The Crucible: A Postmortem by its Directors

In this blog, we take a little breather to reflect back on The Crucible, which closed last month.  We asked co-directors Armin Shimerman & Geoffrey Wade a few questions on their process and experiences, and how co-directing affected and influenced the production.  Their answers are below:

AC: Start us off by talking a little about your relationship to Antaeus. How long have you been with the company? How did you get involved in the first place? When not directing, what’s your role in the company?

photo6GW: My first association with the Company was being cast in The Man Who Had All the Luck in 2000, but it wasn’t until a year, another show (Mercadet), and a lot of volunteer hours later that I actually was asked to join.  When Jeanie Hackett started the Academy I sort of found my niche: first as an observer, then an assistant, and finally as an independent teacher of some of our courses.  I feel my greatest contribution to the company has been in the development of a lot of exciting young talent.  As an actor, for a while there I was nearly the company “relief pitcher,” replacing actors late in the runs of, I think, four plays!  I am also -as much as possible- the sort of official photographer at Antaeus.  That is a tremendously rewarding role because not only do I get to see almost every cast of every show, but I am also able to make some stunning images thanks primarily to the breathtaking commitment of the actors as well as the amazing sets, lights, and costuming of our shows.

photo7AS: Well this first question is strangely a stumper. I had to do some searching in my Quicken files that seem to indicate that I became a member in 2004 or 2005. Time flies when you are having fun. My membership came about because of my participation as a guest in Paul Lazarus and Janet Jones’ development of their work in progress, The Dickens Project. Ironically, back in the 80’s, I had gone to an evening sponsored by Dakin about becoming a member, but my desire for membership alas went no further. Wasn’t good enough, I guess.

I wear so many hats in the leadership of Antaeus. The diagram of what I do starts with my serving on the Board of Directors. I have held that position for many years. From there, we arrive at the fact that I am the chair of the Membership Committee.  The MC is in charge of all things that have to do with membership in the Company, including deciding who we ask to enter, members’ monetary matters, nominations of Artistic Director/s, etc. My long standing there has morphed into my now being the Co-Associate Artistic Director, participating in artistic decisions with the Boys. In addition, I serve on the Governance, Finance, and Executive committees. Plus, like Geoffrey, I teach class for the Academy and once in a blue moon actually act in projects. For me, Antaeus is full time commitment.

AC: You’ve both directed before.  What were some highlights, and how do you think your past work prepared you for The Crucible?

photo17GW:  I directed one show at Antaeus previously (Celebration,) which was quite rewarding for all involved, largely because we all knew each other and were very comfortable with working in a specific style and with a sort of common vocabulary.  Aside from that, my directing here has consisted of working with the students in the Academy classes.  Because they are acting classes (NOT directing, or theory, or theatre history…) I am always looking to find actable solutions to scene work.  No matter what the style or genre or period, the core acting problems are pretty much the same, but finding them can be tricky in the midst of those other elements.  Having to do that in a variety of scenes from a very wide assortment of styles and periods improved my ability to cut to the core of what an actor has to address in a scene.  And dealing with a wide range of abilities in the classes has forced me to develop a flexibility and variety of approaches, to expand my own “acting vocabulary,” if you will, to help actors fulfill their essential -and eternal- task of simultaneously communicating with each other and sharing the experience with an audience.  All of that helped me deal with a large cast who, though all possessed of great ability, naturally had different methods and approaches to the work.  We were asking them to trust us with a very unusual, demanding style while remaining honest and passionately committed to each other and the audience.

AS: Outside of Antaeus, I have directed two different full productions of 12th Night and one of the Scottish play. In addition, I have helmed (as they say) readings of plays for the Antaeus Classic fests. What all have taught me is that casting is 75% of your job as a director. If you get the right actors for the roles, you don’t pull your hair out. (Don’t anyone snicker!!) Also, you learn that Theatre is a mystery and that magic will most likely happen in the last week of rehearsal. Things come together and insights are learned. I had never worked as a director with this caliber of people before Crucible nor for this long and my admiration for this mysterious process is exponentially larger now.

AC:  Before working on this production, what were your thoughts on the play The Crucible? How do you feel about Arthur Miller’s work in general?

photo15GW:  The play, to be perfectly honest, struck me as something of a museum piece.  I wasn’t that familiar with it, I had seen a perfectly serviceable yet not particularly exciting production at a very good regional theater, and I guess I’d read it in school.  I assumed it was about a particular period and didn’t really have much to say to today.  I was wrong, of course.  Miller at his best writes with a humanity, generosity, and accessibility that places him in a very special category.  His voice strikes me as a quintessentially American.  For my taste, he can get self-indulgent and overly earnest on occasion, but when he’s done right his work has an immediacy and power that is powerfully emotional and personal; and that’s the reason I go to the theatre.  And it’s the reason his plays transcend their time and their settings and have become, deservedly, classics.

AS: If in the future, someone writes a bibliography of my life, there will be at least one chapter on my playing John Proctor in High School. That inexplicable event (I had no interest in acting prior to it) birthed my subsequent existence. It is 40 plus years later and the amber glow of nostalgia still colors my appreciation of the play. I remembered it as a powerful piece about an individual’s fight against tyranny and authority. I remembered it packed a wallop. I remembered the poetry of the language: “Massachusettes is a beauty in the Spring.” But of course, I was a teenager then and the Crucible spoke to me that way. All teenagers see themselves as John Proctor types: fighting injustice,speaking beautifully. But, the older Miller seems to have always seen himself that way, and, whether it is in Death of a Salesman, All my Sons, or American Clock, he stands up like Spartacus,  against wrong-doing and the tidal pull of complacency. His use of the American vernacular and simple shared human experiences makes for enchanting songs that we harken after, are enthralled by, and clamor to hear more. Through these two qualities, he fulfills the classical requirement of Drama: to educate and entertain.

AC:  How did you prepare for co-directing? What were some of your fears gong into the process?  What were you looking forward to?

GW:  We talked in general about the play, what were the major themes for us, how we saw the central characters.  We basically knew long before we started that our ideas about the piece were either the same or near as dammit.  I’m sure that’s the reason Armin chose to have me take over the direction of the reading we did in July of 2012 when he had to leave part way thru the process.  Our preparation largely consisted of one of us saying, “I’ve always thought thus-and-so about that scene,” and the other replying, “I couldn’t agree more… !”  The major conceptual choice was always Armin’s, but since I was willing to work within that concept we were always in sync.  We did make some explicit agreements beforehand about who would do the blocking, how we would handle scene-work and so on because it is so important for there to be one voice in charge in those situations.  My fears going into it centered around the more practical aspects of directing: deadlines, budgets, scheduling, design decisions… all the disparate elements that must come together with the acting, which is the area where I was always most comfortable.  I looked forward to working with the actors, of course, but also the collaborations with the designers.  I’m always excited by the prospect of sketching out my incomplete and hazy concepts to a creative artist such as a sound designer, for instance, who then develops a concrete entity -something you can see or hear- which becomes what I was trying to express, but so much more.  You find yourself getting not just an incremental improvement to the production, but a whole order of magnitude. 

AS: Geoff and I did not prepare in any conscious way to co-direct. Though our strong friendship over the course of years reassured us that it was emotionally possible. I did not expect nor were there ever any ego clashes. Our collaboration started by chance in our co-directing the Classic Fest reading of the Crucible. I knew of his astounding work with the Academy students, and, when I unexpectedly half way thru rehearsal had to attend a memorial back East, I asked him to take my place. I came back to see masterful directorial contributions of pace, striking character simplicity, and minor blocking changes that I loved. These directorial improvements made the whole production run smoother and I honestly did not know if I would have had the expertise to instigate them. So when asked to direct the Crucible, I reminded the Ads that it had been the result of both our work and lobbied for a co-directorship. They agreed almost immediately. To my recollection, Geoff and I never spoke of nor really decided on what areas of direction each of us would lead. Responsibilities and artistic choices just magically fell into place. Though, I think we agreed I would do initial blocking which included the presentational style while he took on the arduous chore of scheduling as well as spokesman at the collective note sessions. However, we both gave individual acting notes to members of both casts and incredibly 96% of the time our thoughts on acting and stress were identical – or so the actors led us to believe. Certainly, we attended designer confabs together though I believe I was more influential with the Set design while he made more decisions about Sound and Lighting. I think we were equally opinionated about Costumes. I must say we did have some differences of opinion about casting and I want to believe I won more than I lost.  We spoke almost daily prior to rehearsal and were Siamese twins during the months of rehearsal.

photo3My one big fear was that the actors would try to manipulate us by treating us like parents. In other words, if not getting what you wanted from Dad, going to Mom and getting permission there. But Geoff’s and my POV was so consistent with each other that I am not aware of that strategy ever working – or for that matter being used. We were perfect gentlemen with each other, always respecting what the other had to say. With two directors giving direction, another fear was that that the actor would get too much guidance thrown at her/him. This is why we chose to let only one of us give collective notes with the other bursting in when he felt the need.

As for hopes, I think we both had hopes that with two directors and two casts we could split up the casts at times with separate directors and thus save time with rehearsals. But that benefit never fleshed out. Though, a short trip out of town for me, allowed Geoff to have both casts to himself for a weekend. My personal fear that my lack of directing experience would be a detriment to the show was supplanted by the hope and actuality that Geoff was there with me, advising, leading, and helping with decisions.

AC: In your opinion, how does directing with another person affect the process? What are some unexpected strengths or discoveries? What are some drawbacks?

DSC_0733GW:  It is impossible to generalize because this was a case of Armin and my being -weirdly- of one mind about nearly every aspect of the production.  Without meaning to speak for Armin, my perception was that there was not an aspect where either of us would have been uncomfortable with the other making a major decision on anything; casting, design, or execution.  The greatest strength is, of course, the collaborative nature of the thing.  We could bounce ideas of each other, amplify the best and modify the weaker ones, and emerge with an assured vision that resisted second-guessing because we had already gone through that process.  We each had the other’s back.  The drawbacks were relatively minor; there were times we disagreed about blocking, occasional line readings, even the design of the damn poppet.  I did not get “my way” 100% of the time, nor, I suspect, did Armin.  But when we did disagree, one or the other would defer, believing (and again, I am speaking for myself) that honestly, it wasn’t worth going to the mat or this or that detail.  You discover that there is, indeed, more than one perfectly valid way to say a line (tho’ perhaps not more than the two Armin and I were offering….!)

AS: Well, duh, its less demanding! You don’t have to personally attend all pre-production meetings. You can skip rehearsals for auditions or life-emergencies without disrupting the actors’ artistic growth. You can have a peer to bounce ideas off. And you don’t always have to be the one to make the final –God awful-decisions.  Of course, you need to either have a soul mate as your co-director or a Prince of tact. Luckily, I had both. But the opposite is an easy scenario to visualize. (Etta and Gabe did a hilarious job of picturing that in our video send-up.) One of the problems of a performer participating in double casting is the actor’s ego (fear) that he/she is not as good nor getting as much attention as his/her partner. That problem can materialize for co-directors as well. Are the actors listening to him more? Do they like him better? Are my insights as good as his? Is he doing as much work as I am? All these nasty demonic imaginings passed infrequently through my mind. And happily were exorcized almost immediately. That said, there were a handful of times where I regretfully compromised on a POV when Geoff would give a heartfelt opposite direction to an actor. Even though, I felt he was wrong; he was usually being passionate about it with the actor and it was not worth the disruption of confusing the actor or demonstrating a lack of cohesiveness. With it over, I must say that of those few times of discord, he was either absolutely dead on or the further exploration in rehearsal proved me right. A win-win situation for my messy ego and for the show. The drawback of course would be if this difference of opinion was happening all the time and your tongue was macerated because you had bitten it way too many times. Or if you had disgraced your partner and made him a less than credible leader in the eyes of the cast. People always asked, “But how can you have one artistic vision if you have two directors?” The easy answers for us are that we mostly saw things the same way or we respectfully compromised or we lived with two visions. The latter situation always presents itself in the Theater since the director and the actor have two separate imaginations and, though they lovingly collaborate, they will never be identical. This scenario is even further warped when you have two casts with their respective choices.

AC: 2 directors and a double cast.  This means that essentially 2 directors and 2 actors were working on one role at any given time.  How did this generally work?

photo10GW:  Generally worked very well, I’d say.  You might get a different answer from the actors, especially if you promised them anonymity…  As I said, Armin and I were agreed on the character’s arcs and the basic characteristics we thought they should embody.  It worked best by letting one of us work on any given scene with the other guy present to offer clarification or a slightly different way of approaching a question or problem.  So we -by and large- spoke with one voice.  Another interesting thing: there were occasions where one of us might reach a sort of impasse with an actor, and it was great having a collaborator to deal with that.  Not exactly good-cop/bad-cop, but close.

AS: Exactly the same as two casts working with one director on one role. My reasons are understandable from what I have said above.

DSC_0879That said, sometimes when working with double casts, one actor will prefer a radically different approach/blocking to a moment from that of her partner or for that matter from the director. Those conflicts rarely showed up in our production. I will opine that was so because we had talked in detail about the arcs of the characters. Or that we were so ruthless about the presentational blocking, the casts preliminarily acceded a lot of the blocking choices to Geoff and me.  We may have inadvertently blunted early artistic choice –though I hope never artistic discussion. However, later in rehearsal when the style was less foreign to the ensemble, there were some desires for minor differences of approach and blocking. If I felt that the differences were manageable and we still told the same story, I would okay playing it differently. As long as everyone in the scene in each cast knows that Actor X is going to play it one way while on another evening Actor Y will do something else, all will run smoothly.

One of the great exceptions to double casting is the genuine wisdom that the 5-6 weeks of rehearsal are about an actor building a unique relationship with his fellow characters in the play. This is time consuming and essential for a fully realized production. Therefore with two casts, the spanner in the works is that an actor is constantly having to modify the understanding of a growing character-relationship by the mere fact that one must of necessity have a different chemistry with different actors playing the same character. I am told it is confusing and wastes rehearsal time as one waits to rehearse a scene sufficiently with alternates. This is pitfall of the double cast system. The only way in my mind to mitigate the problem is to have each actor studiously observe not only her double rehearsing a scene but also the other combinations of people in her scene – while her alternate works, watching a scene in the audience during rehearsal like a director. This enormous extra work can be made easier for the actor by familiar past collaborations/friendships with fellow actors in a long-standing ensemble.  That familiarity will do much. The less arduous way would be to separate ensembles completely after opening and let the usual simmering process take place. But though we name certain combinations of actors and ask them to be cohesive as a cast unit, the necessities from the Industry in Los Angeles enforce absences and require Antaeus to mix and match.

AC:  In general, what are your thoughts on Antaeus’ “partner casting,” both as a director and as an actor?

GW:  I remain ambivalent as an actor, but I can now fully understand why directors pretty much dislike it.  In purely practical terms, it makes scheduling a nightmare and therefore rehearsal necessarily becomes a catch-as-catch-can procedure.  The greatest loss is that there is never enough time to rehearse a scene properly. Scheduling fell entirely on my shoulders so I can say unequivocally that having to accommodate so many conflicts leads unavoidably to insufficient rehearsal time.  Most actors were understanding and did their best (sometimes giving extraordinary performances on very little rehearsal), yet some complained explicitly and at length about not having enough stage time, even as they took advantage of having a double to miss considerable amounts of rehearsal.  Additionally, the imperative to give every actor his voice in rehearsal and reach compromises -or workable separate solutions- means that functionally you have less than half the rehearsal period to set the play.  Obviously, it gets done, the results are excellent, and the coverage makes the grief palatable, but I would have to think long and hard before doing it again.

DSC_0847AS: As an actor, I find partner casting to be an enormous help when rehearsing a play. Primarily, because if it is true partner casting –meaning have as good an actor as you or better-, you can have two major talents working in tandem to solve the puzzle that is your character. This is done through conversation, but more effectively by sitting in the audience and watching your character play the scene. From this vantage point, you can get a sharper realization as to how your character fits into the scene, into the play- what his purpose is and how the audience will perceive his presence. This awareness typically comes late in usual rehearsals, but arrives early with partner-casting. It is an enormous shortcut in the character’s unfolding and your creative exploration. Moreover, having a peer partner, you can steal his good choices and call them your own. In addition, you can trash the ones that he does that don’t sit well with you. Leaving artistic reasons aside, partner casting allows me the luxury of missing rehearsals so that I can audition for more lucrative work, for attending to personal crises, for doing a film or TV show, or for illness. I can do all that without the attendant guilt of letting the production down because my partner will be there. Needless to say, all that goes for missing performances as well.

There are those who abhor the very thought of what I just said. Because they want no part of another actor’s investigation of their character. I find that attitude small-minded and adolescent. The director/s, the designers, and your fellow actors always impinge on your investigation. It’s never just yours. Now if your partner is not truly a peer, then double-casting will be futile. Because not only is one not getting any creative help from your partner, but you’ve now lost potentially half your rehearsal time to a lame duck. And you may have to struggle to undo unwise blocking choices because of him. But even so, I stand by my previous statement that you should still be able to suss out your character’s place in the play more readily.

Now how do I feel about partner-casting as a director. In short, I don’t like it. You have to cut short your rehearsal of a scene because you must give the other team equal time to rehearse. Equity gives you too little time to rehearse as it is. You are required to juggle not one, but two casts availabilities. While in casting, you invariably have two people for a role and you find one slightly better than the other. You have to invariably explain some minor detail twice because one cast member didn’t watch his partner rehearse the scene. You have to deal with potential personality conflicts between partners. You have to clutter your precious rehearsal time with being fair to all partners. And you have to sit through two enormously nervous first night openings. As a producer, I dislike it even more because the Theater has to pay for two sets of costumes, two casts’ salaries, and twice as many cast comps. If you are only a director, you have no insight into the shortcuts partner casting provides the actors (mentioned above) because that’s not on your radar. And most importantly, because when assembling casts, you must sometimes scuttle a great cast a little by being required to put a less successful actor in with stronger ones-in order to balance out the two casts. The lack of rehearsal time only exacerbates that. It’s this fact of not having an ideal cast that scares me about Antaeus’ chances of being a world class Theater. Because on any night, an audience will not see a perfect show. A very good one, yes. But not World Class.

As a director at Antaeus, there is only one good artistic reason to agree to direct a partner-cast production. That is the chance to work with twice as many good people and see twice as much work blossoming.

AC:  This production of The Crucible was quite presentational, in that the actors spoke mostly out to the audience rather than each other.  How did this style come about, and how do you think it ultimately worked?

photo1GW:  The style, the concept were Armin’s, so I’ll leave the details of that answer to him.  I’ll only say that it came about because of the reading, done in what has come to be known as the “Frank Dwyer” style of connecting through the audience for a reading rather than trying to speak to another actor at a music stand, thereby reducing a performance to nothing but profiles.  I think it worked exceptionally well in this production, which is not to say it’s a one-size-fits-all approach to staging.  Our intention was always to let people hear the play anew, to scrape away the varnish of the expected, accepted approach and allow the burnished text -as filtered through the emotional commitment of superb actors- affect the audience in a challenging way.  There is no doubt in my mind that we accomplished exactly what we set out to do, and by and large the audiences members had the sort of bracing, invigorating experience with the play that we hoped they would.  

AS: AAAAH the perennial question. How did it come about? I’m asked that constantly and I hope because people liked it or, at least, were intrigued.  Like many creative choices, it incubated in me long before I was aware of it. Without going into all the History, Bo Foxworth and Ann Noble asked me to direct their Classic Fest presentation to the Crucible. You know from reading this wordy blog that I have been a member of Antaeus for a long time. Because of that, I have seen a slew of readings done at our Theater. One of the things I am sure of is that readings are most successful when there is very little blocking and when the actors for the most part stand and deliver. What we call the Frank Dwyer method. That means facing front and rarely inter-acting with their fellows visually. One still has to genuinely hear the cues, process them, and honestly respond.  I was committed to that style and so adhered to it while working on the reading. To that end, I had the cast sit in a semi-circle around the playing area that was only furnished with a large table and one/two chairs. We had no budget and I swear by ‘less is more’. I love the theatrically of that simplicity. It is what essentially makes Theater different from the visual complexity of film or Tv (that and language). When the characters would enter into a scene, they would either stand at their chairs or take a meaningful position in relationship to the table and what it symbolized. For sight lines and so as not to upstage the actors placed further downstage from the semi-circle, I asked the actors to just look forward even when they were talking to characters standing behind them. Because it was a reading with books in hands, the audience never questioned the non-naturalness of the presentation. They were all familiar with readings of plays done with music stands or just having the actors sit in a semi-circle and reading from their scripts. You walk into a Theatre and the presence of scripts gives this presentational style license.  I have often been told, by Antaeus patrons, that sometimes these types of readings are more powerful than other theaters’ full productions done with large budgets and clever devises. What I didn’t need to be told and what was obvious from the audiences’ reactions to the Classic Fest read was the power of Miller’s play and the audience’s immediate and electrifying reaction to our presentation and the play’s impact. People who had witnessed many other productions in the past raved about the power of our reading and its immediacy.  I saw that the simplicity and directness of our reading matched and heightened the language and personal choices of those of  the play’s.

Time passed. The Antaeus Artistic Directors asked me to direct a full production with the caveat that it have the same presentational style. It was a bold choice. No one knew for sure whether the freedoms and permissions of a reading would be equally embraced in a full production (no books in hand, no seats in a semi-circle). It worked for me. If you saw it, you have to make your own evaluation.

photo4The second part of the question is less factual, more epistemological. (Sorry, I’m a classical actor; I love language.) I believe the success of our out-front presentational style is due to several factors. Some reasons have to do with the play, some to do with Antaeus . 1) Miller has given us what is essentially a courtroom drama. Certainly, the court, people’s feelings about court, the power of the court, the consequences of court actions, the distinct members of the court, and the arguments to be presented to the court are the crux of the evening. The presentational style consciously promotes that concept by having all the characters seem like lawyers presenting their different beliefs and testimonies to a jury composed of the audience. 2) Acting as a jury, the audience is reluctantly brought into the play. The actors are talking to them and they are being forced to come out of their safety in the dark and form an opinion of each character’s testimony.  They are being asked not just to listen, but also to decide about what they are hearing. They have no choice; the character is staring right at them. 3) Our house is highly raked which even for the young makes hearing difficult at times. The presentational style does away with the audience missing words because an actor has turned away or, in an emotional clinch, spoken too softly.  With our approach, not a word of the play is lost or can be avoided. 4) We chose not to do the play in the time period of Salem 1693 with well-recognized Puritan costumes and regalia. Every 4th grade student knows that period of American history was marked by a repressive Church/State that subjugated the people living under its sway. So we had the dilemma of creating a believable repressive society that fostered the same feelings of impotence and suspicion without the visual cues of a Puritan society.  I believe our presentational style -where no one really looked at each other – was an excellent alternative in explaining that religious oppression. Hale is called “blind” by one of the characters and so he is in the first two scenes. But all the characters are blind early on and only slowly come to “see” the truth. We decided to illustrate that blindness and only shatter it at intimate or uncontrollable instances. 5) And lastly, it was my agenda to showcase the company that I so admire and am proud of.  Only actors of a high caliber and commitment could dare and succeed at throwing out convention and demonstrating how to tell a theatrical story in a radically new way.  Their talents and commitment shown through even when we took away the prime prop of an actor’s performance – seeing and reacting to their fellow actors’ performance. They overcame this undeniably unfair disadvantage as well as their own questions of the efficacy of this approach to give performances that will live in our memories.  Their emotional life and classical technique flew like arrows directly to the heart. Their talents gave our unique concept “more weight.” Do I think it ultimately worked? Yes, on so many levels.

AC:  What would you like to direct next? What’s your dream production?

photo8GW: Ooooo, toughie, that one!  I’d like to do a Shaw.  I love the way Ayckbourn combines rollicking humour with the most profound longing and melancholy… I’d love to have a go at one of his.  I daren’t be specific about a dream production; seems like a pretty good way to assure it will never happen.

AS: That’s an easy answer. I have no idea. But I know my dream production would be directing my multi-talented wife, Kitty Swink.

Kitty in some Shakespeare. That would be Love’s Labour’s Found.

AC:  Would you ever co-direct again?

GW:  If the partner and the show were right.  It strikes me as a very delicate combination of egos and status and complimentary strengths all in service of a play and cast that would stand up to this unusual treatment.  Some theatre god was smiling on me when Armin chose to invite me aboard this project.

AS: Sure, if I had Geoff or a Geoff clone.
He’s easy to clone. You know he’s very skinny.

And what are Mr. Shimerman and Mr. Wade doing now that the trials are over?

GW: I spent the summer acting at a couple theater in New England.  Actually had to leave LA long before CRUCIBLE closed, which was a very frustrating, but unavoidable turn of events.  Happily, I was acting in two-hander, EDUCATING RITA, that was an absolute dream production.  Just a coincidence, but with only two actors, one director, and eight hours a day to work it was about as far from the rehearsal frenzy of CRUCIBLE as you can get!  But I regret missing those final CRUCIBLE performances as I know it went from strength to strength and the actors were making “something rich and strange” indeed, far beyond what was already a compelling piece of theatre.

AS: Just returned from Vegas from four days of Star Trek conventionering. Before that, England and Austria where we ate up the scenery. Looking forward to teaching and finally writing the last pages of my Historical novel, The Toadeater. Oh, and I am campaigning to be a delegate at the first SAG/AFTRA convention. Life is full.


WADE_GEOFFREYShimerman_ArminCompany Members Armin Shimerman & Geoffrey Wade co-directed this summer’s production of The Crucible. Next up for Antaeus is Corneille’s The Liar, adapted by David Ives and directed by Casey Stangl. Tickets now on sale at http://www.antaeus.org

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I Was a Teenage Whore

by Nicole Erb, A2 Ensemble Member

Nicole Erb in our Classical Styles class. Photo by G. Wade

Nicole Erb in our Classical Styles class. Photo by G. Wade

Now that the title of this post has your attention- I know what you’re thinking. Ugh. ANOTHER production of The Crucible. Are you kidding me? I’ve seen that play a billion times (not a hyperbole). So why, oh why, would Antaeus make it part of their season? The answer is pretty simple. It’s a story we still need to hear. Really.

You’re saying to yourself, “But Nicole, every time I see The Crucible I just start thinking about that Monty Python bit where they’re screaming about witches.

I know! I totally get it- it’s really hard not to equate ducks with witches. Or you say, “But I saw the ‘quintessential’ Crucible with blah blah blah and I don’t think I’ll ever see a good production again.”  I get it. I actually saw Liam Neeson (pre-his punching wolves in the face and destroying terrorists phase) and Laura Linney as John and Elizabeth. I cried the whole time. The back wall of the set was made of window panes and as the world of the play got crazier and crazier, the panes began to fall and shatter. At the end of the play, all the remaining panes crashed to the floor and shattered. This production is one of the reasons I decided I wanted to be an actor.

So why are we doing it? The Crucible remains a story that reverberates in our world. And it’s a great big giant ensemble story (for a great big giant ensemble company). For those of you who think The Crucible is stale, consider this; we, as a nation, have seen a whole lot of violence and pain in the last couple of weeks. As a response, this TED talk started floating around the social media sites. It’s a lecture by Philip Zimbardo on ‘The Nature of Evil’.

Zimbardo’s “The Nature of Evil”

The Poppet.  Photo by A. Goodman

The Poppet. Photo by A. Goodman

Mr. Zimbardo has found  that evil is born of the intersecting of three different things: 1) personality (Abigail Williams is a teenager in an incredibly violent world, who understands the value of power) 2) environmental (Salem is a town that still lives in both colonial and Puritanical levels of fear of Indians, God, the Devil, famine, plague, etc.) 3) institutional (the conventions of Puritan society, the management of the trials themselves- the Salem witch trials are the only trials of the time where spectral evidence is allowed). This isn’t just a philosophical rambling- it’s integral to understanding both how societies create evil like the witch trials and how we’ve managed to let it happen time and time again.

Is this all too general and highfalutin’ for you? Think these characters are unrealistic? Then let’s get specific. Go back a couple weeks ago- a letter was leaked to the internet from a crazed Delta Gamma sorority president to everyone in her chapter. If you haven’t read or seen a dramatic reading of it at this point, you probably need to watch Michael Shannon’s dramatic reading (I’d even call it the “quintessential” dramatic reading of the letter).

Sorority Letter by Michael Shannon

I find myself completely surprised by the letter. When I first saw Michael Shannon’s take on the whole thing I thought, “Wow. That girl is nuts. Straight up crazy.” But when I went back and actually read the letter, I realized that even though an insane tone is being used some of what she says is probably pretty on point.

Act One of The Crucible. Photo by P. Proctor

Act One of The Crucible. Photo by P. Proctor

To get back to The Crucible– I couldn’t get Abigail’s speech to the girls in Act One out of my head. Is bringing a pointy reckoning really that different from asking someone to “tie themselves down to a chair and punch themselves in the face”? In contemporary terms it’s fairly close. And this comforts me IMMENSELY. I’ve been fighting a real battle to not make Abigail a total monster- a portrait of evil. That’s what she becomes, not what she starts out to be.  You have to keep in mind, she’s a queen bee in Salem, she’s had a REALLY hard life (Indians, smashed heads), she thinks John Proctor is going to leave his wife for her, AND she’s a child (17 in the show and 11 in real life). All these things create a perfect storm of personal crap, opportunity, and pressure. As wrong as the girl who wrote the Delta Gamma letter was, you can hear the personal stress that she is under. There’s something there that (as nutty as it is) I can empathize with- that’s how I begin to see Abigail as something other than a complete monster.

Get to the point, Erb! What I’ve been attempting to get out is that Miller’s world and our own are not that different. I’d like to think that we’ve changed a lot since the Salem Witch trials and the McCarthy hearings, but I’m not sure that we’re that fundamentally different. Human psychology is tricky that way. And what The Crucible gets at, at the most basic level, is that mounting pressure and fear.

Ann Putnam puts it best: “There are wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!” Everything is conspiring against this town and these people. And in spite of that we hope. John Proctor changes. Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey stand for their principles. It’s a level of heroism that we aspire to in modern day. But when we can’t get it in life, isn’t it great to see it in the theater? I hope that you find yourself thinking John Proctor will triumph. I hope for the sake of Salem that one night the heroes win.

ERB_Nicole 2012A2 Ensemble member Nicole Erb draws back the curtain on rehearsals for The Crucible, our next mainstage production opening May 16 & 17. Tickets now on sale at www.antaeus.org

In Search of Lost Lines: Prepping for THE CRUCIBLE

by John Allee
Company Member

The nightly email from our stage manager Kimberly arrives in my inbox.  It’s the usual heads up for the next day’s rehearsal, outlining which scenes we will be working on and which actors are called at what times.  And because I am generally conscientious and thorough, also because we have been reminded (if not actually admonished) to scroll all the way down to the very bottom of each production missive, I dutifully read through to the end, where the dreaded words leap out at me as if from some dark and sinister Middle-earth forest:

IMPORTANT DATES: **THURSDAY APRIL 11TH: OFF BOOK.

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For the uninitiated, this item simply means that the directors’ battle plan calls for the actors to be rehearsing without their scripts in hand by the date given.  Sounds fair enough.  After all, we attend the theater expecting that the actors will have their lines memorized for the performance and that it only makes sense that at some point in the rehearsal process they have to actually make the transition from page to stage.  But, why April 11th?  Doesn’t that seem awfully soon?  After all, it’s already March 29th and I am having difficulty memorizing the first two pages.  I dare not go before them — no wait – I dare not be taken unaware when I go before them…

John Allee, The Malcontent, post off book & looking rather confident

John Allee, The Malcontent, post off book & looking rather confident

As an actor, perhaps the most common question I get asked by people who are not is “how do you memorize all those lines?”  It’s a reasonable question, certainly, and one that actors don’t give much thought to, other than to fret about when they are going to memorize all those lines.  But, in much the same way I might wonder how an economist can stand in front of a group of people and extemporize on the finer points of Post-Keynesian macroeconomic rigidities and adjustment processes, someone else might not easily grasp that having the ability to ingest vast amounts of dialogue and regurgitate it all is part of our skill set.  At the moment, that someone is me.

No Heath Bar, John? For shame.

No Heath Bar, John? For shame.

The trick now is to invoke a Proustian involuntary memory – what was it – eating tea soaked cake?  I settle for a half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s coffee ice cream.  But what memories will it bring up, the next ten pages of the scene that I am beating into my head with a ball-peen hammer, or childhood memories of my auntie?  Or will it merely keep me awake all night worrying about the lines I still have yet to memorize?

Proust also warned that escaping to the past cannot completely soothe one’s suffering in the present.  Given that the present is now the morning of April 11th and we are to be off-book today, I would be willing to take my chances with time travel if even for a modicum of relief from my current state of peril.  As I drive to the theatre for rehearsal, my mind is racing faster than my six-cylinder engine, and the feeling of apprehension is pressing down harder than my foot on the accelerator.  Though, why I am in such a hurry to get to my destination is difficult to understand, given my conflicting desire to run away from it.  I practice the lines in the car, and for one panic-stricken minute it seems as though all memory has evaporated, like the mist on the windshield as I propel myself forward, further away from the past, but remembering now, suddenly, involuntarily, that I will not be taken unaware as I go before them.

Allee_headshot_B&WJohn Allee Antaeus member, Tolkien reader and one of our Reverend Parrises – bemoans the actor’s process… at least the boring bits.  We hope he’s learned his lines by now, since  The Crucible goes into tech next week and opens May 16 & 17. Tickets now on sale at www.antaeus.org

Proctor & The Crucible

Mr. Proctor in the 2012 ClassicsFest reading of The Crucible.  Photo by K. Flaathen

Mr. Proctor in the CFest 2012 reading of The Crucible. Photo by K. Flaathen

by Phil Proctor
Company Member

I’ve been asked to write something about the rehearsal process we are presently experiencing in exploring and mounting Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Crucible.  So, okay, here goes.

It’s a nightmare – for me, anyway. I’m sharing the role of the old, irascible farmer Giles Corey with the loveable, even-tempered Steve Hofvendahl, but I am the only authentic PROCTOR in the cast, and whether or not I am a direct descendant of John Proctor (NOT played by ME – go figure), it’s not easy sitting in the theatre and hearing my name thrown around like a bale of hay every day!

They even dress alike.

Dueling Proctors.

Furthermore, not only are two wonderful Antaeans playing ME, (Bo Foxworth and Chris Guilmet) but they are being guided in the process by two brilliant directors, Armin Shimerman and Geoffrey Wade (alphabetical billing) who are annoyingly in sync when it comes to blocking and interpretation.  Unlike “The Scottish Play”, there is very little stage blood shed – so far — and as I believe this is the first time Antaeus has doubled directors, it seems to be going smoothly. Furthermore, the players get the advantage of Armin’s keen dramaturgy and Geoff’s theatre-games warm-ups.

The Weber twins celebrate their birthday!

The Weber twins celebrate their birthday!

But it is also a little disconcerting that even our stage managers are doubled – and by IDENTICAL TWINS, no less — Kimberly and Kristin Weber!

The dramatic design of this production is based on the Classicsfest reading initiated by Bo Foxworth and Ann Noble, and involves a challenging “full-frontal” presentation with occasional character interaction as dictated by dramatic necessity.  Sounds mysterious, doesn’t it?  Well, it is, and as we all are just beginning the staging process, we are also all part of the excitement of discovery and experimentation, in the proud tradition of our skilled company of classical masters. Miller’s language is exotic and poetic at times, so Geoff and Armin wisely insist that we honor the words and treat the text as we would if it were by Shakespeare.

It’s also a wonderfully diverse cast, and in addition, the gender-blind casting presents a unique challenge in assuring that characters are addressed in a manner that works for males and females, depending on who’s playing what role in any particular performance.

He's not kidding, folks.

He’s not kidding, folks.

And finally, in another ironic twist for me, our costume designer, E. B. Brooks, is using Amish-style clothing as inspiration for the look of the show, and being a Yoder of Amish-Irish ancestry on my mother’s side, I probably have an Amish hat or two from Shipshewana, near my home town of Goshen, Indiana, to contribute to the cause.

So, off we go!  These are, of course, just my first impressions as we embark on another great theatrical adventure together; and I’m looking forward to seeing what my fellow cast members think as we continue to revitalize this timely and timeless work as only we Antaeans can…

Proctor_Phil 2013Antaeus member Phil Proctor draws back the curtain on rehearsals for The Crucible, our next mainstage production opening May 16 & 17. Tickets now on sale at www.antaeus.org

The Life Force of THE CRUCIBLE

Last year's CFest reading of The Crucible

Last year’s CFest reading of The Crucible.  Photo by K. Flaathen

by Lily Knight
Company Member

I have seen three productions of The Crucible through the years, and although none blew the top of my head off, each time I found myself absorbed by the play, and interestingly troubled by it. Unfortunately, I missed the ClassicsFest presentation last year. And I was out of town for the first read-through of the play, so I came to the second rehearsal in a curious state of ignorance.

What caught my attention during the table work was that already there was a palpable culture or life force of the play in the room. I had a cold, and to avoid sneezing on my fellows, I moved to a seat in the audience and when the other actors came back from their break and left off their banter, a distinctly different sensibility took over their faces and demeanor. I’m not used to seeing it so soon. A fully formed world seemed to be not created, but allowed, through them, to take hold.

There didn’t seem to be anything in the way. Usually, the process of finding the world of a play involves a certain period of manipulating and bargaining with the parts of yourself that aren’t useful. You tell them to sit down, shut up and let the necessary parts come forward, and sometimes, the ego doesn’t give way easily. Sometimes, actors are searching and some of their top forty choices come out; good, but not right. In this case, without exception, everyone’s faces were focused on the problems confronted by the character, not the actor. Nothing, but nothing, was in the way. I thought, this is going to be fun.

A. Shimerman and The Crucible cast.  Photo by A. Goodman

A. Shimerman and The Crucible cast. Photo by A. Goodman

At the next meeting, our first blocking rehearsal, our intrepid directors, Geoffrey Wade and Armin Shimmerman, outlined the presentation style they conceived during ClassicsFest, which they were engaged to develop in this production. It involves speaking almost every line out to the audience (and not seeing the face or behavior of the character to whom you are speaking). I thought, this is not going to be fun.

But it turns out this somewhat difficult technical requirement — (and I say difficult because it flies in the face of most of our training and almost a hundred years of camera-inspired hyperrealism in acting craft) — can actually further focus us and has the effect that other senses, hearing and kinesthetic, become more acute to fill the void of the visual. I notice the actors seem to be listening much more intently than usual — (which makes everyone very fascinating and good).

And it may be an amazing and brilliant way for us to experience a bit of the repressiveness of the Puritan worldview! (Am I just making lemonade?) Many of the actors who did the ClassicsFest reading are already sold on the idea and provide inspiration and side coaching for those of us who feel stark naked in the face of this bold choice. They tell us, it’s like a mirror, and our doubles spring up to be the living mirror for those onstage. Someone makes a joke about what an ensemble we are, but I think, yes, we are all engaged in a way that feels very alive. Good things will come from this.

Photo by A. Goodman

The “presentational” style. Photo by A. Goodman

It makes me think that asking actors to do something difficult right away, that takes a large percentage of their attention to do, is a GREAT way to move a rehearsal process along. Actors then don’t have any attention for vanity, for their authority issues, for their doubts. I must think about this more.

There are moments when I think this style may be tedious to watch (by the way, it doesn’t last throughout the play) or I won’t be able to communicate shifting allegiances if I can’t exchange glances or other shared non-verbal behaviors. I think about my body in the space and its relation to other bodies and the story that gets told without text. And I wonder if nuances of the story will be sacrificed. Meanwhile, the arguments of the play come across loud and clear, and there are other awarenesses, like the isolation you feel within this society, which seem just right for the material. And really, it is way too soon to know whether it works.

Shannon Clair studies her script.  Photo by A. Goodman.

Shannon Clair studies her script. Photo by A. Goodman.

Geoffrey said, in further clarifying this presentational style, that you are speaking to the other character through the audience, like a prism. And it struck me as being a beautiful idea, because, after all, the fourth wall is a pretense (or a dispensable convention), and to acknowledge the audience’s intrinsic function seems more holistic somehow, and could open the space to a larger, um, conversation? And if we’re speaking of invisible things, we need to open the floor metaphysically, don’t we? After all, the play asks real questions about our human predilection for invading private space. Where does private space end and public space begin?

Because the theatre space is itself a crucible, purifying and decoding the ideas of a culture, and on any night, it is the alchemical blending of those consciousnesses who sit together in the dark and those who play before them in the relative light, that creates any truth which emerges. I am curious to see where this takes us.

Lily_Knight_0018Antaeus member Lily Knight discusses the “fully formed world” of The Crucible, our next mainstage production opening May 16 & 17. Tickets now on sale at www.antaeus.org