A strange partnership

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I sat, legs crossed, on Parker’s office chair, one hand holding my place in the script, the other supporting my head.  Ian was lounging at a nearby desk, calling out which characters were in each scene of Romeo and Juliet.  For several hours we had been attempting to put together a rehearsal schedule for the rest of the production.

This was not as easy as we had imagined.

Based on the previous year’s schedule, we calculated how many pages we could block (which just means to decide the movements of actors on stage) in a  three hour class period.  We also had to choose scenes that had fewer characters in them to do in the evenings at extra rehearsals.

Well.  There go my evenings.

Of course–as these things are wont to happen–as soon as I had finished, I realized I would have to reorganize: one student would be gone for several days, and those were the days I had scheduled his scenes to be blocked.

Then Parker came in and asked if we had decided when Ian and I were going to have morning rehearsals for the fight scenes (Ian’s responsibility) and the dances (mine).

And there go my mornings too.

Not that this was unusual: evening rehearsals inevitably crop up every year, and last summer I had spent my mornings accent coaching (we had a Welshman, an Irishman, a Scotsman, and a French army.  Great Dickens, that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke).

So, I typed up a new rehearsal column–9:00am-noon–and wrote “dance” and “fight” on alternating lines.  Those two words, repeated, sat starkly on the bright screen and seemed out of place together.  Those two activities, though, dominate the parts of our rehearsals that aren’t blocking.

It usually happens that our cast is bigger than the number of named parts.  Rather than being a nuisance, Parker’s creativity makes this fact a boon: he puts around ten to twenty students in the role of the Chorus.  The Chorus gives insight into character’s inner thoughts and allows for some really cool effects (In our Winter’s Tale, a few years ago, our Chorus got to walk out of a TARDIS!).  The students in this role also fill a number of small roles and act as “extras” in various scenes.

So, this year, we have twenty-one students in our Chorus.  That’s a lot, but it allows us to have an impressive opening scene full of street fights and, later on, a lively group of guests at Capulet’s ball.  There will be epic battles.  There will be Regency dances.  There will be lovely sonnets.

That means that the majority of the cast must be taught to sword fight and perform Regency/Victorian dances.

And overseeing these lessons is the job that Parker has given to his two assistant directors.

Oh golly.

For Ian, this means teaching proper stage combat methods (safety is priority) and historical techniques.  Since we use real, combat-worthy (but not sharpened) blades, it is very important for everyone to be trained in both safety and craft.

Ian is certainly the man for the job.  He has the advantage of years of proper training from his father and the experience gained from his own combat routines in various plays.  He’s learned the footwork, the history of swordplay, and all those fancy french terms for swinging one’s blade (spoiler alert, although a term like “moulinet” may sound fierce, it means “windmill”).

My job, though, entails choreographing several historically accurate dances and teaching them to the students.  Sadly, unlike my comrade, I have neither training nor experience in the subject I must teach.  Honestly, all I have is some ballroom dancing basics and a love of period dramas.  But, thanks to a surprisingly available group of historical sources (check out http://regencydances.org/steps.php), my favorite Jane Austen films, and several helpful students who have more experience in this area, two of our dances are already choreographed!  The hard part, I fear, will be teaching over twenty students how to chassé and jeté assemblé (funny, both swordplay and dance take many terms from the French) with abandon–feet lightly skipping down the ball room as dancers intertwine with one another in their dizzying patterns.

But, dear reader, such activities are fitting, are they not?  Parker keeps reminding us that this is a play about hate, as well as love.  The violence sprung from rivalry is embodied in swordplay, while Romeo and Juliet’s passion is kindled in the dance.  So, the juxtaposition of those lines of “dance,” “fight,” “dance,” “fight,” on my spreadsheet may have seemed odd, but that is exactly what this play does–put the most famous love story of the English language in the midst of murder and soul-crippling hatred.  And just as it is the grace and agility of the dance which give a swordsman his deadly skill, so it is passion of these Italian families which allows them to love madly, even as their pride and fury destroy that love.

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An Ode to the Wardrobe we will not be Using

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As I’ve been talking about, this year’s production is the first time that Summer Shakespeare will not be setting our play in the English Renaissance.

“But,” you may think. “Shakespeare’s plays are not usually set in the English Renaissance!  They take place in the medieval France, in Denmark, in Verona!”

Once again, dear reader, you would be right.

But the Bard didn’t care.  His grasp on geography was as tenuous as his ability to understand the concept of anachronism.  The thing is, William Shakespeare–quite possibly the most brilliant, certainly the most influential, writer of the English language–just didn’t care about details like that.

In his day, theatrical costumes were not created to be historically accurate, they were instead bought from famous aristocrats.  Audiences would come to ogle the Duchess of Lower Berkswick’s lavish dress that she wore to visit the Queen last Sunday as much as they would come to watch the play.

I know what you’re thinking.  That’s right.  Shakespeare’s Cleopatra might have been dressed like this.

So, Parker has always thought it was appropriate to dress his actors in the same style as the Bard would have (but much less lavishly, of course).  Over the years, through the hard work of wonderful costumers and volunteering parents, Summer Shakespeare has acquired a rather impressive wardrobe which is aired each summer.  Each costume has a history, and several, as I’ve mentioned, have nicknames.

Some have been around for over 20 years.  They’ve been repaired again and again, and have undergone countless alterations for actors of all shapes and sizes.

A special few are in a category of their own.  These are the ones that are always worn by the leads.  If you get to wear one of these ensembles in your run at Summer Shakes, you know that you made it.

Since we will only be using a few of these costumes at the very beginning of the play for some quick exposition, it seems only fair to give them a bit of attention.

And now, I will introduce you to a few of my favorites.

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This is known as the Couch Dress, so called because, once upon a time, it was made from upholstery fabric.  It is often worn by ingenues or women of authority.  It is my personal favorite, despite the heavy fabric (on an 80 degree Wisconsin summer evening, with the hot stage lights on you, it can get a bit sweaty).  That is, indeed, me wearing it the summer after my senior year in my only female role.  Yes, I was ecstatic to finally get to wear it.

IMG_5024This is the Hamlet Tunic.  It is loved for its status as the costume of the brooding hero, but disliked for its large and annoying velcro fastener.

IMG_5032 This dress has probably been repaired more than any other one.  It is often worn by older women with frightening personalities (that statement does not reflect on my lovely model).

IMG_5031This jacket is usually worn by annoying old men.  I’m honestly not sure why, though.

IMG_5030This one is a favorite for innocent young maidens.

IMG_5033This is one of the lover’s vests, usually worn by a male romantic lead.

IMG_5029This one is known for being one of the few dresses that was made for a taller girl.

IMG_5028This is the Cloak of Authority, usually worn by kings or dukes.  It is also used to give the illusion of shoulders and bulk to skinny teenage girls playing older men.  It is usually paired with the Ravioli Chain of State, just for emphasis.

 

Over the years, we have grown to love these costumes.  They are like old friends who we only see once a year.  Musty old friends who need a hemming and dry cleaning, but old friends none the less.  Many experienced students are actually a little disappointed that we won’t be using them this year, even though they are also excited to be doing something out of the ordinary.

So my old friends, may you continue to rest on your hangers in peace, to be worn another summer.

These costumes are just a few of the many small legacies left to future students by previous Summer Shakespeare casts.  Any time a student looks at photographs of past productions, they recognize the same outfits that they themselves have worn (sometimes in the same roles).  The wardrobe connects us all, even after all these years.

 

Our Greatest Wish

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As Parker, his son Ian (the other assistant director), and I begin the introductions on day one, our course is set.  This is it.  Here they are.  Our cast and crew of Romeo and Juliet who, five weeks from now, will be performing on this stage.

Until this moment, we hadn’t known exactly who would be taking the class.  Seeing students walk in and join our circle of chairs on the stage is my favorite part of the first week.  I love seeing old friends and new faces, watching the team form itself as people trickle in.  I feel relief as veterans who I was counting on arrive, and excitement and curiosity as new students join us.

It’s a strange thing to realize that this group, veterans and newbies alike, will be a unit in a few weeks–with its own dynamic and personality.

Of course, we can’t wait to see how the students that we have in the class will fit the roles in Romeo and Juliet, but Parker’s greatest hope is that this cast will create an atmosphere of acceptance, as well as enthusiasm.

High school theatre in Appleton (like in many places, I suspect) is not nearly as “popular” a pursuit as, say, sports, so many students who join the theatre program are not only looking for an artistic outlet, but also for a place to belong.  The “safe zone” stickers on Parker’s door declare that his classroom and his program are meant to be areas where everyone, whether they have a desirable niche in the high school social structure or not, should be able to find compassion and understanding.

Sometimes we forget that.

There is a social structure in theatre as well, even though we don’t like to admit it.  Usually, everyone can find belonging in one friend group or another, and the cliques are friendly to each other, but still present.  Not always, though.

Last year, some students who had “paid their dues” felt that it was their job punish a student who, they felt, wasn’t taking the show seriously.

Parker saw this not just as an injustice, but as a betrayal of the values the program is based on.  I’ve never seen him so angry.

But Parker did not focus on blaming specific students.  He didn’t try to discourage bullying “make examples” of anyone.  If he had, it wouldn’t have made such a lasting impact.

Instead, he reminded everyone that the attitude that created this kind of behavior is the fault of not just a few individuals, but of every person in the program.  Everyone contributes to the atmosphere.  The cast creates the dynamic, good or bad, and is responsible for how it treats any of its members.  As individuals, we have the power to make an accepting environment in the respect and empathy we give to each other.

We had forgotten that.

We had forgotten that no one ever deserves our cruelty.

After Parker’s speech, groups of students huddled together for comfort.  Watching them, and walking around to give a hug to those who were crying, I realized that this would stay with us all for a while.  If we were fortunate.

Alumni of the program always say that Summer Shakespeare became their family.  But making a theatre into a home is a choice everyone has to make.

So, after finishing our first two weeks, what Parker, Ian, and I all hope most for is, not only the best show of which we know our students are capable, but for the best community that we know each student craves.

 

A New Century for an Old Story

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Flickering chandeliers light the crowded ball room.  The number of people makes the heat stifling, but that only adds to the excitement.  Women in long gowns with elaborate hair styles flirt with men in dark coats and starched collars.  A young girl, dressed appropriately in maidenly pastels, leads the quadrille.  She obviously has no interest in her partner, but takes joy in the dance.  As they promenade down the floor, a handsome young man catches her eye.  She blushes and looks away.  Later, the steps of the dance weave her through the other couples, as momentary alliances are made and then abandoned.  She reaches for her next partner and is met again by those arresting eyes.  But the dance continues, and they reluctantly return to their respective consorts.

Many a girl has sighed over such a scene in one of Jane Austen’s novels, or their film adaptions.  Mid-nineteenth-century propriety was the strict master of the upper classes (especially for unmarried men and women).  Dancing was one of the only socially acceptable occasions for young people to flirt and even touch (*gasp*).  With gloves, though, naturally.  No one could ever dream of respectable people publicly displaying their arms!  Perish the thought, I might faint from such talk (or from this corset).

This idea was one of the main factors that drew Parker to choose the middle of the 1800’s as a setting for this summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet.  After all, the title characters first meet and fall in love at a ball.  Usually, the dance is just the setting of the scene and a preliminary to the dialogue.

But not this time.  In the context of this restrictive historical era, the dance becomes a primary way of expressing attraction.

Parker has always been of the camp which believes that Shakespeare’s themes and stories fit anywhere in human experience, but he has never had the resources to act on this belief.  We’ve always relied upon our extensive Renaissance-era wardrobe, which has been carefully built up throughout the years.  Some of the costumes even have nicknames.

This year–thanks to recent productions of Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera–Appleton North High School now has a conglomeration of costumes from the nineteenth century!  Parker’s limitless imagination won’t have to be bound by our lack of resources.

“But,” you may be saying, “these shows are all about different parts of the 19th century!”

Well, you’d be right.  This is a problem for our costumer, Tina Hoff.  Thank goodness, she has accepted the challenge of piecing together a cohesive wardrobe from musicals that span several decades and include wildly differing fashions.

As a student of both literature and history, I love this century (and BBC costume dramas).  It was fun to brush up on it for the lecture I gave to the class.  It is a time of great change and tension, as the Industrial Revolution raged, revolutions roiled, and Europe hurdled toward the first World War.  Since Romeo and Juliet is a play even more about hate than it is about love, this era allows the story to speak.

It isn’t just a gimmick–as relocations of Shakepseare’s plays sometimes are–it is a way that we can look at this famous tale anew.  We can see the violence, prejudice, and hatred that caused turmoil throughout Europe concentrated into one town and enflamed by social restrictions.  This is the story of “neighbor-stained steel,” not just “star-cross’d lovers.”

A bit about me, and why I’ve decided to do this blog

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Five years ago, on my first day in Parker’s Shakespeare in Performance class (he insists that his students drop the “Mr.”), I was a walking Schrodinger’s cat–simultaneously a humble padawan and pretty hot stuff.  On the one hand, I felt as if I were among the theatre gods; let’s be honest, a senior seems huge to a 14 year old.  On the other, I had starred in a play at my tiny private middle school, so I was obviously an expert on this whole theatre thing.  Besides, I had already read Romeo and Juliet on my own.  For fun.

Oh yeah, hot stuff indeed.

Of course, I was a prime example of what us theatre kids called “the freshman stupid.”  This mix of awe and cockiness is a recipe for embarrassment, and, boy, did I feast.  To the upperclassmen at the Renaissance School for the Arts, I seemed a tiny, nerdy freshman who knew nothing of the world and even less about drama.  I’ll admit it, they were right.

You see, in realm of high school theatre, egotism is a forgivable sin, but only if you can prove that you back it up with competence.  Thankfully, humility after hubris makes all things good.

I entered the theatre with some amount of confidence.  Compared to the florescent lighting in the hallway, the auditorium was dark.  As I waited for my eyes to adjust, I melted into a seat.  The early-September humidity was oppressive, but it was the smell of the theatre that really struck me: old seats, dusty catwalks, and years of sawdust, fog juice, hot lights…and sweat.

When I walked into that auditorium, I entered a different world.  A different language, full of strange terminology, was spoken here.  There were special customs to learn and observe, strange superstitions–secret rites that, like the mysteries of ancient Rome, I had to be initiated into.  Don’t worry, no one turned into a donkey (well, except for that one time in Midsummer Night’s Dream…).

And, presiding over all, was Parker, the Impressive, the Imposing, the Spikey-Haired.

Even now, as I finish my sophomore year of college, he looms large in my imagination, both physically and personally.  On the surface, he seems to be a contradiction: he is an expert in stage combat and at least one form of martial arts with a barrel chest and strong presence, and yet he is consumed with a passion for poetry and theatre.  He would remind you, though, that his ancestors, the ancient Irish, most respected those who were both poets and warriors.

He is a teacher, first and foremost, whose greatest gift to his students is the realization that Shakespeare’s works are not only accessible, but also inspire joyous wonder.  His only vanity seems to be his hair–which he colors blond and spikes.

All in all, the man defies stereotypes.

So, it is no surprise that, after working with him throughout high school at Renaissance and Summer Shakespeare, when he offered me an actual job last summer at “Summer Shakes” as his assistant director, I leapt at the chance.  I could work with him again.  I could be in the theatre again.  And I’d actually get paid to do a job that I would have given at least two fingers on my left hand for.

The experience wasn’t perfect, of course–as is anything with Parker, it was much harder work than advertised and took up a lot more of my time than I’d originally expected–but wouldn’t you know, I’m back again this year.  I believe in Summer Shakespeare and in Parker’s legacy to all of his students: a lifelong love of the Bard’s works.

That’s why I wanted so badly to write this blog (thank you Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for my grant!).  The program that Parker has created deserves to be explored.  Though I’ve never done anything like this before, I hope to give at least a little something back to the man and the program who have inspired me in so many ways.

So, though “Beggar that I am [and are not most college students beggars?], I am even poor in thanks,” (Hamlet. Act II, scene ii) I do thank you most heartily for joining me in this adventure.

 

A brief history of the Summer Shakespeare Theatre, by Ron Parker

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The idea for the Summer Shakespeare Theatre program actually came about from seeing a bad production of one of his works.  It was 1985, and I had just come back from my honeymoon and as a new teacher was required to attend a week-long education conference at U.W. Platteville.  While there, I attended performances of the now defunct Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival.  While there were many wonderful moments witnessed on stage, the production of MACBETH which was offered featured several “guest artists” who were actually television soap opera actors moonlighting in lead roles. The amount of ‘scenery chewing’ and overacting was disappointing, if not embarrassing.    After making it through the production, I commented to my new wife, “My students could act as well, probably better.”   That Fall, after starting the school year at Washington Junior High School in Kenosha where I taught English and Drama, I wrote a proposal for a summer theatre program where students from all the high schools in the city could come together to learn about and perform a work of the greatest playwright in the English language.  To say that the idea was received coolly is an understatement.  I was told that kids would never give up their summers to be cooped up inside a theatre, let alone work with other students from rival schools. Then, Shakespeare? No self-respecting teenager would voluntarily give up his vacation for something he couldn’t even understand.  The whole notion was crazy.   However, having even then as a new teacher developed a reputation for leaning towards the unorthodox, the educational Powers that Be gave me permission to fail.  I could offer the course as part of the summer school curriculum but for no credit.  I would be allowed to use one of the local high school auditoriums, but would receive no budget for the production.

Accepting those terms, Summer Shakespeare was born.  In the summer of 1987 a group of 16 young high school actors—many of them  students I had taught at Washington, met on the stage of Reuther High School in downtown Kenosha to study and perform MACBETH.  Having no money and less experience, we created a castle out of pallets “borrowed” from behind a nearby K-Mart, rolls of butcher paper and chicken wire, and vines taken from one of the cast member’s back yards in a midnight stealth operation.  The result was something vaguely Medieval and even impressive—if you kept the stage lights very low. Audiences were small, but appreciative.   It was a magical experience—made more magical by the birth of my first child just a week before opening.

After surviving that initial year, subsequent summers brought more students from more schools as well as loyal and larger audiences.  In the summer of 1999, now a teacher at Tremper High School in Kenosha, and preparing OTHELLO, I was offered a position at North High School in Appleton as theatre director.  One of my requests before accepting the job was to be allowed to continue the Summer Shakespeare Theatre program in the Fox Valley.

And so in the summer of 2000, AS YOU LIKE IT was presented in the North auditorium by a group of 16 students from various area high schools to a small, but appreciative audience.  Since then, the program has grown to include over 50 students each summer—each of them carrying on a tradition that started before any of them was even born.

That tradition which is now celebrating its 30th year is a strong one—this is evident not only in the continued interest and participation of current students but even more so in the enthusiastic and heart-warming response of hundreds of former program participants—many now in their 40’s—who continue to share with me and others the fond memories they have of their time with the Bard on stage or back stage and of the impact the program continues to have on their lives.  Some have gone on to become professional actors—performing Shakespeare (now for money) on stages around the world.  Others have become teachers and have brought their love of Shakespeare into their own classrooms to share.  All of them carry a part of this unique and indelible experience inside themselves—whether for the first time as a student in this production or as an adult from their own former productions long past.

Regardless of the time or the place where they first met the man who is Shakespeare, the many hundreds of individuals who have been part of Summer Shakespeare Theatre all share the same connection and passion for his genius.   And while it is that genius which is really at the heart of this program—what we are really celebrating is each other and all that we have found therein.

Ron Parker