Friday, January 9, 2009

Duchess of Malfi at Actors Shakespeare Project (Boston)

One of my goals this year is to start seeing more theatre again (especially now that I'm on the StageSource Board, maybe I'd better step it up a little). Though they have an outstanding reputation, I've never managed to make it to a show by the Actors Shakespeare Company--this is due to a lack of time, lack of money, and the fact that I often fall asleep during Shakespeare. All playwrights are supposed to revere Shakespeare, and I am amazed by most of the plays (I was in a Shakespeare company in college), but it's not my big passion. The falling asleep thing isn't necessarily related to Shakespeare--as my family will attest, I'm pretty good at falling asleep in the evening in front of the TV, or in the middle of a conversation. (It's my superpower.)

Last night, I made it to Duchess of Malfi to see the Actors Shakespeare Company at work (though this was Webster not Shakespeare, their first departure from the canon). It was opening night and I had free tickets (which helped).

I did not fall asleep. Not even close. There's lost of love, lust, murder, betrayal, and just plain nastiness on stage. And I was in the front row (which doesn't always keep me awake, I confess, but instead makes me embarrassed when I do nod off), and there was no way I could doze. The play was intense and the acting generally pretty sharp (Bill Barclay as Bosola was a standout for me). I definitely recommend the show.

The staging, a long carpeted rasied runway between two massive sets of double doors was really sharp--set, lights, and sound worked to clarify and enhance the play--I'd love to have this team work on one of my full-length plays.

The space, Midway Studios, is pretty interesting--a theatre carved out of an old mill/factory building in the Fort Point Arts district. Big old wood and iron beams all around, and not bad sound qualities at all. Plenty of space. I could definitely imagine some of my plays staged there (especially God's Voice).

The only negative of the space is that it's a pretty long walk from South Station, which can be both cold and deserted. If I was ASP (not that they've asked me), I'd consider renting or borrowing a 15-passenger van, and set up a shuttle between South Station and the theatre. It'd be a way to make more direct contact with patrons and make sure that people actually got to the theatre. Get a big magnetic sign to put on the side of the van, and it'd serve to advertise the show as it was driving around.

Once the audience is trained to come to this spot, this might no longer be necessary, but you want to get rid of any excuses people have for not attending. (Of course their next two shows are in different spaces, which confuses me a little. ASP has no trouble getting audience, because they're pretty darn good, so maybe they don't worry so much about audience training.)

My other minor quibble was snacks (not that they asked me about this either). If I'm out on a cold night to the theatre and need strength to help me stay awake for Act II and get home, I need good snacks. I paid $1.50 for some little cereal packet that wasn't worth $0.25. Brownies and cookies are where it's at. And not factory ones either, but home baked or bakery versions. Good snacks help finish off the evening (and make money).

Anyway, it's a good show. Go see it if you can (but bring good walking shoes and your own chocolate).


jai said...

In Grad school, my main claim to fame was having survived endless Shakespeare classes. Not only that, I impressed the over-enthusiastic proffessors by attending numerous Shakespeare plays, festivals,and discussions without being physically ejected.

I survived Shakespeare by exercising my own personal superpower. You see, I have the unique ability to sleep with eyes wide open while faking great enthusiasm. While soundly sleeping, I can nod in agreement with some professor who whispers incomprehensible observations about the vagaries of the unintelligible dialogue.

And upon arising from a delightful nap, I can endlessly discuss a totally indecipherable sixteenth century monologue while faking infinite understanding.

Ya' gotta' admire old Will though. He certainly exploited his every life experience.

First off, he apparently took advantage of a bunch of drunk lawyers to develop stories for his plays. That alone bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has ever encountered the intricacies of the American legal system.

Secondly, he ridiculed Royalty onstage in front of an admiring audience without losing his head (literally). Royalty apparently not only attended, they helped fund his theater -- (disclaimer) Do not try this at home. Your local Arts agency will not appreciate your wit and if they do not remove your head, they may sever a more important appendage. ... They could cut off your funding.

He even took advantage of being charged with poaching a deer in a city park by using the deer image in a play or two. I tried to use the image of a fly I swatted once, but... Well, let's just say it didn't work onstage.

And not only that, Will reared twins. Now that's an accomplishment in itself. But Will was smart enough to take advantage of the calamity by creating comedic moments and whole comedies about mixed identities. And I'm here to tell ya' writing a comedy or even imagining anything comedic while changing double diapers for TWO screaming babies ain't easy.

That and the fact that he left his wife his second best bed is the entirety of everything I learned while sleeping through Shakespeare.

I think I might enjoy his plays a lot more if the actors would only speak ENGLISH!

gag said...

How can someone who calls himself a playwright not go to the theatre? No money is no excuse - there are special offers at all theatres, from pay what you can at A.R.T. to $15 seats at Huntington's balcony, and so on. And the location of ASP confuses you? oh dear! If you paid attention to anything other than yourself (rarely have I read a more self-absorbed blog than yours) you would notice that ASP chooses different venues for each of their productions, based on which play they are doing and how the space they chose enhances the experience. GAG

Patrick Gabridge said...

Hm. I like that Gag hit right at the insecurity button--don't all writers have big piles of insecurity that they nurture? I often wonder if I'm sufficiently educated about the theatre to call myself a playwright.

Note, I didn't say that I don't ever go to the theatre, but that I'm planning to go more this year--last year I only went to about a dozen shows (for various reasons, including that I wanted a break). In a typical year, I might go to two or three times that many plays. I'm not sure what the minimum annual cutoff is before they yank my playwright's card. I'll have to ask the Dramatists Guild. (In my defense, I'd like to say that I've been to many hundreds of plays in my life so far.)

As for being self-absorbed... I'll have to confess to being guilty on that one, I suppose (though, btw, this blog is about MY writing life, so it would seem to give me license to talk about what I'm up to.)

As for being confused about the space and ASP's choices--I was able to find this particular space without confusion, but I've run a theatre company before and been involved with a bunch of others, and my experience has shown that there's a certain benefit to performing in a consistent space. This has not seemed to affect ASP's audience draw, from what I can tell, so that's great. I'm interested in the life-cycle of small theatres, based on my work in various cities (especially Denver, New York, and Boston). There various factors that typically cause budding companies to ultimately collapse or else succeed. Cultivating a relationship with an audience is one thing that can lead to success, and space can be part of this. If ASP is able to continue to draw big crowds, despite moving from venue to venue, I'm interested in understanding how they're able to pull this off. My opinion has generally been that, as a producer, it's important to train your audience--you get them to understand where and when to expect to hear from you, and what to expect from you when they buy a ticket.

Rick said...

Pat: As someone who is very involved with ASP (not an actor though), I can say that yes, we do bounce around from place to place, looking for spots that will "enhance the experience" of the play, as Gag describes it. That's what we tell people, anyway. It is true, to some extent, but the other fact, in case you haven't guessed, is money, of which we are desperately short, as are most theater companies. Owning our own space would cost millions, and signing a long term lease isn't cheap either. Fortunately, we have been able to get some brilliant directors and designers, and they are able to adapt what space we do scrounge up to their needs. The Midway studios space, for example, was used for Merchant of Venice last fall. Duchess was supposed to be done in a great space at the Armory in Somerville, where ASP's offices now are, but the building is still under construction and that space wasn't going to be ready on time; no matter, the director/designer David Gammons figured out how to do it at Midway Studios, and it looks so great there you have trouble imagining that it wasn't part of the plan all along.

I'll add about ASP that it will cure whatever hangups you have about Shakespeare. If as you say you think that much of Shakespeare's dialog is unintelligible, that is only because you have not seen it done by actors who know exactly what Shakespeare's words mean, and are superb at conveying the meaning to the audience.

Gag's complaint about your blog being self absorbed is nonsense. It is YOUR blog, writing about YOUR writing life, and some of us enjoy your point of view and hearing what you have to say. If Gag wants literary criticism or political commentary or whatever else, there are thousands of blogs covering that and he should read them, not complain that yours isn't what he wants to read.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Rick. (for the details on ASP and for sticking up for me)

I'm definitely looking forward to more ASP shows (for the record, I think it was a commenter who said he found Shakespeare's dialogue unintelligible (I'm able to follow, but I'm prone to falling asleep)). It's amazing what trained and skilled actors can do for Shakespeare--I once saw a production of King Lear at the National Theatre Conservatory (with Tony Church as Lear)--almost no set or technical elements, but one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen.

The space issue is such a tricky one. Buying a space can often end up being a millstone around the neck of a young company, and it's caused the demise of some very promising groups.

I wonder if more companies could successfully band together to cooperatively lease a space long-term. There are obviously some very tricky things with this (i.e. companies go out of business regularly, who is the primary organizer, etc.) Are there companies who have tried this in Boston? (We were about to do this once in Denver, but the deal fell apart, and I was moving anyway.)

Though the financial downturn will hurt theatres in a lot of ways, one way it might help is in lowering the cost of real estate in the Boston area. In boom times, rents rise so high that theatres just can't find a way to afford space (for performance, rehearsal or offices).

I certainly understand the reasoning, both artistically and financially of moving often. When I was involved in starting Chameleon Stage, we did only site-specific work, because it intrigued us artistically, but also because it was all we could afford. (Chameleon Stage did all new plays.) What we found, though, was that audiences had a hard time tracking us down, show after show.

We never had the caliber of actors that CSP has, and we weren't exactly Shakespeare, either, but I think there were some useful lessons to be learned about training audiences.