Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Behind the Scenes of AS YOU LIKE IT

The Midsummer Shakespeare Company performed As You Like It in July. The teen company had lots of fun on stage and back stage. The Director, Madeleine Burke, set the play in 1930s Louisiana and has this to say about it:

Directors notes
by Madeleine Burke (pictured to the right with Katie Le Dain).

Every summer I am delighted by the journey that these student-actors and I take exploring one of Shakespeare's great plays. I am always thrilled by the discoveries and choices made and how perceptive the students are and how invested they become in the text and in the world of the play. This year, I decided we would visit Arden and delve into As You Like It. When choosing a concept for one of Shakespeare's plays, I think it is important to not impose on the text, but to find an environment and time that will speak to the themes and will allow the play to be flexible. I chose to set the play in the deep South in the 1930s, partly because I felt a resonance of Southern Gothic in the tangled relationships of Duke Senior and Duke Frederick (Duchess Francesca and Duchess Frederica in our production) as well as in that of the troubled brothers Orlando and Oliver. Two pairs of brothers in conflict and both pairs redeemed by the end of the play. I also wanted to find a green world that was beautiful, mysterious, idyllic and also dangerous -- and I thought the bayous of Louisiana would stand in perfectly for my vision of Arden. Music was also very important to creating the world of our play -- from the frenetic Dixieland jazz of the court to the traditional American folk songs of the pastoral world.
At its heart, As You Like It is about the discovery of love -- and love in many forms. Duchess Frederica has a twisted love for her daughter; Celia is the model of selfless love for a friend (and yet is very suspicious of romantic love); Silvius suffers unrequited love for his Phebe and Rosalind and Orland fall in love at first sight. But, what is remarkable about the play is that Rosalind is not content with love at first sight and she tests Orland to see if he can move beyond his picture of idealized love into a more truthful comprehension of what marriage and love entails. In this production, the student-actors were in agreement that Orlando's journey is as complex as Rosalind's and that he has a real choice to make, once he realizes that Ganymede is Rosalind. Is Rosalind's disguise and her testing of his love a deal-breaker for him? We decided that Orlando makes that realization well before the last scene of the play -- giving him the opportunity to decide whether this Rosalind should be 'his Rosalind.' Rosalind, Celia, Orlando and Oliver go through profound changes by their travels into Arden -- as are all of us who took this 5 week journey with them.

Backstage with the cast (left: the women of As You Like It; right: Celia and Orlando )

On stage in performance: (left to right & below) Orlando with the Duchess, Orlando at Court meeting Rosalind and Celia, Rosalind as Ganymede in the Bayou.

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Friday, July 18, 2008


Photos by Scott Schuchman
Eribo arrives on the scene, angry at the overly large visitors

Artax and Atreyu struggling in the swamp

Atreyu receives his mission from the Childlike Empress

Atreyu being followed by Gmork

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Developing New Plays for Imagination Stage

New plays are the life blood of live theatre. Our culture and priorities change so quickly nowadays that even versions of classic stories written two decades ago feel out-dated. The female characters are too passive, or the action too violent, or the messages too pat to speak meaningfully to today’s young people and families. That’s why at Imagination Stage we are always working on four or five new plays at a time. Each new commission is different. Sometimes we have an idea and go to a particular playwright with it and other times a playwright comes to us with an idea. That was the case with THE NEVERENDING STORY. Toronto-based playwright David S. Craig obtained the English-speaking theatrical rights to Michael Ende’s novel while working on another project in Germany. Because the Ende estate commands considerable respect internationally, David needed to promise its agent two productions at leading American Theatres for Young Audiences. I called up my counterpart at the Seattle Children’s Theatre, Linda Hartzell, and suggested that we share the premiere of the play and open it on both coasts in the same season. The fantasy novel turned out to be a favorite of Linda’s only son. She was not hard to convince!

And, as a seasoned playwright, David was not hard to work with. Once the commission was negotiated, he holed himself up on a beach in some South American country for a month to write the first draft. I then met with David and the Linda in Seattle to talk about how to maximize the dramatic elements of the story. The threat of the evil Gmork and The Nothing needed to be established early in the play and build to a climax. David’s second draft was not as faithful to the book but it was a much improved vehicle for the stage. Then when Seattle opened the first production last holiday season, I met David out there again, we talked at length about the production choices there which were, of necessity, very different from what Imagination Stage was planning. The Seattle Children’s Theatre has 600 seats (as opposed to the 380 we have) and the stage is a traditional proscenium, or picture frame stage (as opposed to the thrust that we have). David and I also talked about some possible adjustments to the script that would work better in Bethesda. David arrived about midway through our June 08 rehearsal process and jumped in immediately to make several cuts since the show was running long, and to make line adjustments that helped our particular production. David was ultimately very pleased with Imagination Stage’s production of his show. At his encouragement the artistic directors of two other TYA theatres have traveled from Milwaukee and Tempe to check out how we have solved some tricky staging problems. It is above all gratifying to know that a play that Imagination Stage helped to give birth to is already scheduled to have at least one more year of life at numerous other theatres across the USA next season.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Julie Garner, actor, on 4 characters and even more puppets

I officially play four characters in the show, but it adds up to NINE if you count all the ones for which I make a contribution (aka, Ygramul, Vooshvazool, the Nothing, etc.). I'd have to say the most challenging and rewarding characters for me throughout this process are Morla and Urgl, even though I am hidden behind the puppet and the mask, respectively. There was an intense amount of experimentation that went into fine-tuning these characters -- their movements and characterization. I'm virtually blind while "operating" these characters, but they always illicit squeals and giggles from the audience, and that is very gratifying.

I think the best reason to act in a show is to try something totally different from yourself and to expand the variety of your craft as a performer. The Neverending Story let me accomplish both. Never before have I had to incorporate so many different skills in the same show. Character variety, puppetry, masks, movement, quick changes and ensemble work are not foreign to me, but layering them on top of one another was an exhilarating challenge. Then to layer the expertise of Janet (director), Leslie (movement) and Eric (puppeteer) on top of my own experience was to create a new perspective for each moment on stage.

The technical ambition of this show was enough to alter any actor's typical "process." For example, when I should have been contemplating "what is the bully's super-objective?" I was thinking, instead, "What are the changes I'll fall down if I try to zip my pants and put both arms through a book bag while going down a spiral staircase?" Once the show opened (and I had successfully flirted with this quick-change disaster), I finally began to relax into the natural rhythms of that particular character.

Making this experience even more memorable is the ensemble of actors, directors, designers, and technical crew at Imagination Stage. There is a sense of trust that makes this magic possible. I trust Janet's artistic vision; I trust that the trap doors will open and close safely; I trust that every actor in the show will play each moment to its fullest potential; and, of course, I trust that every person of every age sitting in the audience will leave our theatre entertained and inspired by The Neverending Story.

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Opening a show is sort of like cramming for an exam. It’s a high stress deadline that the company psyches itself for but which ultimately is fairly meaningless. After all, you can get an "A" on a history test but instantly forget most of the dates and details the minute you leave the classroom. It’s your deeper and abiding comprehension of the material that matters and which can help to inform your decisions in the present. Though we tend to think of our VIP opening night audience, newspaper critics and Helen Hayes judges as the examiners in AMERICAN THEATRE who mete out our grades, it’s interesting to note that this is not the only way of working. Last summer when Robert Dion from DynamO Theatre in Montreal was co-directing THE ARABOOLIES OF LIBERTY STREET with me, he was delighted with the possibilities he saw for the show during our public previews. And he was shocked and horrified when I told him that it was too late in our process to make major changes to the set, costumes or action of the piece. With his own company in Quebec, Robert may keep a show in repertory for several years. Over that time, he attends every performance, many different actors cycle through the production, and Robert adjusts the text, the action, and the significant moments as he sees what suits the players. Always, he is striving to make the work deeper. As he understands the play at a more profound level over time from watching and living with it, he has the freedom to make the adjustments that will reveal these discoveries to his audience.

Even as we launch THE NEVERENDING STORY on its 7 week run at Imagination Stage, I know that this talented company is gaining new insights about the story and their characters with every performance they do. It is the response and engagement of the audience that takes them deeper into the hearts of their characters and the magical world of Fantastica. While they have a clear direction, there are still innumerable nuances to be found. I remember when I was an actor discovering something new about a line which I’d said a hundred times in rehearsal and performance but suddenly discovered its true meaning. “How could I have missed that” you ask yourself, “why didn’t I see it before”? Every production possesses an organic life that belongs to the company. Good actors bring new material from their daily lives, the news, a book they just read, a painting or movie they saw to the theatre each day. They challenge themselves to reveal more about their unique knowledge of life through the mouth of their characters in each successive performance. The production grows like a person into its maturity over the run. While I don’t have the option, like Robert, of watching every performance and tweaking the moments over the next seven weeks, I know that I’ll be dropping into the back of the theatre most days to catch my favorite scenes and see how different audiences are responding to the show. What makes live theatre so vital to me in our technological age is that is cannot be canned, graded or dismissed as a finished product until the lights dim on the final performance. Actors and audience are sharing real time, breathing the same air, and connecting in a magical and mightily meaningful way.


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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Michael John Casey (actor) on Tech Week

I'm Michael John Casey and I am playing the role of Falkor among others in The Neverending Story. I have been acting professionally in the DC area for about a decade, and I am very happy to be back at Imagination Stage. This entry is just to touch on the experience of technical rehearsals and provide an inside scoop to the character of Falkor, the luck dragon.

Now truth be told, many actors don't care for technical rehearsals, mainly because they are long days and sometimes amount to a good deal of waiting. But I have to admit that I love technical rehearsals. Having worked my way through college and graduate school in scene shops and occasionally as a theatrical electrician, I got to see both sides. When tech rehearsals come around, I see it as the time when all the different elements and artisans of the theatre come together for the one goal of creating a successful theatrical experience. Getting to really experience the set as the world of the play opens the doors of discovery like very few things do. One gets to see not only how the lights will actually light the play but provide focus and tension to a particular scene. This goes the same for sound. The added level of puppetry with this production makes the experience in my opinion, all the more exciting.

For the role of Falkor, I started with the book and what playwright David Craig has adapted. Falkor has a mischievous quality that makes him charming. He's a bit of a trickster, but has a good moral compass. When Falkor is aware that Atreyu is responsible for the helping in saving his life, Falkor chooses to devote himself to a bond of friendship with Atreyu which becomesan adventure aiding Atreyu on his quest regardless of what dangers that might mean for the both of them. We all have "pals" but it those people who will stand by us in good times and bad that are the ones truly bonded to us as friends. For the physicality of the character, (as the design had gone away from the "flying dog" image of the 1984 movie) I looked to images of dragons and watched a few movies where dragons and their movement was featured prominently. It has been a great deal of fun in the rehearsing and I hope that reads to the audience.

Please come and I hope you enjoy it!

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