The following is Part One (of two) of a behind-the-scenes post by Henry V actor and blogger extraordinaire, Katie deBuys. Katie is playing Pricess Katherine and the Boy in Folger Theatre’s current production of Henry V. Here, Katie takes you with her for a Sunday evening performance — her eighth show of the week:
“How do you make all those fast changes?” I’ve been asked this question after nearly every performance of our play. This being the production diary, I’m going to take a literal approach and take you with me backstage and onstage (but mostly backstage) for a run of Henry V in an attempt to shed some light on the answers to questions like this one. Here is a night in the life of the actor playing Katherine of France and the Boy at the Folger.
Let’s set the scene: it’s Sunday evening at 6 pm. I’m arriving at the theatre to warm up for our 7pm show…the second show of the day, fourth of the weekend, and eighth of the week. I’m a bit tired, but invigorated by how much I love this show and our whole team, cast and crew — and I just had really delicious Chinese food for dinner. There are already a few actors warming up onstage, and I join them. Just some gentle stretching, a light vocal warm up. After all, we’ve already done the show today and I’ve always found that there’s no warm up for a show quite like performing the show. As the clock nears 6:30, I head downstairs to the dressing room, where the fabulous Sylvia Fuhrken (one of our two absolutely essential and instrumental wardrobe miracle workers) meets me to help me pin curl my hair and get my wig cap on. Sylvia and I are going to put my wig on and then take it off five times tonight, so the wig cap has got to STAY PUT. Then it’s into costume for the top of the show, which means into my get-up for the Boy. A little powder on my lips for the chapped urchin look, and it’s nearly 7pm.
“Places to travel, please,” says Che, our fantastic Stage Manager, over the intercom system, and the cast assembles in the hallway outside the dressing rooms. Richard Willis (The Chorus) is already onstage, but the rest of us follow Alicia Sells, our fearless ASM, through the basement hallway of the Folger, up a narrow staircase, and then, as quietly as possible, into the lobby of the theatre. The second we get the “go” from Alicia, who’s on headset with Che, we’re off to the races singing the Agincourt Carol and processing into the theatre. This first group entrance here in Henry V is one of my favorite moments in any show I’ve ever done: I love the sense of unity that it gives the cast, I love the surprise of entering from the lobby at the top of the show, I love the gorgeous arrangement and accompaniment our composer/musician Jessica Witchger worked out to get us started with a moment that’s both haunting and exciting at once.
Richard kills the opening Chorus speech. I kill my coconut playing as Canterbury and Ely enter on horseback, and the show is off to a good start. I have a little bit of downtime while Henry is presented with some very insulting tennis balls and then tells the French to look out he is coming for them and no, he does not appreciate these tennis balls and you just got yourselves a war, French! (but, you know, Shakespeare-like). I always listen to this speech, as it’s often a litmus test for how the audience wants to engage with the performance, and because I think Zach Appelman does it so wonderfully.
Now we’re ready to go to the Boar’s Head Tavern. Those of you who’ve seen the show will remember that there’s a party going on upstage during the first scene between Bardolph and Nym. What you may not know is that the cast absolutely relishes this scene, and that we are telling a lot of very detailed little stories back there. I suppose it’s largely for our own enjoyment, but just know that a lot of energy has gone into that (mostly) silent, secondary scene…a lot of energy in trying to make one another laugh.
We stay at the Boar’s Head through Falstaff’s death, mourn him, and then I’m back in the lobby making a mad dash back down the stairs and through the basement hallway to the dressing room, because it is time for my first quick change into Princess Katherine. Sylvia is waiting for me, as always. I pull off the Boy’s hat, gloves, belt, vest and shirt and step into Kate’s first skirt. There’s no time to change the bottom half of my Boy costume, so Katherine is secretly wearing the Boy’s pants and boots under all her lovely finery. Sylvia fastens me into the three layers of skirt (hoop, petticoat, then the skirt itself), and then helps me get into the bodice. It has been approximately two minutes since I left the stage. We’ve got about five more until I need to enter again. This, for us, is loads of time. Sylvia pins my wig onto my head, I put on some lip-gloss, and we head upstairs. The entire change probably takes about five minutes, and that’s if we’re relaxed about it. Every move is pretty choreographed to ensure that each zipper gets zipped and each curl of the wig hangs just so. All of this for my first scene as Katherine — a total of about four minutes of stage time.
The King of France dismisses me at the end of the scene, and I take my exit. Now begins the crazy part of the show for yours truly. The second quick change, back into the Boy, takes place just off stage left. Adalia Tonneyck, the Folger’s absolutely phenomenal wardrobe head, has joined Sylvia, because for this change, we have less time than the last one…and more to do! Sylvia and Adalia both wear headlamps, the better to see wig pins and buttons in the dark, and they get to work right away. It’s like being changed by two spelunkers. All I can do is stand there as Sylvia removes my wig and Adalia releases me from the dress. Then, as fast as can be, I’m back in costume for the Boy and Sylvia is daubing my face with dirt makeup. We’re about to siege Harfleur, and the Boy cannot look freshly bathed.
And siege Harfleur we do. Zach brilliantly delivers the famed “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech. As the Boy, I tell the audience that I’m reevaluating my life and will no longer follow Pistol, Nym and Bardolph in thievery, and then I’m back stage left with Sylvia and Adalia changing my clothes…again. Sometimes, performing this play feels like an exercise in how to let other people change my outfit and hair punctuated by brief visits to the stage. But in a good way. This particular change is our fastest and most critical. My next scene is the English lesson, which is the first time Katherine speaks. I’ve got to look very princess-y and act well here, and we have about three minutes to go from full-on dirty Boy to cleaned up/polished Kate, hopefully with two seconds for the actor to catch her breath and remember that she’s about to do a scene in French. It takes every second of those three minutes to make it happen, but it’s happened every time so far and I have every faith that it will happen every time (knocking wood). Adalia and Sylvia are just so good and calm and skilled. I use baby wipes to get the dirt off and Sylvia checks my face in the light of her headlamp. Once I get the thumbs up on cleanliness, I dust some powder on, re-apply the lip-gloss, and head onstage with Catherine Flye.
Kate learns her first dose of English. The audience mercifully laughs. Catie is brilliant as Alice, and c’est assez pour une fois. Upon exiting, I do not have a costume change. Instead, I bask in the adrenaline of the past twenty or so minutes. This is it…this is the rush of live performance, of actually making seemingly impossible things happen on stage show after show after show.
There’s one more quick change back to the Boy before intermission, but by this point we’ve passed the most challenging offstage moments.
Part one comes down, and I drink a bunch of water…
LOOK OUR FOR PART II OF KATIE’S POST THIS WEEKEND!