Well-Tuned Shakespeare

 

A Little Conversation About Art
In this illuminating new series of lively conversations,
Founding Artistic Director Ian Gallanar exchanges ideas
with Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s leading artists.

No. 2: “Well-Tuned Shakespeare” 

with Isabelle Anderson, Distinguished Artist-In-Residence

IAN: You are a U.S. citizen, but you were born in Australia and worked and trained as an artist in France, England and India. Do you find something unique about American artists?

ISABELLE: It’s the same thing that I find in the general culture in this country. Great energy. In my first visit to New York in 1990 I found the energy of possibility and striving was amazing. When I went back home to Australia, I missed it. So I came back! There is definitely a daring and a can-do energy here.

When I first encountered the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company many years ago, it was exactly their energy in performance that was so appealing and delightful. Still is! Sometimes though, as a teacher, I notice that the striving to get things right and do it the best (Reach for the moon, as it were) can get in the way of American student actors just having a deep experience, right now, or even of failing and learning. That’s where teaching clown work is helpful and a great technique for American actors. I taught a clown course for many years at Michael Howard Studios in New York, not to create  “clowns,”  but to give freedom and courage for creativity.

The actors here have great physicality. They seem to love improvisation and comedy. The comedy here is fantastic and powerful.  They are brave. I think actors were the original “start-up” kids. So many brave ventures into new theater groups reflect the innovative and individual style of American actors. I love and admire that. Then there’s the American actor’s love for Shakespeare. So much Shakespeare is done here. I was stunned, and delighted by that. 

IAN:  We’re so proud and grateful that you have lent your significant talent and outlook with us over the years. I remember meeting you that very first summer- when our work was accompanied by work lights and lots of folding tables. Now, we have this bright shiny theater and other toys, but, in many ways, we’ve held on to some values. What do you notice has changed with CSC? What has stayed the same? I mean, in terms of the art work?

Isabelle Anderson as Cleopatra, in Antony and Cleopatra (2013)

ISABELLE: The camaraderie of the CSC actors is still fantastic. Their willingness to do whatever is needed. Their humility and playfulness. Their genuine connection to and liking for their audience. They are a daring lot. They will pull a show through.  When I had to leave my production of rather intricate stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, two weeks before opening night, and fly to Australia for a family emergency, they all pulled it together and pulled it through. Amazing. And done very generously. They are what we in Australia call “Real Troupers.” 

In the gorgeous new theater, there is still the energy and celebration-spirit in performance, the welcoming openness. But I also see, hear and feel a deep desire to grow with the demands of a “home” theater, with its levels and acoustic requirements. It needs skills to fill beautifully and they are up for that. I am super-impressed by their desire to always grow and learn. They are simultaneously a laid-back, likeable, unpretentious bunch AND a driven, keen, growth-seeking group.

IAN: I’ve been thinking about painting and painters a lot lately. Painters seem to work so differently than actors and theatrical artists, but I’m curious about the similarities. I read recently that Jackson Pollock liked to work with a giant roll of canvas so that he wasn’t limited by “the rectangle.” He never wanted to see the edge of the canvas. Do we as theater artists have a rectangle?

ISABELLE: Yes and no! Ha. This is where my two voices, as teacher and director, answer!
Yes, there are the limits of discipline and technique. Actors have to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses and work hard on them, be it voice or body or nerves. Then, what those disciplined skills give possibility to… is infinite. The artistic soul of an actor needs skills to give pathways for it to flow outwards and create infinite possibilities. A solitary actor on a bare stage can evoke a space as far as the horizon, or a tiny airless cell, can summon up heaven or hell, all through what she or he does with body, breath, eyes and mind … and contagiously the audience feels it.

Only if we work our technique can we surpass our limits and fly. It’s the same with ballet, which is the other art I know well. So many hours at the barre doing rather unattractive things like plies and tendus… but then… you can let go and d-a-n-c-e, transporting an audience. It’s when people forget technique is just the vehicle, not the destination that things get boring or egotistical. Or, conversely when the desire for “freedom” dominates and a lack of technique means it’s just personal self-expression or therapy, not art.

I teach actors at the ACA, Academy for Classical Acting in Washington, D.C. and I always say on the first day. “You must become masters of time and space!” That’s beyond all rectangles! I’m in love with Matisse and Diebenkorn as artists. I read how many, many months and versions they would go through for what seems like a marvelously spontaneous slap and a dash of paint. Same thing.

IAN:  I think the rectangle is something to deal with/wrestle with so that someday you can, maybe, find small ways to expand beyond it. But I like producing Shakespeare because you wrestle with the rectangle every day. What is it that has led you to Shakespeare?

ISABELLE: Well. Yes. To continue the metaphor or image… Shakespeare’s plays give us the “rectangle” of form – so many components of form. There is the text. The specific words. The rhythm of the lines. Scansion. Juxtaposition of scenes. Rhetorical devices galore… and on and on. The first response is to find all that rather an obstacle course, a difficulty to be overcome or simplified, so we can “get it.” But my experience, thanks to masterful teachers like Cicely Berry and Bill Alexander, is to bow to the form and enter into every detail, like a treasure hunter looking for clues. Clues abound. One asks. “Hmm, why this word? Why that extra beat? Why a broken, shared line? ” It’s really very Sherlock Holmes stuff and totally, utterly riveting. Shakespeare tells you everything. I remember when Cicely Berry told me… if you find all the clues, you don’t really have to “act,” because the form holds the truth. Just bring it to life and the audience feels it.

I wonder sometimes if I love Shakespeare so much because of its complexity, the search for his intention, the search for the clues. It’s like the intricate choreography to a ballet. Every move is in there. Just find it and repeat it every night …and twice of Saturday’s. It stays alive and fresh. The form gives life to vast and varied experience.

And I am deeply drawn to the insights Shakespeare has into us humans. Comparing him to his contemporary playwrights I wonder at Shakespeare’s depth of humanity, understanding and poetry. How did he get to be so wise and insightful?

IAN: You have worked and studied with some of the great theatrical figures in the world, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, Jacques Lecoq, Cicely Berry and Bill Alexander. What, if anything, do they have in common?

ISABELLE: Interesting question. I suppose if you put them into a room together (What a great thought!) they would agree that theater is all about creating profound experience for the audience. Not just any experience, they all believe in the depth of experience possible. They would also agree that it is the actors who generate that experience. A painter can give a painting to a gallery and go on vacation while we all look at it and experience the painting’s art and profound beauty or impact. Actors have to do it all in real time, and twice on Saturdays. Move well, speak, be musical, sing occasionally, dance, be coordinated, convey emotions. Their instrument has to be incredibly tuned and above all… brave and open. Because it all happens NOW. In real time and space. Magic. The audience must feel something NOW.

All those teachers you mentioned, that I was so fortunate to have known and learned from, all believed there was massive experience possible for the audience. Not simply diverting, or novel, or spectacular experience, but transformative, life-changing experience. The creative force itself could be harnessed through the actor in the theater space. Whether through laughter, tears, thrill, awe or whatever the style of play, electricity between audience and actors could create a third, shared field where both would feel something powerful.

I think that gathering humans together and going on an agreed plunge into some pool of story is one of the few truly healthy, fabulous things we do in our society. I believe in theater as a muscle for strong societies. And it is beautiful, fun and engaging. I love it.

IAN: Thank you Isabelle!

 

PHOTOS:  Isabelle Anderson by Teresa Castracane. Isabelle Anderson as Cleopatra by Mindy Braden.