My Favorite Parts of Performing: Prep & Notes

It feels weird and a little wrong to admit this, but my favorite part of performing isn’t the performance itself.

Now, obviously, that’s key to the experience. And I love doing it.

But my heart flutters most before a show and after a practice or, in the case of improv, show. (In the non-improv theater, you stop getting notes after previews are done. In the improv theater, you may or may not get notes after a show. But I’m always happy when we do.)

I have a problem with presence, i.e., the being in the moment kind. (And now, we can begin a run of presence/present/presents puns! I’ll let you do that. Come back when you’re done.) I’ve got a bit of a Janus complex, always looking back and looking forward (at this very moment, I’m frustrated with myself for not focusing harder in statistics class today, and excited about having my team over for a movie night), and struggling to be in the moment. So, it makes sense that my favorite part of performing isn’t the actual moment when I’m most in it (though I’m proud to say I am present-as-all-get-out on an improv stage, saving analysis for after the show’s over).

I think one of the reasons I like the getting-ready and the getting-notes is because they are small, shared experiences. When you’re on the stage, yo’ure having a big shared experience: you, your fellow performers, and the audience are all in on something together, and it is MAGIC. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. BUT. When you’re in a dressing room or green room or backstage, or when the house is empty and it’s just you and your fellow performers and the director and crew on the stage, that’s it’s very own brand of magic, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world, either.

In my very first community theater production, I would arrive at the theater an hour before call, just to have some extra quiet time in the space. I was 13. It actually ended up causing a problem for the company; they got charged for the extra time I spent in the dressing room. Oops!

At the improv theater now, sometimes I get called down for notes for a show I didn’t even perform in – I’ll have crewed it, or I’ll just be around, or it’ll be a show with a format similar to the shows I’m on even though technically I’m not on the team – and every time – EVERY TIME – I get a warm feeling of contentment. I think it’s because GIVING & GETTING NOTES, as an activity, is targeted toward continuous improvement, and continuous improvement is pretty much my favorite thing. One of the reasons I’m skeptical that I’ll ever “outgrow” doing improv is that there’s no ceiling on it. You can always keep getting better. There’s always the risk of a bad show, and as devastated as I am when I perceive I’ve had a bad show (I’m usually wrong and at worst have had a mediocre show), I find it oddly exhilarating at the same time to know that 20 years from now, I’ll still be having bad shows and still be finding new ways to be better.

Improv is crack for productivity hobbyists, I guess, is what I’m saying.

Booking through Thursday: Shakespeare

Booking through Thursday

Okay, show of hands … who has read Shakespeare OUTSIDE of school required reading? Do you watch the plays? How about movies? Do you love him? Think he’s overrated?

I first read Shakespeare in 8th grade. We were assigned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that was a smart move on the part of whomever made that decision. Thirteen-year-old me was ripe for a play about fairies and lovers. It was one of those interlinear versions with the original text on the left and a “translation” on the right. I loved it, though I frequently found myself thinking the “translation” was dumb.

In 9th grade, I was assigned Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. Again, genius job, people who decide 9th graders should read R&J. Because developmentally speaking, they are supremely relatable characters when you’re that age. JC wasn’t so great – I’ve never been big on the histories, and it just didn’t grab me. I think that while the language is what makes Shakespeare remarkable, it’s the stories that have to be the gateway for somebody new to Shakespeare. If you can get them with the stories, then they’ll get over the challenges of the language, and maybe even find the beauty. My senior year, we read Othello, another one that didn’t grab me, again because I couldn’t relate.

In college, I chose to take a Shakespeare class to fulfill my English requirement. I hated the class because it was mostly the professor reading aloud to us, and he had a gravelly, expressionless voice. I think the most important thing to know about Shakespeare’s plays is that they weren’t designed as great literature. They were intended to serve as popular entertainment. This is why I think the very best way to experience Shakespeare is to see it performed – either live or in a movie. I am lucky enough to have the means and opportunity to see Shakespeare regularly performed at Playmakers Repertory Company.

If you can’t get to a theater, movies are the next best thing. Here are my top 5 Shakespeare adaptations:

  1. Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh
  2. Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon
  3. Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Kenneth Branagh (not artistically brilliant, but a very fun time)
  4. Titus, directed by Julie Taymor
  5. The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford

And three honorable mentions:

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Michael Hoffman
  2. Twelfth Night, directed by Trevor Nunn

Plus there’s a great recorded stage performance of Twelfth Night directed by Nicholas Hytner.

If you think you don’t like Shakespeare, try the Whedon Much Ado. It’s probably the most accessible Shakespeare adaptation on film. It grew out of Shakespeare readings that Joss Whedon used to have in his backyard. Inspired by him, I hosted two of these myself, gathering friends, assigning roles, and just reading aloud. It’s so much better that way than trying to imagine it all in your head. Not everybody there was a Shakespeare expert, but you don’t need to be. Try hosting your own reading and see how it goes.

tl;dr: I haven’t done much extracurricular Shakespeare reading, but I do love him; watch Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Edited to add: One more thing! I forgot to mention that if you can neither get to a theatre nor find a film adaptation, you should totally check out Manga Shakespeare. Having the plays illustrated in a cool manga style with the original text is the next best thing to actually getting to see actors perform it. Romeo and Juliet on the streets of Tokyo with katana fights? Yes please!

Edited to add, 2: I failed to mention Branagh’s Much Ado, which is what first set me in love with Beatrice. Because Emma Thompson is INCREDIBLE. Consider it to be #1.5 on my list of top 5 adaptations.

Color Me Brown Book Challenge: Theatre Recommendations

Color Online is hosting the Color Me Brown Book Challenge. The goal is to read and review books about people of color throughout the month of August. I will not be participating as given – I have a long list of books to read for my YA Lit class and am working hard not to add any new books to my TBR pile until I have a sense that I’m going to be able to get through all of those – but I will be making it a point to diversify my reading over the next year or so, and then maintain that going ahead.

I heard on the radio this morning that today begins the National Black Theatre Festival which is held in Winston-Salem, NC. If you are a reader of plays, I have some recommendations for you of plays that feature people of color. Some I’ve seen and read, some I’ve only seen or only read. Some I love, and some I don’t. I’ll list the ones that come to mind and add any more I think of later or if any of you add some in the comments. I’ll link the Wikipedia page or another resource for each play; several of them have been made into films you may wish to watch.

Plays I Love
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry – Audio Link – This centers on a family that receives a $10,000 life insurance check and the plans of each member of the family for the check. It also explores racially motivated land convenants when the family buys a house in an entirely white neighborhood and the neighbors attempt to bribe the family to leave.

Having Our Say by Emily Mann – This play, based on a biography of the same title, is about the Delany sisters. Sadie and Bessie both lived past the age of 100, and this play introduces us to them as they are 103 and 101. It takes us through their memories. They’re local girls to me – from Raleigh, NC, less than an hour’s drive from my home and the city where I taught for three years. My sister and I loved this play and the dynamic between the two sisters that, in 1999, we parodied it with a skit called "Getting Our Way." I was 17 and she was 13 at the time. Here’s my favorite exchange from the skit – I can’t remember which of us said what, so I’m just having me speak first.
KIMBERLY: People often ask us how we’ve stayed so young. I tell them it’s because we never married.
MARY ELISABETH: And I tell them it’s because we’re only seventeen and thirteen!
(Hmmm. I guess we’re old now; my sister’s getting married on October 17 and I just did.)
The film version of Having Our Say stars Audra MacDonald, one of my favorite Broadway stars.

The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe – In this play, the audience witnesses different museum exhibits which satirize both stereotypes and actual elements of African-American culture.

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks – This play is AMAZING, especially if you see it performed by an excellent cast. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, live together and struggle with work, love, and their relationship with each other. Incredibly moving and so well-written. An excellent blend of comedy and drama.

Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere-Smith – A series of monologues that chronicles the Crown Heights riots in 1991. (I can’t even begin to explain the riots so I’m just linking info about them.) I stage-managed this play my freshman year of college. It was by far one of the best experiences I had during that time. Anna Deavere-Smith is coming to speak at the North Carolina Literary Festival and I’m very excited.

Other Plays
Fences by August Wilson – A play about Troy Maxson, a garbage man, and his experiences and challenges in life.
Contant Star by Tazewell Thompson – The life story of Ida B. Wells, a journalist and leader of both the civil rights and women’s rights movements.
The America Play by Suzan Lori-Parks – A play about an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who decides to dig a replica of the Great Hole of History.

Further Notes
Most of the playwrights cited here have written more than one play, so I recommend checking out the full catalog for each of them. I didn’t want to list plays with which I wasn’t familiar, which is why I’ve only listed these eight. Taken against the vast number of plays with which I’m familiar, this small number exposes my own ignorance of theatre about people of color. Another thing for me to improve upon.

Poetry Friday: Richard III

I’m currently working on a production called I Hate Shakespeare.  It runs through quite a few of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and then some of the lesser known ones as well, poking fun at them (and at people who claim to hate Shakespeare, actually).

My favorite part of the show is the "Zombie Theatre Presents…" segments, when zombies interrupt famous soliloquies.

The first of these is from Richard III, and I present it to you here, with some zombie stuff added at the end so you can get a feel for it.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

BRAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIINS!

Photo by JayT47.

Theatre blog!

Theatre Thursday: Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Welcome to Theatre Thursday!  Because plays are books too, I will be featuring each Thursday a play I’ve read that I think you should read.  After all, I got a degree in this stuff and it’s languishing.

So.  That’s the plan for Theatre Thursday.

On this fine Thursday I’m exhausted from too little sleep and a full day of work, so I’ll just give you a selection now and talk about why, later.

You should read William Shakespeare’s HAMLET.  Not just because it’s a classic, though that’s important.  But also because it’s a very SMART play, a very TIGHT play, and way better than most people would have you believe.

If, like many folks, you feel plays were meant to be watched and not read (and indeed this is true), then I strongly recommend the Kenneth Branagh HAMLET.  Because seriously?  All the others cut a lot of stuff out.  This is the only Hamlet movie with the WHOLE SCRIPT in it.  Yeah, it’s over 4 hours long.  But it’s 4 BRILLIANT hours.  And it’s out on DVD now, too.

We’ll talk more about why HAMLET is awesome another time.  For now, just take my word for it.  Here’s a quick snippet for you. 

Enter HAMLET, reading

LORD POLONIUS
O, give me leave:
How does my good Lord Hamlet?

HAMLET 
Well, God-a-mercy.

LORD POLONIUS 
Do you know me, my lord?

HAMLET 
Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

LORD POLONIUS 
Not I, my lord.

HAMLET 
Then I would you were so honest a man.

LORD POLONIUS 
Honest, my lord!

HAMLET 
Ay, sir; to be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand.

LORD POLONIUS 
That’s very true, my lord.

HAMLET 
For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a
god kissing carrion,–Have you a daughter?

LORD POLONIUS 
I have, my lord.

HAMLET 
Let her not walk i’ the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.
Friend, look to ‘t.

LORD POLONIUS 
[Aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my
daughter: yet he knew me not at first; he said I
was a fishmonger: he is far gone, far gone: and
truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for
love; very near this. I’ll speak to him again.
What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET 
Words, words, words.

LORD POLONIUS 
What is the matter, my lord?

HAMLET 
Between who?

LORD POLONIUS 
I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

HAMLET 
Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here
that old men have grey beards, that their faces are
wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of
wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir,
though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet
I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for
yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab
you could go backward.

LORD POLONIUS 
[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method
in ‘t. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

HAMLET 
Into my grave.

LORD POLONIUS 
Indeed, that is out o’ the air.

Aside

How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness
that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity
could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will
leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of
meeting between him and my daughter.–My honourable
lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.

HAMLET 
You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
more willingly part withal: except my life, except
my life, except my life.