American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Box Office: 608-588-2361
A JC Q&A featuring:
Stephen Brown-Fried, Director
James Ridge, Core Company Actor (Cicero/Ligarius/Lepidus)
Jake Penner, Artistic Associate
On how the Out of the Woods series got started
Jake Penner: I think that Carey [Associate Artistic Director, Carey Cannon] and Brenda [Artistic Director Brenda DeVita] had some titles that they just wanted to hear out loud. So we took advantage of everybody's time off, and we all got onto these virtual plays. And so that was really our transition into the rehearsal process; just seeing if there was anything positive to be found in reading a play on a communications platform that was never intended to be a platform for this. And then we had solidified the partnership with PBS, we went to the Core Company and asked, is this something that everybody is interested in doing? And everybody came back and said, yeah, let's do it.
And so we hired the slate of directors, and we put the casting together. And then Aaron Posner was good enough to be the guinea pig directing the Chekhovs, and just go in and figure out, ok, how do we map a traditional rehearsal process with this now? Totally uncharted waters for everybody at that point…as we embarked on this, I don’t think we knew for sure that it was going to work. But we started with the Chekhov one acts, and we thought, hey, this is really funny, and it's really entertaining. And it's seeing this group of actors from a different vantage point – we've got a camera right up close to them now. So we get to see all the little things you might not catch in those last few seats up the Hill.
On your new rehearsal space:
Stephen-Brown Fried: I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens with my husband, who has also been working remotely since mid-March. I don’t have an office, or even a desk. My meetings generally start earlier in the morning than his do, so I usually start the day at the large table in our dining area, where I park my laptop on a stack of art books so that my Zoom camera-angle isn’t too terrifying. At some point in the mid-morning, once his meetings are starting, I switch to an armchair in the corner of our bedroom so that he can use the dining table… I’m known to get emphatic and loud, so throughout the day, I’ll periodically get texts from my husband in the other room simply saying ‘you’re shouting.’
Jake Penner: It’s been an interesting setup, because I'm watching the reading, and the director in Seattle or Chicago is watching the reading. And we're talking to each other over ear buds in our iPhones. You know, sort of hearing the audio from the laptops, hearing the audio from each other, and having to figure out how to use cloud-based tools like Google Drive and Google Docs to communicate with each other, and with stage management. And so it was just figuring out how to digitize a traditional rehearsal process in a way that we're forced to right now. But it continues to evolve, and I kind of can't wait to see what the long-term response was from Julius Caesar.
James Ridge: A large part of the learning curve associated with rehearsing and reading plays on an online meeting format was the hardware and connectivity issues. I have a 10-year-old laptop that worked for a couple of weeks, but when the new Zoom updates came out, I was suddenly out of luck...which I discovered five minutes before airing the Julius Caesar reading! I couldn’t join the webinar. Quick, new laptop, different scrolling, new script format, aaarrgh!!
We discovered as well that our internet at home wouldn’t support both of us [Jim and his wife, Core Company Actor Colleen Madden] meeting and working online. We needed to be connected via Ethernet cable...which I discovered during the Arms and the Man reading when I lost the WiFi connection DURING the live reading.
So now I go to one of APT’s rental apartments to work. I’ve rearranged all the living room furniture and pinned a black curtain to the ceiling in order to create a “booth” in which to rehearse and record. Otherwise, it’s business as usual.
On the Zoom Stage
Stephen Brown-Fried: I was, of course, saddened when the season needed to be postponed, though I completely understood the necessity of this very tough decision. I think that knowing that this play was to happen up the Hill added to the potency of the project for everyone involved — the reading was like getting a small glimpse into ‘what might have been,’ and so in that respect, there was a bittersweet aspect to it all. But in a different way, knowing that the project was intended to happen as a full production, and will, hopefully happen that way in the future, liberated us to really let this version be unique to the Zoom platform.
Because Zoom limits what’s possible in terms of spectacle and staging, I found that working in this format forced our attention to be on the language in a really exciting way. I felt that I heard things in the play that I hadn’t heard before as a result of how specifically focused on the language the whole ensemble was….I just can’t possibly overstate how much credit the actors deserve for this project. They had to function as their own lighting, set and costume designers, not to mention sound and video technicians, all while figuring out how to translate their artistry onto a platform that is new to many of us. The success of the project is really the result of their incredible grit and ingenuity.
James Ridge: We costumed ourselves, so we were guided by the limits of our own wardrobes. Some of us read from inside a closet to simulate the darkness of the night and storm scenes. Most of us played multiple characters, but our audience is very savvy, so really we just needed to provide a signpost to suggest ‘new guy’ when we switched from one to another.
On the context of the play in 2020
Jake Penner: On Sunday night, when we were literally in the middle of watching and recording the Julius Caesar performance, at a certain point I pulled up my phone and I put the live feed on from state street, from on the ground on state street. And I'm watching Mark Antony give a speech that eventually ends with inciting a riot. And I'm watching a present day riot happen on my phone on a separate screen right next to that screen. And it was surreal to say the least.
James Ridge: The murder of George Floyd and the resultant protests were the reality in which we rehearsed and recorded Julius Caesar. I wish I had been braver that week to speak into that reality.
Stephen Brown-Fried: The play’s resonances with our current times were impossible to ignore. That said, I’ve now directed the play three different times at three different moments in history, and the play always seems to feel incredibly timely. The play is, at its heart, about a moment of national reckoning. I hope the experience of watching it gave the audience something meaningful to contemplate as we navigate our own national reckoning.
On your favorite part of the project:
Stephen Brown-Fried: Getting to work with this incredible company of actors, and witness their amazing commitment to making thrilling art in the most challenging of circumstances!
James Ridge: I think the power of Shakespeare in a Zoom format is the chance to hear the play afresh. Artists want to innovate and test what’s possible, and we discovered a lot about the format; but I’ve learned that I prefer the simpler choices that put the focus on the language.
Jake Penner: My favorite part has been, at the very beginning of the Sunday performances, watching Zoom get flooded with all of the people who've shown up to watch us do this. And then hearing their response afterward – they're both delighted and complimentary about the work itself. But I think the real thing that people are responding to is the fact that they get to see this acting company that has become part of their families. And knowing that they weren't going to be able to see them this summer, and then finding out that they would be able to see them, limited interaction though it was, the audience just seems so grateful that they get to watch something beautiful being made in this moment where it's very difficult to connect to people. And there's certainly enough going on in the world outside right now to cause people to want maybe a little bit of respite, or to see the events of the world being reflected back to them through art, which was certainly the case with Julius Caesar. So I guess my answer is, seeing the audience both appreciate the play and respond to it, and have it satiate some portion of what they’re missing right now, even if it's not exactly the thing that we all want it to be.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephen Brown-Fried
Watch here starting at 7:00 pm CDT on Friday, July 3.
Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold (Cassius), Kelsey Brennan (Marulius/Metellus/Titinius), Nate Burger (Flavius/Trebonius/Pindarus), David Daniel (Carpenter/Decius/Lucillius), Sarah Day (Casca/Dardanius), Jim DeVita (Brutus), Tim Gittings (Cinna/Caesar’s servant/Messala), Gavin Lawrence (Antony), Colleen Madden (Soothsayer/Portia/Cinna the Poet, Volumnius), Brian Mani (Julius Caesar/Poet), Melisa Pereyra (Calphurnia/Octavis’ Servant/Clitus), James Ridge (Cicero/Ligarius/Lepidus), Marcus Truschinski (Cobbler/Artemidorus/Octavius), Marco Lama (Lucius).
Jacqueline Singleton: Stage Manager. Sara Becker: Voice and Text Coach.
Ele Matelan: Foley Artist.