Last fall quarter I did a lot. I was in a lot of shows, had a paid job, was a full time student and tried to be a good person. Two of the shows, however, were probably the most emotionally taxing endeavors I have ever taken on. Those shows were Gibraltar by Octavio Solis and Richard III by Shakespeare. In Gibraltar I played Jackson, a husband dealing with his wife’s (Dot) Alzheimer’s, pushed by his melancholy into an affair with his wife’s art-therapist (Amy). In Richard III, I played Queen Elizabeth, whose power is stripped as her entire family is massacred by Richard. Both characters are defined by one facet of their psyche: grief.
How do they explore it/repress it? How do they react to tragedy in different (or similar) ways? How is their grief gendered?
These are the questions I saught to explore through the lense of these two characters. It was incredible being able to rehearse/perform these two people (nearly simultaneously). For each, I first had to start with the text-work. I filled out my objections, noted the motifs, tracked the smybolism/themes throughout each script and especially did my diligence to map out the diction/meter/figurative tropes within the iambic pentameter. I then started, in rehearsal, my embodied practice of “outside in”. I picked specific choices in how these two characters stood/walked/their pace/what part of the body they lead with. I start this by thinking about the spine: how does this person hold themselves? For Jackson, I chose to lead with the forehead (he’s a thinker) and hunched over. He’s insecure/ he’s not the man he used to be, he’s lost a part of himself through the years of grueling in-Home care for Dot; I thought this spine choice reflected that characterization. For Elizabeth, I chose the chest, fully upright proud spinal alignment (come on, she is a Queen after all).
Pace: For Jackson, I chose a deliberate pace (efficiency of motion through space-time). For Elizabeth, I chose slow, slow strides when she’s at court- she’s in control. She controls time-space, she moves like a panther. Her hands flow like in water, in a finger-pyramid- always thinking about the next move. I totally channeled my actor friend Leontyne Mbele-Mblong. She’s like pure steel onstage, she can change the temperature of a room with just one glance or gesture. I needed that energy.
Voice: this proved to be one of the more challenging aspects of these roles was 1. Finding the right voice for these characters and 2. Maintaining proper vocal health throughout both processes. For Jackson, I discovered a deeper, raspier voice than my normal speaking voice, one that reflects his age and quivers with the fatigue of taking care of his partner for that long. For Elizabeth, I decided the really control my voice- spitting out consonants and wailing during the lamentation scenes. Both roles were vocally challenging- Jackson being lower and Elizabeth in her screaming mourning. I had to be very conscience of maintaining good vocal technique for both.
Now let’s get in depth.
Jackson- pressured by the heteronormative society supporting toxic-masculinity is not allowed to fully express his grief. Rather, he suppresses it. This is unhealthy and may be one of the causes of why he cheats on Dot with Amy. He comes to eventually realize the love for his wife is real. He can’t give her up or throw her away. After the last performance, right after I got off stage. I cried. I blubbered. It was all I can do. I was empty.
For Elizabeth- catharsis is allowed. This purgation/pathos is allowed and fully expressed publicly in her lamentatiòn scenes. But one of the challenges for me was, how to do we from this controlled level-headed politician (on the verge of a breakdown trying to keep everyone okay and run the country while her husband-the king-sleeps around with anyone!!!!) and mother become a (nearly) famlieless widow with no political power wailing over her loss? How do we oscillate and negotiate those two facets of her character? Her mathematically sound/calculated crumbles into rocky/jumbled verse full of enjambments and endstops. She also enters (upon the death of her husband) hair disheveled, and it doesn’t get much better for her after that. Her lamentatiòns are some of the richest poetry in all of Shakespeare’s canon and her final lamentatiòn scene with Margaret and York STOPS THE PLAY COLD. THESE WOMEN FINALLY COMD TOGETHER AND TELL THE STORIES OF THE DEAD, engendering the space with empathy. Margaret helps her out on armor, giving her strength to curse him and put him in his place. Community is cultivated. Her war-of-words with Richard is some of the most riveting language of Shakespeare- she is clearly his equal. But does she win? In that scene: I’m not sure. Long term yes- she resigns to marry her daughter off to Lancaster and create the TUDOR EMPIRE (I mean come on: girl power¡¡!!!!). But her “Shall I forget myself to be myself?” js one of the most haunting lines in western drama. It’s also completely enigmatic and nebulous. What does she mean? Is she willing to give her daughter over to Richard to become queen regent once again- how can she- I mean he murdered her CHILDREN AND BROTHERS for crying out loud. I think I’m that scene she finds strength. The strength she lost. And she is now pushed into action again from her inertia- what else can she do- she has to be ten steps ahead of everyone else.
This experience was very taxing. There is so much emotional weight to both of these roles I often struggled to keep it up- to GO to that place of DEEP DEEP GRIEF and LOSS. But how amazing!
I got to explore both genders expression of loss!! 1. Men= Jackson 2. Women= Elizabeth. What a magical opportunity. At the end of the entire process I felt empty/full- satisfied at my ability to shift between the gender spectrum and explore two dream roles I never thought I would play at age 20.
I am writing this post to talk about my views on the current state of theater in our pop culture, specifically the importance of queering the classics, thereby beaming the binaries they foment and expanding representation onstage. Right now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) a queered production of the acclaimed musical Oklahoma! is being performed in which the two main couples are same sex. I think this is a perfect and prototypical example of what the future of the classics/musical theater should/will look like, queered casting. I think it’s really important to be conscience of what/who’s story we’re telling as a society. I mean come on, boys/men played ALL of Shakespeare’s women. Why can’t women do it for the men? And why can’t the men continue to play those female roles? How is Guys and Dolls different with same sex couples? Or opposite gender casting? Does Othello change if it’s characters are queered? What if Dolly Levi was transgender? What about Macbeth? The Trojan Women? Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Sweeney Todd? Does it even matter? This kind of casting expands and degrades the harsh gendered binaries often perpetuated by the classics and the discriminatory nature of the canonical edifice in pop culture (disregarding minority voices). If gender is performative anyways- why not shake it up a little bit? I/we have a really exciting future ahead of us with theater. Get ready for it.
I wanna briefly exraportale a theory I have concerning some of the local SF-Bay area theater companies. It seems that a lot of companies seem to (at times) exclusively support the work of some actors by casting them in their seasons over and over again as well as having them work for their company in other fields (administration, front of house, casting). I think while this is wonderful for talented actors looking to really ground themselves and stick with a particular company, but this however leads to a problem: the vortex effect. I call this the correct effect because it can often be degrateting to both the company and the artist. Each show looks the same, I get bored as an audience member and the actors aren’t stretching themselves beyond their bag of tricks. Essentially everyone becomes all consumed by themselves and it leads to stale, boring shows. Stale actors. A stale company. How do we combat this? Well, as actors I guess we shouldn’t get too invested in one company. We should be invested, rather, in a myriad, who trust our work and know it to be precise/thought provoking. At first, I thought it was only certain companies but then I realized that ALL theater companies to some extent have this dilemma. Actors just have to be resourceful and value their work beyond a single company (casting permitted). Companies should then be open to hiring a wider range of actors- yes your Resident artists, but also some fresh faces. Or maybe not. Who knows- maybe I should stop complaining.
While on vacation (getting a little r and r) I began to reflect on one of the busiest times in my life: fall quarter 2017. That time was probably one of the craziest, most artistically fulfilling times in my life. At one point I was performing a play professionally (Hamlet); rehearsing a new-work musical (Near Love Songs); cast in a play (Gibraltar); and cast in a play with the role TBD (Richard III). (I also had a couple auditions peppered within that time). This period taught me the importance of self care and to balance a happy personal life with a fulfilling artistic one. I prioritized sleep and seeing friends, valuing a relaxing cup of coffee with a friend to decompress. At times, it was deeply challenging negotiating this time, but when again in my life will I be able to say that I was working on (to some extent) four amazing productions at once?
My first year in the theater department at UC Davis was marked by experiences I need thought I would have. My fall quarter I was an ensemble member (a Greek soldier) in The Trojan Women. The classic was directed by Kirsten Brandt. I loved working under her specific direction and I always felt valued as an actor (even with a bit part) under her specific, guided notes and corrections. And, of course, I made the majority of my friends in the department because of this production. I also acted in a devised play- an experience I had never done before- this process made me act quick on my toes and really develop a specific character. It was part improv-sketch-comedy-greek-tragedy; it was an incredible experience. Winter quarter I served as an assistant stage manager for a production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike directed by Mindy Cooper. This experience taught me the value of a strong tech team to make a show run smoothly. Our stage manager was probably one of the most efficient and professional student stage managers I have worked with. It was very valuable being able to work so closely with a team of professionals. My spring quarter I served as assistant director for the screw-ball farce The 39 Steps directed by Mindy Cooper. This play was great fun to work on and working so close with Mindy was a gift. I learned the value of bringing bold choices into the room as an actor and brining really really specific character choices. So what did I learn from all of this? The value of watching. You know, maybe I wasn’t ready to act up there on the main stage yet, but, I got to watch actors who were. I watched Danika Sudik (Hecuba in The Trojan Women) deliver monologue after monologue each night: each time slightly different. Each with a different turn, spin, choice, emotion. It was amazing to watch. From her, I learned bringing different choices into the room and the specificity of linking text/language/voice/body. With being an ASM I watched an amazing group of actors work as an ensemble, working to develop impeccable comic timing. This I also watched during The 39 Steps. I learned the danger of half-ass choices and non-specific FULL EMBODIMENT of different characters. I watched Mindy try to pull choices out of actors like pulling teeth- I vow to never be that. This whole year: I watched. I learned from the failures and successes of my peers/elders and I know I am a stronger performer because of these experiences.