Interview with a Prince pt 2

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Thanks for joining us for part 2 of my interview with Maddy Schilling.

Maddy not only played our own William Shakespeare, but also was faced with the challenge of Verona’s prince, who–when he is on stage–is usually emotionally overwrought in some way.  He is either scolding the Capulets and Montagues for their feuding or is finding that this war has killed more of his kinsmen (he looses two during the play–Mercutio and Paris–who each sided with the opposite family).  At first, Maddy struggled to portray him.

She explains, “at the beginning I would hunch over and gesture with my arms and I wasn’t as firm.  I was definitely more of a woman playing Escalus.”  Maddy sites several things that helped her to find the Prince within herself.

The first was character analysis.  To help his students connect with their roles, Parker gives them a sheet to fill out that includes over fifty questions.  Some questions make sense, like “What are your character’s relationships like?” but some are more odd, such as “what kind of animal would your character be?”  It also includes a question about “leading centers”– a famous concept which Parker borrows from Michael Chekhov.  The theory behind it is that people are led by their intellect (head), emotions (heart), needs (stomach), or desires (groin) and that this comes out physically–with the person’s gestures and movements matching their corresponding motivations.  Maddy was able to use these questions and techniques to discover more about the inner life of this very public man.

“Escalus tries to lead with his head because he always tries to be a logical, rational man,” she explains.  “But sometimes it’s with his heart.  When he can’t control a situation, and when his family members are killed, it’s his strong emotions that lead him.  I perceive Escalus as a character who is very refined and firm around his subjects, but he’s very introverted. I am definitely more introverted, so maybe that’s why I perceive him that way.  I like making connections to my characters,” she muses.

“It’s almost like a part of him has rubbed off on my personality now.  So, I can tend to be a little more firm at times, my parents have pointed out that my posture is better.  I almost never have good posture,” jokes Maddy.

I ask her if being introverted and in the theatre is a challenge for her.

She agrees that it is.

“Shakespeare has to be very talkative and sociable.  It’s a challenge for me to be super outgoing and talkative, but I guess being in theatre helps with social skills.  It does help to get into character, though.   I’m not sure why.”

But character analysis is only one part of becoming the character.  Now that she understood Escalus internally, Maddy had to learn how to portray him on stage.

Since Shakespeare was never known for writing an equal number of parts for women and men in his plays, Parker does a lot of cross-gender casting.  This means that a lot of girls have to play men (I myself only ever played one female role in all my time with Parker).  So what we have begun to call “Mandate Man-Dates”–extra coaching for girls playing male roles–have become a regular occurrence.  Since I had some experience in this area, this was one of my jobs.

“Going on the Man-Dates definitely helped in becoming a man.  You’ve played Escalus,” she says to me, “so that was very helpful.  You taught me different mannerisms–” Maddy breaks off and laughs at her own unintentional joke: “haha, man-erisms.”  These mostly included learning to walk and talk so that the audience can suspend their disbelief that the person in front of them is portraying a man.  Obviously, it can be very difficult to convince the audience that someone is a different gender.  This does’ have to be a problem, though, as long as the audience isn’t distracted by an actor’s actual gender.

Lastly, Maddy found Parker’s practice of having his students meditate helpful.  A mishmash of many different techniques, it involves the actors imagining themselves becoming their characters and playing them perfectly.  As odd as it may sound to some, Parker has found that this “imaging” really aids his students.  I’ll vouch for it, it really works.

“The hardest part of Summer Shakes is really getting into the character emotionally and then utilizing that to connect to the other characters on stage–so its a team effort–its very emotionally draining.  This aspect may be the most difficult, its the most enlightening,” she concludes.

What Maddy likes best, though, is Summer Shakespeare’s mission:  “We’re bringing Shakespeare to the eyes of people–both cast and audience–who might not ever have the chance to see it.”

It is this idea that keeps the program alive.  It’s what drives us all–Maddy, the rest of the cast and crew, and, especially, Parker himself.

 

 

Special thanks to Maddy for talking with me!

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Interview with a Prince pt 1

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Hello, folks!

Bet you didn’t expect to hear from me again!  I took off for a week of vacation, but now I’m back.  This week I’ll be posting an interview that I took earlier this week, but haven’t had the time to put up on the blog because there were always so many things to write about! I had some other really great interviews to upload too, but sadly, the recordings and notes that I had on them have disappeared into the nether-sphere of memory-hardrive-thingies that I don’t completely understand.

Anyway, lets get started.

Meet Maddy Schilling, who just finished her Freshman year at Appleton North High School.10534080_10152539382099720_4596956560928871932_n

When Maddy first moved to Wisconsin from California three years ago, she felt as if she were moving to the rural wastes of Farmersville.  A big-city girl moving to the Midwest, she feared the worst.

“I was scared because I thought I’d be the only kid at school who didn’t know how to milk a cow.” She laughs as we sit together in the empty band room, before our last performance.  “I was going to be the only girl without pigtails and overalls and everyone would drive a tractor to school.”

The last thing that she expected was to end up, eventually, at Appleton North High School, with its award-winning theatre program and visionary director.

Although she’d never been to a Summer Shakespeare production, she joined the cast for R&J.  Maddy had played several small roles in North’s productions over the year, and all of her theatre friends had said how great Summer Shakespeare was.

Over the next few weeks of learning about Shakespeare, the English Renaissance, and the Victorian era, her excitement grew.

Then came casting.

Romeo and Juliet is a play with few female roles and many for boisterous men.  So, for a petite, introverted dancer with long curly hair like Maddy, her odds for a named role would seem to have been slim.  After all, she was also a first-year student who hadn’t had very much experience with larger parts.

So her surprise is understandable when she was given the roles of Prince Escalus–the authoritative and stressed-out ruler of Verona–and William Shakespeare himself.

I’ll explain about the latter (stay tuned for part 2 about the former).  One of Summer Shakespeare’s most important and longstanding traditions is to have each performance introduced by a student playing the Bard himself.  In the first year of the program, Parker wrote a speech for Shakespeare that has–in one form or another–lasted to this day.  At intermission, the actor goes out in costume to hobnob with the audience and sign autographs.

“When I saw ‘Shakespeare’ on the cast list, I had no idea what that meant.”  Maddy tells me.  “I thought I’d be reading the prologue, which the Chorus read.  I was not expecting this huge wonderful monologue written by Parker.”

Many students have heard the speech so many times that they can recite its jokes by heart.  The role is often given to experienced actors who are familiar with the character Parker has created for the Bard.

After talking to a student who had played Shakespeare several years ago, Maddy began to understand the tradition that she was a part of.

“I definitely felt honored,” she says.  “Getting into that costume, you think about all of the people who have come before you and how they perceived Shakespeare.  It connects you to the past.”

But what Maddy has enjoyed most about her summer here in the theatre is the community.  She had known the students from Appleton North, but–through the program–created friendships with students from several other schools.

She shrugs.  “Summer Shakespeare brings people together.”

“What I really like about the Summer Shakes community–and the theatre community in general–” she continues, “Is that there are a lot of people who are very accepting of each other.  If you think you did a horrible job on stage, or you think you’ve messed something up, they will tell you that they’ve done that before and will give you loving advice.  It’s very nonjudgmental and comforting.  Being an actor, you are going to have people in the audience constantly judging you and your performance, so to have people who know how you’re feeling and know your anxiety and know how to deal with it is very welcome.  Mistakes are almost welcome sometimes because without mistakes you can’t further develop your role and yourself.”

 

Part 2 is coming soon!

How I learned to love “Romeo and Juliet”

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When Parker first told me we were doing “Romeo and Juliet,” I’ll admit, I wasn’t too excited.  It had been my first Shakespeare play with him in high school, I had studied it in English class, seen countless film adaptations, and several live performances.  All of these were, at best, bearable learning experiences and, at worst, completely intolerable.    Suffice it to say, this was my least-favorite Shakespeare play, and, in my opinion, the most overrated, over-produced, and cliché of the Bard’s works.

Huzzah, I thought, the “greatest love story ever:” a boy who is constantly in and out of unrequited lust with various girls like a stereotypical Elizabethan sonneteer, and then falls in love at first sight with a thirteen year old.  They meet, they marry, and they die, all within the context of a textbook Mimetic crisis.  Not only is that bad enough, but then modern pop culture makes Romeo and Juliet’s five-day love story out to be the most perfect in history.  Why must my last Summer Shakespeare production be this one?! 

Yeah, I wasn’t excited.  In fact, there was definitely some self-pitying going on.

Then Parker told me we were going to set it in the Victorian Era.  I was surprised and intrigued by the challenge–could we make it work? We’d never tried this before!–but, I still remained skeptical about the choice of play.

Nevertheless, I trust Parker, so I knew that whatever he was planning, it would probably be better than what I was currently imagining.

So when I walked into his office on the Sunday evening before class began, the last thing I expected was to leave believing in our production.

You see, Parker told me about something that American Players Theatre actor David Daniel said to him: “Romeo and Juliet” isn’t a love story–it’s a hate story.

As Parker explained to me how this had changed his own perspective on the play, I realized that I had never truly thought about the famous tale in those terms.  I had only ever taken popular culture’s opinion.  I had disliked the story with this interpretation, but I had assumed that it was the only option.

Parker gave me a whole new way to see the play.  It was alright to reject Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate couple because Shakespeare meant for their relationship to be problematic; it isn’t the focus of the story.  The point is the poisonous power of enmity to destroy love, rather than the other way around.  It is a cautionary tale, rather than a celebration of “love conquers all.”  The latter interpretation–the popular one–fails because it does not take into account that human sacrifice was the thing that brought reconciliation (which the play hints will not last).  Young love is not the winner here, but instead the blood price of their families’ hatred.

I used to think “Romeo and Juliet” was a tragedy because of the simple, idiotic mistakes of miscommunication which brought about their deaths–that the catastrophe could have easily been avoided.  It is, in fact, a tragedy because it shows how hatred inevitably erodes all good things until innocent blood is the only thing that will break the destructive cycle.

Once again, Parker has convinced me that William Shakespeare is the best storyteller in English history.

Of course, none of that would matter if the cast did not embrace the idea.

But, thankfully, they did.

By reexamining these legendary characters–and sometimes even openly rejecting common interpretations–our students made the play honest again.

I know this because, after every performance, the overwhelming opinion of the audience (whether they were familiar with the play or not) was:

“I’ve never understood this play–or even Shakespeare–before!  I’ve never cared about these characters!  Thank you!”

We hear similar sentiments from a few audience members every summer, but this came from nearly everyone who I talked to.  Considering that we had a nearly full house for four of our five performances (most years, we average half of the house per performance), this was not just the family and friends of students who attended, but members of the community as well.

Hearing the pleased surprise in people’s remarks fully convinced me.  Because of the vision for the play that Parker had instilled into the cast from the very first day, our students comprehended the play and its complex characters more deeply than they had when reading it in their freshman CA classes.

And because the actors understood the story they were telling, so did the audience.

Opening Night

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At 4:45 pm I stand in the theatre.  The lights are up, but the auditorium is empty.  I step onto a cobblestone street in Verona, between two imposing buildings, and breathe in the silence and the musty scent of old curtains.

Anticipation fills the uninhabited stage.  All is quiet, but not tranquil.

In the green room–where actors have their makeup and hair done–the excitement manifests into nervous energy and good humor, as all of the girls in the cast have their hair braided, curled, and pinned into period styles.

Over the next hour, students drift in, the stage is swept, and everything is made ready in  what is called “pre-set.”  Tina, our costumer, makes jokes with some of the actors as she and her assistants transform their age, and sometimes gender, with facial hair and old-age makeup.  Like me, Tina wears a black dress, in accordance with one of the many traditions–even superstitions–which our theatre practices.

Then it is 5:15.  Time for notes–when the directoral team gives corrections to the actors and makes changes for the next performance.

Everyone gathers giddily on the risers in the choir room, waiting for the director to appear.  Parker comes in and calls for order, ready to make his speech.

“You only have one opening night,” he tells us, stressing the importance of enjoying the experience, as well as being in top form for the performance.

Finally, with fifteen minutes before curtain, Parker begins warmups–a mix of stretches and vocal exercises which are steeped in tradition.  First-timers look slightly confused as Parker explains each movement and tongue-twister, but veterans have done this countless times, and shout phrases along with their director.

“These are called ‘isolations,’” he says, describing to the students how to shake their hands without moving any other part of their bodies. “Now your arms, up to the shoulder, without moving your upper body, like–”

“Two tubes of flabby meat!” they shout back.

Each tongue twister has motions, which the initiates attempt to copy–by the end of the run, they too are experts.  Warmups then usually culminate in an energy-builder which Parker makes a show of protesting–the ‘shake down.’  As the name suggests, each limb is shaken in succession for a count of ten seconds, then nine, eight, and so on.  With each increasingly excited and shortened cycle, the students take a step towards Parker.  As they get closer, he cringes, knowing what will come.  On the last few counts, the hand-shakes turn into rubbing Parker’s head for good luck.  After it’s over, he carefully smooths his spiked hair and begins to leave, wishing them all a good show.

The oldest veterans then lead everyone in a few nonsensical cheers that make references to films and internet videos.  After a Mighty Ducks-inspired “quacka” huddle, our Tybalt–played by recently graduated Duncan Schneider–roars the last part of the ritual.  It means something like “here goes nothing” and is bellowed as the students leave the choir room.  Using his deepest voice, he cries: “Let’s do this!”

Everyone answers in a raucous shout–”LEEEEEEEEERRROOOOOOOOYYYYY JEEEENKIIIIIINS!” (it’s an obscure gaming reference from here)

It is now nearly 7:00, and I follow the sea of actors towards the theatre, giving small, personal encouragements as we part.  Then I take my seat in the sold-out house just before the lights begin to dim.

I take a deep breath.

Our “Theatre Spotlight”

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The Post Crescent, our local newspaper, has a part of their arts section dedicated to showcasing a local theatre production.  Parker had me put it together this year, so I thought it would be fun to post it here.  It gives an overview of the program and sums up our production.

I’ll also post the interview that Catherine Backer and David Fisher (our Romeo and Juliet) gave me for it!

 

What: Summer Shakespeare Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Appleton North High School, 5000 N. Ballard Road, Appleton

Admission: General admission tickets are $8, Seating is limited to 120

Contact: facebook.com/summershakespearetheatre, Ron Parker at 920-832-4300, or parkerronaldc@aasd.k12.wi.us

Box office hours: July 21-23 from 3-5 p.m, and at the door from an hour before the performance

Background: Shakespeare’s most popular and most often produced play tells the story of two teenagers from the warring Capulet and Montague factions who fall in love at first sight. Caught between feuding families, Romeo and Juliet desperately struggle to build a world insulated from the violence and hate, but their love is thwarted and forced toward a final confrontation with their tragic destiny.

This production of “Romeo and Juliet” marks the first time in the program’s 27 years that director Ron Parker has set a play in a time period other than the Renaissance. He chose the mid-1800s due to the era’s social and ideological tensions and constrictions, which highlight the themes of rivalry and hatred in the story. Removing the play from its original setting allows the audience to experience the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work and to reexamine the characters in a new light.

The production features original music by London composer Jay Chakravorty and a “studio theater” set that divides the audience on two sides of the stage — simulating the rivalry between the two houses.

What they’re saying: “‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the show to end all shows,” said Appleton North senior David Fisher, who plays Romeo, “but everyone here, who’s working on it everyday, realizes that there is so much more to it than we had thought. This production is striving to remind you why this play is so well-known and so powerful.”

The production’s Juliet, played by recently graduated Appleton North senior Catherine Backer, hopes the performance will take the lovers off their pedestals.

“We’re moving past preconceived notions of the classic love story where the lovers die in the end,” she said. “It’s much more than that. It’s about experiencing the human emotion of the characters and their evolutions.”

Assistant director Rebecca Fox said the show is not a story about the power of love overcoming prejudice, but instead of hate destroying love. “The tragedy of the lovers’ deaths cannot just be blamed on miscommunication, but is, instead, the fault of the feuding that surrounds them,” she said.

Take-home message: “Shakespeare is showing us through this timeless tragedy what comes of holding hatred and bigotry in our hearts — a lesson which speaks to us today just as strongly as it did to those of his own time,” Parker said.

The Joys and Insanities of Show Week

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Welcome to show week–when long hours, plenty of frustration, mass panic, and lots of hard work hopefully give birth to a production everyone can be proud of.

But for us, right now, we are in limbo.  The set has finally been built, the props are finally in order, our music has been written, our lights hung, and our scenes blocked.  It’s all up to the actors now.

That is a terrifying feeling.

As an assistant director, I know that the outcome is out of my hands.  I have done–and will continue through this week to do–my best to prepare our students for the show, but the actual performances are up to the actors.

I’ve been in their shoes before.  I know what it’s like.

You’ve spent three weeks memorizing your lines and learning how to bring them alive in rehearsal, but now you’re suddenly faced with the set.

And costumes!

AND PROPS!

All of the things that you had previously only imagined and mimed are now a reality.  Timing has to be calculated to match the music, cues for lighting and the movement of furniture props have to be set.  You are now responsible for so much more than just your character.

But, at the same time, the same things that make you panic are the ones that exhilarate you: you are no longer acting in a vacuum.

The costume makes you stand straighter, and feel less like yourself.  The set allows you to melt into the scene, and that prop is the detail that you needed to really become your character.  It isn’t just lines, now, it’s all real.

The organized chaos around you makes you feel that, on the one hand, the show will never be ready, and, on the other, that this just might be the best play you’ve ever been in.  It’s all falling apart, but it is also all coming together.

Then, suddenly, it’s all over.

It’s opening night.