Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I can't believe it is that time of year again, but so it goes. The time has come to generate a new play, but as of yet, not one brilliant idea has come to me. "Hamlet"? Everyone dies in the end. "Romeo and Juliet"? Likewise. "As You Like It"? Not a fan. "Midsummer"? Already done. My mind keeps drifting back to "King Lear." Though it is also one where the vast majority of the characters meet an untimely end, there seems to be comedic potential. But how to adapt it comedically in a meaningful way? What philosophical conundrum can I pose to my students and my audience? Perhaps I should revisit the idea of having two sides to the story... kind of like the movie "Sliding Doors" with Gwyneth Paltrow. What would have happened if Cordelia had just told Lear that she loved him? Would it all have turned out the same or would the story have a happy ending? The casting potential for such a project is intriguing. I could have two Cordelias, two Gonerils, two Regans, etc.

Or how about a courtroom drama? The tragic characters sue the comedic characters, or one accuses another of a crime, or Macbeth is put on trial for war crimes.

Hmmm. Nothing is really striking me as "the one." I have approximately a month before I make my proposal. Genius better knock me over the head soon.

Friday, September 3, 2010

And so it ends...

"Trifles Light as Air" is now over, and though it ended several weeks ago, I still feel that familiar sense of loss that I have always felt after a show, only this time it is lingering and more intense than ever before. We had, I dare say, our best year to date; our cast was closer than ever before and worked extremely well together, and the creativity that came out of these kids was astounding. They taught me that that they can not only handle more Shakespearean language, but handle it with ease, humor, and convincing emotion. I'm grateful to them for showing me that, because it will make all future plays that much more fun to write. The more Shakespeare the better, as far as I'm concerned.
I'm only beginning to toy with ideas for next year's play. I'm thinking "King Lear," but I'm not yet sure how to present it as comedy. It might be interesting to have two sides to the story: what really happens, and what could have happened had the characters made better choices. I could do the same with "Romeo and Juliet" although I don't know how I would get around the teen suicide issue. That may or may not be a theme I can get away with.
So though I'm still sad about the end of "Trifles" I have much to do and much Shakespeare to look forward to. I'll be teaching my Shakespeare class at the Aurora Fox again this school year, and I'm still trying to grow the Shakespeare Youth Project. On October 9th of this year, I am performing both "Shakespeare's Fools" and "Shakespeare's Scoundrels" for an audience of whoever will come (I'm inviting everyone I know) for a couple reasons: 1) for the practice, since I haven't performed either show in over a year and a half, 2) so that students who come can go to their teachers and tell them about it and hand them a flyer, and 3) to get it professionally video recorded to put portions on my website. I'm really hoping that it helps my career as I'm investing a bit of money and a ton of time in it. I want so badly to be known throughout the Denver Public schools and other districts in Colorado and I simply have no idea how to get known. The avenues I've tried so far have failed.
So here's to a great summer, and many more great Shakespearean adventures to come!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Pressure's On

Time to get serious about getting to work, so I will only take a minute today to update the blog and get into writing mode. Summer camp sign-up has begun and many of my long-time students have contacted me saying they are enrolled, or will be in the near future. I'm still contemplating the idea of using more of Shakespeare's original language in this play than I have in the past. One of the devices I used in my first play "Where the Wild Thyme Blows" (based on "Midsummer")was that I'd have a character say a line right out of the original play and then another character would say "what does that mean?" and the first character would repeat the line in a modern version. It worked for that play, but I'm not sure I want to do it again. I want the language to speak for itself. Last year, our cast consisted of something like 19 kids who had been with me for at least one previous year. I always have one day in the first week of camp that we call "Shakespeare Day" when we spend the day exploring his language and talking about how to act Shakespeare. Perhaps this year I can expand "Shakespeare Day" to really help them get a handle on the "how" of Shakespeare. Perhaps with a little extra attention and with most of the cast already knowing a thing or two, this just may be do-able.

Right. On to playwriting.

Monday, February 8, 2010


I took my daughters to the Denver Art Museum to see an exhibit entitled "Embrace!" The museum gave 17 artists free reign of the building, letting them choose what they installed and where. Some brought in paintings or sculpture, but others transformed entire rooms into works of art so that visitors walk into the art, becoming a part of it. My favorite was a room in which an artist made a landscape of words. He asked refugees for one word that describes something they miss about home, something that surprised them about the US, etc. He then took those words - in all different languages - and made pillows out of them that visitors can pick up and move, throw, have a pillow fight with. Words hang from the ceiling as clouds and hang on coat racks symbolizing trees. The colors are vibrant greens, reds, and blues. When I walked into the room I felt connected to the piece as I thought about the words and what they mean literally, but also what they mean to the people who were involved in the project. Some of the words I noted: school, flower, brilliant, love, compassion. And because one form of art informs others, I came up with a new exercise to try with my students. Learning how to communicate verbally and physically is such an important aspect of acting Shakespeare. So every morning I will ask them a new question that they have to answer in one word. What does Shakespeare mean to you? What is theatre about? Sum up your character in one word, etc. They will write their word on nametags and wear them for the day, springboarding us into discussion, physical embodiments of the words, and other improv games and activites. I would love to do something similar to the art museum exhibit as well and have words hanging on the curtains in the theatre as a visual connection to language.

On another note, something interesting happened last night while I was reading stories to Alyssa. She had done something really funny that sent me into a fit of laughter. I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face. But then I couldn't tell if I was laughing or crying, the sensations of each emotion became so intertwined. I'd been a little sad all day, and somehow the sadness I'd been feeling came out in this strange, hysterical way. It got me thinking about comedy and tragedy and how - though they are opposites - the physical embodiment of the emotions is similar in the way we inhale and exhale so that laughter can turn to weeping and weeping can just as easily turn to laughter. Comedy and tragedy cannot exist one without the other. Shakespeare must have had these two constantly vieing for his attention and playing with his subconscious. Which might explain how both "Othello" and "Much Ado About Nothing" came to be written. Each play contains the slander of an innocent woman, but "Othello" ends tragically for all involved, while "Much Ado" ends with all being put right again. The plays are almost like opposite sides of a coin. Flip it and it can land on either side - tragedy or comedy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Much Ado About Leaping to Conclusions

While watching the film version of "Much Ado About Nothing" today, it occured to me what a strange play it is. While it is true that all Shakespeare's comedies have some dark undertones and themes (young women threatened with death if they do not obey their fathers, attempted rape by island monsters, and tragic shipwrecks, to name a few), this one has very starkly contrasting comedic and tragic scenes. What is most striking is the attack on Hero at the wedding. In the first place, it is hard for me to suspend my disbelief and buy into the love-at-first-sight between Hero and Claudio. Yes, Shakespearean characters are constantly falling deeply, madly in love at first sight, but they usually have some interaction that helps us see why they fall for each other. Hero and Claudio exchange glances and decide they are meant for each other. And instead of wooing her himself, he lets Don Pedro woo in his name, so that nary a word is spoken between the two lovers before they agree to marry. This makes it hard to believe that Claudio would come undone at her alleged infidelity. There is some history between the two and we are intended to understand that they have met before, but we never witness their interaction. "Romeo and Juliet" is so gut-wrenchingly tragic in part because we witness the two teenagers fall in love. It happens right there on stage, and we fall in love right along with them. Not so with Hero and Claudio. We know so little about either character that it is hard to see what one sees in the other - especially when Claudio is such a jealous, suspicious doofus. So how can we believe that Claudio is so heartbroken and enraged when he thinks her unfaithful? Unlike Romeo and Juliet who are entirely held hostage by their parents' feud and culture of hate, Claudio and Hero have the freedom to speak to each other and the support of everyone around them. So why does Claudio not confront Hero with his suspicions instead of shaming her at the wedding? Even Othello does Desdemona the courtesy of asking her about her dealings with Cassio. The fact that he doesn't believe her pleas of innocence is topic for another day. Claudio is not someone I'd ever want to hang out with. He believes everything he sees and leaps to conclusions based on lies and deception, then completely overreacts, then fails to ask a single question in the interest of clearing things up. I plan to make glorious fun of him in my play.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bad Language

I've been thinking a great deal about language lately. What makes a word "bad"? What makes a word beautiful? How is it that certain words put together sound beautiful to the ear and words that mean the same thing don't? "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun." Beautiful, right? "Oh look, there's Juliet. She's hot." Not nearly as beautiful, or interesting for that matter.

Let's examine for a moment our American curse words, and words that are otherwise considered "bad." I heard Lewis Black once say something to the effect of, "There is no such thing as bad language. We're adults and this is how we choose to express ourselves." I tend to agree. However, as a mother of a four year old who loves to repeat everything I say (and I've been known to cuss like a sailor) I have to teach her about appropriate language so that I'm not called in to the principal's office to discuss my daughter's potty mouth. So I've taken to calling certain words "grown-up words," which she buys into so far. Now, that being said, there are certainly words that are innapropriate to use at certain times and there are words that even I won't dain to utter - the two ugliest words in the American language to me are the dreaded N word and C word. I can't even bring myself to type them. But I like the F word. Why? Is it the words or the meaning behind the words? The F word loses it's original meaning when used in certain ways, but N and C always mean the same thing. I teach an interactive workshop on the pre-Revolutionary War era and I love to teach my students the Colonial swear word "poppycock" because it sounds dirty but they can't get in trouble for saying it. Needless to say, middle schoolers love that word. Will our curse words still be offensive 200 years from now or will they have either become obsolete or traveled into the mainstream? Who's to say?

Shakespeare invented much of the language we still use today. Some estimate between 1500 and 2500 words that we speak on a daily basis were given to us by Shakespeare. He invented some words by putting two words together. In his day, it was the "bed chamber" until he turned it into the "bedroom." Things were "stained with blood" until Shakespeare made them "bloodstained." Other words he completely made up - dwindle, puke, frugal, generous, amd compromise, to name a few. People often talk about how "difficult" Shakespeare's language is and I often hear that students can't understand it. While I agree that it is difficult to understand at first, I also believe that it is a matter of training one's ear to it. I don't understand every word written or spoken while reading a play or watching a production, but a good actor can convey meaning, as long as he or she understands what she is saying. Many a theatre artist has proclaimed that the trick to acting Shakespeare is truly understanding each word, each phrase, each line. If the actor understands it, so too will the audience. This shall be my guiding principle as I experiment this year with giving more of the original language to my actors.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bearing the Weight

I saw a performance by the Pilobolus Dance Theatre the other night. As a dance fanatic, I love to see all forms of dance, but I found their particular form more than just amazing, beautiful, graceful, etc. It was profoundly moving. They incorporate what they call "weight bearing" into their pieces. All forms of dance require trust between partners, especially for lifts. But there is something very different about how Pilobolus dancers lift and are lifted. They seem to give themselves over completely to their partners, melting into each other, bearing the weight of each other without effort or strain, cradling each other in creative embrace. Women lift women, men lift men, women and men lift each other. For example, in their men's quartet entitled "Gnomen," there is a moment in which three of the men stand shoulder to shoulder while the fourth man lies at their feet. The three men then lift the fourth with their feet and rock him back and forth. The beauty of it took my breath away. And there were dozens of such moments during the show. While watching this performance, I thought a great deal about my own work as a director. This physical "weight bearing" became a metaphor for how I want my students to think of our productions - as ensemble work in which we carry each other and trust each other implicitly. In fact this can be a metaphor for any artistic collaboration. Because while we don't know what the off-stage relationships between the dancers are like, their on-stage relationships are about making each other look fluid and flawless in grace. One thing I often say to my students is "make each other look good. This show is not about you the individual it is about you the ensemble." And so this summer I plan to show my kids some Pilobilus and hold them up as an example of the trust I want the students to put in each other. To be trusting and trustworthy is what I wish for them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trying for Traction

The project: write a play with 30 roles, based on Shakespeare, for 30 middle school students by July, 2010.

The idea: A merging of "Othello" and "Much Ado About Nothing" in which Iago takes Don John under his wing to teach him to be evil. Other characters include Desdemona, the ill-fated wife of Othello, the barbed-tongued Beatrice and Benedick, and an all female watch led by the bumbling Dogberry (also a woman) , and many, many others.

As of today I have about 11 pages written - just the very beginning. I'm having the hardest time gaining traction on the project and making any headway. Life is considerably more complicated now than it was six weeks ago, before a tiny person named Clara came into my life to be my puppet-master. My sleep-deprived brain is having trouble concentrating on anything other than her, and the moments that I am able to write are always interrupted, just as I'm gaining some momentum. I'm hoping that as she starts sleeping through the night and taking longer naps during the day, I will be able to focus on Shakespeare for more than ten minutes a day and actually get this play written before I have 30 young actors looking at me with excited anticipation on the first day of rehearsal in July.

The pages I have written so far contain a lot more of Shakespeare's original language than my previous plays. This will be my fourth year doing this type of work, and though I've always taught my students about the language and certainly explored it a great deal, I have not used it to the extent that I may with this one. "Much Ado" strikes me as particularly accessible to young people and perhaps this would be a good year to see how much true Shakespeare they can handle. One of these years, I hope to direct actual Shakespeare - if not at my current theatre of employment, then perhaps at another. Perhaps if I can demonstrate that young actors can in fact understand it and perform it well, then the opportunity may come up sooner rather than later.

The puppet-master is pulling my strings.