ASSISTANT DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: ZAK METALSKY

Standard
Profile Picture

Zak Metalsky

It feels bizarre to say that this is my sixth year involved with the Summer Shakespeare program. You may not think someone would give up most of their summer for the program, and then decide to come back (let alone after graduation!), but the break from academics lets the students and myself focus on a production in a way we normally can’t. Instead of juggling school, theatre, and other extra-curriculars, we can give our show the undivided attention and quality of execution that the program is known for. It’s infectious to share the same, strange goal with a large group of driven and talented individuals, and that’s what the Summer Shakespeare program has meant to me every year I come back.

When I first became an assistant director last summer, I knew that I was expected to put in a lot of extra time, but what surprised me the most was how many of the students did the same. Costume and poster design, fundraising, supply shopping, and more was all done by students on a volunteer basis, who were happy to go the extra mile. Some of them were new to the program, others were in their fourth year and had a summer job on the side, but they all understood what could make the show from good to great, and everybody pitched in. Coming back to assistant direct a second year, I see that the first group wasn’t just a lucky fluke. The amount of volunteering from the students, from leading dance to shooting promotional videos, is a privilege that very few teachers get.

Friar Lawrence Picture

Zak as Friar Lawrence, Romeo and Juliet 2014

While the program genuinely feels like a home away from home for many (an alumni who graduated 8 years ago visited rehearsal on the day I’m writing this), each succeeding year, and each mishmash of students, brings something new to the table. Last year we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, but this year we’re performing one of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet. Last year we performed outdoors, rotating between multiple locations, but this year the audience is indoor and stationary while the stage is rotating. Half of the students are new to the program, while students in leadership positions last year, from acting to costumes to set construction, have taken on larger roles to replace those who have moved on. It’s a different energy every year, and every year requires different ideas to harness that energy into what is best for the show.

My favorite part of directing for Summer Shakespeare is the individual rehearsals we have before and after the entire cast is called. Me and fellow assistant director Evin McQuistion, one of my best friends and just one of the best people in general, lead rehearsals with one or two actors at a time so we can really focus on their ideas and channel them into something that fits with everything else. It’s all about listening, and using the strengths of both the actors and directors in tandem. Last year, I discovered that one of my strengths as a director was coming up with what I call “experiments”, or exercises that help take an actor out of their preconceived notions of what they are supposed to do, which helps them see the character from a different perspective. My experiments can range from anything to having an actor holding weights (or holding their breath) to physically embody the metaphorical weight of their character’s situation, to delivering their lines as a pop boy band or a stand-up routine. Evin leads an Improv group at his college, and since Improv is all about listening to the other people onstage and building off of their ideas to create a scene, he utilizes it to help the actors use one another as inspiration. The best part about my experiments and Evin’s improv is that it excites us, and that enthusiasm rubs off on the actors.

Midsummer Directing Picture

Zak directing a scene, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2016

As we approach opening night, it’s inevitable that I look back and reflect on my two years in the (assistant) director’s chair, mulling over their similarities and their differences. But it doesn’t feel like two experiences – it feels like 50 different experiences as I form relationships with each student. I love getting to know them, or if I’ve worked with them before, get to know them better. The relationships I get to make between the actors, technicians, and people sitting in the audience is what makes the program so special to me, and why I think theatre is special in general. So if you want to be a part of the wonderful, tangled mess that has lasted for 31 years, come see our latest show.

 

Farmers Market Pic

Zak and the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2016

Hamlet runs July 20th, 21st, 22nd, 27th, 28th, and 29th at 7 pm and the 23rd and 30th at 2 pm at the Appleton North auditorium.

To Take Up Arms: A Guest Post by Fight Choreographer Ian Parker

Standard

When performing the works of Shakespeare with the care and respect that the work warrants, the player must have an equal measure of finesse and flourish with weapons as they do with words, especially in the case of Hamlet.  Great care and disciplined training have been attentively applied to ensure this year’s Summer Shakespeare production delivers on all fronts with panache. Transferring the classic 17th century play into a modern setting has lead to some drastic changes in the show’s combat scenes. 

IMG_7750

Ian trains Sam Watson, Sam Stratton, and Molly Schamberger

The famous climactic duel in the fifth act is not being done with the traditional weaponry of the play’s era, the usual rapier and broadsword have been hung up for this modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic. Very seldom is a student of these disciplines found in the modern day, so the weapons have been changed to keep congruent with the present day. The players have gone under the instruction of a total of three separate Japanese combat styles; as these are much more common practices today.

The disciplines featured are the unarmed art of Karate, the staff-wielding method of Tai Chi, and the deadly katana practice of Kenjutsu. One might be skeptical of the players’ abilities to study the philosophies and practices of three depthful martial arts as well as face the challenges of performing and presenting a full production Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the rate of progression as well as the dedication of the players could beat, bludgeon and slash the doubt of such skeptics.  

The instruction for the players began with the Japanese philosophy of combat, that the purpose of knowing how to wield these weapons is to ensure safety of yourself and others, and ending conflict with as little harm done as possible; a mind set that lends itself well to the combat of theatre. The following lesson was on the weapons themselves, how is a master of any art to become a master without a deep understanding of his tools? The players were taught the proper names for the weapons and their parts as well as the etiquette with which to treat the weapons.  

IMG_7754

Sam and Molly practice on staff

Once the players understood these fundamentals, they felt ready to take up the weapons themselves and start swinging, but to ensure that the fights in the show were as accurate, entertaining and safe as possible they had a few more steps to walk before taking up any stances. The players had to know how to stand before they could move; how to move before they could hold a weapon; how to hold a weapon before they could parry; how to parry before they could swing; and how to swing before they could fight.

The time taken to learn the history behind these martial arts has shown in the performance and progress of the players as the rehearsal process continues.  In the limited time allotted for the preparation of the show, the players have rapidly acquired the skill necessary to wield a katana, staff and their own bodies with flourish and finesse.

Unlike many other productions that feature combat, we trained the players in the real and traditional usage of these weapons as well as their stage variations. Most productions only instruct their actors in the staged version of any given style. Whilst this is not a bad practice by any means, we remember that the safety of the performers is the greatest priority of any stage fight, and who is more trustworthy to be safe with a weapon than one who knows how to properly use one? Especially when the first thing they learned was the true intention of the weapon, to ensure that harm is not done unless absolutely necessary.

The players have had their hands full outside of their scheduled instruction, not only with the acting work of studying the text and memorizing lines; but also with exercises and fight rehearsals to maintain the stamina and flexibility required to execute the more complex maneuvers featured in the show. These students of Summer Shakespeare Theatre will walk away from this year with unexpected physical refinement to accompany the expected mental enrichment the program is known for. Summer Shakespeare does not cut corners in its productions, just as the language is thoroughly studied and understood by those using it, so well understood are these honored weapons and the techniques that use them.

Doubling Down on The Bard: The Hamlet Cast on Working Together

Standard

hamlet poster summer shakes 2017 flatNow that the rehearsal process has begun, assistant directors Evin and Zak sat down with some of the cast to interview them on their upcoming performances: what they’re excited for, what they’re nervous for, and what challenges they foresee.

Summer Shakespeare has a long tradition of doubling larger roles into Cast A and Cast B, where one actor plays a certain role for half of the performances and a second actor plays it for the other half. For Hamlet, each pair of actors doubled in this way are playing a different role on their off-night; for example, Caroline Holmes plays Claudius for Cast A performances, but plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father for Cast B performances. Brett Peters, her double, plays the ghost for Cast A performances and Claudius for Cast B. Doubling parts allows more actors to explore more roles, but it also gives them someone to collaborate with.

Caroline says, “As you get older, you kind of learn to use your double as a collaborative tool. To develop your character, learn more about each other by sharing each other’s opinions of the character you kind of get a new perspective on what their thoughts are.” Brett added on to this sentiment saying, “I see double casting as both very helpful and also an additional stress because you have to make sure they know everything, say they’re gone for a day, you have to be sure you write everything down to essentially every point so they’re not being thrown under the bus when they have to do what they need.”

When talking to Margaux Pisciotta and Mark Woznicki, our Polonius and Shakespeare (who frequently makes guest appearances at Summer Shakespeare productions to “MC” the shows), Margaux said this about the unique benefit of working with another actor on the same role: “For me, at least, I think the coolest part is that you have someone else to bounce your ideas off of because as an actor you’re always a little bit insecure about your performance and so to have someone else there saying ‘oh yeah, that’s a great idea’ or ‘maybe we shouldn’t do that,’ that’s always really reassuring and it gives you more confidence as a performer but it also gives you ideas that maybe you would have never thought of yourself and so it adds to your character.”

 

Sam and Ali Rehearse

Sam rehearsing a scene with Ali

Working with each other often leads to a kind of comradery between actors. Like in the case of Sam Stratton and Jack Cain, our Hamlet and Gravedigger actors, who have been doubled before. Much of their interview involved lighthearted jabbing at one another before they were finally pressed for an honest answer: “We work together really well. It’s fun to share notes after performances and everything to see if we can improve ourselves,” Sam said.

This improvement is important, as all the actors understand the weight of the roles they are being challenged with. “I was super excited when I got the part,” said Jack on playing Hamlet, “but then I got this sense of complete terror because of its capacity.” This is true for each role so it is twice as true when playing two roles. A challenge is “trying to make these characters separate because they’re not completely different, they have some similarities,” said Molly on her roles of Laertes and Guildenstern (two young college-aged men). “So trying to get in the zone for each character and totally step into it instead of just half doing two different parts but wholly doing two different parts.”

 

Doubling

Lexi and Ali working on “Mirroring,” a Theatre exercise

For some, the initial distance between character and actor is a potential hurdle in addition to separating the two roles. Lexi Asare had this to say on Queen Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother), “I’ve never had to play a character who sits there and lets someone beat them around. It’s going to be interesting to have to keep my mouth shut.” But this can also be a breath of fresh air for an actor. “She’s got this persona that’s pretty different from my own and I’m excited to tap into that character,” added Alyssa Jansen, Lexi’s double. They also will be playing the Player Queen, a role that is instrumental in revealing Claudius’ guilt.

Excitement is high in this cast with everyone looking forward to something different or maybe unexpected. “I have to say the best scene would have to be when he (Polonius) dies, because we just get to lie down on the ground dead for 30 minutes while Hamlet and Gertrude talk. So I’m really looking forward to that,” enthused Mark. “My distracted globe is looking forward to this process,” said Tulip Kopecky (one of our Ophelias and Horatios), in a reference to the play. Ali Basham, Tulip’s counterpart added that she was looking forward to “working with each other and creating the character in our own sense and just creating them for ourselves.”

Despite the many challenges, or perhaps because of them, every cast member interviewed is looking forward to working together to create a nuanced and memorable production. Even now, the cast has bonded together, thinking alike when it came to our final question: who would win in a fight between their two characters?

Hamlet vs Gravedigger?

“Gravedigger… Throw him into a grave, bury him alive… He probably has embalming tools somewhere,” Sam weighed in.

“He could mummify Hamlet,” Jack added, sagely.

Horatio vs Ophelia?

As complex an answer as the two characters.

“I think that Horatio would play whatever kind of fight it was, a battle of wits or arms, fairly as if she were facing any other opponent, like, “I’m just gonna do my best,” whereas Ophelia would over think it and be like, “ah, the outcome of this duel should I win or the other person win…” and would analyze it more,” ruminated Tulip.

Polonius vs Shakespeare?

Shakespeare. Polonius has one major weakness: he’s “not good at avoiding swords,” Margaux observed.

Laertes vs Guildenstern?

“Laertes, hands down. Scrappy. Knows how to sword fight,” stated Molly. She did think Rosencrantz might try to help his friend but probably wouldn’t be that impressive.

Gertrude vs the Player Queen?

The underdog Player Queen.

“She has more of a backbone,” decided Lexi.

Claudius vs Ghost?

“Well, we know that already,” said Caroline, putting the matter to rest for all time.

Hamlet runs July 20th, 21st, 22nd, 27th, 28th, and 29th at 7 pm and the 23rd and 30th at 2 pm at the Appleton North auditorium.