The Glories of Playing Falstaff by John Ahlin
A Confusion of Actors
Blog #2: Rehearsing
The Oxford Dictionary defines citing the Oxford Dictionary as: “A cheap way of beginning an essay or a blog.” But rehearsing a Shakespeare play usually begins with citing the Oxford Shakespeare...and the Cambridge Shakespeare, the Penguin, the Signet, the Folger, and the Arden Shakespeare (ironically I used the Oxford comma in this list). There are tons of editions of each play reflecting a slightly different erudite interpretation by some Studiousness of Scholars (I’m working on my nouns of multitude: you know, a ‘Murder of Crows’, an ‘Exaltation of Larks’, only for the theatre) Some play editions even have pages that are more footnotes than text, but breaking down and understanding the lines is the vital first step, particularly because Shakespeare’s low comedy is usually high over the heads of modern audiences, using 400 year old topical references and puns and mispronunciations of words nobody knows anymore. Thanks Shakes. I find my basic little Kitteridge Henry IV, part two, which I’ve had since paperbacks cost 65 cents, will simply tell you what a word or line means, without a Margent of Edifications. Making the material clear is the prime directive, so that we perform for an Enrapture of Audience instead of a Restlessness of Wristwatch Watchers (say that six times fast).
Rehearsal’s first day is festive and nerve-wracking. The whole cast will sit around a big table and, after seeing how the play will look from a Vision of Designers, we read the play, aloud. As one starts, unrehearsed, to cold read Falstaff, one of the greatest, funniest characters in all literature, it is both human nature and hard not to have butterflies and worry everyone thinks you stink. I read hiding behind a Barricade of Books; biographies, glossaries, compendiums, folios…to feel less exposed. But after all these years I have embraced the anxiety, knowing everyone else is distracted by hoping everyone else doesn’t think they themselves stink. Once the Vulnerability of Readers finishes the play we do ‘table work’ for the first couple of days. This is an in-depth examination of the play, the characters, meanings of lines, and words, and no question is too dumb. Everyone will leap to their footnotes to mull the meaning of some arcane word, and these intellectual ruminations are scintillating (I’m finally using all those SAT words I had to memorize), but as a fellow who has done lots of Shakespeare, I’m happy with choices that are ‘actable’; something real that makes sense for the character and to the audience. These are plays! Meant to be acted, written by a playwright (a wright is a constructor), by Shakespeare, the ultimate wright in all Theatre. Theatre is when we gather in one big room and debate life through our stories. Heck, we don’t even need the big room: Theatre: Story, Teller, and Listener.*
Then we get on our feet. The first moments on our feet in the rehearsal room would make a good zombie movie, stumbling around with scripts in hand, trying to determine which the Henry IV set is from three different colors of tape on the floor (repertory means rehearsing three shows at once). Good directors like to quickly rough-out some blocking (staging), tying words and movement together, all while we are steeped in memorizing lines, figuring out actions and motivations, wondering what we do and where we go next. The play may be the thing, but the rehearsal is first wrighted by a Confusion of Actors.
“How can you memorize all those lines?” audiences often marvel. Each actor has their own memorization system. I use three kinds: Rote, Mnemonic, and Matrix. Rote is just brute memorizing, repeating over and over till you know it; Mnemonic is inventing particular clues for yourself (like in music “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” to remember the scale) or my preferred way; Matrix, where, in a play, all the lines are connected to what is going on, what people want, what they are doing, and therefore the more you understand and listen, the easier it is to find your lines. This takes time, so in rehearsal some poor little assistant stage manager sits staring at the script so they can prompt when an actor calls out “line!” We actors often get furious at ourselves when we forget a line and to a casual observer it would seem we are mad at the prompter. This is not so! And I’d like to take this opportunity to stress how wonderful and valuable it is to a Volatility of Cast Members to have a Patience of Stage Managers.
I was trained in the Method and in the Catskills. Truly. My education was in the very serious Stanislavsky Method, and one of my first jobs after college was one of the tummlers at Catskill Mountain resorts. We’d go around making madcap crazy comedy (think Jerry Lewis or Mel Brooks, former tummlers both). I bring both those spectrum-ends and everything else I’ve done into the rehearsal hall. Every different actor has their own technique and one of acting’s biggest joys is finding common ground amongst artists. On our feet, with Shakespeare in our mouths, looking into each other’s eyes, finding dynamics leads to a moment when a scene clicks, when the characters and their desires emerge, when it becomes what Shakespeare wrote. And every time you rehearse it it’s an “I love this part” moment.
Then all too soon rehearsal moves into the beautiful, open-air Adams Theater. Fighting the early June chill of night, lingering-spring rain showers, having to climb a story of real stairs instead of quick-miming three little steps over a taped-out staircase…all while the encroaching opening night looms, there is an unspoken throttling up of everyone’s energy…adding lights, sound, costume, props, make-up, and still working out the tiniest acting details…fighting until the entire play becomes an “I love this part” moment. And if we time it right, that should be the exact moment we meet the audience. Because without them it is just rehearsal, but when they show up, it becomes Theatre. It becomes an Exhilaration of Shakespeare.
* To honor the scholars I’m including a footnote. Hopefully I’m not all highfalutin when I say theatre as opposed to theater. The words are often interchanged, but to be exact a theater is the building or structure where theatre is performed. Theatre with an ‘re’ suggests the idea of theatre. An actor does theatre, but he works in a theater. **
** Some scholars can’t resist commenting on other scholars, so here is a footnote to the footnote: A clumsy theatre vs theater example: When Paleolithic Og recounted for Mog what happened at the fishing hole that day, acting out the bits where Kog fell in the drink, Theatre was born. When Gog suggested the story would be better if Og stood behind the fire, against the cave wall, because then all the troglodytes could see, and it would look fabulous, Theater was born. ***
*** (Now it’s becoming a Folly of Footnotes): When humiliated Kog came forth and clubbed Og right after his performance, the Theatre Critic was born.
My Next Blog; #3 Opening
If you missed my first blog go back and read it here http://www.bard.org/news/the-glories-of-playing-falstaff-by-john-ahlin