It’s always interesting to me to see how productions handle the music of William Shakespeare. It’s how I got started with Bare Theatre, back in 2005 when we did Titus Andronicus. The text of those 37 plays is so universal/versatile that it can be played in any genre, and that versatility translates directly into the songs within the text.
Lyrics have always been difficult to me. I pick out melodies and harmonies, and I’m no poet. So it’s always a relief to have the words to a song done for me. I always find it easier to write music to words that are already laid out, because the lyrics usually have at least some rhythm built into them. The surrounding dialogue usually gives good indication of the mood and direction for the music.
For As You Like It, I’ve been able to sit back and let someone else write the music. It’s been a great experience watching The Zinc Kings and seeing what they’ve come up with. I love their arrangements, and I think they do a wonderful job of picking up the rhythm and spirit of each song.
I thought it would be fun to compare some different takes on the most famous song from As You Like It, “Under the Greenwood Tree.” The following versions couldn’t be more different from each other, and I think it only speaks to the power of the text that so much can be done with it.
Here’s The Zinc Kings’ version in our production. This is the music video / web trailer shot by Altercation Pictures:
Catchy, right? I love how upbeat it is, and also that it really does sound like a traditional American tune (maybe except for the “Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame…” line). I think it’s a fantastic version, and even after hearing it and singing it for weeks, I’m not getting sick of it – the opposite, really! I love it more and more.
A lot of versions are more traditional in the Renaissance sense. This one is an interesting comparison by Ray Leslee, performed by New York’s Antara Ensemble with Nathan Lee Graham and Harold Jones, conducted by Ariel Rudiakov:
The musicianship here is pretty amazing, and obviously this is a very classical, operatic rendering of the song. The quality is obviously there, but this isn’t the kind of “everybody join in” song The Zinc Kings created. That wasn’t the point of this version nor is it typical of this type of music. It’s meant to be listened to, respectfully. I think this is what a lot of people would imagine a song from Shakespeare should sound like.
Here is perhaps the most well-known version today, popularized by Donovan in 1967. Call it the hippie version:
It’s got a generous helping of “Mellow Yellow” and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” overtones to it. Personally, I love a lot of Donovan’s music, he’s one of the seminal sounds of the sixties. In my opinion, he had a little trouble fitting the words to the meter – it just feels slightly forced. What I think is really interesting though, is how much this version sounds like it’s about sex (is that just me?). Maybe it’s all the “Will you, won’t you…” at the end – which Donovan added, it’s not in the script.
There’s many more versions out there, but I thought this was an interesting cross section. If you have any notable versions of this or any other Shakespeare songs – post in the comments below! I’d love to hear them.
This is somewhat of a detour, but it’ll be a fun one…
William Shakespeare probably never actually set foot in many of the locations where his plays are set. Neither did most of his audience. People of that time didn’t have access to photos or video, and they may not have even seen illustrations or paintings of them. They simply wouldn’t have much idea what those settings were like because there was no way for them to know.
Even though he probably had not explored the Mediterranean, Shakespeare seems to have been fascinated with it. Many of his plays are set in Italy or Greece. The Comedy of Errors takes place entirely within the city of Ephesus, in what is now Turkey.
I won’t get into ALL the details, but this ancient city has a fascinating history. The area was inhabited as far back as the 10th century BC, during the Neolithic Age. It was colonized by Ionian migrants around the 10th century BC, and during the Bronze Age, the settlement was known as Abasa. According to legend, an Athenian prince named Androklos founded the city at the site where the oracle of Delphi prophesied he would.
Ephesus became the site of the Greek Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was at the time said by some to be the largest structure in the world, and it was destroyed and rebuilt three times before its final destruction in the third century AD.
It may be worth noting that Artemis was regarded as the goddess of childbirth and virginity – two topics that play into Errors. Artemis was also the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, the wilderness, and the moon. The many-breasted figurines and sculptures of Artemis represent fertility.
During the Archaic Period (750-460 BC), Ephesus was conquered, razed, rebuilt, and ruled by a series of tyrants. This era ended with the city under the rule of the Persians. In 498 BC, the Ionians rose up in revolt against their Persian governors for continuously raising taxes, which set off the Greco-Persian Wars. After many years of fighting they were able to drive the Persians out.
In 356 BC, the Temple of Artemis was burned down, according to local lore, by a lunatic named Herostratus. Shortly thereafter, Alexander the Great arrived in triumph from the war against the Persians. He offered to rebuild the temple with his own money, but the Ephesians refused, saying it would be unseemly for one god to build a temple to another.
When the Romans took over, they were not popular in this traditionally Greek city. Ephesus was one among many cities involved in the Asiatic Vespers in 88 BC, in which some 80,000 Romans and Roman sympathizers were murdered.
Emperor Augustus made Ephesus the capital of proconsular Asia in 27 BC, and the city prospered. Its population swelled to almost half a million, and Ephesus was said by Strabo to be second in size and import only to the city of Rome. The huge Library of Celsus was built during this time, as well as public bath complexes and the most advanced aqueduct of its time.
A great amphitheater simply known as The Theater was constructed. With a seating capacity of about 25,000, this theater is the largest outdoor theater known in the ancient world. Originally used only for plays, its stage eventually showed gladiatorial combats, and there is now archaeological evidence of a gladiators’ graveyard near the site.
The city remained important during the Byzantine era, but began a long, slow decline after being sacked by the Goths in 263 AD. By the time the Turks conquered in 1090, Ephesus was little more than a village. The Byzantines resumed control for a little over two centuries, but the Turks took it back in the early 1300’s. The town briefly flourished under these newest rulers, but then was taken over by the Anatolian Beys.
By Shakespeare’s time, Ephesus had lost all of its former glory and was completely abandoned. Its Roman ruins – the largest collection in the eastern Mediterranean – are now part of the modern town of Selçuk, Turkey.
Let me be clear – our Comedy of Errors cast is incredible. This is an awesome group to work with, and I can’t wait to add in the circus artists!
It’s the casting process that is always my least favorite part of directing. Why? I’m glad I asked for you.
As one of our compatriots recently posted, casting is not about who’s better than who. It’s about finding the right fit. As a director you have ideas about who the characters are, what their personalities are like, and maybe even what they look like.
There are three things that inevitably happen in casting, in my experience:
- At least one role, sometime several, have a ton of actors/actresses who would be perfect. Frustrating, because there are not enough roles.
- At least one other role, sometimes several, do not seem to have any “fits” with what is in my head. Not as frustrating, but it does require a shift in thinking and imagining the character differently from the first vision.
- There are always several roles that have perfect fits and the actors asked want to do the roles – however, they’re in another show, out of town that weekend, etc. This one is the most frustrating!
Another thing I don’t like about casting is that I always feel like I’m in Jerry McGuire – wheeling, dealing, trying to coordinate with dozens of people and get just the right team put together. It’s just not something I feel great with.
However, there is another truth that I experience every time once casting is complete – I always end up with the cast I needed.
It’s so true. For all the heartache I put myself through in this process, in the end we have exactly the right cast in place, every time.
This time is no different. Although we are still short one Antipholus…
I’ll start this entry with a disclaimer. I love Netflix, watch it all the time. I hardly ever go to the movie theater anymore, and I don’t see nearly as many live shows as I want to. There, I said it. I don’t get out enough.
However, I don’t think I’m alone in this respect, and that is a little sad to me. I think live entertainment used to bring people together more.
Obviously back in Shakespeare’s time people had to see entertainment live because they couldn’t get it any other way. I think it’s kind of neat to imagine the crowds that gathered at The Globe – up to 3,000 people attending one show. People from all walks of life, rich and poor, all gathered to see plays that are still being performed today.
The actors and the audience members who could afford better admission got sheltered seats with a roof over them. Those who couldn’t, “the groundlings,” had to stand at the bottom. If it was raining, they stood watching for about four hours…in the rain.
Not many people would watch a play in the rain today (although Heather did – at The Globe!). Sure, we don’t have to, but the shift in attitude towards live theatre is pretty striking.
This got me thinking: what events bring people together like this nowadays? Pop music concerts and sporting events, right? I once stood in pouring rain with thousands of other people at Raleigh Amphitheater to see Fleet Foxes (totally worth it!), but that’s a pretty rare thing these days.
Could drama bring members of the community in Raleigh and the Triangle together? I’d like to think so, especially after seeing the crowds at Shakespeare productions at Koka Booth Amphitheatre the last three years.
The folks who built the outdoor stage at Raleigh Little Theatre back in the late 1930’s must have been dreamers. The formation of RLT and its construction during the depths of the Depression are testaments to the power of people whose imaginations conquered harsh financial and practical realities. They succeeded in building an amphitheater at one end of the old State Fairgrounds race track – and now that space stands ready for our imaginations.
My goal is pretty simple. I want people to give Shakespeare a try because I think many of them will like it, just like we do. Errors is the shortest play we have from Shakespeare (a mere 1,787 lines compared with Hamlet’s 3,800+ lines). It is not a heady play by any stretch. It’s a broad farce with a ridiculous premise (what are the odds of two sets of twins both having the same name?). It’s accessible.
Does this mean it’s not worthwhile to perform? I say no, because it’s still a fun play. It’s funny today because we all understand the humor. Errors is a situation comedy and we can all enjoy watching the chaos that unfolds.
With circus added in, I’m hoping to make this more than a play. I’ll defend spectacle in addition to broad comedy because I think it does have its place. From what I’ve seen of Cirque de Vol and their surrounding circus collective, these performers are artists and they spend a lot of time working on their craft. What we will create with them over the next two months will hopefully be a fresh and rollicking rendition of this early Shakespeare text.
I’m taking for granted that it will rain at least a couple of the performance nights. If we can get a night or two without rain, the North Carolina weather in late May should be warm and inviting. People can bring their children to this show, pack a picnic or grab some concessions or food truck treats.
There will be comedy and there will be spectacle. Hopefully, this will be a dream that we can share together.
We are constantly looking for and inviting people to join the ride that is Bare Theatre.
It’s been quite a ride. In the last seven years, we’ve performed 15 of Shakespeare’s plays, four collections of one-acts, and 2 SPARKcons. We’ve performed in at least eight different venues around the Triangle, in Durham, Raleigh, Cary and Holly Springs. We’ve performed outdoors, in an art gallery, and in an original slave quarters cabin. There has been a lot of stage blood and no less than two inflatable, um…creatures.
This past year, we took a break from Shakespeare, which we used to perform almost exclusively. I think this was necessary – it was time to get out of what was becoming a comfort zone. That’s not to say we had mastered his work by any means, but we were getting very familiar with it and in such cases it can be easy to form habits.
We embarked on a series of projects that took us from Christopher Durang to Eugene Ionesco, from “Hot Greek Porn” to “Hitler Youth Knife.” We also delved into the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Project with Let Them Be Heard – a project for that appears to just now be beginning (more on that to come)!
These have been incredible experiences that had us exploring clowning in the streets of downtown Raleigh and digging down deep into the roots of racism in America. I know I personally have learned a lot about theatre, and audiences, and about putting on a show in general.
This year, we want to go big.
For our return to the works of Master Shakespeare, we will be performing two comedies that Bare Theatre has not done before. The first – coming this May – is The Comedy of Errors, an early screwball comedy of mistaken identities. The second – slated for September – will be As You Like It, an epic love romp through the forest of Arden.
For these two shows, we knew we wanted to experiment with a different venue and we wanted somewhere in Raleigh, where most of us live. We had an incredible time doing The Winter’s Tale at Sertoma Amphitheater in Bond Park a few years back, and it seemed like booking shows in Spring and Fall would be great times for outdoor theatre.
And we’ve wanted to perform at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Stephenson Amphitheatre for a while, too – ever since a group of folks who would later form much of the core of Bare Theatre performed As You Like It on that very stage in 2005.
This is a big venue. Research tells us this place holds somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 audience members – a far cry from the intimate black box of Common Ground Theatre, a space we love and call home. The stone walls and raked wooden stage are perfect for Shakespeare but the question becomes, how do we fill it?
Collaboration is the answer we came up with. Many months ago I conceived Errors as a circus show, but I knew that to really pull it off we would need actual jugglers, hoop dancers, acrobats, and the like. Luckily, sharing the streets of SPARKcon with circus artists has introduced us to the amazing talent involved with Cirque de Vol Studios. Enter Sara Phoenix and the crew at Cirque de Vol.
How to fill a huge stage? Take an already big cast and add circus. We’re now exploring having a silk aerial rig onstage, as well as lyra and possibly a slack rope. Throw in a few fireballs. Make the city of Ephesus, the sole location of Errors, a circus town with a marketplace filled with tricks, stunts and artistry.
This is an ambitious project. Certainly it’s the biggest show I’ve ever attempted. I already need to thank Sara and Cirque de Vol as well as Charles Phaneuf and Raleigh Little Theatre. Without their help this wouldn’t be happening.
It is happening, and it’s going to be one crazy show. Stay tuned!
Happy New Year! Hope you kicked off this year of the snake with a bang.
We are gearing up for what will be an ambitious year. It will involve collaboration with some amazing artists and organizations in the Triangle and it will be a ton of fun.
We will be returning to our roots and mounting TWO Shakespeare productions this year…but first we will explore short works that have not been previously seen in the area. Our fourth annual installment of Winter One-Acts at Common Ground Theatre runs February 21-24, and it will be funny and creepy! More on that to come.
This Spring, mistakes will be made. We perform Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Raleigh Little Theatre’s amphitheater May 24 – June 1. We are looking to collaborate with Cirque De Vol and local circus artists to turn the town of Ephesus into a vintage circus! Bring a picnic or grab some grub from a tasty food truck and enjoy amazing feats and mistaken identities under the stars!
Bare Theatre is also in talks with Historic Stagville to remount Let Them Be Heard. If last year you did not get a chance to see this show, taken from the testimony of former slaves in North Carolina, this is a powerful experience not to be missed. More details will follow.
This Fall, Artistic Director Heather J. Strickland will return from baby-break to direct Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It at the RLT Amphitheater. This show is shaping up to be incredible already. We are partnering with Pinecone – the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music – to create a bluegrass version of the show with live music!
All in all, it’s going to be a good year. Stay tuned!
Reflections on the Age-Old Question, “What Next?” and the Troublesome Questions of Identity and Purpose That Ensue, Part 1
It has been a banner year for Bare Theatre. Almost twelve months ago we were dusting off “The Shakespeare Zone” for its Raleigh debut at SPARKcon 2011. “The Zone” is a Bare Theatre original collection of comedic sketches mashing up Shakespeare and modern TV and, despite the rains, it was a crowd pleaser. This was especially true at Raleigh Ensemble Players, where we huddled out of the cold and damp with a truly appreciative audience.
Two months later we were back onstage with a steampunk-clad version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This was a big production for us, with 24 cast members (several of whom had several costume changes); video projections that featured flying airships, fireworks, and characters appearing onscreen; a couple of company dance numbers; and a big fight sequence pitting clowns against drunks.
Much Ado was our biggest box office success since the company began, and we had a fantastic three-week run in Durham and Raleigh.
The winter brought our third annual collection of short plays, One Night of Absolute Dismay. This collection featured three originals and one parody from Christopher Durang, “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls.” This was our best attended one-acts show so far.
Towards the end of spring we were gearing up for the entire collection of shorts that included “Southern Belle,” Durang’s humbly-titled Durang/Durang. The show was supposed to go up in May but had to be postponed at the last minute due to the sudden and very sad closure of Raleigh Ensemble Players’ space on Fayetteville St.
So we ended up following Absolute Dismay with an original adaptation of slave narratives from North Carolina, called Let Them Be Heard. It featured seven monologues performed by African American actors portraying people who had experienced life under slavery and survived to the Great Depression.
We staged these narratives at Historic Stagville in Durham, NC, which had been one of the largest plantations in the South. The show led four sold-out audiences on a lantern-lit tour across the plantation grounds, beginning in an original slave quarters cabin and ending in the huge Great Barn, hand-built by the slaves in 1860.
Let Them Be Heard was not only our first environmental play, but also our first Kickstarter campaign. With Kickstarter we successfully raised over $1,400 to cover production costs, which in turn enabled us to donate 100% of the ticket sales – $1,850 – to Historic Stagville, helping the Stagville Foundation preserve the important historical landmark.
Immediately after Heard, we got right back to work with Durang/Durang. We had a great opening week at Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School in Raleigh, and are finishing out the run in Durham at Common Ground Theatre.
Christopher Durang’s work has been insanely fun, especially after the tragic stories told in Let Them Be Heard. These six shorts are hilarious, ridiculous, silly and satirical, and as we always do – we have a great group of people involved. Not to mention, there are a ton of great photos of us in wigs (courtesy of the magnificent Mario Griego) on Facebook!
We’ve stretched ourselves, pushed the envelope, and had a blast in the process. Now that our eighth full season (yes, eighth full season!) has begun, we are faced with a question of identity.
We’ve done a lot of Shakespeare – almost half the canon at this point. We’ve done plays by Miller, Pinter, Stoppard and Durang. We’ve done a slew of original works from playwrights around the country. The question for me lately is: does the work define us or do we define the work?
I keep coming back to the latter answer. What makes us “Bare” is not necessarily what we do – it’s how we do it.
We are “Bare” because we tell stories with intensity and passion using little more than a room, some actors, and the text. Everything that happens between those elements is what hopefully makes our work worth watching.
It’s not an option for us to rely on production values. This limitation is actually what I find the most liberating about Bare Theatre. When you don’t have money, or set, or a ton of crew members, you have to get creative. You have to use your imagination.
We are constantly challenged by the fact that we do not have a performance space of our own. Common Ground has been a great home to us in Durham, but it has always been difficult to find suitable venues in Wake County and Raleigh.
That ongoing search has led me to a conclusion: that we embrace the challenge of finding venues that fit the pieces, and make that a central part of what we do. The experience at Stagville proved that we could create a one-of-a-kind experience with nothing more than actors, text, a location, and lanterns.
It doesn’t get any more Bare than that.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about The Next Show and Where We Go From Here…