Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Points of Comparison

I was caught a little off guard when one of my actors compared Merry Devil to Twelfth Night yesterday. When seeking a play that is canonically ascribed to the hand of Shakespeare as a point of comparison, Merry Wives comes more to mind than Twelfth Night. The Merry Wives connection was clearly not lost on Arthur Johnson, who also had Merry Wives printed for his book stall at St. Paul's, but my actor does have a point: Twelfth Night is also a play about love and disguise, and Twelfth Night is also highly prosaic. Indeed, Smug bears a passing resemblance to Andrew Aguecheek, and perhaps Sir John is more similar to Sir Toby than Sir John Falstaff. I don't offer this as an argument for the quality or the authorship of any of the aforementioned plays, but in one of the lesser known works of The King's Men, it's fun to compare these roles to try to figure out where sharers may have cast themselves. 

The second part of my actor's comment was at the number of times in the period that a character will put on the disguise of a nun or a friar, as the Duke/Friar Lodowick in Measure for Measure (which was written about the same time as Merry Devil probably was). That's easy. Everyone kind of looks the same in the habit of a holy (wo)man, and a simple hooded robe, which will suffice for most early-modern nun and friar roles, is generally easy to put on, and can easily completely obscure another costume worn underneath. In just about every way you could want, it's the perfect disguise. 

And, of course, since the Catholics were kicked out by Henry VIII in the 1530s, and the Monasteries dissolved and their valuable land appropriated by the crown, Nuns and Friars are always a safe target of satire,

Friday, March 26, 2010

Plans and Setbacks

First the good news: we've booked our Blackfriars date. September 13, 2010, The Merry Devil of Edmonton will perform on the stage of the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. With a performance date in place, that makes this project real in a way that it wasn't only a week or so ago.

Now the bad news: the venue in Philly I was courting fell through. There was a miscommunication between us and them; I thought they had a performance space that was roughly 25' square, but that's the size of the room. That's not big enough to both perform in and have an audience watch, and so I'm once again on the hunt for a space in Philly. If anyone has any leads they're willing to share, please pass them along.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What William Proctor Williams said...

Noted bibliographic and textual studies scholar William Proctor Williams was at the ASC today for a question and answer period about... well... bibliographic studies. So how could I resist asking him for advice on how to proceed with Merry Devil? Greg, in a piece I previously discussed, apoplectically declared that the only acceptable way of editing a text is to get as close as possible to the authors original work, but even Greg admits that this isn't possible in the case of Merry Devil.

So what does the great Dr. Williams have to say?

I don't think it matters who wrote it because the process from getting from whoever wrote it (maybe plural) is going to be the same, so treat it like Hamlet. No play was ever printed from foul papers, and feel free to quote me on this, no printer would accept it. They weren't in business to get PhDs or MFAs in Renaissance studies, and they wouldn't have their journeyman compositors try to set type from foul papers. The steps are just the same as Hamlet or King Lear, or anything else. Whoever prints it is going to have to take it into the Stationer's Company, and there the process is the same for everyone else. 
So there you go. From the man who literally wrote the book on bibliographic and textual studies (An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies). It's already the course that I'm following, but now I get to do it with Williams' blessing. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who's this for?

I always step out of Textual Culture with a wealth of challenges to my ideas, and today's theme was who I'm doing all of this for. Is it possible that there might be some folks out there that don't know the conventions of reading plays? Yes, but I'm ultimately not interested in writing for them. Is it possible there are some folks who would like to read the play with some guidance to help them picture it? Probably, but my cast would take exception to highly detailed stage directions that negate performance possibilities.

So the answer is that I'm doing this for my cast, and then I'm doing it for that mythical beast, the general reader. I hesitate to call it the first step in the process, as that would imply a degree of temporal  linearity that doesn't align with real world practice, but producing a play text for my acting company is the first goal on the road to a new edition of The Merry Devil. They will then perform that text, and that will be a new edition. I will perhaps then use the information gathered from that performance and prepare it as a reader's edition, a text which will be a cross breed of 17th century collaborative writing, performance, editing, printing, and then 21st century transcription, editing, printing, performance, editing, and printing.

So if you followed along with all of that, lets pretend that you're sitting there with the new reader's edition in your hot little hand: who is responsible for putting it there? Who authorizes it? The King's Men? Myself? My actors? The American Shakespeare Center? Mary Baldwin College's M.Litt/MFA program? All of the above? None of the above?

I think I had an insight into all of this in class today, and with luck I've brought you to the same crisis of contradiction that I find myself in: you can't win, so don't try. Alternatively, what is likely to sell the most tickets? And thus I turn back to The Merry Devil of Edmonton as a member of Shakespeare's Apocrypha, because lets face it, the name of William Shakespeare sells tickets.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

An Interesting Device

Take a look at the Merry Devil title page again...

Note well the pictures. These are called printers devices, and were (surprise, surprise!) commonly used by London printers to help identify who had printed the material. Then, as now, a picture said a thousand words, but unlike now, the title page would commonly serve as a poster advertisement for the book (or so Dr. Menzer tells me). These days we put eye catching images on our posters to get people to read the text of whatever it is we're advertising, and I'm taking an imaginative leap that these devices might have served a similar purpose. 

The great 20th century bibliographer Ronald McKerrow collected these device into his Printers and Publishers Devices in England & Scotland: 1485 - 1640, in which he describes and produces facsimiles of over 400 hundred devices. Neither of the devices on the Merry Devil title page is found within Printers and Publishers devices, but the lower of these two is close. That is indexed as device number 379 and has the following description: "(33 x 30 mm.) A mask with rings: the letters A. H. below. This is perhaps a cast ornament with the letters inserted." (144). In both cases it appears on material printed by A. Hart in Edinburgh. This is the device as McKerrow reproduces it:

A very striking similarity, eh? If it's not the same device, or at least produced from the same casting, that's one hell of a coincidence. If A. Hart was ever the printer for The Merry Devil, I would feel like this was less of a mystery. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Disguise Play

Watching the American Shakespeare Co's production of The Alchemist, I was reminded of just how sublime a doubled show that features characters in disguise can be. Until the disguise is revealed, you don't know if you're looking at a whole new character or a character in disguise. The playwright provides the actors a way of putting one over on the audience at the same time they put one over on the the other characters. I think the same would be true of Shakespeare's works if we didn't already know them so well, but Jonson is just obscure enough to be able to pull off this illusion.

The Merry Devil is, of course, replete with both double-cast actors and characters in disguise, so I think we'll be able to pull the same thing off. Keeping the audience guessing as to who is who and what is real is a great way of keeping them interested. I was about to say something grossly incorrect about how we don't have this convention anymore in modern theatre, but that isn't necessarily so. Gilles Segal's The Puppetmaster of Lodz features a "third man" character; a single actor plays many roles throughout the course of the production, but late in the play it is revealed that it is a single character playing many roles. Familiarity breeds comfort, and the revelation of a character in disguise, whom we had mistaken for an actor playing another role, is one of those things that can keep an audience guessing right up through the end.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

99% of Directing

Once upon a time, when I was an itty bitty undergrad, a prof told me that "99% of directing is correcting the mistakes you make in casting." I'm not sure how true I've found that to be over the years, especially because I'm very arrogant and have never felt like I've made a mistake in casting, but there is no doubt that casting a show is one of the most pivotal things that happens during the process. You want to find skilled, experienced people who are committed to the project, and those columns don't necessarily line up. Especially for something like this where the budget is still being worked out. In a situation where you can pay people more than peanuts, you can rely on their commitment to a pay check, at least. Usually.

I've got a little bit of an advantage being in a program designed to teach people how to produce this kind of theatre, and as more and more people have moved from expressing interest to wanting to sign up, I find myself in the position of having to put together a partial cast list. I really hate this part. The only thing I hate more than casting is auditions, which is really nothing more than the part of casting where you make your mistakes (on either side of the table). An actor never gives you their best work in auditions, and if they do, they (and possibly you and everyone else involved) suddenly have bigger problems to worry about.

Fortunately, I'm not going to have to do auditions. I've seen just about everyone's work, and one of my key partners on this project has worked with just about everyone else in the program, and can offer me insight into their strengths and weaknesses. Invariably, she's made me feel better about the pool of people I'm drawing on. Still, I have to make some preliminary decisions, and fairly quickly. I don't know if there's any way around getting some of these folks to sit down together in a room and read from the script.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Producer Speaks

Getting The Merry Devil to the Fringe Festival is going to take a lot more than bibliographic research and artistic skill, it means a lot of good old fashioned business footwork. Producing a play in a market that you don't know can be fraught with peril, but fortunately I have a friend or two on the ground in Philly to help guide my decisions. For example: an 80 seat theater asking for $5000 a day that doesn't include lighting, sound, and fully union tech staff, house staff, box office staff, and catering seems a lot steep, and than I find out that Germantown is pretty far removed from the public transit lines in Philly anyway, making it triply not worth it. Moving right along.

Maybe the most important thing for the Producer to do is the cost/benefit analysis. Director Tony would love to do the show for 2 weekends of the festival, Producer Tony thinks that, with the cost of hotels, that might be a little bit prohibitive. Can we make a deal with some hotels? Maybe, but that's another thing that needs negotiating, and this is where, again, having a friend on the ground in Philly will come in handy. On the bright side, I feel that we're much closer to approaching average-case scenario projections for expenses, which means that we can start putting together something resembling a budget, which in turn means we can start looking for funding.

The other concern that I've been dealing with while wearing the producer hat is trying to figure out how to include actors from other points in the project. Merry Devil has a pretty small cast by Renaissance London standards: 11 people. That's a pretty big cast by post-modern standards, and my grad program isn't huge. Fortunately my inner-nerd came up with an idea that might make this a little bit easier.

Philly is still a long way off, but over the course of the last 48 hours, it's started looking a lot closer.