16 December 2010

Directing 'Twelfth Night' for Children, Part I

By Kirk Woodward

[In 1972, after he’d returned to the states from military duty in Korea, Kirk went back to Lexington, Virginia, home of our alma mater (which provided the Troubadour Theatre for rehearsals), to direct a children’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Kirk assembled a memoir of the experience from letters, notes, and recollections. ~Rick]

[The material that follows is selected from a larger document. My thanks to the many people who contributed to this production, and who helped save my bacon as a fledgling director, all those years ago. Lee Kahn, referred to several times, was the director of the theater program at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. —KW]

April 20

Tonight the new cast of Twelfth Night met at 7:00 PM. I passed around the copies of the adaptation I had written, intended to make the play accessible for children, although I hadn’t included any modern dialogue except for transitional speeches for Feste.

I welcomed everyone, and told them the project was exciting because it was a new script and because it would tour elementary schools in Lexington and the surrounding area. I said the cast will have to create its own movement because it will have to know what is involved in doing the show in different playing areas. We discussed schedule conflicts, and I made notes on them. Then we read the play aloud. I asked them not to put emotion into the reading, but to read as they would a newspaper, since characterization will have to come from interaction on stage. The reading made my original dialogue sound awful – I suppose it is. Along the way we discussed obscure transitions, obscure lines, and the possibility of modernizing archaic speech. I told them I was delighted to have them all in the cast, but wanted to know immediately if anyone felt he or she wasn’t really willing to put out the necessary work on the show. We discussed – rather, I talked about – the difficulties the play presented, and the necessity of making it clear enough for a deaf man to understand. It seemed like a pretty good session, although I didn’t try too hard to cover the fact that I have next to no idea how anything will be done. A good cast, and I tried to provide some excitement in attitude. Will try more on that line. Exercises tomorrow night.

April 21

Tonight’s rehearsal was intended for exercises; but there was a concert at school at 8:00, 3 actors were missing, and I didn’t feel like working anyway, so we only did 45 minutes of work. We did the storytelling exercise: a person casts the story and then tells it, and the actors have to do only what he tells them. It’s supposed to teach physicalization, but I suppose it was too abrupt a choice to succeed; the actors said they would rather have had an exercise where they all had to work at once. I see their point. I found myself constantly trying to assert my superiority and leadership, especially against Toby (I’ll refer to the performers by their character names), who’s a natural actor, a ham, and a leader. Insecurity on my part. I was glad when the session was finished. . . . Also, I talk too much about my aims, and of course have little idea what to do about reaching them. . . . Exercises can’t be used tactlessly.

April 24

First working rehearsal. This afternoon I spent time writing out the play’s major problems (I thought of fourteen) and looking over the script. Fixed dinner and ate. Looked at the clock, discovered it was 7:00 – rehearsal time. And I told the actors always to come early! Horrors. Mad dash. I was late.

I had no blocking worked out. We did selected scenes, so not everyone would have to be present. Putting that all together may be confusing. The procedure was to read once through; then to read again, while I stopped them and gave blocking; then to do the scene again, completely. Big, big problem: I tried to say too much on the first night, when they don’t even have characters in mind, much less characterizations. That’s something I’ve always hated in other directors. I was actually letting the actors do characterizations – much too early. Tonight I’ll stop doing that, and I’ll also mention to them that I realize now what I was doing. . . . I was excited; that’s why I said too much.

April 25

Had a session with Malvolio at 3:00. He read the garden/letter scene. I had him read it several times, each time visualizing in as much detail as possible, and each time increasing the physicalization of the visualization. That last part didn’t work; he barely moved. Maybe he’s not a mover. Then we did the “cakes and ale” scene, and I asked him questions leading to his adoration of Olivia, and his social position. The difficulty here was, I’m afraid I led him too much toward intellectualizing. Results, as a whole: not significant.

The Duke tried, not too hard, to contact me this afternoon; I suppose he was going to tell me he couldn’t come tonight; at any rate, he didn’t come. And this evening I got a call from Olivia, who said a friend of hers was having a nervous breakdown (she herself was crying) and that she’d come in if he fell asleep. I told her not to come. So we were minus two. I told the cast about the opening scene of the play: all the actors on stage, each one talking to everyone else and feeling affection for each other. The affection is the point. They faked it. (. . . Several days later, Maria said, “How do you expect us to feel affection for each other when we don’t even know each other?”) We blocked the first scene. I found myself not being clear about where a movement came in the script, or where a certain place was. Also, I didn’t tell the people who were blocking for the first night where houses, etc, were. Then, after another scene, we did the fight scene, which when I first blocked it was disastrously confusing. I changed it several ways; nothing worked at all. Finally I suggested a break which lasted ten minutes. We talked about the scene during the break. Somebody had an idea, somebody else had another. We tried them onstage; I changed a few things, and it finally looked all right. Finis.

April 26

This afternoon I had an afternoon session with Sir Andrew. He hasn’t done much acting, is scared, and constantly makes smart-ass wise cracks. I tried to point out an “internal” side of acting. I had him choose an age – he chose 40, about two decades above his own age – and show me his age, while waiting for a bus at the bus stop. Then I had him simply sit and concentrate on the age, and nothing else. It worked well; he had moments of really looking 40 through his body in the second part of the exercise. Then I had him relax completely and imagine how it would be barely to be able to move at all. Some success with this too. He’s to practice the age concentration using Andrew’s age, every night before rehearsal. The session may not improve his acting but it slowed him down a little.

Tonight’s rehearsal was a real embarrassment for me. We were going to do the last scene, where everyone comes onstage and discovers everyone else. I hadn’t thought much about it and my improvised blocking was an obvious failure before we were halfway through. I stopped the scene there and sent everybody home except Malvolio, Feste, Olivia, Viola, and the Duke. We did the other scenes in which they hadn’t been blocked yet; they were easy. Out by 8:30, to my great chagrin. It’s a SIN that I didn’t know what I was doing.

Tomorrow will be rough. We’ll have to put the whole show together; also, I have a production meeting, for which I’m not yet prepared.

The Duke is interesting; he plays with great melancholy and pathos. “I want to cry,” Viola said after a Duke scene. Will have to change his course, though; his pathos is dreary and boring, and will be especially so to a child audience.

April 27

First a private session with Feste. I had him do his opening speech, first normally, then in gibberish, several times. He did loosen up and expand some, but he still doesn’t talk directly to his listeners; he sounds stagy. With both him and Malvolio, the need is to overcome inhibitions about big movements, to expand and spread out.

For rehearsal we went straight through the show, leaving out bits that hadn’t been blocked yet. Before that we played the entrance/exit game, equivalent to a relay, where you run, touch a point, hurry back, and pass the baton or whatever to the next person. (The first time we used pigment jars, which got all over everyone’s hands and clothes.) Then we did it walking. They weren’t very good at it, although it’s simple. The object of the game is to build awareness of the moment when you come on stage, the moment when you go off, and the relation of others on stage to those moments; but here it’s a flop. . . . Then we blocked the last scene, better, but now there’s not much movement: Viola and the Duke on one side, Olivia and, eventually, Sebastian on the other side; everyone else in the middle.

After going through the show, we took a break; Maria’s dog was hit by a car in that time, hurting his leg, so she went off to the vet; and Feste left to drive to Washington and take a dental exam. The rest of us did several other scenes, singing them. This is supposed to loosen up the actors and give them new perspectives on the show. Occasionally I thought it seemed to help a little. It was fun, anyway. . . . Toby especially has an inventive mind.

April 28

Rehearsal today was interesting. I had the cast (minus Feste) stretch; stretch the mouth and tongue; and sing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” twice for projection. Then I had them surround Malvolio and do the kind of sounds and the movements Malvolio might experience after a long confinement. I hope to work this into a routine in the madhouse scene. Then Toby, Maria, Andrew, Sebastian went outside and worked out their own version of the fight scene, while I worked with the rest on Visualizing the Set (a description of the surroundings as they would appear to the characters). I don’t know if this achieved anything at all. Why do it at just this moment? Pretty arbitrary. Then I worked with the Duke/Viola first scene, but didn’t get the energy or drive I wanted at all. The Duke is deep in his melancholy. Then the fight group did their scene on stage; it is pretty good, involving a lot of nose-tweaking. Then we ran the play through from page 8 to the end, skipping the madhouse scene. A lot of the dialogue is terrible, and a lot of the blocking is awful. They will have to fix it themselves - which they should have been led to do from the first, if I wasn’t going to be any better prepared to give them blocking. I plan to figure out just what to do, during this weekend. Session with Malvolio Monday at 1:00; with Viola and the Duke at 4:30 Monday. The costume lady and I have been trying to meet with the cast ever since the production meeting. Today she was late.

April 30

Our little show is so far nothing but vague. It doesn’t look like anything; it doesn’t sound like anything; and it has no heart. We have 2½ weeks to correct the situation; and at the end of 1½ weeks it has to be set. Also, it’s probably too short – half an hour when it should be 50 minutes.

The basic problem, I think, is that I lost my nerve at first and didn’t let the cast shape the show by itself. Of course it looks like shit! I’ve known for a long time that actors’ contributions can add up to more than direction imposed on them. So the show has no style. (Not that group development is the only way! But it might have had a chance here.)

May 1

At 1:00 I worked with Malvolio on the VMI parade ground (to open him up some). I told him to rewrite words he didn’t like; to make transitions clearer; and to make gestures larger and more precise. We spent the whole hour on his “letter” speech; tonight, at rehearsal, when we did that scene, it became clear that he’d spent several more hours working on it. Good for him. A nice job. I wanted astonishment from him, though, as he reads the forged letter; it’s still not really there. At 4:30, Viola, the Duke, and I went on the campus lawn and did their two scenes in modern language. I had notions of using the new dialogue in the show, but didn’t like it so well tonight. At any rate, it helped them discard their sadness and pathos and reach some new energy, which was all to the good. Of course the actors were playing Bright Young People, not the Duke and Viola.)

At rehearsal, three people were late, and I was severe; later I yelled at people several times, mostly for fooling around and/or breaking character. We managed to get through page 9 – halfway. Some scenes improved. The actors still don’t feel very involved, and often don’t have much to do. I let Maria, Toby, and Andrew work out a party scene and piece of movement on their own and then added it. Viola and the Duke were both much better. I worked a little at the end with Andrew; I told him his character should be played as deaf and stiff. But by that time I was too tired to hope, even, to accomplish much. One good thing I did was to bring refreshments for the break. They loved that.

May 2

Tonight we rehearsed at the Presbyterian Church auditorium in the middle of town. It’s a small stage, like many of the ones we’ll be working on. I read the play aloud and thought about it some in the afternoon, but, as it turns out, I still have no conception of what it really means to work on a play, and to transfer that work effectively to something the cast does. It was a rugged rehearsal, grim in mood, and nothing seemed to work. For example, my idea to have a sort of surreal dance number as a way of getting Malvolio on stage for the madhouse scene didn’t go anywhere – it would take someone who knew how to get movement from his actors, and was getting it all along, to make it work. My conception and execution were vague and therefore failed. At the end, I sat everyone down and asked them what they thought. There were suggestions: keep everyone on the stage all the time (we’ll try it); more transitions for Feste. Everyone left feeling sorry for me and for the show; I know I did.

May 3

This was an afternoon rehearsal (later Lee Kahn told me he never schedules afternoon rehearsals except on weekends). It seemed to go better than yesterday’s. We tried the sitting at the side of the stage; it looked clumsy because people sat until the moment they had to go on (except Malvolio, who tried to make it work; he was big on the idea in the first place); it wasn’t controlled, and looked funny. . . . Used the set tonight for the first time. It’s simple; I like it.

May 4

2:00, session with Andrew, trying to build his military bearing, an idea which occurred to me two nights ago. Some small success – but is it hard to get him to think in terms of the stage! I intended for the cast to play the music within the play themselves, so at 3:45 Feste and, eventually, Maria had recorder lessons, and afterwards Feste and I talked through some more transitions and wrote them down. At 6:00 we rehearsed the scene where Malvolio comes cross-gartered to Olivia; it had been a real bore, but the group changed some things and livened it up a lot. They were so encouraged, in fact, that they wanted to spend more time on each scene in that way. I told them the reason the scene came around was that they found sources for energy within the scene – which I think is right. But we haven’t worked on specific scenes enough, it’s true.

Then at 7:00 we began to work through the whole play. I stopped them sometimes, and occasionally gave notes, but mostly there was too much wrong to stop. After a break, we did the whole play without breaks. It ran 32 minutes. 32 minutes!!! 15 minutes too short. How embarrassing! Now what do we do? Cast wasn’t thrilled with what they saw, either. I gave some notes, and then let everybody go except the people in the first Andrew/Toby/Maria/Feste scene, who were all about to drop from exhaustion by this time – but we worked their first routine once.

May 7

Today I added about a page and a half of additional dialogue. We put the lines in at the theater – some mutters and groans – worked through about 2/3 of the show, and then moved outdoors to Waddell School for a run-through, which was OK. It’s awfully late to be adding dialogue, which illustrates the fact that I didn’t struggle with the adaptation nearly enough before rehearsals started. I should at least have known how long it took to read it aloud. Then, the additions were easy to find; the scenes begged for them. I’d cut too close.

May 8

This afternoon provided one of those curious, accidentally, fortuitous events. As I walked into the theater, I overheard Sebastian and Toby discussing the play. They sounded unhappy and concerned, although practical rather than dejected. I shut the door loudly and walked in as if I’d just arrived, and got them to tell me what they’d been talking about. They suggested that the beginning of the show was confusing. (While Feste speaks, the people in both houses go to the doors, and look out, as if at a storm. Viola and the captain do their first scene in the aisle.) As a result of our talk I made a new beginning to the show, which we introduced tonight (at the church auditorium). The new introduction adds the “If music be the food of love” speech, puts all the speaking on the stage, and cuts out the rain-and-storm business I had in at first. Also, we added a start to each scene where the actors take a pose and freeze, Feste plays a short cue on the recorder, and the scene begins. Toby, who gave most of the advice, was good about it; so was Sebastian; they were trying to help. I had enough sense to be grateful, and to take nearly all their advice. The whole show has been moving away from my vague original notions and in the direction of greater simplicity of staging. Sebastian also suggested that, in the last scene, Viola wouldn’t leave her brother to go to the Duke as soon as she does now; but I’m wary of that, since that last scene is hard to block. . . . We worked through all the changes and transitions, and then did a runthrough, which was ho‑hum okay.

May 9

Afternoon rehearsal at the theater. We worked the long 3rd-from-last scene, then did a runthrough which lots of people watched, including, crucially, Lee Kahn. “They’re not open,” he said; “they can’t be heard. Your show’s not spoken. My second point is related to that: they’re doing it representationally, not presentationally. The word is style. This play is romantic as hell. I don’t know if it’s too late for you to work on that. Try telling them to imagine doing it with a flourish – if you want. Get those girls into costumes as soon as you can. They all walk like droopy boys. . . . I enjoyed the rehearsal very much.” Leonard Darby, our new stage manager, who was seeing the show for the first time, said, “It was dull.” The cast seemed fairly pleased with themselves, however, I think because they’re starting to see a whole show. Lee Kahn’s comments shook me to my shoes. They crystallized what I said earlier about the show’s not looking or sounding like anything – and he put it in theatrical terms.

May 10

Evening rehearsal. I talked about projecting and about Romantic style. Then we worked slowly through the play up to the madhouse scene, and then ran it through that far. Working it, I tried to get bigger speech (without much success, apparently; people in the audience said they still couldn’t understand much of the dialogue) and bows, sweeps, and flowing crosses. Olivia has little “feminine” grace. We kept saying a dress would help her, but when she finally wore one for the runthrough, she moved exactly the same, making tiny swishes while holding the skirt with one hand. Her voice, also, has a whining quality. Maria didn’t change much at all; her voice is pitched high, and on one level, and she can hardly be heard. Viola also is often indistinct, and I have to work with her tomorrow on moving like a boy, which she doesn’t do at all yet (as Lee pointed out), not because she can’t but because I never told her to. (“I was worried about that,” she said anxiously tonight. A sweet girl.) Malvolio lacks any distinctive movement style, and often stands or walks in a slovenly way. Toby is OK. Feste hardly ever varies his body position; he doesn’t look like a fool, ever; must work with him on that tomorrow too. The Duke was nervous and upset last night for external reasons; he left the stage in the middle of the runthrough, to our great astonishment, to get a cigarette and ask how the show was going. Leonard and I yelled at him, “Get back there!” and he went. Sebastian/Captain is so-so. Andrew started picking up the romantic movement idea, and at the end of his “challenge” speech gave me my first moment of delight of the rehearsal period by adding to his “Andrew – Aguecheek!” a beautiful fencing gesture – left arm and sword out, right arm curled above his head. During the runthrough the cast was dead tired, and it showed. During notes I used Andrew’s gesture as an example of what the whole play needs. (But he’s still the weakest link.)

[Kirk’s experience directing a children’s version of Twelfth Night continues in Part II of his memoir. Come back to ROT in a few days to read about the final days of the project and what Kirk took away from it.]

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