Was ever match clapped up so suddenly? –Gremio
And, just like that, the first week of rehearsals for Folger Theatre’s 2012 production of The Taming of the Shrew is in the books. And what a fast, furious, and productive week it was. It is director Aaron Posner’s determined hope that the production will be blocked and take on a relatively firm shape as soon as possible. His vision of the play is fleet-of-foot, concise, and in the vein of commedia dell’arte. This style requires physical specificity and careful timing in order to achieve its desired effect. Consequently, it was in the best interest of the production that we get the play “on its feet” immediately.
The initial blocking/staging process for this production involves gathering together with our scripts and reading through the scene that we are about to stage. During this time, we discuss our characters’ intentions, given circumstances, the objective and event of the scene, and, in some instances, the “feel” we believe the scene should have. It’s possible—upon looking only at a single scene—to make light of moments such as the announcement of Kate and Petruchio’s impending marriage. However, after discussing with Aaron the scene’s ramifications on the story, on Kate, and on Petruchio (to say nothing of all of the people whose hopes and lives depend upon this marriage), it was clear that our goal was not to play this particular scene “for the comedy,” but rather allow the moment its weight and significance.
Once the initial discussions happen and we agree upon what we’re setting out to accomplish, we start working through the scene. The process has been a true collaboration so far, with ideas—coming from many directions—always being considered, tested, augmented, and embellished. There are many things to consider when staging a play, and Shakespeare gives us the added obstacle of frequent location changes.
Upon first glance, as can be seen in the photograph at right, Tony Cisek’s set appears to be the handsome interior of a 19th-century saloon. Indeed, the set is utilized as almost exactly that for many scenes of the play. However, multiple scenes in the first act of The Taming of the Shrew occur at a location that must, according to the text, be outdoors. For example, when Petruchio arrives in Padua, he instructs his servant, Grumio (Danny Scheie), to “knock at the gate” (of Hortensio’s house). In cases such as this, the intelligence of this elegant set becomes distinctly apparent: it is, essentially, an Elizabethan (or Shakespearean) stage, with inner spaces above and below, a large, playable stage area, and entrances to the right and left. Therefore, our set, much like the bare (i.e. “setless”) stages at Shakespeare’s Globe or Blackfriars Playhouse, will serve as an interior setting when we need it to be, and an exterior setting when we say we’re outside. Like audiences in Shakespeare’s day, Folger audiences will be asked to accept that we are where the players say we are.
The above process has proven efficient and successful, as we had blocked the entire first act (that is our first act, rather than Shakespeare’s), by the end of the fifth day. On the sixth day, we began with a run of the first act, or what actors and directors fondly refer to as a “stumble through.” The goal of the stumble through was to get an idea for the “shape” of what we had so far. Aaron encouraged the actors to sit in the audience and watch the scenes in which they do not appear, giving them a concept of how they fit into the world that we are creating. This helps inform us as to how much of what we’ve created should stay or needs to change, and in what direction we should focus, as we move on to the staging of the second act, during week two. It was an especially useful exercise for this production because so much of the comedy is stylized and heightened, which can mean that certain moments need to balance out others. It’s important for everyone to see Danny Scheie’s comic Grumio so we can make other choices that will highlight and accentuate his, making Grumio’s comedy all the more palatable.
The second week will see more concentrated, focused work as we try to block as much of the second act as we can, while still on the stage. Working on the set has been tremendously valuable. However, it is a luxury with which we will not be afforded much longer, as we have to make way for other Folger Shakespeare Library programs to use the stage for a brief period. We will spend most of the second and third weeks of rehearsal at an alternate location, doing our best to remember and imagine the set with which we’ve begun to grow familiar. As actors, we will have to strengthen our focus, that we may have as mature of a piece as possible, when we move back into the theatre. For this actor, that means wrapping up this blog entry, and studying his lines.