Shakespearean Theatre in the 21st Century – A Tour of APT

When William Shakespeare’s troupe of actors, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, erected the Globe Theatre in 1599, did Will ever imagine his plays would still be performed four centuries later half a world away? Of course they are.  And here in Southern Wisconsin, we’re very lucky that one of the top professional Shakespearean acting companies in the world, American Players Theatre, calls Wisconsin its home.

This weekend I was lucky enough to tour all of the myriad backstage places and outbuildings of what amounts to a small city tucked away in the woods. American Players Theatre (APT), is a classical repertory theatre that performs Western stage classics. APT covers about 100 or so acres of forestland along the Wisconsin River, not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. The APT campus houses two theatres–a gigantic outdoor venue that seats over a 1000, and a small intimate theatre for about 200. APT puts on about 8 shows per season, and typically 2 or 3 of those shows are Shakespearean.  

Putting on high quality professional classical theatre is no mean feat. Putting on 8 shows over the course of a season is tantamount to planning an invasion. Here are a few glimpses behind the scenes.

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Wisconsin River country on the edge of the Driftless region. This is a view of APT’s forestland from the summit of their ‘Up the Hill’ theatre. Three thespians founded this troupe back in 1980, when they discovered that the bowl of this hill created a natural acoustic amphitheater.  

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The ‘Up the Hill’ theatre. For 36 years this has been the heart and soul of APT. Most of the shows I’ve seen here through the years I’ve seen at night, under the stars. For matinees they spread out a parachute to shade the stage. Everything in the theatre–the seats, the sets, the lights–has to be rain-proof. But age has taken its toll, and after this season the whole Up the Hill theatre will be rebuilt, adding new rehearsal space, a better outdoor lobby, while preserving the natural aspects of this outdoor wonder.

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The actors use more than the stage, they run up and down the amphitheater aisles. At night the actors must skirt along these hidden forest pathways to make entrances from behind the audience: Lit only by blue lights, it can be treacherous–especially if you’re wearing heels or carrying a sword.

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One of the dressing rooms for the Up the Hill theatre. In the rebuild, these very old facilities will get replaced. But for now, this is what some world class actors use to get ready for their world class performances: I’m not exaggerating. APT has been written up in the New York Times, and its Artistic Directors travel to New York every year looking for talent.

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Another reason the Up the Hill section need rebuilding. APT’s campus has several rehearsal spaces, but this rickety old barn with screens for walls really needs an update. It’s in there they were probably rehearsing scenes for this year’s King Lear. I imagine it wasn’t that much different than what Will Shakespeare had to use.

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The view from backstage in the Up the Hill theatre. I can’t count the number of steps, switchbacks, turns, aisles and crooks I climbed over. These actors and the tech crews typically navigate all of this at night.

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Once finished with our Up the Hill tour, we hiked through the woods to APT’s other venue, the indoor Touchstone Theatre. It sits in the middle of the woods overlooking a wide swatch of restored prairie. This theatre is only about five years old, unlike its granddaddy up on the hill.

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The inside of the Touchstone has allowed APT to really expand it repertoire. They can put on much smaller plays, and it also allows APT to stretch their season into November–after the Up the Hill has been iced over.

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The Touchstone lobby. Though this is indoor, APT wanted to dovetail this theatre with its environment: wide windows letting in the light and gorgeous views of the forestland.

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The backside of the Touchstone shows just how world class it is: all of the environmental mechanicals reside outside of the building, allowing the company to maintain complete silence in the performance space, controlling every aspect of the environment in order to bring theatrical illusions to life.

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The scene shop. APT has two support buildings called Alpha and Bravo, and these house state-of-the-art rehearsal spaces, scene shops, paint shops, prop shops, costume shops, millenaries, laundries, offices and storage. Going through all of these spaces made me realize even more that the old Up the Hill theatre is really overdue for an upgrade.

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The costume shop. There are a million universes in this place.

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All of these skilled professionals work like hell to put on these shows, but they also have a sense of humor. Here’s mock up of an actual actor from Julius Caesar hanging from the wall of the prop shop, from a production of just a few years ago.

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The costume storage seems infinite. APT builds from scratch about a third of the costumes they need for a season. They lift from the prodigious collection for another third, and have to rent or buy the last third. They are also in the business of renting costumes to other theatres in the Midwest.

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Here is the grand old oak that inspired APT’s logo. She’s getting sick now, and not long for this world. But if you look to the right of this giant oak, you’ll see her successor has been growing for a few years now.   A great analogy for the company and its future.

Shakespeare on War – Memorial Day 2016

Memorial day battle

Shakespeare, as far as we know, never served in any military capacity, was never forcibly pressed into service (which was how Elizabethan England filled its military ranks), yet he seems to know something of it. Many of his plays contain characters, high and low, connected to military action, from men in the field to the Kings who order those men to their deaths. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Queen Elizabeth conducted war with Spain and the poor Irish people, and these wars lasted years. The subject of war must’ve been common talk, and many people must’ve lost loved ones in the wars.

I consider Shakespeare’s works the heart and soul of Western morality, and The Bard’s approach to war is no different. Ambitious warmongers fill his plays, some coming to bad ends (the Richards, the Macbeths), some glorified (Henry V), and some just outright mocked (Falstaff). A majority are treated with profound authorial ambivalence, left to the reader (or spectator) to decide for themselves.

This latter category I consider the most instructive. There are many examples to choose from in Shakespeare. In recognition of Memorial Day here in America, where we honor our fallen soldiers, I’d like to highlight a passage from Julius Caesar, where Caesar and his wife Calpurnia wax poetic about war, and the difference between cowardice and valor.

CALPURNIA.

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,

Yet now they fright me. There is one within,

Besides the things that we have heard and seen,

Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;

And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;

Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

O Caesar,these things are beyond all use,

And I do fear them!

CAESAR.

What can be avoided

Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?

Yet Caesar shall go forth; for these predictions

Are to the world in general as to Caesar.

CALPURNIA.

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

CAESAR.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.—

Julius Caesar, Act II Scene ii

Caesar uses death both as a metaphor and literally. ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’ A noble sentiment. I suspect that many of those we consider valiant–many of those who died–were terrified: but the valiant conquer their fears, the cowards don’t. And there is Shakespeare’s use of death as a metaphor: each time the coward suffers under the failure of his own fear, a small piece of him dies.

Crucial to this scene is Calpurnia’s more feminine perspective about the violence of war: her soaring and terrifying description of battle. If Shakespeare wasn’t in battle, he certainly must’ve read of it, or heard of it from those who had suffered it first hand. Or, miraculously, applied his own brilliant and empathetic imagination:  

‘Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.’

In sad remembrance to all of those who have fallen in defense of our country. I can never know what it must be like, and certainly don’t have the imagination of Shakespeare to recreate it. To those who suffered it, and died for our country, honor, awe and profound sadness.

The image is from Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V, here showing men dying for their country at the Battle of Agincourt. Today we honor our own fallen. In 600 years we haven’t learned much, have we?

 

Hump Day Shakespearean Quotes – 07 January 2015

Cassius & Brutus 2

Rationalizing cold-blooded murder is something for sick minds and for the greatest of writers.   Shakespeare was able to imagine how a flawed personality might rationalize the assassination of a friend for something the intended victim had not yet done, but might do. Amoral? Sick? Reprehensible? Yes, all of these. And also the topic for the first great soliloquy Shakespeare ever wrote:

Brutus
It must be by his death, and, for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power, and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may;
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatch’d would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1

Before we get to the why this soliloquy is the first of its kind, note the imagery: There are two metaphors here. Caesar as a serpent, and Caesar as a ladder-climber. The ladder-climber has become part of our common vernacular today–“climb the corporate ladder.” The other metaphor, though–Caesar as the adder–is the creepier of the two, and Shakespeare has Brutus return to that image in the final, decisive line: “And kill him in the shell.”

That metaphor allows Brutus to develop the rationalization to murder Caesar not for anything he has done, but for what he might do. That is, kill the snake in its shell. As cold-blooded as you can get. Yet–it’s okay, he’s rationalized it.

Finally, as mentioned above, this was Shakespeare’s first great soliloquy. The idea of being able to convey on-stage a character’s innermost thoughts was something never before done in theatre until Shakespeare tried it out in Julius Caesar–all the way back in 1599. This speech is the first one. 

It worked so well for Shakespeare–it so illuminated the inner workings of his characters–that he then refined the practice. To this very day, we remember even greater soliloquys that followed in his later plays: ‘To be or not to be’ from Hamlet, or ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ from Macbeth, just to name two. This technique changed the nature of art forever. Need examples? It’s used today in popular culture: think of ‘The Office’ or ‘Modern Family’, where characters are given the opportunity to speak directly to the audience.

The image comes from the 1953 film version of Julius Caesar, with James Mason as Brutus (right) and John Gielgud as Cassius (left). Note their post-assassination bloodstained tunics, in glorious black and white.