Why You Should See It
Trying something new here at Wha Happen?! with a new theatre feature dubbed Why You Should See It. In this feature I’ll be delving into shows I’ve seen and exploring why you should see them. There are a number of great review sites out there, so I will be more focused about what in each show is unique and noteworthy and why you –wonderful audience that you are- should see them. My hope is that by approaching theatre from this angle, I’ll be able to help you decide if a show is right for you. Occasionally, I’ll also chat with some of the people involved and share their insight on the piece.
Today, I’m focusing on Titus Andronicus playing now at The Citadel in Toronto.
Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus
Puppets? In a Shakespeare play? Madness.
Titus is actually the most requested Shakey-Shake play (usually by people at bars, but often by 30-somethings after seeing a show at Fringe), so naturally I was curious when Seven Siblings announced their Titus featuring puppets. My Entertainment World pretty accurately reflects my feelings about the show on the whole, but here I want to focus on the main reason to see this production, if you’re at all thinking about using puppets in a production: there is a lot at work with the application and execution (literal and figurative) and it makes an interesting case study for how puppets are applied in theatre.
So, why see this play? The individual elements can be quite good: the Saturninus puppet, in particular, is very engaging – three puppeteers operate it in a vaguely bunraku way, using their individual voices and speaking chorally to create a great, otherworldly effect. There are even some physical surprises built in that only come about in the final fight and shows that even on an indie budget incredible puppets are possible. All the puppets look fantastic and the puppeteers generally do very well with them (particularly the criminally underused Sarah Thorpe and Jeff Dingle). Puppets are capable of great and exciting things, particularly on this scale: it’s hard not to feel intimidated when you see a seven-foot-tall puppet backed by three puppeteers looming over an actor or fold out General Grievous-style with two swords to take up most of the stage. The epic scale, despite the depth of the stage at The Citadel – creates instant status and interest and on a scale I rarely see on indie stages. Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for examples of new ways to integrate puppets on stage.
However, despite the engaging nature of the puppets, their application to this particular script and production doesn’t entirely work.
In this Titus, the puppets are gods that helped the Romans to conquer the Gauls and inhabit the bunker that the play is set in. The gods are sustained through blood-feeding tubes by corpses, creating an ‘in-continuity’ reason for puppeteers to be present on stage. This is a novel approach and solution to the problem of puppeteers that speaks to the cinematic qualities of the production; while we acknowledge that puppeteers must be present in a stage production, in film would seem out of place and thus every effort is taken to obscure them. It would seem to me that the choice to incorporate the puppeteers in this way speaks to a more of a film understanding and less of a stage understanding, but it’s interesting food for thought. However, it does raise more questions than it answers – if the gods require human host bodies, what did they do before the Romans moved in? How did they speak to the Romans and explain that they need blood feeding tubes? It’s a problem which cannot be answered or addressed without adding text. This, ultimately, is the largest problem with the amount of concept being layered onto the play: without adding any lines, the audience is left to infer on their own and go off of directors’ notes. While I fully believe audiences are generally a lot smarter than they’re given credit for and can be asked to fill in the blanks, this asks a lot of an audience already following an Elizabethan play. It also begs the question: what does it add to the story? Visually, it’s a treat and stylistically very interesting. Saturninus in particular is very engaging and enjoyable to watch, but the puppetness doesn’t increase my understanding of the character. This is particularly true when other puppets are introduced: I can understand the royalty being puppets, but why the nurse? Did someone really look at the bumbling messenger mole with his pigeons and say ‘Yes, hook a body up to that guy!’ Obviously I have no issue with puppets and Shakespeare, but the puppet logic here is muddy.
So, my recommendation is this: if you’re interested in puppet technique or application, pay attention to the technical work on display – how the puppets move, how they affect scenes, how they alter status through physicality. Observe how the blood tubes both add and detract from the piece (great for the death of the wolf/nurse puppet, awkward for the death of Saturninus). If you’re thinking of using puppets, consider very honestly the why: is it because they’re cool? Does the script suggest them? Do they help tell the story? In this productions’ case, they certainly add visual interest, but they also complicate the play world. While their method of speaking is engaging, the puppets themselves can’t emote the same way as humans; how does that affect your understanding of Shakespeare’s admittedly archaic text? Do they make it clearer through movement or harder to understand due to their inability to emote? Also, observe which characters are puppets and why – how does this choice affect how we view these characters and their place in the world? Because of the wide variety and application of puppets, Titus is a fascinating case study for how the integration of puppets works and for how it doesn’t. Definitely worth a view if these are questions you’re wrestling with in your own production.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile
What It Is
In 1993, Martin premiered Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a hypothetical and fantastical meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein on the eve of their greatest works being released. The men share a sense of the future, excitement, and optimism about the twentieth century (though both will know tragedy in it). The action of the play follows the comic and philosophical interactions Einstein has first with Picasso’s admirers and the proprietors of the bar and then Picasso himself as they spar over the difference between art and science before coming to a mutual understanding that though they work in different fields they work toward the same purpose: the realization of the future. The play has a great sense of mischief and glee, such as you would expect from Martin’s performances; there’s a sly wink and a smile to the interaction of the characters, most notably a delusional inventor named Schmendiman who insists his incredibly fragile, flammable building material will secure his place in history.
Martin is a smart guy and expertly weaves the philosophical together with the comical (though the script does lean a bit heavily on the philosophy) building to the arrival of the time-travelling ‘Visitor’ (Elvis) and a toast to the arrival of the twentieth century.
Seven Siblings’ production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing now at ROUND Venue in Kensington Market is a collision of two interesting factors: the humour of Steve Martin’s wit and intelligence, and the Michael Chekhov acting technique as practiced and advocated for by Seven Siblings Theatre. The show is fun, with lively performances, the venue is wonderful, and the subject matter is certainly fertile, but the intersection of these two styles (Martin’s and Chekhov’s) isn’t always successful. Nevertheless, the show is a great way to spend an evening and a fascinating look into two things we often don’t see on Toronto stages: Chekhov method and Martin’s plays.
Why You Should See It
If you’re a fan of Martin’s stand-up or writing (his Born Standing Up memoir about stand-up comedy and why he took a break from it was so addictive I read it in a single sitting), Picasso offers a neat window into how an actor who has made a career of playing fun characters translates that experience into populating a play. You can see Martin’s sly sneer in all of these characters, though they evoke the many variations we’ve seen Martin play over the years (with the foppish inventor Schmendiman recalling Martin’s broader comedy in films like The Three Amigos, whereas the cranky bar patron Gaston shares DNA with Martin’s more snarky, self aware characters). Martin is also a lover of art and his passion for the ideas and feeling behind the creation of art and inspiration are evident here, though occasionally the debate surrounding these ideas carries on too long. Martin creates a fun world and Seven Siblings, with their clever choice of venue and lively cast, realize it beautifully. It’s easy to imagine yourself in the technicolor world of optimism and inspiration that the characters live in and certainly a nice way escape the grey doldrums of February.
Also, as evident in Erika’s responses below, this is a play for actors looking to find new entry points into their craft. Chekhov has something of a cult following amongst actors seeking to free themselves from the constraints of naturalism and The Method (wherein actors become the characters; think Daniel Day Lewis’ insistence on being referred to as Lincoln etc when playing the part). Chekhov -from my layman’s understanding- uses movement and archetypes amongst other exercises to offer actors an alternate way of approaching and finding characters. Erika and Seven Siblings Theatre are keen on bringing their experience with Chekhov to Toronto and Picasso is a neat way to see their methodology on display in a practical format. From an audience perspective, it would seem that their exploration of archetypes has created some very approachable and recognizable characters; I’m reminded of Commedia del arte characters, who –despite a variety of plots and lines- are immediately recognizable and familiar. We are very quickly able to place who each of these people are, what is important to them, and what function they are to serve in the proceedings, which is lovely. Where the show suffers a bit is in the text work, where characters often seem to be reciting lines rather than speaking honestly their thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, the characterizations are still very clear and the characters feel real (likely due to their exploration of and execution of archetypes) despite the lines not always reading true. This also causes the pace to suffer, which unfortunately highlights the issues inherent in the script (which occasionally gets bogged down in its own philosophical leanings). Nevertheless, if you’re looking for something new and exciting to help you find character truth, then check out what Seven Siblings are doing! It’s certainly refreshing to see a methodology on display practically rather than just in a classroom setting.
For the theatre producers of the world, I’d also recommend going to enjoy and scout out a new space. The ROUND often hosts music and is usually not configured for theatre, but Seven Siblings saw the potential and thus have unearthed a great space with tonnes of personality and a great beer list. Although the bar itself is, unfortunately, at a bad angle for the audience (hence the production’s decision to create a secondary bar with tables onstage), the space exudes personality and has a great vibe (which Picasso uses to great effect in creating the show’s atmosphere).
So, without further adieu, my interview with the lovely Erika Downie, who has an aura of positive, infectious energy about her that can’t help but put you in a better mood. Below, we discuss her background, the company, and take a deep dive into some of the issues that I always consider both as a theatre creator and audience member. Enjoy!
For those unfamiliar with you and your work, can you give me a brief summary of your background as an artist, your directing style, and how you approached the work?
I am a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts graduate from the University of Windsor. I have studied the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique and received a teaching certificate in the technique from Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium under the guidance of master teachers Lionel Walsh, Catherine Albers, Lavinia Hart and Mark Monday. This training has been the foundation of my approach to acting as well as directing. I approach each production with the foundation of the Michael Chekhov technique bringing the Four Brothers (ease, form, beauty and the whole) into each rehearsal process.
What is Seven Siblings all about? Who is the audience you are trying to reach and what experience are you aiming to provide to them?
Will King, Madryn McCabe and I created Seven Siblings Theatre after our first year at Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium. We formed the company because we discovered as actors the technique held value in our own work and we believe that it can give new opportunity for other actors within their creative process. Our audiences benefit from this technique as well as we aim to create a world where they are characters too. The audiences that we try to reach are our contemporaries, young artists who are looking for new theatre experiences. Audiences that are excited to be challenged, educated, entertained and live with us within the realm of the fantastic.
I read about the rather serendipitous way the choosing of the play came about over on Theatre Reader, but I’m curious about the why of it: why this play, why now, and why in Toronto? What value does it bring to your audience?
Steve Martin is brilliant artist and his writing is rhythmic and dynamic and lives in the realm of the fantastic which is why we chose to produce it, it fit within our mandate and values as a company. Making this our first production of our season would allow us to reach out to new audiences and would allow us to step further into the independent theatre scene with a fantastic piece of theatre; it’s also the first production that I was available to do, just finishing my degree, within the company. We are all currently based in Toronto and we believe that this is the best place to begin introducing the Michael Chekhov technique to actors, as well as produce theatre that hasn’t been widely produced which follows the fantastic.
On The Play
What dimensions has this specific bar brought to the performance? Was the choice of The ROUND deliberate for this specific show, or was it an available, suitable space (ie. that it was in a bar was the most important feature, not that it was The ROUND specifically)?
For Picasso, we sought out a venue that was sight specific and that would add to the atmosphere and aesthetic of the play. ROUND Venue allowed us to really focus on the action and movement of the play because we were give the perfect space to play in. We really wanted to make this play sight specific because it adds to the atmosphere, it invites the audience to become something other than an audience.
What was your and the casts’ approach to playing historical figures? What challenges and discoveries did you make in the development and portrayal of these famous people?
Playing historical character takes a great deal of research and study because you want to remain true to who that man or woman was in history, but in their simplest form these characters are archetypes. The challenge became finding the archetype within Picasso and Einstein while continuing to have the historical portrait that many people have with regards to Picasso and Einstein. This is why we use the Chekhov technique; we work through an exercise called Archetypes and find the ones that best fit our interpretation of these men. This approach to character allows for us to build a fully functioning three, maybe even four, dimensional character.
Einstein has been back in the news a lot lately with the confirmation of gravity waves, but both he and Picasso are often known generally by their most famous works and little personally. What does your production have to say about these two historical figures as people and what new insight do you hope an audience gains?
Well this production really focuses on the relationship that these men have with their work, with each other and with other people. It takes place in their youth, which is something we don’t see, because we generally know these men for their later personality. It’s a journey within the “moment before” their lives change and that’s what makes it so exciting. We get to witness the changing of a century and experience how these men brought their work and who they are forward. I can only hope that it inspires the audience to examine what their “moment before” could be and how they may change the world.
On a similar note, what is a play written in 1993 trying to say about these figures compared to what you are trying to say in your 2016 production?
This play is timeless, and these men are timeless. We revere them because of their contributions to art and science, but in this production I tried to focus on who they were before these men became how we know them today. In 1993, just like today, we are still developing art and science, because like decade, in both of these fields respectively, its about how we perceive the world and our function within it. Science and art are ever evolving, just like humanity, and I believe Picasso and Einstein understood this, and worked within this, constantly trying to evolve and therefore solidifying their place in time as being timeless.
On Steve Martin
In your interview with the Theatre Reader, you spoke to the style of Martin’s comedy; known primarily (now, anyway) for his acting rather than his stand-up, can you speak to the style of humor and how it relates to the Steve Martin-style we recognize from film?
His own personal style is very absurd, but in a funny-guy-next-door kind of way. He has a rhythm to his comedy and it is very present within this production. His writing is more like his music rather than his acting, there are brilliant repetitions and cadences within the play that follow a musical quality, just as comedy should, but you can absolutely see this in some of his own work as an actor, especially as a young actor.
I notice in your advertising you are using the classic image of Martin with the arrow through his head, how important is Steve Martin to the marketing of the play?
Steve Martin is very important in the marketing of this play. Not many people realized he was a writer on top of the many other talents he practices. As an artist, he, in my mind, is a renaissance man, and he has been very kind to our company by giving us a leg up on marketing our show after he tweeted us.