I mentioned collaboration in my last post. This is, truly, one of my favorite parts about being a theatre person. Tech Week for The Comedy of Errors began on Saturday and the power of collaboration was on full display.
For weeks the actors have been rehearsing, the technicians have been building the set, and lighting designer Charles Raffetto and Costume Designer Ashley Tyler have been creating unique looks for the show. While we were working separately all of us had our eyes on the same prize: creating a cohesive, outlandish, ridiculous production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Our job was to stay true to Shakespeare and his influences, while bringing something new and fun to the table. Yesterday we got to see if our individual work came together in all the right ways. Needless to say, when I saw Ashley Tyler’s costume designs on the set Charles Raffeto designed, with the lights hung by tech theatre students, I did another happy dance.
As blog readers know, Shakespeare was influenced by the Italian Comedy which also heavily influenced our production. Charles Raffetto wanted to bring the “town square” feeling of a commedia performance to our theatre and created an open playing space ready for a modern-day commedia troupe.
We thought long and hard about what present-day actors would be in such a travelling troupe and came to one conclusion: hipsters. You will see that influence in the base costumes Ashley Tyler has given each actor. Prepare yourselves for vintage hair, lots of scarves, and at least two pairs of suspenders. Layered on top of our base costumes are character-specific pieces. Commedia was an art form of survival– troupes got by with very little. Ms. Tyler took this idea and ran with it, crafting her outlandish costumes with found items like coffee filters and post-office envelopes.
All of this is to say that we hope to bring the same energy to our production as there was the night Comedy was first performed. While we don’t want our audience to riot like that night in 1594, we hope you do have a riotous good time. This will be thanks, in large part, to the “theatre magic” created through the work of our designers.
Theatre is an inherently collaborative genre. There is, quite literally, no way to do theatre alone. It’s only natural that the author of this blog post, Emily Ditkovski, Director of the Williston Theatre, would seek collaborators wherever she can.
The source material for our fall play, The Comedy of Errors, comes from two comedies by the Roman humorist Plautus, primarily The Menaechmi (cue Latin teacher Ms. Cody). The play is also heavily influenced, as devoted blog readers know, by commedia dell’arte (cue AP European History teacher Mrs. Klumpp). I reached out to my colleagues last spring to see if we could work together. They agreed (cue Ms. D doing a happy dance.) Ms. Cody, an expert wordsmith, named this project The Ab Fab Collab(oration) and thus something truly exceptional was born.
After some great and entertaining conversation, Mrs. Klumpp, Ms. Cody, and I decided that it would be most powerful for our students to teach our community about commedia and Plautus. Ms. Cody’s Latin IV Honors students read The Menaechmi (parts of it in Latin, ladies and gentleman!) and planned a lesson to teach the cast of the play.
A few weeks back Ms. Klumpp generously invited Ms. Ditkovski to her AP European History classes to introduce commedia dell’arte and discuss it’s influence on Western comedy. Some of you might have noticed me crossing campus with a vintage suitcase and wooden sword wondering what I was up to. Well, you are about to find out! Inside said suitcase were various props relating to commedia: a slapstick, a pair of pants, Barbie and Ken (delightfully dressed for a day at the beach), a bucket full of coins, among a few other things. Acting as detectives, students needed to connect the objects to commedia. At the end of the class they were given the opportunity to try on the body language of a few stock characters. The point of this exercise was to entice them to learn more about commedia so they can, ultimately, teach the entire Williston community a thing or two about the famous art form. I don’t want to give away Mrs. Klumpp’s secrets, but I know she is planning an AP Euro takeover of the Willistonian’s Instagram and perhaps a commedia board game or two available at the dining hall. Judging by their enthusiasm during my visit, I think we’re in for a good time!
After tackling The Menaechmi in class, Latin Scholars planned a visit to a rehearsal for The Comedy of Errors . Last Friday the night of their visit arrived. After describing the characters and plot of The Menaechmi with gusto (and props!), the Latin students helped us played a little Kahoot to test our knowledge of the plot.
It was incredible to hear about how much Shakespeare was inspired by Plautus. Perhaps inspired is too generous a word…he essentially stole every major plot point from The Menaechmi. (Before we get upset and start calling Shakespeare a plagiarist, we need to understand that this kind of lifting from source material was a wide-spread practice back in the day.) In both plays we have twins separated at birth, a jealous wife, a husband accused of cheating, a man locked out of his house, and more. What Shakespeare adds to his play, however is all his own. In the scene-by-scene breakdown given to us by the fantastic Latin scholars, we see a that Plautus was playing exclusively for laughs. Shakespeare, never content with superficiality, endows The Comedy of Errors with existential questions of belonging, family, and identity. Shakespeare’s gift for storytelling was truly brought home by the visit with Ms. Cody’s students. (No offense, Plautus.)
Why all of this collaboration, you ask? Besides the fact that it is just fun for us teachers who usually work solo in the classroom, collaboration brings home how interconnected we are. Plautus wrote in Ancient Rome, commedia’s big moment was in the Renaissance, and here we are hundreds and thousands of years later thinking about these works of art and the themes they raise like class inequity and sexism. We stand to learn a lot by looking backwards in time from every angle that we can: theatre, Latin, history.
Dr. Adam Zucker, with his brown hair and long beard, is often mistaken for William Shakespeare himself. This is fitting, as he is Associate Professor in the English Department at UMass Amherst with a focus on Elizabethan Theatre. We were lucky enough to host Dr. Zucker in the Williston Theatre on Wednesday to discuss The Comedy of Errors with the cast of our production.
He shared some fascinating scholarship with us, most notably that even in this most light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, the Bard still manages to ask deep, philosophical questions about belonging and family. Dr. Zucker began by reading his favorite lines from the play, Antipholus of Syracuse’s speech in Act I, Scene II:
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy lose myself.
This marriage of light and dark is a huge presence in this play. We begin with Duke Solinus reminding Egeon that he will die by the end of the day, our Dromios (who are just trying to do their jobs) are repeatedly beaten, and Adriana is deeply wounded because her husband ignores her. Shakespeare is carrying on the very long tradition of using comedy to bring to light the darker sides of society.
Dr. Zucker also reminded us that this play from its very inception, despite the dark undertones, was meant to be festive. After its first performance, which was for an audience of lawyers, there were actual riots. These were not political riots, but a result of people having a bit too much fun. In Elizabethan times lawyers were not the upstanding citizens they are today. They were, in Dr. Zucker’s own words, rich hipsters who tended to have too much fun. Even thought a modern audience shares little in common with Elizabethan lawyers, we are supposed enjoy the experience of the play and let loose a little.
This marriage of light and dark, tension and release, makes good sense for our production. While we have embraced the legacy of The Comedy of Errors’ riotous past, the darker elements of the play have not disappeared. The cast and crew has often remarked how the experience of our Antipholi feels like a nightmare come to life. It is. Imagine a world where everyone recognizes you and you know no one. Or that your closest friends and family are convinced you have said things that never came out of your mouth.
Leave it up to the Bard to brings these two seemingly different worlds together miraculously in one place. We are grateful to Dr. Zucker for reminding us that Shakespeare, even in his shortest work, is a masterful playwright.
For the outside observer, comedy seems like a chaotic and rambunctious art form. Rambunctious, yes. Chaotic, no. There are meticulous rules to comedy, much more so than drama, that are in place so that our audiences believe in the chaos that the characters are living through.
The first rule is “Yes, and…” For those readers not familiar with improv (a genre of performing where players make up a scene as they go along), this means that when your partner adds something to a scene you agree with them and add something new. This rule is critical because it communicates to all players that collaboration is essential to good improv. No one is more important than the other. This rule is followed by play the truth of the scene, play at the top of your intelligence, and, one of my personal favorites, keep the stakes high. This structure gives comedians a framework in which to create their best work.
While Comedy of Errors is far from traditional improv, the tools needed to create a strong production are the same. The second day of our workshop with Brianna Sloane was focused on mastering the rules of comedy. Exploring pace, rhythm, tempo, and direct and indirect movement, the cast of Comedy of Errors grew their comedic chops. Perhaps the most important lesson came when Ms. Sloane introduced us to takes. We all know what a take is, even if we haven’t called it by that name before. Below, you will find a brilliant one by actor George Clooney.
Takes provide actors with an opportunity to communicate to the audience and/or other characters their very strong feelings about what is happening. Under Ms. Sloane’s guidance we practiced our double takes, our triple takes, our slow-burns, our eye rolls. We did fast takes and slow takes. We did combination double eye roll, slow takes. There is not a kind of take that we didn’t experiment with. Our favorite, hands-down, was when we went outside, filled up our paper water cups, and did spit-takes. (For an excellent example of our own Harrison Winrow, who plays Antipholus of Ephesus, performing a spit-take, consult the @willistonarts Instagram!) At the end of our work we were a little wet, but ready to start bringing the absolutely chaotic Comedy of Errors off the page!
The Comedy of Errors was long thought to be Shakespeare’s first play. It is by far his shortest play with what, at first glance, seems like a very simple plot. All the evidence pointed to the fact that he was a new playwright who hadn’t developed fully as writer. However, scholars have since discovered that Comedy was first performed around 1594 (still early on in his career) at the hall of Gray’s Inn likely during Christmastime for an audience of nobleman and royalty. The play’s brevity is due to the fact that it was an after piece– a short, boisterous comedy that completed a night of fun and merry-making typical of the Elizabethan holiday season.
The play was inspired by the great Italian Comedy of the Renaissance (commedia dell’arte) and the Roman comedies of Plautus. Anyone who has spent any time in the Williston Theatre knows that I love commedia dell’arte, the professional theatre troupes that grew out of the Renaissance. Almost all of the comedy we see today is derived, in one way or another, from commedia. These troupes were well-organized and often had women in charge (something that, even now, is a rarity in professional theatre). They roamed the countryside of Europe, creatively subverting the status quo by using improvisation, familiar stock characters, gibberish and broad comedy. Like today’s best stand-up comedians and sketch comedy artists, commedia poked fun at all of the things that were wrong with society. Audiences loved it, the government and the Catholic church did not.
Because commedia is the basis for all Western comedy (especially Shakespeare’s comedies, which were heavily influenced by commedia), I invited local commedia expert Brianna Sloane to lead a physical comedy workshop with the cast of The Comedy of Errors. Ms. Sloane is the artistic director of Theatre Truck, which crafts “mobile and site-specific theatre sustainably and playfully.” Her current piece, The Water Project, is an interactive and immersive piece about the communities that were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir and will be performed at the Swift RIver Historical society later this month. She has studied commedia dell’arte at the Accedemia dell’Arte in Florence, Italy and holds an MFA in Directing from UMass Amherst. Her vibrant energy kept our actors engaged for the duration of the two-hour workshop!
After a terrific warm-up that involved lots of moving and shouting (like any good theatre warm up!), our actors got a chance to explore the major stock characters of commedia one at a time. Starting with the Zanni (the lowest of the servants who are struggling for basic survival) and all the way up to the Lovers, the cast could make connections between their characters and their commedia counterparts. The Comedy of Errors is incredibly physical. Without a basis to create the bodies of our characters, we would end up with a play that is boring and doesn’t stay true to Shakespeare’s intentions. We look forward to applying all of the wonderful and wacky things we learned in our workshop to the rehearsal process as we bring the show to life. When you come see the play, try and see which commedia character influenced each actor! See below to learn more about some of the stock characters of commedia.
School is back in session and the theatre building is already teeming with life. Lots of students, old and new, have excitedly found their way back to the studio theatre inquiring about auditions for the fall play (which are TONIGHT– we waste no time here!). It seems fitting then, for us to announce the season to a broader audience so you can get as excited as we are. Without further ado, here are the plays for the 2016-2017 school year!
FALL PLAY: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by William Shakespeare
To celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Williston is producing one of the Bard’s most outlandish and ridiculous works. The Comedy of Errors is a raucous and hilarious play that follows two sets of twins who were separated at birth in a sea-storm. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their long-lost twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities leads to a near-seduction, arrests, and accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession. Inspired by both the Roman humorist Plautus, and commedia dell’arte of the Italian Renaissance, The Comedy of Errors is truly comedy at its best. In light of this, we are planning special collaborations with our Latin and AP European History students, so stay tuned for more info about that!
October at 27 and 29th at 7:30pm, October at 28th at 8pm. Join us for a talk-back after the show on Thursday October 27th. The performance on October 28th is free for Williston Families.
WINTER THEATRE LAB
Have you ever wondered what happens when you ask a bunch of theatre students to collaborate on a series of one-act plays? Well, it’s pretty fabulous and we call that THEATRE LAB. Students direct, act, design, and stage manage four short plays which gives them a 360 degree look at what goes into theatre-making. Look out for an exciting new twist this year and the names of our four directors!
February 23-25 at 7:30pm.
SPRING PLAY: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. WrittenBy Rick Elice. Based on the Novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Music by Wayne Barker
Based on the popular novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Peter and the Starcatcher follows the adventures of a nameless orphan and his new-found friend Molly Aster as they keep a secret treasure safe and out of the hands of the pirate-villain Black Stache. Set on the high seas and a remote island, Peter and the Starcatcher takes its audiences on a magical adventure as we meet lords, orphans, mermaids, sea creatures, and pirates. The story, which serves as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy, is theatre magic at its best and guaranteed to touch the hearts of audiences ages 9-99.
April 27-29 and May 4-6 at 7:30pm. Please join us for a talk-back with our cast and crew on Friday April 28th. That evening’s performance is also free for Williston Families.
For ticket information for these productions visit www.williston.com/theater. Tickets will go on sale approximately four weeks before opening.
Three student photographers won gift cards to Tandem Bagels for images they submitted to the “My Life” photography contest. Mr. Hing runs the contest each year and the winners were as follows: first place, Ben Chmieleweski ’16; second place, Brad Budman ’16; and third place, Sarah Wiegandt ’16.
Congratulations to the winners, and thanks to all who entered!
At this morning’s assembly Archivist Rick Teller explained the word “commencement.” It’s a strange word, considering it is, in fact, the ceremony that marks the end of ones school career. But, as he said, it also marks the beginning of the rest of the graduates’ lives. Our graduates are about to embark on new, uncharted territory and have thrilling new adventures. They are curious to see what the future holds. Theater students will get a glimpse of what that this future might look when two alums visit campus this Thursday.
If you happened to set foot in the Williston Theatre between 2011 and 2014 the names Oliver and Ben will be familiar to you. Both graduates of the Williston class of 2014, Ben Sarat and Oliver Demers delighted audiences onstage in plays like Rumors, The Servant of Two Masters, and Urinetown. Both skilled comedians, their senior project, a combination of live improv and filmed sketch-comedy, played to a sold-out house. Ben and Oliver were more than skilled performers. Like many of our theatre students, Ben and Oliver were role models. Our younger actors and designers (now seniors themselves!) wanted to be just like them. From Ben and Oliver these younger students learned about the dedication it takes to do theatre and how critical it is to set up a welcoming and safe environment for everyone.
It is no surprise that Ben and Oliver went off to do some pretty exciting stuff at college. Both rising college juniors now studying theatre, Oliver has already performed off-off Broadway and Ben’s college improv team, The Dimple Divers, won the top prize at ImprovBoston’s College Comedy Festival. They’ve both studied at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade and other legendary comedy institutions. You can imagine my delight when they expressed interest in coming back to share what they’ve learned with current Williston students. It’s safe to say that their expertise has now outpaced mine!
The two will be returning to campus tomorrow, Thursday May 26th from 3-4 in the Studio Theatre, to lead an improv masterclass with our current students. We invite anyone who has taken a theatre class at Williston to join us for an afternoon of true hilarity. Be prepared to try some new improv games and learn new tricks of the comedy game. I can’t wait to see what Ben and Oliver have up their sleeves. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at email@example.com.
May is Arts Month at Williston, and it’s been busy! Over the past few weeks we’ve featured our sold-out Spring Musical, In the Heights (see photos at our Flickr page) and our Spring Instrumental Concert (photos coming soon!). As the year comes to a close, several more fantastic student performances are coming right up, so mark your calendars!
Friday, May 20, and Saturday, May 21: Spring Dance Concert, “Music Made Visible,” Williston Theatre, 8 p.m.
On Friday, May 20 and Saturday, May 21, Williston students present “Music Made Visible,” the spring dance concert, at 8:00 p.m. in the Williston Theatre.
After finishing a sold-out run of the Williston musical In the Heights, many participants in that show are dancing on and gearing up for a spectacular Dance Ensemble Spring Concert called Music Made Visible, directed by artistic director, Debra Vega.
This concert will feature the work of two local guest artists: Noel St. Jean-Chevalier and Charles Markham. Additionally, there will be six original pieces by students, including two senior solos as they dance their swan song on the Williston Stage, and the debut of a dynamic duet by an eighth-grade pair. Ms. Vega is offering three pieces this concert, including original choreography from the quintessential musical about dance, A Chorus Line, and a recreation of original Bob Fosse choreography to the big band hit “Sing Sing Sing.”
The performance will feature a range of styles, such as tap, jazz, ballet, contemporary, musical theater, and hip-hop. The Williston Dance Ensemble consists of students from both the middle school and high school, all who possess amazing sparkle and talent. Come support them as they “kick off” the end of the school year.