¶ For the next three weekends, the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival (a.k.a. OPS Fest or OPSF) will be holding their WIL Festival. The aim is to perform all 15 Shakespeare plays they have in their repertoire—they add two each year—over successive weekends. Aside from the opportunity to get speedy exposure to half of William Shakespeare’s oeuvre, this is also as close as you might get to seeing the plays in the system for which they were designed: in repertory.
¶ The Elizabethan repertory system, my particular field of expertise, dictated how players prepared and presented plays, how the market responded to fluctuations in competition, and how playgoers consumed these plays. Here’s what you need to know about playing “in rep” for the sixteenth century:
- A playing company performed a different play every night of the week, excepting Sundays…sometimes.
- A play was rarely performed more than three times in the same month. Again, there are usually many exceptions.
- The same stable of actors were used to perform in this variety of plays. (Think every Kenneth Branagh, Wes Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino movie you’ve seen.)
- There was no set algorithm or discernible logic of rotation for when a play would be performed nor in what sequence.
- Sequels were not necessarily performed in order or on back-to-back nights. (Titles of plays that implied it was part of a sequel weren’t always, either.)
As any theatremaker today will tell you, necessity, more often than not, is the mother of invention. Listed above are patterns we are able to discern broadly from the archive. No doubt who was available to play that day dictated a number of choices. We do know that these patterns were true for the companies that rented out the Rose playhouse in the mid-1590s based on a record we call Henlsowe’s Diary. This was an outdoor amphitheater in Southwark, on the shores of the Thames, that is currently undergoing archaeological excavation.
¶ So while you can’t see a Renaissance play every night as was the case in the period, you can see five plays this weekend over three nights, and never the same one twice. Without exaggeration, it is the closest to the spirit of original performance that you can get anywhere in the country. The first show, last night’s “Romeo and Juliet” on the shores of the Willamette River, opened at the Rose in the season following major renovations in the playhouse. Entertainments of all stripes had been shut down due to a terrible plague outbreak. Playwrights turned to printing plays as well as publishing sonnet sequences to make ends meet, and theatre landlords used the time to renovate. The Rose got a balcony for the first time to keep up with the new Swan, not finished but also rumored to have an extra level. (In this way, “Romeo and Juliet” as we know would not have been possible without Yersinia pestis.) In space and sentiment, last night’s opener summoned up the ghosts of its first performance in compelling ways.
¶ Over the next two weekends, I’ll be blogging about the WIL Festival, the plays, and what this unique system of performance does to and for our brains. There will be a bit less of the usual “review” and a bit more theatre history as I chart how the company performs in the spirit of the period and the ways in which today’s performance norms and priorities evolve what playing “in rep” does to the performance event.
¶ First up, “Romeo & Juliet” at Willamette Park.
¶ The Capulets and the Montagues hate one another. Romeo (Montague) sneaks into a Capulet party and meets Juliet (Capulet). They marry in secret. Juliet’s cousin challenges Romeo. Romeo kills him and is banished. Juliet fakes her death. Romeo doesn’t realize, takes poison, and dies beside her. Juliet wakes and stabs herself. [From the playbill.]
¶ There are a couple things I am watching for at an OPSF show. First, I am looking for a new spin on a scene I’ve never seen before. Second, I am looking for instances when the material conditions of the environment and/or the character of the audience provides an opportunity to change something about the play. Third, I am looking for creative ways of messing up. As Isabella Bruckner said of her part last night, the Prompter is the “shepherd of the show,” to give lines and to interject as needed. During one interruption:
PROMPTER: Hey Benvolio, what’s is your favorite band?
BENVOLIO (Noah Goldenberg): 3 Doors Down, until they played the inauguration.
Mercutio (Lauren Saville) has almost too many interesting things to do in this play; it seems unfair. In this version, his party disguise was Darth Vader, interchanging light saber for rapier and back again depending on the level of intoxication. At one point, while waiting for others who had missed their cue to get onstage:
PROMPTER: Hey Mercutio, what’s your hangover cure?
MERCUTIO: Half a bottle of Advil™ and I like that hair-of-the-dog idea.
As you might imagine from these examples, the role of the Prompter is both improvisational and inventive. They must come up with smart interjections, giving an actor an opportunity to build out a character’s backstory (see Russell Brand talk through Trinculo here), as well as make the most of unpredictable variables in the environment. Unique to the troupe and unlike anything in the period, the Prompter gets to be a co-writer with Shakespeare across time.
¶ Kindred to the clever cues the Prompter might invent are the interesting interruptions the Prompter has to weave into the performance moment. If you don’t, the fiction is broken and, more importantly, an opportunity is lost. For example, when some particularly loud sirens passed during a scene between Frier Lawrence (Brian Allard) and Romeo (Ken Yoshikawa), just after he has first met Juliet in her family garden:
PROMPTER: Romeo, why are the cops after you?
ROMEO: (jumps and disappears into the tent)
The most memorable case of this from last night’s show was a thirty-second industrial barge horn, deafening the scene when Juliet (Kaia Maarja Hillier) is impatient to hear news of her love from the Nurse (Alec Lugo). While the Prompter did try to ask a re-directing question (“Hey Nurse, how did you meet your husband?”) it was impossible to really hear or give an answer. Instead, as the cross-dressing Nurse, Alec held up his skirts to feign a hoop-sized fart. Several other actors joined in to fan and waft around him as if trying to dispel a pungent and loud passing of wind.
¶ There is one big challenge to staging this play that I hinted at earlier in this post: the balcony. It is not necessary to the scene, and some critics don’t believe it was actually used. The earliest versions of this play, the other plays by other playwrights playing in repertory with it, and Henslowe’s record all directly point to the presence of a balcony/Heavens space above the stage. (I actually have an award-winning article on just this.) So, how do you make a balcony in a park? The troupe (perhaps unknowingly) used a late medieval drama staging technique: demarcate the locus and the platea. This just means, make sure that your Romeo is costumed for the masque as Where’s Waldo?™. Then he can sit among the audience while speaking to Juliet. He is still visible, but the hierarchy of their separation is strongly and clearly implied. Solved, and cleverly, too.
¶ Ready for more? Up next for today, Saturday, 22 July, at Irving Park (NE Fremont):
2:00PM “The Merry Wives of Windsor”
7:00PM “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar”
¶ Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes. You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.
- The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
- Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
- Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.