Becoming Caliban
Chronicles of a production of The Tempest
Sunday, March 20, 2005
The Last Performance

And now our charms are all o'erthrown. The costumes have been put in a pile to be washed, the props have been stowed away, the set still stands because a local school wanted to use it to stage a pageant (which made strike nice and quick for us). It was fun to watch the kids get emotional just before the curtain call -- I could feel sagely and old, thinking, "Ahhhh, yes, I remember those days, when the end of one show seemed like the end of a world." But it was the end of a world, and one I liked being in.

The final performance was pretty good, though I think Friday and Saturday nights were the best, with Friday feeling the most energetic and precise. Afternoon performances are strange things, and when they're the final performance, they lack, for me, the feeling of finality that comes with an evening performance, something that caps off a day. I liked ending this show this way, however, simply because it did lack that sense of an end. It felt like fading off into the sunset rather than raging against the dying of the light. A slow fade rather than a smash cut.

And I got paid, which was nice. It seems that, with grants, advertising sales, and ticket sales, the company probably broke even on this show. That doesn't leave anything for the summer show (I assume), but there are a few months now to raise the funds. Ahhh, the joys of nonprofit theatre!

One of the things that makes working with this company so much fun is that it's entirely free of big egos. Everybody seems to be there to have fun, and in four years of working with this group, I've never seen a lot of the temper tantrums and pettiness and thoughtless cruelty that I've encountered with nearly every other theatre group I've worked with. Theatre people tend to be a little strange, a little off-kilter -- emotional, moody, insecure, grandiose, etc. It goes with the territory, and the territory is mighty contoured. I vividly remember what one of my writing teachers at NYU said, warning all of us aspiring playwrights against taking ourselves too seriously: "Look, actors and directors are all screwed up and neurotic, but playwrights are worse. We take things from our imaginations and put them on paper, but then we give those pieces of paper to other people and have them act them out in front of audiences! This isn't neurotic -- it's insane!"

I haven't written a play in at least a year. I think it's time...

Enough of this rambling. I'll post some final thoughts later in the week. Some people may be sending me photos, too, so I'll post them if I get them. For now, rest.

Saturday, March 19, 2005
Performances 3, 4, & 5

Friday ended up being a phenomenal day -- the energy waned some in the morning, since the audience was small and we were all a bit tired, but by Friday night the show had found its pacing and everything seemed to connect. The audience Friday night was magnificent and truly appreciative. The concentration and imagination that propelled us through the first three shows by Friday night had blossomed into something closer to living than performing.

I learned Friday afternoon that I had been rejected from Brown University's grad school, which was not a surprise, but was, nonetheless, a disappointment, and it affected me more deeply than it really should have (I knew the odds), so by the time I got to the theatre I was fully ready to shed the dull and tired suit of my self and wear Caliban for a while, because as servile and mercurial and vindictive as he is, I find him really quite endearing -- he is at his core innocent in a way that I almost envy (and yes I know much of this comes from the colonialist impulses of Elizabethan/Jacobean England, but when wearing the character and being propelled by the words, I don't think about any of that. That's the sort of thing a director has to think of. For me, it's just about existing within the moments laid out by the script and by the rehearsal process.)

Today I found myself out of sorts. I suddenly had an entire morning and afternoon free. There were plenty of errands I needed to do, and did, but I was unorganized and moody. Then when I got to the theatre and sat down in the dressing room and began putting gel in my hair and make-up on my face, I was comfortable and at peace again. Strange. The woman playing Alonso said she felt the same way, that she'd gone grocery shopping and done a bunch of things that needed to be done, but had felt anxious and muddle-headed until she got to the theatre. Ending tomorrow will be sad, I'm sure -- I'll be thrilled to get my life back, to begin to read through the pile of books I have waiting for me, to perhaps clean the dreadfully cluttered apartment, to figure out how I'm teaching what I'm teaching in the spring term. But I have become so attached to this character that I will be sad to let him go, to no longer get to play in his world twice or once a day.

Tonight's performance wasn't bad, but didn't feel as energized as last night's. This is entirely subjective, of course; audience members seemed quite taken with the whole thing, and an actor's perception of how a show felt is narrow. I've added something every night, just to keep myself amused, and tonight I borrowed some make-up and colored my hands green, which the director suggested before the show, because he said when I rise up out of the pit hands-first, my hands are much too white and clean. I agreed and did something about it. Apparently I also danced somewhat differently than usual at the end of II.ii -- he came back at intermission and was amused, suggesting I'd become a sort of hip-hop Caliban.

There was a cast party tonight, but I was feeling antisocial and skipped it. Some friends invited me out for drinks, and I avoided that as well. I feel too naked after a show to do any social activities, which are a different kind of performance, and with this show in particular I find that the only thing I really want to do is get in my car and ease out of the role during the 45-minute-drive home. I probably seemed rude and unappreciative, but so it goes. I wonder if I acted more frequently, and not just once a year or so, if I'd find it easier to go from the world of the stage to the world of the world, but for as long as I've done this -- about 20 years now, actually -- I've never much liked parties or group things after a show, while most of the actors I know seem to be exactly the opposite -- they love the social stage as much as the theatre stage, and their performances go on and on late into the night and early morning. Me, I just want to go home and watch a movie.

Last night's movie was Stage Beauty, which is full of Shakespeare, and which I very much enjoyed for the first two-thirds and hated hated hated for the last third, when all of the complexities and ambiguities of the story's explorations of gender and identity are slaughtered in favor of a Hollywood ending. Billy Crudup's performance, though, is breathtaking. (I'll probably end up writing more about this over at The Mumpsimus, because the reasons I hated the ending are more complex than I just said.) Tonight's film is one I've been looking forward to for well over a year now: Hayao Miyazaki's >Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind -- I adore Miyazaki's films, and a former student of mine, who is Japanese, told me many times that this is one of the best. It only recently came out on DVD in the U.S., and I bought a copy today as a consolation to myself for not getting in to Brown.

And so it goes. One more performance. I both look forward to it and dread it because it is the last.

Thursday, March 17, 2005
Opening Day and Night

The first performance, at ten o'clock this morning, seemed marvelous. Lots of energy, but also a lot of precision, which is something we'd often lacked in rehearsal. The pacing felt just right, at least for the scenes I observed or was in. There was a real joy in performing this morning, the joy of doing something marvelously challenging, of pulling it off, of capturing an audience's attention and imagination, of feeling the language push you forward, of giving yourself over to the circumstances of each scene and discovering new possibilities within each moment.

I came home, took a shower to get the quarter-bottle of gel out of my hair and all the eyeliner and eyeshadow off my face, and then fell asleep in a 2-hour nap. I woke shortly before my mother arrived to come drive up to the theatre with me.

The second performance felt a bit more sluggish, probably because we were all a bit tired, but nonetheless seemed to go well. One of the younger kids, who hasn't done many shows before, went up on his lines in one scene, slapped himself on the head, and said, "Oh. Uh. Um. This island's like ... well, I don't remember what this island's like." He felt horrible about breaking character, but it was actually kind of cute and funny.

The audiences reactions were quite positive, but most of the audience members knew or were related to people in the show. My mother's usually a reliable critic, though, and her only major complaint was that my face wasn't dirty enough. She liked the physicality of Caliban -- half the time I feel like I'm in a modern dance -- and said she wished more actors had a stronger sense of their physical presence, which was an interesting comment. It's something that can get lost in a lot of American training; I know of plenty of acting teachers who think that everything must be internal, and so the concept of, for instance, starting with physicality and bringing a character forth from that is anathema to them. (In some ways, this is the stereotypical difference between American acting training and British. It's stereotypical because most programs and teachers fall somewhere in the middle, and anybody whose done much actual acting [as opposed to teaching] is likely to say, "If it works for you, do it," which should really be the only major rule.) Because I find the constant psychologizing of plays by traditional method actors to be both boring and annoying, I tend to like approaches that use more than just internal motivation, which may be why I enjoy finding interesting physical approaches to roles. Caliban, of course, particularly lends himself to such an approach.

Two more performances tomorrow. Then Saturday I can sleep in.......

Wednesday, March 16, 2005
The Last Rehearsal

A great last rehearsal is a sign of a great show; a terrible last rehearsal is the sign of a great show.

I think our rehearsal fell somewhere in the middle.

But actually, I think we've got a good show here, and there were a enough big flubs that I'm pretty confident tomorrow will go well. Today was fun, and it felt like everyone was getting a good handle on their roles. Now I'm tired and have to get up early tomorrow so that I can be at least half-awake by the time I get to Tamworth.

Beware the Ides of March

Yesterday was the Ides of March, but, despite its legacy since Caesar's assassination, it was not a particularly bad day. In fact, it was one of the better rehearsals we've had.

A frequent actor and occasional director with Advice to the Players, John, came with his wife (who directed Comedy of Errors, which I was in a couple of summers ago) and their infant son to observe the rehearsal and do some work with small groups. (Both he and Dawn, his wife -- yes, they're John and Dawn -- have worked with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, one of the better regional Shakespeare groups). Stephano, Trinculo, and I got a lot of time with them, which was wonderful, because they're both very energetic and supportive, and their comments were exactly the sort of specific, incisive directing that we've missed in the whirlwind/triage process that the short rehearsal period has forced us in to. Yes, rehearsals can be fun.

We spent about twenty minutes trying some new sight gags for II.ii, the spot where Trinculo hides from Stephano under my cloak with me. Previously, it had been blocked with us in an X formation, with me lying diagonally across the centerstage ramp and Trinculo lying diagonally on top of me. John restaged it with me lying with my head downstage on the ramp and Trinculo lying with her head upstage, so that now our heads are between each other's legs. Though it's physically much more difficult this way, it's also vastly funnier. We then worked on the timing of Stephano's interactions with both of us, and the scene became vastly more specific and interesting, I think. What a joy it was to really work on a moment and not just rush through it and say, "Okay, well, that'll do"!

We managed to do a run-through of the entire show, and it went fairly well, though lines continued to be a problem for everyone. (Inevitable, given the process, but unfortunate.) My costume works well -- striped brown pants that look like silk pajama pants, a brown turtleneck with a rustic wool shirt over it, and a small fishing net draped over it all. The net got caught in a lot of things, including my feet, but I was able to work with it, and it's probably a problem easily solved with a few safety pins.

And later today we'll have the last rehearsal. Tomorrow morning we open.

Monday, March 14, 2005
'Tis a Custom with Him i' the Afternoon to Sleep

I hadn't been at a rehearsal for two days -- as I drove home after Friday's rehearsal, a lot of snow began to fall, and it didn't stop falling until Sunday morning. I took one look outside my window Saturday morning, saw that the plows hadn't been on the road in a while, and that the snow was still falling like flour from the sky, and I called the producer and said, "I'm not going to risk driving up to Tamworth today." So I didn't.

I did spend some time polishing lines, though. Friday we had stumbled through the first four acts, and some parts went pretty well -- II.ii seemed to amuse the audience quite a bit -- but I felt like I was stretching for too many of the lines and spending far too much time during monologues thinking, "What's next what's next what's next" rather than letting myself go with the actions and ideas.

Sunday was a day off and I spent some time shovelling, some time reading, some time doing anything other than thinking about plays or Shakespeare or acting or lines.

And then there was today. Two days off takes it toll, no matter how prepared you are. I thought I was in great shape, but discovered soon that every line I thought I knew did not think it knew me, while lines I'd always messed up suddenly came easily. This is not a good state to be in three days from opening. I.ii was slow, but bearable, and I thought I got through the "This island's mine by Sycorax..." bit without completely embarrassing myself, though I haven't yet figured out how to make the transition from the first line of that monologue ("I must eat my dinner") to the next. If I have to, I'll just play it that Caliban's compulsive, but that seems like a cop-out.

Then came II.ii. The scene that has always been our best. Today it took forever. Entire civilizations rose and fell during the time we slogged through that scene. Most of it was my fault -- I transposed a couple of lines, completely throwing the other actors off, so that we finally got to one point and had no idea where we were or what was supposed to happen next. "Let's stop and go back," the director said, much to our relief, although, of course, it was a dilemma, because if we went back then we'd have to actually do it right before we could truly move on. My mind filled with images of doing the same two pages over and over and over again like a scratched record of life. I had even somehow managed to forget a line I've never forgotten before -- there's a moment where I'm supposed to be crouching between Stephano and Trinculo while they talk about the bottle of wine, and finally I reach for it, miss, plummet between them, and look up to say, "Hast thou not dropped from heaven?" It's one of those simple little lines inextricably tied to an action that it's impossible to forget. I forgot it.

The rest of the rehearsal proceeded like that. I began to feel that my delivery was monotone, that I said everything in exactly the same way, that the tone was always the same. Blah blah blah with an occasional BLAH. Ending with an ugh.

The "Be not afeard" speech went quite well, however. The musicians and I have really begun to play off of each other, and I think that's going to be a good moment. It's a particularly nice one for me, because I get to feel like a sort of conductor, and I've always wondered how intoxicating the sense of power a conductor has is -- standing up there, and entire orchestra at your command, the sounds seeming to follow your fingertips...

Before the show a reporter came to do a photo shoot, and I threw on some pieces of clothing I found and did my best to look menacing for a photo. I'll be curious to see it. Theatre photos tend to be deeply unsatisfying; too wooden, too fake. The theatre is a fundamentally fake art form, but one that, with its appeal to all the senses, overcomes its fakeness. Reduced to a single sense -- sight -- in a photograph, the artificiality triumphs over all. (Speaking of photos, my mother let me borrow her digital camera. I loathe taking pictures of anything or anyone, though, and haven't yet had the courage to take it out and take any pictures. Maybe tomorrow, when we're all in costume.)

I have most of my costume now. It's very brown.

We finished the run-through (with lights for the first time, though not most costumes) and then did notes. We all had the obvious and painful note to pick up pacing, cues, and lines. I had a note to find some variety of tones. It was one of those things you hate to hear because you know it's true and had hoped hoped hoped nobody noticed. I've been telling myself to find tonal variety through the whole rehearsal process, and haven't found it except for the "Be not afeard..." speech. Just have to keep looking and hope by opening night (well, morning) that it's there.

After the rehearsal, I said to Caroline, "Have you ever considered doing maybe three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal instead of two-and-a-half?"

"Yes," she said.


"It would bankrupt us." Indeed. I haven't been paid yet because Actors' Equity, the union, of which our director and three actors are members, demanded a lot more money than Caroline had planned on, so all of the grant money has been used to pay the union actors and the union, and the rest of us have to wait until there are some ticket sales. I try not to think about it, because I'm not doing this for the money, but I couldn't afford to be driving this much and putting this much time into it all without it. I hate even having to think about it. So I won't.

Two more rehearsals.

Music on the drive up: various Bob Dylan, some Natalie Merchant. On the drive home, listened to NPR.

Thursday, March 10, 2005
I'll Be Wise Hereafter

The Saga of Learning the Lines is slowly coming to an end, and the words are beginning to stick in my skull after hours of practice. I'm not sure why it was so hard this time; maybe I'm just getting old. Most likely that I've just been trying to think of too many things at once and haven't been able to focus on the play to the exclusion of everything else I need to get done.

In any case, yesterday we worked IV, V, and I.ii. Acts IV and V went relatively smoothly, and I even got through V without a script (this isn't a huge accomplishment, it being my smallest scene). I.ii we hadn't done in a while, and it felt clunky (though I was also off book for it -- IV was the only thing I needed a script for). The problem is that the scene doesn't become particularly dramatic until Caliban enters, and that's about 300 lines into the scene. Everything before that is exposition of some sort, with Prospero pontificating a tremendous amount. Yes, the play is about telling stories, and how stories are told, etc. etc., all of which makes for fascinating reading, but when it comes to giving the play life on the stage, the best thing I can think to do with everything before Caliban's entrance is get through it as fast as possible.

(An aside: I hate the character of Prospero. Clearly, I must be missing something. Why did Gielgud love the role so much? Some lovely poetry, yes, but what an insufferable character! Or perhaps it's just that Caliban is affecting my vision of it...)

None of my scenes had been scheduled to be rehearsed today, but we all asked if there would be time to do I.ii again, and so we found time in the schedule, and today spent half an hour or so on it, reblocking some spots and generally polishing it. More and more musicians are being added in the pit, which makes my entrance a bit difficult, as I rise first with one hand on the edge of the pit and then another, then peek over. Now I'm doing it with musicians directly in front of me. With luck, it won't look too awkward to the audience. I then climb up the ladder, which felt, for one reason or another, particularly good today -- I think I've done it enough that the ladder doesn't seem tremendously foreign anymore. This may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but any little thing like that that indicates I'm feeling my way into the physicality of Caliban makes me happy.

It got a bit more awkward-feeling with the "This island's mine by Sycorax, my mother..." speech, because I'm supposed to range from one part of the stage to the rest while all the time keeping some distance from Prospero. This is kind of like trying to drive to Manhattan from Boston without going through Hartford. Possible, certainly, but not particularly easy. I also get to climb up some little steps that are primarily used by Ariel; never having been on them before, today I nearly plunged flat onto my face.

The voice is developing differently than I had expected; far less of the ultra-Americanized accent now. I still like the idea, but I haven't been able to feel my way through the idea, and so it hasn't been consistent, and I'll probably just end up going with the style of speaking that the words seem to impel me toward. I like it best when the tone and pitch seem to come from the rhythm of the written words, anyway, so I'm not unhappy with this. (A couple days ago when I was trying to learn some lines, I practiced them in Brooklynese. Too bad it would be really distracting in the show, because I kind of liked the effect!)

Tomorrow is our first full run-through. Completely off book.

A week from today is our first (and second) performance. A week from right now, I will have completed two performances. Huh.

Music on the way to rehearsal today: A Radiohead mix. On the way back: lines.

Monday, March 07, 2005
Learning Me Your Language

Today I spent some time in the morning trying to learn lines, then did what learning lines always tempts me to do: procrastinate by pretending to do something related to learning lines. So I decided I would create a CD of my lines that I could listen to in the car. This meant I needed, of course, to get something other than the demo version of an old edition of the Audio X Mac software, since the demo only lets you record for half a minute. So I downloaded the new edition demo to test if it would work, and it did, so then I went through the process of paying $19.95 for it (justified by the fact that I used the demo quite a bit, even with the limitation on length, and so now that there's no limitation on length I'll probably use the software even more) -- notice that none of this actually involves learning lines.

In fact, by the time it was all done, I only had time to record one scene before I needed to leave for rehearsal. I wasn't about to waste a CD on one scene, so I abandoned the project for later, not having learned many lines at all. But now at least I can record them.

At rehearsal, somebody asked the director when we should be off book, and he said Wednesday would be good. I nodded. Wednesday would be good.

First we went through II.ii and III.ii, then did all of acts III and IV. Things are getting smoother. It will be wonderful once we don't have scripts in our hands (I keep reminding myself). The fun today was doing some work with the musicians. We came up with a plan for how to approach the "Be not afeard..." speech -- sounds growing and growing, then stopping after "when I waked" so I can say "I cried to dream again" in silence. The director loved it when he heard it, and I thought it was a vast improvement over what I'd done before.

I had less success doing my song at the end of II.ii, because the musicians and I kept trying various rhythms, but never tried the same rhythm at the same time. Rhythm is something that has always challenged me, and is one of those things that, like brussel sprouts, I try to avoid. I have no idea what we'll come up with that will work, but it's probably best for the musicians, who are talented and flexible and not rhythmically challenged, to try to follow me, because I know that once the performances begin my brain will panic and I'll just come up with whatever rhythm happens to occur to me.

Music on the way up and back: Bob Dylan Live 1975, a very Calibanesque album, and one of my all-time favorites (I'm one of the three people alive who never heard the Rolling Thunder Revue material on bootlegs, so this album was a revelation to me).

the production
The Tempest
produced by Advice to the Players
at The Barnstormers Theatre
Tamworth, New Hampshire, USA

March 17 & 18, 2005
at 10am & 7pm

March 19
at 7pm

March 20
at 2pm

shakespeare links
Open Source Shakespeare
The Tempest Text
Elizabethan Pronunciation
Perseus Project
Early Modern Literary Studies
collection of Tempest links
Images of The Tempest
The Tempest in old postcards
Post-Colonial Tempest Links

2005-02-27 2005-03-06 2005-03-13 2005-03-20

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about the writer
Matthew Cheney teaches English and theatre at The New Hampton School.

This weblog chronicles his experiences rehearsing and performing the role of Caliban in a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest.


Primary website: The Mumpsimus

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