August 31, 2010

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

It’s a beautiful day in New Jersey.  The sun is shining, the trees are in bloom, and class starts tomorrow.

The first day of school is almost always a nostalgic time for me.  It’s a time when I reflect back upon my life as marked by first days of school and what those past times meant to me.  Let’s take a journey, shall we?  A jaunt through the first-day-of-school hall of all things sundry.  I’ll start where my memory bank begins…. Third Grade.

Third Grade:  There were definitely first days of school before this, but I certainly don’t remember them.  I’m sure they involved side-ponytails and leg-warmers… by the third grade, I was in my first rebellious stage.  I had chopped all my hair off just to see what it would be like to have short hair and wore a cute little flower-print children’s-suit-type-thing (the professor-geek gene kicked in early for me).  There are pictures of me and my siblings on the front lawn.  I was worried that my pencil sharpener wouldn’t be fancy enough because I couldn’t find a Lisa Frank one like all the other girls had…

Fourth Grade:  Officially a “big kid” at the elementary school, I was still trying to figure out where I stood in the social pecking order.  My dad had read me The Hobbit for the first time over the summer and I just thought it was the greatest thing ever.  That should have been my first clue…

Fifth Grade: Last year of elementary school, I was beginning to kiss my childhood of one-classroom-all-day and cubbies-for-your-things goodbye.  I looked forward to the Whale Watch, a yearly trip that the fifth graders got to take to Cape Cod as a scientific expedition of the utmost importance.  I was second-tallest in the class and they told me that I would be six feet tall when I was done growing.  I prayed with all of my already-agnostic heart that this wasn’t going to happen because I was enough of a freak as it was and did whatever God existed really have to punish me with being inhumanly tall as well?  Social pecking order established, I knew that I would always sit at the table in the corner with the Dungeons and Dragons nerds.  This realization was horrifying.

Sixth Grade:  Middle School.  The big M.  A new campus.  A campus!  New people.  Different classes every period.  Lockers.  Maybe a chance to meet (gasp!) boys!  I wore a pink performance fleece vest from Old Navy and acted as grown-up and cool as I could.  This was not very cool at all as my crowning accomplishment was having read The Lord of the Rings by myself over the summer.  My favorite books were Star Wars novellas for young adults.  I still sat at the geek table.

Seventh Grade:  My brief goth phase started around here.  I wore all black and jeans big enough for a person twice my size.  Having finally begun to accept that geekiness was probably a lot cooler than I had previously thought, I did the only thing I could do to compound my geekiness: I joined the band.

Eight Grade:  The Big Cheese at middle school as this was my last year there, I walked into school feeling like I owned the place.  I had landed a leading role in the musical the year before, so clearly my path this year was lain with stardom. 

Ninth Grade:  First day of high school.  I wore a black trench coat to cement my image as a tough tomboy.  Obviously this was when real life started, all the movies said so…

Tenth Grade:  First day of new high school.  Old one didn’t work out so well.  Had moved to New York City to begin my acting career and attend the Professional Performing Arts High School.  Walked in nervous but smooth and confident.  Clearly having survived one year of a prep school in richville had prepared me for some inner-city school of performing arts awesomeness.  Wrote my first critical essay on Shakespeare over the summer and was set to turn it in that day.  It was entitled Romeo and Juliet: An Enaction of Murphy’s Law.  This was three days before 9/11.

Eleventh Grade:  Knowing that things were about to get serious, I put my game face on to head in for day one of what turned out to be the best year of my high school career.  All my friends were Seniors.  This was our last year together.  I was ready to hit starbucks hard and the SATs harder.  I was ready to visit colleges (though I still wasn’t certain whether I was going for a degree in Computer Science or Theatre). 

Twelfth Grade:  Here it was.  The beginnings of real life, the end of an era, and this year just couldn’t go by fast enough for me.  Even on day one I knew that.  As the year progressed, I became VP of the Senior Class and Salutatorian.  The girl who was the President was also the Valedictorian.  If I had found some nice quiet way to bump her off I would have been made…

Freshman Year:  No really.  Here it was.  Where real life started.  All the movies said so.  Started NYU with a self-made joint major in Computer Science and Theatre.

Sophomore Year:  Having moved off campus and into my very own grown-up one-bedroom apartment that I shared with two other girls, clearly I was ready for anything that college could throw at me.  What I wasn’t expecting was a teacher/mentor who would change my outlook on life, the universe, and everything.  That summer I had spent training with John Basil at the American Globe Theatre.  I remained with John for two years, and that is where the things I saw at Shakespeare & Company cemented themselves in my own Actor’s Brain.  A love affair had begun… nevermind that it was with a man dead for nearly four hundred years.  Changed my major to Elizabethan Theatre and shifted Comp Sci to a minor.

Junior Year:  So close… so close I can taste it…. When is real life going to begin already?

Senior Year:  Actually whipped through this in six months, and I knew that going in.  Was just there to fulfill the last of those pesky credits then I was out, see ya, goodbye.  After that, real life would start, right?

Time Off:  Let’s just refer to this amorphous black space as a black hole.  Interesting things happened to me, I was back in training at Shakespeare & Company, but I wasn’t really in my element…  Real life hit me like a ton of bricks and I wasn’t nearly prepared to catch it. 

MA; Year One:  FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL!  FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL!  Remember, you may not have been an English major in undergrad, but you have things to add to the conversation due to your wide array of outside experiences and your point of view is utterly different and valued and… aw hell, you just don’t know what you’re talking about.  Sit down, be quiet, and let the theorists blather for a bit until you can figure out what it is that you’re supposed to be accomplishing here.  Are you sure you signed up for the right degree?

….and today.  Well, tomorrow I suppose.  I’m going to wear whatever’s clean because I haven’t done laundry in far too long.  I’m worried about getting into a PhD program and whether I can get a paper published this year.  I’m looking forward to a couple upcoming conferences and acting as fight director at the theatre again.  I’m sitting at the geek’s table, but that’s not saying much because everyone else here is too. 

And you know what?  I’m feeling better than I ever have before…

…though I can’t account for first and second grade.  Maybe those were blissful, heavenly years that put this one to shame.

August 29, 2010

Nine O'Clock on a Saturday...

Last night, I participated in the great Japanese/American past-time involving beer, electronics and solicitations from random strangers.  Get your mind out of the gutter, I’m not talking about some sort of weird robot fetish porn, I’m talking about karaoke.

I’ve been working a lot lately.  A LOT lately.  And with the semester peeking its honking warty nose around the corner, I’m going to be working a lot more.  Luckily, I have some near and dear local friends who a) hadn’t seen me in a while, b) don’t take “no” for an answer, and c) are regulars at this past time.  With a bit of friendly nudging (which I am eternally grateful for), they got me out and singing.  Thank god I can rattle off showtunes like it was my job…. Well sometimes it is I guess…

So here’s the funny thing about karaoke: regular people who live regular lives get a moment (or sometimes ten) to stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and perform.  The quality of this performance does not seem to deter anyone (though it does run the gambit).  In fact, most people seem to regard karaoke as a step above singing in the shower.  Somehow the formula of enough beer + lyrics + provided accompaniment and backup vocals makes what is usually a private act public.

And you can tell that for most of the people out there, this is a private act.  My mother (hi mom!) always says that it drives her crazy when singers sing with their eyes closed.  Well she would have been twitching all night.  Beyond eyes closed, most people actually sang with their back to the crowd, desperately hovering around the screen with the scroll-by lyrics like a lifeline in a tossing turning ocean.  In some ways, it reminded me of that girl at any party.  You know.  THAT girl.  The one with the high pitched squeal who gets way too drunk and then says “don’t LOOK at me” while prancing around wearing only a towel for whatever random reason that made sense at the time because everyone had had a few.  There’s a sort of ironic self-consciousness that comes with the self-induced scenario of karaoke that most people can’t get past.  “Sure, I’ll sing, but I won’t perform!”

Maybe it’s because people don’t know how to perform.  Maybe I’ve just spent too much of my life in the theatre.  But here’s what really got me:

I did it too.  Oh yea, I was lettin’ it all hang out and belting to my little heart’s content (sometimes better than others), but I certainly wasn’t performing.  There was something about the situation, something about the crowd of people only half listening, something about a lack of separation between me the performer and them the audience that made me not want to (for whatever reason) turn ON my inner performer. 

In a way, Karaoke is the ultimate Bakhtinian Carnival.  Shedding our everyday mantles, we walk into the karaoke bar and waiters become rock stars.  Beggars become kings.  Ideas, truths, narratives, and yea the very focus of the event itself (the performance) is repeatedly and continually contested, tested and the entire cycle begins again.  Performers emerge from the crowd and carry the narrative for a period of time before disappearing once more into the fold of bar flies.  We find Bakhtin’s “jolly relativity” in the intermingling of alternative voices which in turn de-privileges any one hegemonic authoritative voice.  Perhaps the songs being sung aren’t entirely “high culture”, but certainly there is an intermingling in a karaoke bar of high, low, short, tall, good singers, bad singers, and just about any other variation therein you can think of.

One thing, to me, is certain.  Next week I will be bringing my carnival mask with gusto.  And I will need to brush up on my Carrie Underwood in the interim…

August 26, 2010

By all these lovely tokens, September days are here...

I love autumn.  Every last bit of it.  The leaves change color, the smell of woodsmoke, apple cider and pumpkin is thick in the air, I get to go office supply shopping (don’t judge, I love office supply shopping), boots and adorable denim jackets are seasonal attire once more, and the spirit for my favorite holiday ensues.  The first whiffs of fall make me tingle with anticipation and here in New Jersey the season began to peek its nose around the corner this very week.

Maybe it’s because my life centers so much around school, but the autumn is always a time of new things to me.  September is exciting because I get new notebooks, new classes, new textbooks, new research, new schedule, new back-to-school clothes, new projects… what a whirlwind of change.  This year is looking particularly scary and wonderful due to several factors.  So today, rather than my traditional blogy narrative, I’d like to take a moment to write an autumn-themed list of various and sundry things that have been and will be whirling into (and out of) my life in the past/next few weeks on the harvest wind.

*I’m down to one job!  Briefly, albeit, before work at the theatre starts up again.  My last day at the archive was yesterday.  The life of an archivist is one that I had never thought to live and, I can say with some certainty, it’s much tougher than anyone would have imagined.  Digging, piling, compiling, categorizing, counting, labeling, all the while being paranoid of mouse droppings and assorted pests which may or may not be skittering out of assembled boxes at any given time.  I walked out of the archive every day feeling like I needed to be decontaminated rather than cleaned.  Coated in dust, sneezing, eyes watering, I also felt satisfied.  It was an Indiana-Jones style hunt through paths unblazed by second-generation human knowledge.  That was as exciting as it sounds.  The feeling that around any corner could be waiting a surprise find to change the face of knowledge, the idea that I was doing something worthwhile, and the notion that (while on a small scale) I was becoming an expert in a previously undiscovered area of  comprehension made this perhaps the most fulfilling job I have ever worked.  I would not hesitate to do it again.  That and the pay was good.

*PhD application process begins (seriously) now.  I don’t want to speak on this at great length just now because a) I will likely be speaking on it in future blog entries and b) because it scares me.  More than a little.  The acceptance process into any given program is so arbitrary that, while I know I have done everything right and that I am a prime candidate for my programs, I can’t help but dwell upon the great and imminent coin flip that determines the rest of my life.  This entire ordeal is equally strange because it feels like college applications all over again.  You know, that time in your life that you thought was done but (apparently) is not.  That great burgeoning uncertainty as you stand on the precipice of your future waiting to jump but uncertain which direction will be your best bet for surviving the fall (sorry, can’t resist a pun…).  Looking over the abyss, teetering on the edge, dipping my toe into its unknown depths, I think fear is a natural reaction.  I keep trying to remind myself that fear is an acronym for “False Expectations Appearing Real”, but this seems to only deepen the illusions rather than make them disperse.  I’m fairly certain that I am approaching a jittering, uneasy serenity about this entire process, which, really, is all you can do.  Lay back, enjoy the ride, and accept that for a time you’ll just have no clue.  Yup.  Blissful Cluelessness here I come…

*I cleaned my bookshelf last night of last semester’s textbooks (with the exception of those on the Master’s Reading Exam List which got re-located to a separate shelf) and placed upon it instead this semester’s new acquisitions.  Somehow, this makes everything feel more real.  My first class is on Wednesday, I just completed my first academic reading for the semester, and my first syllabus is printed and ready to go.  I am pumped.  I’m already thinking about paper topics and possible conference papers... though this likely means that I’ll have to finally get around to reading Judith Butler.

*This year at the theatre seems to be Shakespeare year and I can’t be more thrilled.  Two of our four annual productions will be Shakespeare-themed!  In the fall, we will be doing a production of Magic Time by James Sherman followed by a Spring production of Twelfth Night.  Twelfth Night is definitely one of my favorites and a show that I’ve had an intimate knowledge of for some years.  Featuring the best Shakespearean clown (in my opinion), one of the best heroines, and (drum roll please) a comic fight scene, this play really has just about everything that a novice Shakespeare Company would need or want.  Granted, we’re not a Shakespeare company, but we do have some pretty amazing people who work on these things.  Stay tuned for more info on Twelfth Night.  In the meantime, I have been asked to work on Magic Time as the fight director.  Magic Time is a show about a Company producing Hamlet.  Naturally, the duel scene is enacted several times in the script.  Which means that I get to live every fight director’s dream and do the infamous duel.  I’ve started kicking around ideas (it’s harder than you think to kick ideas with a sword when you don’t even know who your actors are and if they have any scrap of hand/eye co-ordination).  Will our heroine be able to pull through?  Will she kill and/or gravely injure any actors in the process?  Will the fight look good and not like a clay-mation Errol-Flynn wanna-be sequence?  Only time will tell….

*I am about 98% certain that I will again be grading for the Best Professor in the World (who may or may not be reading this right now).  Pending financial disaster in the Department or a lack of registration for Eighteenth Century British Lit (part I), I will definitely be on board as a paper monkey for Dr. Lynch.  I could not be more thrilled.  This man has been (and will continue to be) an inspiration and mentor to me as I pick my way through academia.  I am waiting with bated breathe for his Spring Graduate Seminar in Gothic…. Oh, and for those of you who have had need of (and will need in the future) a GREAT style guide written to be useful, readable, and fun, check out his.  It is complete with historical tid-bits and lovingly annotated grammar rules and regulations from a man who knows his stuff.  That and it’s online for free (though it does come in paper version, which, let’s face it, is totally worth having).

*I want to go apple picking and eat pumpkin everything.  I understand that the weather will be kicking back up to eighty degrees this weekend as summer shows us the strength of its death throes.  I hope that this won’t foil my perky autumn-inspired mood…

August 20, 2010

...and the king shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found...

As you may have gathered from my previous post, while I am a Shakespeare & Company groupie, I am by no means a Shakespeare & Company zealot.  Over the years we have seen some amazing productions.  We’ve also seen some middling ones.  In my recollection, I can only term one Shake & Co show that we’ve ever had the privilege to see “terrible” (buy me a beer sometime and I will be happy to divulge the details of that ill-fated excursion).

By my standards, this year’s production of The Winter’s Tale was, in fact, excellent.

The Winter’s Tale is not a frequently performed piece.  There are reasons for this.  The plot is halting, difficult to engage in and breaks unities like it was goin’ out of style.  The characters are complex, but not in a rich wonderfully aged wine way, more like a sour perfume this-smells-like-everything-and-thereby-my-grandmother way.  The fantastical elements demanded by the script are technically difficult to place onstage and thereby usually not cost effective for theatre companies.  I mean, you can’t ignore the most famous stage direction in theatre history (“Exit, pursued by bear”).  While Shakespeare may have had easy access to bears since the theatres on the South bank usually doubled as bear-baiting rings, a modern company has to be a bit more creative with this particular piece of canon. 

The real clincher to staging a problem play is its problems.  In my opinion, the merit of any production of a problem play can be judged based upon how well or poorly it handles the innate complications left by the playwright, debated by scholars, and inherited by thespians.  The Winter’s Tale, in addition to aforementioned technical challenges, has its own dramatic baggage.

Because how can anybody really explain Leontes’ insistence upon Hermione’s sullied honor?  The characters in the play do not understand it, and certainly we the audience understand it even less.  Unlike in Othello, we are not presented with any argument whatsoever as to why Leontes believes his wife is cheating on him.  It is entirely up to the actors and the director to solve this problem and take Leontes from a loyal husband to a jealous tyrant in the span of about twenty minutes without any text to back the transformation. 

This production did a passing job of such explanation.  Jonathan Epstein’s performance of a deeply disturbed King put me in mind of some mental illness.  Alternate personalities perhaps, some passing fit of rage and emotion unable to be contained in a sane man’s psyche.  Given what little Shakespeare left him, Epstein made it work as best he could (which, might I add, was pretty darn amazing… this fault in story-telling is Shakespeare’s and it is all any actor or director can do to patch it up as best they can).

I have long been a fan of director Kevin Coleman’s work.  It was his all-female production of Comedy of Errors back in the early nineties that first turned me on to Shakespeare.  This show certainly does not disappoint in the direction department.  Perhaps the crowning moment of Coleman’s genius is seen in the otherwise hum-drum and drab prelude to the Bohemian Sheep-Shearing festival.  Rather than sit and listen to long and boring text delivered by ingĂ©nue roles, Coleman gives us an entire pastoral comedy without words behind the principle players including slapstick, brawls, girl-on-girl action, and utter chaos multiple times over.  I think this man could have rescued Dance of the Vampires if he had directed it.

Perhaps the largest disappointment came from Elizabeth Aspenlieder’s Hermione.  The role is a difficult one requiring both strength and vulnerability to execute properly, and I simply don’t think Aspenlieder’s command of the verse and her own depth of emotion was sufficient for the part.  Middling at best, her performance was among the weakest of the assembled tour-de-force. 

But what Aspenlieder lacked in chutzpah, Corinna May as Paulina made up for in sheer radiant power.  In the interest of full disclosure, I trained with Corinna May.  I am a Corinna May fan-nearly-to-the-point-of-stalker.  I would listen to Corinna May read the phone book for five hours and count myself happy.  This woman is amazing and this role is absolutely perfect for her.  I tend to envision Paulina as older, but that may be due to having only heard her monologues performed by seventy-year-old women in a training program I was in once…  Despite this pre-determination (which, by the way, does not match Corinna’s actual age bracket), I was in love with her performance. 

And the clowning.  Kevin Coleman tends to wear the nose at Shakespeare & Company, so it is no small wonder that his son Wolfe Coleman in the role of Clown or “Young Shepherd” is one of the best classical clowns I have ever seen.  Wolfe’s antics are a breathe of fresh air in the oppressive and stuffy atmosphere created by the doom and gloom of act one.  Impeccable comic timing, impressive physical prowess, and imperial actor’s judgment make for a flawless and mind-numbingly hilarious performance.  There were aisles, I was rolling in them, and I would gladly brave them again to take in Wolfe’s uproarious antics.

In short, this production is definitely worth seeing.  The Winter’s Tale runs until September fifth.  Further information on tickets, etc. can be found here

August 19, 2010

...they were acting The Winter's Tale, I think, in the theatre...

Once upon a time, long ago, there was a wee girl who hated Shakespeare.  Well, perhaps we should put this differently.  She didn’t so much hate Shakespeare as she did not understand Shakespeare as a concept.  It was strange to her that at the mere mention of some man dead for over three hundred years the world got down on its knees to worship.  This guy wasn’t even all that original.  After all, he stole every story he ever wrote!  What did he do so much better than everyone else which caused him to be elevated to godly status while mere mortals scuttled about the earth below him?

But this wee girl had a grandmother.  And this wee girl’s grandmother recognized that what the wee girl felt was not hate but in fact a failure to connect with the material presented to her.  It wasn’t the wee girl’s fault.  After all, most people didn’t really get Shakespeare.  More importantly, most teachers didn’t know how to teach Shakespeare.  If the wee girl had only experienced Shakespeare via the public school system, how could she possibly understand the glory and splendor that was the great bard? 

And so the wee girl’s grandmother took her to a wonderful place.  A magical place where Shakespeare came alive.  A theatre company in the mystical land of Western Massachusetts.  And the wee girl saw.  And the wee girl knew.  And lo the glory of the bard shone down into that holy place.  And the wee girl loved.

….what I’m really trying to say is that this week marks the 2010 edition of my family’s annual pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Company.  This is a yearly tradition and has been carried out (as the story suggests) since I was too young to understand its importance.  Thanks to the diligence of my grandmother and some extremely talented individuals who work at said theatre, the company and this treck may be single-handedly to blame for the course of my life.

Being at Shakespeare & Company is a strange experience for me.  I have trained there twice for prolonged periods of time; the first for a summer, the second for six months.  The first experience was amazing beyond words, the second just as miserable as the first was amazing.  I have spent enough time there to know the place and its regular cast of characters, but not enough that I am confident in them remembering me.  It is a place of in-betweens, it floats in my sphere of existence as a constant in my ever-changing life which swirls around it.  I know I will continue to come back, and I know that every time I do it will be a different me who walks through the doors of the main stage.

Over the years, I have watched it grow from being a company performing out of a borrowed barn, to a company with their own single stage, to the two-stage monster-training-program beast that it is today.  In a lot of ways, my feelings about the company are similar to my feelings about being in an English program.  I am a privileged observer.  Someone who has been in the inner circle, but doesn’t necessarily belong there.  At the same time, I have grown up on Tina Packer’s hand-picked stock.  It has, in some years, been the bread and butter of my existence.  The things I have learned from Shakespeare & Company (both as an observer and an insider) continue to shape who I am today.  I can honestly say that not a week goes by without some bit of my Shake & Co training kicking in (be that piece random Linklater technique, self-discovery factoids, or revelations I’ve made about the canon while sitting in Founder’s).

So this week’s jaunt was another dose of that.  Another trip to Canterbury.  And, reeling still from the amazing production we saw as well as the circumstances surrounding it, somehow my mind dwells on what Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on the 9th of May, 1934 in regards to her trip to Stratford:

“All crabbers be damned – it is a fine unselfconscious town, mixed with eighteen-century and the rest, all standing cheek by jowl.  All the flowers were out in Shakespeare’s garden.  ‘That was where his study window looked out when he wrote The Tempest,” said the man.  And perhaps it was true.  Anyhow it was a great big house, looking straight at the large stone windows and the great stone of the school chapel, and when the clock struck, that was the sound Shakespeare heard.  I cannot without more labour than my road-running mind can compass describe the impression of sunny impersonality.  Yes, everything seemed to say, this was Shakespeare’s, had he sat and walked, but you won’t find me, not exactly in the flesh.  He is serenely absent-present; both at once, radiating around one; yes; in the flowers, in the old hall, in the garden; but never to be pinned down.  And we went to the church, and there was the florid foolish bust, but what I had not reckoned for was the worn, simple slab, turned the wrong way, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbear”- again he seemed to be all air and sun, smiling serenely; and yet down there, one foot from me lay the little bones that have spread over the world this vast illumination.  Yes, and then we walked round the church, and all is simple and a little worn; the river slipping past the stone wall, with a red breadth in it from some flowering tree, and the edge of the turf unspoilt; soft and green and muddy, and two casual nonchalant swans.  The church and the school and the house are all roomy, spacious places, resonant, sunny toady, and in and out… - yes, an impressive place, still living, and then the little bones lying there, which have created: to think of writing The Tempest looking out on that garden; what a rage and storm of thought to have gone over any mind; no doubt the solidity of the place was comfortable.  No doubt he saw the cellars with serenity.  And a good deal of parrot prattle from the old gramophone discs at the Birthplace, one taking up the story from the other.  But isn’t it odd, the caretaker at New Place agreed, that all the rest, books, furniture, pictures, etc., has completely vanished?  Now I think Shakespeare was very happy in this, that there was no impediment of fame, but his genius flowed out of him, and is still there, in Stratford.  They were acting As You Like It, I think, in the theatre.”

I suppose, allegorically, Shakespeare & Company is my Stratford.  That, to me, is where the American Shakespeare lives.  Serenely absent-present, ever-watchful, ever-waiting in Lenox, Massachusetts. the title of this post suggests, we saw The Winter's Tale.  Review to come.