story that the name “Romance” suggests?

As You Like It Wedding

The wedding scene in As You Like It. Not the sort of romance we’re doing this summer. (Painting by Richard Russell)

Fortunately for us, unless you were hoping for a sappy rom-com story (in which case, get the hell off my blog), the term “Romance” in this context does not imply what we generally think of as romantic; the closest Shakespeare comes to modern rom-com style love stories are his Comedies, named so not because they’re funny (although they are) but because they end well and leave the audience feeling happy; they also deal with love stories and almost exclusively end with AT LEAST one marriage.  Historically the Romances were grouped into either the Tragedies or Comedies more or less at the whims of their readers; The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were classified as Comedies while Cymbeline and Pericles were classified as Tragedies.  These do not precisely fit for either category; while there is blood and death to be had in both Pericles and Cymbeline, both title characters make it out of the play alive, a major no-no for Tragedies, and neither of them are brought low by some character flaw.  Likewise, there are love stories in both The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, as well as Cymbeline and Pericles for that matter, but in neither of them are they the focus of the plot.  So these four Romance plays do not share the traditional markings of either Shakespeare’s Tragedies OR Comedies (or the Histories, for the completionists out there).

Miranda observing Prospero's storm at the beginning of The Tempest.  Yes the sort of Romance we're doing this summer. (Painting by J. W. Waterhouse)

Miranda observing Prospero’s storm at the beginning of The Tempest. Yes the sort of Romance we’re doing this summer. (Painting by J. W. Waterhouse)

What they DO share is a remarkable similarity to each other.  All of these plays heavily feature the relationship between a single father and daughter.  They all feature families that have been separated.  Those separations all involve either betrayal, a body of water, or both.  In every case these father figures (Pericles, Prospero, Cymbeline, and Leontes) have made some serious error in judgement that led to their separation from their family, and have some noble friend and ally who remained loyal to them, usually without their knowledge.  They all involve a substantial leap forward in time in the story.  They each end with a reconciliation and reunification of the separated families, as the protagonist learns the mistake he has made and atones for it.

From We Happy Few's 2013 production of The Tempest.  Left-Right: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, and Britt Duff.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Left-Right: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, and Britt Duff.

And, most significantly from the We Happy Few perspective, they all have explicit moments of magic.  Whether that magic is Prospero calling the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Jupiter, King of the Gods, delivering a letter to Posthumus in prison in Cymbeline, fire from the heavens consuming Antioch at the end of Pericles, or …well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending of OUR play before you came to see it, but believe me when I tell you that magic and mystery abound in the Romances.  As our faithful viewers should recall from previous productions, We Happy Few thrives on discovering the magical and mysterious.  Beginning with Hamlet’s madness as he watches his friends transform into his enemies before his eyes, through Juliet’s attempt to escape imprisonment in a literal man’s world, and ending with the phantom vengeance of the Duchess of Malfi on her treacherous brothers, We Happy Few has always found and brought out the magic in our plays.  It should come as no surprise that we would choose to do another Romance so soon.  Far from not fitting into the traditional WHF model, The Winter’s Tale may be the closest we’ve come to our ethos since Hamlet.