…exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, I i

When I think of the phrase “first of May” I think a little of May Day, the international labor holiday, a little of my college roommate’s birthday, but primarily, for reasons that don’t even make sense to me, of the circus.

When you’re a lover of lost slang, it’s hard not to let it creep into your bones, be it Elizabethan, vaudevillian, or carny-speak. And to those who work in carnivals or the circus, a First of May is what we now a little less poetically call a noob, a greenie; Firsts of May (which I only realized while typing must be the proper plural, if things like that matter to carnys, or carnies, though spelling doesn’t seem to matter to them so surely this doesn’t; I just like the way it sounds) are novice workers starting their first season, which at some point in the pre-air-conditioning, agrarian world of the touring circus was around that date.*

The first of May this year also marks the beginning of summer rehearsals for Kentucky Shakespeare. I’ve been editing scripts since, oh, November**, and the other elements of pre-production have been happening for a while, but tomorrow marks the day the cast, crew and directors all gather in one surprisingly chilly room with gaff tape in strange formations all over the floor to sit around a couple of rectangular tables and read a couple of four-hundred-year-old plays aloud in that weird way of all actors at first read, the initial “let’s just read it and not worry about the acting” phase lasting about fifteen or twenty pages until the acting kicks in regardless, along with weird reading errors and self consciousness masked as total unselfconsciousness and inappropriate laughter and awkwardness where the fights and kisses will come later and all that jazz.

And despite the wide expanse of professional experience, for a while we all feel like Firsts of May who don’t really know how the hell any of this works. No one will be cowardly but we’ll all kill the poor script many times before it tastes valiantly of some well-rehearsed death once we’ve choreographed all the stabbings (though that won’t be for a few rehearsals yet – we’re starting with Much Ado and the stabby plays are later in the summer).

I’ve packed the old valise I found for $15 at a thrift store with the Crystals’ Shakespeare’s Words, Logan & Coye’s (oft-conflicting) books on pronouncing said words, the Ardens and Freeman’s Applause Folios of all three plays, the full scripts I annotated, the sides I printed out for myself so I don’t have to carry the whole schmear around when we start staging, two scribbly, battered notebooks, a couple of green pens and pencils, an old pullover (again, surprisingly chilly room), a twenty-year-old mug for summer tea (Daffy Duck in various stages of being un-beaked), and my official dramaturg hat. Oh, and lunch. I have to remember lunch. Don’t let me leave here without lunch.

You have to watch getting too precious and ritualistic with actors because half will immediately parse for superstitions and the other half will inwardly (at least) mock the preciousness and the ritual, but I love that big, lumpy first read, the optimistic smell of all those sharpened pencils, new photocopies, and coffee. We get to do something honorable for a living** as long as we do it honorably. I’d say “with the very bent of honor”, but that would only remind me that instead of waxing obnoxious here I should be working on my lines for the second half of the show. So I won’t.

 

* This year the sixth of May will be the simultaneous running of the Kentucky Derby and the running of me from the Kentucky Derby. I don’t like crowds, traffic, or price-gouging quite enough to want to do anything but hide in our house here in my lovely-fifty-weeks-of-the-year hometown. I am tempted by another event that day – my last chance ever to see Ringling Bros. circus, six hours away on my last day off for almost three months. The jury is still out.

** The wisest of all theater truisms has long been “NEVER try to figure out what you’re making by the hour; it will only lead to weeping.”

Nay then, God buy you, an you talk in blank verse.–AS YOU LIKE IT, IV i

Actors, especially of Shakespeare, will probably be bored by the following. For audiences/readers of Shakespeare, this may be interesting. I don’t know.

There’s a time in Shakespeare (any?) rehearsal where Job #1 is figuring out What on earth it is exactly that you’re even saying. Then usually comes the Why. Then, ideally, choosing a How that aids audience understanding of the What/Why. Anything that comes after is gravy or fight choreography. More fun.

Mingled in the What/Why/How somewhere is the poetic stuff, which should ideally be scarcely noticed by the audience but which should be tremendously helpful to the actor. I’m not going to get all jargony, but I’ll use one of the less famous and vital lines in Macbeth (II iv):

          Threescore and ten I can remember well; within the volume of which time I have seen hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night hath trifled former knowings.

 

That’s the pure sentence version, which isn’t too tough to figure out  – “I’m old and I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit in my day, but tonight made all that look pale.” Done. Old Man’s thought expressed; Ross’s turn to speak; Macbeth and the rest have some time to change out of their nightgowns, Macduff has time to pack a train case for Fife.

Now, some actors insist that’s plenty. Basic punctuation and word definition is all they need from a script. (I suppose there are also some singers and conductors that figure all those extra marks Mozart cluttered his page with that weren’t actual notes can be ignored, but I’m not an opera expert.)

If we were to write it out as it appears in verse it looks more like this:

          Threescore and ten I can remember well;

          Within the volume of which time I have seen 

          Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night

          Hath trifled former knowings.

And that’s different. Beside the old “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM” (with variations) business that helps with the intended rhythm (WithIN the VOLume OF which TIME I have SEEN), there are those lovely, pesky mid-phrase turnarounds at the ends of the lines (seen/Hours, night/Hath). Some people feel like pausing to let those be heard makes for a distancing Ye Olde-ness, yet those same people often put in “naturalistic” pauses willy-nilly just as they do in a standard contemporary play.

But.

I’m of the firm opinion that as the years went by and he got ideas about this whole verse deal Shakespeare was trying to have and eat the cake – stylized lines that also sounded like a person was thinking them up as she went.

So to over-explicate the previous:

          Threescore and ten I can remember well; (chew on THAT for a minute, youngster)

          Within the volume of which time I have seen  (I’ve seen a lot – how shall I narrow this down?)

          Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night (I’m going to have to make up a word used nowhere else in these plays to express this)

          Hath trifled former knowings.

Then Ross pipes in with his usual Debbie Downer action. How is it that people don’t just break into a run when they see him coming? Even on the rare occasion when he brings good news (I ii), he makes you dangle for it:

DUNCAN: Whence cam’st thou, worthy thane?

ROSS:                         From Fife, great King,

Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky

And fan our people cold.                                  (Half-line. He’s making us wait for it.)

Norway himself, with terrible numbers,

Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,          (I know, kid; I know who we’re fighting.)

The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,   (Yes,  yes, hence the report,. Did we win?)

Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof,

Confronted him with self-comparisons,

Point against point, rebellious arm ‘gainst arm,

Curbing his lavish spirit; and to conclude,       (DID? WE? WIN?!)

The victory fell on us –

 

I should note that pausing isn’t what I’m talking about – these plays are plenty long enough as it is to the 21st century bladder– but light thought-hiccuping just as you do, just as anyone does when speaking aloud while figuring out what word comes next.

This is why actors get all fancy about doing Shakespeare. We’re putting in extra brain work that taxes the sort of person who goes into this business a bit more than the usual emotional/physical gooiness that is our stock-in-trade. Be gentle with us. Our brains, like those of Dr. Gumby’s patients, hurt.

No, ‘tis impossible he should escape.–HVI3, IIvi

Quick one:

So I came home from tech last night, made toddies for self and spouse (it’s turned off very suddenly rainy and cold here, I got a flat on my bike this afternoon, allergies, four hours of audiobook narration followed by seven hours of tech excluding supper, lemons that were about to go off…all kinds of good reasons for toddies), and peeked at the DVR to see what relaxation it might afford.

The other night was the end of the Turner Classic Movies month-long celebration of slapstick, programmed specifically for me, obviously, and part of their run of films from the latter end of the last century included one I haven’t seen for years but watched seemingly hundreds of times on cable in the mid-80’s (whenever they weren’t showing Beastmaster, as required by law), the Bob & Doug McKenzie epic, Strange Brew. Just the ticket, I thought. Big dumb fun, I thought. Empty the brain, I thought, with nostalgic goofery.

But before Greg Proops had even finished his intro, he said it: “Elsinore Brewery.” And I remembered: Strange Brew is more or less a moron’s (compliment in this context) version of  either Hamlet or Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, from the meta-story that begins the movie – and yes, I would watch a full-length version of Mutants of 2051 A.D – to the gender-swapped Hamlet & Ophelia equivalents (no one drowns, though Bob does beer-pee out an inferno) and the tainted-alcohol-based climax.

Heady stuff for an 80’s comedy about back bacon and a flying alcoholic skunk-dog.

I bring all this up because not only am I happily and gainfully employed by Shakespeare for the next year at least…I am haunted and accosted by him when I try to avoid him. This happens not at all infrequently. Which scans, I noticed after typing it, which awareness was followed by what a dramaturg friend calls a Chekovian Sigh. I’m no Pacino, I thank whatever gods may be for my unhistrionic soul, but just when I thought I was out, if for only a few hours, they pull me back in.

10 out of 12 today and tomorrow. Good knitting awaits.