Mended Wing is now a little more than halfway through our season three tour of Twelfth Night. In a week we will be done, and the actors that have made up our cast will go their several summer ways. In August all of them except myself will be returning to UNCSA to continue their theatrical training, while I will return to Atlanta (after a brief stint teaching in North Carolina) to continue the expansion of Mended Wing's outreach abilities. I am desperately excited about taking this longterm dream and cementing its reality in the Atlanta community, but for this moment instead of anxiously anticipating the future, I'd like to reflect on the recent past.
We held our first rehearsal less than a month ago and over ten rehearsal days put together a 75 minute cut of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Working without the luxury of excess time meant that many decisions both aesthetic and practical are made out of necessity. I've said before and I like to constantly reiterate that Shakespearean performance becomes deadly (in the Brookian "Deadly Theatre" sense) the moment it is regarded as High Art of Historical Value. These things may well be true of the text of Shakespeare's plays, but can only serve as barriers to the enjoyment of and engagement with a performance by a modern audience of average citizens. Reciting pretty words while dressed in period clothing is one thing, to act upon an audience with Shakespeare is another thing entirely.
Shakespeare's canon is beautiful, but it is also ugly, gross, frightening, absurd, petty, and features more egregious potholes and arbitrary devices than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Until we reckon with that, we are doomed to retread old ground. This is part of what I mean by dancing in the graveyard. If we're going to exhume these dead and dusty plays, we need to give them good reason for resurrection. To this end when I direct a play for Mended Wing I think primarily of immediacy and necessity.
The characters aren't ghosts and relics, they are living now, breathing now, dying now, before your very eyes. They are talking to you--the audience--desperately trying to shift their circumstances. There's universality for you; the constant obstacle-hopping heroes we all know ourselves to be. Perhaps you've never murdered someone for a crown, never been shipwrecked on a foreign shore, had a loved one return miraculously from death; but chances are you have felt jealousy, and ambition, felt yourself lost in the world, rejoiced in a reunion. Before each performance on this tour I ask the students to raise their hands if they've experienced the following: pretending to be someone or something that they're not; liking someone who doesn't like them back; having a friend get them in trouble. Invariably a majority of the audience will have raised their hand at least to one of those. I then tell them that if they answered yes to any, then they already have something in common with the characters onstage.
So much for immediacy--now necessity. What do you need to do a play that has been done so many times before, that will be done so many ways again? The answer I've arrived at is very little: six or seven actors, some bright colored clothes, a few key props from Goodwill or Party City, and of course, the Red Nose. After almost every performance the first question students ask us is something along the lines of, "What's with the clown noses?" It's the best single question they could ask about our process, and one that requires a complicated answer. The nose is a very simple kind of theatrical mask that carries with it the entire tradition of Western theatre from ancient Greece, through Commedia dell'Arte, to the Absurdists and beyond. Like much theatre magic it ceases to be magical if we discuss it too much, but for Mended Wing's pursues the Nose severed as a means to a more expressive physicality, a more audience-oriented perspective, and a child-like playfulness, all of which are indispensable tools when crafting an engaging performance for young audiences.
We use a highly physical process from the very beginning; building the shape of the play before laying the lines on top, in order to both shorten the necessary rehearsal period, and heighten the non-verbal storytelling. This method of working calls for actors of a certain skill and dedication, and I have been immensely lucky for three years to work with excellent young actors from UNCSA who share a common language of craft. The mask progression at UNCSA, taught by the recently retired Bob Francesconi, has been integral to our understanding of the clown work and our ability to physicalize Shakespeare for young audiences. However, most of my most recent group has only had a taste of his training and their first experience with the Red Nose was my bastardization in service of the process. This also feels like dancing in the graveyard: taking a thousand year tradition that was passed to me over the course of three years by a teacher for whom I had the utmost respect, even awe, and trying to convey it to my peers in a matter of days. So here we are unready, unworthy, scrambling like hell to tell an exciting to story to a first-time audience, and somehow pulling through, making kids laugh, and finding it's not as important to be read as it is to be willing to put your heart on the stage.
One last thing of note. Right before we left Winston-Salem to begin our tour, Maddy Brown, the actor playing Malvolio got too sick to continue on the road with us. Her presence in our rehearsal and the energy she brought to all the work we've done was inspiring and continues to influence our show. In the spirit of shows having to go on, I stepped into her role and learned her lines at the last minute, but it is only because of her terrific realization of the character that I was able to learn it so quickly. My lasting respect, thanks, and well-wishes go with her this summer!
Mended Wing was founded on the idea that the theatrical values of empathy, identification, and communal experience are vitally important as societal values as well, and though I think the world now is a more frightening and broken place than it was when we first started, I remind myself and my troupe that we are called Mended Wing, not Perfectly Healthy Wing That Was Never Broken. And so we will keep dancing in this graveyard world with all its heaviness and darkness, and strive joyfully, relentlessly to be its lightness and its light.
During talkbacks for our 2018 tour of Two Gentlemen of Verona, students would often ask when Mended Wing would be offering programming for students beyond a single performance, and I am thrilled today to have an answer to that question!
On March 25th and 26th Mended Wing Teaching Artists will be conducting classes at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, on the specific methods which our company has used to rehearse our first two tours. These classes mark the beginning of a new phase in the development of Mended Wing Theatre Co. as we seek to expand our outreach and bring theatre education and Shakespeare to an even wider audience, with a year-round operating calendar.
The structure and content of these classes will be much like the rehearsal process Mended Wing uses when crafting our touring shows, a set of ideas I like to call Playbox Shakespeare. This approach aims at highlighting and exaggerating emblematic storytelling elements to make sure the audience never loses track of what is going on, (an important consideration for audiences who may not recognize every word). We blend non-verbal improv and clowning with classical verse-speaking techniques to create highly kinetic pieces that still maintain the beauty of Shakespeare's language.
This has worked for our rehearsals, and I believe the same process will work to introduce young actors and actresses to Shakespeare in a fun and productive way. Unlike our original tour however, when all Cameron and I had to go on was a conviction that kids could grasp Shakespeare but no proof; this time around we have experience to back it up. Back in November, fellow teaching artist, Wade Hollomon, and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio to attend a workshop at OSU on Shakespeare and Autism. Kevin McClatchy, who heads the Shakespeare and Autism Project at OSU, taught us techniques for teaching Shakespeare to children with autism in the morning, and we subsequently used those techniques with students in the afternoon. Beyond the incredible value of the experience itself, I saw that this sort of playful engagement with the Bard could be exactly the way into teaching classes I'd been looking for since students first asked about Mended Wing's other programs.
If the upcoming classes are as successful as I hope and believe they will be, then Mended Wing will begin offering classes to schools across Georgia in the 2019-20 School year!
For more info on the Shakespeare and Autism Project visit: https://theatre.osu.edu/shakespeare-and-autism-project
A couple of weeks ago Mended Wing finished its tour of Two Gentlemen of Verona to thunderous applause at Southwood Middle School in Miami, FL.
It was our eighteenth performance in two weeks; the culmination of months of preparation, an eleven-day rehearsal process, and more than a thousand miles on the road together.
We were triumphant but exhausted, and its taken some time to sort out my reflections on this project, and what those findings will mean for Mended Wing in the immediate future.
When we started playing with the ideas that would become Mended Wing Theatre Co. in 2017 we had no clue our tour would be successful enough to have a second shot. Now, after two excellently received tours, it feels like our beliefs that Shakespeare can and should be made accessible to young folks have been confirmed.
In the year and a half since Cameron and I first felt the need for this company, the issues that we were seeking to address have deepened. The need for empathy and for compassionate conversation is greater than ever, and I believe, stronger than ever, that this living, breathing experience of Shakespeare and of the transformative magic of theatre is essential in cultivating those very qualities.
There is an empowerment that comes with watching a Shakespeare and being able to say afterwards "hey, I got that!" We know we're doing our jobs right when someone tells us that they related to a character for the first time, or had understood the story in spite of being unfamiliar with some of the words, or when audiences cheer or boo a characters actions--becoming directly involved with the world of the play.
Our Two Gentlemen of Verona, presented by an ensemble of six clowns, would often spill across the boundary between the stage and the audience, involving teachers, students, and interruptions from class bells. The clown ensemble kept everything spontaneous, and the blocking from the original rehearsal room, would shift to fit each different space, a gymnasium here, a classroom there, a blackbox theatre, a giant proscenium, a courtyard. All the costumes and props were carried in a large hinged box, and taken out of the box by the clowns to try on the different characters. This sort of Playbox Shakespeare is born out of necessity--we need to pack light on the tour, and we have a shoestring budget--but is also consistent with a certain Commedia del Arte aesthetic that we were aspiring to.
The clown ensemble also made a major change to the end of the play.
As written, Two Gents ends with Proteus attempting to force himself on Sylvia, but gets caught by Valentine, who almost immediately forgives him and offers Sylvia to him as a symbol of their friendship--at which point Julia (who's been there the whole time disguised as a boy named Sebastian) reveals herself to Proteus, who does a second about-face and declares his undying love for her. At this, Valentine joins their hands and everyone walks off to be married.
Now, the clowns were not into this ending, this message was not one they wanted to send the kids of Georgia and Florida. They could not be persuaded by my insistence that it was satire--satire, they said, was for the birds. So we fashioned a new ending, one in which Valentine still forgives Proteus, but Julia and Sylvia ultimately abandon the two boys. This was done without adding any new lines, we merely cut the play off at the final line from Julia, then the clowns scrambled to get all the props and costumes together and start to pack them away, and as they did spoke this little rhyme I wrote to wrap things up, like one of Shakespeare's "apologies."
If these shadows have offended
Think but this and all is mended:
When we play so fast and loose
With tales as old as Mother Goose
Perhaps tis fit to cut some lines
To make our play fit for our times.
These men, un-gentle, in days of old
were not left standing in the cold,
but we can't stand in times like this
to end our romance with a kiss.
Thus in this very day and age
Tis meet to burn the final page
And craft our girls a fitter ending,
So chide us not, we're merely mending.
In many our talk-backs students would often say they were glad we changed it from the original ending, that they would have hated to see the girls give in, satire be damned--the clowns were right.
Students also asked us how they could get involved, what programs we could offer them as actors. At this time we aren't even a real company in the legal sense, we have no home base, except when we're all together eating a delicious meal together, we have very little of the structure needed to support those programs.
But we will build them.
It is my intention to incorporate Mended Wing as a non-profit theater in the near future, and to offer tours year round to schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. More updates on that front, and on other Mended Wing news can be found here or on facebook page. Thanks to all who have supported us and continue to support us as we bring Shakespeare to the people!