Red Bull Theater – Summer Shakespeare Workout

I attended a workshop last weekend put on by the Red Bull theater in New York (http://www.redbulltheater.com/). It was fun, challenging, exciting, inspiring, Red Bull Theaterand enlightening.

The instructors were all exceptional, every one. Here were the Bios we were given with the Course outline.

Jesse Berger is the Founding Artistic Director of Red Bull Theater. He has adapted and directed productions of Pericles, The Revenger’s Tragedy, Edward II, Women Beware Women, The Duchess of Malfi, The Witch of Edmonton, Volpone, The Maids, Loot, and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Jesse’s adaptations of The Revenger’s Tragedy and Women Beware Women are published by Dramatists Play Service. Jesse has also directed at many fine regional theaters and Shakespeare festivals across the country.

Tracy Bersley teaches acting, movement and directing/devising work at conservatories and studios in and out of New York City and is currently on faculty at Princeton University and CAP 21 Musical Theatre Conservatory.

Dakin Matthews is a Shakespearean actor, director, dramaturge, and Emeritus Professor of English, whose most recent work includes dramaturging Much Ado in last year’s Shakespeare in the Park production, the 2005 Broadway production of Julius Caesar with Denzel Washington, and the 2003 LCT production of Henry IV for which his adaptation won a Special Drama Desk award. Dakin is currently appearing on Broadway as Winston Churchill, opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience.

Laila Robins is a much lauded stage, film and television actress. Her Broadway appearances include Heartbreak House, Frozen, The Herbal Bed, and The Real Thing. Off Broadway includes Antony & Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, The Lady from Dubuque, Tiny Alice and many more. Laila is also a frequent performer at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Laila starred in Red Bull Theater’s The Dance of Death.

Kate Wilson is voice and speech faculty member at Juilliard and one of the industries most sought-after vocal coaches. Her recent New York voice/dialect coaching credits include: A Raisin in the Sun, Machinal, The Trip to Bountiful, The Heiress, War Horse, The Mountaintop, The Merchant of Venice, Red, Driving Miss Daisy, and many others. Film/television credits include: The Black Box, The Leftovers, Olive Kittredge, The Harvest, Inside Llewyn Davis, and more. Regional coaching includes: Chautauqua, Williamstown, Shakespeare Theater DC, McCarter Theater, and more.

Mirriam Silverman. We weren’t give a Bio on her. She came in on Sunday, but her work was exceptional. She’s an experienced actress and movement coach.

Each one of them came in and worked with us on scenes we were assigned 6 days before the class started.

We were each asked to be completely “off book,” for the first session. I almost made it! I could do it when sitting with my partner, but crashed and burned when we got up on the last day to work with Jesse Berger. Ahhh, well. He sat us down and went through it again, looking at the intentions behind the lines and the arc of the scene. I got a lot out of that.

What was really fascinating was each of them had areas of expertise that were deep and rich and extremely specific (or at least, they focused on one area of their expertise to bring to the class). There were some that overlapped. There were also a few that knew each other, and had worked had together, like Kate Wilson and Dakin Matthews. So, even as they delivered their material they were aware of with the other would say, or had said.

Some of the others were really much different, and approached the work from a different angle. There were times that one gave the exact opposite guidance as the teacher had given in the prior session— but in a way they didn’t seem contradictory. Each one was peeling back the layers of truth from a different point of view. It was like finding a different facet of a gem catching the light in a different way.

Dakin, as an actor, director, and dramaturge, worked with the language—and the scene structure. It was unbelievable how clearly he was able to break down the progression of the scene, and take each line of text and expose how one “thought” led to the next—and to the next—and to the next… all clearly revealing the inner life of the character and their psychological progression through the scene. He was sweet, kind, and generous. He had an impish twinkle in his eye as he-led people along to a deeper understanding of how the text uncovered “who” those characters were– and how Shakespeare gave you all the clues to find them. Even the “lifting” of the tone of a single word in a sentence clarified its intent.

Kate came in and worked with our voices initially. The first part of her session was devoted to warming up the voice. After that she had us play with the text in the scenes in ways that really opened up the whole group.

Laila’s class was a completely different take on approaching the work. She had the “technical” background on the text and the meter, but was more interested in the interaction of the actors and their relationships. There was one scene from Julius Caesar, where she had the two actors playing Brutus and Cassius play the scene as if it was an episode of the “Sopranos.” The “relationship” between the two actors “popped!” For her, the relationships of the characters, discovered through improvisation, helped inform new ways of interpreting the text.

Tracy and Miriam came in and had us playing “games” with the scenes. One game that Mirriam had one pair of actors doing in a scene from “All’s Well that Ends Well” was to say “Oh, you don’t understand,” before every “thought” the character had… and when they finished the thought, say, “you see?”

That’s a little hard to understand, so here’s an example from the script, where the Countess is trying to get her “adopted” daughter, Helena, to admit that she loves her (the Countess’) “birth” son. Helena is trying to deny and evade the question. They “bracketed” each new thought with those two phrases.

Countess:

[Oh…you don’t understand] I am your Mother. [you see?]

Helena:

[Oh…you don’t understand] Pardon Madam. The Count Rousillon cannot be my brother: [you see?]

[Oh…you don’t understand]I am from humble, he from honour’d name; [you see?]

[Oh…you don’t understand] No note upon my parents, his all noble: [you see?]

 Maybe it doesn’t translate (you had to be there?)… but what it did was create “each thought anew.”  The “character” didn’t know they were in a scene that had three more pages! They thought everything they “said” would be the final answer to the questions of the scene… but it wasn’t. They said a line, and (much to their chagrin) that idea didn’t satisfy the other character in the scene… so, they said the “next line.” And that one didn’t satisfy them either… so they said the “next” line. It created the sense that the scene was unfolding, and that every new line was an attempt to make the “thing they were trying to get at” clearer. Every new thought was “discovered” in the moment, as a response of the character’s need to try and get what they wanted. Just like you and me, in real life, when trying to explain something… we keep talking… and come up with another way to make our point if we didn’t think what we’d just said had landed. That was an “acting game” that could be used in any play, not just Shakespeare, but it certainly enlivened the work this weekend!

Every one of the Coaches they brought in came with something like that. They each provided a clear, specific way to approach how to understand, clarify, and act the text of Shakespeare (and beyond).

It was really fun, and interesting. And, as to be expected, the people in the class ranged from a college student intern, to a recent college grad, a few college professors (and actors), a few actors and actresses, and an opera singer trying to learn more about Shakespeare. They too, were varied and interesting, smart and talented. Most of us were more or less local, but a few had traveled from as far as Pittsburgh and Colorado.

It was a great experience, and I’m looking forward to taking more workshops and classes. Funny, I graduated from Mason Gross 30 years ago, so it’s been a long time since I was engaged in this kind of work at this level, which such talented and experienced people.   For the last year or so I’ve been taking a different class, and participating in a Shakespeare “play reading” group with Rhona Silverbush. Rhona is the text/acting coach for the New York Shakespeare Society. She’s also another extraordinary talent. Those classes and group too are another “space” to learn and play in (and Rhona gave me a great audition monologue of Polonius, that I never would have thought of!). The point of all this is, whatever my “talent” is, there’s plenty of room to grow and stretch before I find the edge. Sounds like fun to me!

Maybe the next thing for me is an improve class!