Henry V: Making Imaginary Puissance

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

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

Michelangelo Angel

Michelangelo’s Angel, 1494/95.

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

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

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

SONY DSC

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

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

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Theatre is a Team Sport

 

Hey everybody! How’s it going? Good to see you again!

If I seem uncharacteristically cheery and upbeat today, that is only because I am. Some wonderful, glorious, beautiful things are happening right now, and they have put a bounce in my step and a sparkle in my eye. For one thing it is cherry blossom season, the prettiest and best season in DC, because it means our city is finally warming up and it will be tolerable to be outside for like 2 months until DC’s miserable sticky bastard of a summer ruins everything. Second, we are three weeks deep into rehearsals for our wonderful, smart, fun, deep, complex production of Henry V that has got me almost giddy with anticipation. And finally, we are in the final week of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament! March Madness! Basketball Christmas! My favorite three weeks of the year!

“Hey, wait a minute,” I hear you mutter. “Keith, you’re a nerd. You talk about nerd stuff all the time. You lectured us for like 3000 words about where a Chinese story came from and you use pictures of Magic cards and CHUDs in your blog posts. You aren’t supposed to like basketball.” My initial response to that is GO! GONZAGA! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A! Moreover, I don’t appreciate your disappointed judgmental tone, nor the implication that because I like a given thing I am automatically pigeonholed and my interests and personality predetermined.

Final Four

GO ZAGS!

But hear me out, oddly confrontational figments of my imagination used to construct this blog, because I have here some reasons that I (and you) can enjoy both, besides us being adults and being in charge of our own interests. Perhaps sports and theatre have something in common. David Mamet himself used the arc of a satisfying game to illustrate the nature of a well-crafted narrative, in his book Three Uses of the Knife, so there must be something there. Let’s see if I can convince you that theatre, especially We Happy Few-style theatre, is more like basketball than you might expect.

First of all, they are both spectator activities, performances meant to be watched, appreciated, and analyzed by an audience. We do them to entertain and inspire our fans, and fans come to be entertained and inspired. They are also both physical activities, harnessing the human body and spirit and putting it on display. They both take a lot, lot, lot of practice, drilling scenes and lines and plays and basic fundamental actions until they no longer take thought but are automatic muscle memory reactions. And you need to get to that level of automatic repetition, because once you run into an adversary or ESPECIALLY an audience, all your careful plans will go flying out the window. Your opponent is going to do their level best (and they have been practicing at least as hard as you) to prevent you from doing whatever you’re trying to do, but a crowd will throw you off your game just by not liking you. You will feel the weight of their displeasure bearing down on you, whether you’re trying to hit a key free throw or land “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. Even if they don’t hate you, just the pressure of thousands of eyes on you, watching and judging and analyzing your every move, can easily rattle even a veteran. A crowd has real energy and can absolutely sway a performance. Just ask Chris Webber:

 

But perhaps the biggest similarity between the two, as you may have guessed from the title of this blog, is teamwork. Theatre is obviously a collaborative endeavor, just like basketball or lacrosse or any other team sport. The only difference is that in sports, you are cooperating with one set of people and competing with another set, while in theatre you are ALL cooperating to put on a performance [if you feel you are competing while you are on stage I urge you to find a less toxic company to work with -KH]. I am in my heart of hearts a collaborator and only get competitive when it comes to trivia, which is why I chose theatre over lacrosse after a year and a half in college and I now spend my spare time as the Literary Director of a theatre company and not playing in rec leagues down at the Y, but I spent enough time being truly awful at lacrosse on a team of the most supportive people in the entire world to know that you need and will find at least as much camaraderie as killer instinct on the court.

Basketball isn’t the MOST collaborative of team sports (for my money that title goes to the hyper-specialized football) but it is the one I love the most, and it is the one that is happening right now, so it’s what I’m gonna talk about. It is also the one that expects the most out of each individual player. Football and to a somewhat lesser extent baseball are dominated by players who excel at a single position and do little or nothing else; football has a number of single-use positions, including two different kinds of kickers (2!), and in baseball it is understood that your pitchers will be an automatic out when they are at bat. Hockey, soccer, and lacrosse divide the field into sections and have players that generally only play in one. Defenders and attackmen/strikers/forwards rarely cross into or involve themselves in the opposite section, and while goalies CAN leave their goals it is ill-advised for them to do so. In all of these sports there are long stretches of time where many of the players will be standing around, watching their teammates play and waiting for their opportunity to do something.

But in basketball, both because of the size of the team and the quickness with which the game is played, everyone plays both sides of the court on every possession. A player who is visionary on offense but a liability on defense is an incomplete player, and a lockdown defender who can’t shoot lets the other team ignore him on offense and basically play five-on-four. This is not to say that a player must be perfect at everything, nor that there are players who are better at one than the other, but unlike in many other sports you really gotta know what you’re doing all over the court. And while basketball has perhaps the most room for heroics by a single player, due to the small team size, playing hero ball is seldom the recipe for success. Look at Markelle Fultz, the number-1 recruit out of high school this year, who led the Washington Huskies to an ASTOUNDING 9-22 season. Or, if you think that was a fluke, ask Ben Simmons, the number-1 college recruit the year before, who led his Louisiana State Tigers to a 10-21 season. Both of these teams had the best player in the country, both will probably be the #1 picks in the draft (Simmons already was last year and Fultz is likely to be this year) but neither of them could lead their teams to win even a third of the time, and both got their head coaches fired at the end of the season. If the cogs don’t fit together, it doesn’t matter that one of them is made of gold.

Go Go Power Rangers

Go Go Power Rangers!

As you should expect from me by this point, what I am talking about is both true in general and specifically relevant for what we are working on. Not to tell tales out of school, but our conception of Henry V (and the whole We Happy Few ethos) takes very seriously the idea of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For all my emphasis on ‘Great Man’ history in my History Lesson post, we will be spending a lot less time with Henry, and a lot more time with his army, when we bring the show to the stage next month. Exactly how we manage that…you’ll have to come see the show to find out. Tickets are available now!

Until next time,

Go Zags

PS The next blog post I write will actually be about the play, I swear.