Last night at last minute, I decided to go into nearby Frederick, Maryland, to watch what was billed as a unique theatrical experience. In that, I was not disappointed.
The Maryland Shakespeare Festival is the state of Maryland's only year round professional Shakespearean Company, and they recently god their selves a new home, in as I mentioned, Frederick, Maryland. It is the old meeting hall of a local church, which apparently was built to almost the exact same specifications as one of the original venues for which Shakespeare wrote his plays, (balcony included.)
The reading is part of a series of reading where the MSF recruits professional actors from all over the country to participate in a reading...the actors have minimal costumes and props, and the actors hold their scripts. There is little rehearsal time, and the goal is to bring the audience in, according to the MSF, "to play along with our actors. They argue that by removing the fourth wall, and eliminating fancy sets, costumes, or even a dimming of the lights, the players are able to draw audiences in to the language of the Bard, in a manner similar to the way he would have intended centuries ago.
I suppose one can go back and forth, academically on whether or not Shakespeare is any better suited in such a venue, as opposed to merely different. That chestnut aside, I can say it was a unique and enjoyable experience.
I am terrible with estimating dimensions, so I will not try to do alot of that. I will say that there were about 100 folding chairs present, arranged in a "thrust" configuration. (Though of course not technically so, as there was no stage...only floor space.) The point being there was seating on three sides of the performance area. There was also some sort of divider to cordon off a back stage area for the actors when needed, though they spent most of their time sitting in chairs in the back of the performance area, clearly visible to the audience.(In all likelihood not a Shakespearean device, but one that made sense, given the situation.)
The artistic director came out and explained what was happening, and what the plans are for the future of the space. (This being only the second performance the company has given in their new venue.) There was little doubt in my mind that she, and indeed the company as a whole is very enthusiastic about bringing Shakespeare to a new audience through a very new way of presenting him, in a sort of "what is old is new again" sense of irony.
I am not altogether unfamiliar with thrust performing.Nor is the concept of interacting with an audience whilst performing totally strange to me. So despite some required adjustment time from my "proscenium/invisible fourth wall" mindset, i was prepared for the possibilities.
It seems clear to me that not everyone in the audience was as willing or able to embrace this unique notion.
The center piece of the play, of course, is Richard III, played with bombast by one Robert Leembruggen, a professional actor out of the Olney Theatre. Written as the centerpiece ofthe play that bears his name, Richard should be in this play, perhaps more than in others, a scene stealer in every sense of the word. Mr. Leembruggen did not fail in this, though he was matched at times by the professional talents of other classical performers from as far away as Seattle, Washington.
I do not wish to give a review of the actual performance, so much as the experience of being in such a space watching such a thing. But I will say that with Mr. Leembruggen center stage, the talent of the company as a whole was evident, but more evident in some than in others.
Indeed, it would be hard to judge the overall performance quality of any given person in such circumstances. The company will be preforming standard rehearsed production in the future, and my assessment here are based only on this reader's theatre concept.
It was clear that every single actor in the play, including Mr. Leembruggen, struggled at times with moving about, and giving some at times very intense performances, while still tied to the script. Any actor will tell you, (as I have, many times, loyal blog readers) that the moment when the script is out of one's hands is the moment of greatest theatrical creativity for the actor in most cases. There is a reason i is known as being "tied"to the script, and though their professional training allowed most of these players to present a reasonably nuanced performance with "little to no rehearsal time", that attachment to said script was at first awkward to watch, and difficult to get past.
But get past it I did, as I watched what is possibly Shakespeare's most convoluted tragedy for newcomers unfold before, (or in this case around) me.
The claim made by the MSF in their advanced marketing for the events is true to a great degree...a reading, with a bare minimum of props does require the audience to hone in more acutely on what is being said, and how it is being delivered, due to the lack of distraction and spectacle provided by some modern playhouses that put on the Bard's works. I myself have pondered the idea of staging an amateur reading for these very reasons myself on numerous occasions, and hope to still do so. That being said, the venue, thrust staging, and the newness it provides to most average casual modern theatre goers, mixed with the language of Shakespeare, and a very complicated play, read directly from the script which the actors moved about with, occasionally lessoned the experience.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it could potentially lessen the experience of some patrons uninitiated into Shakespeare, or thrust staging. I myself have read this play, and others many times over, and though this by no means makes me a more cultured person, it by definition made me more prepared to follow the story, and the nature of it's presentation than someone who has not chosen to read the play before seeing such a production. (Indeed a few people left at the intermission, and it would not surprise me if this were the reason, judging from what I gathered of them before the play started. But that somewhat unfair personal assessment is a digression.)
This I think was most sadly present during times when I think the players were attempting to rouse the audience to in fact, in the words of the artistic director before hand "come play". Speeches, actions, shouts, all of which seemed pregnant with the potential for audiences to cheer, or hiss, or cry "Amen", were met mostly with silence.Again, I think, though I would by no means swear to this, that there may have been too much unconventional atmosphere to swallow at one time for some people. As an actor myself, I could not prevent feeling sorry for the players at these moments, though, being professional, I am sure they have no real qualms about it.
However, when actors interacted one on one with an audience member, as the script permitted, this concept of interaction went over much better. Mr. Leembruggen's Richard did most of this...as the role is tailor made for interactive soliloquies which work well, even today with a modern audience. More so than would they introspective soliloquies of Hamlet, say. And to that end, various time's "Richard" would seek the approval of an audience member, sometimes sitting next to them, as he unhatched his latest plan, and this generally went over well.
I myself was pleased to offer His Highness a congratulatory handshake and wink, as the "was ever woman in this humor woo'ed" was directed toward me, at one point in the piece. i do hope that such interactions of mine helped keep the balance for Mr. Leembruggen, when faced with blank stares, and no attempts at all to engage him, as did happen when he asked a fellow member of the audience directly, not once but twice, "Is the king dead?"
Crickets met him, despite being within a foot of this person. I very nearly shouted, "no", as a professional courtesy. I know I said that the unique aspects may have overwhelmed some, but when a question is asked of you by "the king", how hard is it to shake one's head in the negative?
Yet the curtain call brought sustain applause from the audience of about 30 people. I would say that most were in the 50's and 60's, though a few my age were present here and there. I have to say I did expect that; an unfortunate commentary on the lack of interest the Bard tends to ignite in modern younger people.
So is the experiment a success? Has the Maryland Shakespeare Festival accomplished it's self proclaimed mission of making Shakespeare's works more accessible through interactive staging, in an intimate venue? My judgment is...it is well on it's way to doing so, if not quite there yet. Being professional, I am sure does not mean being perfect, and unable to learn and improve. The enthusiasm most of them seems to display would seem to guarantee that much as time goes on.
If the opinions of this theatre student, and self paced scholar of Shakespeare should mean anything to them, I would advise that they do not advertise these readings as being quite as different in their delivery of these works as they do sometimes, ("This is not your grandmother's Shakespeare", they say, but if they are not careful, it could still be seen as such to the masses.)
I would also perhaps advise a few more rehearsals for the staged readings, given their confession that there were so few. In some places it showed.
Finally, i would provide more of a "warning" if you will as to the interactive nature of the Elizabethan theatre they are trying to capture. Though the artistic director did mention that this would be happening, this was a very brief time before the show started, and not addressed at great length. Perhaps a sign, or hand out in the lobby, or a full page spread in their website explaining this nuance of such a place to curious newcomers would serve the purpose of encouraging more interaction than I witnessed. Or perhaps a little warm up to the notion, say 15 minute before curtain, as opposed to two, would help get more people into that "come play with us" mentality that the MSF clearly wants to bring back.
This, and as I said time, mixed with their continued enthusiasm should, in the end, if they really want it, bring about a product that truly is not "your grandmother's Shakespeare." They are thinking and feeling all of the right things at the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, and that is more than I can say about alot of companies, from my perspective.
I joined their e-mailing list so as to inquire about possible future volunteer opportunities...and I would not do that if I saw no potential in the theory.