Monthly Archives: August 2009

August 25, 2009
Tempest #45—Notes to Myself

How do you write about doing stuff while in the midst of doing it?

Not a problem when you’re in pre-production, struggling to pull it out of the air—text analysis, design, creating the outlines of the staging scenario. But actually plunged into rehearsal, not easy.

Still, I’m determined to do it. I think it forces new perspective. Makes me stand back, at least once a week, and try to see this thing afresh. Might be better to drive over to the ocean, walk along the beach, and think about it. But I’ve chosen to do it this way, at least this time around.

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Nearly halfway through the rehearsal span, opening Sept. 18th, 16 rehearsals to go—only 3 hrs each, and often not with full cast. All the lighting, about half the music, and many of the costumes are complete; the video sequences (14, used only behind the “magical” scenes”) are in a rough state, but I have do-fers plugged into the computer. Props are ready.

So this week is devoted mostly to what we’d normally be doing the final week, working out tech problems. With puppets, it’s more complicated than otherwise. Caliban is left Off Right so that Anthony comes in with Alonso from there, but then the puppet has to be Off Left for next entrance. Who pulls the curtain? Who strikes the log? Who switches Circuit 23 on the A/B box at the blackout on Cue 19? The cast are doing all this, but operating on a tight quota of two arms and one brain each.

Meantime, videotaping a lot so I can see not only my own performance but the others when I’m onstage. Takes lots of extra time reviewing stuff the next day, sometimes playing it in rehearsal to illustrate a point. But the camera is brutally honest and generally sees more than the spectator would consciously.

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Right now, the tendency is not trusting the puppets enough—trying to give the puppet energy and expression with the voice rather than with his physical action. And immediately the listener hears the actors straining to be funny or pathetic or whatever.

As verbose as this play is, the puppets’ energy must come from their physicality. All these characters have strong emotional needs or obsessions. The tempest has brought great trauma upon them all, so they share a volatility that gives this play a special life. Right now, we’re sounding too emotional and not physicalizing it nearly enough. With a puppet, if the voice reacts but the body doesn’t, then voice and body seem disconnected and unreal—you’re acting behind your puppet, not through your puppet.

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On the other hand, on video I see myself (with the puppet Prospero) going to the opposite extreme. I’ve always had a tendency toward sharp, abrupt gesture, and right now Prospero is tearing the air to tatters. I need badly to follow my incessant note to the other actors: make your gesture specific, no generalized hand-waving. Let it translate the key feelings and images. Bring the creature’s whole body into it. Probably about two physical impulses per line, and distinct ones.

My other great challenge is eye focus. My Prospero puppet has long hair, replicating my own, and it’s often very difficult to see, from the back, exactly where his eyes are focused. This is a constant challenge in puppetry, and one I need to pay much more attention to, lest he come across looking blind as he gazes past his darling Miranda into outer space.

•••

Where the characters are going:

Alonso: Here too, the actor has all the ingredients, just needs to intensify the role physically. Difficult, because Alonso is so deeply trapped at the outset in depression. It’s just occurred to me, though, that right now we’re treating him more like a chronic depressive who can’t summon the energy to react. But this is radically abnormal for him: he’s an iron-fisted ruler of an expansionist state in the raw jungle of italian political strife. His life is pragmatic action. So while he shrugs off Gonzalo’s persistent attempts to rouse him from the trauma of his son’s death, there still needs to be an intensity in his innards—moments of power, abruptness, pain—a man totally unfamiliar with inner turmoil or being struck impotent by Fate, now with the tempest wrapped inside him.

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Antonio: The actress has developed a very direct voice: he’s like Iago in being a very sneaky character who gains the confidence of others by sounding very straightforward. The female hands seem too evident, need to study men’s hands more, and how they’re carried. I like the rather flat, dispassionate tone that oddly sets up his utter collapse at the Harpy scene.

Sebastian: Very good characterization, always. Main thing now is to find the rhythm and connection between him and Antonio. Oddly, it mirrors Stephano & Trinculo (see below); they’re bonded by a core amorality, by a similar wit, by having been in their older brothers’ shadows. Now we have to feel something is unlocked for them, and they’re moving toward it hungrily—again, like the clowns. We also need to find more specfiically what Sebastian’s state is, following the Harpy. Thus far we’ve only begun to touch on this; and again, it’s strongly dependent on his relationship with Antonio. Probably, as we discussed last night, this event precipitates the unraveling of that bond.

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Gonzalo: This is a very caring, pragmatic Gonzalo. He’s talkative, but it’s always for a purpose, and while always diplomatic, he never wastes any time. Seems that his overall objective is “to soothe”—he’s the one who keeps everything together, who tries to deflect quarrels, prevent things blowing up, rouse the King from his despair. He’s always intervening. but to do that he has to insert himself quickly into situations. The main challenge right now is that sense of being right on the ball, needs to come in right on the top of cues. The actor has a tendency toward little preparatory moments before speaking. That lags the tempo, but more importantly, it makes us lose sight of Gonzalo’s task.

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Caliban: His quiet moments are quite strong, his basic humanity. Now I think we need to focus on the other side of it: the true danger and brutality that can manifest from a wounded, oppressed creature. We have to empathize with him as we would for someone who’s been systematically tortured—which he has. But that mustn’t slide into pathos. We also have to feel, as the clowns’ plot transpires, that while he teams with them, he’s not one of them: he’s truly murderous.

Trinculo & Stephano: Right now, we have very clear images of these characters, and the main task is making their scenes work smoothly. Line stumbles are interfering a lot, and I’m concerned that we not get the tempo of line-struggle incorporated into the characters’ rhythms. There’s already a tendency, especially in comic scenes, to craft one’s line as a funny line, to find a funny way to say it. That’s what’s happening right now: there’s a little preparation gap in front of most of the lines, and then a kind of over-emphasized delivery. Makes for a slow, plodding scene where the characters don’t really have much at stake.

There aren’t many funny lines in this play. In fact, Oscar Wilde excepted, there aren’t many funny lines in the best comedies. It’s all in reaction, in the interaction, in the incongruity between what the character’s trying to do and the way he’s doing it.

So our focus in the next weeks will be on their nature as a “team.” They’ve always needed each other, and now more than ever, but with the same kind off love-hate relationship as the Laurel & Hardy paradigm. When the third wheel—Caliban—is added, the vehicle veers seriously into the oncoming lane. But the essential ingredient is that they’ve played in vaudeville together for 20 years, they’ve consoled & abused each other for decades, they’ve both shared the flea-ridden army cot, they’ll bungle things just as badly next time—but they’ll survive. That’s all contained in their “music,” their picking up inflections & rhythms off one another, their vulnerability.

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Miranda: I’ve always seen her as with a lot of strength, and that’s coming through—and finding ways to mark the evolution of her independent will. All the ingredients are there, I think, and now it’s a matter of finding each new “marvel” that she encounters and the uniqueness of her response to each. Easy to become repetitious in response to wondrous things, and then they no longer seem wondrous. How does it affect her to be witness to a huge shipwreck, the revelation of her family’s trauma, a sudden madness in her father, the lightning stroke of love, and the appearance of space aliens—all in a couple of hours?

Ferdinand: Much the same goes for Ferdinand. Added problem in the playing: Once he’s past his confused, distracted entrance, his engagement with other characters in his scenes—Miranda, Prospero, Alonso—is intensely focused, and he tends to get frozen into profile and becomes physically inexpressive. Does he have a secondary point of focus in these scenes that can allow some frontality?

Boatswain & Ship Master: The Bosun has a great roughness, swagger & dialect work well, but sometimes a slow tempo that feels too much like pirate melodrama. We need to keep his sense of the real urgency of it all, shouting orders that just aren’t working. He’s drinking but not drunk: this is the way he deals with danger and cold. Ship Master is on only very briefly at beginning and end, and I think we’re going in the right direction: he’s old, he’s doing his best, but he’s long past his prime and really can’t cope. All he can do, really, is tell the Bosun, “Do something!”

•••

Prospero & Ariel? I’ll focus on those guys more next week.

Need to add this disclaimer: Shakespeare isn’t about character interpretation; it’s about the story. Often, impossible stories that start out with a scene saying, in effect, “I know this is absolutely incredible, but…” And then leading us, step by step, into the human truth of that absurdity.

All great stories are preposterous. They’re not remotely believable, but they’re true.

-Conrad

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August 17, 2009
Tempest #44—Notes to Cast

[NOTE: NONE OF THESE REHEARSAL PHOTOS ARE WITH COSTUME. THAT COMES SOON.]

Hi, all—

Schedule for next week:

Monday, 17 – 7-10 JB/BS, Scenes E & H (1st & 2nd Miranda/Ferdinand scenes). If we have time, we’ll look also at the Masque scene (4:1) and the chess-playing. First priority, though, is lines for the first two scenes. We’ll do some line-running, but the objective is to be off book for these by the end of rehearsal.

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Tuesday, 18 – 7-10 BS/JF-Misc. Let me know if there are specific sequences you’d like to work. I’d like to work Benjamin into the Bosun in 1:1, then focus mainly on Stephano/Trinculo. Here again, we’ll do as much in-rehearsal line work as needed, but do a lot of reviewing in the meantime.

Wednesday, 19 – 7-10:30 All-N/O/P. I’d like to go till 10;30 tonight, as we have publicity photos and this is one of our rare full-cast times.
This is the very complex latter-part of Act 5. Vital that everyone is pretty tight on lines. We’ll do as much prompting as necessary, but for this rehearsal you can’t carry book or be watching it, as the crucial task is the physical action.

Thursday, 20 – Cancelled: NO REHEARSAL

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Saturday, 22 – 1:00-4:30. Called are AA/BS/JF for Scenes G/I/L: Trinculo, Caliban, and Stephano. If we have time, we’ll also review their appearance in Act 5.

Sunday, 23 – 10-1 and 2-5 – ALL – Morning, we’ll string together all of Act 1 plus Act 2:1. Main focus is to discover problems with fast changes, needed extra hands, cross-overs, etc. Afternoon, slight change from schedule: we’ll string together Scenes G thru J (2:1 Trinc/Steph/Caliban thru 3:3). Same objective.
Jessica proposed that we do a potluck right after 5 pm. We’d love to do that. Could either do it here or at her place. Even if not everyone can make it (and totally understood if you can’t), let’s do it. Let us know if you can or can’t.

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Current status: I’m very pleased how the puppet manipulation is evolving. Still a long ways to go. Everyone has very good moments, interspersed by dead heads or very generalized gesture. I’ll try to give a clearer sense of where the movement needs to be realistic and where it can afford to go broader, but as a general rule for everyone, even the realistic needs to be broader and more specific.

Likewise the speech. As you study lines, continue to look at the line structure for clues about phrasing. This play has an extraordinary number of divided (“enjambed”) lines, and lots of lines with weak endings, or ending on a preposition or word that wouldn’t normally be emphasized. You have to get the sense of the thru-line meaning of the line, but the more you can sense the function of the line divisions, the stronger the expression.

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Continue to study, too, the structure even of short speeches. Why does he say it in three lines when you could condense it into one? Why does he say it this way rather than by ten different paraphrases you could make? Where, within the speech, is there a new reaction, a change of tone, a shift in direction or intention? What’s he consciously or unconsciously wanting to accomplish with these words? What’s the function of elaboration? Where does he set one word or phrase in contrast to another word or phrase? In these late plays, Shakespeare NEVER has you utter words solely for the poetry of it: the character has to coin those electric phrases because something that intense or sweet or punchy is needed at that moment. We don’t have time to do extensive textual analysis in rehearsal: you need to explore, very literally, with the above questions, so that you can bring the questions & problems into rehearsal. Otherwise, we fall into the trap—even of very professional productions—of just adopting an appropriate “tone” or blanket emotion for the speeches, with never a sense of anything happening RIGHT NOW, of the characters saying this stuff for the first time, coining these phrases.

Jeanine (Ms. Stage Manager), you’re a treasure. Thank you.

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I’ve nearly finished with lighting cues and with painting the set. Costumes will be coming in gradually but are well under way, and I think they’re quite good. We have nearly all the props finished. The Rep has finished a layout of the postcard, which I think is quite compelling. Music and video will be coming in steadily over the next three weeks.

The only down-side of this way-in-advance tech stuff is that our control software is rather clunky when we do starts & stops & back-to-Cue-5’s. Which means that the dead moments where you’re just standing & waiting will pervade the entire next 5 weeks, not just “tech week.” I’ll try to alert you when you’re likely to be marking time, & urging that you use this time to run lines with one another, work out blocking problems, etc., & do anything else you can on your own or with each other to use this time.

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Now that we have more rehearsals with larger numbers of cast, we’ll be doing some warmups that involve group movement and really sensitizing to one another’s physical rhythms. Right now, when we get more than two people onstage, it’s like a crowded elevator, with everyone jostling for elbow room. The great challenge of this style—apart from everything else you’re doing—is to move as a unit, to breathe as a unit, like a quartet of dancers or contact-improvisers. I don’t know how much of that we can achieve in this short time, but when we groove into it, you’ll feel everything suddenly becomes so much easier & more relaxed.

It means, though, that there’s a very high premium not only on getting your lines down tight, but getting them so instinctive that you don’t have to think about them—they come like the music to a musician, and you can shape them very spontaneously. Otherwise, the lines will be causing your movement to stutter, taking you back into yourself and breaking contact with your partners. So, we’ll work on this.

Enough. This is a big week coming. Let’s take deep breath and enjoy it hugely.

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Design stuff:
Finished painting the set last night. The traveling curtain covering the projection screen replicates embroidered symbols on the back of Prospero’s magical robe. Everything is painted with dye, can be easily darkened but not lightened. We’ll see how it works with the lights, but overall it feels rich and strange.

Big task I’ve procrastinated on, then woke up suddenly this morning knowing how to do it. We need racks that hold costumes and heads when they’re not in use. But the head and neck construction makes it a challenge. Worked out a way to hang them and have heads on easily-accessible stands. Now to build it.

You’re welcome, starting this week, to wear the Spirit masks at any time, but I won’t require it till the following week.

First draft of the lighting cues is finished: I’m a rewrite artist, needing to stage or establish a first-draft design ASAP and then do it all over again. Fortunately, there’s time. Next step is rehanging some instruments, refocusing others, and adding five new ones—Elizabeth is manufacturing clamps for these, going back and forth between her music on the synthesizer and metal work on the drill press—as conventional C-clamps don’t work well on the square aluminum tubing.

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Staging stuff:
I’m just starting this week to take small bites out of the workday to rehearse solo with Prospero. The challenge is that the whole play must emanate from his being—it’s “expressionistic” in that sense. So in one sense it’s useful that the director/designer is playing the central role (as happened in the work of Tadeusz Kantor so powerfully): the Visioner controlling “Spirits, which I have from their confines called to enact my present fancies.”

Yet, practically speaking, the directing process requires that I constantly break out of my actor-self to look directorially at the whole picture—not only an interruption of consciousness but a shift into an entirely different “mind.” At a later point, I can use video (and Elizabeth) be my “outside eye,” and review the scene outside rehearsal. But right now, apart from the staging rehearsals, I need this solo work to bring me back to a “centeredness” in the character.

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The danger, of course, is in creating your character outside the responsiveness to your scenic partners, though I remind myself that great actors worked this way for centuries. And it does produce a bit of a sense of insanity: the image of the guy raving to imaginary people on the street corner. But it feels appropriate to the peculiar mind-set of Prospero, who I believe struggles against his own revenge-fury as wrenchingly as Hamlet struggles to control his own pretended madness from becoming real madness.

Enough for now. Went to the ocean this weekend & took many deep breaths.

Cheers—
Conrad

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August 10, 2009
Tempest #43—Rehearsal Notes

Fair progress this week. Four rehearsals. Finished a stand for Prospero’s book, the body of the Harpy (our only rod puppet), a nicely-carved foam rubber flask for the Boatswain to swig from; plus starting on editing video cues and wrangling with some projection problems, still unresolved.

Costumes are starting to arrive. “Fittings” aren’t quite the same as with regular actors—the costume doesn’t have to fit the actor’s body, it is the body. But the precise placement of holes in the backs of sleeves and back requires that I test out each one, and in some cases padding is needed under flimsy fabric to simulate a body.

A stage manager at last—Jeanine Gray— who’s plunged into the thick of things: line prompting, writing blocking, running camcorder, hitting sound & light cues, resetting props, and standing in for me onstage when I need to come front and look at the whole stage picture. A godsend.

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Rehearsal notes:

Monday, rehearsed the first Prospero/Miranda scene; Tuesday, the Act 1 Ariel and Caliban scenes; Thursday, a miscellany of work on shadow effects, and reviewed the rough blocking of the II.i. Neapolitans.

Moving slowly forward on manipulation. The actors are masked as Spirits, holding their puppets usually at head level in front of themselves, with one hand operating the head, the other hand as the puppet’s hand. The tendency—very hard to overcome—is to follow one’s own actor-instinct, looking at the character you’re speaking to or else letting your posture and your focal point follow your own instincts, as you would if you were playing the role full-blown, without this big pesky thing in front of you.

The result is that that big pesky thing goes dead, except for a few vague hand gestures giving it a whiff of zombie life. Instead, you have to focus your own eyes on the puppet itself: he’s the one who looks at the other character, who changes posture, who breathes. But we’re starting to find it. Next rehearsal I think I’ll play it first as all live actors, allowing that internalizing impulse full sway, before translating it into an utterly new style.

Act 1 is an extraordinary roller coaster ride for Prospero. I’ve always felt that in Hamlet, from his first encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet is simultaneously pretending to be mad and actually going mad, holding onto his tattered shreds of reason in a world that’s crumbling around him. Similarly, I feel that Prospero believes he is “pretending” anger at Ariel, then at Ferdinand and Miranda, yet in each case he’s flooded from his own deep well of rage, clinging to his objective of resolution, but tossed about wildly by his own Tempest.

So in Act 1, Prospero opens his own deeply-wounded past to Miranda, threatens Ariel, curses Caliban, imprisons Ferdinand, and shows Miranda a fury she’s never seen before. Some is real, some is “pretended,” but it’s all part of the storm. What Shakespeare has written here is about the longest expository scene in dramatic literature that’s likewise the longest mad scene. It sets up an extraordinary suspense in a play that otherwise lacks all serious conflict, allowing Prospero to be absent from the stage through the entirety of Act 2 and most of Act 3 while we still have the sense that this man may at any time come in through the door and start shooting.

The key to playing Act 1, I think, is to give every one of his extremes full value. Is he a loving father? Yes. Is he a benign master? Yes. Is he a merciless slave-driver? Yes. Etc. etc. The past has fragmented him, as in a chemical reaction, and only by the play’s end has he been painfully knit together.

Good improvisations with shadow screen for storm scene, with an abstract video projection lighting a model ship manipulated by multiple hands, fabric strips forming waves, and Ariel’s head flitting about. Nothing terribly original about any of this, but it works. Haven’t coordinated this, though, with who’s actually available to do any of it, as the actors are pretty much busy on stage. Probably establish this at the outset, then brief shadow effects as actors are free.

Lotsa work on the first Trinculo/Stephano/Caliban scene. Long, frustrating work on the comic sequence of the two guys hiding under the tarp, dependent on their feet sticking out—and the puppets don’t have feet. So I’ve built two sets of feet, which the actors lift appropriately, protruding from the edge of the tarp. But the tarp keeps sliding off the people, the feet are too heavy, it’s a big mess—though the right idea, I think. Need to get lighter-weight shoes, and then work out the rest.

Worked first as live actors on this scene, then with puppets, to good effect. It brings into play the actors’ own instincts for exploring the scene; and, contrary to what I’d feared, doesn’t mire them in simply trying to reproduce it with the puppet. We’re just starting to tap into puppets’ capacity for extravagance, for truthful exaggeration. To my mind, behavioral reality is the essence of Shakespeare: in the questions you ask about character and action, you need to ask them as if it’s all real. But he can’t be strait-jacketed in “realism.” Language, gesture, stage dynamics—these all enlarge and intensify the truth of the action.

The key to the first clowns’ scene is its final song, Caliban’s declaration of freedom. I’m having all three join in to the chorus. Here, along with Jack Cade’s rabble in Henry VI or the plebes in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Shakespeare is merciless in his cynicism on working-class rebellion. Here, the gates of heaven open suddenly, and the hapless Fool can have respect, the tormented Slave can have a master godlike in benevolence, and the drunken Butler can float on an infinitude of fine sherry. It’s all terribly absurd, pathetic and ironic. It has to be deeply felt. And finally, it’s murderous in its need. Elizabeth’s setting of the song, I think, captures all these elements, and now it’s just a matter of giving full value and clarity to the evolution of this trio’s cross-current relationships. Certainly, the scene has to be funny, but it has to be much more.

The need came through most acutely at the moment when Stephano and Trinculo, rapt in their tales of survival, finally notice Caliban and he asks, “Hast thou not dropped from heaven?” How long do they hold their breath before they bray with laughter? That moment was a great discovery, the crystallization of millennia’s graspings for false messiahs.

—Conrad

 

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August 3, 2009
Tempest #42—Day by Day

A diary of Tempest work for the week:

Monday 7/27—
Finished headdresses and painting of Ariel as Harpy and as Nymph. A note to the cast on the Friday rehearsal. Reviewed the operation of our lighting control program—Glenn had sent a new upgrade. Bought a chess set for Ferdinand & Miranda, repainted it, glued the pieces in place. Mail-ordered an ooga horn for Trinculo, a ship model as a shadow in the storm scene. Posted the week’s blog. Lotsa errands buying more stuff.

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Tuesday, 7/28—
Out to get video samples: to ocean for surf, back around house for tree branches moving against the sky, built fire in fireplace for close-ups of flames & coals, then played with shadows on projection screen (these all to be radically filtered. Completed headdresses on the three identical Ariels, but still baffled on color. Watched rehearsal video to rewrite blocking in promptbook for Acts 4-5. Call from actor asking to have lesser Ariel role because of other heavy production pressures; will check thru script to modify. Email from Dave on costumes. Petty cash receipts to Rep for reimbursements. EF completed a long revision of the audio cue list and its timetable. Managed late-night to write a new scene on screenplay we’re doing with Arturo.

Wednesday, 7/29—
Walked downtown for coffee, studied Prospero’s Act 5. Need very strong physical response on “And mine shall,” almost as if a demon is leaving his body. Folio punctuation useful: addressing the King, there’s always a comma or a line break when Prospero adds “and thy Company” or “and your train.” Suggests a hyperconsciousness of his brother as part of that entourage, a tension in extending hospitality to the sinners. Almost word-perfect now, but need a lot of work on the line breaks and how they affect meaning.

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Rest of the day spent on building a Sycorax mask that briefly appears and two shadow masks for Ceres and Juno. Late evening at last attacked painting of the three identical Ariel heads, yellow & gold with a blue/green glaze. I think I like it.

Thursday, 7/30—
Walked downtown for coffee, studied Prospero/Miranda (Iii). Struck especially by how the verse structure moves this long story forward with an obsessive force—will write more about that next week. Into work on the stands that are to hold puppet heads by the end of the play: hands rising from each vertical. These are vinyl surgical gloves stuffed with batting, taped to PVC that sets into wider PVC. I had made all 12 of these last week, then neglected to test the spray paint on them before spraying all 12 and discovering that the enamel wouldn’t dry. So today I did it all over again.

Friday, 7/31—
Most of the day working on the stands for heads, hemming the cloth, then painting them with dye and adding a twisted rope. They look interesting, though it’s utterly unclear what they represent. Reblocked the opening of Act 5 so that we see them all bare on stage at the outset. All of Act 5 is blocked now, with only a few points where the multiple casting runs into problems. Started work on the Spirits, improvising a series of stage crosses; they need to go from total neutrality as puppeteers to distinctly characterized Spirit movement, sometimes rapidly back and forth. Finished rehearsal by recording the Mariners’ cries during the storm—decision to use only Shakespeare’s lines, no improvisation, recording each actor multiple times, with in intention of overlaying them in the editing, as well as doing several forms of unison.

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Saturday, 8/1—
Worked all day on rehanging and focusing lights, and on Prospero’s hair. Finished the hair except for some trimming & spraying when the glue is completely dry, and started putting some rough light cues into the computer. As with staging, I try to do light cues far in advance and very fast, so that I have plenty of time to get dissatisfied with them and revise. Meantime, sounds of the storm are emerging from Elizabeth’s studio. It’s been a very fruitful week in terms of tech work, but I’ve barely been able to think about the play itself.

Sunday, 8/2—
Sabbath. To our funky outdoor espresso stand, then to Market, then to the ocean. Deep breath. Rest of afternoon and evening building the stand for Prospero’s magic book, then building the book itself. Pretty crude binding, about on a par with my one foray into bookbinding in Boy Scouts, but hey, it’s a stage prop, it’s a stage prop. Late evening, made the worklist for next week.

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