BWW Interviews: James Callas Ball Chats Hidden Room Theatre's ROSE RAGE
Today's topic of conversation is a political bloodbath with lots of swordplay and Elizabethan costumes. No, we're not talking about GAME OF THRONES. We're talking about ROSE RAGE, The Hidden Room Theatre's daring new adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI Trilogy.
I recently got to chat with James Callás Ball from ROSE RAGE who filled me in on all the epic Shakespearian fights and the unorthodox rehearsals that were conducted internationally via Skype.
ROSE RAGE features three actors from Great Britain and marks the first time that Ball, a UK native, has performed in the United States. He graduated with a BA Drama degree from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, UK. He then completed the 'Foundation in Acting' course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, UK. He has also performed with David Tennant in BBC 1's 'United: The Busby Babes'. Theatre includes: Anthony & Cleopatra; Welcome to Thebes (RADA); Don Juan in Soho (Minotaur); Mary's Steps: The N-Town Mystery Plays (UEA); Relish; Ghost Office (National Youth Theatre of GBR); Taming of the Shrew (Blackout); Henry V (SMProductions).
JD: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really want to ask you a few questions regarding ROSE RAGE, which sounds like an exciting production, but before we get started, how would you describe ROSE RAGE?
JCB: I would describe ROSE RAGE as an adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy but with a modern audience in mind. It's an adaptation by Edward Hall and Roger Warren, and they were looking to drive the narrative and get the plot and the exciting bits and all of the best of Shakespeare's poetry all sort of wound into one so it flies off the stage.
JD: What do you think a modern audience would find interesting about the Henry VI trilogy?
JCB: It's a fascinating story and it's constantly, hugely political. People are trying to usurp each other and change who's in control and who's not in control. There's a lot of scheming and it's very complex and quite a crazy story. The fact that it's based on what actually happened and on the histories of England make it a bit more spicy. It's a brilliant story, and I'm not sure the history plays are as well-known as Shakespeare's other plays.
JD: I'd agree with that, especially here in the States, but the history plays really are fascinating. Now what do you think Shakespeare purists will think of ROSE RAGE?
JCB: Well, obviously the text has been abridged and cut down, but the original language remains, so this will please the purists amongst us. Beth Burns has directed the whole thing according to traditional, original practices, so there is period costume and music, no artificial lighting, and an all-male cast. There is a strong focus on the shaping of the text and what we can take from the original writing. I'm sure Shakespeare Purists would be really pleased with what she's done. However, with that in mind, I still maintain the adaptation of the scripts has been made in order to engage a modern audience. The cut is fast paced, brutal and constantly moving! It's epic!
JD: And what roles do you play in ROSE RAGE?
JCB: I play the Duke of Somerset and I also play Lady Jane Grey in the second part.
JD: What did you do to research those characters?
JCB: For both of them I did various research, just online and in books and all that jazz. For Lady Jane Grey, I found a book that was based on fact all about Lady Jane Grey and her rise and her story but I noticed some of the facts in that book and the way in which it was written and represented Lady Jane were different to the way in which the facts of the script played out. So, I had to make a choice whether or not I went with what is said in the play or whether I go with some of the research, and I had to go with what was said [in the play]. So my research, um, it was useful but in the end I just had to use the information from the play and use that as my research if that makes sense.
JD: Definitely. Now I heard that you had a very unorthodox rehearsal process with this show. Can you tell me about that?
JCB: Well, Beth wanted to bring us in to the rehearsal process as early as possible, but we couldn't fly out to America as soon as she would like, so we organized Skype rehearsals. They set up a camera and a microphone in the rehearsal space here in Austin and then Lawrence [Pears] and myself would log into Skype back at home in the UK and would then join in on the rehearsal. But we were sitting behind our desks and they were running around the rehearsal space. I've never heard of a rehearsal quite like it, that sort of over the Atlantic rehearsal.
JD: It's really quite remarkable that you were able to pull that off. I would imagine that there had to be a lot of challenges with not being able to act with your counterpoints face to face.
JCB: Yeah it was...it was strange. I think what we did is we managed to lay all of the foundations in terms of understanding the text and really getting to the nitty gritty of the scenes by studying the words as best we could so that when we eventually did arrive in the rehearsal room we had done all of the legwork and it was then about getting it on its feet and connecting with each other face to face. Beth works in a way where she likes to look and study the text very closely to understand exactly what is being shared and what the clues are to the beats and all of that sort of stuff. We did a lot of work before we got to America and got into the rehearsal room in the flesh.
JD: So how long did you get to rehearse back at home in the UK and how much time did you get to rehearse in the States?
JCB: In the states we had about 2 weeks, and prior to that we had six to eight weeks on Skype, but I mean very sporadically, you know, here and there. Obviously the time difference was strange. If they were having evening rehearsals in Austin, that meant we would either stay up really, really late or just give it a miss. So we had sort of an interesting time table to accommodate for the time difference.
JD: You mentioned that there was a lot of work with digging into the text during the rehearsal process. Does the text of ROSE RAGE preserve the Shakespearian language?
JCB: Oh yes, absolutely. It's all Shakespeare's original writing it's just been slashed so that bits of text are missing. Most of Henry VI Part One is sort of skimmed over and then it dives into Henry Part Two and Part Three.
JD: The original trilogy is pretty bloody and there's a lot of stage combat involved. What was it like to rehearse that part of it before you arrived in Austin?
JCB: Yeah, it was impossible to do. The first time I stepped into the rehearsal room, I was given a sword. Before I said anything they said, "Okay, let's do your fight then," and then we could drill it and work it and groove it for the next two weeks. We couldn't do it on Skype. It was impossible. We think there's about thirty and forty-five minutes of stage combat during the four hours of performance.
JD: Wow! That's incredible. That's a lot of combat, so I guess I now have another answer as to what modern audiences will find interesting in ROSE RAGE.
JD: So what is it like for you to perform a two part epic? I know that usually the original trilogy isn't done as a trilogy or in sequence. Usually a company chooses one of the three plays to produce and that's it, so what are the challenges involved in performing for four hours?
JCB: I've never done anything like it. Some of the actors in the cast have roles that move from the first play into the second play. They're the ones who stay alive a lot longer. For them, they have a slightly different experience in that they get to tell the arc of their story from one play to the next, and they have a massive gap in performing that arc obviously in between the two plays. For them it's a little bit different. For me, my characters are isolated to the first and second plays. Duke of Somerset is killed right at the end of the first play and then I prepare for Lady Jane Grey, so I don't have quite the same experience. But I do get to absorb the energy and sort of the pace of the performances and I sort of get to watch and observe the whole story unfold, and it's pretty epic. It's a huge undertaking because the story is constantly being pushed forward for four hours. It's got a relentless pace. It's mad. It's chaos, but it's really exiting to be a part of such an epic story. That's what all actors like to do, I guess, to be storytellers and to give audiences a great experience of a story, and this certainly is that.
JD: What do you think audiences can expect if they come to the Hidden Room Theatre to see ROSE RAGE?
JCB: I think they'll have a mixture of stuff. The play really speaks to all audience members. It's got a bit of everything. People who want to hear the beauty of Shakespeare's language will see that we've preserved the gorgeous speeches and the interesting dialogues, so people who want to hear Shakespeare in its beauty and its pure form will have that. If people are more interested in sword fighting and crazy bloodbaths, then they've got a bit of that. And of course we're using the original practices, so we've got three men playing female parts which is not the most common of performance techniques, most companies bring in ladies and there are all of those politics and excitement to deal with as well. People's reactions to men playing women are always different depending on where we perform and what we perform. So it's got a bit of everything. The story is such an epic undertaking, it really does bring a whole range of things to the stage, and I think that's why all sorts of people are enjoying it. We've had poetry loves come in and say, "You know, I love the text and the way it was adapted," and we've had guys from the military come and be like, "Oh, I didn't think I'd like Shakespeare, but that was just epic with people getting killed all the time and all the swordfights. That was awesome!" So to sum up, it's got a bit of everything and people will come and there will be something for them to enjoy, whatever they're into.
JD: Well it sounds like a fascinating production. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, and I wish you and the cast all the best.
JCB: Thank you for your time as well. Take care.
ROSE RAGE plays the Hidden Room Theatre in Austin now thru August 11. Dates and showtimes vary for Part I and Part II. Run time: 2 hours (Part I) and 1 hour 45 min (Part II)
For more information, go to http://www.hiddenroomtheatre.com.
All photos (with the exception of the headshot of James Callas Ball) are by Kristen Wrzesniewski.