Monthly Archives: May 2010

“If the shoe fits….”

A few months ago, a friend dropped off at my house a collection of finely tailored men’s wear — tails, morning dress and two dinner suits, complete with ties and cumberbunds and suspenders. These glorious togs had belonged to his father and ranged historically from the wardrobe of a midshipman in the 1930s Canadian Navy to that of a senior officer in the post-war era. The clothes also ranged in size from boy to man, with the more recent wardrobe offering a generous allowance for paunch while the older items were elfin in scale.

I was the delighted recipient of what my mother would have called these “glad rags.” I love old clothes-cum-costumes, and I wanted to add some tailored treasures to my collection (highlights of which, until then, had been a fairly ratty boa of dyed chicken feathers and a somewhat experienced top hat). The fact that I live in an old house with virtually no closets didn’t daunt me at all. I remain convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that my brother-in-law — the one with the big basement — is only joking when he says, “Over my dead body…!”

There’s no denying, however, that these costumes have created another kind of problem: and that is finding the right size of actor to inhabit them. Now, not only do we have to find a play that involves formal wear — and I guess that means a steady diet of Noel Coward from now on; we also need actors who are more or less custom-made for the wardrobe. It’s either that or surgery (to actors or clothes, I don’t care which).

As if we didn’t have enough trouble already. We are a humble amateur company that doesn’t know its limits. So we are unpardonably fussy. Some of our obsessions are technical. For example, we live in Canada, where people generally fail to differentiate in speech between “d” and “t.” Thus, that memorable line in one of our plays, when the hero cried out to a bewildered audience: “What SLUD would take this body in her arms?” Good question.

We do accept the danger — in theatrical terms — of fuzzy speech. So we search for actors who can spit out the consonants, land them precisely, sock the audience in the ear and take no prisoners. We are generally less obsessed with vowels. I remember being told years ago that, while Canadians have a measley 12 vowel sounds, the British have 42: no wonder we have a national inferiority complex. Hamlet may know a hawk from a handsaw, but I once confused my British cousins with a long story about a “hawk,” which they insisted on hearing as a kind of wine (“hock”).

Never mind. We like British plays at Linden House, but when it comes to Canadian vowel sounds, we’re prepared to live and let live. Sometimes you have to work with an actor who complains, for example, about the morning “noos” — and yes: we know that Noel Coward would have said “nyoos” — or fights a “do-ell” (pistols or swords at dawn). Never mind. We have shoved linguistic purity overboard in favour of talent (authenticity and the kind of imagination that lets an actor apparently inhabit the body and voice of another human being).

People sometimes ask what it’s like being on stage and pretending to be someone else. They wonder if it feels like you have actually turned into another person. “No,” I answer. “A lot of your attention focuses on quite mechanical things — where to stand, when to move, how to orient your face to the audience, to say nothing of marshalling the next line and figuring out what to do in that thrilling moment when your mind goes blank. You don’t have the luxury, in my experience, of forgetting who you are. You are simply too busy.”

Having said that, there’s a line you cross mentally at some point during the rehearsal process. In that moment, when you have thought and wondered and speculated sufficiently about the character you are portraying, you are finally ready to imagine yourself inside the skin of another person entirely. Only then, I think, can you speak convincingly for that person. Good acting has something in common with good fiction-writing, but it isn’t a common skill. Every child knows instinctively how “to pretend,” but most adults have simply lost the knack.

It’s not so much to ask, is it? Actors who will fit themselves not only into our costumes but also into the soul of their character. Unfortunately, we have one more requirement. We also want actors who are nice people. Linden House is a friendly place. Even if you have the perfect elfin body for our set of tails, we don’t want you if you are not lovable. Ideally, we want to build a company of friends, who come back year after year and who are — and remain — a troupe, a collective. And that goes for the production team as well as the cast.

Having laid out these criteria in black and white, I am no longer surprised at how difficult it is to find a full cast of good actors every year. Indeed, I’m astonished that we manage to find any. And yet we do.

Staging Blithe Spirit — a step by step history

Dedicated to the cast and crew of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward 
produced by the Linden House Theatre Company
Ottawa, Ontario in October 2010.
“The play’s the thing… “
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Linden House only produces one play a year. We don’t have to design a whole season, and Heaven help us if we did. As it is, the choice of play takes an inordinate amount of time and creates disproportionate amounts of stress, with the director emailing hotly: No! No! Life is too short to spend half a year on that silly play!” Or actors pleading, “Please! Please let me be Eleanor of Aquitaine. Just once.” No sooner have we struck the set from last year’s play than we are talking (shouting, pleading, whimpering) about what’s next. As the process begins in November, we have a lot of time available to debate, quarrel and second-guess ourselves.
Strangely, this is the most difficult — and perhaps the most vital — part of the whole process. You wouldn’t think so. After all, there are thousands of wonderful plays out there. What’s more, Linden House has a very clear idea of the kind of play it wants to produce. Maybe that’s the problem. We are addicted to classic, intelligent comedy. What a shame. If we wanted to make you cry, we’d have our choice of high-quality tearjerkers. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible…. The list goes on and on. But no, we had to choose comedy.

We don’t want to make you cry. We want you to laugh at us and with us. We want you to leave the theatre smiling, delighted and uplifted. That means a happy ending, I’m afraid. It isn’t sophisticated, I admit, but it’s the way it is. I almost gave up theatre a few years ago when, in a single week, I saw two dreadful plays and a movie. I remember them vividly, a comedy about torture (on Tuesday), a lighter piece about incest and infanticide (Thursday) and, the pi├Ęce de resistance, a drama about genocide (Saturday). To my credit, I decided not to abandon theatre but to devote myself henceforward, body and soul, to comedy. Still, it’s depressing. After reading a hundred plays or so, I realize that I am probably the only person in the English-speakng world who likes a happy ending.
Of course, the problem is that — though addicted to happiness — we are not willing to be soppy. The happy ending cannot be sticky and sentimental. It has to have stature, dignity and grace. Sighing, we cross out a few dozen titles from the list.
And no cheap laughs please. We like laughter but not farce. Slapstick and situation comedy is not for us. Instead, we are looking for wit, for soaring language and characters that enchant (or, at least, that enchant us). Sigh. A few more plays join the stack of rejects on the floor.
Did I mention intelligence? We may be frivolous but we are not stupid. We want plays to be about something. We weren’t sure to begin with that our audiences felt the same way and so, with some hesitation, we produced Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw in 2008 (it’s about the idiocy of glorifying war). We got away with that one, but I was certain that we had overreached ourselves with Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage in 2009. In the middle of some enchantingly silly business, it offered up a long LONG lecture on modern architecture (the horrors of). I was sure the audience would leave in droves during the intermission. They didn’t. They loved it, and a new criterion was added. The Linden House play had to be intelligent. More unsuitable plays went into the box for the local garage sale.
There is another criterion and this one is a little embarrassing. There has to a good role for a middle-aged, comic actor of the female persuasion (me). I founded Linden House for a number of good reasons. You can read all about it on the website — http://www.lindenpro.ca/ — if you want the official story. But the truth is that I wanted good parts, great comic roles. And I didn’t want to subject myself to the painful humilation of auditions. If you ever feel that your ego is a little swollen — too many favourable reviews, too many bonuses at work, too many people in love with you — try an audition. That will sober you up. Anyway, I decided to found a theatre company instead. I must have been mad, you say? Yes, but it was divine madness.
Back to choosing a play. After reading some more, I began to compile a blacklist of topics — with incontinence heading the list. I do not find incontinence funny or even interesting. (See torture, incest and infanticide, above, for other topics on the list). After a while, I realized that it was a waste of time to look at any but the very best playwrights — George Bernard Shaw, Peter Shaffer, Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard….

And there it was, at last. A funny, well written, witty hoot of a play: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward. Oh all right. It doesn’t have any earth-shaking ideas at the core, such as the meaning of war or the horror of modern architecture, but the wit and playfulness of the language and plot are as close to intelligence as I need. And it has a happy ending, unless perhaps you think that means the happy couple heading into the sunset. As for Madame Arcati, that’s the role for me — the dotty medium with a taste for martinis.  At last, we had a play. The play.

It’s been a long time coming. We first tried to get the license for this play a couple of years ago. But Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett were doing it in New York — the selfish things — and when we applied for the rights the agent said that we couldn’t have it because we would “constitute competition.” Oh, I said, deeply shocked: “We wouldn’t. We really wouldn’t.” But they were determined to protect Broadway from us. So we had to wait.

That’s the story. We all agree. We’re excited about Blithe Spirit — especially the man who has to figure out how to make vases fall without being pushed and cushions fly across the stage from ghostly hands. Next time, I’ll tell you about finding a cast.