Shakespeare, Actors and a Master Teacher at Ten Chimneys

By - Jul 15th, 2010 06:10 pm
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Actors’ lunch, poolside at Ten Chimneys. Jim Brozek photo for Ten Chimneys.

A summer day poolside at Ten Chimneys. A light breeze. Birds chirp in the trees. Small groups of actors in animated conversation over lunch. They tell stories of backstage calamities, reminisce about  compelling performances. You halfway expect the Lunts to appear and ask why no one’s in the pool on such a perfect day.

But it’s July 2010. The actors are in the Lunt Fontanne Fellowship Program; they’re working. The lunchtime discussion includes scenes they’ve just studied at the morning master class with Barry Edelstein, one of the country’s leading Shakespeareans.

Ten Chimneys foundation president Sean Malone launched the fellowships in 2009.

“There was a profound and desperate need for this program,” Malone said. “The Lunts created Ten Chimneys to inspire and nurture themselves and their circle of theatre friends. Today it’s the nature of the theatre industry to constantly push through a season. Professional actors have no means to retreat from the constant cycle of rehearsal and performance. They are rarely able to be protégés or to explore their art outside of that cycle. Yet, their original spark of inspiration needs rejuvenating. We took advantage of our extraordinary potential. The Greater Milwaukee Foundation and other local funders supported the idea. The program came into being entirely through local financial backing. Art and theater matter to our community. It puts an incredible spotlight on Milwaukee.”

The program’s impact has already had a ripple effect.

“Last year’s fellowship alumni have gone back to their theaters refreshed and energized. They learned something here. They’ve brought that back to other actors and audiences. Exponentially, that translates to hundreds, thousands, then millions of lives made better. It maintains and expands the culture of a vibrant American theater,” Malone said.

The Teacher

Barry Edelstein directing a master class. Jim Brozek photo for Ten Chimneys

Edelstein, director of New York City’s Public Theater Shakespeare Initiative, oversees all Shakespearean production and related educational, community outreach and artist-training programs. He has also authored numerous important works on the bard and the performance of his works.

Ten Chimneys called upon Edelstein in May, to replace Lynn Redgrave,who died suddenly earlier that month. Redgrave headed the first fellowship class in 2009 and had been invited back again this year. Edelstein said that the decision to come to Ten Chimneys on such short notice was easy.

“I was referred by Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center,” Edelstein said. “I’ve been teaching this material for a long time but not at this level of talent. The professional development of American classical theatre is something I feel strongly about. The opportunity became a priority.”

Edelstein explained that Redgrave had already posed questions to the participants about their specific expectations. He tailored his material accordingly.

“Everyone wrote of their deep sense of the need to get back to the heart of the work,” Edelstein said. “For many, mechanics had displaced the original excitement and passion. There were also technical questions about Shakespeare’s writing. The Ten Chimney’s environment is perfect for this sort of class. The retreat setting and a relaxed state of mind allow for a return to the awe and wonder of Shakespeare. Amid a season, with its chaos and pressure to produce, one can lose sight of that inspiration.”

The Class

Actor-fellows Stephen Bereson, Larry Yando and Laura Gordon talk it over. Jim Brozek photo for Ten Chimneys.

Leading theaters around the country nominate actors for the fellowships. A review board selects the participants of this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience of full immersion in a week of master classes.  The nine members of the 2010 class are Stephen Berenson, nominated by Trinity Repertory Company (Providence); James Carpenter, California Shakespeare Theater (Bay Area); Celeste Ciulla, The Old Globe (San Diego); Bob Davis, Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis); Laura Gordon, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre; Andrew Long, Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, DC); Pete Pryor, The Wilma Theater (Philadelphia); Jacqueline Williams, Goodman Theatre (Chicago); Larry Yando, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Chicago).

The fellows sit in an arch across from floor to ceiling windows in Lunt-Fontanne Program Center’s theatre. Edelstein, set against a marvelous array of flora just beyond the glass, faces them. It’s as if the class is in a forest grove. The atmosphere is casual, of attentive ease.

A scene from Henry V is selected and parts divided. The young king’s advisors, Westmoreland and Exeter, and the Archbishop of Canterbury argue the merits of war with France. For Canterbury, the stakes are high – parliament wants to tax the church so war would provide the perfect distraction.

The first reading sounds tentative as the actors find their footing with the unfamiliar text. Edelstein then explains the scene, particular Shakespearean linguistic tricks, and each character’s purpose.

“Nothing in Shakespeare is an accident,” Edelstein says. He details breaking verse, the nuances of vocabulary, sentence structure, the juxtaposition of mono and polysyllabic words and the building of language from blunt to florid. All those elements charge this scene of political debate.

Other actors repeat the scene. Edelstein refines the scene.  He asks the actors about the ages of their characters, their respective social positions and motives. Another reading follows. The intensity grows; personalities emerge; conviction turns concrete. There’s more discussion of language and delivery. The dialogue contains Canterbury’s  extended metaphor comparing bees to the kingdom of England. Each word carries its weight in the speaker’s grander scheme. Edelstein takes each line, dissecting its context and meaning.

Finally, another three actors deliver the lines.  The electricity is palpable. Westmoreland’s shaky vocal timbre reflect the old man he is – he’s opposed to war. Exeter, the soldier-aristocrat, counters the argument. Then Canterbury brings on the bees and delivers the pivotal “Therefore to France, my liege.”

As Edelstein concludes, “the guy who wins the argument is the best talker.” And so Shakespeare has proved.

The week of classes culminates with a Concluding Presentation in the Ten Chimneys’ Lunt-Fontanne Program Center’s 300 seat theater on Saturday, July 17 at 8 p.m. Click here for ticket info and details.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Theater

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