After a year of isolation and loss, nostalgia is in full swing: the re-emergence of Friends, Sex and the City, JNCO and low-rise jeans remind us of a time before surgical masks and delta variants. There’s a yearning for the past, even at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF).
Now in its seventh iteration, CSF’s “Original Practices” tradition stages a play in much the way a theater would have during Shakespeare’s time.
But what exactly was theater like during the late 16th and early 17th centuries?
For starters, “the modern director didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s day,” explains Heidi Schmidt, dramaturge (a type of literary consultant) for CSF. Instead, an actor in the play took on a managerial role to simply “keep things organized and on track,” she says.
This year, Schmidt is assisting in CSF’s Original Practices production of Pericles.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre was written in 1608-9, during the end of Shakespeare’s career. It was published many years after some of his more well-known (according to present day audiences) dramas, such as Macbeth and Hamlet.
Schmidt admits that CSF actors can only recreate the traditions and cultural norms so much in the Original Practices performances.
“It’s not the same thing — it can’t be the same thing — but it’s fun to try,” she says.
Because Shakespearean-era theater companies didn’t have access to universal lighting, performances were always outdoors in the afternoon. This means that “the audience was lit just as much as the actors,” Schmidt says.
CSF’s Pericles performances start at 7 p.m., and as the sun goes down, the crew will turn up the house lights so the actors can continue to see the audience, creating intimacy between performers and spectators.
“We talk to the audience, we interact with the audience,” Schmidt says. “We expect the audience to talk back sometimes and respond in certain ways. The audience is really a character in the play.
“The idea that the audience should be invisible and quiet and voyeuristically observe what’s going on onstage, that’s really an invention of the late 19th, early 20th century,” Schmidt explains. “That was not part of the deal in Shakespeare’s day.” (Many believe this treatment of the audience to be an invention of the famous 19th-century German opera composer Richard Wagner, who, Schmidt explains, believed the audience was “meant to be reverent in the face of immense art.”)
Schmidt helps the actors analyze the script “for any opportunity to involve the audience… to invite them into the storytelling.”
Soliloquies shift from being “an actor talking to themselves” to “an actor talking directly to the audience” and asking them for advice. It’s interactive… sort of.
“It’s not that we’re asking the audience to get up and, like, get on stage” Schmidt clarifies. But “you are expected to be present.”
To be fair, the expectations for actors in an Original Practices performance are elevated as well.
For one thing, they only get part of the play — a “cue script” where, rather than a full script, an actor has only their character’s lines, plus the few words immediately preceding as a cue.
In addition to working with partial scripts, CFS Original Practice actors only get to rehearse for 20 hours. Compared to the 125-140 hours that the actors of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Odyssey are getting this year, this is a “very, very fast rehearsal practice,” Schmidt says. They begin rehearsing just five days before opening night.
But Schmidt’s excited that Pericles will be “wildly under-rehearsed,” as it creates “an energy and a rawness” for both the audience and the actors.
“There is that unknown quality [where] you’re just not sure what’s going to happen,” Schmidt says. “As you can imagine with 20 hours of rehearsal… sometimes memorization is not quite as 100% as you would expect from a 140 hour rehearsal production.” As the only person with a full script, Schmidt stands at the side stage through performances, feeding actors cues when necessary — some like to call out “Prithy lady Heidi” when they get stuck.
Pericles was selected for the Original Practices performance because it’s a lesser known Shakespeare play.
“If the assumption is that the actors don’t get the full script… that’s a little easier to mimic if it’s a play that isn’t Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet,” Schmidt says.
Pericles is rarely taught in high school and even college-level courses. Though it was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his time, today it is often dismissed as not sounding like classic Shakespeare.
“We have completely different expectations from characters” and other things than Shakespeare’s audiences did, and, Schimdt points out, “‘good theater’ is subjective and very contextual.”
To its credit, Pericles is an adventurous play filled with shipwrecks, riddles and fantasy.
“It’s such a departure from the heavy, intense, [and] deeply psychological meat of King Lear or Hamlet,” Schmidt says. “This one is much more loosely aligned with fairy tale and romance and epic adventure, and because it is so fantastical, it is easy to dismiss.”
Though Pericles was selected originally for the 2020 season, perhaps the past year presents the play in a more relevant light.
Schmidt cites a moment in the play when Pericles and his daughter are reunited, and they refuse to believe it. There’s “a mistrust of good news” that Schmidt says she “understand[s] differently than when I started working on this play two years ago… It’s easy to mistrust when you get something back, and that resonates really hard this year.”
Much like the story of 2020, with hundreds of thousands dead from COVID, Pericles doesn’t exactly have a completely happy ending either.
“Pericles doesn’t get everything back,” Schmidt says, “but he gets a lot of it back.”