¶ The Original Practice Shakespeare Festival performance of “The Comedie of Errors” was an all-female cast. I wrote a few weeks ago, in response to a Globe and Mail article, about the importance of gender parity in Shakespeare-oriented companies. I have also discussed in two recent WIL Fest posts (here and here) about the ways in which women playing male roles as either male or female characters is in keeping with the spirit of repertory system as well as the gender theory of the period from whence they come. One might say, an all-female cast is as accurate as the all-male casts of the Renaissance.
¶ A benefit of working in repertory is that the plays placed side-by-side can speak to each other. Put in close proximity, they can suggest themes and ideas that might be otherwise subsumed by other aspects of the plays. An all-female “Errors” is a smart move to follow “The Taming of the Shrew”: it gave actual women agency to make performance choices within their peer group immediately after a play nearly impossible to find female empowerment. While actors routinely play against a character’s assigned gender, here nearly half of this cast chose to play their role as men, including Kelsea Ashenbrenner (as the officer), Isabella Buckner, Amy Driesler, Lissie Lewis, Sullivan Mackintosh, and Shandi Muff. What this implies to me is that cross-gender casting and cross-gender performances have become commonplace for the company: it is simply part of the system in which they work. What did it do for William Shakespeare’s shortest play?
¶ 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””