A Sabbatical from the Professional Theatre… Working Sabbatical, That Is
by Ben Gorman
This summer, Commonweal afforded me the luxury to take a working sabbatical to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: Shakespeare! Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival, one of Arizona’s youngest theatre companies, is in its fourth season producing the Bard’s plays in various gorgeous settings in the Grand Canyon State. In 2016, I met executive director Dawn Tucker (a former seasonal actor with Commonweal) and asked if there was any way I could get involved. After sending a taped audition this year, I was honored with two responsibilities in their company: three small roles in The Taming of the Shrew and the position of text and speech coach.
As a guest actor among their transnational cast, I have the privilege to bring Shakespeare’s text to life outdoors under a festival tent in a pine forest at 7,000 feet elevation! This young company has big ambitions and is impressing audiences with their work. Their offerings this year include Shrew and Titus Andronicus, in repertory during July, followed by The Tempest in October. How bracing to bellow the Bard’s beautiful, brilliant—and often bawdy—bounty to the mountain air! (Sorry, Shakespeare geek moment!)
Ben as Vincentio in “The Taming of the Shrew”
As text and speech coach, I’m engaged in the rewarding challenge of helping actors bring the text to vibrant life. As I put it in a blog entry for the Flag Shakes website:
My task is two-fold. The first part is to make sure the actors understand the text. What do the words mean? What is the sense of a phrase, a line, a speech? What is happening in the scene? The second part is to make sure the audience understands the same text, but this time as speech. The difference between text and speech, though it may appear largely mechanical, is fraught with challenges. As text and speech coach, I must examine each actor’s expressive output and evaluate its effectiveness, then help them to modulate or enhance that output when it is ineffective or its meaning unclear. That work requires an appreciation of the actor’s gifts and limitations, an ability to adapt to their style of learning, and a thorough knowledge of the tools available to assist them in this quest to convey meaning.
I’m having a blast here, but I’m ridiculously excited to return this fall and begin work on Commonweal’s fourth production of 2018, Dracula: Prince of Blood! I’ll see you back in the ’boro!
Ben is currently in the performance run of The Taming of the Shrew in Arizona through July 27. Then, I promise, he will return east where you will see him next as Dr. Seward in Dracula: Prince of Blood opening Sept. 8.
It is my opinion that we could not have chosen a better way to open our 30th Season at the Commonweal than with Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson. We at the Commonweal search for stories that are transcendent and relevant and we hope you agree that this play fit that bill with no exception. As of this writing, Silent Sky has two performances remaining and for this edition of Drama Unfolds, I have asked cast and crew to provide one highlight from the production they know they will always carry with them. Here’s what they had to say.
Elizabeth Dunn (Annie Cannon) — The moment in the show where women’s rights are emphasized (and then later) women getting the right to vote. It’s been a thrill to portray a kick-ass suffragette, who worked so hard to pave the way for future generations of women.
Adrienne Sweeney (Production Director) — Sitting in the audience show after show and hearing/feeling the collective inhale when Henrietta finally sees her “heaven.” Knowing that we were all sharing the same breath at the same time gave me chills every single time.
Eric Lee (Peter Shaw) — My Silent Sky highlight is having been a part of such a moving story. My deepest love is for art that asks of us what we can be. For me, Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky encourages us to find our meaning, our wonder, our “Heaven” where it exists for us, and to recognize that there is much in common in that experience, however it may come about. Our experience of the transcendent, of being part of something bigger than ourselves, may be unique. But I do believe that there is something vital and essential in having it, whether it be through religion or through a profound wonder at the simple fact of existence.
Stela Burdt (Williamina Fleming) — Henrietta’s final monologue and these words specifically: Because wonder will always get us there…Those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves. And I do. And there’s a reason we measure it all in light. Wonder is something I have truly begun to have great belief in. Because I believe it is wonder that will help us solve many challenges we face today, both personal and worldwide. The drive to keep learning, keep discovering, keep on keeping on. And doing it within the greater connected world.
Philip Muehe (Stage Manager) — Henrietta’s line at the end of the play about how Hubble’s telescope, which uses her work, shows us “how vast and beautiful it all is.” The fact that she had NO idea how her work, dedication, and hardship would lead to the beautiful discoveries and knowledge we take for granted now, hits me so hard every performance. It always puts things in perspective for me. Keep plugging away y’all.
Abbie Cathcart (Margaret Leavitt) — I love the last scene in which Margaret’s piano playing helps Henrietta make her big discovery about the Cepheid stars. Up until this point in the story, Henrietta had logged thousands of hours studying these stars. She knew them intimately, but it wasn’t until she heard the music that she was able to think of them in a different way and then make her discovery. I love this scene because I feel like playwright Lauren Gunderson is reminding us that art does not merely decorate more serious endeavors, but rather plays an important role in human progress.
Megan Pence (Henrietta Leavitt) — The epilogue. Every time I hit the phrase “And I know that distance is only space and time…and for some of us, light,” I feel the catch in my throat because it so perfectly encapsulates life’s journeys. As I finish my time here at the Commonweal, I know that it is not the end, but rather a shift. And that my time here truly has been measured in light.
Seeing one of the final two performances of Silent Sky is just one of the great things to do in Lanesboro. How about another idea? Commonweal resident ensemble member David Hennessey suggests a stop at the historic telephone booth at the History Museum downtown. There you can dial up any of several local interest stories, all narrated by area residents—including David himself.
Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson plays Friday, June 22 at 7:30 and Saturday, June 23 at 1:30. GET TICKETS —> SILENT SKY AT THE CWL
Thanks for reading; I’ll see you at the theatre—Jeremy
When I lived and worked as an actor in Chicago, I was quite familiar with the concept of “auditioning” for a role. In fact, it became a weekly practice and I do think that I came to be good at it. I am now in my 7th season at the Commonweal where those of us in the ensemble do not audition for the roles we play. It’s been seven years since my last audition and, oddly enough, I miss it. And for the past two years, I have found myself on the other side of the auditioning process by joining Commonweal Executive Director Hal Cropp at actor auditions at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN and the much larger national general auditions for actors, dancers and singers at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, TN.
Playhouse on the Square
These “cattle-call” general auditions can be daunting prospects. At the Park Square auditions, actors are granted two minutes to present two theatrical monologues of contrasting nature. At the Memphis auditions, otherwise known as the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions, actors have 90 seconds to present both a monologue and 16 bars from a musical theatre piece. That’s right, it’s basically a 90-second job interview amongst stiff competition. With Memphis and St. Paul combined for a total of eight days, Hal and I saw over 950 artists of all ages audition for theatre work.
2017-18 Apprentice Actors Megan Hanks and Patrick Vaughn
You may ask yourself, “The Commonweal has a resident ensemble of actors, why in the world would Hal and Jeremy sit through all those auditions?” It is at those general auditions that we “fill out” the rest of the company for the season. Our apprentice class of young actors, now in its 11th year, is pulled from those auditions. Any “seasonal” actors that we hire for one or two productions a year are artists that we have seen at those auditions. It is an extremely grueling and exhausting task, especially in Memphis, but it is also exhilarating to see how much talent is out there and how many people are choosing to follow a life in the arts.
And so even as our current company of apprentice artists is busy creating the world of Salt-Water Moon, their own capstone project, the artistic staff at the Commonweal are making offers to the next group of young theatre-makers who we hope will join us to play with us onstage and to learn all that it takes to operate a small professional theatre company. They are the future and all of them got their jobs in 90 seconds!