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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

By Brian Bembridge

In 2003 I was introduced to Arden Theatre Company, because we were bringing a show called Hard Times from Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago to the Arden. Lookingglass is a company that Terry Nolen admired and supported while he attended Northwestern University with several members of the Lookingglass company back in the day.

I was still new to Lookingglass and Hard Times was my second design with the company in their regular season. I had designed two other productions outside of their standard season, which was how I met Doug Hara, a now consistent collaborator of mine who recently directed Metamorphoses and is now appearing in Stinky Cheese Man as Jack.

Hard Times, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2001

Hard Times, Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2001

I was mostly working in Chicago, so it’s funny to look back at heading to an unknown theater. I remember missing a flight to Philadelphia for tech, so I was a hysterical disaster, worried I would get fired. Flying is just a commute today; sometimes I fly in and out of Philly, Louisville, or Atlanta in one day just for a meeting.

Hard Times, Arden Theatre Company, 2004

Hard Times, Arden Theatre Company, 2004

The staff back then is a little different from the staff today, but it is family here Arden. And yes sometimes we disagree and argue over silly things, but in the end it’s FAMILY.

I was designing lights for Hard Times, directed by good friend and Lookingglass Artistic Director Heidi Stillman. We were excited but nervous as we were out of our element in this new city, this new theater. I was fortunate enough to meet Glenn Perlman, the amazing Technical Director here at the Arden. We hit it off immediately, and today he is a good friend. He and his wife Alison Roberts, the Costume Supervisor, and Courtney Riggar, the Production Manager, are family among many others here. Arden Founders Terry Nolen, Amy Murphy, and Aaron Posner (emeritus) were and continue to be thoughtful at cultivating this family at the Arden.

I kept in touch with Terry after I left Philadelphia when email was still young, and he always took the time to respond. Five years later I got a call from Matt Pfeiffer (who recently directed Funnyman), someone who is now family, asking if I would design Go Dog Go; of course I would! Matt and I didn’t know each other but we knew of each other; it’s a great thing about theater. The people you meet and the friends you make are better than your best design. They ground you.

Go, Dog, Go, Arden Theatre Company, 2008

Go, Dog, Go, Arden Theatre Company, 2008

I was picked up at the airport by an apprentice named Scott, his name will come up later, and was dropped off into a theater full of love and laughter and excitement, and this was a show for younger kids. I learned some, I taught some. It was a beautiful experience.

I came back to design Romeo and Juliet with Matt, with whom I would design a fabulous production at Theater Exile the following year. Next came sets and lights for Cat and the Hat, Beauty and the Beast, Macbeth, Funnyman, and one of my most proud theatrical experiences in 20 years, Metamorphoses. This was the first show I experienced at Lookingglass when they premiered it in 1999: a show that said theater is not just a stage, a show that had the same designers as those on Hard Times. Designers that elevated me, that taught me the ropes, that shared their truths in theater. It was a show that brought me full circle with Doug Hara directing, whom I met designing sets, lights, and costumes for our four person Hamlet at Lookingglass.

Romeo and Juliet, Arden Theatre Company, 2010

Romeo and Juliet, Arden Theatre Company, 2010

Our team of artists, designers, craftsmen, technicians, and actors blew the walls and ceiling off the Arden. What everyone gave every night was above and beyond any other show I have worked on. The care and trust and love was felt when one entered into the theater. It will never be forgotten.

Metamorphoses, Arden Theatre Company, 2015

Metamorphoses, Arden Theatre Company, 2015

All of this history brings me to show TEN. Ten shows is a lot for a punk artist who doesn’t live in the city in which the theater inhabits (although I want you to know I feel part of this community, whether they want me or not). I have a mass of thoughtful friends, family, and artists. I even told this to the Mayor one night as I was having dinner in Northern Liberties. I was having a beautiful dinner with the chef at Fernando’s when he walked by us to use the restroom. I had to stop him on his way back to his table with his wife to say thank you. I put out my hand and grabbed his shoulder and thanked him him for supporting the arts in Philadelphia. I reminded him we had met in Chicago at Chicago Ideas Week a few years before where I had thanked him previously. He had no idea who I was, but his eyes perked up when I said “Arden”. We talked for a minute, and I said I’m sorry and didn’t want to keep him. He thanked me and finished his dinner. They waved on their way out. (A side note: the other Mayors walked out the side doors with security, but this Mayor walked out through the lobby, on his own, without any security, and that spoke to me as to who he is as a human.)

 

Show number ten: Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. So fitting and an honor to revisit the show that honestly shifted family theater at the Arden in 2006, originally designed by my friend Matt York, a brilliant designer.

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2006

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2006

So remember Scott, the apprentice who picked me up at the airport on my first trip back to Philadelphia, in this long telling of my life here? Well this actor, friend, and artist, is THE Stinky Cheese Man among many roles in this incarnation. What I love about theater, about the Arden, about Philadelphia is that it all comes full circle more than you think.

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2016

Stinky Cheese Man, Arden Theatre Company, 2016

I am now on a plane commuting once again. A place where I get to collect my thoughts. A place where I look at theories of life and love and art. I left Philly only two weeks ago and I have already opened a show and I’m in tech for another. This is the life designers lead. Seven day weeks are so very common.

This show has been a gift of laughter and absurdity for the director Matt Decker and myself. Theater is a gift and a giving art that all ages should see and share. Thank you Arden Theater Company. Thank you Terry and Amy. Thank you Glenn and Alison and Matt and Chris and Courtney.

Here’s to ten more!!!

Xoxo Brian B.

By Bryant Edwards

Sometimes sets can be simple, other times we have to create an imaginative fairytale landscape out of recycled materials. But where do these ideas come from? Here’s what the Arden’s Production Manager, Courtney Riggar, has to say about the concept behind the set:

“We wanted to create a show where this rag tag group of people came together to tell a bunch of stories, and we were immediately inspired by First Friday in Old City.  Artists from all over just basically squat somewhere and make art.  So we thought, what if this particular group squatted on our Arcadia Stage on top of the set that was already there from our last show?  How would they make a show?  Would they just use the stuff that they found lying around?  Would they raid the Arden’s recycle bins, props storage, etc?  Then our Set Designer, Brian Bembridge found a picture of a bunch of green bottles grouped together that almost looked like grass (below), and we were off!  We began raiding our recycle bins for plastic bottles, and drinking lots and lots of ginger ale and sprite….and thus begins the journey of the plastic bottles.”

The inspiration for Set Designer, Brian Sidney Bembride.

The inspiration for Set Designer, Brian Sidney Bembridge.

But we weren’t done!  Let’s find out exactly how we turned these recycled bottles into the standout set piece of our production of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

First, we collected as many green soda bottles as we could over the course of a few months.

the bottom of a collection bin of soda bottles

The bottom of a collection bin of soda bottles.

Once we had a stockpile, we carefully peeled all the labels off and used a band saw to cut the bottles to size. Some we cut in half vertically, while other we just trimmed off the top.

Props Intern, Scott McMaster, trims the bottles.

Props Intern, Scott McMaster, trims the bottles.

After all the bottles were cleaned and trimmed, we painted most of them various shades of green, the remaining bottles we left unpainted.

The painted bottles, drying on the paint deck.

The painted bottles, drying on the paint deck.

The next step required a piece of plexiglass that was cut to size by the Arden’s Technical Director, Glenn Perlman. We carefully laid out all the bottles (as well as some egg cartons and paper towel rolls) on the plexiglass to determine what pattern looked best.

Props Intern Scott McMaster organizes the bottles.

Props Intern Scott McMaster organizes the bottles.

After we figured out the best pattern, we hot glued the bottles in place.

Arden Professional Apprentice, Kevin White, hot glues everything down.

Arden Professional Apprentice, Kevin White, hot glues everything down.

Finally, we put the finished piece up on the set and…VOILA! We have a fairytale landscape ready to go.

The final product! Set Design by Brian Sidney Bembridge.

The final product!

 

By: Jacqueline Matusow, Teacher-Librarian, Media Elementary School

I have lots in common with Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca), author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  He loves NY pizza and pasta of every shape.  So do I.  He was born in early September.  So was I.  He loves to write funny books.  I love to read funny books.  Also, I love Fresca soda.  But mostly, as a children’s librarian, I love to make my students laugh.  The Stinky Cheese Man always does the trick!

Scott Sheppard as Actor 5 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Scott Sheppard as Actor 5 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ok.  This is the perfect place to insert a Giant Thumbs-Up to the illustrator, Lane Smith.    I once shared the Caldecott Honor-winner without reading the text- just the whimsically nefarious illustrations.  I didn’t actually measure the level of student engagement- nothing scientific like that.  But I can report that the laughs came just as often- and just as loudly.  As I recall, the principal poked her head in.  I blamed the kiddos.  They blamed the book.

If you asked me, “Why do you love this collection of goofy, sarcastic parodies of classic stories, I would have to say, it’s the whacky characters and their stories, such as “Cinderumplestiltskin; Or the Girl Who Really Blew it.”  (Yep.  No fancy ball for her.)  Maybe, “The Princess and the Bowling Ball.”  (I like a prince who knows what he wants.) OR, maybe it is that bacon and olive cheese man (AKA, The Stinky Cheese Man- who isn’t nearly as cute or tasty as The Gingerbread Man.)   Actually, I think it’s that pesky Little Red Hen.  (You never know when she’s going to jump in and kvetch.)

Since I couldn’t decide, I surveyed students, Kindergarten-Grade 5, to tell me why they love The Stinky Cheese Man.  Here’s a sampling:

Kindergarten:  “They weren’t the real stories, but they were funny!”

Leah Walton as Actor 4, Scott Sheppard as Actor 5, Doug Hara as Jack, Ashton Carter as Actor 3, Rachel Camp as Actor 2 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Leah Walton as Actor 4, Scott Sheppard as Actor 5, Doug Hara as Jack, Ashton Carter as Actor 3, Rachel Camp as Actor 2 in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Stinky Cheese Man. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Grade 1:  “They were all funny.  I think it was because some of the characters were dumb.  Like the Cinderella who wouldn’t talk to the stranger who just wanted to help her.”

Grade 2:  “The Giant was funny.  He wasn’t mean.”

Grade 3:  “Those stories have the funnest names.  I got that joke about The Tortoise and the Hair!”

Grade 4:  “No one lives Happily-Ever-After!  Or if they do, they cheated to get there.  Now THAT was funny.”

Grade 5:  “The end papers!  The title page!  The dedication!  They’re hilarious!”

I still think it’s the hen.

The process begins months in advance; we started working in November for The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, >help which happens in April, and in January for The Secret Garden, which happens in May.  In fact, I’m already lining up design teams for the 2016/17 Season so I can get cranking on it come April.

SG Design Meeting

The first meeting is all about the play, what it makes us think about, how it makes us feel. The director talks about what he wants to say to the audience with this story.  Most of the designers have read the play a few times at this point, and have pulled inspirational images as a way of expressing their design concept.

Inspiration 2

Inspiration 1

In The Stinky Cheeseman… you will notice found object sculptures in the set.  Brian Bembridge (Scenic Designer) found the images above inspiration for the found object art nature of the design.

Because video integration is so important in the storytelling concept for The Secret Garden, Jorge Cousineau (Scenic Designer) and Terry Nolen (Director of The Secret Garden/Producing Artistic Director) were more inspired by video clips.  There is a paper animation artist, Jaimie Caliri, that they were really drawn to.  I am sure you remember those super cool animated United Airlines commercials from a few years back (same guy):

AA Video

 

Once we feel like we’ve really landed on a direction in terms of design aesthetic we go into sketch mode. In the sketch for The Secret Garden you can see there is animation on the video screen center stage.

SG Sketch

Click to zoom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From sketches we move into plans. These drawings are in scale and help us know what to build and how it will be laid out in our space.  It helps the lighting and sound designers determine where to put the lighting instruments and speakers.  Here you can see some of the drawings for The Stinky Cheeseman…

Stinky Drawings

Click to zoom

Stinking Drawings 2

Click to zoom

 

Our fantastic Technical Director, Glenn Perlman likes to take what we call “Page to Stage” shots together. Here you can see Two Trains Running in sketch form, model form and full size.

TTR Page to Stage

Click to zoom

 

By: Alison Roberts, Arden Costume Supervisor/Costume Designer for Two Trains Running

 

Last April, >find when the Arden announced it was producing Two Trains Running, I was immediately interested.  I designed the costumes for another August Wilson play, The Piano Lesson, in 2008 and loved how the words transported us all to a different time and yet at the same time presented the characters’ struggles in a universal way.  One of the benefits to holding a staff position as the Arden’s Costume Supervisor is I get to throw my hat in the ring early. And to my great pleasure, it worked out!

Authentic Photos used by Costume Designer, Alison Roberts, as inspiration for Sterling's outfit.

Authentic photo used by Costume Designer, Alison Roberts, as inspiration for Sterling’s Act I costume.

The first step, as always, was to read the script a few times. It’s where I get all my information; time of year, time of day, character analysis, actions, job descriptions, etc.  The next step was to meet with the director, Raelle Myrick- Hodges, and the rest of the design team to discuss the vision for the show.  Making sure I was taking Raelle’s strong feeling that ours should not be a conventional, boring production into consideration, I began doing research into the time period of the play-1969. I sought out photos whenever possible of real people of the time to make sure I was making the costumes authentic. The first thing that struck me was the use of color. Bright greens, reds, oranges, and mustard yellows dominated the fashion of the time. I was also interested in expressing the tension between the generations during that time. I decided that the older characters of Memphis and Holloway would harken back to the early-mid 1960’s style, while the younger characters of Sterling and Wolf would be pushing into the 1970’s with their looks.

Sterling

A sketch by Costume Designer, Alison Roberts, of Sterling’s Act I costume.

After working on sketches for each character and getting the approval of Raelle, I started my favorite part-shopping!  I used a few different websites to locate vintage clothing from the period- Etsy.com, rustyzipper.com, ballyhoovintage.com and ebay.com.  I was also able to utilize a shop right in Old City called Briar Vintage which specializes in vintage menswear. I also shopped fabric for Risa’s uniform at Fleishman’s on fabric row which was built by an overhire stitcher, Rufus Cottman.  After fittings with the actors, I made charts of what to wear in every scene and we commenced technical rehearsals. Some changes and adjustments were made throughout rehearsals, but what we ended up on with on Opening Night felt very close to what I envisioned! I hope you all enjoy your trip back to 1969!

U.R. as Sterling Photo by Mark Garvin

U.R. as Sterling. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Arden is more than just a theatre.

Over the next four months, prostate we’ll be sharing with you more of the work that we do, onstage, >recipe in the classroom, and in our community. You’ll hear from artists, staff, students, teachers, donors, subscribers, and community members. You’ll hear (and see!) stories of creativity, teamwork, expression, and adventure.

To kick it off, I’m going to share an amazing new video that was created in partnership with JTwo Films. This video show much of what goes on every day here at Arden Theatre Company – the amazing programs and people that make the Arden thrive.

I’m excited to share this because it gives you a sense of some of the work we do behind the scenes. This video captures the joy that theatre can bring to kids’ lives. It reminds me that our teachers are heroes. That theatre is a place of discovery: of the world and of ourselves. This video reminds me how lucky I am to be part of the Arden community.

We invite you to discover what the Arden is, and tell us what the Arden means to you.

Terry_sig

 

 

Terry J. Nolen

Producing Artistic Director

Follow the conversation with #TheArdenIs on Arden Facebook, Twitter @ArdenTheatreCo, and Instagram @ardentheatreco.

#Creativity #Teamwork #Expression #Adventure

On an unseasonably warm and rainy late Wednesday afternoon in early February a group of timid yet very excited and curious Philadelphia public school teachers arrived at the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts center to partake in the first of three professional development workshops that will be offered at the Arden to the participating faculty of Arden for All partner schools.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers work together to strengthen team building skills in the classroom.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers work together to strengthen team building skills in the classroom.

The evening consisted of a meet and greet and then a fun and active workshop on how to integrate improv and theatre games into the classroom. These games and activities are designed to  inspire 21st-Century skills, such as collaboration, team work, and utilizing creative imagination. Taught by local improv teaching artist, Tara Demmy (a former Arden Apprentice), the workshop also instilled “thinking quick on your feet” skills to enhance classroom engagement. The night ended with a light dinner and a performance of the Arden’s production of Funnyman.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers enjoy a laugh during an improv activity.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers enjoy a laugh during an improv activity.

The workshop began quietly with teachers getting to know each other through a name game and by the time we were 15-20 minutes into it, the sounds of uproarious laughter and applause permeated through the Hamilton Family Arts Center! By the end of the workshop, the teachers created a common bond and this energy spilled into conversations while having dinner about how they planned to use the exercises not only with their students but also with fellow colleagues at their perspective schools! They vowed to share their results via video and photos with each other and the Arden! By the end they became a team and felt a part of the Arden family. As we headed to the theatre to see a show together, it definitely felt like a mission accomplished!

Arden for All Partner School Teachers with Improv Teaching Artist, Tara Demmy (far left) and Director of Educational Outreach, Jose Aviles (far right).

Arden for All Partner School Teachers with Improv Teaching Artist, Tara Demmy (far left) and Director of Educational Outreach, Jose Aviles (far right).

Emilie Krause writes on the female perspective in Funnyman

I fall in love with my characters. I can’t help it. It’s what happens when you spend hours obsessing over someone. I open my eyes in the morning and I think: why does she do that? On my walk to the coffee shop I think: what does she really want? I’m in the grocery store and instead of choosing which kind of canned bean I should buy for my chili, mind I’m wondering what kind of music my character listens to when she is alone. Her actions are printed on the page; the words she uses are already written down. They’re out of my control. It’s my job to wonder why. The parallel to a potential partner’s inscrutable actions is remarkable. I suppose that’s what falling in love is anyway: an intense, focused curiosity about another human being. Over the past few months, I have been getting to know my character in Funnyman, Katharine Sherman. I love her. Katharine is wry, self-sufficient, and she prides herself on being ruled by logic rather than emotions. She values her own intelligence and is passionately interested in the world and the people around her. She likes to read plays in French. She is also, in the context of the play, the lone woman in a world of men.

Emilie Krause as Katherine Sherman and Brian Cowden as Nathan Wise. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Emilie Krause as Katherine Sherman and Brian Cowden as Nathan Wise. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Obsession is only a part of the process. Another very satisfying part of being an actor is making choices about who our character will be. Plays with only one female perspective are tricky. I’ve never actually done one before, which is rare for an actress. My last play was The Children’s Hour and before that I helped make an all female Film-Noir play for the Fringe Festival. Knowing that I’d be the only woman in the rehearsal room, particularly after a flurry of female-centric environments, was a somewhat intimidating prospect. It led to questions that I’ve never had to ask.

In the second scene of Funnyman, the audience meets Katharine. She has just gotten a new job in New York City working as an archivist in the basement of Carnegie Hall. As she busily sorts through old music scores, a young male co-worker, Nathan, pokes his head in and does his best to flirt with her. The scene is wonderfully written. Katharine is surrounded by a great deal of work, and responds curtly to Nathan’s advances. It’s fun to play. Early on in the rehearsal process my approach was to almost completely ignore Nathan; I wanted Katharine to be genuinely more interested in her work than the man flirting with her. As we went through the scene, our director Matt Pfeiffer encouraged me to pay a bit more attention to him, suggesting that perhaps Katharine was more intrigued by Nathan than I initially thought. As we debated about about whether she should allow herself to become distracted by his advances, this idea of “likeability” entered my mind. My instinct was to play Katharine’s tough exterior. I wanted her to possess a genuine disinterest in the romantic side of things, especially in the beginning of the play, but in my conversations with Matt I began to wonder: if Katharine is cold to a likeable co-worker, how will that affect how the audience sees her? This thought nagged at me, and like a virus, began to spread to every aspect of the show. Should I show how much her feelings are hurt? Should I try to deliver this nicely? These kinds of questions had never haunted me as an actor before, but knowing that there were no other female characters in the play sparked a sense of obligation to make sure she represented all women, and that she represented them well. I wanted the audience to like her. I wanted them to see her side of the story. Any theater maker will tell you that this is a poisonous idea; “Being true to yourself” (or your character) is of the upmost importance, and in theater, as well as life, this cliché rings true. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you, so long as you are doing what you believe is right; but inside of such a distilled world, I wasn’t able to shake the sense that I should craft a Katharine that people would like. This quixotic agenda came to a head during previews, in a scene where Katharine gets into a fight with Nathan.

KATHARINE
… a husband could just sign a piece of paper- bribe some quack to go along with it and bang- his wife’s locked up in a straightjacket.

NATHAN
The good old days—

KATHARINE
It’s not funny! Jesus, Nathan, this is my mother!

During the first public performance, the audience laughed at the joke in Nathan’s line and as I yelled at him afterwards, I felt as though I was rebuking the audience as well. When we went over the performance with Matt afterwards, I brought up how uncomfortable that moment made me, and the whole cast looked at me like I was crazy.

“Emilie,” they said, “they’re laughing at how inappropriate that joke is.” Our assistant director Dan O’Neil even told me that he overheard an audience member whisper “Jeez, that’s her mother” in the pause between our lines. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe how out of touch I was with the audience’s experience. I was so distracted by the conundrum of being the only woman that I lost touch with what was really going on in that moment. On my walk home that night, I went over the play in my head. I realized that I had made choices, throughout the entire play, that were based solely on a desire to protect Katharine, to make her a “nice” person. And as a result, I was getting in the way of my character becoming a fully realized human. I also went through the performances of the male characters and remembered moments when they were angry, when they made mistakes, and when they were cruel. Most of all, I marveled at how far I had went down a path which was exactly the opposite of how I had initially wanted to approach the character. Throughout the process, our director Matt had encouraged me to play Katharine a bit sharper here, a bit colder there, and my conflicted feelings on representing “all women” had gotten in the way of hearing him.

Now, I enjoy that argument with Nathan. And whether the audience laughs with Nathan or at him, Katharine’s experience doesn’t change. She is angry, as she should be, at the difficult task of navigating the masculine world of 1959. I think that Bruce Graham also falls in love with his characters. If you look at each character’s arc in Funnyman, you can see that every one of them are complicated, messy, and interesting people. Graham has written Katharine to be a powerful driving force; a woman who is both passionately interested in the past, and entirely unsentimental. She is complicated. We are all complicated. I wish that I had learned my lessons sooner. I wish that I hadn’t felt the need to soften Katharine’s intensity. I am complicated. And as I step onto the stage again tonight, I will relish walking in the shoes of my bright, hard-edged, unfettered Katharine.

Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

It’s London, 1606. William Shakespeare (in the play spelled Shagspeare, or Shag) has just been made an offer he can’t refuse: King James I wants him to write a play about the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot. Shagspeare is leery: it’s dangerous for playwrights to write about current events. Robert Cecil, the king’s ruthless chief advisor, gives Shag the sanitized version of events, telling him to just add some dialogue — and witches. The king wants witches. The rest of Equivocation is about Shagspeare’s struggle to write a play that will please — or at least not offend — the king.

Shagspeare, like any good writer, is working on more than one play at once — specifically Macbeth and King Lear. And, of course, the themes from those works can’t help but invade his commission for the king — as well as those of Equivocation. The word equivocation means, “A statement that is not literally false but that cleverly avoids an unpleasant truth” or, as Father Garnet says in the play, a way “to speak the truth in difficult times.”

Simply put, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt by a group of English Catholics against King James I. The plot intended to kill the king and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. But, as we all know too well, politics and history are never simple. Although Robert Catesby (who is a character in Equivocation) led the plot, there is another name that has gone down in history: Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes who was recruited to execute the plan due to his military background. He was caught while guarding the gun powder. More than 400 years later, British children still roam the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) carrying effigies known as “Guys” and asking passers-by for a “penny for the guy.” Also known as Bonfire Night, families gather to celebrate the defeat of Fawkes and his other conspirators with fireworks, childish rhymes (see below) and bonfires.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

King James I was first King James VI of Scotland, rising to power at the ripe old age of 13 months. He became King of England and Ireland in 1603, succeeding Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors (like that HBO series). He then ruled the kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland for 22 years, often using the title King of Great Britain, until his death at the age of 58.

When Bill Cain began writing Equivocation in 2004, he steeped himself in 16th and 17th century England, but contemporary concerns couldn’t help but creep in—the search for WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and the two wars. “There are many, many questions [from 17th-century England] identical to the invasion of Iraq,” recalls Cain. “And that was a big motive for writing the play. It was about seeing this stuff and going, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got plenty of people dying over there and we’re killing people by the tens of thousands, based upon what was a lie.’”
Used with permission from Seattle Repertory Theatre

Eric Hissom as "Shagspeare." Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom as “Shagspeare.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

Bill Cain spent months researching and writing Equivocation, a play that imagines a crisis in Shakespeare’s creative and personal life. He’s spent more time revising the script for production. Here is the playwright sharing what he’s learned about this immersion in Shakespeare—and about the questions he’d ask him, if he could:

Working on this play about Shakespeare has been a journey into his life and my own life from the perspective of what matters.

From the point of view of history, Shakespeare is invisible. As Equivocation says, “He’s the only major writer whose very existence is a question of debate.” He lived in an age in which there were enormous moral questions, and people who took stands on those questions have left their mark on the world. And Shakespeare was invisible, in that sense.

My question for myself is, do I wish to live an invisible life or do I want to make a mark on the world? When I saw the names of those who had been tortured and killed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot, written on the walls of the Tower of London, I had an immediate sense of the power of commitment of these people—what they were willing to die for and what they were willing to put their names on. Shakespeare was not such a person.

There was a debate when I was in England, “Is Shakespeare a millstone around the neck of British culture?” I think it’s a very good question. There’s a speech in Equivocation that strikes me as apt. Cecil says to Shag (Shakespeare’s name in the play): “You make them happy, but not so happy as to reject their unhappiness. You make them angry, but not so angry as to inspire action. You reduce all of reality to spectacle, making action unnecessary, even impossible. . . . You’ve kept the willing suspension of disbelief and gotten rid of the moral demands.”

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Eric Hissom and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Watching Shakespeare is never a call to action. You sit back and say, “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Many scholars are writing now about the “coded messages” in the plays. I’d like to ask Shakespeare, what was the code? Did you believe in God? What did you find sacred? Because you always took both sides of everything, what finally mattered to you? Not where you came down in terms of Catholic or Protestant, but where you came down in terms of speaking truth to power.

You were in an extraordinarily powerful position; you were the king’s playwright. But you were not Lear’s fool; Lear’s fool told Lear the truth. Did you see yourself having that position in the kingdom, and if so, what was the truth you were trying to speak? What if the genius on the king’s payroll had stood up and said, “Enough of these killings.” Yes, you wrote a play called Henry VIII, but in it you don’t tell the truth. Henry VIII killed tens of thousands of people and he’s presented in your play and in the history of England as this jolly old man. What about the murders?

Knowing that whoever wrote the plays was a genius, I wonder what his human life was like, and if he got to those human, personal issues that art is for. Art isn’t a way to disguise; it’s a way to speak. It’s a way to say, in concentrated form, this is what matters to me.

The question of Shakespeare excites me now, rather than accepting him as a given; entering into a dialogue with him, rather than as holy writ. Asking him, Why did you not act? Why are you such a cipher? On the other hand, What was it that you thought was so important that you got up every day and told these stories?

From the 2009 summer Prologue magazine, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s magazine for members. Editor: Catherine Foster

©2009 Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122.
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