¶ Twelfth night refers to the last day of the Christmas holiday season, a time for playing practical jokes, such as hiding birds in pies, and going to plays. Like most of the plays being done as part of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival’s WIL Fest this month, twelfth night only comes once a year. It is special, occasional. I was reminded of this context when listening to Beth Yocam’s pre-show pitch: “this is the first time this group of actors has done this play together.” While Performance Studies teaches us that, because of its liveness, no two performances are alike, for OPS Fest this is doubly so: there is no chance to rehearse before the show or get another crack at it with this group of actors. What is more, this is true of every OPS Fest show. This is the only chance they get to play in this part with this group of people. If they do it again, the ensemble will be different in some—usually many—ways. For an OPS Fest actor, the stakes are high at every performance, so there is no room to phone it in or get bored.
¶ This occasional context also had me thinking about the other acts of courage that playing with OPS Fest requires…and not all kinds of actors are necessarily up for. If you’ve been to a show in the parks this year, you’ll notice that the actors play not only all the way up to the edge of the audience, but in the audience. When the London Globe theatre opened, backers were nervous and assumed no one would pay for the standing “groundling” tickets. These are now the first things that sell-out, and recordings demonstrate people love to lean in on the lip of the stage. Audiences want nearness. In the WIL Fest “Twelfe Night,” it felt like a third of the play was performed in and amongst the lawn chairs and blankets. Intimacy like this takes courage, a willingness to be close to an audience member you don’t know and not drop a line—let alone step on someone. This isn’t instinctual. The other kind of courage is that of trusting the other actors, often some of which you haven’t worked with before or in a long time. Will they say their lines correctly? This matters, as a well-timed entrance depends on a correctly delivered cue-line. With the three months of rehearsal that contemporary theatre companies use, it’d be silly if you hadn’t developed a rapport with your fellow players. There is also the added variable of apprentices being worked in to every show to consider. There is little way around giving yourself over to the process if you want to be protected by it.
¶ A play about disguised twins and forged letters, in what ways was this “Twelfe Night” affected by the dynamics of performer courage?
¶ When I talk to friends and colleagues about original practice (O.P.) performances, their first response is usually a skeptical one. Part of that resistance stems from an assumption that anything trying to return to an early moment or wellspring is a museum artifact: stagnant, static, lacking flexibility and topicality. If you’ve been to an OPS Fest performance, however, you will note that there are no hose, doublets, of ruffs, nor is original pronunciation or any kind of accent used. (I should say accents are used, but typically to draw attention to comic or class distinctions.) So what is “original” about these performances? It’s in the practice.
¶ As any musician will tell you, one practices alone and one rehearses with a group. As is mentioned in the pre-show talk every night, the many-month-ed rehearsal of contemporary theatre was not a feature of the Renaissance. One memorized in private, and then came to do the show. To use another musical simile, OPS Fest capitalizes on the performance technique of a prima vista or “sight-reading”: to perform a piece of art upon first sight. Part of being in a professional orchestra or jazz combo relies on the fact that you have played so much music that your brain can more quickly pick up the patterns and anticipate the shape of a melodic line accurately at relatively first sight. It is a matter of a great deal of practice and exposure to a lot of material quickly. In an O.P. performance, you are seeing actors capitalize on having seen chiasmus, litotes, and other rhetorical figures so many times before that they understand how to deliver them, despite not having seen this particular case in front of them before.
¶ In other words, O.P. is about experimenting with how sixteenth and seventeenth century players made theatre, not what. It is about the conservation and rehabilitation of a set of tactics and strategies, rather than the preservation (and possible mummification) of the content of a specific play. Take, for example, the A-frame sidewalk signs you’ll see guiding you to the performance space (pictured above). They use the same graphic art taped to the sign that you will see on posters throughout the neighborhood in the weeks before the show, as well as on the cover of your program. While there were no sidewalks or such signs in the period, there was this exact kind of printing redundancy for advertising. When printers were requested to make a run of copies of a play to sell, they printed a number of extras of the title-pages. These “playbills” were posted around London advertising the playbooks, who lately performed the play, and where you could buy copies. So while the specific design, paper stock, and ink aren’t the same today, the practice of it most certainly is. So how did the WIL Fest staging of its second tragedy, “Macbeth,” fair under these conditions? Continue reading “WIL Festival 4.1: “Macbeth””