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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 orSaturday Night Live. Comedy is a special form. It breaks all the rules.
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
A similar rule might be, if there’s a child in a show that isn’t a comedy, they are there to die. Okay maybe not always, in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, the kid lives but the rest of his family and just about everyone else is dead.
So I died a lot in my early years of acting. The Plough in the Stars by Sean O’Casey was the second show I did with The Upstart Crow, and just like in my very first play, I died. Not only did I die, but a child sized coffin comes on for the last act, and the other characters play poker on it.
The truth is, I didn’t quite fit in the coffin (no I never had to be inside of it, it was nailed shut). It was exactly my height, so with the thickness of the wood, I wouldn’t have fit. We kept that coffin for years. Or rather two members of the company Jim and Geni kept it in their barn. They found it rather amusing when they had guests who saw it, and wondered why a child’s coffin was being stored. We did eventually use the coffin again when we did the show a second time. It didn’t fit that actress either.
My dad [Richard Bell] likes to talk about The Oresteia as a noble failure, as the reason we don’t cut plays, and also point out that my mother costumed him in beads and a mask. I don’t care. It was one of my favorite plays.
It would be easy to think that it was only a favorite because of the spectacle, and it did have that. The masks the costumes. the 18 foot doors. All of that was cool. But actually one of my favorite books as a kid was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I read it over and over so I was very well acquainted with the characters in The Oresteia.
In fact, once the play closed, I got a copy of the script from my parents, and had my My Little Ponies act out the show.
We survived King Lear: both The Upstart Crow and me. And we went on to finish our sixth season with three one-acts by John Millington Synge: The Tinker’s Wedding, In the Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea. It was not the best choice we could have made. They’re all wonderful plays and I think we gave each a really strong production, but they didn’t go well together. Tinker’s Wedding is a farce, a wildly funny play.
Shadow is—well—a melodrama, and the earlier farce tended to set the audience up to laugh at the characters in the second play.
Riders to the Sea is a tragedy, a profound and beautiful little play but the two plays that preceded it, so different in tone, did not help its reception by the audience. We had thought that since the same playwright had written all three, that would unite them. But Synge’s range is great; we had three directors and three different casts. It was just not a unified coherent evening.
We didn’t learn; we did it again. The second show of our seventh season was The Oresteia by Æschylus. The Oresteia is not a play; it is three plays, the only extant Greek trilogy we have. Agamemnon is about the Greek commander’s return to Argos after his victory in the Trojan War and his murder by his queen, Clytemnestra. The Libation Bearers is about the murder of Clytemnestra and her lover Ægisthus by her son Orestes. The Eumenides is about the punishment leveled on him by the Furies and their transformation into Eumenides: “All-seeing, Kindly Ones.” We did have a single director and a single cast, but we divided the trilogy, and three of us took one play each and edited it down to less than hour each so we could get all three done in an evening. So there were three voices. And we cut the choral odes drastically. That was a mistake. Two of the plays are named for their choruses. We should have known better. Each of the three plays was done well, I think, but they did not combine into a good, coherent, single production. You will recall, if you have read the first couple of blogs in this series, that The Upstart Crow started with a cutting of four Shakespearean histories into one play about Queen Margaret of Anjou; Vain Flourish of My Fortune. And that didn’t work either.
(Twenty nine years later we got it right: The show we did last spring, The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre is his version of the same story, of Libation Bearers and Eumenides, in a modern existentialist version. And we didn’t cut anything.)
In between the Synge one-acts and The Oresteia we did Shaw’s The Man of Destiny. It was, as I remember it, an excellent production, and it certainly was a unified, coherent event; it’s a short play, only about an hour long, and that’s the problem. It didn’t really amount to a full evening’s entertainment. Our audience base is a lot larger than just the city and county of Boulder, and there were certainly people who spent more time getting to the theatre and then getting home than they spent at the play.
Here’s what we were missing: We thought we were selling you a ticket to see three plays by Synge or by Æschylus, or one play by Shaw. Actually, we were selling you a ticket to attend a single artistic event whose center was the three plays or one play. But, of course, you cannot have three centers.
Every good play has a shape, a rhythm. The Greeks named the parts: prologue, strophe, antistrophe, episode; and again strophe, antistrophe, episode, till the conclusion. Almost every good play can be analyzed as exposition, complication, climax, denouement. You can think of these as analogous to movements in a symphony. Small, intimate scenes will alternate with crowd scenes and soliloquies. Shouting and whispering take their turns. Shakespeare was the best of all at this. Look at how often, just as the tensions in a tragedy were reaching a climax, he would introduce a comic—even a farce—scene; not because the plot demanded it, but for the sake of the shape, the rhythm.
The three Synge one-acts are very good plays and I think we did them well. And each has the kind of rhythmic structure a good play needs. But they did not resonate with each other. We kept saying, “Forget what you just saw. It was good but it’s over. Start again.” We invited you to a banquet. We gave you a pot-luck.
We settled into the Guild Theatre in the second half of our sixth season. Now we were preparing ourselves for a series of artistic triumphs. We had a company of actors who had in fact triumphed over any number of difficulties of scheduling, of performance (and rehearsal) space, of storage of set pieces, props, and costumes, and on and on. All our troubles were over.
If you’ve been following these blogs, you will have noticed we tend to brag a little; we have been writing about our successes, about what we have done well. Why wouldn’t we? As we prepared for our first show in our new theatre we had everything going for us. There was another theatre company that had fallen dormant; they hoped to revive, but until they did they asked us if we would mind storing a number of platforms they owned but had no place to store. You betcha, we said, and turned them into audience risers in the Guild. (That company never revived.) Then it got even better.
The facilities manager of Mackey Auditorium called us. Mackey was going to be remodeled and would have all new seats. Would we like some of the old seats? Guess what we answered.
So, we opened King Lear in a brand new theatre financed in part by a $20,000 line-item grant from the city; The audience sat in upholstered seats on risers that permitted excellent sight-lines. And it got even better still. One of our actors had just bought a number of lighting instruments dirt cheap from another company; they were selling them because it was impossible to focus them. We bought them from him—cheap. It turned out they could not be focused because they all had the wrong bulbs in them. So we bought the right bulbs (They cost more than the instruments).
What could possibly go wrong? Well, I was playing Lear. I did two performances, Friday and Saturday, of our opening weekend. And then I had a heart attack. That sort of limited my ability to continue in the role. So, what to do? We could have simply decided that our run was over. Yes, we would have lost the expected income from some half-dozen scheduled performances, but there were no future costs. The Guild would not have charged us for the scheduled nights we would skip. We could have survived to do our next show. Perhaps.
But: “The show must go on.” That’s not just a slogan. For us it is pretty nearly a religious commandment. So, the director, Joan Kuder Bell, found someone to replace me. She called Jack Crouch, who had been the chair of the department of speech and drama at CU and the founder of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and asked him if he would take on the part. His response was something like: “How do you say no to a request like that?” He carried a script, he wore a black suit, and he did the role. Whatever he lacked in preparation and rehearsal he made up in his really impressive stage presence and his understanding of the role and the play.
“How do you say no to a request like that?” In the 35 year history of The Upstart Crow we have had a half-dozen such occasions; times when an actor simply couldn’t do the role they were cast in. In every case we have asked someone else to take over the role, either just for tonight or for the rest of the run. No one has ever said no. We really are something like a cult.
I never saw Jack as Lear. I wasn’t out of bed till after the show closed but it must have worked: audiences were good, people liked the show. That was April. That summer the Shakespeare Festival did Lear with Dudley Knight, a famed Shakespearean actor, in the title role. And there was a party that summer that Knight, and Crouch, and I attended. Three actors who had played Lear within the last few months. Guess what we talked about. Has that ever happened before or since?
Rawhide Court may have been the first theatre The Upstart Crow built, but The Guild Theatre was the one I helped build, and I miss it.
The Guild was different from Rawhide Court, in that we had two theatre, well, us and the rest of The Guild did. Because of this it needed sound proofing on the wall that would be next to the lobby. We had gotten some sort of tiling to cover the wall with, and tile by tile we put glue on the back and covered the entire eighteen foot tall or so wall. I did the bottom. I remember this because I loved it and was sorry when it was done.
Over the years we worked at The Guild I would help with other improvements. When Macky Auditorium got new seats for their space, they donated the old ones to us, and we had to assemble them and stand them up. In later years I would help paint the lobby, and even learn how to drywall during one remodel.
But the main reason I miss The Guild is for all the other things I learned there (not that drywall isn’t important). The Guild is where I really learned to act, to use power tools, to sew. And I also learned to ride my bike in it’s parking lot.
Our sixth season—1985-86: It was the worst of times and it was the best of times. Our first show of the season, York 8, was our last show at the Rawhide Court theatre. The county closed us down for a number of code violations. We were not very knowledgeable about building codes and regulations in those days. So, we were back on the road again. Orpheus Descending at Southern Hills Jr. High; The Lady’s not for Burning in the City Council chambers. Neither space was satisfactory.
But there was a lot going on in the world of the arts in Boulder in the mid-eighties. The city government had been planning to build a performing arts center and had floated a bond issue and started a fund-raising campaign to pay for it. In response most of the city’s arts organizations joined in the effort to pass the bond issue and to raise money. There was an organization that had been formed long before called the “Arts and Humanities Assembly of Boulder” (AHAB) that had been defunct for some decades and was now revived. We all joined it and campaigned for the performing arts center.
Well, the bond issue failed, and AHAB was torn by some fierce internal struggles and finally transformed itself into The Boulder County Arts Alliance. The best laid plans of mice and men . . .
Among the mice were a number of theatre companies. We did not think of each other as competitors any more, if we ever had; we thought of each other as partners. Our members had served together on committees and sub-committees within AHAB. Some had shared space at the Rawhide Court theatre. And we began to learn how much we should value each others’ successes. When you see a play—anywhere—I want you to have had a good time; I want you to say, “I really like going to the theatre,” not “I don’t really like theatre.”
So some of us got together and formed an informal alliance that we called The Boulder Theatre Producers’ Guild. Our main goal was to find a permanent performance space we could share.
One day, I think it was in the middle of our sixth season but memory is uncertain, I got a call from—I think it was the director of BMoCA—asking me to come to a City Council meeting and speak in favor of building a theatre on the second floor of the BMoCA building. I and several others did and the Council approved the idea and the theatre got built. But—and this is why it was the best of times—toward the end of that meeting one of the Council members turned to me and asked if we, the Guild, had found a space. I said no, and he then said that since the bond issue had failed there was still money in the fund created for it, so how much would we need?
The most responsible answer would have been something like, “I’ll do some research and prepare a budget and get back to you.” Instead I heard myself blurting out, “Twenty thousand dollars,” and he said “I think we can do that.”
So, for the next couple of decades the Guild was a $20,000 line item in the city’s budget. We were no longer an informal alliance. We incorporated as a not-for-profit 51 (c) 3. We learned about building codes and zoning and fire regulations. We leased a warehouse at 4840 Sterling Drive and built two theatres there. In 1997 the Guild moved to the Dairy. Was the money well spent?
Here is a list of the theatre companies the Guild hosted over the eleven years of the the Guild Theatre: The Upstart Crow, Boulder Conservatory Theater, Actors Ensemble, The Boulder Repertory Theatre Company, Nomad Players, Directors Theatre, The Shakespeare Oratorio Society, Trouble Clef Players, Goddess Theatre, September School, Imagination Makers, Now or Never, Dark Night Theatre, The Play-Ground Theatre, Boulder Ensemble Theatre, Holy Cow, Playwrights Unit, Rainbird Productions, Mingled Ages Theatre Company, Sirius Theater, Colorado Theatre Festival, Lady Jane Productions, Ancestral Moons, Rising Stage Theater Company, On-Stage Productions, X-Axis Independant Theatre, Mystik Hande, and Colorado Dramatists.I think it was money well spent.
Last night we opened Misalliance. Which is why we’ve been too busy to post about past productions. Anyway I recently realized how many Shaw plays I’ve been in. Interestingly, only one of them, like Misalliance, was set in Shaw’s own time.
The first one was in 1992 and the show was The Apple Cart, which is set in some time in the future. I was Princess Alice.
Then in 2005 I played Joan of Arc in St. Joan.
Then in 2011 I was in The Philanderer, along with Louis Clark and Joe Illingworth who are also in Misalliance.
And most recently I played Cleopatra in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, with John Taylor, who also, is in Misalliance.
Shaw liked to call it “Miss Alliance” in his letters. The affectionate nickname tells us something about his feelings for this play. It is the middle play in what has been called his Marriage Trilogy: Getting Married and Heartbreak Houseare the other two and they really are about misalliances. This play, in spite of its title, is the only one of the three that contains within it a really happy marriage and ends with the prospect of another happy marriage.
And that makes Misalliance a kind of rare bird among romantic comedies; indeed among plays of any kind that deal with marriage. Look at the married couples in the dramas and tragedies that we have done in the last couple of seasons: The Flies, Juno and the Paycock, and yes, Blood Wedding. We’ve done comedies in which a romantic couple figured in a sub-plot and were engaged at the end of the play, and we believe that they will live happily ever after, but only because that is a convention of the form. Arsenic and Old Lace and Madwoman of Chaillot are examples that we’ve recently done.
How about plays where the love stories are the center of the action? Twelfth Night ends with three marriages. Toby and Maria will make it; they have known each other for years and we have every reason to believe in them. But the other two couples: Olivia and Sebastian have known each other for about an hour when they marry, and Orsino proposes to Viola, who he thought was a boy, about five minutes after condemning her to death. Good luck.
How about Bus Stop?It is a charming love story, but if you believe that Bo and Cherie will make it to the end of the bus ride you are very sanguine indeed. Bus Stop is almost the prototype for romantic comedy. A couple meet and are attracted to one another. They quarrel and believe all sorts of bad things about each other but finally realize that amor vincit omnia and they get married. But it is the quarreling that provides the jokes and the action of the comedy.
To paraphrase the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy marriages are alike; every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way.” Obviously, unhappy marriages are more interesting.
Is it possible to write a good comedy about a couple who meet, like one another, love one another, never quarrel, and then get married? Where would you find the conflict? Where would you find the jokes?
All of the stuff of romantic comedy is in Misalliance: the quarreling, accusations and actualities of infidelity and adultery, mistaken identities, death threats, secret panels, even—all are in Misalliance. And all of that melodramatic stuff is presented through some of the best and wittiest dialogue Shaw ever wrote. And most of the wit is there by virtue of all the past and potential and failed misalliances of most of the characters in the play. The successful alliance that ends the play is interesting largely because of its contrast to the others.
Getting Married and Heartbreak House, likethis play, show us a number of past and potential misalliances and end with marriages we hope will last. In Getting Married the couple marry only after writing a pre-nuptial contract designed to make divorce easy should they want one. Heartbreak House gives a heroine who is in love with a married man and engaged to a ruthless plutocrat, a heroine of about 20 who ends up married to an 88-year-old man. That marriage will be happy but short.
Shaw had been married for about ten years when he wrote this play. It seems to have been a happy marriage; it lasted another three decades until his wife’s death in 1943, but the marriage was never consummated. (I am not sure how we know this: but we do.) But if Charlotte Shaw remained chaste, her husband almost certainly did not. He had a number of extra-marital affairs, the most notable being with Mrs Patrick Campbell who played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and was the model and inspiration for Hesione Hushabye in Heartbreak House and Orinthia in The Apple Cart. She said of this play: “Misalliance is out and out surely the best you have done and that I suppose means the best modern play.”