19 December 2010

Directing 'Twelfth Night' for Children, Part II

By Kirk Woodward

[The second part of Kirk’s memoir of his work on Twelfth Night for audiences of children in central Virginia concludes the experience. The director completes the rehearsals and describes some of the performances in elementary schools and libraries around Lexington. At the end, Kirk also relates some of the lessons he learned from this work early in his theatrical career.]

May 11

Today Leonard worked with Malvolio individually, and I worked with Viola on being a boy and Feste on constantly being a fool – poses, expressions. Malvolio showed he got the idea of Leonard’s instruction (on which I gave him no advice), but only in spots, to Leonard’s discouragement. Viola, who takes any direction immediately, took to the boy business like a duck to water. She now has a nice first entrance as a boy. She marches out two steps – doesn’t like that kind of walk; marches two more steps, bigger – dejected, doesn’t like that either; then grabs her sword in a huge fighting pose, and freezes. Very funny and touching. Feste said, of his coaching, “I didn’t know if you wanted me to do that kind of thing.” He’ll work on it, I believe; he was a little better tonight.

At the rehearsal tonight I summarized to the cast what Lee had said, and split the group into two: Leonard and all but Feste and Malvolio and I went into the lobby and practiced graceful movement and bows (Leonard worked with Andrew mostly, trying to get him to loosen up). The three of us did the madhouse scene for ½ hour. Then the whole cast worked through the whole play while I stopped them constantly and said things like, “You could bow there, couldn’t you?” “Now add a pretty movement to get from there to there. No, no, pretty.” Some results. Then a refreshment break and a runthrough, up to the last two scenes, which we again didn’t do. It came along decently as a whole.

May 12

Today we met at the church again, and I had an idea which may help a lot. We took separate “bits” and small scenes from the play. With the person(s) on stage doing the scene, everyone else sat at the back of the auditorium and watched and listened. After the scene, I’d say, “React,” and anyone who had a comment would give it; sometimes we’d discuss the comments; and then the whole process would be repeated as many more times as necessary. Hoped-for results were to get the cast to see how much projection and physicalization is necessary to get anything across to an audience, and to draw on everybody’s minds for ways of improving scenes. It looks to me like we really did succeed. (Maria came up to me afterward and said, “Thank you. For the first time I don’t feel like killing myself.” I felt a little the same way.) Scenes became richer in detail and opened up. Three hours of this. Toby resented missing his supper. (I had cookies there, however.) Apparently a good rehearsal. It’s the first thing we’ve done that I’ve been happy about, and the cast seemed to respond. [This is a dangerous technique, because you never want actors to stand outside their roles by judging other actors. However, in this circumstance it helped.]

May 13

Saturday morning rehearsal at 9:00. We did a runthrough, which lacked energy and thought. For example, when Olivia said “Go” to someone, he would get up slowly and saunter toward the door. I gave notes, and then we worked the Viola/Captain scene, the first part of the letter scene, and the Viola/Olivia “’Tis my picture” scene, using yesterday’s methods. A few details were sharpened – suggestions led to the Captain’s being more mercenary, for example.

Leonard knows a lot (witness his very fine work with Malvolio, who is consistent in his physical characterization now) and he’s practical and common sense. I find myself asking his advice constantly, and usually taking it.

May 14

First dress rehearsal. Costumes, which are mostly here, are pretty. So is the set, now complete; I like it a lot. We used make-up; Lee Kahn suggested “heavy and stylized” but it was pretty light tonight. I don’t know the first thing about makeup. I had told Leonard he’d be in charge of it, and somehow I hoped he’d just do it, or someone would, but no one did, so I asked him for suggestions, accepted every one, and they went on that. After the runthrough he told the cast, “Heavier lines on the face.”

The runthrough, lo and behold, was right good. It looks – all of a sudden, it struck me – like a whole show, one we can go with and count on, although nothing like what I originally imagined. There were problems tonight, more in the last scene than elsewhere, so we worked that, punctuating, trying to get openness, clarifying sections, and improving focus of attention. My favorite change was when Viola and Sebastian rush into each others’ arms. I had them run toward each other – stop and look – rush to embrace. It’s much more affecting than before. I tried to get Sebastian to shout “MADAM!” in order to draw attention to himself on his first entrance, but usually he still doesn’t. Then we blocked the curtain call and ran the whole scene without stopping – except the Duke kept breaking up with laughter, so we kept going back to the start of the scene, probably six times, until we finally got through it without anyone’s laughing. An encouraging evening, since a whole show exists and is visible.

Tonight we also changed what Olivia does in the letter scene. Now she and Malvolio stand in ¼ position back to back, she talking and he mouthing the words. It’s much clearer, I think, although Maria says she still doesn’t think it’ll mean anything to the children at all.

May 15

Second dress rehearsal: Sue LaRue had all the costumes completed except Malvolio’s yellow stockings and cross-garters. At 7:00 we began taking photographs. I hoped to take all the shots in 30 minutes; we took exactly an hour longer. A real bore. I made a list of shots to take, but hadn’t thought – have never thought – about photo composition, so they may be good or they may be junk or they may be both. The photographer expected me to know! Depth and variety seem to help make good photos. . . . Then we ran the whole show. It wasn’t as good as last night but it had its points. Most of the problems were technical – for example, Malvolio threw his veil at Olivia; Feste, referring to Viola, pointed at Olivia inadvertently; Malvolio dropped syllables (“Play with some rich Jew” for “jewel”); Olivia, trying to look astonished, looked like she had cramps.

Many words were hard to understand, too. A properly run rehearsal period would teach the cast to discover and correct this sort of problem for itself. We finished about 9:45.

Our crisis for tonight was that Andrew was 45 minutes late for call. When he arrived, he said he’d been apartment hunting and his watch had stopped (he showed me a watch which said 4:10). My first inclination was to replace him in the show with Leonard; and Leonard, although I suppose he didn’t especially want the role (I didn’t tell him he’d have it, but I’m sure he knew), apparently felt we should replace Andrew. I decided to keep him, because of the late date, the photographs, and the cataclysm his replacement would cause the cast; but I told him it was concern for the show, not for him, that saved his hide. He appeared shaken. The cast probably would have been glad to see him replaced, at first; but quickly would have seen how much more they were in for now.

May 16

Final dress rehearsal began at 7:00, with makeup call at 5:30. Maria told us how excited the children were at Glasgow as she told them the story of the play; she said they remembered all the way through who Sebastian was. (We weren’t going to do the play at Glasgow, but because of some scheduling confusion Natural Bridge cancelled out yesterday and Glasgow went in.) I’d asked Betty for some children tonight for an audience, and they were there, but they hardly reacted at all. I thought the performance was mechanical. I told the actors they weren’t listening to each others’ lines, but simply waiting to say their own. They were surprised; they thought they were good tonight. I thought they were dull. Then Feste and Toby worked on the song at the end. Feste speaks it all, because I can’t imagine their working out the singing successfully. I tried to break up his lines for variety. He doesn’t understand the words of the song, and they’re hard to explain. The general problem with rehearsal was that the actors weren’t standing open, but were facing each other and closing themselves off from the audience. The audience tonight came with expectations, but was colossally bored, with some exceptions. We broke up about 8:30, in order to allow sleep for tomorrow. (“Party!” everyone shouted.)

May 17

First performance, at Glasgow. There wasn’t much excitement during makeup, but things went smoothly. The stage at Glasgow is small and the audience only about 150. The set was driven out in an Army 2½-ton truck loaned by VMI for a week along with a Sergeant First Class named Poorboy, who says he doesn’t know much about this Shakespeare. He’s pleasant and although he wasn’t required to, he helped with moving the set. The performance wasn’t bad. The audience cheered for Maria, who’s the school librarian, at the end, but they didn’t react vocally too much during the show. I thought they were watching, though. The cast had expected wall-to-wall tumult (so had I, although Leonard had warned me about that notion – I agreed but didn’t change my tune) and were upset when it wasn’t there. Still I think the cast was pleased, and relieved. It’s sort of a quiet show. It seems to tell the story. (Story outlines had been circulated, so the children knew it anyway. When Feste said, “What do you think? Is her brother really dead?” they said “No!”)

Then we traveled to Fairfield, ‘way on the other side of Lexington, ate outdoors (Betsy Brittigan, that good soul, is providing sandwiches – very tasty), and set up. Then – surprise! – the principal started sending students in early, so the auditorium was filled 20 minutes ahead of schedule, before Sebastian, who had been setting up lights, was even in costume. I’d told the cast that they could play with raising the audience reaction level by varying what they do before the play starts, trying different approaches. They hardly had a chance this time because of the surprise early start; but they did move out into the audience while waiting. The main problem with the performance was that toward the end it became a strain to hear (the auditorium is large), and the audience showed the problem by rustling and talking. The cast was disturbed by the noise; I told them it was simply a problem of intelligibility. When Feste started the Sir Topas routine in a big voice, the noise stopped. Maria’s and Olivia’s voices especially don’t carry well.

Someone at Fairfield asked Olivia today whether Peter Pan would really fly in our production.

Last night Leonard and I decided to have Andrew wrap his head in a bandage for the last scene. Today at the first performance he wore it across his forehead, like a headband. All he needed was a feather to look like an Indian. Leonard and I were as dumb men.

May 18

The Duke slept in this morning; I drove to his house, woke him, lectured him, and drove him back. Later Leonard said he needs a talk generally; he had a separate argument with Leonard; but I haven’t talked to him yet, except for this morning’s remarks.

The 10:00 performance was at Waddell, outside, in their “amphitheater.” The ground was muddy, but the school provided a parachute to walk on. It kept the costumes from being ruined. Lee Kahn warned me yesterday that the set pieces would fly like kites in the first wind if there were no extra weights and braces, but the set carpenter said no. We revised some bits that depended on a proscenium stage, and ran the yellow-stocking scene several times; it picked up some. Malvolio added a new piece of business, in which he sets his leg in Olivia’s lap. The audience was nursery-school through 4th grade. Before the show the cast played Frisbee, also tossing it up to the kids. The performance was good. The actors opened up; they improvised when necessary; and they showed great presence of mind. A dog started chasing actors; Feste chased it off stage, and Leonard calmed it down. The children loved the dog. Then, later, Olivia’s house blew over, not once but twice. The actors picked it up and went on. Audience response extremely warm. After the show, one little girl solemnly insisted on being hugged by Sebastian, who was moved almost to tears. I thought it was their best performance so far. (Leonard said no.) They did too, and attributed the improvement to the audience. I told them not to use the audience as a crutch.

The afternoon performance, after lunch, was at 1:30 at Lylburn-Downing. (The actors were lying down, resting, when the audience started coming in.) Feste keeps improving; he was better this afternoon, using the wide area in front of the stage. It was a good performance, but I thought I detected definite signs of out-and-out ham, and told the cast so, to their surprise. The audience rustled toward the end, but there was a lot of attention, and a good response. Olivia tends to mug a lot when she’s not careful; so does Sebastian. (Toby and Feste do and should.) Viola, Maria, and Malvolio are consistently in character. Andrew hasn’t the foggiest notion of what acting means; he has no ear and no timing and he indicates; he’s my biggest failure. The Duke is becoming melodramatic again.

Touring is a grind. I was exhausted tonight; the cast feels the same.

May 19

Only one performance, at Central. The Duke and Feste were late. Weather rainy. At the school, the principal turned out to be most unpleasant; he hadn’t wanted Olivia’s special education class from the high school to watch – “they’d better be quiet;” he told someone (we heard) that if he’d known seats had to be set up for the show (in the lunchroom/auditorium) he’d never have allowed the show to come to the school; and he gloomed at everyone. A real Malvolio. On the basis of a probably unfounded rumor that this man had once banned Purlie Victorious because it included the word “damn,” and over cast protests, I instructed our group to change our two “hell’s” to “Hades”. . . . I told them the children deserved every moment of pleasure we could give them, under circumstances like this. . . . The children in the audience were pretty rustic, and Betty and Betsy, who saw the performance, were upset by the noise they made, but I didn’t think they were any more unruly than the performance called for, especially since cues were sloppy and the end of the show was style-less and dragged. I told the cast this afterward; they were slightly surprised. I also told them that their moving through the audience before the play started was dull and not attractive, and I told them their cue pickup, from the yellow-stocking scene on, was awful, which it is. The audience seemed to like the play, I thought. (A later report I heard from a teacher indicated the younger children liked it more.)

May 21

For a 3:00 show, call was 1:30. The Duke was 10 minutes late; Leonard told him, and the Duke said so what? “What kind of attitude is that?” said Lee Kahn sharply. The Duke shrugged and went on. The performance was at the Troubadour Theater. We debated whether or not to do the whole in-the-audience routine (since it would be a partly-adult audience), and whether or not to leave the house lights on. To the first, Leonard said “yes,” so we did. For the second, Olivia’s and Maria’s pleas influenced me perhaps more than they should have; at any rate, we turned the lights out when the show started. I made a half-hearted little speech before everyone went downstairs, and debated aloud with myself about how to end the curtain call. (“Let’s not change anything now!” Olivia said.) The audience was mostly adult, but some kids. Toby almost began the show early, on what he thought were instructions from me. (I’m always assuming I’ve explained something when I haven’t.) I didn’t watch the performance except for peeking a little through the lobby door. I gather that Andrew fell off the stage at first; that the audience picked up sexual innuendos and plot twists that child audiences had never reacted to; and that the cast as a whole became sloppy and hammed it up a lot. I said this last to Viola afterward, when asked, and she was shocked, so perhaps she wasn’t sloppy (the word was Leonard’s), but the others seemed to think they were.

Some people in the audience liked the play a lot and a few didn’t. Applause at the end was long. I thought the cast seemed to be working consciously on cue-pickup today.

May 22

Two shows today; an early call. I got the Duke up at 6:30 myself, on request. Some groggy people. Neither Andrew nor the Duke had any sleep at all to speak of last night. We drove to Brownburg, a little school in a little town in a beautiful rolling part of the valley. After we were set up, we sat on the grass and rested; it was a high-point. The performance, when it started, had spurts of energy. At one point Maria kicked Andrew when he wouldn’t hide behind the wall fast enough to suit her. There may have been some personal motivation to the kick, too. The yellow stocking scene was limp and unfunny. The audience laughed often during the play, all the way to the end; curiously, the cast couldn’t hear the laughter, and thought the audience might have disliked them. Afterwards they signed thousands of autographs. Then I gave notes. I told them their performances were solid at the center but contracting around the edges, as though they were saving their best for some other time; as a result many routines, for example, the fight, weren’t as funny as they had been. I told Olivia she was the problem in the yellow stocking scene, since she wasn’t showing any real alarm at Malvolio’s behavior; and that cue pick-up was the other problem.

Then we ate on the lawn, and drove to Goshen, 15 miles away. Goshen’s audience was receptive too. There were some signs of boredom in the audience in the middle of the play. The last scene was extremely interesting. The first part of it, up to “I am Viola!”, was the best they’ve done it; fine listening and reacting. Then the scene immediately began to drag, and continued to do so until “. . . ‘tis Maria’s hand,” when Maria began a long laugh which sounded like it came from the Wicked Witch of the West. This baffled the cast so much that Malvolio forgot to do a whole piece of movement at the end of the show – fortunately not business that the audience would notice. Again, many autographs at the end. I gave Andrew a note – pick up his cues in the first scene – but otherwise gave none. Viola says she’s certain she’s going stale, becoming dull. “I keep trying to change it,” she says. (She appears remarkably consistent.)

May 23

Last show. 11:30 call; many people late. I talked to one actor about another one – something I should never do. We drove to Effinger School, eight miles out, ate, and set up in a rather leisurely fashion. I gave a short note beforehand about not doing any amateurish last-show stunts during performance; I don’t think this group would have in any case; at any rate, they didn’t. The audience wanted action, and tended to be restive in the talky scenes; but the long section of the play from the yellow stocking scene to the madhouse scene was excellent – the best they’ve done it. In the madhouse scene something happened which I should have foreseen, since I saw exactly the same thing occur with David Semonin’s Winnie the Pooh in Louisville this spring. When Malvolio stared ahead of him, indicating that he was in a different place from Feste, the audience followed his gaze to see what he was looking at. They expected someone else to run down the aisle. This wasn’t a problem until Malvolio began doing the scene with some conviction (only the last couple of shows). Leonard recommended a long time ago that we make a simple set of bars for Malvolio to carry out and sit behind; this would have solved the problem; but I didn’t take his advice.

After the curtain call, when the actors went into the audience, the children sat and watched instead of getting up; and they didn’t leave until the principal told them they could. Feste, however, did lead a row or two around.

Tonight was the cast party. The producers and the ladies who’d done costumes and music were very happy. The cast seemed relieved to be through, and pleased with themselves. And that was that.

  1. The first several rehearsal days should have been spent reading the script while standing, and discussing it. (There was plenty of time in that rehearsal period for anything we wanted to do.)
  2. Projection exercises should have been included from the first.
  3. I failed to work hard enough. I was unprepared, and as a result the things I could have the actors do were limited.
  4. On the other hand, experience is important. As I said to Lee Kahn, inexperienced directors often spend their time telling their actors to fly – because they don’t know how else to reach the results they want.
  5. Although group-direction is not the only method of directing, or necessarily the best, it does seem that it can pay dividends, given a thorough knowledge on the director’s part of the play and of group-direction methods, and given the director’s ability to try other approaches when appropriate. It stands to reason that a director who aims for spontaneity and creativity, freshness, awareness, and energy in performance, will aim for those same qualities in rehearsal. In our production, growth was stymied – growth of scenes (a good routine or feeling would barely begin before it ended) and of the actors.
  6. Still our production contained many good things – Toby’s clowning, Feste’s energy, Viola’s luminous and touching unsentimental character, Malvolio’s surprising dignity, Andrew’s fencing gesture, Maria’s determination, Olivia’s perfectly wonderful comic pathos (perhaps my favorite of all). The audiences were moved by the brother/sister reconciliation. We never had a bum performance, and a week or so into May we started working together. All these things are worthy, and I’m grateful for them.

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