Interview with Stacy Renee Norwood, Production Stage Manager of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s TWO NOBLE KINSMEN
27 July 2011
There is a desire to understand Shakespearean dramaturgy by recreating the original conditions that Shakespeare and his company had to work with. One major example of this is the reconstruction of the new Globe in London to match the same light and physical configuration of the stage to understand how the building itself impacted the dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s plays.
While many modern professional companies design a set similiar to the Globe for their productions, another contemporary approach to understanding Shakespeare’s text has been to remove the role of the director, which did not exist in Shakespeare’s day. This method, termed “original practice Shakespeare” has even become the mission for such companies as the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival and Taffety Punk Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival under the artistic direction of Patrick Mulcahy decided this season to try their own experiment with their production of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN. Equity actors were asked to arrive with their lines learned, rehearse with a stage manage for five days, and find their own costumes. For the playing space, the actors were given a Bob Phillips designed set for the company’s children show Sleeping Beauty in the smaller arena theatre that roughly approximated some of the elements of the Globe theatre, but was obviously not created for the needs of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN. The PSF company termed this challenge as “commandeering” the set of another play.
I decided to sit down with production stage manager Stacy Norwood immediately after the first preview of the production to ask very simply how this experiment in immediate theatre was going. I was curious what the particular challenges were for contemporary actors who were used to the role of the director interpreting the play. Would this make their process more democratic? Unlike the aforementioned theatre companies who had made it their mission to produce Shakespeare in this way, these actors were not an organic company but had been cast traditionally by PSF, some had been regular performers at the festival while others were new to the company and brought in specifically for this production. What pressure would this put on the role of the stage manager and how would Stacy resist stepping into the role of a director? And what would this method of producing reveal about the story of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN.
There was both a nervous energy and plucky confidence at the first preview performance as the cast came out for a song and declared the first line: “New plays and maidenheads are near to kin.” The audience leaned forward as they realized that tonight’s performance of a Shakespeare play was as fresh as a new play. Like Peter Brook’s idea of Immediate Theater, the relationship between the actors and audience changed.
Afterwards, Managing Director Casey Gallagher took us out for a drink to hear Stacy’s immediate responses to the first performance. As most bars in Center Valley, PA close early on a Wednesday evening in the summer, it took us awhile to find a proper location, but once we did, we had the bar to ourselves, with only the noise of typical bar songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” to permeate our conversation.
Heather Helinsky: Congratulations on your first performance of TWO NOBLE KINSMEN. Can you describe for us how you felt this week has gone in your role as a stage manager for a professional production with only five days rehearsal and no director?
Stacy Norwood: This week has been both scary and exciting. Scary for fear of the unknown because I’ve done improv but not anything like this before; exciting because I know we are capable.
Casey Gallagher: There’s been a lot of talk about lack of director as it relates to the actors, as the stage manager, how did that effect you? Did you feel like you had to step forward into the role of the director, did you feel that your role was less definite?
SN: I have always been a stage manager, I do not want to be a director. There’s nothing in me that has a desire to direct others and I think that makes me a better stage manager. I can maintain what I’ve been told to maintain, I can question the things that are different, but I am not trying to impose my own artistic vision upon the group. In the first few days it was very frustrating to define the stage manager’s role in rehearsal. I normally go to a director and say anything I would have noticed and give to him/her as a respected role then delivers that information to the cast as is necessary. In this process, I don’t have a filter, I have thirteen people who are trying to focus on themselves as well as focusing on the big picture. The actors initially took on more obligation in regards to props, scenery, and costumes than they were given and in my role in trying to calmly communicate to the production constraints, the actors would get frustrated, I don’t think with me, but with the lack of understanding the structure we did set up for communicating ideas. I did have to have a meeting with them and explain, “I’m not the bad guy, I am communicating everything you want me to, I’m just giving you a heads up that you may get a different answer than you are hoping for.” After that, we came to a more symbiotic relationship with the actors instead of butting heads.
HH: Were actors allowed to go to production meetings?
SN: An actor wrote me an email that said, “It seems silly to just go through you all the time.” As I was considering my response, I realized, that eliminates my job. That’s the thing I am here for: to communicate.
HH: So in some ways, the removal of the role of the director, the actors made you explain how your role was defined in this process?
SN: Yeah, that was an interesting moment. So as I talked to the actors, I said, It’s not silly. Communicating is absolutely my job. Now if I am not doing that well, we need to take a step further and you want to go to Patrick [Mulcahy] or Casey and say, ‘No, we need to do things this way’ we can set up that meeting, but I should be the initial point of contact in this process.
HH: While there is no director, you are a leader as you decide how to schedule rehearsal time. What was your initial tactic for the first rehearsal to gauge what would happen next within your limited five day rehearsal process?
SN: We started our process with a run through. It was really interesting because it wasn’t a mess because of the natural instincts of our company actors. The moments when there were a large group of actors on stage, we just marked it as “Oh, that staging is problematic” or “I don’t know where to come in from, did we establish where Thebes is?” We decided, don’t worry about that, we’ll fix that later and so after the first day we talked about what we needed to work on as far as staging.
CG: Certain people will obviously step forward as leaders and other people will be more recessive and step back. Is there a need or a want on your part to make sure that all thirteen actors are being heard? Or if you see that one person is recessing in the company dialogue, are you stepping in and intervening?
SN: No, I feel it is extremely important that everyone is given the opportunity to be heard. That means, if they want to be heard, they are. One of the things I do in regular productions that I stage manage is that I check in and touch base with all the actors. I’m people-oriented and I’m also production-oriented, so I do a lot of just being aware of all situations, noticing if things get tense, so for this process it wasn’t much different in this case.
HH: Did the levels of experience in the company of actors dictate who was leading in the room? By experience I not only mean the actors’ professional training but also their specific institutional experience as a company member of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival?
SN: Being familiar with the PSF company of actors, especially those who have performed in other shows this summer, it was very clear at the first rehearsal that certain actors stepped forward and I thought, I knew that was going to happen and there were others who stepped up and it was like, “Look at her, you go girl!” Because we are also working with acting interns, there was a moment where an intern said, “I just need someone to tell me where to go” and one of the more experienced actors responded, “That’s the whole point. You decide where you go.” And that was on day one.
HH: Which absolutely feels appropriate to the whole idea of intern acting companies that most regional theaters have, the historical idea of more experienced actors educating younger actors in performance, but in this case it sounds like it happened organically and needed to be voiced.
SN: One day, it seemed very black and white, actually. The whole dynamic of the rehearsal room changed when one of the actors sat in the front where the director would normally sit and had very strong recommendations for problem solving entrances and exits, while other company members would sit passively on the side and when an idea would strike them they would offer their opinion for something the actors in the scene should try. Other times, the actors in the scene would inquire to the rest of the company, “I have a problem with this bit of staging, could someone else look at this for me?” There were a few scenes where the actors felt they needed more guidance than they were getting and a particular actor got frustrated, so we took a break because I realized that would help, so I pulled that actor aside and said, “What can I do to help this process?” The actor explained that she was overwhelmed by a scene with more inexperienced actors and she felt he didn’t have the support group that other scenes did in figuring out the motivation for the scene. I gave her the option of coming back to the scene later or asking other company members to get involved in giving feedback for the scene. He was interested in getting feedback, so I approached other actors and asked them to help move the scene in the right direction and the other actors loved that and were happy to do it.
HH: I was also curious, with all the voices in the room and yet with the limited time to stage this production, how did you manage time?
SN: It was magical! We did the stumble through on the first day, then I asked the company of actors to give me a list of things that you want to work. We then ran through this list and they would tell me, ‘I would love 45 minutes for that scene’ or ‘I just need a half-hour’ or ‘I don’t know how long we need but that scene was very confusing during the run thru’. And as I put it out on the schedule it matched up perfectly with the time we had allotted. In each session, I would give them a ten-minute reminder and they would adjust what they were doing and stay true to the schedule, knowing if there was a problem with the scene they could figure it out later.
HH: You are performing this play on a set designed for children’s theatre, were your actors concerned about the overall concept of a serious, war-themed play performed on a comedic set?
SN: They were concerned about the set. I think they grew to accept the set and realized that the audience stops looking at the set once the actors start telling the story. And even in our first run thru we found that the functionality of the set served us well regardless of the colors. They knew they could use the windows in the upper level of the set but they didn’t know how it would help them tell this specific story. It all came together when we were watching Act 2, Scene 2 with Palamon and Arcite in jail and they used the upper windows as the jail and for the eleven of us sitting there, it was understandable, it was funny, and it didn’t need anything else. It didn’t need props, it didn’t need lights, it was just great by using the windows. We all started laughing and this released the tension in the company about this challenging play.
HH: So what were “Stealth rehearsals?”
CG: About 75% of the actors in TWO NOBLE KINSMEN were cast in our earlier production of COMEDY OF ERRORS and were already
talking about the problems that the text presented.
SN: In the stealth rehearsals where they would do their actor work but in a group for those who were in town, which also posed and answered questions. I avoided those rehearsals. I checked in, but I didn’t stay. In the official five days of rehearsal, we tried to tackle the biggest problems first and then actors who had monologues would often ask for extra time and company feedback because they had only performed their monologues on their own time.
CG: Since Patrick and [associate artist] James J. Christy cut the play initially before rehearsals, did the actors want further script cuts to make it their own?
SN: The way we developed further script cuts is that Patrick had first right of refusal, I was to give him the cuts that the actors proposed and that we would go from there. I got an initial set of cuts from the stealth rehearsal in an email and it was mostly requests for more cuts to the play.
CG: Which is interesting because during a typical PSF three week rehearsal, we often get complaints of wanting their monologue back or why did a certain scene go away.
SN: It actually wasn’t a problem at all because the actors were concerned about the ideas in the plays repeating themselves. The only time the cuts became difficult when actors started suggesting that they wanted to cut characters, like the knights, then would run into problems of by cutting those characters, they couldn’t accomplish their quick changes or set changes. I stepped in if they were cheating someone else’s character and that is not acceptable for this process. But in general, we were all on the same page for what would serve the play the best and tell the story.
HH: And with your first audience tonight, how did you plan and schedule today’s rehearsals?
SN: Today is day five of our process and we open tomorrow. We had the PSF Repertory cast come and watch a run through in the afternoon. Not only was it cool to have them as a first audience , but because they are actors responding, “Wow, they just did that!” They understand to what extent this process is crazy. Having other actors come and watch was a good litmus test for our actors to realize, “We got reactions” “we’re funny” or “How did that moment work?” Or at one point, we asked, “Did the end of act one work because we made a bold choice there?” So, that was nice to have reactions from the acting company at the run through this afternoon. This evening, to have a non-actor theatre audience come in and give us the same validation was really nice as well.
HH: So, how did it go tonight?
SN: I think it went really well. The actors were really excited when I saw them after the performance, especially when they were getting feedback from James J. Christy. As Casey mentioned earlier, it’s interesting that the second there is an artistic director or any sort of outside director opportunity, the actors they seem to swarm to it, but there’s also something to be said about that they can either take or leave whatever they hear. There’s something interesting that whenever they have a choice to incorporate things, no one on our production has ever said anything about that, it’s just an observation of hearing actors saying backstage, “Oh, well, I’m going to soften my accent, but I don’t necessarily want to.” But the point this production is that it’s your choice, so it’s interesting that you know that’s the right way to go or you feel that’s the right way to go even though you don’t love that idea.
HH: Before the show started, I overheard one of the actors saying backstage that they were nervous. With the short process, how did you mitigate this nervousness for a company of actors who are used to a longer rehearsal period?
SN: We decided that it’s all right to call “Line.” Actress Eleanor Handley, who plays Emilia, offered that instead of calling “Line” that we would call “Prithee?” as it sounded more Shakespearean.
CG: Did that happen tonight?
SN: Yup, it did.
HH: I think the audience tonight took it as part of the rules of the experiment of learning the show so quickly. Another thing I am curious about is while the PSF staff has their own expectations for this production’s success, what is your definition of success for this production?
SN: First, that this is a sane process. One of the actresses asked for permission to bring her Flip camera into rehearsal as they were problem solving where to put the execution scene. There’s a moment where everyone is talking over each other and then all the sudden, ideas start emerging and everyone is listening to each other and the focus gets passed and then someone offers what becomes our solution. That whole exchange took 2 minutes and 55 seconds, which is really cool. But more importantly, it is very rewarding to watch actors fight for what they believe in, and watch actors high-five each other after a scene and shout, “That worked!” To see actors enjoy taking more responsibility for their performance is really a success.
HH: If I can be a responder for a moment, I found interesting that a lot of the choices that were made seemed to follow PSF aesthetic choices and I started wondering how much did PSF’s style of producing Shakespeare inform how the actors made choices? For example, one hallmark of a PSF production is when there is a moment of pageantry like the wedding, everyone in the cast, including the interns, comes on and finds their place on stage to react to the scene, while another theatre company might have made the opposite choice to a moment of pageantry or ritual. There are certain performance styles that I find a tradition of a PSF production, perhaps it was partly due to that actors who perform here or the actors who were also in this season’s COMEDY OF ERRORS making choices that they were comfortable with? In this production, they were given absolute freedom to go in any direction for telling the story, yet as an audience member, I felt I kept seeing gestures and images that appear in other PSF productions.
SN: There is something to be said about that, that they went with what they know. I come from the Orlando Shakespeare Festival and I feel the same, the sense that the approach to a play is: “This is how we operate.” In a company, other than the conceptual show you do that one time where that was weird, you know, there’s a sense of how we do Shakespeare. These actors did talk about their concept of “We are an acting troupe who comes into this space to tell this story.” The first scene in particular, we explored with everyone wandering in and exploring the space, but then it became too muddy so we started with the wedding, but they did want everyone in the cast to sing that opening song as an aesthetic choice. I did keep reminding them as they kept asking for more props, like the birthday party hats, that we don’t need all the props and to keep it simpler and they kept repeating, “But it tells the story.” Clarity in storytelling was really the main goal.
HH: I really appreciate your time and your immediate reaction to what you are experiencing and how you’ve been working in the past couple days. Thank you!
SN: And it’s nice to talk about it too!
TWO NOBLE KINSMEN by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Artistic director Patrick Mulcahy; production stage manager Stacy
Norwood. At Schubert Theatre, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA. http://www.pashakespeare.org/show2011_kinsmen.php
WITH: Ian Bedford (Theseus) Pete Danelski (Ensemble), Adam DeLancey (Ensemble), Gordon Gray (Jailor), Eleanor Handley
(Emilia), Andrew Kane (Pirithous/Doctor), Thomas Matthew Kelley (Palamon), Lauren Lovett (Hippolata), Lauren Orkus (Jailer’s Daughter), Spencer Plachy (Arcite), Abbie Richards (Ensemble), Julia Stroup (Ensemble), Ryan Yandersits (Ensemble).