This blog post was written by Kenan Directing Fellow Wiley Basho Gorn.
My directing project of As You Like It is complete and I move into the final two months of the fellowship! What an invigorating experience it has been. Here are some reflections upon the different stages that make up the two months spent creating the show: from casting calls in mid-October to performances in mid-December.
I cast the project entirely on my own. This included reaching out to a group of actors with audition invitations, scheduling the audition time slots on each of the days, picking my cast of five actors out of the many talented individuals that came in, and letting the others know that I did not have a spot for them in the production. This final task has always been frightening for me, I don’t like having to say “no” to people. During the last project I directed, I was nervous about hurting feelings so I had my casting director be the bearer of bad news. This offered some temporary relief but felt impersonal. Even if they do not get the part, every actor should be thanked for their work in the room.
For As You Like It, I was on my own. With some very helpful advice from ACT’s Casting Director Margaret Layne, I sent out personal emails to everyone that came in thanking them for their work. This felt so much more truthful and honest. Having been a reader for almost every audition at ACT over the past four months, I’ve learned a lot about this strange process that is so linked to putting a show together. Actors must cultivate such a delicate balance between vulnerability in their work and the confidence trust themselves and let the work go without overthinking it. Seattle is full of talented actors and that makes the job of casting especially difficult. Sometimes it comes down to the smallest things that tip the scales for choosing one actor over the other and the actors will never know what those factors were. I have so much respect for the bravery of actors, they make me want to be a better director so that I can help them tell the story that will make them shine.
As rehearsals began I started designing the show with my team. For the set, we decided on a simple floor treatment of sheets of paper arranged in a circle, with the audience sitting in the round. Three aisles divided the audience into sections and gave us multiple entrances and exits. The papers on the floor ranged in subtle colors of cream, gray, light brown, and dry yellow. The writing of poetry is a central act in the story and I wanted the set to reflect this, in addition to nodding to this central act, the paper on the floor also became the fallen leaves of a forest for when the action travels out of the court and into the woods.
In a strong playing space there should always be an element of surprise. What can you do to the set that changes how the audience sees it; that catches them off guard? The Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space (called the Lalie for short) is such a vercital theater, and provided many opportunities for this surprise. We began the action in the center of the room, but as the story progressed, we slowly expanded the stage out around, and sometimes in and among, the audience. I wanted the audience to be a part of our world, to create a community with us to tell this story. You can’t do Shakespeare with five actors any more than you can do it with four, ten, or twenty. There will always be one actor missing and that is the audience. By using the space the way we did, we worked on drawing them into the story and employed them as our confidants.
Lighting in-the-round is a challenge in the Lalie. There aren’t many pipes to hang fixtures from, and placing the action in the center means that the angle of the lights must be much steeper to avoid hitting the first row of the audience in the eyes. However, my lighting designer, Evan Anderson, was up to the task and did incredible work within these limitations. Evan and I talked about the intimacy of the space and how to draw the audience into the story with us. We decided on just a few simple lighting gestures to play with throughout, strong enough to move and place us from scene to scene but nothing complicated and flashy to distract from the action. Luckily the color of the paper provided a beautiful bounce of light up onto the actors faces to help with the steep angles of the lighting instruments.
Lisa Knoop, ACT’s Costume Director, was a very helpful consultant on clothes. I wanted the actors to wear whatever made them comfortable. We worked to create an opening environment in the theatre that felt like just another rehearsal. When the audience entered the space to the actors warming up they were able to see them as real people before the mask of performance was put on. The clothes were all contemporary, some drawn from our personal wardrobes. Each actor’s look had an element of blue that unified us as an ensemble and played nicely against the warm colors of the papers on the floor.
Rob Witmer composed the music, all played on the guitar and hand drum, and taught it to the actors. The rest of the sound design was all foley and vocal work created by the cast. These included the knockout punch during the wrestling scene, bird calls in the forest, the bleating of sheep and goats, and the wind of a winter storm passing through the trees. Placing the actors around the room to make this soundscape was another tool to change the space and draw the audience further into our world.
REHEARSAL & PERFORMANCE
We rehearsed four times a week in the evenings for four hour blocks through the month of November. This was also when A Christmas Carol was in rehearsals, and it was an exciting challenge to jump from one to the other each day. Once A Christmas Carol opened, our rehearsal schedule picked up. The “two weeks to performance” mark fanned the fire in our bellies and the show really started to come together.
During this time, John Langs and Emily Penick provided invaluable support and feedback. Emily stepped in to choreograph the violence and movement. She allowed the actors impulses to guide each discovery and this helped us keep the work flowing from an organic place (not only in the physical work, but in every element of the show). John came and saw two full run throughs; the first was ten days before opening, and then again on opening night. After each, we sat in his office and he gave me his direct and honest thoughts. As we talked through each scene, identifying strengths and weaknesses, I was able to hone in on what works in my process and what I can continue to improve upon. The overarching note I took away was two fold:
The first is that while my love of Shakespeare’s text is endless and very fulfilling, I fall into the trap of making the words too precious. This can lead to the actors losing the life and energy of the story and retreat into their minds. My love of the text helped me get the ensemble to the place where they knew everything they were saying. That’s great, but it is not enough. Knowing what you’re saying is only half of the work, you must understand “Why” you say it. This “Why” of theatre feeds and is fed by tension. It is the tension that draws us in, not the words alone but the friction they create as they erupt out of real life. Moving forward as a director I want to “take the gloves off” of my work and dig for the heart of the story with my actors. It may get dirty and messy, but it’s a battle I am willing to fight.
The second was giving myself the permission to let the work grow and change. We only had four “performances” with a real audience. With that amount of time there is no “opening night,” only “previews.” Having an audience in the room teaches you so much about the story you are telling. You discover laugh lines you didn’t know were there, the space changes and is filled with intention, you feel the energy of the play reflected back to you. This is a time to let the show grow and change, the final step in discovering what story we are telling. My ensemble was totally willing to throw themselves into this unknown so before each performance we met and worked through different moments that needed change. We cut lines, tightened transitions, and re-staged choreography. This kept the work alive in us, each time in front of an audience was a chance to experience something totally new. We implemented changes each night up until the final performance, for that last ride I just let them go. The show was theirs and they took it full force. Now that it’s closed I feel we are finally ready to open. I can’t wait for the next time I cross paths with this beautiful story.
Wiley is a recent graduate of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Kenan Fellowship Program at ACT is made possible by support from the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts as part of the Career Pathways Initiative. For more information about UNCSA and the Kenan Institute, visit www.uncsa.edu.