Becoming Caliban
Chronicles of a production of The Tempest
Friday, March 04, 2005
I Know How to Curse

No rehearsal for me yesterday, as I had work from 8am to 11.30pm -- two final exams to administer, various meetings, then dorm duty. The last of the exams was this morning, thankfully (finally!), and now our students go away for three weeks (and no, I don't know why we have a three-week vacation in March. Everybody says it's traditional. Less time for spring sports to have to play in the snow, I assume). I came home for a brief nap before rehearsal and ended up falling into a tremendously deep sleep and waking up ten minutes before I needed to be at the theatre. Considering that in the best weather and least traffic it's a thirty-five minute drive, this was a bit of a problem. I looked at the schedule and saw that a scene without me was set to rehearse first, so thought I was probably okay. I drove at semi-unreasonable speeds nonetheless, and arrived at the theatre only about forty minutes late.

I wasn't actually late at all, since, as I'd suspected, they started with a scene I'm not in. We soon came to the end of I.ii, though, and I got to try out some of my recently-memorized lines, because during some downtime during the last rehearsal I did manage to get most of I.ii into my head, at least provisionally. And I got to try out the ladder I climb to get out of the orchestra pit and onto the stage. The ladder's made from little planks of wood and so is not as intuitively easy to climb as, for instance, something from a hardware store. Thus, my first attempt at an entrance was something that would have been far more acceptable for one of the later drunk scenes. And I forgot all the lines. It was just going to be one of those days, I could tell.

It was, indeed. When the rehearsal process isn't as fast as ours, this kind of day generally happens during a middle week, or maybe the week before the middle week. It's the point where you know the blocking and you know what you're trying to do, but you can't really juggle both the blocking and your half-memorized lines, and so you can't quite do what you're trying to do no matter how hard you try, which only makes you frustrated, and the frustration causes anxiety, and the anxiety leads to forgetting lines you really do know and forgetting to move anywhere at all. To the untrained eye, the actor seems to be striving to impersonate an ambitious moose.

Such rehearsals continue for a few days, and are vital to the process, because the frustration causes the actor to learn the lines and think more deeply about the role. Or it causes them to quit. Or they end up like me: Telling their friends repeatedly and tiresomely that they will never set foot on a stage again, it's not worth it, it's a ridiculous activity, etc. etc. ("I have no talent, nobody appreciates me, everybody who appreciates me is an idiot, I'm an idiot, and on and on and on") while at the same time learning the lines, thinking more deeply about the role, and, finally, enjoying a rehearsal here or there. I've been doing this since I was somewhere around eight years old and have gone through a similar process for every show. And yet I've actually only regretted doing one or two plays out of a countless number I've been a part of.

I.ii ended up going pretty well by the third or fourth try, though. Then we moved to III.ii to give Prospero a break, and that, I thought, was just horrendous, and it was all my fault. I was in the sort of self-pitying mode where I knew every word out of my mouth was wrong and every move I made ridiculous, but I wanted somebody to tell me I was the greatest actor they'd ever met. Instead, we just stumbled through it, going back and forth and fixing things. Very pragmatic, as it should be.

III.ii, alas, is the scene with "Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises", the monologue everybody in the company seems to have memorized other than me, and which everyone says is the most beautiful writing in the play, their favorite, better than sex, etc. This is not helpful to me. I'm not easily intimidated, but facing an audience of people who all are waiting to enter some state of maximum Shakespearian transcendance because of the words that are supposed to come out of my mouth borders on agression-by-expectation. It reminded me of being twelve years old again and on a soccer team. I have developed some physical coordination over the years, but when I was 12 I was the definition of the awkward child. My brain would tell my legs to hit the soccer ball in a certain way, and, inevitably, I would bruise a bystander or trip over the ball. I could envision exactly where the ball needed to go and what my feet needed to do to get it there, and then once my feet took up the challenge, I ended up kicking the ball at my own team's goal. (I vividly remember dribbling the ball down the field toward our own goalie during a game, with people all around yelling, "Matt! You're going the wrong way!" And me thinking, What, you don't think I've noticed?! Who says I'm in control here?!?)

"Think about the vowels," the director says. "Elongate the vowels."

"All the vowels?" I say.

"All the vowels. Like the people in the storm at the beginning of the play."

"But I'm not in a storm."

"Right. But try it. Elongate the vowels."

And then Caroline says the ending should be heartbreaking: The clouds methought would open and show riches/ Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,/ I cried to dream again. "That's him thinking about life after Sycorax, his mother, and before Prospero," she said.

I know this. I am only temporarily impersonating an idiot. It's a phase I'm going through. Like life is a phase a person has to go through before death.

Finally, we moved on to Act IV, which we'd never done. Going through a scene for the first time is much more pleasant than doing one for the third or fourth time. It was a nice way to end the day, actually, because it was short, easy to do, and fun. Alas, this is not The Sound of Music.

No rehearsals for me this weekend, because I've got 50 exams to grade, with term grades and comments for every student due by Monday morning. On Sunday, I'm going to a poetry reading by Mark Doty. I'm going to tell him to elongate his vowels.

Music on the drive up: Redemption's Son by Joseph Arthur, an album I haven't listened to for a while but very much like, though I think it was a bad choice for before a rehearsal: too soft, not rough enough. Save for the drive home. Today's drive home: Disc Three of Join the Dots. (I was in a good mood, so naturally decided on listening to music to jump off a bridge to.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Third Rehearsal

It's been a long day. I started the morning with a study session for some students at breakfast, then administered a three-hour final exam, then went to rehearsal, then came home and wrote another exam that I'll be giving tomorrow, this one for my Advanced Placement class and modelled on the format of the actual AP test, so it has 35 multiple choice questions (the AP has more, but I got tired) and three essays about everything from Beowulf and King Lear to Samuel Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino. My brain hurts.

But anyway. Caliban. Right. We did the ending of the play, which we hadn't done before, then returned to II.ii and III.ii to adjust the blocking and show Trinculo what we'd done yesterday.

I arrived a bit early, having forgotten that it doesn't take as long to get to Tamworth when the roads are clear. The director was working on building some set pieces, and we chatted a bit. He asked one of those questions to which I never feel like I can answer adequately: "So what's your conception of the character?" To answer truthfully, I would have said, "I dunno, I just try stuff and see what feels right and hope it works." Instead I talked a bit about trying to figure out for myself why Caliban was so torn between a desire to be subservient and a desire to be free, and I said I thought he represented a kind of half-civilized being, a creature that could move between pure nature and the world of Prospero. I think this at least convinced the director that I was thinking and not just reciting lines, though I'm not sure if I convinced myself.

II.ii and III.ii are coming along well, and we're at the point already where we just need to get the lines down and get the books out of our hands. That won't be happening before the weekend for me. I found myself thinking a lot about vocal tone and patterning, because I could feel myself falling back on old tricks. This always happens early in rehearsals, because we can only build from what we know, and it's not a bad thing as long as the actor is aware of it and fights against it when possible. A two-and-a-half week rehearsal period inevitably causes some falling back on habit, but there can be more subtlety than a lot of people would expect possible. I actually tried to play against the poetry today, to push my speeches as close to regular talk as I could get them. I've also been forcing myself into a more Americanized accent than I typically have, one with sharper A's than are part of my own accent, because I want Caliban to be a contrast to Miranda, who's played by a young British woman (whose own name is Miranda -- she was in As You Like It with me a few years ago, and I kept wondering if she'd get cast in the role with her name on it, because she's just right for it, and not merely because of her name). I don't want to make the contrast huge and comical by doing something like a southern accent, but I think being more clearly American than I normally am (for instance, I normally say "aunt" as written, not as a homonym for the insect) will be enough.

I also began to get a feel for the physicality. I expect it will grow and continue, but for the moment I hover a lot between all-fours and standing up. It probably looks pretty ape-like. I'm also trying to be as flexible and relaxed as possible, which emphasizes the animalism of the character. I had one moment where I was resting against a platform and thought, "Oh yes, this is Caliban." Now I just need to find that feeling for every moment.

For the moments when Stefano feeds me liquor, I'm often underneath the bottle, and so I thought of how my cat likes to drink from a running faucet. It's all in the tongue.

After III.ii, Caroline told me it was looking great and the chemistry between me, Stefano, and Trinculo is already marvelous. "I was born to be subhuman," I said. She laughed and said John, who has done many of the Advice to the Players shows in the past and directed Much Ado this past summer, thought the casting of me in the role was perfect. It's nice to know that when people are trying to cast tragicomic, bitter, vengeful savages, they think immediately of me...

Today's music was Radiohead (the live album) on the drive up, and a mix of various stuff on the way back. One song was by Tom Waits, and sounded like something Caliban might sing, so now I've got to figure out how Tom Waits would approach the song in II.ii (I think that's the scene -- too tired to look it up).

Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Second Rehearsal

The snow arrived, but later than expected. Overnight we only got a couple inches. The morning was clear. And then, about half an hour before I had to leave for rehearsal, the sky dropped heavy, wet, slippery snow. Driving wasn't too bad until I got to within about ten miles of the theatre, and, turning left off of a main road, I discovered that the car didn't particularly want to stop, even though I'd been traveling at about half the speed limit. I barely made the turn, but did. A moment later as I inched around a corner, I rather suddenly discovered that the car had turned itself around. And was still moving. Slowly, luckily. And into a big puffy snowback rather than, say, a tree. Suddenly all-wheel-drive was actually helpful, because otherwise I probably would have been stuck in the snowbank. I continued to the theatre, missing one other turn despite having approached it in first gear, though this time I decided not to keep trying to turn and instead went up the road and turned around at a fire station.

I wasn't too late to rehearsal, and plenty of other people were later than I. The director said he'd twice ended up off the road, other people said they'd spun around or slipped or skidded or snowbanked. It's a fairly common experience around here at this time of year if you ever have to travel more than a couple miles.

The first half of the rehearsal was devoted to the various spirits and sprites, and so I spent the time wandering through the back of the theatre and the lobby, all the while reciting lines to learn them. The lobby has a display of photographs of Francis Cleveland, son of President Grover Cleveland, who was a central part of the theatre's history -- I'd looked at it all before when I'd gone to see a show at the theatre, but had forgotten about it. I tend to think of Grover Cleveland as a president in the distant, lost past, but his youngest son was alive for part of my own -- a thought that puts a lot of history into a smaller perspective than I'm used to thinking of it in.

Though the actor playing Trinculo hadn't been able to make the rehearsal, Stephano and I worked through our bits in II.ii and III.ii, mostly for the blocking. I did my best to play around with some possibilities for the character, but for the most part had to just recite the lines, as every time I really began to figure things out I got lost and had to take a moment to find my place in the script. Ugh. We're doing the same scenes tomorrow, and I don't have time to learn the lines for them between now and then, so it will continue to be awkward. Trying out the "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises..." moment was fun, though -- the sounds of the words in that passage are all the guidance an actor needs. The only thing I don't like about the passage is how short it is. The beauty, though, lies partially within the brevity.

I've been thinking quite a bit about what sort of person Caliban is. Intellectually, I can see him as various sorts of archetypes -- the archetype of a subhuman servant, a "savage"; but also a certain kind of archetype for many forms of fantasy stories, including Gollum and Igor. That recognition isn't particularly helpful for me as an actor, though, because it could lead too easily to imitation, to doing Caliban-as-Gollum or something. I don't need that. What I need is to figure out what brings him to the point where he does what he does. He's obviously torn -- partially by Prospero's enchantments, but also a bit by some attraction to Miranda, by his own nostalgia for when he was free to do whatever he wanted on the island (a golden age that probably wasn't as golden as he makes it out to be), and by what Shakespeare seems to have intended to be a subservient nature, a desire to be a slave to a good master rather than an insulting one, which is one reason why he attaches himself to Stephano.

The other reason he attaches himself to Stephano is the bottle, the endless supply of alcohol, which, once he tastes it, becomes his great desire. The liquor unleashes his most murderous instincts -- goading Stephano to kill Prospero -- as well as his most rhapsodic, as the "Be not afeard..." passage shows.

We ended rehearsal a bit early so everyone could get home, as the snow hadn't stopped falling. The drive back wasn't too bad, though. The plows had been out. On the drive up, I listened to the first disk of The Cure's Join the Dots collection, as I thought it would get me in the mood to be weird and raw and kind of punky. On the way home, I listened to Natalie Merchant's The House Carpenter's Daughter, mostly because I just love her version of the old union song "Which Side are You On", the arrangement of which is set perfectly within my vocal range, so I belted out the song a few times, and decided I'll probably use it on the days I drive to performances, since it's a good warm-up.

Monday, February 28, 2005
First Rehearsal

And so it begins. Today I rushed through teaching my last class, jumped in the car, and drove 45 minutes from New Hampton to the Barnstormers Theatre.

Inside, I found a variety of actors and technicians standing around chatting on the beginnings of the set. I had never been on the stage at the Barnstormers before, having only been to the theatre a couple of times in my life. It's a cozy old theatre, the home to one of the oldest summerstock companies in the country, and a wide variety of companies and acts perform there during the year. (Less so right now, it seems, as the theatre is currently searching for an artistic director.)

I was surprised to see how many high school students were in the play -- I've done shows with Advice to the Players at an outdoor theatre in summers before, but never their winter show, and one of the goals of the winter productions (and a cause for them to get quite a bit of grant money) is to have high schoolers and community members working beside professionals. Thus, Ariel is played by a young woman from town, someone I've actually seen perform before, and who is remarkably talented and focused. (I was kind of hoping Ariel would be male, because he is in the script and yet, despite knowing this, I always think of him as female. Doing a production with a male Ariel, I thought, would solve this misperception for me. I'm just going to have to give up now.) Prospero is played by a woman as well, which ought to make the relationship between Prospero and Ariel interesting to watch textually.

While the producer (the woman playing Prospero, and one of my favorite people in the New Hampshire theatre world, Caroline Nesbitt) and then the director laid out various rules, regulations, and schedules, I took a copy of the script with cut lines in it and collated it with my own script, since the cuts hadn't been sent to me. The cuts were made with the knowledge that a few of our performances will be matinees for local schools, and so some of the more tangential and figurative language has been chopped out. (Very few of Caliban's lines got cut, and nothing I miss.)

Before I started performing in Shakespeare plays with any frequency (if once or twice a year can be said to be frequent), I hated even the idea of cutting the lines. Tamper with the words of The Bard?! What heresy! Any close reading of the plays shows that every line -- every word -- is necessary!

A production must, however, take into account its means and ends. The Shakespeare plays that I have acted in have all benefitted from judicious, and sometimes merciless, cutting. The theatre is at its best when it's a joyfully pragmatic endeavor, one where directors and actors and designers and technicians all recognize they are creating not some Platonic ideal of a play, but specific versions that are given life in actual places and actual times. Some productions could be performed in any place at any time, the actors and stage and audiences all interchangeable with other actors and stages and audiences, but the best theatre can only be performed in one place with one group of people for a certain type of audience. We know who most of our audience will be -- people from central and northern New Hampshire, most of whom are only somewhat familiar with Shakespeare's work, if at all. If we do our job right, we're going to give our audiences a play that excites, amuses, and moves them here and now, not in England in a theatre without a roof or electricity in the early seventeenth century.

After getting organized and dealing with details, then doing a short physical and vocal warm-up, the director began the rehearsal. He had decided to jump right in without a read-through, and this is a decision I tend to support, particularly with Shakespeare when people who are not experienced with early modern English are among the actors. Simply reading through an entire Shakespeare play can be arduous in such circumstances. Even with modern plays (for instance, Beckett's Endgame, which I directed a few years ago), I will sometimes move right into work without a read-through. It's remarkable how fresh and surprising the text can be when everybody starts out on their feet.

Though we aren't necessarily going to be rehearsing the play in order, we began with the first scene, which is fairly large, as it involves most of the main characters plus some sailors and spirits. The storm was choreographed with large strips of thin white fabric to be carried over the audience's heads by the spirits. Timing this with the lines and various necessary movements took about an hour, during which time I tried to memorize a few lines, since I'm not quite sure when I'll have time to do so much before the performance. (I always feel this way. I always find time. I always hate it. It's the worst part of acting -- memorizing lines. The only technique that really works for me is the most arduous: memorizing one clause, then moving on to the next clause, then going back to make sure I have the first and doing the two together, then continuing to add, always going back to reinforce what was learned earlier. Once I think I've got the lines down, I go back with an index card and read through the script, stopping after every cue line to make sure I know the cues, then trying my own lines and checking them against the script. Inevitably, once I get on stage, I forget half of what I learned, but the prompting of the stage manager helps solidify them, and once I've got the lines connected to my sense of the stage as a physical object, then the magic begins and I stop worrying about lines altogether, because I can trust that I have them. Sometimes I get surprised or muddled and go up on a line, but by that point, I know the character and situations well enough to be able to get through it. Improvising iambic pentameter can be an interesting challenge when an entire audience is watching...)

After watching the rehearsal for a bit, I began to worry. I could see that the director's style was very different from my preferred one. This isn't necessarily a problem -- I've worked with many directors who direct in ways I never would, and the friction of trying to fit myself into their process produces interesting results more often than not. In fact, the best play I've ever acted in, a college production of Jeffrey by Paul Rudnick (I was the title character), I nearly quit half-way through because I didn't feel like the director and I were communicating about anything. The play had the worst dress rehearsal I've ever been part of -- we seriously considered cancelling it. And then opening night it all came together. I can't speak for why it worked for everybody else, but I know for me, my goal became to prove the director wrong, since I didn't think he thought my performance was very good. (We won a bunch of awards and had audiences lining up for tickets an hour before the play every night after the opening, so something must have worked.)

Anyway, the problem I saw for myself with The Tempest was different. Our director has planned out all of the blocking (movements) beforehand, and so most of what he spent the rehearsal doing was telling people where to move on most of their lines. Frankly, I hate this. It makes me surly and anxious and annoyed. I like to use rehearsals to play around, to try out everything I can think of and see how it works, to get things wrong more often than right. When I direct, I seldom even write in a script until it comes time to set light and sound cues, and I hardly ever write down blocking. If a movement is so important that I need to command it, I figure I will have communicated well enough with an actor that the movement will seem self-evident, and therefore they will never forget it, and I will never have to write it down. (Yes, this is an ideal. But it works more often than not.)

I finished directing a production of The Glass Menagerie a few weeks ago, and mostly only told the actors where to enter and exit, since we needed to know for the lighting. The majority of the other lighting cues came from the actors' movements, and those weren't set in stone. It means both the actors and technicians need to understand the rhythms and cause/effect stucture of the play, which can sometimes be difficult, but once they get it the results can be phenomenal.

So here I am, having directed a show this way myself for about six weeks, and now I have to adjust to being an actor for a director who gives very specific blocking. I can intellectualize why this is important -- we've only got two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsals, after all -- but as we got closer and closer to my entrance in I.ii, I got more and more anxious.

When I entered though and tried out some movements, played a bit with the voice, and tried to get a sense of my relationship with the other actors, it worked out okay. I only got a few specific directions (and promises of, "Well, we'll choreograph that later..."), and I agreed with them all. Afterward, the director said, "Would you mind being on all fours more? Prospero's the one who taught him to walk upright. I think he might only do that when forced." I said I'd be happy to try -- it sounded like a fun challenge. And that was it -- no time for more. Tomorrow, we'll be doing most of the Stephano/Trinculo/Caliban scenes.

The costume designer, who seems like a very nice woman, asked me sheepishly if I would mind if my costume showed a bit of skin. I almost said, thinking again of Jeffrey, "I once was in a play that opened with me in bed with six guys, and I spent a lot of time wearing nothing but boxer shorts. I don't think showing a bit of skin will kill me." (The glare might blind people in the front row, though.) Instead, I just said I didn't think it would be a problem.

Meanwhile, driving home I heard on the radio that a winter storm warning is in effect, and we're to expect somewhere between a foot and two feet of snow between 8pm tonight and 8pm tomorrow. Fun. Luckily, rehearsal isn't until 3.30pm (most of the roads should have been cleared by then), and my car is an all-wheel-drive Subaru.

I thought I'd also chronicle a bit of the music I have listened to on the drive, since I often use it as preparation. Driving up, I listened to Radu Lupu playing Brahms, a CD that was a Christmas present and has quickly become a favorite, particularly the Rhapsody in G Minor (Alex Ross has written glowingly about this album and Lupu's playing). On the way home, I considered listening to Bob Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert, which has been playing in my car for a day or two (after I got fed up with Tori Amos's latest album), but decided on NHPR, a good choice, it turned out, because Bradley Dean, a Thoreau scholar, was on "The Front Porch" program, and I adore just about anything having to do with Thoreau.

Well, it's almost nine o'clock now. No snow yet...

Sunday, February 27, 2005
At the Globe

This will give us a sort of baseline: A photo of me in London in March of 2003 at the reconstructed Globe Theatre.

I don't usually like photographs of myself, but I can live with this one, because I like the composition. The photo is by Carey Royce, who was then living in London, and remains the most phenomenal tour guide and companion I know.

Invocation and Instructions to the Audience

I'm beginning this new blog at the suggestion of Jeff Ford, who's really curious about my experience playing Caliban in an upcoming production of The Tempest. I'm curious, too. This will give me a place to chronicle the day-to-day joys and frustrations of rehearsal and performance, as well as a place to store ideas and thoughts coming out of the experience, and perhaps even some photographs (if anybody will let me borrow their camera).

I'm very much hoping this doesn't just become horribly narcissistic. Since I'm making it all public, I'm hoping that it will be perhaps helpful and at least interesting to someone other than me. We'll see.

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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