A fluid process mixes experienced actors with novices. Notes from co-stars, oh no!
by Jackie Pray
The Theater Emory spring production of Ravished, an aggressive reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, crossed boundaries. Like some caustic chemical, Ravished carried a warning. Loosely translated, it read: It’s nasty, folks. Keep kids well clear and brace yourselves for viciousness, violence and lurid behavior.
No. From the get-go, the play’s creators, Ariel Fristoe and Maia Knispel, set out to stage the foul underbelly of Shakespeare’s beloved play by focusing on its vicious language. While often played “sweet and funny,” Fristoe says, “if you take it literally, it’s not okay. It’s horrible. The characters threaten each other with rape and murder repeatedly. They all betray each other and then they get married the next day.”
Definitely not a fun take on the bard’s beloved romp. And there was nothing traditional about the production either.
Fristoe and Knispel, Emory alums and co-founders of Atlanta’s innovative Out of Hand theater, relied on risky collaborative techniques to stage the play. Their goal: encourage Emory drama students to get their hands dirty in the creative process. Their method: ask the entire ensemble to generate ideas—to create performance concepts based on prompts from the two directors. The directors then shaped and folded these ideas into the final play. Rehearsals were fluid and experimental.
Of course, working with an evolving script—performed on a stark stage with a steep three-foot rake—might have left some novice actors feeling off balance.
But the production offered a safety net of sorts. Like all Theater Emory productions, the cast included a mix of professional actors and students. Ravished included Atlanta theater veterans Joe Sykes, Stephanie Friedman and Carolyn Cook. In all, six professional actors were tasked with helping guide the students through the creative process as they worked together to devise an original script.
“The cardinal sin among actors is to direct a fellow actor—give another actor an idea that you think would be good for them to try out,” says Joe Sykes. “A lot of egos can be bruised when an actor gives a note to another actor.
“Now what’s interesting about working with students, in this context, is that we were all peers. The directors were our leaders and the rest of us were on a level playing field, but not exactly because I had more than 13 years of experience compared to the ‘peers’ I was working with. We were encouraged to ‘Go ahead and give the kids some hints.’ Or, if there was a technique they were missing, help them. Our work supported the production while the directors were trying to rework the story and push collaborative ideas into the play.”
Not just ‘a few hints’
Such coaching requires a light but sure hand. Joe has an advantage there. He teaches drama at Georgia Tech. He guides the performance practicum for Alternative Performance Methods at the School of Literature, Media and Communication at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Institute of Technology. It’s a job he loves.
“I do enjoy working with these kids. I love talking to them; I love being a part of their maturation, as actors and people.
“So, I might tell a younger actor: ‘You’ve got to find your light… and, you’re looking towards the ground and that’s no good. This is a visual medium and everyone wants to see your reaction so you need to put your chin up. And they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s such a great thing. I understand.’ And I demonstrate: ‘You can see that I’m mad while I’m looking down. But here I’m looking up and it’s visceral now. The audience understands it, feels it, much more than when I’m looking down.’ And I go on and say, ‘I still have this problem as an actor because most of our stuff is really internalized and when you have this emotion that you aren’t used to showing, you’re going to express it in the middle of your chest rather than out through your forehead.’”
Teaching ‘in the moment’
Some lessons were very personal. As one student actor struggled to master the bearing and timbre of King Theseus, Joe said, “’Take the fist of your right hand and press it into the small of your back, into your spine. And I want you to press your chest forward and that’s how you’re going to speak. You always have one hand free to gesture but your other hand is pushing your chest forward because you are Theseus. You just destroyed Hippolyta’s people and now you’re taking her as your wife. You are immensely proud and incredibly masculine and when you speak your chest is out and open and you become a tyrant.’ It goes back to some basic techniques I’ve been working on with my students at Georgia Tech. Not all acting is from inside out; sometimes it’s from outside in.”
Joe adds that there’s a lot to be said for what he calls teaching in the moment. “Sure, exploring techniques in the safety of a studio has great value for new actors s but so does discovering solutions on the fly, during rehearsal, when the pressure is on. When faced with a real time challenge: ‘How do I convey this idea? How do I embody that character in this situation? Now!’ students are alert and attuned to learning. Lessons stick.”
A prickly problem and a great solution
At one point, the play’s directors tasked Joe and a group of students with solving a pressing staging problem: on a stark, urban stage, show the play’s four lovers lost in a foggy forest and beset by briars. The group had 20 minutes to come up with a solution.
“We created this movement of fog, which was just us rotating around each other with the lovers walking though us as we walked forward,” Joe says.
“But then we had to create briars because a character had to crawl through them and tear his shirt. One student, Jay, (Jubril Adeagbo) remembered a movement exercise we’d done early in production and he says, ‘Why don’t we do staccato movement? We’ll do this slow, slow-as-you-possibly-can-go movement—fog—and then we’ll go into staccato movement to become a prickly bush.’ So the staccato movement, which looks like the stop-action images cast by a strobe light, informs the prickles of this briar patch. It was Jay’s idea—a riff on stuff that we experienced together through group training. And so, everybody’s fingers become prickles and our legs are scattered all over the stage forming a briar patch. And the character has to go through the obstacle course that we’ve created. It’s not realistic at all; it’s a stylized shape that informs what’s happening on stage. It’s a really interesting solution rather than, ‘Let’s put out bush number 3 and pot number 4 for scene number 6.’ It was great. Jay was great!”
Would Joe do it again—teach acting techniques on the fly to novice actors involved in a collaborative and experimental production? “Yeah. Sure. It’s exciting and rewarding. And… What could go wrong?”