Live theatre for me as an audience member is all sweaty palms, swiftly beating heart, and sweet anticipation. When theatre is as theatre should be it is like being welcomed into and absorbed by another world. I often wondered what the experience was like for those on the other side of ‘the curtain’. And just what is involved in bringing that ‘other world’ to life? In order to find out more about the practicalities of bringing such magic to life, I recently spoke with Rob Pensalfini, Artistic Director of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble (QSE).
Forming in 2001 QSE presented their first full production, As You Like It in 2002. ‘We wanted to kick off the company’s performance history with a comedy that had plenty of music, sexuality, wit, romance, a bit of violence and darkness, and was fairly well-known while not being over-performed.’ By 2003 the company was ready to tackle something darker. ‘The western world was about to go to war in Iraq (again), and questions were being raised about what makes a good leader, both military and civic. Coriolanus, a little-performed play, seemed to be the right play for the time.’
Finding themselves with two sets of similar looking actors in 2005, Comedy of Errors seemed to be the perfect play to present. ‘We’d just come off a number of fairly dark plays in a row, and it seemed time for some slapstick.’ In 2006, the year of the World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane, QSE expected that most companies would be presenting Shakespeare productions and so took the opportunity to do their first non-Shakespearean play, Metamorphoses. ‘Many folks in Brisbane thought it odd that a Shakespeare company would do a non-Shakespeare play. But if you look at the big Shakespeare companies around the world, you will find that only about half of their productions are of Shakespeare plays. And we never set out to do exclusively Shakespeare – his texts are the home to which we always return, and the stone on which we whet our skills and passions, but we have always intended to branch out beyond.’
This year QSE will return to comedy with a full production of Much Ado About Nothing, a play that I have been longing to see live for some time. ‘We’ve got some magnificent actors in their 30s, ideal to play the older lovers in this play. Also, we are looking to work in our new larger venue, and think that this play has a good chance of attracting a bigger audience.’
Given the variety of productions which the Ensemble has already undertaken and the tremendous choice of works which could be selected, I was curious to find out how particular productions are decided upon. ‘A typical QSE year, pretty much for the last five years, consists of one full production, and a more experimental or ‘workshop’ production and / or a staged reading. The difference between the ‘full’ and ‘workshop’ production comes down largely to budget and length of run. Our full production typically runs for three weeks, has a bigger budget, and tickets cost $20-$25 (full). The workshop productions run for about a week, have a much smaller budget, and tickets cost around $10. So, bottom line: how do we decide on a mainstage production? It’s a combination of factors including: Who is in the company? What’s the buzz in our society (local, national, global)? What seems like the next logical step for the company given what we’ve done?’
So the decision is made to present a particular production, but then what? How does it go from words and directions on a page to what we see as the completed product on stage? ‘Very generally speaking, a full production has twelve weeks of rehearsal, while a workshop production has six. This is a lot more than the standard commercial model of a four week rehearsal period. Again, the difference lies in the notion of “ensemble”. In a commercial theatre, the actors arrive on their first day of rehearsal to find that the set and costume design are already completed, and the director has a very clear “concept” of what the play is about and how it’s going to look. Actors are often reduced to being meat puppets who physicalise someone else’s idea of the play. With an ensemble, we already know who the main actors are going to be before we even choose the play, so the choice of play is influenced by the particular configuration of actors, their desires and abilities. I like to think this is a bit more like Shakespeare’s own company, where it is very clear that Shakespeare wrote many of the parts with specific actors in mind.’
‘We also typically employ a process called ‘dropping in’, developed by my teachers Tina Packer and Kristin Linklater, which is a means of viscerally connecting the actors to their text, and providing opportunities to mine the language for all of its resonances, personal, universal, contemporary, historical, layers of meaning, sound and symbolism. This is a rather lengthy process and can take the first week or two of a rehearsal period, and this is done before the actors ever play a scene or begin to learn their lines.’
Modern society offers us so many different entertainment options from television, to movies, to music, to the internet. Does live theatre still hold a place? ‘People don’t seem to mind spending $15 to see a movie and if the movie’s a piece of %*@#, they just say “oh well, that was pretty bad” and shrug. But those folks seem loathe to spend $20 to see a piece of live theatre. Studies of this have suggested that audiences don’t want to risk being disappointed by a piece of live theatre. And yet they don’t seem to mind being disappointed by a film.’
‘Why is bad theatre more disappointing than bad film? I think it’s because theatre engages us on a deeper level, a more immediate and visceral level. The actors are living breathing human beings, filling the same air that the audience breathes with their thoughts, their feelings, their sweat, their breath, in real time. The connection is more real, and therefore we are more disappointed, and rightly so, if it turns out the actors are faking, lying, pretending, being dishonest.’
‘Sadly, I think that a lot of theatre today simply tries to emulate film – to emulate the spectacle, the acting styles, and the values that film espouses. But if theatre simply tries to be film’s poorer cousin, it will become completely redundant and disappear. Film can out-special-effect and out-spectacle theatre any day of the week. Film can outdo theatre when it comes to tiny subtle ‘naturalistic’ acting, thanks to the close-up. And film can reach many more people than theatre ever can, with Tom Cruise appearing simultaneously in dozens of cinemas all over the world. If theatre is to survive, it must be on its own terms – what can theatre do that film cannot? The answer is, theatre can put real human performers in direct live relationship with audiences. There we all are, in the room together. I think therefore that the future of theatre must be in forms which honour the live and immediate relationship between actor and audience.’
For me, good theatre completely entrances and captivates so that the passing of time feels like mere moments, but obviously not everyone is going to have the same experience. I wondered whether there was any pressure to present shorter productions given that life often seems so busy. ‘There’s probably a more alarming reason for the need to shorten plays, and that’s the ‘sound-bite’ world of contemporary communication. Professor Michael Silverstein, a former colleague of mine at the University of Chicago did some research on the changing nature of political speeches. He compared a speech a mere hundred and forty years old to some of our time. He looked at Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (“Four score and seven years ago…”), a trifle of two hundred words that some credit with changing the direction of the US Civil War. This short speech contained references to historical events, and used the linguistic arts of rhetoric in such a way as to move the audience to action. This is the sort of thing we find all over Shakespeare, and some three centuries later this tradition is alive and well in Lincoln’s work. However, he then went to the political speeches of Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, and found these to essentially be sound bites: “Read my lips: no new taxes”, “Mission accomplished”, “It’s the economy, stupid”. If it can’t be said in under five seconds, it won’t be said at all. Unfortunately, most complex issued CANNOT be outlined and analysed in five seconds or less, and the result is that the complexities of issues are not discussed.’
‘So I see the place of theatre, and of classical theatre in particular, as being part of the antidote to the simplistic thinking and black and white reductivism of contemporary public discourse. Shakespeare is great for this – there are no heroes and villains in Shakespeare, or rather, we see the dark side of every hero, for example Henry V, and the reasons behind the villainy, for example Richard III. To understand Shakespeare means to be able to hold the complexity of a thought through a sentence that might range over five or six (or more) lines, with nuance and many shades of grey. Therefore I am largely resistant to the idea of any emendation to Shakespeare’s texts that renders them more simplistic, that means we no longer need to be able to follow a complex thought or argument. Contemporary audiences are not more stupid than earlier ones; we have simply come to expect stupidity from our performing arts. Let’s reverse that expectation.’
‘Now, as to the question of ‘modernising’ the language, we don’t do it. We have never felt the need. One of the things that we have built a strong reputation for is clarity and accessibility of our text in performance. The reason is that Shakespeare’s language IS modern. Linguistically, it is known as early modern English, a variety of the English that we speak that is a mere four centuries younger and more juvenile than our own. Shakespeare’s language IS hard to read off the page, but that is simply because it was never written in order to be read out of a book, it was written to pour forth from the mouths of actors who understood and embodied every syllable. When Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand in performance it is INVARIABLY because the actors and/or director do not understand it – it’s never the audience’s fault.’
‘QSE works a great deal with language, with the multiple meanings of words, with the sound symbolism, with the rhythms and rhymes in the verse, and when we go out on stage we live the language. We do not hold it at arms length or intone it as if it were some precious gem; we dive into it and let it take us over. Most actors are scared of the text; we revel in it. Surprisingly or not, audiences at show after show tell us how clear the text was, and many of them are convinced that we have ‘modernised’ the text because they report understanding Shakespeare ‘for the first time’.’
The second part of this interview will be posted in the not too distant future.