Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Notes from "The Kindest Cut" Forum

Mary Baldwin College's Shakespeare and Performance Program hosted the second of their discussion forums on the theory and practice of cutting the texts of Shakespeare and his contemporaries this past Sunday (Nov 14), and you better believe I was there with my keyboard clacking away. Between Merry Devil, the upcoming Second Shepherds' Play, and my Dramaturgy class, I've had to do more textual emendation than someone who isn't getting paid good money for it should have to in a semester, and lets face it, I'm not done yet. So here are some notes from the event. Please be advised that this was one of those situations where there was so much good stuff flying around the room that I couldn't keep up, so while representative of the discussion, these notes are far from complete, and I offer my advance apologies if I have mis-noted anywhere below as I very likely have done so.

Serving as our panelists were Lue Douthit, Director of Literary Production and Dramaturgy at the
Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Alan Armstrong, dramaturg at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Emeritus Professor of Humanities and Director of the Center for Shakespeare Studies, Southern Oregon University (and visiting professor here at Mary Baldwin), and John Harrell, one of the most long serving members of the resident acting company at the American Shakespeare Center.

Before beginning the question and answer session, Paul Menzer, who moderated, invited the panelists to share some opening remarks.

Lue Douthit
The answer to any question you ask anyone in the theatre is "it depends." Thus is her answer to the question of if you cut the text. The process of cutting the text as specific to the performance with the company of actors she is working on at the moment. Douthit recounts that she once cut the "double double toil and trouble lines" from Macbeth, and that she would not do so again.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival operates, with the exception of certain plays such as King Lear and Hamlet, under a three-hour rule as its primary principle of cutting the text. Likewise, different spaces will limit the availability of actors: the indoorspace, for example, has only twelve dressing room spaces, and so the cast size is limited.

Dramaturgy is the study of dramatic structure. Every play has structure or bones, and if you can determine the structure of the play you can best determine what is to be cut. You thus should not simply cut 20% of everyone's lines as a rule, as that will create a cut that will not necessarily conform to the structure of the play.

Different actors bring different skill sets, and changes in the cast should influence the cutting of the text. Cross gendered casting also plays into OSF performance, and there they must likewise make the decision as to whether it is a woman playing a man, or whether the role is amended to female.

"If you don't cut enough by the first day of rehearsal, it is a horrible bargaining process that happens." Actors will not necessarily deliver the lines at the pace the dramaturg/director anticipates, and once actors start working with the text it becomes difficult to get them to release lines. In a recent Love's Labour's Lost at OSF they have cut into the structure of the play, with the theory that they could be more generous to actors who wanted to put things back into the play.

Alan Armstrong
Echoes the idea that "it depends." For his recent production of Hamlet at the Bohmer, the director and the actor playing Hamlet had prepared a cut of the text before Armstrong got to it. At that point, the
approximate running time was close to four hours, and even following dramaturgical meetings, only an additional four minute s was cut.

Armstrong pursues the policy of dramaturg as "devil's advocate." Even if you agree with the cuts, the job of the dramaturg is to think through the logic of the cuts and the implication of those cuts on the play.

Armstrong offers the example of 4.4 of 1 Henry IV as an example of a big cut. The characters in the scene do not re-appear in the play, and they provide no new information. It is therefore a wonderful candidate for a cut. However, King Henry mentions the Archbishop of York at the end of the play, and also figured prominently in the rebellion of 2 Henry IV. The character "seems to be a trailer for part 2" in some ways, and while Shakespeare gives York some personal motivations for rebellion in the scene, he drops those for the second part. Thus the structure of the play itself, and its impact on the sequel (since
they're running it in rep with 2 Henry IV) is also negligible. Armstrong argues that this small, private scene, sandwiched between two war council scenes as it is, may have been written for variety in the play (like similar scenes in the canon), or may have been designed to allow for a costume change. Cutting the
scene did not create any problems.

"Tracking the consequences is one of the most important thing that dramaturgs do."

John Harrell
discusses the difference between his cut for The Alchemist for the last Ren Season, and Look About You for the next. The Alchemist was cut from a prepared edition, but Look About You was in need of basic emendation (such as entrances and exits for characters), and thus they both have a different starting point.

Harrell has developed some basic guidelines to help him cutting the plays that have been colloquially referred to as "John's Don't List" over the past few days. It's been much requested, and lets face it, is probably the reason why you're reading this if you went to the talk. Without further adue:

  • Beware low hanging fruit: i.e. anything that seems too easy to cut. If you instinctively think it should go, that might be a good reason for keeping it. Songs are really easy to cut half of, and certain scenes may only be present because Shakespeare's audiences are familiar with the source material. Also people who talk too much (i.e. Epicure Mamon or Palonius) are sometimes  supposed to talk to much.
  • Things that are highly repetitive. There is something to be gained from repetitive things in the plays.
  • Don't have a pencil in your hand the first time you read the play. 
  • Things you don't understand: you may cut things that will work out on stage, or even things that actors will enjoy playing. 

There's a difference between the five most known Shakespeare plays and everything else. "No one really cares if you cut Love's Labour's Lost."

Something we've discussed so far is to be careful about cutting "information," but what constitutes "information?"


The history plays feature several long speeches where a lot of information is repeated, and it is tempting to cut some of those speeches in favor of a punchier dialog, but as Harrell says, repetition is sometimes part of the point. The scene in 1 Henry IV where King Henry and Hal come together in the middle of the play is also odd for modern audiences, as most modern audiences will want the play to feel like a tennis match, but the scene is a series of long speeches to Hal. The task of the dramaturg is to ask what is to be gained from the King's rant.

Ralph Alan Cohen (ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission)
Beware of cutting things you're afraid the audience won't understand, even when you understand it.

Matt Davies (MBC MLitt/MFA Program Professor)
Asks if, when you're cutting blank verse, if you feel the need to stitch the meter back into your cut.

Harrell and Cohen both respond that they try to. Douthit argues that, the more you know the structure of what is happening, the better you'll be able to decide whether this is necessary or desirable. She has sutured the verse together at times, but at others she is content to leave a few empty feet. Armstrong argues that it's the meter not that penta that's important, and will work much harder to keep the iamb than the line.

MFA Candidate Casey Caldwell asks if, over repeated cuttings, there is enough of the structure present in the play to indicate that certain things will be kept across cuttings, even if cutting is always circumstantial. Armstrong thinks this is true. "It's like filet on your fish, you kind of know where to put the knife in and where to follow."
Douthit argues that certain repetitions are exciseable, but not the themes that land on the audience emotionally. She goes on to suggest  front-loading information on the audience, and then cutting away from it. For contemporary audiences, it's the accumulation of data that starts to bog down the play. She argues starting cuts in the 5th act so the dramaturg (and ultimately the audience) is able to track where everything goes. 
ASC Actor Bob Jones asks if we might be cutting the wrong way: it's possible that some things would play quite nicely on the stage that are cut by the dramaturg. No one likes having a line cut, but Jones argues it might make more sense to start with the entire play in rehearsal and then cut back from there.
Douthit agrees that the process of rehearsal can create some interesting possibilities, and one of the things they've started doing at OSF is doing a read through with as much of the cast as possible before the season for which it rehearses.

Menzer asks if there has ever been a point when the dramaturgs realized they screwed up and cut too much or ineffectively.
Harrell recounts the story of someone cutting Cymbeline to the bare essentials and then adding lines back to get the line count up to about 2400, and that was not so effective a way of cutting. 
Douthit points out that is more often the opposite case: the dramaturg realizes they have not cut enough. Information accumulates in such a way that it feels repetitive to the modern audience.  
Harrell notes that actors will sometimes cling to peculiar lines that make the scenes make sense for them. Actors will frequently want easy jokes and offensive material, and things where they refer to relationships with other characters. Even if you don't need the latter of these, it tends to help them understand their characters.  
"The more you get actors involved," Douthit says, presenting your cuts as a first draft and then asking for help, "the better the esprit du corp you get in the room." Actors will begin arguing against cuts they see as essential, even when they're not their own lines. 
Armstrong agues against combining multiple "marginal" characters into a single, all purpose character.  
Douthit argues that, to keep alive the theatricality of transformational acting, doubling is essential. It may have been a simple matter of finding another actor who was backstage and available to put on a crown and come back on as a king. Such doubling can create meaning for audiences even accidentally. 

MFA Candidate Paul Rycik asks about cutting prose, and how it compares to verse.

Armstrong answers that by cutting large sections of prose, you begin to lose the character of the language. It won't kill the audience to hear unfamiliar words, in fact it will often help them. Having the "slimy" contemporary language of the period helps color the performance. 

Menzer asks about leaving the offensive lines in, and how the ugliness of the language can be left intact, or when it shouldn't be left intact.

Douthit answers that it depends (and gets a laugh). She argues that, in every production, there are moments that take you out of the play, and sometimes consciously. The audiences who watched these plays were much more homogenous than our own, and every dramaturg/director must decide how much slander an audience will be able to absorb.
Menzer proposes that may more of a directorial function, and Douthit agrees. Cohen notes that there was much discussion about cutting the line "be not a niggard of your speech" from the ASC's current production of 2 Henry IV (which Cohen directed) because it has the potential to be offend.

Douthit argues that Ben Jonson made his published Folio more literary than his plays performed, and that Hemings and Condell likely did the same for Shakespeare. She compares this to textual ambiguity in modern texts as contracts will specify that a company must produce the published text of a play by Tennessee Williams, but there are sometimes multiple versions of that text (an acting edition, a reading edition, etc), and that the contract will not specify which of these is the more correct.

Caldwell asks if the panelists think the plays were written to be cut.
Douthit thinks so. She argues that the plays are probably performed more times in 1 year at OSF than in Shakespeare's lifetime, and thus it is quite possible that we know the plays better than the Chamberlain's/King's men ever could. She notes that he wrote roughly two plays a year, which is a lot, and that not everything he wrote is gold. "There is always something in every one of them that takes your breath away," she says, arguing that maybe 70% of what Shakespeare wrote is very good, but there's lots of it that doesn't work in terms of dramatic action. She concludes by quoting Bertolt Brecht "the proof of the pudding is in the eating."  
Those were all the notes I could manage to get from a very fascinating, at least from the point of view of this lit & phil nerd, of reasons and methods for cutting Shakespeare's text. Since it's my blog, I get to editorialize a bit that textual emendation and cutting is a very general thing that maybe applies more to the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries than other playwrights, but Douthit's citation of the problem of Tennessee Williams' plays very nicely drives home the point that these problems aren't going away. Cast sizes and running times keep shrinking, and the attention span of YouTube is becoming the new normal. It's a criterion that we're all going to need to work with. 

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