On Friday, I went to see The Broken Heart by John Ford as produced by Theatre for a New Audience. Ford is a lesser known contemporary of Shakespeare (ok, not quite a contemporary, really he wrote about 15 years after Shakes, but that at least gets your brain into the right era), with a tendency of writing pretty bloody plays. And The Broken Heart is no exception –a bloody revenge comedy (hey, it ends in a wedding…) with a pretty high body count – this one is only 4, I think, but it is the 4 leads so...
Anyway, this production was delightful. First off, verse can be a huge problem for lots of actors. (Trust me, we have all seen bad Shakespeare… we all know this to be true). Verse requires more from its actors. First, it requires that you understand what you are saying every moment a word is coming out of your mouth. Second, it requires that you understand the internal rhythm inherent in verse, and how to make that a natural part of your speech, in your body and in your blood. Lastly, it requires that you know how to use your vocal instrument in technical ways – no mush mouth for good verse actors, only clear, consistent, and concise pronunciation. The cast of The Broken Heart had all three of these things mastered. In fact, Annika Boras, who plays Penthea, does an outstanding job of this because not only does she have to do all of the above things, but also she has to do them while she is mad, like moments before river Ophelia mad. And yet, even in that scene, I could clearly hear and understand ever thing she said, (Oh right, also, not only do they have to be able to handle all the verse, the also have to be able to act while doing it AND they have to be able to connect with others.) Anyway, I can say, without a doubt that the whole cast was outstanding at all those things. And that always impresses me.
Also, the show had pretty amazing choreography. Now, I have a love hate relationship with choreography in early modern (read renaissance for those not up with the new academic terms) theatre. My biggest beef with it is mostly, why do we need it? We, ok, scholars who do that sort of thing, have reason to belive that theatre was played mostly on a blank stage, and that scenes flowed into one another. For a modern audience, just cutting all the scene change nonsense out can cut out 30 mins or more of butt in seats time. And when you are talking about a possible 3 hour production (as this one was) then 30 mins is a long time. (People who know me well know how I feel about 3 hour productions. Mostly, I feel like you’ve done something wrong. Even Shakespeare wrote that Romeo and Juliet was a 2 hour play – it’s in the script – so why do we do 3 hour versions? – Don’t even get me started on conflating texts – which is the answer like 75-80% of the time…)
Anyway, what was I talking about before that side trip? Oh right, choreography. That is actually what I want to talk about at length. First off, I want to say, I thought that the cast of The Broken Heart did very well with theirs. (I still think some of it was too long and unnecessary, but I get that I’m a bizarre purest in that sense… and am therefore willing to let it go for the sake of a job done very well.) Here’s what impressed me the most with the show and cast – the level of commitment to (in) every moment they were on stage - part of this really shone (shined?) in the moments of choreography between scenes, and part in the moments of choreography in the scenes. Here’s why that’s important, because some of the things they were doing were very stylistically bold – for instance, each country (there were two) represented, had their own salute. Or when the characters met the king there was a very specific set of actions that was associated with that. There was another associated with the blessing of marriages. There are other examples, but you get the idea. None of them were the simple “arm shake” or “bow” that is most often seen in period plays. Each one was intricate and beautiful and worked because the actor behind it put all the weight of ceremony behind the action, connected the action with the reality they were in in that moment, made it, not just the most important thing they could do in that moment, but the only thing they could do in that moment.
This is a lesson I have learned before. I have, in my day, taught theatre to kids of varying ages. And this ability tends to separate the “good” child actors from “the ones who think it’s fun but prob won’t go on after camp”. Neither child is necessarily bad or less talented, however, the ones who have the ability to commit to something they feel is silly always end up with a stronger performance come show day. And as an adult, I think that is a truth of theatre. I think that, the more belief the cast puts into and idea or action, the more truth comes out to the audience. I know that this is a weakness of mine as a theatre practitioner. Not the belief part, I’m pretty solid on that, but on the actual choreography part. And that is my bad. I think I need to just step off the cliff and do it. I already know from my own personal experiences with watching plays that the audience will go with what you tell them to create. I already know from things I have already directed that this is true. And yet, I have yet to try to do something with as much polish and specificity that The Broken Heart had. So, maybe that’s my next challenge. Maybe I’ll get a group of actor friends together and see if we can’t accomplish that in a scene or two. It would be nice to have that in my repertoire or my toolbox of tricks.