Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bear Necessities

Once, someone accused me of stealing. I was directing a production of "The Winter's Tale," which isn't performed as often as many Shakespeare plays. But for some reason, around that time, four other companies were doing the play. One company was actually doing it in the same theatre where my production was going to open. They were finishing up their run and then, once they had packed up and left, we were slated to move in and begin our run. This upset many of the people involved in both productions, because they all wanted to feel unique. But I was thrilled. How exciting to see multiple productions of this hard-to-see play! Surely, they would all be very different, each one enlightening different aspects of Shakespearean complex work.

So I went to see the production that was closing just before ours was opening. During the intermission, I introduced myself to the director and told her that I was directing the production that was moving in after hers. I wanted to talk to her, because her production was so wildly different from mine that our two productions were like oil and water. Yet I felt they were both successful on their own terms. Her show was great for Shakespeare newbies who wanted to be eased into the Elizabethan world. It was a sort of three-ring circus production. There was always something interesting to watch. She would allow about five minutes of Shakespearean dialogue to go on, and then she'd reward the audience with a pageant of some sort -- a dance or a song or a comic bit. Then five more minutes of Shakespeare.

My production had no embellishments. It was completely austere. Bare stage, uncut script, etc.

After a few days, her show closed and mine opened. She came to see my production on opening night. I was really looking forward to hearing what she thought about it, so when it ended, I sought her out. To my complete surprise, she started screaming at me, accusing me of stealing her ideas. I was dumbfounded, because (a) I hadn't stolen her ideas and (b) our productions were so different that I couldn't imagine how this could even be a misunderstanding. Eventually, she calmed down and explained herself.

It was all about the bear. The damn bear.

The one thing that everyone knows about "The Winter's Tale" is that it contains the famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear." And when I had first announced my plans to direct the play, everyone wanted to know, "How are you going to do the bear?" The question irritated me (at the time, I had no idea how I was going to "do the bear," but figured I'd work it out in rehearsal), because it's probably the aspect of the play that least interests me. I swore that I'd "do the bear" the simplest possible way I could find to do it and move on.

Given my budget and production style, I new we were going to have to create the bear impressionistically, out of actors's bodies and voices. I often do that -- use actors as doors or tables or dragons. And there are two ways to do stuff like that. One is to go for the "cool effect." This technique leaves the audience thinking, "wasn't that cool how they created a train using just actors!?!" I hate that. I want my productions to be about the story -- its plot and characters -- not about cool, showy effects (that are more about how smart I am and less about Shakespeare's tale). So I always look for the simplest, most unremarkable, least cool effect. I just want the audience to think "door" or "train" or "dragon" or whatever else they're supposed to think of at that point in the story -- and then to move on. So this was my goal with the bear.

(I think it's best, in the theatre, to have such a big budget that you can actually bring a bear on stage -- or create a hyper-real bear costume. It also works to do it the way I do it, where you're clearly faking the bear and effectively saying to the audience, "We're not trying to fool you into thinking there's a bear on stage. But lets all pretend that there IS a bear on stage." Either of these methods work, because they let the audience get on with the story. The realistic version is more cinematic; my way is more novelistic -- or perhaps more like pure storytelling or make-believe. What DOESN'T work is a half-assed bear costume. It sends a message of "We're trying to fool you," and the audience thinks, "But I'm not fooled! I can SEE that's fake." At this point, they start thinking about how the DIRECTOR or COSTUME DESIGNER did a bad job. This means they are thinking about the storytellers, not the story. And I always want them thinking about the story. Unfortunately, so much theatre nowadays takes this road. As an audience member, I am continually treated to sub-par cinematic effects.)

Now I had another problem: there are two old-men characters in the play, and I had one actor playing both of them. His first character was the one pursued by the bear; his second character had to find his first character's body (his first character gets killed by the bear). True to austere form, I was using no costumes, makeup or lighting changes. So I had to find a way to have this actor get killed by a bear and then -- without a costume or lighting change -- have him change to another character and find the dead body of his first character.

I tried out various things in rehearsal and found -- I think -- the only possible answer. All the other actors played the bear by becoming a huge, amorphous blob of aggression. They chased the old guy and pounced on him -- completely obscuring him while he screamed. Then they scattered and revealed the old guy, who was "transformed" into his new character (the transformation was pure acting -- no costume change). He then mimed discovering a body (the body of his first character). This solution didn't seem particularly smart or creative or cool to me. It just seemed "the shortest distance between two points." It told that part of the story. It got the job done. I moved on.

Meanwhile, the other director embraced the bear as furiously as I scorned it. She was thrilled with the possibility of showing off her creative talents on this production problem. I imagine that when people asked her, "How are you going to do the bear," she winked and said, "just wait and see!"

And she came up with exactly the same solution as I did.

We were working on the same play in the same theatre, which was "in the round," so there was no way to hide any machinery or to secretly whisk an actor off stage. And we had both made the same casting decision: to cast one actor in those two parts. (This isn't such a strange coincidence: it's hard to find older actors who are skilled Shakespeareans, so we tend to double cast them.) Like me, she had hit on the only viable solution. But unlike me, she thought it was brilliant. And, I'm sure, she had been talking about her brilliant idea to everyone. So naturally she was livid that I had "stolen" it. What if people thought it was MY idea and not hers?

True, I had seen her show before mine had opened, so I guess I saw her bear while my rehearsals were still going on. I honestly don't remember that part of her production -- which shows how little the bear interested me. My guess is that when I saw it I thought, "Yup, she's doing the bear the only way you can do it given these production constraints." As it happened, I had already worked out and rehearsed my bear before I had ever seen hers. I told her this, but she didn't believe me. (How could two different minds have come up with the same brilliant idea?) She told me that even if I was telling the truth, I should have changed my bear after seeing how similar it was to hers.

During our argument, I made things worse by saying, "If I was going to steal from you, I would have stolen something good -- not that stupid bear thing." I didn't understand how proud she was of it. And she didn't understand that I didn't care a fig about the bear. How could I not care about the most famous part of the play? In her view, backed up by the number of people who had talked to her and questioned her about the bear, saying that you don't care about the bear is like saying you're doing "Hamlet" and you don't care about "To be or not to be..." (The analogy seems correct, because the bear and "To be" are the most famous aspects of their respective plays, but whereas "To be" is integral to the story and themes of "Hamlet," the bear is a relatively unimportant subplot of "The Winter's Tale.") She actually got so angry that she threatened to sue me. I told her if it was that important to her, I would be happy to put her name in the program as "Bear Consultant." After a few days she calmed down and let it drop.

(I would have stolen from her if I thought she had come up with something that would have helped my show. Had I thought so, it would have been my duty to steal from her, because my responsibility is to my show. So if there's any way of making my show better, that's what I should do. If I don't steal because I want to "be original," then I'm thinking more of me and my reputation than about the show. If I don't steal because I don't want to be accused of theft, then I'm thinking of me, not the show. And my job, as a director, is to think of the show.)

It still fascinates me that we could have thought of the bear in two such different ways. We came up with the same solution. She was elated by it; I was bored.

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