The Glories of Playing Falstaff by John Ahlin
On With the Show, This Is It
Blog # 3 Opening
“You know how you make a statue of Ben Franklin? Get a large stone and chip away anything that doesn’t look like Ben Franklin.” It’s an old joke but it gets one wondering about how things are created. Aristotle believed mosquitoes spawned spontaneously out of mud. Well, the mud part isn’t really true but, in a way, that is what we have done in the remarkable process here at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. We have taken hundreds of strangers, stacks of lumber, loads of individual skill, scads of words and music on paper, piles of fabric, folding in incalculable amounts of thought and energy, mucked them all together into a big blob and started chipping away, culminating in, over the course of three remarkable days, the opening of nine shows, and not an inch of any of them doesn’t look like Ben Franklin. In over 40 years in show business I have never seen such a spontaneous spawning. Out of nothing something, out of desire delivery, out of dreams reality…out of mud magnificence.
“An usher, showing an opening night patron a seat, found a man sprawled across three seats. ‘I’m sorry sir, you can’t take up three seats’ the usher snapped, but the man just mumbled. The head usher came over and said, ‘Excuse me sir, who are you?’ The man uttered ‘…Ed’. ‘Well Ed, where are you from?!’ the head usher demanded. The man murmured ‘…the balcony.’” Seeing an usher gives an actor the butterflies effect. If an actor shows up early at the theater one day and off in some corner he sees a group of uniformly dressed local folk, getting instructions from some enthusiastic Usher General, his stomach will flutter knowing ushers mean audience, and he can’t hide. Victor Hugo used to weep copiously when he finished writing each novel because he couldn’t spend any more time with his characters. Orson Welles had his own Shakespearean flaw; he cared so much about his works he was reluctant to turn them out into the world, to be judged. Many actors would love to keep on rehearsing, to explore risk-free, but all artists need deadlines, or they would tinker forever. That’s why they have Opening Night. And that once distant date on a calendar has, at last, arrived.
“You know what lies on the bottom of the ocean and shivers? A nervous wreck”. It is a lie to say jitters aren’t part of opening, because our work will now be exposed to fresh eyes. In rehearsal we are doing the play for ourselves and the staff, and after several viewings they no longer laugh at what is funny, but at what is odd and strange and obscure. These notorious hoots are called rehearsal laughs; what was funny in rehearsal often falls flat during performance. Wise actors avoid dashing themselves upon the rocks of false guffaws and work hard not to lose track of what one is trying to build. Waiting backstage to make their first entrance each actor has to trust their work and choices and the odd little preshow rituals of a dozen actors wandering around mouthing lines and air-acting is a scene in itself. But, butterflies or not, there is only one way; forward. No more rehearsing and nursing our parts, on with the show this is it.
“An old man who had resisted seeing Shakespeare all his life was finally convinced to see one of his plays. He came out grumbling: ‘What’s the big deal with Shakespeare? All he did was string a bunch of famous quotes together.’” There is nothing like stepping out, onstage and seeing the riot of color that is the modern audience, feeling the presence of hundreds of fellow humans. We are all in the same place; we actors can see you and hear you…your laughter is tonic…your (earned) silence can be deafening. It is exciting and perilous to perform for the immediate response of a live audience. Not unlike the risk of telling a joke; sticking your neck out for a laugh. But now that I’ve met the Utah Shakes audiences, I can tell you your responses fuel us...400 year old truths still seem to be true and 400 year old humor is still funny.
“A fellow told me he would run to work behind the bus, to save a dollar. I said ‘You should run behind a cab and save five bucks!’” The joke works best if it’s not explained. “Don’t explain; do” is an acting axiom (or a Yoda quote). When we step out onto the stage we actors have a duty not to show, describe or comment, but to be the characters, hear what is said to us as if for the first time, and discover discoveries right there in front of people. Ideally we are not demonstrating preparation; our thorough preparedness floats us to where we are living the thing right here and now. So when an audience shows up in a week or a month the art is still going on. Art is a word that defies defining; but if art is a piece of life lifted out to be examined on its own, Shakespeare, in his sui generis wisdom has created astonishingly insightful pieces of life and invented very human humans. It is an honor to enact them, and hopefully the audience will see real humans, dealing in human things, and laugh or cry or be amazed by what we all share; life. To be onstage is to be extra alive.
“I know Astronomy because I lolled in the back of many a classroom taking up space.” Hearing Edmund in King Lear talk of being born under Ursa Major, and seeing that Great She-Bear twinkling above the open-air Adams Theater is a “this is too cool” moment. Actually the Ursa Major Shakespeare gazed at 400 years ago was 500 years ago. I know I’m going all Stephen Hawking but it’s roughly 100 light years away, so we’re seeing Ursa Major’s starlight from 100 years before. So it follows that if sunlight on the sand left our sun 8 ½ minutes ago, then if you were on a planet 417 light years away with a powerful enough telescope, you could look down at Earth and see the original production of Henry IV. And maybe solve a mystery that will be the topic of a future blog…Who first played the big dipper himself, Falstaff? “Falstaff’s been living beyond his seams for years, but his waist is now down to 36 inches…diameter.”
“They dug down into Mozart’s tomb and found him sitting up in his coffin madly erasing all his music. They said ‘Mozart, what are you doing?’ He said; ‘Decomposing.’” We have six grand shows: Amadeus, The Taming of the Shrew, Charley’s Aunt, Henry IV Part Two, South Pacific and King Lear, and three terrific Greenshows and all sorts of other goodies prepared for you. On behalf of all the artists, technicians, staff, and volunteers at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, we invite you to come, see, and share…we are open!!
Next up: Blog #4 Oh, What a Knight
If you missed my second blog, go back and read it here http://www.bard.org/news/the-glories-of-playing-falstaff-by-john-ahlin-1