This Is All Very New to Me

I have never interviewed anyone in my life. I’m hardly prime material to take on the hotbed issues and figures for “20/20” or “Dateline.” Suffice it to say, on Wednesday I was considerably uncertain what to expect as I made my way down to the Atlantic Theatre Company school, where the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is currently in rehearsal for its 2009 season.

The HVSF, which starts its 23rd season next month, performs on the grounds of Boscobel in Garrison, NY. Every summer, the crew sets up a large tent on the lawn while theatregoers can revel in the gorgeous view of a sunset on the Hudson River, all the while taking in three of the Bard’s works in repertory. The annual theatre fest is a staple of the Hudson Valley, hugely popular with audiences who return year after year and continually bring friends with them (trust me, it’s a great introduction to Shakespeare for anyone who might feel a disconnect from his plays). They were also the subject of the documentary Shakespeare on the Hudson which aired on WNET (PBS in NYC) in 2008, narrated by Kristin Chenoweth.

Their mission statement enough is alone to entice an avid theatregoer to make the trip to Putnam County:

“The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is dedicated to producing the plays of Shakespeare with an economy of style that focuses our energy and resources on script, actors, and audience.

We communicate the stories with energy, clarity and invention and we distill rather than embellish the language and action. We challenge ourselves and our audiences to take a fresh look at what is essential in Shakespeare’s plays.”

Anyway, when I was asked if I’d like to sit in on a rehearsal, I jumped at the opportunity. And as soon as I jumped, I panicked as I didn’t know what to expect or what would be expected from me. But settling into my table in the rehearsal room, I receive a warm greeting from the actors, stage management and Terrence O’Brien, founding artistic director of the Festival as well as the director of both Pericles and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). (The third offering is the immortal Much Ado About Nothing directed by John Christian Plummer).

I am fascinated by the processes and techniques bringing actors through rehearsal and into performance. There was no exception here, as it was the first time I had been in a rehearsal room in almost five years. It was a place enveloped in fresh ideas and an excitement and passion for theatre that transcends the work they do on Shakespeare.

The actors (including Christopher Edwards, Michael Borrelli, a striking Gabra Zackman, Wesley Mann and Katie Hartke) got right back to work as if I weren’t there. For the next hour, they worked on a three to four minute scene, fine-tuning their blocking and making discoveries and breakthroughs right before my very eyes. I marveled in the rehearsal atmosphere; one of such intelligence and comfort. The room was full of congenial dialogue over actions in the scene, actors honing their performances with considerable lucidity. The rapport is genuine as many of the actors have worked with the Festival for many years, coming back every summer to live as a family for the duration.

For three solid hours, I got to see Terry at work with his actors, as well as the chance to converse with him as well as cast members Hartke and Jason O’Connell over lunch. (Joining us was the delightful Marcia Clark, who made the entire experience possible!) Our talk actually started when I inadvertently pulled my copy of The Norman Conquests out of my bag. That got all of us talking about what we had seen and what we wanted to see (sound familiar, bloggerati…?) Over the course of an hour we covered everything from Mary Stuart to August: Osage County to the worlds of opera and Shakespeare.

The director and some of the cast members get together during the off-season to work on the American Shakespeare Lab. Working with improvisatory exercises, the actors work to embody the text, making the dialogue seem natural and spontaneous. Part of our discussion was in regards to American actors performing Shakespeare. There is an unspoken stigma to the idea, especially many American actors tend to ape the British style, usually coming across as stilted (Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing, anyone?)

Terry and his actors work to bring Shakespeare to contemporary audiences while both revering the text and finding new ways of exploring it. One of his fundamental ideas is getting the actors to live with the discomfort of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Actors return year after year (though not strictly the same people, as he’s a firm believer that new blood keeps actors on their toes).

But as I probably could have spoken to the actors and director for hours upon hours, they had to get back to work. This time around they moved onto running scenes from the uproarious Complete Works. In what is essentially a raucous lampooning of Mr. Shakespeare’s folio, three actors deconstruct his works (think Anna Russell’s “Hamletto, or Prosciuttino” only faster and more absurd). The play, written by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, was first performed in 1987 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has considerable breathing room for comic actors to do what they do best. The HVSF actually performed this one as part of last season, but proved so overwhelmingly popular that it is being given an encore this summer.

The Festival is offering one of the more rare opportunities to see Pericles. The play is one of Shakespeare’s later works and there is some debate as to how much of it he wrote. It is generally believed that George Wilkins wrote at least the first nine scenes, and Shakespeare the last thirteen, marked by a stylistic contrast. Whatever the case may be, it’s a play that has been produced repeatedly in the UK though it’s never been seen on Broadway. The critics may not be kind, but the play has proven popular with audiences.

One of the topics of discussion was my blog. Part of our discussion involved my blogging and twittering, as Terry has only recently started blogging himself and has put the HVSF on twitter. The reason I was in attendance was the company’s attempt to reach out to fellow bloggers as the new media takes a greater foothold in how people are talking about the theatre today. All in all, it was a most pleasant afternoon and I can’t thank them enough for the privilege or their unending hospitality.

The actors continue their rehearsals until June 6, when they head up to Boscobel to settle in for the beginning of previews on June 16. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) opens June 20; Much Ado About Nothing on June 27 and Pericles on July 4. All three shows run through September 6. I look forward to seeing all of them.