Happy 444th Will

A copy, based on Hollar's 1647 London panorama, of the 2nd Globe Theatre.Image via Wikipedia

The Groundling couldn’t let today go by without wishing William Shakespeare a happy 444th. There are celebrations this weekend in Stratford-on-Avon and at the Folger Library in Washington DC and elsewhere, when there will undoubtedly be a rush of tourists eager to engage in further bardolatry. In my own modest way I intend raising a glass of fine Australian wine in his memory this evening; something I suspect he would have approved. Maybe I’ll even recite a quick sonnet … number 14 perhaps?

To me, fair Friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters’ cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! Yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and my eye may be deceiv’d.
For fear of which, hear this thou age unbred, –
Ere you were born, was beauty’s summer dead

OK, so it’s been longer, much longer than 3 years since I first laid eyes on Will’s works, but they seem as fresh and green now as ever.

I reckon my first experience was in Grade 9; back then you actually got to study Shakespeare … lots of Shakespeare … at quite a tender age. Indeed I think I recall reading snippets in my primary school readers, but perhaps I am mistaken. I fell in love at the age of 13 with his works … that year it was Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar, and in my senior high school years King Henry IV (I) and The Merchant of Venice. We got to read the plays out loud in class; it was the best time in the week for me. The love affair continues unabated.

I’ve acted in half a dozen or so of the plays, directed as many again, seen most of them, and many several times; travelled to Shakespeare Festivals world-wide … there are plenty more to see … and even started one in my home-town. I’ve been to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, visited his burial place in the Stratford on Avon Church and noted the warning not to disturb his bones … OK. When I get to London, I love to walk round Southwark and visit Shakespeare’s Globe … yes, like Stratford-on-Avon it’s madly touristy but hey, seated on those bum-numbing oak benches at the Globe, squint through your eyes at the stage on dusk on a summer evening and it doesn’t take much imagination or effort to feel the power!

Am I bardophilic? … perhaps … but there’s nothing quite like even the most average Shakespeare play (or movie) and a few lines of a sonnet to get the actorly pulse racing or the audience fired up. A Shakespeare role challenges and rewards like no other.

I’m sure something he wrote in another sonnet about his work living on into time was a quite conscious bit of strutting on his own behalf, nicely couched of course in romantic praise of the one to whom the sonnets were penned … no don’t get started!

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Happy Birthday Will!

Auf wiedersehen Cabaret …

Theatre is a cruel mistress sometimes, and never more so than when she breaks up a tight-knit ensemble at the final curtain. Many (like me) deal with this psychic termination, the ending of a beautiful relationship by treating fond farewells as lightly as possible … ‘No goodbyes … see you around.’ It’s easier that way. And so it was this evening as the last performance of Cabaret at the Empire Theatre finished the season.

It’s been a quite wonderful time for me personally, and I’d wager for the entire company. We gathered post-show to formally farewell the ensemble in the studio, the site of rehearsals and warmups and that first meet and greet 10 weeks ago. There is no doubt that this production was a success artistically; it was a fine production shaped by the chief creatives: director Lewis Jones, designer Greg Clarke, musical director Lorraine Fuller, and choreographer Alison Valette. As important as financial and artistic success however, was the opportunity the production gave to nurture and further the talents and aspirations of the young men and women who worked backstage, onstage and in the orchestra pit. This is where organisations like the Empire Theatre are worth their weight in gold; they are helping to build the city’s and the country’s cultural capital, and readying the next generation for leadership in the arts community.

The final performance was a matinee, and it was a joyous occasion on several levels. For us, it had the edge of our wanting to make it the best it could be for us and for our audience. Some audience members returned to experience the show for the final time, and were joined by many first timers, but as always, they bonded to became that unique living organism known as the audience. Ask any theatre actor and they’ll confirm that no two audiences are alike. Today’s were warm, responsive, and not afraid to let us know it. I felt a thrill when I heard a ‘wow’ at the end of my final song. An audience feels a good show in unison and the actors feel it in return. Our audience this afternoon sent us out in style. The rest of the formal disbanding is happening as I write … an after-party which I fore-went. I like to keep my memories … of the faces, the experience within the confines of the theatre space. But we’re scattered now.

So it’s time to pack up the program and clippings, the cards, to swap images on Flickr, to bask in the memories, maybe plan for next time but just get on with the other things we do in life.

Auf wiedersehen, a bientot, goodbye …

The Voice Warmup

This is the most popular post on Groundling. I continue to add to it with hotlinks and further comment on one of the more important skills for the actor – the voice warmup.

Scribbles to Myself (April 2008)

So the voice is on my mind right now, not only because of my own recent scare in the run up to performance, but also because I am currently working with a group of students on a production; I’m co-directing Lanford Wilson’s The Rimers of Eldritch with a group of actors in the second year of their professional training program. One of my briefs is also to teach them how to rehearse, to gear themselves up for the tasks of exploration in the rehearsal room, and then to take this work to performance before a live audience.

I found myself at yesterday’s rehearsal urging them to prep the head as well as the body for work. When energy is distracted e.g., stretching whilst chatting about last night’s party, the body is not being brought to the mind or the mind to the body. This is a phrase I really like from An Acrobat of the Heart by Stephen Wangh. Urging a focussed attention on self as part of the warmup forms part of my instruction on this most important part of the actor’s process. Getting from where you are to where you need to be is what the warmup is all about.

And the voice warmup? As a voice coach myself, I know how really vital this is, and my students tend to approach a warmup from this angle. The voice workout (a different beast altogether) and the warmup are taught as part of the actor training in our program, so they know what it is and why they do it, but customising the warmup for rehearsal and then performance has to be learned. Indeed, integrating a body, voice, mind warmup is the goal.

This is what I wrote some time back during another production.

The voice warmup
There can’t be too many actors who’ve trained during the past 30 or so years, who aren’t familiar with the warmup. It’s part of contemporary thinking about the nature of the actor as an ‘athlete of the heart’ with all the connotations of preparing to challenge the body, mind, and heart for the act of performance. For many actors, it would be impossible to imagine performing without going through a ritual that takes you ‘from where you are to where you need to be’ to work.

Watch a group of actors doing a warmup, and you’ll see a range of styles, from the energetic to the focussed and intense. There are some actors who love to warmup with the others in the company; other actors can’t abide being distracted from their own personal process. Horses for courses. What is common to all is the recognition that a different energy is needed to perform. There is a commitment to getting the body-mind out of the daily and into the extra-daily state of being, and ready to go.

What many actors in training don’t do however, is to prepare for a rehearsal or a class. And many don’t have a process to help deal with the particular task. A rehearsal on a scene is very different from a performance; a class is another beast altogether. A warmup for a rehearsal or a class should take no more than 10-15 minutes of focussed preparation. This is what you should do:

  • A quick diagnostic humming up and down the range and then on full breath to check for missing notes.
  • Stretching, check alignment and spinal rolls. Spinal rolls during the diagnostic are good.
  • Focus on the task to come and leave what’s outside, outside.
  • Free the lips, tongue, soft palate and yawn. Open up the channel.
  • Finish with some text based on the class or rehearsal.
  • Don’t warm up lying down.
  • Don’t chat with others warming up. This is work.

Second night blues? Nope.

Tonight clicked. There’s an old theatre furphy about second night being less good than opening night … or at least they can leave the actor feeling a bit ‘off’ and thus the performance is less good. I’m here to tell you that our second night was better than the first. The acting ensemble are firing, and the crew are like a well-oiled machine. There continues to be a great joyousness about working on this production. Without sounding too precious, we really do care about what the play has to say and about the performance challenges we’ve set ourselves.

And tonight was the opening night I wish I’d had last night. I woke this morning with an almost totally recovered voice. God knows how and why this happened; all I know is that almost before my eyes opened this morning, I tried out my range … humming up and down a couple of times. It was back. So tonight with a renewed confidence I feel I hit my straps. I was no longer a beat behind myself, constantly monitoring everything to ensure my wobbly voice didn’t wreck the songs or the dialogue. Tonight it was in the moment time in the most satisfying way.

And the audience? It was a Friday night. I have had a theory about Friday night theatre audiences for years. They’re relaxed, the working week is over and there is the promise of an entire weekend ahead; they’re ready and willing to enjoy themselves. And they did tonight. Up there on stage you listen for audience reaction … laughter, other non-verbal indicators of approval … applause of course, but also rapt silence … this latter is one of the most powerful indicators of focussed attention. We had the lot tonight. God bless Fridays say I!

Opening Night

Is there anything more glamorous in theatre jargon that the phrase ‘opening night.’ Heck Broadway show tunes (Another Opening Another Show: Kiss Me Kate) and even whole shows (42nd Street; A Chorus Line; maybe even The Producers) have been written about this particularly thrilling time in the life of a stage actor. Tonight was ours.

And in the time-honoured tradition of opening night rituals there were little gifts, notes, hugs, wishes all of which reinforced the bonding we’ve created during the past 10 weeks. There is nothing quite as solid as a good ensemble … or as ephemeral. We’ll be fragmented in a few days time, returning to our ordinary lives. For a while we’ve been living in a creative space and making beautiful music together. Opening night celebrates the power of creativity and community … because of course, we get to share it as a collective with the audience.

It’s just gone midnight. I’m home letting go of the evening … the adrenaline rush has dissipated and bed calls. For me, this opening night was walked on eggshells as I’ve picked up some sort of laryngeal problem which is playing havoc with my voice. Oh yes … an opening night of a musical and I’m nursing a voice that doesn’t want to play nicely. This probably qualifies for another sub-plot in the actor’s nightmare. Anyhow, I got through and the production worked. I knew it would. Our creative team is on top of its game and the acting company had a dream ride.

Tomorrow we play again and the next day, and the next. It’s a sweet task.