Heartland III: Not My Mama’s Shakespeare

It’s astounding
Time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll
So listen closely
Not for very much longer
I’m going to lose control

Quick–what’s the next line?

Stratford Festival Theater
Shakespearean Festival Theater in Stratford Ontario, originally built in 1953. Photo by kajmeister.

Forty-two years ago, I saw the legendary Canadian actor Brian Bedford play three roles at the Stratford Canadian Shakespearean festival in repertory: Angelo in Measure for Measure, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and Richard III. The breadth of his performances changed my idea of what actors could do.

Forty years ago, as a freshman in college at Berkeley, I watched a science-fiction movie about a transvestite where people shouted at the screen and threw toast and rice. It changed my idea about how a movie can connect with an audience.

Who would have thought that, getting old, we would wax nostalgic about doing the time warp?

Stratford Festival program, Rocky Horror
Stratford Festival’s Rocky Horror, starring Dan Chameroy. Program photo by Stratford staff, uncredited.

Gimme That Ol’ Time Theater

The apogee of my trip across the midwest is Stratford, Ontario, two plus hours northwest of Detroit, the city where I grew up. My parents were both Shakespeare buffs. Mom directed Midsummer as a high school drama teacher before she got her Ph.D. in American Culture,  and Dad studied the Bard while earning his Masters in English. When I took upper-division Shakespeare at Berkeley, I used their “textbook,” which now has notes from all three of us in the margins.

Naturally, they went to Stratford often, and took my brother and me as soon as they thought we could sit through a whole play without falling asleep. We read Merchant of Venice in the car on the way up. Watching the play, I laughed at the suitors choosing the caskets but did, unfortunately, nod off before Portia made her “Quality of mercy” speech. Bummer!  My mom took me twice more and, though I was a grumbly teenager through most of it, the acting mesmerized me. Having seen Maggie Smith play Titania is a great conversation stopper at parties, but Bedford was the dude. His Richard III was boyishly evil, and he had us laughing at his “antics” as he gleefully murdered one royal family member after another. The next night, as Malvolio, when he displayed his cross-yellowed garters, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

Stratford Brian Bedford star
Bedford star in Stratford, Canada Wall of Fame. Photo by kajmeister.

For many summers now, my family has trundled the day’s drive from my northern California home up to Oregon to the Ashland Festival. This trip back to Stratford for me turned out to be all about comparison. Stratford to Ashland. (Stratford is venerable, grander; Ashland has better souvenirs.) Today’s plays vs. my memories. Shakespeare vs. other more modern plays. Old theater practices vs. new ones.

Low-Tech: Verisimilitude with Clear Plastic Spoons

We took tours of the Festival theater backstage, the costume warehouse, and the archives, all of which revealed the painstaking care taken to produce the theater experience. The docents explained that Stratford from its earliest days wanted productions to feel as London-professional as possible, down to the smallest detail.  For example, this cabinet, which sat onstage during a recent production of Merry Wives of Windsor, was crammed with fully realized objects, right down to the handwritten letter on the bottom right hand shelf.  Although the plot involves letters, this one is not in the play and likely wouldn’t even be seen by the audience.  For the actors, using props, costumes, and sets with this kind of detail would be as close to being in that time and place as might be possible.

Stratford Festival prop
Stratford Festival cabinet piece for Merry Wives set. Photo by kajmeister.
Cabinet set detail, Merry Wives
Detail in Stratford Festival cabinet set for Merry Wives. Photo by kajmeister.

At the same time, many props displayed low-tech solutions up close that were highly  effective from the audience view. Fancy chandeliers, like this one, used painted clear plastic spoons, which shimmer under the hot lights. The elaborate wigs for 17th and 18th century costumes were crafted strand by strand from real human hair, but the best styling tools were 19th century flat and curling irons, not modern salon tools.

Stratford chandelier prop
Stratford Festival chandelier, one of many, using clear plastic spoons to reflect stage lights effectively. Photo by kajmeister.

High-Tech: Server Banks & Visual Management

While I marveled at the duct tape and handmade signs, at the mundane mixed with the magical–the fridge clean-out schedule with its hand underlined warning THIS MEANS YOU! posted in the costume department–I also noticed how pervasively high-tech had draped itself over the productions. Backstage walls are covered with wiring bundles, and the blinking lights from server stacks tucked in spare corners caught my eye as we went underneath the stage. Programmable LED lights now change stage light colors instead of the old style hand gel lights, while sound dampeners across the ceilings use NASA-based designs.

We watched them start the change-over for the stage, broken down in less than an hour twice daily to switch from the matinee to the different evening show. While the planking is wood-based, it was attached with velcro. However, noisy velcro isn’t used in the costumes, which sometimes require actors to be redressed in less than ten seconds; much quieter magnets are the secret. Certain shows, especially musicals, require actors to wear mike packs, but some actors need triple redundancy if they have a tendency to flop sweat under the hot lights. 3D printers make realistic-looking alien laser cannons, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Meanwhile fabric printers can be used to transfer intricate designs for an entire backdrop.  Still, if they need an actor to wear shoes of a certain kind, a cordwainer makes them from scratch, by hand.

Low Themes, High Themes

This level of detail, whether from a modern or old-fashioned source, was on clear display in the plays we saw: Julius Caesar, Paradise Lost, Napoli Millionaria, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For example, in Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve wear flesh-colored skinsuits with painted body…details…that are impressionistic rather than realistic. The body parts are there but not distracting, costumes reflecting their innocence as they frolic in Eden. But after Satan tempts them to eat the apple, they return to the stage in true nakedness, their costuming reflecting the action of the play.

Paradise Lost, Stratford
The phenomenal Lucy Peacock as Satan in Paradise Lost. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

During the intermission set change for Napoli Millionaria, a tragi-comedy about survival and greed during Italy in World War II, the stagehands stayed in period dress. As they moved furniture, some of the men sat at the tables playing cards and arguing, while women “cleaned” in Italian house-dresses, gossiping and teasing while they reset prop mirrors and paintings.

Our video-infused generations now grow up watching representations of realism on the screen, almost from birth. Theater can’t compete to recreate the world more realistically. What it can do is use the tricks of the trade to transport actors and audience to the world of the play, with such power that the few lines spoken by the actors carry maximum resonance. Thus does a phrase from Napoli like “We just have to get through the night,” spoken under certain lighting with a certain cadence by the actor, pierce to the heart.

Julius for the 1st, Frank N. Further for the 27th

Paradise and Napoli were terrific and thought-provoking. The least successful play, for me, was the Shakespeare. I had somehow never seen Julius Caesar before, although I can quote lines from Claudius and HBO’s Rome. I realized a few minutes in that I did not know what would happen in the play.  Caesar would be killed, of course, likely in Act 3 Climax, with Acts 4 and 5 denouementing the fallout between Antony, Cassius, and Brutus. But I didn’t realize that JC the play didn’t give JC the character much to do, other than look regal, then surprised, then stabbed, then dead. Stratford’s version here was unadorned and seemed to suffer for it. The costumes were realistically Jacobean but didn’t enhance the story; most of the major roles (Caesar, Antony, Cassius) were played by women but played exactly as if they were men.  In October, the Stratford audience was filled with high school students on field trips, and they seemed more lively that night than the actors.

Rocky Horror was a contrast, to say the least. Stratford must have felt daring to put the show on in the first place, but it now holds some kind of record for ticket sales and extensions, and this high school-packed audience was enthusiastic in a completely different way.  My seat neighbors, a woman near my “active adult” years and her mother, had never seen the movie or show. The twenty-something woman in front was a rabid, but polite, fan. She genteelly turned around and explained like a docent to these newbies how the audience participation would work, cautioned against alarm when seat dancing would begin, and even gave some pointers about what to shout at the narrator.

I remembered from my AP English lectures that Shakespeare had to please the audience in the pit, which outnumbered those in the box seats, hence Macbeth includes that porter scene who makes pun after pun about sex and bathroom functions. Old Will loved a good reveal, so he wouldn’t have blinked an eye when wheelchair-bound scientist Dr. Scott pulls away his blanket to show off his own fishnet stockings.

The production gave it the full welly, so to speak. It was enthusiastic, cheeky, hilarious, beautifully sung, and danced to perfection. I was impressed that the actors, knowing that they would be interrupted by audience shout-outs, worked with the responses rather than swimming against them. By the time we all got to the ending “Time Warp” number and its encores, everyone was standing and dancing, frenzied, even the little old lady on the aisle. The Bard would have loved it.

What surprised me was how it would turn back the clock for me, far more than the Shakespeare did. Rocky Horror is about self-discovery and being proud about being different, for all its cloakery in cheesy 1950s scifi trappings. Every gay person over forty remembers where they were when they first saw it. The story was an odd way to forge a path to LGBTQ acceptance, but it did carve out a few of those stones. Don’t forget as well that Brian Bedford was gay, as was Danny Kaye, Rock Hudson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ian McKellen… really Rocky Horror was meant to be played in Stratford.

So I urge everyone to mentally don the most complex 19th century costume you can imagine, adopt the pose of an actor about to declaim the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, and, using your plummiest upper-class British twit voice, repeat after me:

It’s just a jump to the left
And a step to the right…

Stratford Rocky Horror
Stratford Festival, Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Let’s do the time warp again!



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