So I just read back on some of my old posts. They’re pretty good. Somebody out there should make me into a book. Because I’m sure that 52 posts about specific theatrical productions seen by a limited number of people who live chiefly in the New York metro area would SELL LIKE HOT CAKES. Sign me up, ye literary gods. Let’s make all those Julie and Julia comments come true.
I mention it only because I am currently reading a book that was made from a theater blog. It’s called Exit Pursued by a Badger by Nick Asbury. I found it by my bedside, last time I visited home, with a post-it note atop that read, “Send to Anna” in my mother’s beautiful, thick-markered script. I suspect it was something she saw in a bookstore, or that dad came across in The Threepenny Review, and thought to send my way. I have such thoughtful parents. Such thoughtful, literary parents.
So I don’t know how I missed this, but back in 2008, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company staged a monster octology of Shakespeare’s English histories. That would be Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and finally Richard III. I know it looks like I just cut and pasted the same words and letters over and over again, but that’s actually eight separate plays from the Shakespeare canon listed in historically chronological order (as opposed to the order in which they were written).
I can barely continue on to describe the scope of the RSC’s project because I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Thinking about describing it, that is, let alone anyone doing it. But here goes. Basically this was a two and half year project that culminated in the performance of the aforementioned eight plays, back to back, over a four day period, using a single ensemble of 34 actors playing a total of 264 parts, for a combined total of 24 hours playing time. Richard II on a Thursday night, the Henry IV plays on Friday night, three Henry VI plays on Saturday, and Richard III on Sunday. That in itself is a mind-boggling feat of stamina, for actors, crew, and audience alike. But now consider that in the thirty-odd months leading up to this so-called Glorious Moment, the company prepared by mounting the productions in two groups of four, each performed in repertory.
Let me spell this out a bit more. Imagine you’re an actor learning and rehearsing a single Shakespeare play. When you’re pretty well on your feet with that one, you begin learning a second play. Once that second play is learned, you brush up the first one and begin performing both plays on alternate nights. While you’re performing those two plays at night, you begin learning and rehearsing a third play by day. Then a fourth play. Soon you’re performing all four plays in repertory. This includes certain “trilogy” days where you perform three plays in a row on a single day. Finally the run closes. But then you start all over again with a second set of plays. More learning, rehearsing, and performing. More trilogy days. Then, when you’re finished with that, when you’ve survived that marathon for a second time, you go back, brush up the first marathon, tack it to the second, and perform all eight plays together.
Now imagine you’re doing all that for the roles you were cast in, and AT THE SAME TIME you’re also doing it for the roles you are understudying.
Now imagine all the sword fights you have to learn, for your own roles and your understudy roles. Imagine the exits and entrances, the costume changes, the props you keep you track of, the trapeze and flying stunts you have to learn. For your roles and your understudy roles. In all eight plays.
Now imagine stage managing this thing. Imagine sewing costumes for this thing. Imagine rigging safety harnesses for this thing. Running light cues for this thing.
Imagine being the director who has to be there for EVERY SINGLE REHEARSAL for two and a half years.
Are you horizontal yet? I mean, right??? My heart is racing just reading all that over.
And now I’ve taken up this whole post describing the thing without getting back to the book I’m reading. One of the actors in this project, Nick Asbury, started a weekly blog about half way through the whole experience and eventually it got turned into this book. I’m only half way through but it’s a great read so far. Getting a glimpse into the work involved on the project has been fascinating, and his backstage accounts are hugely entertaining. But chiefly, his writings speak to the gratitude that he and his fellow artists felt for having this opportunity at all. The gratitude they felt for participating in a double-quadruple marathon (with an octology on top) for two and a half years. Imagine that.
Well, actually, I hope you find it’s easy to imagine that. That this Histories Cycle happened at all – and didn’t dissolve into a bloody massacre of clashing egos and exhausted bodies inside of six months – is a testament to the love and passion theater professionals feel for their art, and an example of how hard they are willing to work for it. It’s pretty amazing. It’s insane, actually. And if you can imagine the gratitude these folks felt for the opportunity to exhaust themselves at their passion, it means you’ve got a passion of a similar size. Or at least the seeds of one inside you.
And if you can’t imagine that gratitude? Hmm, well, I guess I don’t believe you. You might not have identified your passion yet, but you’ve got that seed in there somewhere. I know you do. If you want to find it, dig deeper. Some people have to risk more than others to get at their passion, and that's unfair, but I'm pretty sure those seeds were given out to everyone. So dig deeper. If you want it, it's there.