Rewriting the Bard: Julius Caesar

Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?

Casca: Ay, she spoke Greek.

Cassius: To what effect?

Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’th’face again. But those that understood her smiled at one another, and shook their heads. But for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2

Greek to me.

After three months of working, I’ve finished the draft of the gender-reversed adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that I’ll be directing throughout October and November. (We open in December! If you’re in Colorado Springs, you need to come see this!)

And let me tell you this about adapting the Bard-His-Own-Self…

It’s intimidating. For a couple reasons.

First, the reputation: I mean, here’s a guy who has dominated the world stage, hundreds of thousands of English lessons, and is quoted daily. You probably said something he wrote at some point today — maybe you realized you quoted him, maybe you didn’t, but I would bet any amount of money in your pocket that there was something.

Second, the language itself: Say what you will about Shakespeare. The boy could write. There’s rhythm and vocabulary and plot structure. It’s kinda like fluent Greek and then me: speaking elementary Greek. Reading the Dr. Seuss of Greek, not the — um — Shakespeare of Greek.

So what kind of cocky, arrogant, ignorant ignoramus jumps into one of Shakespeare’s best known, most performed plays, and then just…”adapts it?”

*Raises hand slowly*

The Draft.

That’s me. I did it.

And not only did I swap the genders around (more on that in a later post). The Bard probably wouldn’t recognize Act V much (more on that in a later post). He’d wonder why so many conspirators were alive (and then die later). He would probably be curious about the dancing…but, then, he’s a theatre guy, so he’d probably roll with the dancing. Maybe he’d be irritated at how I reconfigured the Soothsayer.

I admit. I was hesitant at first. Mostly, I said to myself, “Self, we’re just going to swap the genders, keep as much of the meter as we can while we do that, and then make some judicious cuts. That’s all, Self.”

As I dug deeper into the text though, I kept thinking: “Self, it’d be cooler if this happened, then there can be a visual representation of XYZ. And if we move this character here, it solidifies ABC.”

So I made the changes. Then myself was like: “SELF! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

“WHAT WOULD SHAKESPEARE DO?!”

(Which is kind of dumb question to ask yourself, because we know what Shakespeare would do. He did it. I was in the midst of fucking it up as I asked myself that very question.)

Ironically enough, it was thinking about “What would Shakespeare do?” that gave me the creative freedom to cut and rearrange and reassemble.

Because Shakespeare fucking stole everything, rearranged it, reassembled, and cut and pasted. If Shakespeare were right beside me in the office chair, he would have done the same damn thing. Probably with more blood. He was an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” (“Our” being other playwrights of the time period — meaning he stole their shit.)

Over the next couple weeks, I will explain my actions. In the meantime, I say that we all take a deep breath…and think about what else we can steal.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Directions

Dead Man’s Cell Phone Production Poster (Designed by: Linda Nichols)

Sarah Ruhl is the second most performed playwright in the United States — second only to the Bard his own self. This is the last weekend that it will be performed in Colorado Springs at the Springs Ensemble Theatre.

In other words: this is the last weekend I’ll be playing Jean.

I cannot tell you how much I love doing this play. If I could, I would perform it every day. A lot of that love is due to Sarah Ruhl’s writing style, which, as a writer, I sooooo appreciate.

One of the coolest things Ruhl does as a playwright is her stage directions. They’re almost like poetry themselves. And, while specific, they still let the director, designers, and performers go to town creatively.

This is where there’s a big ol’ difference between writing for the stage versus writing for movies versus writing novels.

Movies tend to break things out simply: Character A and Character B fight. (And there you have about twenty minutes of any Transformer  movie.)

Novels (short stories, etc.), of course, will spell all of that out: Character A hurls a chair at Character B. The chair cracks in half over Character B’s head, carving a gash across B’s forehead. And on and on — perhaps with Character A is drinking a gin and tonic.

This is how Sarah Ruhl chooses to present a fight scene in Dead Man’s Cell Phone:

A struggle for the gun. 
Perhaps an extended fight sequence
with some crawling and hair pulling. 

That magical word ‘perhaps’ leaves everything open but she’s also managed to convey exactly what this particular scene needs. Sure, you can do an extended fight scene and both Character A and Character B can be drop dead serious about what’s going on — that’s definitely one way to go. But the other is to follow that ‘perhaps’ and you get something far more in tune with what the rest of the text suggests: this is a kinda ridiculous situation — but there’s a gun so you better take it kinda seriously. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot…and the writing in the stage directions hits that note just perfectly.

Something else that happens in Ruhl’s writing — and is noticeable in the above passage — is that she breaks lines the same way poet’s do.

A struggle for the gun. This is very straightforward. And it’s its own paragraph/line/sentence. Note there’s a period.

Perhaps an extended fight sequence This fragment is left hanging. But it’s a singular thought too. This is like a line of poetry — a piece that is it’s own thing but is still connected to the next line…which is kind of a turn.

An ‘extended fight sequence’ call to mind something very serious. Then Ruhl changes the tone with the next line:

with some crawling and hair pulling. She finishes the thought with something unexpected — which is how the fight sequence should work.

We know from the rest of the play that at least one of these characters should just not be involved in a fight sequence. Because it’s ridiculous. Absurd. And the stage directions are written in a way that reflects this. It could be written like this:

A struggle for the gun. Perhaps an extended fight sequence with some crawling and pulling.

Reading it that way feels different. (At least to me.) To me, this way feels more throwaway.

I once heard an interview with Ruhl and she said that one of the most frustrating things about watching performances was that the director/actors/designers were so busy trying to put their own stamp on a piece that they didn’t worry about ‘birthing’ the story. She already wrote everything down. The story is there…and she left enough flexibility to give the director/actors/designers to come up with something really creative. So why not just tell the story?

Our director said that if we have any questions, to look to the script first. Everything is there. And it is. We’ve taken Ruhl’s notes and tried to make magic. I think we’ve done pretty good too. Here’s a review from Broadway World Denver. If you’re in Colorado Springs this weekend — you can snag tickets (hopefully) at 719-357-3080.

A Clockwork Orange: The Book, The Movie, The Play

Tonight is the opening night of Theatre ‘d Art’s production of A Clockwork Orangein which I am playing Alex’s mother and the orderly who straps him into the cinny contraption. Aside from the insane story, the insane in-your-face staging (we’re doing it promenade-style), and the insane insanity inherent in the piece itself…this has been a basic, not-insane lesson in storytelling for me.

At this point I have three experiences with the story of Alex DeLarge: book, movie, play.

Basic storyline (for those who may not know): Alex is a Beethoven-loving gang leader in a dystopian world dominated by troubled teenagers. One night his raping and pillaging goes too far and he kills a woman, is betrayed by his droogs, and is carted off to jail. He hears about this new psychological treatment created by this dude, Ludovico, which gets you out of jail faster and decides to participate in the treatment. The catch: he will get sick every time he is confronted with violence. He will be made “good,” but only because the doctors have mind-fucked him. As he tries to sort out his new life, the question becomes:

Is being good at the cost of personal choice bad?

To illustrate his point, Burgess created several scenes of crazed depravity at the opening of the story. And this depravity is what got me thinking about how certain elements in a story are told. The (what I’ll call) visceral-ness of A Clockwork Orange is revealed in a different way for each manifestation of the story. In each of the variations, there is an alteration in how some things are handled.

The reason these situations are handled differently for stage, screen, and page is because different mediums create different levels of visceral-ness. It seems painfully obvious. I’ve heard some people say movies can do some things better than books and vice versa…but I’d argue it’s not a matter of better or worse, just different. Throw in a third medium, like theatre, and there’s and additional round of elements that work differently. (Man, I feel like a need a thesaurus.)

However, adaptations can tell the same story with the same level of visceral-ness. You just have to adjust how the story is shown/told.   

For example:

Sex with the Girls
In the movie version of Clockwork, Alex hits on a couple girls at the music library and they go home and have lots of sex — portrayed in a time lapse. Now, movies have an automatic ‘fourth wall’ built in. There’s some distance created by the screen. So how to make Alex’s Lots-o-Sex scene impactful to the audience?

The visceral element of the scene is inherent in the amount of nudity (totes nude, folks) and the time lapse element itself which indicates hours are passing and they just keep having sex in a variety of positions, attitudes, states of dress, etc. Not to mention how long the time lapse goes on….This scene is one of many used to show how jacked-up young Alex is.

However, Burgess didn’t have a time lapse available to him with just words. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a time lapse would probably be worth a gazillion and Clockwork would be more like a Proustian exploration of depravity and the reader would be so bored by the infinite descriptions he wouldn’t get to the hospital scenes until Volume 7. What does Burgess do to show how fucked up Alex is?

In the book, the girls are ten. Ten years old.

See what happened there? It took one sentence and a fragment and I bet you’re thinking: That’s fucked up. The reaction is from your gut. It’s visceral in its visceral-ness

The play doesn’t have that scene at all, and I bet I know why…so to illustrate, I’m going to talk about another scene:

The Rape Scene
I said before that movies have an inherent fourth wall, and generally plays do as well. However, while we understand Malcolm McDowell touched his co-stars and wore a penis mask on his face, we’re still protected by the screen.

In theatre, you’re watching a real live human touch another real live human right in front of you. The only protection is air.

Our production is even more intimate than that. In a promenade-style, you go to the action, it doesn’t come to you. When Alex rapes F.Alexander’s wife, he has her bent over a couch right in front of your face. In the end, the lights go off at the very crux of the moment — and the audience breathes a sigh of relief. The theatre doesn’t have to go as far to create a visceral reaction because it’s right there. If we cut the clothing off of our actress’s breasts and stripped her down like Kubrick’s movie, it would be far too much.

Going back to the Sex with the Girls scene — if a theatre did that, it would be too much. Plus, I think there are laws….

So, the next time you see a movie or a play based on a book and something’s different — just keep in mind that sometimes things get changed so the impact of the story is the most effective.

And here’s the trailer to Theatre ‘d Art’s production. Opens tonight! If you’re in Colorado Springs, we run this weekend, next weekend, and the weekend after.

King Henry VI, Part 2King Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Henry plays — and a great deal of Shakespeare’s history plays — were written prior to 1594. These are Shakespeare’s early attempts and a lot of critics have pointed out: it shows.

Henry VI, Pt 2, is definitely rough. There are a crap-ton of characters, some of whom only show up once for a couple lines and then disappear. In a production of these plays, a lot of these roles would be doubled-up. The result is a somewhat chaotic read, though I bet it’s much easier to follow on stage.

All I really have to say about this play is: Early Shakespeare is Still Shakespeare!

And I think Shakespeare might’ve missed his true calling: darkKill-Bill-style comedy.

Yes, I think Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino should get together. Wait, scratch that. They’d never shut up so they’d never get anything done. Both are kind of long winded.

However! Jack Cade, the badass-but-not-too-bright leader of the rebels, who appears near the end of the play, is the epitome of a Tarantino talky-crazed bad guy. He makes decapitated heads kiss each other. He kills people for calling him the wrong name. He proclaims random laws. His scenes are straight out of Pulp Fiction. It’s a good thing Shakespeare didn’t have access to needles. (Or, maybe, a bad thing.)

Some of that shit was so disturbing I laughed out loud.

Do the nobles plot for an unreasonable amount of time? Yes.
Is it sometimes difficult to follow characters and their motivations? Sometimes. Yes.

But I liked it way more than I thought I would.

View all my reviews

The Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare

I’m trying to read Shakespeare’s works in the (generally) agreed upon order in which they were written. That means there’s a lot of histories up front. Right now, I’ve finished the Henry VI trilogy and am moving on to Richard III.

And, really, the only thing clear to me is Shakespeare’s historical presentations are quite questionable. There weren’t any archaeologists or disciplined historians back in the day. Most of the base material he used to produce these works are biased at the very least.

So, I find it ironic that English majors, historians, and armchair quarterbacks use such rigorous focus when studying the Bard.

For example, there have been several productions of Shakespeare’s plays in the past few years who have gone to a lot of trouble to recreate the original pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time period. Below, you’ll find a video featuring David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, presenting the methodology behind figuring out Shakespeare’s language.

But the real question is why do we even care about Shakespeare’s original pronunciation?

A couple different reasons off the top of my head:

1. Meaning. As Crystal points out in the video, the original pronunciation alters the meaning of the words themselves — you can see changes in jokes/puns. This is a real-life exploration of the evolution of language. And evolution of meaning affects:

2. History. It’s also pointed out in the video that Shakespeare’s language/dialect was the language/dialect of the first colonists of the United States. While the presenters of the video are focused exclusively on Shakespeare, it’s just a natural leap to assume the language (and possible meaning alterations) transfers to historical documents.

And that doesn’t even come close to the several ways of understanding the plays themselves, which these gentlemen do a much better job of explaining:

Tonight there was a lot of screaming

Luckily, no one was injured in the riot rehearsal process of Marat/Sade. (That’s the short title. The long title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. It’s by Pete Weiss.)

Not to give anything away — but I totally am — the inmates stage a freakin’ riot at the end of the play. In case you were curious, staging that kind of thing a very aerobic activity. Especially when you have to do it six times.

To help you imagine it:

Picture an aerobics floor.

Picture some aerobic dancers on the floor.

Picture them doing something synchronized in a circle in the middle of the floor.

Picture the aerobics instructor leading them in an orderly fashion.  The aerobicizers do something cool and orderly. They do stuff like jazz hands and kickboxing moves.

It’s not at all like that.

Oh, there’s plenty of kickboxing moves. And there’s spinning. There’s clapping. There’s even some jumping jacks to go along with the skipping. You could even say there’s some step aerobics, because a few people go up some stairs and a few people go down some stairs.

None of it, however, is synchronized. There’s a significant danger of running into other people. There’s a distinct possibility that at a given moment you will step on someone’s toes, or pull their hair, or bump into them in some fashion.

And that’s just the visual elements.

Did I mention there’s singing? Well, there is. And the singing turns into screaming.  A crap ton of screaming.

Yes. Tonight there was a lot of running. Tonight there was a lot of screaming.

(My throat’s a little sore.)
 

Springs Ensemble Theatre Presents Harold Pinter’s "One for the Road"; a.k.a. "Jenny did the lights"

For the past few weeks, I’ve been happily learning how to do lighting design over at SET, a Colorado Springs Theatre Company. SET’s finishing up its season with a badass one-act play involving corrupt governments and a disturbing use of Christmas carols.

We open on Thursday, and if you’re in town — or even if you want to make a long trip — you should come see it. The performances are stellar. The production quality amazing. And the lighting design isn’t bad either. 😉

Here’s the trailer:

(And stay tuned, because I’m thinking Pinter is a good writer to explore.)