Love, Worship and All that Lies in the Human Heart

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What an enormous magnifier is tradition!  How a thing grows in the human memory and in the human imagination, when love, worship, and all that lies in the human heart, is there to encourage it.

~Thomas Carlyle

Recently, I was brought to tears by a NY Times article written by John Lithgow about his discovery of a wonderful tradition at the National Theatre (see link bottom of the page.)  I was amused and surprised how easily my tears came.  Then I realized it’s the very traditions and superstitions of theatre that I love so madly and deeply.

At least once or twice or three times a school year, one of my younger drama students would speak the name of the Scottish play during rehearsal or class.  My reaction was always well-measured melodrama. I’d gasp loudly and my eyes would widen to horrified orbs. I’d look around the space with such terror – as if the Gods would strike us all down immediately. Then promptly and fiercely I’d shove the poor kid out the door while explaining to the rest that he/she must spin thrice, spit, swear and knock on the door, begging for forgiveness and our permission to be let back in.

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“You really want us to swear?”

“You must!” was my response.

“And spit?”

“With all your might!”

This was one of my favorite teaching tricks.  Every student was mesmerized; even the most disinterested came to life as I explained how this superstition came to be.  No matter what  the rehearsal or lesson plan had been that day, for the next half hour we talked about Shakespeare, superstitions and and the importance of traditions in our everyday lives.

The students wanted to know if I was superstitious.  A few had the gall to even test me.  That was the cowboy of the group, the yahoo, the little sheister who’d call out the “M” name over and over again – proving to the rest of the ensemble that he or she was no coward, and didn’t believe in such nonsense. So there, Ms. Kish!

Jonathan M.  called out the name of the Scottish king repeatedly at a tech session one evening prior to production.  We were using scaffolding for the hang rather than a ladder.  I recall Jon was playing the part of George in The Actor’s Nightmare  and he was quite smug when nothing terrible happened that evening.  It was quite late when we called it quits and decided to finish the hang early the following morning.  Cast and crew showed up and the half-asleep SM asked for the 10 foot high scaffolding to be wheeled to another area.  She had forgotten that there were six fresnels on top of it, out of sight, and so we were all shocked as three of the lamps were knocked off and came crashing down one by one toward the heads below.  Fortunately the screams were loud enough and the crew jumped out of the way – just in time.  Nonetheless, all three, very new  and expensive fresnels were smashed beyond repair.  All of us angrily reminded Jonathan of his blasphemy the day before but he defiantly refused blame for this accident.

The Gods were not happy.  They got revenge.

During Jon’s first performance, he completely and quite ironically forgot George’s lines and had to improvise one entire scene.  The day of his second performance, Jon badly sprained his ankle and had to painfully walk with a crutch.  And in the middle of his third and final performance, there was a power failure.  The audience sat in total darkness for ten excruciatingly long minutes before the lights came back on.

Finally, Jon, who is now 30 and an alumnae of the Sheridan Musical Theatre program, became a believer!  No-one now is more wary of the curse than he.

Six years after she died, I still hear my mother’s voice in my head before every performance. Before each show, she, a transplanted Berliner, would wish  me “Hals und beinbruch.”  The translation of this is break your neck and your leg (compared to our simple break a leg).  Oh, those funny, funny morbid Germans!

The French say “merde” and the Spanish say  “mucha mierda” meaning much shit.  Opera singers are known to say “toi, toi, toi” before a performance to ward off any spells or hexes, and Australians reportedly call out “chookas” before a performance. The common denominator is it’s believed to be bad luck to wish good luck; therefore, it must be good luck to wish bad luck.

And so it goes…..  Never turn of the ghost light when the theatre is empty. Never whistle on or off stage.  whistling Never bring a peacock feather onstage or wear costumes of blue and silver or the colour green. Always leave the dressing room left foot first.  Do not knit in the wings. Do not burn three candles at the same time during rehearsal or performance. And never, ever, ever say the last line of the play before opening night.

But do I believe all this?

I believe that we create energy – good or bad, and it’s better to create than to destroy.  I believe Theatre is a colossal and noble tradition that is greater than you and I, and as such, it is something worthy of our collective honour.   Yes, I believe in the traditions – whether they are the superstitions practiced for hundreds of years, or the personal traditions every actor and director creates for himself.

I always wear black on opening night.  I have one other personal tradition – a ritual I’ve shared with each and every one of my companies over the years.  Before every show, the cast and crew, sit in a large circle holding hands.  Together, in unison, we recite:

The Theatre is Magic

The Magic is Theatre

May the Blessed Magic Begin.

Tradition.  What a magnificent magnifier, indeed!

To read John Lithgow’s article:

http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/theater/john-lithgows-discovery-at-britains-national-theater.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&smid=fb-share&adxnnlx=1358609396-H8iHyTPPSF2RF3N0Xfg4T

Auditions, Monologues, Music & Me

ideasmain-2013It’s been a quite a while since I last posted an entry.  Toward the end of last year, I was totally consumed with completing the onerous Teacher Resource document for our textbook Rattling the Stage.  Both the book and TR are now available and can be purchased online at  http://www.mcgrawhill.ca/school/explore/9780071066983/ilit+rattling+the+stage:+a+collection+of+monologues,+spoken+word,+and+short+plays/  One of our iLit series was made into an iBook with Apple, and plans are underway to do the same with the rest of the series.

I’m currently directing a new play for the New Ideas Festival:  http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/ideas.html  Pieces of Penelope, was written by Gina Femia from New York and selected by the festival jury.  I am incredibly fortunate to have been matched with my first choice of plays (there are twelve productions and three readings over a three week period in March.)  After I made my submission, I realized that I had chosen what may be the most complex and challenging of all the plays.  Nonetheless, it was the lyricism and theatricality that attracted me.  Gina’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice; it is a mixture of “feminist and fabulist”.   Auditions and callbacks were intense.  There was so much talent, Robin Munro my AD and I were able to fully focus on finding precisely the right actor for each role.  Casting will be announced in the next few days and rehearsals begin February 1st.  I’m also so thrilled that classical composer Alan Torok will be creating an original score for the piece.

Yesterday I received two completely different calls about the same topic.  The first call was from an actor we called back for Pieces of Penelope. She asked for constructive criticism regarding her audition.   She’s already an experienced and trained actor but is sincerely interested in getting feedback to help her further develop her auditioning skills. Too few actors have the resolve and courage to ask for criticism.  The second was a call initiated from an email from a total stranger.  She was a parent who’d googled information about auditioning for the Claude Watson Arts Program and found my website.  I was so excited to hear that people are finding the site (it doesn’t take much to excite me) that I happily answered all her questions about the program and the auditions. The most important thing I could tell both parties was to ENJOY.  If you as an actor can find joy in your audition – even when delivering a dark monologue – you’ll be so much more interesting, alive and vibrant.

Last week I submitted my first “pitch” to direct a play that goes up in the summer.  I don’t want jinx myself but I fell in love with the writing which (ironically) happens to be the very antithesis of Pieces of Penelope.  This is a play with men, about men, for men.  It is dark, violent and at times, savagely funny.  I would LOVE to work on it for that very reason and I hope the pitch will convince the producer and playwright that adding my feminine insights and instincts to such a testosterone-driven work is exactly what is needed.  My creative juices are flowing and my fingers and toes are all crossed.

Finally I had the pleasure meeting with the founders of Eclat Arts http://eclat-arts.com/ This is a private summer school studio offering enriched credit courses for impassioned drama students.  Unlike many other summer school programs and camps, Michael Laidlaw and Mary Barnes Amoroso have created a conservatory program with high standards and high expectations and also a substantial number of scholarships and bursaries available.  For those interested, courses include playwriting, improvisation and acting, Director’s Craft, and a Production course.  Their creative board, teaching and guest artist roster contains some of the finest theatre artists in the city including Fiona Boyd, Cameron Porteus and Andrew Lamb.  I’m very proud to join up with Eclat ensemble and very much look forward to working with them and their students in the summer.

Before I  retired I was afraid I’d no longer have the opportunities to exercise my artistic chops.  As the saying goes, use it or lose it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.  bigfishsmallpondThere’s nothing like jumping out of one’s little pond and diving head first into another one that’s bigger and deeper.  I’m so looking forward to working on these projects and many others throughout the year.  I wish you the same.

Happy new year!