28 April 2010

Caught up in the drama

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” – Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

As I stepped out into the crisp, night air, full moon beaming above me brightly, I had a sense of vengeance and vindication being acted upon me. A seismic shift of my place in the world.

Allow me to explain.

In my former life, I was a theatre director. It was a life I relished and enjoyed with zeal. I was passionate about my art, and adamant in my devotion to the great craft that I shared with countless scores of actors, hopefuls and talentless wonders.

My relentless dedication to detail and professionalism gave rise to more than a few ‘cruel to be kind’ antics that garnered me a reputation that would make ‘Ming the Merciless’ blush! Although admittedly and decidedly Napoleonic, I viewed myself as loving despot, whose goal was to bring the best out of my performers – often in spite of themselves.  

I was firm, but fair; and saw myself as the means by which my artistic wards would reach their desired ends. In other words, if they couldn’t handle me, how on earth would they ever survive the brutal, heartless world of their chosen profession?

I cannot count the number of nights I have spent in darkened auditoria, slowly pacing richly carpeted floors, in a room that has sudden gone airless. A petrified actor stands on an empty stage; white, hot light glaring down upon his/her vacant face. I can almost hear their racing heart, sense the breath that has now stopped, and the trickle of sweat rolling slowly down their spine.

The actor has dried. Forgotten the next bit of text, but dare not call out “Line!” knowing that I will, in my own words: “Fly, from wherever I am in the room, and stop you.”

And so, we wait.

In silence. 

A silence that seems to last a millennium as the wheels of the actor’s mind spin out of control frantically. As the metaphoric hamster in her brain races in its cage.

My actors would never guess that I hated these moments as much as they did. I will not go so far and say: “I suffered in those moments, too.” Because, I didn’t. Yes, it was painful; but it was my job to make them better actors, to make them professionals.

Then, the spark.

As if they have been struck by a thunderbolt issued from a merciful theatre god, the actor springs back into life, the words flow instantly like a raging torrent, never to be forgotten again.

It seems I have spent decades of my life limping in this manner through pages and pages of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Strindberg, Wilde, Genet, and the like. Excruciating times, amazing times.

As a result, I am still staggered by the joint decision the DEB and I made recently to join the Barford Drama Group. I vowed to myself, and anyone who’d listen, that I would never, ever get involved in amateur dramatics. And yet, here I am.

The Drama Group is a bedrock institution in our village, and its formidable director, Betty Corbridge is a legend in her own time. Well into her 90s, Betty has the spark, verve, drive, agility, and dedication that would give any director more than half her age a run for their money!

Truth be told, I joined the Drama Group just to have an opportunity to work with Betty. Betty is remarkable, and had an illustrious career as theatre director in London. Her career spans several decades, and her artistic triumphs include a citation and Honours from Her Majesty, the Queen.

I spent one glorious afternoon with Betty looking through her old production photographs and stunning pictures of her theatre company during off-stage gatherings. 

Each year, the company hosted a gala dinner for the casts and their supporters. These were no small soirees, but rather lavish, glittering, formal balls; and the pictures are filled with incredibly handsome men and glamorous women dressed to the nines in tuxedoes and gorgeous evening gowns. At the centre of the fabulous festivities is beautiful Betty, svelte and blonde, looking just like a 1950s, Hollywood screen siren. 

Age has not withered her, and she still has that same sassy sparkle in her dazzling blue eyes. But don’t let the sweet smile and delicate, graceful manners fool you, Betty is a force to be reckoned with.

“Well, what did you think of that?” – Betty smiled at us, as we awaited her assessment of our first attempt at the play without our scripts in hand.

“I must say,” she declared, “I thought that was ghastly! Ghastly! Positively awful. Wouldn’t you agree?”

And, in case we were in any doubt, she went on: 

“No. That really was quite dismal, girls. It was so painfully slow and laboured, if I had been a member of the audience watching it, I would have left in the first five minutes.”

Then, she demanded: “What can you say for yourselves? Does anyone have anything to say? Anybody?”

We daren’t answer. Or breathe.

Fool that I am, I hazard a weak apology: “…in some of the really slow moments, Betty, I think we were trying to seem contemplative…”

There is a pause. The air in the room disappears. Silence seems to last for millennia.

“Well,” Betty sighs calmly, bright eyes ablaze. “I could certainly see that you were trying, my dear. It was very trying, indeed. Perhaps, when you all get your lines we may have time to try some of those sorts of nuances, fine tuning, and may be even some acting.”

During the coffee break, I made a note for myself: “Don’t Be a Talentless Slug”. I wrote the note on a POST-IT. And stuck it to my forehead.

Our second attempt warranted a better response from Betty: "That was better. You actually managed to make me laugh once or twice. Well, the play is a comedy, after all."

"Was it really better?!" - we replied, eager for more praise, albeit barbed.

"Yes. On the whole better. There were even a few flashes of brilliance, in fact. Though they were very few indeed." Betty concluded.

Suitably chastised, my fellow actors and I left rehearsal with our tails very firmly between our legs. But, as I walked home through my sleepy village, I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of the times when I, too, have skewered an actor to the quick, with such directorial gems as:  “It’s called acting, perhaps you’ve heard of it?”,  or, “That was good. Let’s do it again, and this time, try acting.”

Sometimes, what goes around comes around.

23 April 2010

Why Shakespeare?

It is a question I am asked routinely; and yet, I never feel able to answer this question fully. For me, Shakespeare is visceral. His words seem as close to me as my own heart beat. But to respond to this question with such excessive sentimentality (in New York, we would employ the Yiddish word: “schmaltz”), or with the reply: “How not Shakespeare?” seems utterly pompous and pretentious, but for me it is utterly true.

Only recently have I come to enjoy the exchanges which follow the inevitable “So, what do you do?” question. When I was but a wee Shakespeare diva, I used to be quite shy in acknowledging my Shakespeare habit. Instead, I would say: “Theatre” or “Literature” or some other vagueness. Over the years, however, like so many a Shakespeare heroine, my “strange love grew bold,” and I have finally found my voice. Now, when people inquire, “So, what do you do?” I beam brightly, and declare: “Shakespeare.”

And, then, of course, I wait for the reaction. Trust me, there is always a reaction. ‘Shakespeare’ is one of those terms that will always prompt a rejoinder. I would argue that few words in the English language inspire or invite such immediate responses as ‘Shakespeare’ does. Like his quartos, these reactions come in good and bad varieties. The reaction may even be ugly, but it is never, ever indifferent.

Everyone has an opinion about Shakespeare - and a desire to share that opinion, too, apparently. I can honestly say that I have never known a single person to respond by merely saying: “Oh, really?” and then press the conversation on, as I once imagined they might do if I held a different occupation, as say, a pediatrician or a botanist. (No offence to pediatricians or botanists intended.)

I did test this theory once, in fact, and came to realise quite swiftly that pretending to be a botanist is not the best idea -- particularly if you are not quite sure what a botanist does, exactly. I think when I replied rather weakly to further questioning with a faint: “Something with plants?” I may have given myself away on that occasion.

Lately, I have started to chronicle the myriad, and often humorous, reactions I have received upon informing a new acquaintance that I “do” Shakespeare. Here is a small sampling:

“Shakespeare? I love that guy! Genius. 'Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow,' Yeah, yeah! But, let me ask you’s somethin’. How that guy get so smart?” – Cabbie from the Bronx 

“Oh, I love that line! Y’know. The one about the bumble bees. Y’know, 'To be a bee, or not to be a bee.' I totally get that. I get tired of buzzing around, too.”– Waitress in a diner in Washington, D.C. 

“Shakespeare? He’s about life.” –  Hip hop artist from Brooklyn 

“My daughter absolutely loves all that stuff. She’s dead clever. Always got her head in book. I do encourage her, but I am concerned that some of that Shakespeare can be a little inappropriate for children, I think. Like that one scene, where Frodo is attacked by that giant spider? That was really scary and graphic.”

   - Woman on transatlantic flight from Birmingham to Newark, New Jersey 

   “I think Shakespeare is the greatest writer of my country. Are you Ethiopian, too?”                             – Taxi driver in Atlanta


The most sublime example of my “Why Shakespeare?” encounters is a moment in April 1990, during the annual Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations, standing atop The Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

As I stood overlooking that idyllic river, swans gliding by in the distance, His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales asked me: “Why have you chosen Shakespeare? What has brought you to study Shakespeare here in Stratford-upon-Avon?” I will confess that I was as stunned by the question, as much as I was by the speaker. That was 20 years ago, and I am still searching for the answer.

Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations, 23-25 April 2010, Stratford-upon-Avon. Annual Parade and Procession, 11:00 a.m., Saturday 24 April 2010. More information: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/birthday.html 

16 April 2010

Where I work...

My first day at Charlecote Park, I thought I was dreaming...
It is such a magic and idyllic place.
Since then, I have struggled with the best way to share it with you. 
As words seem to escape me, I thought it best to show you...

The Charlecote deer, doing what they do best -- being arrestingly beautiful. 

A view of "West Park" from the staff gate

The oldest tree in Charlecote Park - 450 years old. Isn't she grand?

The walk to the Gate House from the public entrance