Theatrically Nasty Thoughts – Edition #9
A ROUGH(ER) HISTORY OF MAGIC
“Don’t know what you’ve been told, but this island’s mine. Burn your maps – it belongs to me. And I belong to it. Break open the earth here and you break open my skin. Open me up, I smell like mud, like fish, like flesh under tree bark, like the birth stain in the shadows of the grass. Christ, I’m in love with the word song!”
–‘CALIBAN’ from Rougher Magic: A cubist Shakespeare
Bob (aka Robert Moore) gives 7 of us copies of a script he’s written which he’d like us to perform in the spring semester portion of our course. It’s entitled Rough Magic.
Rougher Magic runs in an upstairs lecture room of Oland Hall on the UNBSJ campus as part of our course work, playing basically to the campus community and using very “rough” means for tech engineered by our cohort Gerry Briggs. We had various types of lights hanging from the drop ceiling in the room which sat about 30-40 people in kind of a small tight circular shape, on two levels with tables/desks creating that circle shape by running the length of the seating, with an open space on the floor in the middle of the “circle”. At the start of the show we crawled across/over/under/through those desks and the audience, each actor with a flashlight, whispering lines of text from the play until it erupted into the beginning of the text proper. There were jungle sounds Gerry had created, mixed with drum tracks laid down by philosophy professor, Dr. David Flagel, which played throughout the show from speakers hanging around the room from the drop-ceiling tile.
Rough Magic became RoughER Magic when Bob found out about a novel using the words “rough magic” in its title. Adding the “er” seemed to alter the title’s intention and I liked the shift – it seemed more edgy, like the magic was just that much less refined. This play and this class “production” of the play (along with another class production of Sam Shepard’s Action in a cafeteria) had a huge impact on the type of theatre I would go onto enjoy making – I liked the intimacy of the audience, the honesty of the staging, and the energy in the room as a result (much more than I’ve ever enjoyed a stage in an actual theatre, and I’ve had the pleasure to play on a few before and since this time). I think all of us in that cast were a bit in awe of the experience we were having. It really opened up my mind to the possibilities outside a traditional performance space and production company set-up.
Later that summer I would move to Fredericton to continue my schooling at UNBF, only to discover Bob too had moved to the city. That following summer, ’99, Nasty Shadows began …
And the show which rounded out our first Nasty year of existence led us back to Rougher Magic, and a desire to actually see it in a more full/complete production, staged in a theatre (despite my inklings towards smaller less established playing spaces). Basically, we had the opportunity to use Memorial Hall, after using it in our opening summer of ’99 shows, so we took it, and staged the show in-the-round on the floor. Bob, Chris Stacey, Gerry Briggs, and me were the Shadows who had been part of that class production back in SJ, but we held auditions to find more Shadows, having already grabbed a couple from our inaugural summer’s shows: Davey Thorne (Ariel) and Andrew Jones (Miranda 2). Marissa Allison Whiteway, a face familiar to Fredericton audiences for a decade or more, was first on a Fredericton stage for this show in the role of ‘Miranda 1’. A couple of others, Crystal Lee (Mirand 3) and Matty Warnock (Ferdinand) were involved for just this one show (and actually Crystal bowed out before we reached SJ; luckily Debbie Gray, also involved our inaugural shows the summer before, and part of the UNBSJ class years earlier, stepped in last minute as ‘Miranda 3’ for the SJ run to save the show).
I played ‘Caliban’ (sans glasses) in the earlier class production, and then again in this first Nasty staging – I really love the role and I am grateful to Bob for originally trusting me with that part. (And living life as a Mohawk-ed man for 2 months in the Winter of 2000 was quite an eye-opener!) When we ran the show in Saint John we used the Mini-theatre in SJHS, so we weren’t in-the-round but we did have a big section of stairs that came off the front of the stage creating a rounded edge which reached out into the audience and allowed us easy access to the floor. I remember the 2nd night in SJ being one of my favourite times ever performing – and it still holds up to this day as one of my fondest stage memories. There was magic that night, literally. It was one of those rare occasions where you really do get lost in the role, at least for me. I’m generally mechanical in my approach, carving out movements/reactions/tones to go with lines and mapping that like a score to follow, so that level of my focus often impedes getting “lost in the moment”. That night was different somehow.
While I do not remember the exact specifics, I believe NBActs approached either Bob or I about staging Rougher Magic as a fall production, so we ran the show about a month or more after the festival proper had wrapped-up. Bob did not have interest in actually directing the play this time, so I jumped in to fill that role, while also planning to play ‘Caliban’ again, believing that my familiarity with that role would help enable my directing *and* acting in the show (this was both naïve, yet instructional). Through some changes in casting I ended up as ‘Prospero’ which actually was a good spot to be in since he spends most of the show watching what the others are doing while interjecting when needed – sort of like the director, I thought.
There were many things that worked for me in this production, and many things that did not. It was a huge learning experience for me, and taught me the value of a clearer vision or feeling on the part of the director. I certainly never wish to enter a project with a predetermined outset in mind as that would negate the core process of the project: the rehearsals. But I realized trusting the script is one thing, and not knowing what you are doing is another. In some sense I merely set out to restage the production we had mounted 4 years earlier, only using some different people while still retaining a few of us (Marissa, Andrew and myself). Turns out this wouldn’t really work, just restaging the previous version of the show – surprise? Which is a good thing! There were a few wonderful inventions born during this ’04 process, and a couple of stunning performances as well (Seann Murray as ‘Ariel’ is not soon forgotten!). However, I feel I let the cast and the show down a bit because I was reluctant to speak up about a few moments in the show, especially as we got close to opening the show or once we were in the run. I know I’ve worked with many groups and most directors do not give notes after opening night. I see this as a missed opportunity, and I’m guessing I learned it from working with Bob, but why not try for something a little better with your next night on stage? I like to work with people who can take a note to change something during a run and not be flustered by that. We have very short runs for our shows, so we may as well try to make each one count. There is no chance to settle into a firm routine, per se, which makes adjusting as you go that much more vital, I think. And but so, being on stage with the other actors during the show made me reluctant to speak to them after the show about certain moments that needed fixing or changing, and the rehearsals and the run itself continued thusly.
And I feel we still put on a good show, but it was my job to make that show better and I failed on that front. Lesson learned.
Nasty Shadows returns to the stage with a remount of Rougher Magic (myself happily in the role of ‘Caliban’ once again, and directing yet again as well. I have a trusting group and I trust them to provide me feedback as well; I want to play too now and not sit on the sidelines, so we’ll be trying more of this again with my play in the spring). I am thrilled to be doing this project right now as I feel it’s a wonderful chance to embrace my new motto and return to the beginnings of the type of theatre I found was the most intriguing: less is more. I’ve allowed myself to get spoiled in Fredericton over the years; in Saint John we had nothing and that was where I found magic performing in the far corner of the SUB cafeteria with like 8 audience chairs around our “set” for Shepard’s Action, which was a table and 4 chairs. Truly one of my most cherished nights of performing.
For this show we’ll be playing in spaces that will either be actual performance spaces or simply rooms big enough to hold us, and I am fully content either way. The production will not be using traditional/actual tech – we’ll be using what we can have at hand. Lights might simply be the room we’re in, with some hand held devices to create certain moods/effects at different parts of the show, but what I want to get back to focusing on is performance.
What I am blessed with are wonderful actors who (for some reason?) continue to want to work with me, and I want to continue using these people to create theatre, and I want that theatre to focus on what these people bring to the table which is power and energy on stage. This is the one thing I feel Nasty Shadows has had as a strength, and that is our performers (which I guess I like to non-egotistically think includes me). We are in a new phase now. A “Rougher” phase where we are moving beyond technical needs and embracing more what the performance/er needs (I’ve been reading Grotowski and about his work during our hiatus, so I’m charged with some of his theories – not so much with others though). So the easiest thing is to embrace that lack and turn it to our advantage. From now on I want to create shows where we could walk into anywhere and put it on. We just need space. Empty space.
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
– from The Empty Space by Peter Brook (1968)
Which leads me once again to Mr. Brook and thoughts I’ve spewed elsewhere. Those two sentences about “empty space” have rattled around in my brain for over 20 years now, and I’ve never quite fully embraced the notion. I now want to do that. Brook has a wonderful description of “rough theatre” in his book The Empty Space, and while we have floated on the fringes of such modes of production, we have never quite let ourselves go there completely. And this isn’t a radical idea by any means, but a consequence of relying on the actors is that we lose some of the barriers a more traditional performance set-up affords between audience and performer. Which brings me back to the play at hand, Rougher Magic.
I am excited to be exposed to the audience, and for the audience to also be exposed – nobody will be hiding behind/in front of lights. We will all be sharing the experience together with even more immediacy. I remember a performance of Wild Abandon in Saint John where the lighting board would not work, so we did the show where I was lit only by the house lights. Looking people right in the face can be quite powerful when we both know we see each other. Comments afterwards all mentioned in some respect the fact that we (performer+audience) could see each other, and what a difference that made. I look forward to similar engagements with our upcoming production, and it seems very fitting that Rougher Magic is the play leading me and the Shadows back to more “rough” production means.
Posted on September 15, 2014, in Theatre Stuff, Theatrical Stuff and tagged Clarissa Hurley, Elizabeth Goodyear, Ian Murphy, John Ball, Julie MacDonald, Michael Holmes-Lauder, Nasty Shadows, Robert Moore, Rougher Magic, Scott Shannon, Shakespeare, The Tempest, Theatre, University of New Brunswick. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.