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.