Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday In The Park With George, Duke Of Clarence

Richard's brother is cuffed and clueless.
Two weekends ago, we opened Richard III in Riverside Park, and I officially made my Manhattan Debut.  Regular readers of these pages may recall that I made my official New York City Debut in the Spring, in Taming of the Shrew, about which I wrote here.

The Hudson Warehouse production of R3 (as we classically-trained aesthetes casually call the play) is performing outside.  We also rehearsed outside.  We even change our clothes outside.  I think my boxer-briefs are being discussed by the joggers who run by. 

Our stage is actually a cement terrace built as part of a monument to the armed forces;  our audience sits on the steps leading up to the statuary.  This may be the oddest place I have ever performed an actual play.

This previous Hudson Warehouse production gives a very good idea of what our performances look like.  Except that our audiences run the risk of being splattered with blood.
Well, I have performed in some odd places, it's true.  One year, I worked with a murder mystery troop in L.A., where we did environmentally specific shows. 
This murder mystery, from 1993, was performed in a burned
out WWII building.
That year, I did a show in a ladies' tea shop, and another in a railroad car.  But those are stories for another time.  For now, let me just say that performing on the steps of this monument in Riverside Park in NYC has its challenges.
Director Nicholas Martin-Smith gives notes to the cast, sprawled out on the steps of the monument.
The biggest challenge I have had with my current project is the heat.  From our first read-through until our Opening Night and beyond, we have conducted every rehearsal on the steps of this concrete monument.  Now, usually, actors are anxious to rehearse in the space where their show will actually be performed;  to be allowed to rehearse each and every day in the performance space is an unusual treat for a stage actor. 
Two goofballs are hired by Richard to off his brother.  That's me wandering around in the background in my undershirt.
In this case, however, I had some trouble.  July and August in NYC are similar to July and August in DC: hot and humid.  Despite having grown up in the Deep South, I have never acclimated to such a climate.  Our first week of rehearsal, out on the concrete monument, was pretty hellish for me.  I would begin my trek to rehearsal by walking two blocks to the subway, not a difficulty in and of itself. 
Director Nicholas found some shade.
And the train itself was not a difficulty either, as it is air conditioned.  But the subway platforms are not, and it takes only about 15 seconds of standing on one of those hellplanks to become drenched in your own sweat.  The train ride (and the changing of the trains, which requires another few minutes on another hellplank waiting and wetting) was never enough time to dry out.  Then there was the four block walk from the station to our venue, so by the time I arrived at our rehearsal, I was ready for a shower and some re-hydration. 
The Duke of Clarence needs a Gatorade.  Or a beer.
Of course, none were forthcoming, as we rehearsed outside, with no cover except the occasional shady tree.  So, from start to finish, this production has been rehearsed wet.
A sudden downpour affects the steps to the subway platform. You can only imagine the hot, sticky mess you become as you emerge from such a commute.
And another difficulty became apparent right away:  our performance venue was not built, in any way, shape, or form, to accommodate the art of the spoken word. 

The Greek Theater of Dionysus, at the foot of the Acropolis, seated thousands more than our little space.  And the acoustics were better.
In lay terms, our acoustics are for shit. So, from our first rehearsal to our last, major concern was placed on vocal projection.  Frankly, I spent the first weeks of rehearsal feeling that I was simply shouting at the other actors.  (And they were shouting at me.)
Howling at the setting sun is a good way to warm up for the
shoutfest which is our show.

But about a week before we opened, a funny thing happened.  That shouting turned into actual communication.  I was actually talking to other actors, and listening to their responses.  At full volume, of course, but communication was taking place. Woo hoo!  Or rather, WOO HOO!

After weeks of rehearsing, communication actually started
to happen.

And now our run has begun, and so has the fun.  Performing this show is much easier than rehearsing it (that is not always the case).  I play"compact" roles.  The first is that of George, Duke of Clarence (hence the title of today's entry).  Clarence, as he is known in the play, is the middle brother of the Yorks, who, at this point in English history, have won the Wars of the Roses and gained the English throne. 
Eldest brother Edward's wheelchair is a dead giveaway:
he's not long for this world.

Elder brother is Edward IV, king at the start of the play, and younger brother is You Know Who. 
"What hump?" Our leading man, Vince Phillip, is giving a
bravura performance. (Or is that bravuro?)
My role, middle child Clarence, has some nice moments in the first half-hour or so of R3, including a semi-famous speech about a dream which, in our adaptation, has been cut to about 12 lines.  Still, it's a fun role to play, and I get a swell death scene involving blood and a cement wall.
No, it's not an interpretive dance. It's my death scene. The photo was snapped from the audience during performance, so forgive the fact that all the actors and even the audience are facing upstage.
A few minutes after Clarence meets his maker, I reappear onstage in the small role of the Mayor of London. 
This guy became a media star leading
up to the Olympics. 
He continues the tradition of comical
Mayors of London.
Nobody ever remembers this character, as he pops into only three scenes, and never has the focus.  But I'm told I am making this little part memorable, and the Mayor provides some of the very few laughs in this otherwise gruesome tragedy.

Hudson Warehouse, our producing organization, has been presenting free Shakespeare in Riverside Park for nine summers, and calls itself "the Other Shakespeare In The Park."  After our opening weekend, I have begun to see the attraction of appearing here. 
There is something a little mystical about performing
outside in the elements, something those
inventors of theatre, the Greeks, knew.

The acoustics are bad, the cement steps are hard, and the other park visitors often stroll right across our playing space in the middle of the action, but there does seem to be something special about performing on this terrace as the sun goes down.  Our show is performed by natural light, so once the sun sets, we are playing in the dark.  Luckily, the final few minutes of R3 take place in the darkness of battle, and even include a ghost sequence, so Mother Nature's lighting design helps rather than hurts.
The late afternoon sun spills visual treats onto our playing space.
And now that we are settling into our run, I'm allowing some of my anxiety to drift away.  With that release comes a wonderment.  As I stand at the top of the steps of this monument, ready to make my entrance with the other royals down the stairs, through the audience, and onto the playing space below, I've begun to marvel a bit. 
The sun sets on our playing space and, at the same time,
on the poor Duke of Clarence.

When I was a kid, growing up in Atlanta, I was fascinated by the theatre, but thought I would one day be a journalist or a lawyer or a teacher;  acting was never an option.  By the time I was in college in Los Angeles, I was sure I would remain in L.A., knocking around the film industry and paying my bills by waiting tables.  Years later, even while I was in grad school, earning my MFA in Acting, I could not imagine that I would one day be spending a month performing raw and rustic Shakespeare, in a park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, along the banks of the Hudson River, in that most theatrical of cities, New York, NY.  I wonder how all this happened?