Fresh Eyes on TEENAGE DICK, 3rd Installation
Rehearsals for TEENAGE DICK are focussed on scene work and fight choreography this week. The actors are building their characters layer by layer, always pursuing greater clarity, depth and complexity. Additionally, they are exploring the many ways that their characters interact physically -- dancing, romancing, and fighting. Here's what our Fresh Eyes observers witnessed this week:
On the Mat(ter) of Mixed Martial Metaphors
“It’s not rocket surgery”: in an effort to comfort and inspire his actors, I have watched Jonathan Cole, resident fight choreographer at Artists Rep, rely on the magic of a mixed metaphor more than once. The chuckle a mixed metaphor produces comes from the satisfaction of identifying the correct source (here the splicing of “rocket science” with “brain surgery”), the familiarity of the aphorisms, and the perennial charm when the body—in this case, a tied-up tongue—gets the better of the brain. In a fight choreography rehearsal where an actor’s body can quickly come to feel foreign to its owner, “rucking fockstars” rhetorically acknowledges both that estrangement as well as reminds one of how close to the real thing the trick of a haymaker can look.
I wanted very much to observe the early development of movement for TEENAGE DICK specifically because this play is so interested in self-presentation. On Thursday, in the afternoon hours advancing on tea time, Chris Imbrosciano (Richard) and Nick Ferrucci (Eddie) were developing with Cole and director Josh Hecht the movement for the big “battle” scene. The play’s interpretation of “my kingdom for a horse” at the Battle of Bosworth Field is remade into a Sadie Hawkins dance. It is a hotly debated moment for Shakespeareans because it can reveal a lot about a given production’s empowerment of Richard’s body. Is he an effective soldier or not? While a long performance tradition has tended toward a vision of Richard with movement so limited as to be pointless on the ground, a recent trend evident in the miniseries The Hollow Crown (2016), featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, and The White Queen (2013), featuring Aneurin Barnard, embrace a Richard more than competent.
These recent stagings, following Ian McKellen’s capable physicality in the 1995 film, resonate more closely with the archaeological rather than the literary facts. In 2012, the body of King Richard III was exhumed from a parking lot in Leicester, England—rather impossibly under the stall labeled “R.” DNA and bone structure analysis of the remains not only matched those of decedents, but disproved any likelihood that he suffered from the withered or immobile arm alluded to in Shakespeare’s play and other literary works of the period. Sideways curvature of his spine, typical of adolescent-onset scoliosis, was, however, apparent during exhumation. Not an altogether uncommon condition, scoliosis occurs in three percent of the world’s population today, usually in women. Importantly, while the curvature would have made Richard’s right shoulder higher than the left and reduced his overall apparent height, it would not have caused a hunchback, precluded an active lifestyle, or delimited a military career. According to current U.S. standards, the degree of Richard’s curvature would not have rendered him ineligible for military service.
I asked in my last post: what can a Richard look like when the performance doesn’t require invalidating his body? The history of Richard III suggests he was more than capable soldier, leader, and person. In choreography as in history, it is in “the space between,” as Cole put it, where danger can happen. I have to admit that I am struggling with the fact the production calls for us to witness Richard be beaten. While much of the rehearsal was about developing a sense of consent and trust between Chris and Nick, working out the thigh slaps, foot stomps, and chest claps to convey the damage, at a certain point the question of Richard’s response to the brutalization started to get lost.
But not for long. Director Hecht was quiet for most of the rehearsal, letting the expert explore with the actors what they call the “shape” of the choreographic units of movement. Hecht interjected only twice in the two-hour’s traffic to consider with the actors whether Richard should attempt to crawl away from the fight to then be drug back by Eddie to further punishment. What does it mean if Richard doesn’t fight back? Doesn’t protect himself any more than to curl up like his hedgehog epithet? It is terrible to watch a person without physical privileges be kicked when he is down, humiliating someone who already doesn’t have the power or social capital in the situation is always already a cruel and empty act. Hecht is well aware this is not where the horror is, or should, lie.
Hecht guided the group in discussion—what Cole called “choose your own adventure time” or what literature students would call analysis by close-reading—to eventually decide that the fight did intellectual work other than making the audience complicit in the violence if Richard didn’t fight back. By protecting himself until it was over, the scene would reflect a systemic social problem at the heart of the play. If Richard doesn’t fight back, it suggests he expected to be brutalized in the first place. It crystalizes that his self-image has been shaped by a lifetime of others reinforcing the idea that he is not equal. In a moment of a fight with his peer, if Richard’s instinct is not to fight, it suggests internalized inequality—as if it is unreasonable he should not attempt to try.
Starting a fight is truly choosing your own adventure. It is a moment where one decides to veer from social norms and decorum to cut a new path…or beat another person back onto it. While the polish of fight choreography can indicate the overall production values of a show, it is exciting to see here the fight participating in character development. That is something a Shakespearean sword fight could not typically offer. Theatre historians have argued that it was the sword master who played the best swordsmen, such as Tybalt, Macduff, or Hotspur. It is clear they are the better men, so why do they fall to a character like Hamlet, who could not have possibly improved his fencing skills in time to take Laertes? The master playing second-fiddle makes possible a spectacular final sword fight as well as foregrounds the role of the mind in the matter. In this context, that Richard should lose and not even attempt retribution evidences that the lifetime of prejudice has not only hurt him emotionally, but also fundamentally rewired his basic survival instincts. Thus “by such despair” from whence this self-same loathing comes, we can understand why he “should accuse myself.”
Post Script: Writing about ability and bodies is tricky, but not unduly so once you get the swing of it. The APA, MLA, and Chicago style guides all provide recommendations for how to cultivate “nonhandicapping” or “bias-free” language. For more information, resources, and news about ongoing related legislation pertaining to ADA rhetoric, check out the Conscious Style Guide.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the rehearsal room was a scale model of the stage in a box-like structure showing the basketball court including the basket. But then I noticed several student desks spread across the practice space, and indeed, it soon was announced that scene work would begin with a run-through of Scene 4.
Immediately I noticed one big difference from the first day’s read-through and that is how much more compelling the effect on the audience is when things like movement and vocal inflection are added to the performance. I also noticed prop had been added – Eddie was now carrying a football throughout the scene.
The actors, at Josh’s request, ran through the scene three times with a fourth partial scene run-through. After each time, he offered suggestions, made adjustments, and mainly gave positive feedback to the actors. Each run-through, interestingly enough, was almost exactly 10 minutes long, even with variables like adjustments in movement and lapses in remembering lines. About those line lapses-they often occur when the emotion behind the line is the strongest.
After the break, they moved on to Scene 6. This scene requires a stage transition from Anne’s bedroom in Scene 5 to the auditorium for the assembly. Two questions regarding Elizabeth came up: whether she should drag a podium in with her entrance and if she should be miked up. I believe the answers were “no” for the first and “yes” for the second. Before the next practice run, I had to leave.
- I wanted to see part of the fight choreography work, but got there as everyone was about to go on break. When Christopher Imbrosciano came out the door, it was clear that he had just done some physically exerting work, because he looked like he had just gone for a run or something; a bit sweaty, but his face looked invigorated and bright. He does seem to really enjoy being there.
- I felt self-conscious and a bit like a creeper observing people practicing their craft; I personally would never want that. If I were practicing a speech, sure, I might have to give an early draft in front of peers, but not "outsiders," at least in a first draft. That's very brave of people to do that. It is appreciated, because it's really interesting to watch.
- The process is very structured, with the scenes being run through twice each while I was there, and everyone used an invariably soft tone of voice in discussions. A lot of times, I couldn't hear what actors/director were discussing, sometimes due to a loud ventilation fan in the room, but also just because that is what it apparently is. I was impressed with the controlled/subdued tone and the overall collaborative process/environment of this workplace. That did mean that I didn't feel ok about interrupting the actors or others even on breaks to ask questions about it, which is fine. It’s generous enough for them to let me sit in there and observe.
- It seemed like a large focus at this stage was actors adding layers/depth to their characters, sometimes by "trying out" different ways to say particular lines or by adding different gestures or actions at certain points.
- Alex Ramirez de Cruz (Clarissa) was the most open/visible in doing this. When Clarissa has her outburst in the classroom, on the second run-through, Ramirez added an action of standing up on a chair during her frustrated tirade. I feel like this added a lot theme-wise, because in addition to resorting to swearing (using the language her peers use and seem to value) to be heard, she also is increasing her size to assert more physical dominance (which her peers also seem to value). I also noticed Ramirez silently mouthing some of her lines on the sidelines before entering the scene; again, she actively involved her face while doing this and even got her neck veins popping out as is called for during the scene. I think Clarissa is one of the most interesting characters, really, so I can’t wait to see how Ramirez puts together all her layers.
- Nick Ferrucci suggested his character Eddie more exaggeratedly botch and stumble/stutter through his insult to Richard that he couldn't "run" for president because (uh, uh) "legs." Again, that lends more insight into Eddie's vulnerability as someone who has probably suffered several concussions while fulfilling his expected role to be the football star. Ferrucci also advocated for the wedgie scene to appear very "easy" for Eddie to accomplish, despite the intensity of pain it causes to Richard.
- In the aftermath of the wedgie scene, Christopher Imbrosciano shows Richard stuck still trying to dislodge his pants out of his crotch AS Anne enters the scene. I think that extra moment of humiliation after the assault is important to emphasize (because of COURSE that is when the pretty girl walks in!) because it induces sympathy for Richard. On the first read-through last week, without any of the physical assaults or mobility vulnerabilities being shown, I didn't feel much sympathy for Richard. So, the acting and physical scenes are a key piece for developing depth in Richard's character.
- Tess Raunig as Buck added an important action (at least I don't think it's specified in the script) of Buck using her wheelchair to roll over Richard's foot during an argument. This seems similar to Clarissa resorting to using a means of communication unlike her (yelling, swearing, insulting Elizabeth) that her peers listen to and take seriously. For Buck, who is very rational and mature, losing her cool in the heat of the moment by pettily causing physical harm to Richard is a clear sign of frustration that she is not being heard. It also echoes back to Buck using her chair to roll over and destroy Clarissa's campaign poster put on her chair without her consent; she uses that gesture to demonstrate her anger and her objection to being associated with oddball Clarissa. Similar to Richard's character, the physical actions are key in showing Buck's vulnerabilities, and Lew hasn't included many specifics about how that vulnerability is shown.
I feel like Raunig has their work cut out for them in adding more depth to Buck, because that seems to be the character that Lew has given us the least insight into. Dialogue-wise, Buck comes off very collected, well-spoken, socially astute, resilient, and confident, but that is a flat and unrealistic character; nobody is that secure, especially not in high school. We know Buck's vulnerability (besides the physical) is that she longs to be popular and pretty and included, but those are really generic vulnerabilities for a high schooler, and Lew really doesn't give us any background information on her. Buck is clearly bright (but we don't know what kind of student she is) and has a much more mature perspective on things than her peers in seeing past the high school BS (a quality she shares with Anne), but we don't get many clues as to how Buck developed all of that resilience, maturity, and wisdom. We don't know if her physical disability was "from birth" like her friend Richard's. I guess a minor blip of insight we get into Buck is when she reminds Richard of the advantage he had in developing his intelligence because his parents took him to cultural events growing up; so we can probably deduce that Buck's family is less wealthy than Richard's, which would account for some of her resilience in comparison to him, although I don't remember there being anything else suggesting that in the script. I guess wardrobe could convey that, but Lew doesn't give details about that.
- Ayanna Berkshire seemed to be working on playing up the comedic parts of her character Elizabeth, which makes sense as it will probably reinforce to the audience how naive and powerless she is as the sole adult character; the students don't take her seriously as an authority, so the audience probably shouldn't either. Elizabeth does strike me as a character who is well-meaning, but has somehow gotten too entrenched in her high school surroundings/dynamics and lost her perspective as to how to truly guide students. She could probably use more adult-only social interactions in her life to keep perspective; seems a bit like people who struggle interacting with adults when they are immersed only in parenting and play-dates where kids are always the focus. Berkshire was also thinking through and talking with Hecht about how she will move within the scenes depending on where different microphones are.
- Kailey Rhodes was the quietest/least visible about her work in developing Anne as a character..... which is kind of funny because that is very Anne-like. So I don't know if that's Rhodes' style or whether that was intentional character development. :D
- Director Josh Hecht was quite quiet overall, and really only interjected a few times. It seemed like at this point, he was mostly observing actors explore their characters, while also trying to keep in mind the “big picture” of how each character/piece can come together for a coherent but 90-minute performance for an audience to digest in one shot. He did bring up that the solid podium for Richard at the debate would be more effective if it didn't hide Richard's body. He also suggested that tweets come more rapidly during the debate to heighten the sense of control being lost. I liked that idea, because I remember even during the initial read-through, when the tweets were being read as voiceovers, they were read quickly and I couldn't keep up and felt a little bit of panic or feeling like 'wait, what, I didn't catch that, what did I miss?' That's a cool thing to see, how deliberate those subtle manipulations of an audience's emotions are. (I do think Lew had that in mind, especially considering some, maybe many, audience members are not going to be familiar with Twitter "lingo," even when it's projected. I tried showing a non-Twitter-user friend a funny Twitter thread that included multiple people in the conversation and he couldn't decipher it and was like, "What is this, I can't even figure out who is saying what?!".... So I guess it's a tricky balance here, going fast to get that tinge of panic, but also making sure even non-Twitter users will be able to notice enough key words to follow the content of the tweets.)
- Lots of thanks to ART and the performers for the opportunity to sit in and observe them working!