Lovers’ Vows: Melodrama

Tonight is the night! It’s time for Opening Night, to reintroduce Elizabeth Inchbald and Lovers’ Vows to the world of theatre, where they both belong. We are thrilled for the opportunity to share this play with you all and to restore Inchbald’s reputation as a master of the stage. It is difficult now, having lived and breathed this show for months, to imagine how this play could have vanished, largely remembered only as ‘the play in Mansfield Park’, considering how much fun it IS, how popular and controversial it WAS, and how illuminating that controversy and by extension the play as a whole is into the gender politics of the time, especially considering that it was written by a woman [you’ll have to read my dramaturgy notes for a fuller but still laughably incomplete exploration of that controversy -KH]. I do have a guess as to why it may have been cast aside, however, and very conveniently for me and fortunately for you it is an explanation that dovetails nicely with an element of our staging that I can call out and discuss with you. That idea, of course, is the Melodrama. I think that the formulaic nature of melodramas makes it easy for people to underestimate and ignore them, and I think that the elements of melodrama in Lovers’ Vows may have unjustly hurt its reputation in the historical record.

What do I mean by melodrama? It is one of those words that is easier to understand through examples than by definition, but the core elements are exaggerated characters, obvious plot points, outsized reactions, and utter sincerity in production. It has some elements, the exaggerated character types and formulaic plot structure, in common with Italian commedia dell’arte, Spanish siglo de oro, and Japanese Noh plays. Lovers’ Vows is not a full melodrama (see our director Kerry McGee’s director notes for more information about the line that it walks) but it shares some of these traits with the pseudogenre. It is not as by-the-numbers as some of Inchbald’s earlier plays, in which she used descriptor names to indicate the morality and traits of the characters; a common form of literary shorthand you may recognize from, among other places, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the villain is named Chillingworth [no offence to any readers named Chillingworth, but it is an objectively sinister name -KH]. But the play is no mystery, and while surprises by the handful are in store for the characters, the audience is unlikely to be shocked by any of the revelations. It is a style that rewards fidelity to structure, that draws energy and humor from its rigidity to form.

And if you know anything about our approach to staging challenges, and specifically my analysis of our approach to staging challenges, is that we love to Lean In. Finding what makes a play tick and emphasizing it. In this case what makes the play tick is traditional execution. So we are executing the play traditionally.

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From We Happy Few’s 2019 production Lovers’ Vows. L-R: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha, Lee Ordeman as Baron Wildenhaim, Jack Novak as Frederick, Gabby Wolfe as Amelia, Alex Turner as Anhalt. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

We are putting the show in a straight proscenium, no tricky inversions or thrust configurations or in-the-round shenanigans. A proscenium focuses the audience’s attention on the stage, paints the same picture to every member of the audience, defines the playing space, contains the action. This show doesn’t want to conceal anything or trick the audience, leave ambiguity about where the action is taking place or what is motivating a choice. It wants to hide information from its characters but make that information abundantly clear to the audience. So our proscenium emphasizes the reality of the world on stage and reassures the viewer that they can trust their perceptions and their assumptions. And, more importantly, that they can trust us.

We are playing in period costumes. No ambiguity about the time or place that the play is inhabiting; we want it to be abundantly clear that we are in rural Germany in the mid to late 1700s. More importantly and unusually for us, we also have no on-stage quick changes. Everyone is who they are. We don’t want the audience to spend time or energy thinking about who or what else a character could become, we want them to focus on who they are and what they are doing in the moment. Unlike many of our shows, everything on stage is exactly as it seems, and our clarity in costuming emphasizes that the audience should trust their senses and us, the players, to deliver on their expectations of the world we are inhabiting.

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From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows. Background: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha. Foreground: Jack Novak as Frederick. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Melodramas and other form-driven plays live or die by their execution. The point isn’t to surprise the audience with revelations, it is to reward their understanding of story structure and impress them with the clarity and fidelity with which the story is implemented. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing the world of Lovers’ Vows, introducing and typifying the inhabitants, and delivering exactly the kind of story that Elizabeth Inchbald wanted to share with the world. But I am a little biased. It is up to you, the audience, to judge if our execution is up to snuff, so I encourage you to join us and see for yourself.

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!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Driven Before The Winds

Hi again, everybody! We’re about halfway through the run of Pericles and I wanted to check back in with you all, see how you were doing, brag about our amazing reviews and talk about our play for a while, to edify some of you and shame the rest into buying tickets and coming to see the show, like you know you should have already. And now that we’ve opened I can actually talk about specific, as opposed to structural, elements. We get to delve into what makes OUR production work, not just the building blocks and context of the play itself. And nothing makes our production work quite so much as the breakneck pace of the action.

Given what I’ve told you in my previous blog posts you probably know by now that a lot of stuff happens in this play, in a lot of different places, usually in very quick succession (or, in one notable place, after a 14-year time jump). Set in castles and palaces and temples and fishermen’s huts and beaches and tourney yards and gardens and whorehouses on at least six different islands and several ships, not to mention the storms and assassins and pirates and dream sequences and narrative interludes that dog our heroes, Pericles runs the risk of being disjointed, bogged down, and poorly structured [Much like this sentence! -KH]. Too much happens too quickly in too many places and it is easy to get lost. On a metatheatrical level there is something very interesting about that, the play running out of control like a ship tossed about in a storm. But just because something is intellectually interesting does not make it good theatre, as I have repeatedly been told at pitch meetings.

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From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. L-R: Dave Gamble, Jenna Berk, Grant Cloyd, Charlie Retzlaff, Jon Reynolds, Kerry McGee, Jennifer J. Hopkins. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Fortunately for us, our particular 90-minute small-cast stripped-down aesthetic works extremely well in this sort of situation. To continue the ship metaphor, our technical flexibility allows us to stay ahead of the storm. Instead of potentially stalling and losing momentum in lengthy scene transitions or costume changes, as a straight production might do, we can lean into it (which you might remember is my favorite device) and let the play rush us along. We trust in new lighting looks, our signature rapid costume changes, some quick box movements, and above all the intelligence of our audience, to understand that this new scene is happening in a new place. Instead of letting the settings and scene changes overwhelm and slow down the action we can use the breakneck action to speed ourselves up, keep the play moving too fast for anyone to get lost.

It helps, too, that we have more control over our pacing than a traditional companies. We are not beholden to each and every word of the text. We hold ourselves to a higher standard: a 90-minute show. Because we do so much cutting and rebalancing of the text to find the absolute bare bones of the story, we control more or less how long we spend in any given location. If we followed the flow of the play itself the audience would often spend just enough time somewhere to get used to it, and then be disoriented and lost again at the next scene transition. For us, though, movement becomes the norm instead of the exception. We can once again use the momentum of the play to our advantage, to keep the audience on their toes and ready for whatever comes next.

 

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From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. Foreground L-R: Jenna Berk, Jon Reynolds. Background L-R: Kerry McGee, Charlie Retzlaff, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Grant Cloyd, Dave Gamble. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

 

But all of those staging and cutting tricks wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t have the chops to sell it to the audience. For all of this to work we need to MOVE, and we need to have clarity and purpose. The audience is smart and they can follow our breakneck island-hopping if we trust them, but that trust has to go both ways. They have to trust US, as well, to guide them from place to place, or they’ll get hopelessly lost between who is who and where we are. As you may have guessed from the structure of this blog post, however, we have multiple advantages on this front as well. We’ve got a wonderfully trusting and energetic cast, an altogether-too-qualified movement team, and a proven history of stripping down classical stories and bringing them to a new audience. Oh, I guess our director is all right, too, seeing as he was the one who realized how to put all of these things together and shepherd this play from an inconsistent island-hopping hodge-podge to the critically acclaimed show you still have a chance to see! We’re running tonight, tomorrow, and then Wednesday through Saturday of next week, come see what I’m talking about!

Blog in the Manger: Maddening Mobile Architecture

Welcome back!We are beginning the second week of our run of The Dog in the Manger tonight and you know what that means! That means my lords and masters have once more shoved a keyboard in front of me and told me that if I want to eat, I will start writing, so write I did. If you all have gotten a chance to DiM, as we have taken to calling it, you may have noticed something about the set: specifically, that there is a set. Also, that it moves. A lot, like, a lot a lot. Sets aren’t usually our, you know, thing, Tempest and Chalk excepted, and even those two were smaller and less…dynamic than this one. [If you’re curious about the set and, more importantly, the set decorations for Chalk I wrote some 1500 words about it HERE, and if you want to know more about The Tempest set, picture a rope course in your head and then hang a bunch of bottles from it with tie line -KH] What’s more, this play came out of a time and place that, with a few notable exceptions, eschewed elaborate sets and props in favor of mobility and uniformity of design. What would compel us, with our notoriously sparse set-design sensibilities, to go in this direction while creating this world? This blog post has spoilers in it, so if you haven’t seen the show yet, bookmark this page, buy your tickets, come and see the show this week, and then come back and read all about the mobility of the set and how it is more, or perhaps less, than it initially seemed to be.

Similar to their English brethren, the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age would take place outside in the open air in a corral. Like an Elizabethan stage this was a fairly constrained design space; they were about 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep with no proscenium, usually a few trap doors, and a curtained-off discovery space, with at least one level of balconies on a second story.   Depending on your views of chickens, eggs, and which of them may have come first this layout was either instrumental to the manner in which Spanish theatre developed, or or was a reaction forced by the nature of Spanish theatre. Spanish theatre grew out of the touring Italian companies of the 15th and 16th centuries, and while it grew and flourished into its own art form it never shook many of the tenets of those Italian companies. At least in part due to ecclesiastic hand-wringing no theatre company was allowed to stay in any one place for all that long, and so out of necessity companies would regularly tour. A touring company cannot afford to lug around a bunch of heavy set pieces and install/tear them down all the time even if they wanted to. What’s more, the Spanish appetite for theatre was so voracious that a show was unlikely to run for more than about two weeks before it had reached all of the theatregoers in the area and they had to stage a new one. Believe me when I tell you that you don’t want to build gigantic, elaborate sets for a 10-performance run if money or time is an object, so theatres went small out of convenience and price.

Certainly there were exceptions to this; the Spanish Court took a good go at bankrupting itself to stage elaborate revels and plays, hiring Italian set engineers to create tremendous spectacles that would be seen once and then torn down. But in general these plays were written and staged similarly to their English and Italian counterparts, with minimal need for set pieces. This gives modern designers the freedom to produce them with as elaborate or Spartan a set as their vision of the show requires. In our case, our master set designer Jimmy Stubbs decided to go with a sparsely-decorated but moderate set of a box (the world’s greatest set piece), a bench, and an archway and a windowseat with wheels; all highly mobile, versatile pieces.

DiM Mobile Set Pieces

Pictured: Raven Bonniwell as Diana. From WHF’s 2017 production of The Dog in the Manger. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher

Usually the mobility of the set would solve a staging problem. Highly mobile set pieces, especially elaborate ones like an archway and a windowseat, give you the opportunity to concretely indicate where a scene is happening, without having to rely on lighting trickery or ambient sound or lines about where the actors are and what time it’s supposed to be (see above-linked blog post about Chalk’s set design for more information about using these tools, and others, to indicate locations). If you look at the stage in one scene and see all of the set pieces in one position, and then you look at the stage again, later, and the set pieces are all in different places from where they were before, you might reasonably assume that those two scenes were happening at different places, and presumably at different times as well. Seeing as many modern plays [“modern” here meaning written after the fall of Rome -KH], completely disregarding the unities, take place in a number of different locations over the course of several days, weeks, months, etc., you can imagine why it would be helpful to use a mobile architecture to demonstrate which scenes are happening where.

But if we did something so prosaic as merely using wheeled set pieces to indicate that we the night scene in the bedchamber has ended and we are ready to begin the daytime scene in the courtyard…well, we wouldn’t really be We Happy Few. Plus we would be completely wasting the opportunities of attaching wheels to a thing, if we didn’t do something fun with them. And seeing as we have a tendency to wring the maximum value out of our minimal sets, you can reasonably assume we found some additional uses. Occasionally our set pieces for this show are moved in between scenes, in the manner that you might expect from a ‘normal’ play, to demonstrate that the location has changed. More commonly, however, they move around while scenes are happening around them, especially as the show proceeds. We get through the entire first Act without any architectural shenanigans of any kind, but as the action progresses and the plot gets more convoluted and driven by secrets, lies, deceptions, and misapprehensions, the set begins to fairly fly across the stage. The very world rearranges itself right before our eyes, and all it takes is someone who knows how to move it, and someone else who doesn’t. Because these big set pieces don’t move by themselves. For every character who is terrified and confused by the world rearranging itself around them, there is someone else who is making it move.

DiM Caught!

Pictured: Background, L-R, Raven Bonniwell as Diana, Tori Boutin as Anarda. Foreground, L-R Kiernan McGowan as Teodoro, Louis Davis as Trisan, Natalie Cutcher as Marcela. From We Happy Few’s 2017 Production of The Dog in the Manger. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler.

This, as you might imagine, is no accident. Things are less permanent than we have been led to believe. Even your firmest and most unshakeable convictions—that your son is dead, that love cannot transcend class—may be less solid than you thought. It turns out that these rigid structures that have always surrounded you, that you have treated as immobile foundations of your life and worldview, can be flexible and malleable…once you learn the secret. Nothing is set in stone. Your assumptions are only YOUR assumptions, and if you can learn to see situations from a different perspective, all sorts of new opportunities present themselves. Seen from one angle, Ludovico’s son’s death is a terrible tragedy. From another angle, it is a chance to establish some bona fides. Their “reunion”, seen from one angle, is a joyous celebration; from a second angle, another opportunity; and from a third, a cruel lie and grift on a gullible, grief-stricken old man. From one angle Diana’s marriage to Teodoro is a happy ending; from another, it is a precarious house of cards, a Duchess of Malfi waiting to happen.

If you’ve already seen the show, hopefully this will give you an enhanced insight into our moving set and the ephemeral nature of your assumptions. If you HAVEN’T seen the show, shame on you, buy your tickets and come see it soon! And while you’re watching it, I hope that this explanation helps you understand why those damn set pieces keep rolling all over the stage. If you aren’t sure exactly WHEN you should come and see the show, I would recommend you come this coming Saturday the 18th, at 2PM, when I will be hosting a talkback with Benji Djain, who you may recall I interviewed a few weeks ago. So if you want to hear an expert talk about something that they know and care deeply about, or you want to try to stump or harass me about something, that would probably be the best time. I look forward to seeing you all there.