New to CSC: 3 Local Actors Take on Shakespeare Times 2
Heat, humidity, and not a few summer storms might keep a lesser group down for the season, but not the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Every summer, they produce one of the most anticipated theatre events of the season, Shakespeare in the Ruins. For several years now, this company of local, professional-grade classics lovers gathers every summer to present William's best (and sometimes under-produced) works at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City, Maryland. Hallmarks of these productions include the fact that, like the Elizabethans, we audience members get to enjoy the theatre outdoors, the plays are opposites - this year's As You Like It is a comedy, while Henry V is a history, and the plays are done in true repertory, with the same cast performing roles in both plays. This season, CSC has really upped the ante. They are presenting these plays under the auspices of the internationally renowned Shakespeare in Washington Festival.
Several of the area's best actors are CSC regulars, including Patrick Kilpatrick, Ashly Ruth Fishell and Wayne Willinger. But, CSC regularly brings in the best of local talents that are new to the area or perform in the DC area exclusively. It is always exciting to see these new faces. This season, three of those standout actors, Colby Codding, Vince Eisenson and Lindsay Kitt Wiebe are delighting audiences with their own exciting brands of theatricality and broad scope of talent. All three excel, whether in major supporting roles or blending into the ensemble, whether being broadly comic or heartbreakingly serious, or whether displaying fine physical acting or sublimely detailed and nuanced speeches. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask this talented trio a few questions.
James Howard (JH): Each of you plays a variety of characters in As You Like It and Henry V, more than one, in each play. How did you prepare each character, and how do you keep them all straight in your head during each individual show and between the two shows all together?
Lindsay Kitt Wiebe (LW): I always let the text inform me of who each character is and what's going on. First of all, As You Like It and Henry V are vastly different plays examining vastly different worlds and themes. I look at the relationships between the role(s) I am portraying on a given evening and the other characters in the play. Each character has a very separate set of objectives - of wants and needs - to be met. Each character has a very different energy and thought pattern. Each character uses the language in a case specific way. Luckily in Shakespeare, all the clues an actor needs are in fact buried somewhere in the text. So, I like to reacquaint myself with the text of each play before stepping onto the stage as a nice reminder of the specifics for each show and character.
Vince Eisenson (VE): Luckily the directors have helped us create two different moods for the shows, and that helps me focus on the different characters. (Director) Ian Gallanar really wanted As You Like It to be about the joy of life. While rehearsing that show, I tried to find what makes both characters (Le Beau and Amiens) happy so I could find ways for them to pursue joy in their lives. For Le Beau, the script gives some great clues. Celia introduces him to the audience by saying, "Here comes Monsieur Le Beau, with his mouth full of news." Le Beau only appears in the beginning of the show, but he says a heck of a lot in his short stage life. So he loves to gossip and entertain people, especially the ladies of his court. I made the choice that this flamboyant, gossipy guy wanted to use his story-telling prowess to help and entertain people.
Henry requires a different kind of energy. (Director) James Ricks made it clear that we needed to drive the show by making scene transitions seamless, picking up cues, and finding high stakes for our characters in every scene. The script provides plenty of those stakes - we're at war, after all. There's some comedy in the play, and I tried to find a sense of humor for both characters I play, but the truth is that they usually get shoved in situations where what's happening is deathly serious. As Scroop, I come on for one scene and am quickly pleading for my life. For Captain Gower, I realized I was the straight man surrounded by comic relief. Gower is constantly dealing with Fluellen's eccentricities, and just trying to keep up with Steve Beall gives me plenty to focus on. I got the sense from the script that Gower really wanted to keep his fellow captains together and put people in their places when they weren't acting in the English army's best interest. Gower laces into the lying, thieving Pistol at the end of the play. I try to focus on those goals before going on as Gower, and that helps me differentiate him from the other characters I play.
Colby Codding (CC): Keeping a bunch of characters straight in your head is actually easier than you would think, because you learn them on different tracks, if you get my meaning. In this case, the four of the characters are completely different from one another as written - one is a simple shepherd, one is a drunken rapscallion, one is a prince, etc. I've doubled up in the past (as did actors from Shakespeare's own company) and the only time it came close to derailing was when I ran on stage as a Messenger at the beginning of Macbeth to breathlessly give some important news and almost delivered another Messenger speech from Comedy of Errors that started out in identical fashion as the Macbeth messenger. Sleep helps, too.
JH: Is this your first experience with repertory theatre?
LW: Actually, my first experience with repertory theatre was last year in my summer semester of graduate school at The Shakespeare Theatre Academy for Classical Acting. As luck would have it, we did As You Like It and James Shirley's The Cardinal. I love doing two shows in repertory! I think, especially during the rehearsal process, it really keeps you focused and on your toes jumping between two worlds. I find that it helps an actor's capacity for versatility and range.
VE: I did two historical dramas in rep for a summer. The shows took place in the same time period and had many overlapping characters, so it felt more like performing two parts of an epic.
JH: Is it a largely positive thing? How so and/or how not?
CC: Doing two, or even several, shows at the same time is a joy for an actor. It is like being in a candy store. "I think I'll bite into this Twix bar. Oh, I can munch away on a Mars bar, too? Where do I sign?" There are no negatives - unless you feel like you've overextended yourself, in which case you shouldn't have taken on two gigs at once in the first place.
JH: How does learning two completely different plays with the same cast of actors work?
VE: Doing these two plays in rep with the same actors keeps the performances exciting. One night I'm chuckling with Pat Kilpatrick by a bed of flowers, the next he's throwing me against a wall, spitting in my face and pronouncing my death. I love seeing actors in such different situations each night, and building a rapport with them. I think we all use the connections we make with each other in one show to strengthen relationships in the other.
JH: What is it like working with two different directors?
CC: As far as working with two directors at once - again, you are operating on two tracks. So when I am in rehearsing As You Like It with Ian, I am engaged with Ian and his suggestions and such. The next night when I am rehearsing Henry with James, I am engaged with James and not thinking a whit about As You Like It. Sort of like entering two separate rooms at a really cool party.
LW: Working with two different directors is like working with two different plays. Each director has his own style of working with Shakespeare, his own set of theatrical philosophies and visions for what each play should become when taken off the page and put into motion. I think it's really interesting to have the opportunity as an actor to observe and experience various different ways of working.
JH: Explain your training/acting background. How has it helped you get to this point in your acting career? How do you continue learning/training?
CC: I guess the most pivotal training experience I had was being a founding member of Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, now the American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars in Staunton, VA. I did about ten productions with them and we were at the advent of the whole "original practices" (i.e. doing it the way Shakespeare's company did it - focusing on the text, audience interaction, etc.) that has resurfaced since the late 80's. You learn a lot doing ten shows and thirty characters in four years on the road in front of high schools and colleges. I try to stay current by going to stage combat classes every so often, watching other actors perform, and doing geeky things like reading the prefaces to Shakespeare's First Folio and learning as much as I can retain about the Elizabethans and how they performed and interpreted Shakespeare's text.
LW: I would not trade my educational experience(s) for the world! My undergraduate, graduate certificate and graduate degree have most certainly opened my eyes to entire landscapes of various genres of theatre. Of course, the more you know the more you are capable of…and the more you know, the more you realize you have yet to learn! I have always believed that if I am going to devote my life and career to theatre, I might as well go the distance. I constantly strive to challenge and stretch myself as an actor, sometimes beyond the bounds of what I think is possible, regardless of the outcome. As with any risk or leap of faith, there is always a great chance of failure. However, one will never truly succeed if one never takes a risk to begin with.
VE: I acted in community and school theatre productions since age 11 in my hometown of Durham, NC. I went to a high school, Durham School of the Arts, which had a great theatre program. We got to do Measure for Measure and Antony and Cleopatra as teenagers. From there I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Drama Department is connected to PlayMakers Repertory Company, so I was able to get equity points and act with professionals as an undergraduate. I also did many student shows. One of my professors, David Hammond, is renowned for his text coaching and directing of Shakespeare, and I was lucky to have several classes with him and act in three of his shows.
I also spent a summer at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford. I was able to get more movement training there and yet more text coaching with Shakespeare. That summer, and my work as an upperclassman in college really turned me on to classic texts and the possibilities in them for developing characters. Shakespeare constantly challenges you as an actor, because you can't throw his language away and settle into a safe, "naturalistic" performance. You have to find ways to express the complex thoughts he's giving you through voice and clear action. It's very hard, but very rewarding when you find ways to do it effectively.