Season Eleven – Design Factor

We closed our tenth season with Ugo Betti’s Crime on Goat Island and opened our eleventh with All My Sons by Arthur Miller. As I think back on those plays what I most vividly remember is the sets we were able to build for both of them. Look back at the photos we posted for Tobacco Road and Macbeth, and at the photos here for All My Sons and Goat Island. And look at Thieves’ Carnival.

All My Sons (1990)
We don’t build sets like those any more. It’s not that we’ve lost the talent or the skills to design and build sets like that; it’s that we’ve lost the time and the space.

Crime on Goat Island (1990)
We were leasing space in a warehouse building at 4840 Sterling Drive in Boulder. We got it at a price we could afford partly, I think, because the company that owned the building was glad to able to rent it at all. The rest of the building was industrial warehousing, and we often heard heavy equipment working in the rest of the building, but only during normal work hours, never during the evening and weekend times when we performed.

Thieves’ Carnival (1991)
But then one morning, in our third season there, Joan Bell and I went to the theatre for some reason I can no longer remember and found, taped to the door, a notice that the city was shutting off the water to the building because the water bill had not been paid for some months. We had a show (The Importance of Being Earnest) playing that night. So, of course, we drove right downtown and paid the water bill. It was not too bad. Nobody but us had been using water, or, for that matter electricity or gas, for some time, so we were really only paying for what we had used. It turned out we were the only tenants.

All My Sons (1990)
We continued to pay rent for our part of the building for some time after that but, crooks and thieves that we were, we found ourselves in a huge empty warehouse and we were paying rent for only a small portion of it. We used the whole building: we now had rehearsal space and shop space, not somewhere across town, but in the same building, a few feet away from the theatre we were performing in. And it was not just The Upstart Crow; all the theatre companies renting from the Guild had the same opportunities and could rehearse and build there.

Crime on Goat Island (1990)
That’s how we were able to build some of those sets.

And one of our actors actually lived in the building for a while.

Worst of all, the city thought the building was unoccupied. That had worked to our advantage for some time, but one day we learned that the police were planning a swat team exercise in the building and would come in and shoot the place up some. We managed to talk them out of it. We were performing that day.

Thieves’ Carnival (1991)
Finally, McGuckin Hardware bought the building and that kept us out of all that free rehearsal and shop space we had enjoyed, but we could not have asked for a better landlord. They kept our rent at the same level. They placed their small engine repair facility in that building, but they made sure no one would be repairing a lawn mower engine during a performance. And, when our lease with McGuckin ran out, they let us stay a couple more years till we could move in to the Dairy Center.

McGuckin Hardware

Best of all, they gave me a job. I’ve just retired from 21 years in the bolt aisle at McGuckin’s.

Curses: The Scottish Tragedy

In our tenth season we committed an act of incredible courage, or incredible folly. We did a production of Macbeth. The thing about Macbeth (Dare I type the word?) is that it enjoys—well, suffers—an odd distinction: The play has a curse on it—actually three curses.
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
First, one must never speak the word “Macbeth” in a theatre; not on stage, not in the dressing room, not in the shop. That is certain to bring disaster upon whatever play is in production at the time. The curse can be lifted if the speaker of the dread word leaves the theatre, spins around three times uttering obscenities while spinning, spits over his shoulder, and then begs re-admission and quotes from Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of Grace, defend us.”  When the play must be mentioned backstage or onstage, it should be referred to by a euphemism. The usual one is “The Scottish Tragedy.” (I prefer “Brigadoon.”) I have heard of productions of the play that never spoke the name in rehearsals (But “Macbeth” occurs more than forty times in the dialogue of the play. I suppose they said something like “MacDuck”in rehearsal, but I don’t know.) The fact is I have been castigated more than once for saying “Macbeth” backstage. No, I never went outside and spun and cursed and spit. I always said “You don’t really believe in that curse, do you?” And I was usually answered with something like, “Why take the chance?”
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Second, not only is Macbeth a tragedy, but producing it invites tragedy. The anecdotal record of productions of the play from its first performance in 1607 to the present reveals numerous cases of serious—even fatal—illnesses and accidents befalling the casts and crews who recklessly ventured to do the play. The first Lady Macbeth died just before the first performance. Lincoln read the play the night before he was assassinated. A falling sandbag nearly hit Sir Lawrence Olivier during a rehearsal. There was a riot outside a theatre doing the play in the 19th century, and more than a hundred people were killed. Several actors have been wounded during the combat in the play. And on and on. An internet search shows nearly a hundred documented—well, alleged—cases of disaster striking performances of Macbeth. Some of these cases actually occurred! Do you dare do the show? Do you dare attend?
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Well, let’s see. Macbeth has been around for over 400 years. Assume something like 50 performances a year around the world. Fewer, I’m sure, in the 17th century: far, far more in the 20th. (I, myself, have acted in about 20 performances of three different productions of the play.) That would make perhaps a hundred or so dreadful events out of  20,000 performances. I think we’re safe. Brigadoon, however…
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
But there is a third curse, and it may be real. In the 19th century (before the superstitions had taken hold) the play was often produced by companies about to go under. It is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it has a great plot with great roles and there’s lots of witches and sword-fighting and spectacle. It was thought to be a real crowd pleaser (it is) and was often the last production of failing companies trying to stay alive by doing a sure-fire hit. Since they were failing companies, these were not likely to be particularly good productions. Macbeth began to regarded as a play that could not be done well, and as a play that destroyed theatre companies. It has been speculated that this is the origin of the superstition. I am not convinced.
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Anyway, directors and actors began to be afraid of the show. Enough of them are superstitious enough to believe the goofy curses and they approach the play with such trepidation that they cause the curses to fulfill themselves. Nobody dies, but there is enough alarm and nervousness to destroy the necessary energy that makes for a good production. But they know its a wonderful play. And they know they are about to fail. So they try to fix the problem by attacking the play with all the weapons at their disposal. Sex is one: naked witches and naked thanes. Maybe the witches are the problem: get rid of them. Maybe the witches are the solution: get more. (One of the productions I was in [not at The Upstart Crow] had six witches. I will not tell you about the costumes.) If Macbeth were dressed as a modern CEO, or a gangster…
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth is probably more often conceptualized, decon-structed, post-modernized, and just plain made over than any other Shakespearean play. And yet, in spite of (or because of) the very best efforts to fix it, it fails. The curse must be real.
Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (1989)
Here was our solution: We just did the play. All of it. No cuts, no improvements, no concepts. Just the play Shakespeare wrote, set in the time of the real King Macbeth. It’s the way we always do Shakespeare’s plays and it worked. We did Macbeth again in 2005 and it worked again and we’re still around.

Season Nine – The Chekhovian Comedy

Looking back over all these years, I keep wondering why, and how, we picked these particular plays over others. I know we’ve never chosen a season organized around a single theme or a topic. We have always wanted variety, not similarity in our choices. We’ve done about 160 productions of about 130 different plays by some 50 different playwrights so we’ve done plays on just about every subject that can be dramatized. But now, looking back a quarter century, I see that our ninth season happened to be a season of four plays that all belonged to a particular genre with a pretty clear unifying theme. The plays were Tobacco Road by Jack Kirkland, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, The Hostage by Brendan Behan, and Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Tom Stoppard.

The Cherry Orchard (1988)
Anya (Mary Guzzy), Mme. Rayevskay (Joan Kuder Bell) in The Cherry Orchard (1988)
All four are comedies, but comedies of a special type. Yes, there are jokes and laughs in all of them, but not as many as you would expect in a classical comedy. The characters are not dumb guys who are funny because of all the dumb things they do. There are no single-minded obsessive-compulsives we can feel superior to, like The Imaginary Invalid’s Argan, or Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, or Earnest’s two Ernests. Instead we are asked to sympathize with the characters in these plays, to understand them and to wish them well, but then to realize that, much as we have come to like them, they really need to go. They are outsiders; they don’t fit.

The Cherry Orchard (1988)
Mme. Rayevskay (Joan Kuder Bell), Varya (Pat Chilsen), Lopakhin (Alphonse Keasley) in The Cherry Orchard (1988)
The best name for this kind of play is, actually, Chekhovian comedy. The Cherry Orchard is about a rich Russian family that owns a considerable tract of land, that has everything going for it, but that cannot manage to capitalize on its holdings and survive. The play ends with the foreclosure of the family’s property, and the death of a servant who was left in the foreclosed house because no one remembered he was left behind. Technically, that is a kind of joke, but we are not asked to laugh at it.

Tobacco Road (1988)
Ada (Katherine Dubois Reed), Lov (Jim Fogelberg) in Tobacco Road (1988)

Tobacco Road is kind of an American version of the same story. It’s about a sharecropper family in Georgia in 1933 that is desperate to keep their tobacco farm, in the worst year of the depression, when they cannot pay for it. The Lesters in this play, just like the Ranevskys in Chekhov’s play, are simply unable to do what they need to do to keep their land. And there is a death in this comedy as well: Grandma was out in the tobacco fields when her son Jeeter decided to burn off the useless weeds growing there so he could plant more tobacco. That’s the same kind of joke.

Tobacco Road (1988)
Ada (Katherine Dubois Reed), Sister Belly (Lisa Lindgren), Ellie Mae (Vivian Sutherland), Pearl (Natalie Stengel), Jeeter (Richard Bell) in Tobacco Road (1988)

 

The Hostage (1989)
Meg (Katherine Dubois Reed), Ropeen (Erin Presley), The Mouse (Maggie Simms), Brigid (Julie Rumery), Mulleady (David Brigham), Rio Rita (Michael Bernsein), Bobo (Geni Klagstad) in The Hostage (1989)

And then there’s The Hostage: Dublin, mid twentieth century. A member of the IRA is in prison awaiting execution. The IRA kidnaps an English soldier and threatens to kill him if their man is executed. Where do they keep their hostage? Why, where else? In a brothel managed by ex-IRA leaders from the time of “The Troubles” of the 1920s. The hostage is killed at the end of the play, probably by his rescuers. The jokes never stop.All three of these plays take place in enclaves: separate little regions outside the greater society they are not really a part of. The cherry orchard itself is in some remote province of Russia; the tobacco farm is at the very bottom of the impoverished places in the American South during the worst year of the Depression. And the Hostage is imprisoned in a very strange brothel.

Julie Rumery, Timothy Reed, Geni Klagstad, Maggie Simms in The Hostage (1989)
Brigid (Julie Rumery), Leslie (Timothy Reed), Bobo (Geni Klagstad), The Mouse (Maggie Simms) in The Hostage (1989)

Dogg’s Hamlet takes this notion to an extreme. It takes place somewhere in England in a place where English is not spoken: the local language is Dogg. Schoolchildren rehearse and then perform a fifteen-minute version of Hamlet in English, a language they do not understand. They perform on a stage delivered to them by a delivery man who speaks English but not Dogg. Clearly this play is closer to traditional comedy than the others (but it has more deaths than the others as well). The second half of the production is Cahoot’s Macbeth. Cahoot is based on Pavel Kahout, a Czech director who produced underground performances of Shakespeare’s plays in Prague in the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The actors perform a version of Macbeth—in English.  They come to the scene where Banquo’s ghost arrives at a banquet. Banquo’s ghost is the delivery man of Dogg’s Hamlet. Now he speaks Dogg, and gradually all the Macbeth actors shift into a Dogg translation of the Play.

Geni Klagstad, Ann Eurich, Julie Rumery in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1989)
Baker (Geni Klagstad), Abel (Ann Eurich), Fox (Julie Rumery) in the first half of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1989)

Macbeth, of course, is about civil war and regicide, and the real subject matter of Cahoot’s Macbeth is the Velvet Revolution. And clearly The Hostage is about civil war. The other two are not about war, but they are certainly political. Both show a society, or part of a society in major disrepair. The Cherry Orchard does not really predict the Russian revolution, but it does show a society that is just asking for change. Similarly, Tobacco Road depicts a broken social order and cries for reform.

Colin Isenhart, Ann Eurich, Timothy Reed, Erin Presley, Geni Klagstad, Joan Kuder Bell in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (Colin Isenhart), 2nd Actress (Ann Eurich), Macduff (Timothy Reed), 1st Actress (Erin Presley), 3rd Actress (Geni Klagstad), Lady Macbeth (Joan Kuder Bell) in the second half of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1989)

So, without knowing what we were doing we selected a season of four “Chekhovian” comedies with at least partially an appeal for political reform.

A Child of the Theatre Part IX: Comedy is Hard

There’s a old adage in the theatre: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. That’s probably why I remember so clearly my first comic bit. It was in The Imaginary Invalid. I played Louison the youngest daughter of Argan the invalid.

Characters (Alexis Bell, Other) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Argan (David Brigham), Louison (Alexis Bell) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)

My one scene was rather simple. Argan wants to find out from Louison about the man her older sister is in love with. When Louison won’t tell him, he tries to beat it out of her, but she outsmarts him, by instantly playing dead, until he repents having killed his daughter.

We played this scene by having me run behind a large wooden chair. David Brigham, the actor playing Argan, would strike the back of the chair with his stick well above my head, and then I made a comic scream and played dead.

One day in rehearsal I had an idea, and I shyly approached the director and asked if when David hit the chair, I could throw the small stuffed clown I was carrying up into the air. The director approved, and so night after night I would run behind the chair and when David struck it, the clown would go sailing comically high into the air, and the audience would laugh.

Nine years old and I was already a comedic genius.

Imaginary Invalid – Season Eight

A couple of lessons well learned from our seventh season: Don’t cut; don’t mix genres, styles, or voices in a single evening’s production. The first lesson proved its value in our opening show: The Importance of Being Earnest. We did not do the standard received version of the play which is Wilde’s cutting of his original four-act play. We did our reconstruction of his original version from a compilation of drafts and hand-written and typed fragments preserved in a limited edition of the play we found in the rare-books room in Norlin Library. As far as we know we are the only company ever, in the English-speaking world to have produced that play. (There is some evidence Wilde’s original was sent off to a German translator, for there is a record of a German version, Ernst Sein!, with “major additions of unknown authorship.”) Anyway, more about that another time.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1987)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1987)
But we closed our eighth season with Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid and there is perhaps no play that violates our second rule more thoroughly. It’s Molière’s last play and it is—mostly—a conventional seventeenth century French farce. Argan, a hypochondriac, tired of paying physicians to cure his imaginary illnesses decides to marry his daughter to a physician so he can get free health care. There is a sub-plot in which his wife, Béline, tries to get him to change his will to give everything to her. The first act ends with these two plots established. Angélique, his daughter, asks Toinette, her maid, to contact Cléante, her lover and enlist his aid. Toinette says:

 

“There’s no one I can get to do it except the old loan shark Pulchinello, my admirer; and it’ll cost me a couple of sweet words, but I can spare them for you.”

 

Richard Bell in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Richard Bell in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Then there is an interlude. Pulchinello enters. Pulchinello! He is a continuing character in Italian commedia del’arte, the source of our Punch. He enters and sings a comic love song in Italian to an old woman, not Toinette, who rejects him. Then he is accosted by a dozen or so “archers” armed with slap-sticks who beat him until he gives them money. There really is such a thing as a slap-stick. It looks something like a cricket bat, but it is split down the middle so when you hit something with it the two halves, momentarily separated by the swing, hit each other with a loud clap. We built a dozen of them. The interlude has nothing whatever to do with the play; it does not advance the plot, it’s style is totally different, and every translation of the play into English I could find on the internet simply ignores it. They all simply say “First interlude” and go on to Act II.

 

The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Act II continues the plot. There are scenes between Argan and various doctors, love scenes between Angélique and Cléante, and then the second interlude: A musical number by a half-dozen Moorish women, followed by a ballet done by them and some unspecified number of monkeys. Yes, monkeys. We could have done the Moors; the women in the show could easily have put on some sort of robe to suggest Moorishness and danced, but not a single monkey showed up for auditions so we did the best we could: we staged a comic ballet.

 

Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, Katherine Dubois Reed) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Characters (Joan Kuder Bell, Katherine Dubois Reed) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Then Act III. Argan’s brother, Béralde shows up and persuades Argan that even better than having a doctor as his son-in-law is becoming a doctor himself. And all he needs to become a doctor is to learn a little Latin. (This may be pretty close to actual seventeenth century medical science.) Here’s how Act III ends:

 

Toinette: What’s your plan?
Béralde: To have a little fun this evening. The actors have prepared a little interlude about the investiture of a doctor, with music and dance; I want us to all take part in the entertainment, and I want my brother to play the leading role. We can each take a character, and perform the interlude for ourselves. After all, this is only a play.

 

Characters (Katherine Dubois Reed, Others) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Characters (Katherine Dubois Reed, Others) in The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
“After all this is only a play.” Could you end a play like Hamlet or Lear or Death of a Salesman with a line like that? So I think what I said about consistency of tone and style is only true of serious drama. Shakespeare could violate this rule; there are comic scenes at critical moments in many of his tragedies, but just because he could manage it doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Don’t try it.

 

The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
The Imaginary Invalid (1988)
Think of the great variety shows of twentieth century television. They were all comic. They could move between comic skits, musical or dance numbers, and stand-up routines. But I do not remember a single tragic episode in the Carol Burnett Show or Saturday Night Live. Comedy is a special form. It breaks all the rules.