As Kentucky Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Actors Theatre’s Macbeth continue and as rehearsals begin (with a merciful trickle, schedule-wise) for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, I have been thinking lately about pace and airplanes.*
For the last several summers, and for a few spotty ones before that, I’ve been part of a company that performs outdoors. (Which I’m glad we’re getting to do in this final fifteen year span of Liveable Summers before we have to hide in caves for six months of the year.) That meant something different in 1602 than it does now. Since that time, we’ve figured out airplanes, helicopters, emergency vehicle sirens, and motorcycles – or, rather, not the cycles themselves but the particular biker subset who don’t think they’re riding unless they’ve got minimum 110 db happening. Bless their hearts, in the full Southern sense of that phrase.
Fortunately, we’ve also figured out body mics, which take care of the whole overpowering-siren factor of outdoor performance, though I’m one of those who sees “necessary evil” as a two-word phrase. C’est la guerre. Not my department.
But the body mics in no way affect (my war against the non-dental use of “impact” as a verb will continue until they pry “affect” from my cold, dead hands) the holding pattern or runway option or whatever that Louisville International Airport seems to choose starting around 11:00 pm. That pattern passes right above our stage. Sometimes it seems like right above our stage. Like in the actors-getting-sucked-into-jet-engines-like-so-many-Canadian-geese sense of “right above our stage”. A few strays inevitably come by earlier in the evening as well. Planes, not geese. Also sometimes it rains.
The airplane convention the company has established is that whosoever hath the ball calls the play. So if serious doings are afoot, then everyone holds still, extending the silence they’ve created (if you understand “silence” to mean “deafening plane sound); if foolishness, then there’s more leeway. The audiences love these moments, I think precisely because they can’t be planned. Sometimes they require a little improv, like when a WWI-era Two Gentlemen of Verona servant yelled “The Kaiser!” and ducked. Sometimes what we do with the silence is enough: I particularly remember an invasion of “Pyramus & Thisbe” in which five mechanicals cowered in fear and I, as Bottom, just glared at the son-of-a-bitch pilot ruining my monologue, and also the loudest, longest train whistle I’ve ever heard popping in right after Caliban said “The isle is full of noises” to the audience’s (and cast’s) delight. He cursed that train backstage the next night when it came by late, during the next scene. “They don’t even need a laugh.”
Anyway, what the impending and inevitable strafe does affect is our pace. The show needs to be done by 10:45 at the latest or we’re going to be stopping every third word, at which point it is no longer entertaining to anyone. Which means that when I watched the Titus rehearsal the other night – which is not outdoors, though it’s almost ninety degrees here today, so it might as well be – the thing really moved for the most part even without the Tyranny of Boeing poking it in the backside with spears. And I’m pretty sure that’s because the majority of the cast, regardless of their other knowledge and experience and capabilities of self-editing, has performed under threat of airplane.
I’ll add to that the observation that sloooow Shakespeare is usually enslowenated for two reasons: 1) the belief that it will help the audience understand and 2) general hamminess. History tells us nothing can be done about 2) but I’ve listened to audiences tune out when it’s too slow and I’ve seen them lean forward when it’s just the right pace plus a little extra. They do just fine. They get rapidly accustomed to characters who talk a lot, think to themselves by talking, and even pause by talking.
This whole airplane thing, coupled with the encroaching darkness and people having to walk a little ways to their cars, also means the plays get trimmed. Which means my other personal goal, after I get people to stop verbing “impact”, is as actor and company text coach to get all our tongues tripping at the proper rate so season by season we have to trim less and less. The Kentucky Shakespeare audience is surprisingly savvy, and do not deserve to be bored for a second.
So when you hear me talking about Shakespeare Fast ™, know that I mean it in all the senses: tied tight, kept hungry…and trippingly on the tongue.
*I’m also putting together a Shakespeare performance workshop, so this sort of thing has been on my mind of late. Cheap plug here.