Stand and unfold yourself: a month at Shakespeare & Company

Apr 24, 2014   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Shakespeare

In January, I was a participant in the month-long intensive at Shakespeare & Company. Tina Packer, Dennis Krausnick, Kevin Coleman and their colleagues have been teaching the intensive for more than 30 years, and intensive is categorically one of the operative descriptors: the hours are long and the work is profound (should one choose to dive deeply into all the available pools of voice, movement, rhetoric, fight, clown, emotional truth, imagination and communication). Tina will tell you that there are three fundamental questions at the core of Shakespeare’s work: What does it mean to be alive? How should we act? What must I do? The intensive is arguably about preparing one’s self to engage with those questions at every level so that one may speak Shakespeare in a way that fully engages the audience.

I am fundamentally a director. It’s my profession but it is also how I perceive the world and address the challenges I encounter. I have acted. A lot, once upon a time. But I identify myself as a director. So even though one participates in the month-long intensive as an actor, I signed up for it thinking about how it would help me to deepen my practice as a director. Intellectually, I know that it is valuable for me to return to acting from time to time, in order to help me focus my work as someone who facilitates acting for others. So I have done it. But the simple act of clicking the ‘send’ button on the Shakespeare & Company application caused my heart beat to quicken.  Making theatre inside a maximum security prison doesn’t scare me; signing up for acting class … Eek.

A Most Emulate Pride

On the very first day of the intensive, as the 46 (!) participants assembled for a tour of the property and the briefest of orientations (Shakespeare & Company does not tell one in any detail what any given day’s itinerary is, and I will honor their secrecy here), I found myself chafing inwardly. Why doesn’t anyone recognize my expertise? Why aren’t these people more excited that I am here? I caught my anxiety caterwauling within my head, took a deep breath (there would be a lot of those), and held my apprehensive tongue. Over the first few vertiginous days, I observed other participants asserting their expertise, their knowledge, their superiority in ways both small and large; I recognized their need for acknowledgement and recognition because it was so similar to my own internal monologue. This recognition helped me to be patient with what were occasionally, to be candid, obnoxious assertions and to breathe my new colleague in with compassion.

A Divulged Shame

Throughout the intensive, at one moment or another, nearly every participant spoke of the judgment or belief that she was ‘not enough’ or that he was ‘too much.’ Nearly all of us gave voice to some fundamental insecurity. I asked one of my comrades, “are we an extraordinarily damaged group of humans or do you imagine that everyone is walking around with this tenderness, this fear, this shame?” He said that, in his judgment, we, as theatre practitioners, were more open to discussing it, but that almost everyone has some secret pain. The power of fear, and the myriad ways in which it can manifest, continues to instruct me. Profound takeway for me: if we could all remember, a little more often, how frightened everyone else is, and act with patience, empathy and understanding, I am fairly certain that we could, in fact, live in a more peaceful world.

A South Sea of Discovery

Clowning with Kevin Coleman

Clowning with Kevin Coleman

As the intensive unfolded, I observed that every exercise, every improvisation, every class had its champions and its detractors. One participant was elated and liberated by the exercise; another was furious; a third was in tears, disturbed or in the throes of discovering a painful inner reserve; a fourth had done his or her best to ‘play along’ with an activity that didn’t resonate at all, in order to support others’ work. This was true of everything we did all month long, although the roles of The Elated, The Outraged, The Defeated, and The Indifferent rotated seemingly hourly. By turns, I played all of these parts myself, along with The Exhausted, The Overwhelmed, The Uncomfortable, The Terrified, The Brave, The Intrepid, The Exhilarated. I was powerfully reminded, as a director, that no one exercise or improvisation will resonate with every actor.

And that is intensely okay.

It’s critical for directors to have lots of tools, lots of patience, lots of avenues of access in our toolkits because each actor needs her own experience in order to play these words truthfully and with vulnerability. An actor isn’t necessarily being resistant when he ‘feels nothing;’ he just may need another path, and it is our job as directors to offer other routes.

I Hourly Learn

Throughout text work, voice work, and movement, I was powerfully reminded that an actor cannot speak the character’s truth if she cannot speak her own. She may be in the neighborhood of the character’s truth, but sketching on the road surface isn’t the same as excavating the back yards; playing on the surface is unlikely to grab an audience by the heart or the gut and take them breathlessly on the journey. The deepest of truths are embedded in these plays; theatre is at its best when it engages with the unspeakable, and if an actor cannot say it with her whole body, she isn’t really saying it. I loved the specificity of asking where the line, or even the word, lived in my body, even as I struggled with answering the question at times.

I struggled with my scene assignment, with my scene partner. I judge that the faculty at Shakespeare & Company do an outstanding job, on the whole, of pairing people with scenes that serve them, of partnering people who support, complement, or instruct one another. They are not always going to get it right or the right pairings may not all materialize in a particular group. Respecting the confidentiality of my scene partner and of the intensive itself, I will simply say that I had difficulty getting my arms and my heart around my character, that my scene partner was perhaps more goal-oriented than process, and that I had many pointy encounters with where my own work as an actor is not well oiled, is a little more miss than hit. One wise faculty member said, “First time’s luck, second time’s skill.” I also rediscovered how much I love acting. I had forgotten that. I know now that I want to make space for that.

I learned about working with a challenging scene partner, which has led me to thinking about how I can support actors when they are not getting what they need from a scene partner. So maybe it was the right pairing for me, after all the frustration and kvetching came and went.

Back in rehearsal, back in the role of director, I continue to discover all the refreshed, polished and brand new tools I have taken away from the intensive, and I joy in the additional ways that I can support my actors as they work. I reinforce discovery, curiosity and honesty.

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Ability is of little account without opportunity.
– Lucille Ball

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i