Sunday, June 23, 2013

Antony & Cleopatra 2013

Antony & Cleopatra 2013 Directed by Ira Seidenstein, PhD
How did this project begin?
In 2012 I had directed the third play by Valentino Musico in Sydney. A friend and former student from NIDA, Berynn Schwerdt said he would come to see the play, and did so. He came with his friend Denby Weller. They liked the direction and we chatted afterwards. Berynn and Denby said they had a whim to act at Antony and Cleopatra. We discussed that briefly and did a Three-Musketeers - "all for one and one for all" type of agreement. We followed up on it. I asked Natalie Lopes who was acting in and assisted in producing Musico's play if she may be interested to help produce A & C. We discussed the possibility of her also acting in it. I said we should have a workshop asap. Denby said she had a friend Brinley Meyer who was interested to play Enobarbus.

At the workshop was Denby, Natalie, Brinley and another associate of mine Alice Williams. The workshop that dealt with the relation of movement, voice, acting and Shakespeare and my creative method of interpretation on the part of the actor. Berynn could not make the workshop so at the end I read in for "Antony" in the single scene I selected to examine as an example of the way I approach discovery of a text in an ensemble context.

After a few minutes some bits started to fit into a mise-en-scene/staging logic. At least a few possibilities. This was Act 3, scene 11 that starts with Antony and Attendants, shortly Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, Eros enter. My main edition of the play has Iras listed thus "[Ira]", another edition has Iras listed thus "[and followed by Iras]". At any rate we started to make headway to see some 'humorous' possibilities. For example we see that Cleopatra's attendants actually cajole or perhaps even argue with her. We saw that Antony is a 'case'. I went so far as to say that he may be bi-polar. He is pouting like an adolescent. The attendants of Antony (Eros) and Cleopatra (Charmian and Iras) are trying to get the lovers together. It is absurd, sad, pathetic, comical a slice of a domestic kitchen drama. Shakespeare lets us see in this scene the total vulnerability of the super elite.

That was the beginning. The next phase was the casting. I could see that Natalie would be the ideal Charmian. We set a date for the auditions. As soon as the first notice went online within a few minutes Tammy Brennan who had recently completed my Quantum Clown Residency #4 wrote and asked if she might be considered for an audition. She was cast as Octavia.

Section Two - Casting/Audition
Even the folks who I asked to be in the production I also asked to present a Shakespeare monologue. They were free to choose any monologue/soliloquy. In auditions I try to work with each actor about 10-15 minutes. In that time I run it as a workshop and also explain that I am auditioning for them. I show them a sample of how I work and if they don't like that way then please do not do the production. In recent years I have joked that I am a "prodologist" that is I prod and provoke the actor to give more of what they are really capable of rather than just giving what they were taught to give. Remarkable things can happen in those 10 or 15 minutes. So even the few folks who I asked to be in the production have not been directed by me before in a Shakespeare play so the specific issue was around the combination of; Shakespeare, the actor, and, my method(s).

Denby (Cleopatra), Brinley (Enobarbus), and Natalie (Charmian) had already been in a Shakespeare workshop with me and we knew what they would play. Natalie was teaching the day of the audition so Denby and Brinley assisted me by welcoming people, handling the CV/Photos, and being witness to each audition. More importantly, I wanted them to assist to witness the transformation that each actor would make in a few minutes - to see what would be possible in our few weeks of rehearsal. I worked each actor 'hard' thoroughly. Each actor gave a lot, was challenged and was positively supported by me.

The others who I asked to be in the production included Bruno Lucia, Bron Lim, Erin. I asked my friend Aku Kadoggo who was newly returned to Australia to play three parts however she had a work commitment exactly during the time of our performance season. Then I thought I could play those three parts and was going to, but, Slava Polunin the Russian clown, asked me to fill in for a few weeks for one of the Russian actors in his "Slava's Snow Show". The first week of that gig was the second week of A & C and I thought it would be good to give the actors a break from me seeing every show. It also had the potential to be good publicity to be involved with the two shows. But also I realized this coincidence was an ideal way to celebrate my 40 years in theatre and to celebrate one of my key philosophical ideas of the value of relating acting (classical acting as in A & C) and clown (classical as in Slava's Snow Show). Then I had to get someone to take that set of three characters: Soothsayer, Mardian, Clown. So I asked a young actor I had taught one day - Yiss Mill. He had never really been in a full play with professionals. But I suspected he would offer something unique and he certainly did.

Bruno played four characters and Bron played three. So in a way Bruno, Bron, Yiss became a triumvirit of character actors. A character actor in olde school acting was a type of clown/actor who could transform themselves completely into a role.

There were other actors who also played several roles but they are a different nature than the classic character actors. And each of those who played several roles did fine jobs!!! I think the character actor is one who will simply radically shift their body language and vocal tones. Yiss was the least experience but he travelled a huge creative and technical distance in rehearsal. The others who played several roles were Brendan, Robert, Lara.

Already early in the casting process Enobarbus, and Alexas (Bron Lim) were going to be played by women. I cast one man as Eros but he could not adapt his financial work for the artistic as we were doing a co-op and likelihood of earning anything with 18 actors and a stage manager and a director were slim. Then Berynn wrote to me that just in case - I should know - that he had a sister who was an actress and had fairly recently graduated from WAAPA. She was the single person I cast without having met - and that meant I had not auditioned for her with my method. So that required for us each to travel a special route and after two weeks or so she got stronger and stronger in every single rehearsal and was well on her way to her own breakthrough. Even when an actor makes a breakthrough with me, it is then still totally up to actor themselves to honestly realized what they have discovered about their own creative potential and most importantly how to negotiate that.
I think the two adult actors (we had four youth actors in our ensemble) that I haven't mentioned yet who played a single roles were Jonathon Dunk (Caesar) and Paul McNally (Agrippa). They each had a big journey to completely locate their characters, that is, their unique and personal expression of 'Caesar' and of 'Agrippa'.

So that is a bit about the Beginning, the Audition, the Casting.

Natalie Lopes (Charmian and the co-producer with Denby) and I discussed the possibility of working with four of her youth acting students. Natalie is a Drama Teacher in a school and also has a private acting school with about 120 youths. She selected four of her private students and got permission from their parents. I referred to the group of four as "Ms. Lopes' Troupe". The members of the troupe were Miranda, Millie, Brydey, Harry. Their ages were 13-16. They played the messengers, guards, and servants. Their participation brought an exceptional grace to the ensemble. I cut them no slack but respected their youth and managed not to swear too much, too often.

The fact that all the actors had to be 'mindful' as there were youths in the rehearsal room and project helped to bring about a heightened awareness and generosity. Mind you on the very first moments of rehearsal one of the actors let out a right full ribald exclamation. Well that border was crossed over. The 'kids' were delighted. And that was one of many moments of locking in the ensemble. Tammy (Octavia) was one of two actresses with a child (Bron has two) and due to her house arrangements and philosophical outlook her daughter 5-yr cheeky as could be Pebble came to rehearsal when Tammy did. Ms. Lopes' Troupe automatically looked after the 5-yr old. Erin also was very active to keep Pebble entertained and out of the way. The scoundrel who did not get Pebble out of the way at times was me, Herre Direktor. Amongst my several eccentricities in theatre and rehearsals I actually like it when things go astray a bit. So when Berynn was practicing dying as "Antony" Pebble decided it was a nice time to play skip-to-the-loo-my-darling RATHER close to Berynn a'dying which he was unbelievably tolerant of and I was totally delinquent in delight of the extreme of absurd rehearsal methodology. But there was at least one worse incident with the glory of a delightful freeform 5-yr gallivanting during a tragedy (one I can only refer to at best as a comic-tragedy or an absurdist play). So when "Antony" in Act 3 scene 13 has "Thidias" whipped our two servants a'whipping were two of the young lasses of Ms Lopes' Troupe and in one rehearsal only one was available so Pebble (ye olde 5-yr olde) knew the cue and the fun action so she helped escort the ragged and whipped "Thidias". This perversity of our sacred theatre is actually the only sacred theatre where all humans are welcome to participate. I have for decades said that "real theatre should be at least three generations if not four". When I started in theatre at college (university) we had a wonderful deeply humane director Trudy Scott and we had a fine eccentric group of zanies as the acting group and this included Bonnie Gilmore who though likely only 21 years old herself, had a 5yr olde we called "Baby Jennifer" who was more often than not in rehearsals. This to me is 'real' theatre where the norms of society don't fit and each ensemble or project can make up their own rules of conduct. Fortunately Berynn and Denby our protagonists and lead actors had the most accommodating demeanours on many levels.

Another organic happening was for some reason that Ms Lopes' Troupe took an extreme liking to Tammy (Pebbles' mom) and many a time they were all in a group having found a number of common interests and chatting away. All these little nuances to me were like theatre heaven. Or at least one form of it.


Peter Brook in a book "Conversations With Peter Brook" (2000) by Margaret Croyden has a chapter of the interview that preceded the premiere of Brook's Antony & Cleopatra. He said "We've never seen the play.". He meant that at least up until his production the play had been interpreted so incorrectly that in fact everyone in theatre thinks they know the play but they don't. I think what folks have in mind is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - so to speak. That was a movie, but, somehow in our consciousness we think we know the play. Most productions of A & C are cut and edited and shortened versions. I have seen the play three times. All pretty horrible. But the one at the Globe in London 2006 had a fantastic Cleopatra - Frances Barber was glorious and as I had long believed and insist - Cleopatra is a form of a clown. A clown not in a ha-ha sense but in the sense of a free though troubled spirit who will do anything at any moment even if it is inappropriate or ludicrous. I also liked that the Clown in Act 5 scene 1 who brings the basket of figs and asps was dressed as a traditional party clown circa 1970s. The rest of the production may have been the Cecil B. DeMill-esque version, but, boring, straight, conservative.

To be sure, A & C is wonderfully complex. The cross themes of war, love, politically plotting, and here I make my claim of infamy, comedy. Comedy? But isn't it a tragedy? Is it? If it is, fine, ok, but why is there a clown at such an auspicious moment? I think that clown's appearance is very suspicious. I think, what I really think, is that there is a LOT of comedy in William Shakespeare's 'tragedy' Antony & Cleopatra. I am not saying it is ha-ha-ha-ho-ho-ho raucous knee slapping comedy. Not at all. However, there is plenty of comedy. Where? Actually the interesting point is why to most productions try so hard to stomp out the comedy? That's actually the question because I don't think there is a question about A & C being at least part comedy. I grant the possibility as previously mentioned that the play is a tragi-comedy or an absurdist play. But I am not sure that it is really a tragedy. I think four exchanges between Antony and Cleopatra initiate a comedy. But the stage is set before that in the 'prologue' by "Philo" whose ending is "Take but good note, and you shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet's fool. Behold and see." Just after that in rapid fire are several points of contention between Antony and Cleopatra which she taunts and plays with - dare one say - clowns with.  That is just scene 1. Scene 2 (Act 1) has even more clear signals of comedy ushered in particularly by "Charmian" and reinforced by the ensemble of and with the Soothsayer who can't get a word in because "Charmian" beats him to the predictions, yet, at the same time clearly (according to the text - the words spoken) frequently she keeps pulling her hand away as the Soothsayer tries to grasp it to read her palm. This scene in fact is broad comedy and borders on or can easily be portrayed in a slapstick fashion. Though of the Noel Coward witty type supported also by some comic physical repartee.

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