Monday, July 11, 2011

At Endstation

I arrived at Sweet Briar college on June 24, in the late morning. The campus is one of the most beautiful in the nation, with over 3,000 acers of luscious landscapes and emerald hills, the Sweet Briar campus is the best location for the Endstation Theatre Company and their mission. Prior to my arrival I did some brief research into the company, Endstation is run by Geoffrey Kershner, its artistic directer. The mission Geoff tries to accomplish with each one of the company's productions is the achievement of superb theatrical presentation amongst beautiful landscapes and/or unique locations. Essentially, Endstation specializes in outdoor theatre. I met Geoff on my arrival, not only is he the artistic director of the company but he is also an acting major alumni from UArts. We took a short tour of the campus and talked about UArts when he was there and compared his experience to mine thus far. Turns out, not a lot has changed over the course of some 10 odd years since Geoff graduated and I started attending, at least not as much as I had expected. Geoff took me to some past sites where previous shows had been performed, last year their Hamlet was performed in and around a barn while the audience was seated on an adjacent hill.
After the tour and a short lunch I was thrown right into the mix. At the time, the company was mid way through its project called BLUR. This project incorporated high school students into a month long theatre camp which included classes ranging from dramatic research to audition technique and improv. Right after lunch I assisted a company member named Sergio in his improv class. Teaching high schoolers is...interesting. It's a little unbelievable to imagine just how different those I know in college are from those in high school. However, despite the age gap and the occasional relapses into a more recalcitrant time in my life, teaching high schoolers became a very valuable experience. I've always known that teaching is a difficult job, but I never knew just how difficult the position could be and how a student can really challenge you. I found that despite the difficulty, with my past experiences and knowledge from UArts aided me for my unexpected teaching position. I learned quickly that I am not only responsible for the students but also responsible for giving quality instruction, which can be an intimidating thought. You really have to learn to trust your knowledge, your experiences, your talent and ability in order to teach. Any level of self doubt ends up making you look like you don't know what you're talking about.
After the class I met with Geoff and Aaron. Aaron is a dramaturg at Florida State University, and was currently on a kind of fellowship with Endstation as well. We ate dinner and discussed my duties in conjunction with Aaron. One of Aarons goals was to help Endstation decide on what shows the company will produce for next years season. The plan was to produce a Shakespeare show with only six actors. We had four shows to choose from, Merry Wives of Windsor, Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Comedy of Manners. My objective was to help Aaron come to a decision by character tracking these shows. Through character tracking, I would be able to determine how many characters there were in the show, how many are on stage at a time and whether or not the show could be done with only six actors.
When I left dinner I had a little time to myself in the Sweet Briar dorm, which is actually very nice. I had a little time to settle in, but shortly afterwards I had to get dressed to see the company's production of Assassins (their first musical and one of their few productions actually performed in a theatre). The production was amazing and very professional. We had actually studied this musical in Survey of Theatre, and seeing the production come to life was great. Honestly, it was good to watch the company put their money where their mouth is. After seeing the show I was assured I was in a professional environment. I suppose I had some doubts about the legitimacy of this fellowship before my arrival, the idea of having a brief internship and grant to go along with it seemed unreal. I was glad to see the show and enjoy it because it sorta solidified my confidence in the company.


I was able to sleep in this morning. Today I have a much less busy schedule, and after my long trip and schedule of yesterday I am a little thankful for this. Today I worked on tracking both Merry Wives of Windsor and Comedy of Errors. This took me about four hours for both. It's very tedious work, but for the company's purposes it is essential. Geoff and Aaron understood the assignments repetitive nature but were very thankful to have me on board to help with it. When I was done I handed in my results. Geoff and Aaron looked the results over for both plays and arrived at an issue. Geoff's aim for the show next year was to have six actors take on multiple roles and have them in a constant, hilarious scurry from character to character. However, Comedy of Manners would prove to easy for six actors while Merry Wives of Windsor might be impossible. I was then assigned to complete the other two shows, which would continue to help narrow the selection.
Later, I ate dinner with the production crew of Assassins. Most of them were interns as well all of them were local. Turns out Endstation also aims to cast and hire from the local community as much as possible.
After dinner, Geoff invited me to shadow him during his rehearsals  on Sunday for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Endstation's current working production.


BLUR classes occur on the weekday, it mimics a high school schedule. So on this Sunday morning I decided to take a walk about the campus before I started to do more character tracking. I found a boat house (and made a note to myself to go cannoning before I had to leave), hiking trails and horses. No I did not stumble upon wild horses in the majestic forest. Actually, the school is an equestrian school. It is also an all girls school. So, if I had a horse and were a woman, Sweet Briar would be my first choice. In reality,  neither of those aspects apply to me, too bad because the school is very lovely. It probably sounds like I cannot get over the campus, in a way it is true. It has been a long time since I have been to the Appalachians and I have always loved the region as a child.
After my little expedition I returned to my "homework" and began to character track Geoff and Aarons other selections for next year's season. Today I am also scheduled to usher the matinee performance of Assassins. After that, I have a little more time to work on character tracking and then I am off to Twelfth Night rehearsal.
When I arrived on location I was given a brief low down on the setting of the production. The play was set in a meadow near an old train stop with a antique caboose grounded next to it. In the meadow were butterfly bushes that were arranged in a V formation open to the audience. The audience would be seated in front of the V opening and would from there be able to enjoy not only the mountainous back drop nature so kindly donated but also the colorful sunset that would occur during the plays duration. Geoff explained to me that there are more mechanics to out door theatre than are typically understood. Most out door theatre can be played on a two dimensional level, which in his mind was silly because in any space you have the options of levels and variety. However, outdoors you have a trees, bushes, buildings and vistas that can provide levels and options for exploration and discovery. For instance, for the top of this show, Festie (the fool of the play) introduces us the exposition of the play. The play starts with the actor skipping, running, and jumping around in the distance towards the playing area before the audience. The audience may never see him exit the woods and come towards them, but it's still pretty clever to have actors entering ahead of time from far away places. I suppose if you have these kind of options, you might as well use them. It takes a different set of eyes to direct an outdoor theatre production. Not only do you need a creative eye for the space you'll have, but both sound and lighting become factors beyond your control. You have to understand the logistics of acoustics and sometimes you have to accept that rain happens, how do you deal with that. Planes, helicopters, even noisy birds can prove to detract from the action on stage. The elements can be bitter sweet to theatre, so it is all a matter of how you incorporate your production to nature and how you handle its curve balls that inevitable dictate the overall product. I once thought outdoor theatre was amateurish, but there actually is an art to it. As for the rehearsal, I laughed and enjoyed myself. I conversed with Geoff every now and then about this and that, but mostly I observed and noted all the above.


Today marks the end of my relaxed schedules, which I pretty happy about. At 8:00 I shadow Michael, who is not only the lead in Twelfth Night but also the Shakespeare teacher for the BLUR students. I noticed that it is very difficult to teach high schoolers Shakespeare, mostly due to the depth of the subject matter. I won't go into iambic pentameter or scoring of classical text, because I don't want to do to my readers what the class did to the students, but classical text has a dialogue and rhythm all it's own. I think my Michael accepted that the subject is difficult to teach, and to a degree gave up. I wished I was here longer so I could come up with some exercise to make the text more interesting and engaging.
The class I shadowed next was an audition technique class with Sergio. This time I was more of a teachers assistant compared to the last class. Previously, Sergio has asked me for cold read selection for the class (a cold read is a type of audition where the actor is given a text on the spot with little time to look it over and is asked to perform it for the auditioner). I selected a few scenes for him and today they were to be put into the hands of the high school students, and I am going to be their director. Being on the other side of the audition room is great! It certainly is a lot more relaxed, however I was always at attention in order to take notes on the auditions. I will say, for scenes I know well, some of these kids came out with some pretty inventive interpretations. I had to determine on my own which interpretations were stronger than others, and if they were at all valid to my vision for the scene. After the mock auditions, we all sat in a circle and discussed what had happened and what to do next time. Sergio and I then gave a couple of brief personal stories about auditioning before we departed.
The next class I shadowed I have hard time naming, because it was more of an interpretive class where the students were challenged to create performance pieces based upon research. Today, I shadowed Angie as we went to the library and looked through archives of the original owners of the Sweet Briar campus. The students were divided into groups and each one got a family member that was on file. I helped students find interesting documents that could possibly be turned into a kind of performance. Once everyone had found their necessities, we photocopied the documents and had the students depart until tomorrow where they were to come with ideas for their performance.
Next, I had lunch with Geoff and Aaron and we discussed my findings from character tracking Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona. These two plays were quickly dismissed since the concern was that neither one would have catered to the six actor idea. I then suggested cutting a few actors in order to make the action of the production even more crazy. Geoff seemed to like the idea, but I won't know what his decision will be until next season.
That evening I shadowed another Twelfth Night rehearsal. Even though I have seen a few rehearsals, each time the actors find new ways to make me laugh. I really am dealing with a professional group of people.


Today's classes were rough, mostly because the students were out of it. My entire day was pretty much spent trying to excite the students and wake them up, I tried to implement some of my Voice and Speech training to achieve this. It helped a little, but the battle lasted all day. Today became the day I think I officially decided that if I were to teach theatre it would have to be either at a college level or at some kind of magnet school. I don't think I have the patients for the lack of discipline. This topic actually came up between Geoff and I, I asked him why I didn't see him teach a brief class during the summer camp. I knew he had gone through the UArts program and had had the combat training, I wondered why he hadn't offered to start a combat class. Geoff said he couldn't handle the lack of discipline either, and discipline was something combat classes at UArts strive for. His training here gave him a set of skills that last him even into today, but those skills, for him, do not make him compatible with high schoolers. Later, Geoff gave me a piece of advice that I found honest and imperative to my success. He told me to always keep an eye out for opportunities outside of school, try to tap in on any gig you can in the area, get your name out there. He said people aren't as forgetful as you may think, they'll remember you. So I will certainly keep doing what I'm doing, of course my education comes first, but the world is only a few more years away. Geoff stressed that it is important to try and give yourself a destination after college, the world is easy to get lost in.
For tonight's rehearsal, we got rained in. Geoff was a little irked (actually, he was really mad) because opening was coming up so soon and he wants his actors to get as much time in the real space as possible. I was upset as well because my last day here would be spent watching an outdoor show be run in a small black box theatre. However, the sun did come out in the evening and we quickly moved to location. That evening, with all the broken rain clouds in the sky, and the mist creeping up the mountains, we had the most gorgeous sunset I had seen over the time of my stay. As rehearsal went on, the sky was filled with red, pink, orange and deep blue. It was the perfect lighting. We even had to stop rehearsal for a moment because it was so distracting, even for Geoff. Then, when the sun finally set, the land was lit by fireflies. It has been a long time since I had seen this many fireflies, and I have to say it was one of the best ways to end my fellowship.
After rehearsal, a few techie friends of mine went to the boat landing and hung out. We watched the stars and listened to folk music late into the night. It was hard to say goodbye, I suppose I really put it off until the last minute at 2:30 in the morning, but I did miss home and I was ready to go back.


When I awoke I packed my things and tried to get around to saying bye to everyone. My last conversation with Geoff was promising because he actually suggested I try and intern with them again next summer and to audition for their next season. I'm defiantly keeping it in mind. I left feeling great, I had had a priceless experience and will always keep the company in my head for the future. Endstation showed me first hand that a theatre company is not a simple thing to run, the business is a new all day job that requires consistent stamina and love for what you're doing.This being said, Endstation isn't even located in one of the east coast's main "hubs" for theatrical activity. Still, the company is booming and busy, I can only imagine a theatre company in Philadelphia, Boston or New York City must be even more hectic. This experience could have diverted me away from ever starting and running a theatre company, but to the contrary, I have actually been inspired to start one. When, where and how are all particulars I'm still unsure of. most likely Philly, but none the less I think it is an objective I would like to achieve (wow, how very actor of me). I can't thank everyone involved enough, this has been a blessing.

And here's Twelfth Night...

1 comment:

  1. Arlen--
    Great blog posts! I'm so glad you had such an exciting experience as part of the Summer Fellows Program. Don't give up on the possibility of teaching Shakespeare to kids just yet. It may be maddening or exhausting, but there are a lot of ways to do this. You should talk to Krishna Dunston when you get back to UArts about her experiences doing just this She was part of a theater group that went into public schools and put on a Shakespeare play with the a very short span of time. And this observation of yours made me laugh out loud..."If I had a horse and I were a women, Sweet Briar would be my first choice for a college...