Friday, 29 November 2013

A Chat with Hollow Crown Fans & Grassroots Shakespeare London

At Grassroots, we love our social media and one of our favourite (ok, probably our favourite) Twitter accounts is the wonderful Hollow Crown Fans (@hollowcrownfans). We follow their themed #ShakespeareSunday, where fellow passionate Shakespeareans share their favourite quotes from the Great Bard himself.
Following a great Twitter exchange about opera and Shakespeare, Grassroots Shakespeare London’s Siobhan Daly sat down for a blog chat with HCF's Lis and Rose.

On Original Practices:

HCF: What does 'Original Practices' mean for an actor? For an audience?
Matthew Cavendish as Moth and Robert Nairne
as Don Adriano in rehearsals for
Love's Labour's Lost
SD: Original Practices for us means getting as close as possible to how Shakespeare’s actors would have worked and performed. I think that what most often surprises our audiences is that we have no director, but neither did Shakespeare’s players. For Elizabethan acting companies, there wasn’t a wardrobe or props department like we know it today. They would have had a small costume store most of which would be donated by patrons - however it would almost exclusively be slight variations on modern fashions, basically day-to-day dress. Having Grassroots source everything from what is in our everyday lives is a modern version of that. 

In terms of rehearsals, Elizabethan actors didn’t rehearse at all like you might think. They would probably walk through fights, entrances and exits, if that, depending on the play. A readthrough in the pub with the writer is probably the only time they would hear the whole thing before the actual performance.  The actors would have to form their own ideas of their characters before arriving at rehearsals. 

They would also use cue scripts, which is where you own have your own lines, and the cue words of the person before you.

So this inspired us. We started exploring rehearsing with shortened rehearsal periods, with our own props, costumes and developing our own characters because we wanted to see if it brought something new and fresh to performances. We discovered that it is exciting when you have a number of people giving creative input rather than just depending on a director’s approval, or relying on somebody else’s vision or creativity, which is quite lazy really. We have found that for actors to be engaged in this process, they will be real team players, willing to take risks and step outside their comfort zones. They are intelligent, courageous and love engaging with the text and with the relationships on stage.
A Beautiful Bride: Adam Blampied as Helena and Christian Kinde as Demetrius

            Also, Shakespeare’s actors were all male, so we decided to start casting gender blind. We have amusingly been accused of casting ‘heteronormative’ which made us laugh, because we actually cast the ensemble and then cast the roles. So it is talent that matters, we’re not making statements about gender, which other companies do excellently. We’re just looking at making the best production possible with the ensemble that we have. This has led to a male Helena, played memorably by Adam Blampied, or a female Philostrate/ Puck played by Emily Jane Kerr. Both actors are excellent and created imaginative characters.
For audiences, we hope that this brings a fun sense of irreverence, while bringing a textually rigorous, well performed production.

How does OP focus on clarity of text versus a single director's vision?

Siobhan Daly rehearsing for The Tempest with Stewart Heffernan
What we are really keen on is telling the story. I am sure that there are lots of wonderful productions of Shakespeare happening all over the world all of the time, that are well directed. I think for me, as an avid theatre goer, I’ve seen a lot of productions where the play has had a vision imposed, whether it fits or not. I recently saw a Shakespeare production which reminded me of this; the relationships and the story were very unclear, and words were added in to fit the director’s vision. It was awkward, clunky and my non-theatre going friend asked me if we could leave at the interval. I felt so sad because the play is wonderful but I could see entirely why she had failed to engage with this production. It had become introspective and self-congratulatory, rather than engaging.
Also, there is a freshness from hearing other creative people’s input, especially when they are doing all they can to hit every plot point and make everything crystal clear; that is when the heart of the story is communicated and I think that is often lost. It is why people say Shakespeare is boring, because undoubtedly they have seen productions that made them feel like this, but if Shakespeare speaks about the human condition, which we know he does, then we have to ask ourselves why this is happening.
I've found that a particular advantage to working in this style is that you can do without big lavish sets or any other crutches that can sometimes be used to prop up a production. You absolutely have to let the words do the talking, so you really need strong actors who love working the text.

David North as Don John in
Much Ado About Nothing, June 2012
Does a collective vision of a group of performers become a singular vision in the eye of the audience?

It takes a lot of work but yes it does. When the ensemble work together, they start to create a singular vision. 

An example of this was in 2012, we ended up staging two completely different production of Much Ado About Nothing. The first one was held around the time of the Jubilee celebrations, and very organically, the cast created a world inspired by VE Day, with soldiers returning from war. 

Boris Mitkov as Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing
August 2012

The second production we did was later in the summer with another cast, and they created something much more modern and militaristic, getting themselves two Off West End Award nominations along the way. I was involved with both productions and I made a point of deliberately not influencing the second cast’s choices, so for me it was absolutely fascinating to see them work and come up with their own original ideas.

When Original Practices is done well, the audience shouldn't really be thinking about the method, but engaging with the play.

Do you embrace or avoid contradictions in collective interpretation?
The Grassroots Dramaturg, Lauren Amy Pakes

We try to avoid them because ultimately we want to tell the story, so we do everything we can to keep that as simple and as straightforward as possible.

How do you democratically agree on how to edit or cut scenes from a play? Do egos ever get in the way (e.g., “you’ve cut my part down 50%!”)?

We have a Dramaturg, Lauren Amy Parkes, so she does the major editing work these days, and between her, Boris Mitkov (the Assistant Artistic Director) and myself, we come to a happy agreement on the final script. 
Sometimes, when we give the scripts to the actors, they will ask to put bits back in. We don't object to doing this, as long as they are intelligible inserts that fit with our edit and it doesn't impact too much on the running time!

On Shakespeare in new millennium and new audiences

Rupert Christiansen made a point that opera has seen success in concert style performances versus fully staged productions. Some responses to this is that type of production of Shakespeare’s work would be elitist. Is that something you think wide audiences would want to see? What would be the benefit or con of creating a concert style production?  Can Shakespeare’s work be appreciated fully without a reference point (such as staging)?

Daisy Ward as Hermia and Kane Surry as Lysander
in A Midsummer Night's Dream
I enjoy opera very much and see a lot of it, but I don’t think you can compare an opera concert style performance to a play. I don’t think a concert style play reading is something with wide appeal. This isn’t about having a large set, lighting or costumes. It’s about seeing actors standing in a line, trying to dramatically interact with someone who is standing at the other end of the line. I can’t see how it could be engaging or interesting. How will you see the relationships clearly? Or feel the drama? You might as well be listening to someone read the phone book.
Of course, this is entirely different when you’re listening to a singer and a full, or even reduced, orchestra, as the music often carries a lot of the emotion, and you’re not relying on the same things actors are.

With Shakespeare’s work becoming more widely available in text and performance online there have been debates on whether or not there should be an authoritative presence for performers and amateurs to reference to. Do you believe there should be authoritative standards for performers? Should the academia establishment limit performance interpretation? (in terms of being viewed as a valid interpretation, not in terms of policing).

In terms of having authoritative and trusted editions to turn to, yes, I do. I think that people like Eric Rasmussen and Jonathan Bate produce beautiful, scholarly edits for the RSC, and the Arden editions are invaluable when trying to edit a script. There’s many a debate been had at Grassroots over different words listed in the Arden! There is a wonderful essay by Jonathan on the RSC’s website about editing, including a fascinating discussion on Hamlet’s ‘sallied, sullied or solid flesh’ (he argues for the Folio’s ‘solid’) and it is an artform. I do think you need scholars who are passionate enough to wade through years of study to help practitioners, and at the same time, I think practitioners need to make their own minds up too. The work of academics can help you to do that. I personally love the work of James Shapiro. I think he is a brilliant academic and writer who brings Shakespeare and his world to life in a way I have never encountered before.
I’m not quite sure who would decide on valid interpretations. I think ultimately that will be down to the audience. I would worry about an establishment deciding because I think that could be limiting for artists and the beauty of Shakespeare is that people engage with it so widely. I recently saw Wu Hsing-kuo, a Taiwanese actor who produced a version of Macbeth called Kingdom of Desire using Peking Opera techniques. He told us that doing this had gotten him labelled a revolutionary agitator by the political establishment, for taking an iconic national artform and changing it to perform Shakespeare. I am glad that he could use Shakespeare's story of Macbeth in his own way because it became a cultural milestone.

What is more important for Shakespeare to thrive with new audiences? Entertain or enrich?

Hopefully a bit of both! 'New audiences' isn’t a synonym for 'stupid audiences', which I think can be implied by some people within the industry. You can entertain and enrich at the same time. They’re not exclusive and one is not more highbrow than the other. Shakespeare did both and I can’t see why well performed productions today can’t do the same.

Recent Shakespeare film/tv adaptations like The Hollow Crown, Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus - or going further back to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet or Mel Gibson’s Hamlet use popular celebrity actors to bring audiences to Shakespeare.  Does this help or hurt theatrical Shakespeare productions that don’t feature a big name celebrity (particularly with respect to setting expectations)?

I think the movies can help with developing audience awareness, because it makes it possible for entirely different demographics to have access to Shakespeare's stories. Some people have never been to the theatre and if the first time they encounter Shakespeare is in a cinema thanks to Baz Luhrmann or Mel Gibson, I don’t mind, and considering how commercially minded Shakespeare was, I don’t think he would have minded either. If these film goers who have never been to the theatre, do then go and see a theatre production as a result, then this can only be positive.
Established film actors are often performing on stage. We currently have Jude Law playing Henry V in the West End and Tom Hiddleston about to play Coriolanus, or there's Orlando Bloom as Romeo on Broadway.
Productions such as the current Globe rep season on Broadway of Twelfth Night and Richard III are anything to go by, audiences don't mind seeing excellent productions which don't feature A-List celebrity names. Actors that might be well-known here in the UK, are less renowned in the US, but the shows have had excellent press and are selling well.

How large a role does social media play into promoting your theatre company?

A large one! We have most of our followers on Facebook, so we try to engage very regularly with our audiences on there, and we also add our voice to Twitter. We like chatting with people. We are friendly and enjoy engaging people with Shakespeare's work. Social media isn't pretentious and neither are we. 

Our next show is Othello, and will be celebrating Shakespeare's 450th birthday from London's West End at the Leicester Square Theatre, from 2nd - 26th April 2014. When we announced this on social media, we had a fantastic response. We were so pleased as the whole team work really hard and with genuine passion to produce high quality, accessible productions of Shakespeare. The response you get on social media is also immediate. Rather than waiting until April, we've been able to talk to our audience now, and that is great.

We hope you enjoyed our chat! Next time, we'll be chatting with the Hollow Crown Fans and finding out more about their fantastic Twitter account and their love for Shakespeare!

About Hollow Crown Fans

Hollow Crown Fans started 30th of June 2012 at the start of the BBC's broadcast of The Hollow Crown.  The group was originally set up to petition the BBC to publish a commemorative book of photographs of the series. However, the effort quickly evolved from that original purpose to a broader vision that celebrated The Hollow Crown, its cast and crew, and all of Shakespeare's work as portrayed in text and performance. It evolved yet again in October 2012 with the advent of the weekly #ShakespeareSunday Twitter event. #ShakespeareSunday is an all-day Shakespeare flashmob of sorts where people from all over the world tweet their favourite quotes from the Bard. Participation in the event is steadily growing and currently ranges between 500-600 tweets from followers each Sunday.

To encourage participation from followers we've held an original art competition, judged by 2 cast members of The Hollow Crown, and a popular Cento Poetry writing contest that was judged by The Shakespeare Institute. We have a great time linking Shakespeare (in text or performance) to people's pre-existing interests. For example, recently promoted that there are 4 prominent Hamlets playing key roles in 'Skyfall' or 3 incredible Macbeth's in the X-Men franchise. By these activities, we love connecting fans with performers with academia - it's a blend of practices that we've yet to see on social media for Shakespeare.

Essentially we believe that Shakespeare can be a part of pop culture and should be accessible to everyone - be they enthusiasts, performers, academics or novices.  On a more personal level, we are run by two admins, one from the UK (who was an extra in Henry V!) and one from the US. Both share a life-long love of Shakespeare, history, theatre and film and bring that energy to the 3000+ followers on Twitter every day. Our motto: Come for The Hollow Crown, Stay for the Shakespeare!

Lis & Rose