Interview with René Thornton, Jr.
René Thornton, Education Artist and veteran member of the American Shakespeare Center’s Resident Troupe, has been in four of the five Actors’ Renaissance Seasons at ASC. Christine Parker, Dramaturg Intern from the Mary Baldwin College Master in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance Program, interviewed Rene in the second week of the 2009 Ren Season.
CP: What separates the ARS from other seasons?
RT: I think—well, there’s the obvious things, the no director, and the do it yourself costumes and props and staging and everything else.
The biggest difference is in performance—actors seem to have more ownership of their work. That’s an interesting thing and it would be interesting to see how to get actors to do that when they did have a director. There’s energy that actors bring to something when it’s generated on their own, when they’re not doing something that someone else told them to do, when they’re not wearing clothes that someone else told them to wear. That freedom shows up in performance.
CP: Do you prefer anything about the ARS as opposed to other work you have done?
RT: I like the ensemble nature of it; I like being able to dress myself.
CP: Since you’ve worked in the resident troupe before, can you say what’s different about the rehearsal process in the Actors Ren season when it comes to work on understanding text?
RT: I think that we don’t spend enough time in Ren season working to understand the text. We spend zero time working [together] to understand the text—except for when a misunderstanding of the text leads to an inability to stage something. That is when time is taken to figure out what is actually happening in the language in order to help staging. But I feel like the only time we stop to figure things out is when we don’t know what we’re doing with [a moment].
It’s just assumed that people know what’s going on otherwise, and I’m not sure that’s always the case.
CP: Do you have any specific examples of that when you’ve stopped to figure out the text in order to figure out the staging?
RT: In Midsummer, I think, because we’ve all done it so much before, everyone has a general understanding of what’s happening in the language. I know in some of the more difficult plays we’ve done before like Tamer Tamed, or like Duchess of Malfi, or Devil is an Ass…in those we’ve had to take a lot more time to just talk about what exactly is going on in the scene.
CP: What’s different about the rehearsal process when it comes to staging and blocking?
RT: I feel like with Midsummer there was very little staging and blocking that happened--at least in the scenes that I’m in. Granted, a lot of my scenes are just Ben and me—I trust Ben and Ben trusts me--so there wasn’t really a need for us to say, “cross right” or to do that sort of stuff because we know to handle it. If either of us adjusted something the other person would adjust with it as well. So when you have a two-person scene, or you’re onstage alone, you can do that. In the group scenes that we have, there was never any formal blocking process. That [factor] has varied from show to show and from Ren season to Ren season.
CP: Just as an aside question, Ralph [Cohen, Founding Executive Director at ASC and Gonder Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance] commented to me the other night that you spent more time rehearsing the mechanicals’ scenes than any other scenes in Midsummer, is that true?
RT: That may be true. I don’t know actually know how much time the lovers spent working on their scenes because I’m not in any of them. I rehearsed some scenes more than the other scenes—of course, that’s all relative with 2 days of rehearsal—“more” is one more time. It has to do with the complex nature of the scenes. An easier scene doesn’t need as many rehearsals, especially when you are only going to rehearse for 2.5 days. Whereas a scene that either involves a lot of running around, or the play within the play, for example, where there are specific things that have to be handled, then that’s going to take more rehearsal time.
CP: How is the rehearsal process different with movement and character development? In 2.5 days how much did you think about developing Oberon?
RT: Even in our regular season, when we do Renaissance Runs [the troupes at ASC arrive for rehearsals with their lines memorized and work together for 8 hours to mount the show for the director of it], you have to make on-the-fly decisions, and with a play like Midsummer, it absolutely required on-the-fly decision making and coming in with some decisions pre-made. Particularly, movement-wise, I’ve made a lot of adjustments since opening because I now have time to think about that. I definitely put more attention into being aware of my physical self because I now know my lines and know who I’m talking to and know where I’m going to be exiting from, so now I can spend time thinking about the ways I can adjust my physicality to be more other-worldly. I didn’t have much time to do that before.
CP: Do you feel like the audience is noticing any of those nuances or reacting to them?
RT: Maybe, I don’t know. I mean, they see what they see, take what they take from it. I feel like there’s so much unworked on in Midsummer, it gives me things to work on while we’re in performance.
CP: Oberon has 236 lines. Did the shortened rehearsal process make it a challenge to getting all the lines memorized?
RT: No, because I kind of knew the part already. I have played Oberon, I have played Theseus twice, I have played Titania. And I’m also playing Snug. Snug was the great surprise for me about this production of Midsummer because I didn’t want to do it, at all, yet I have such a great time with it now.
CP: Which character are you most looking forward to preparing or performing this season?
RT: I’m very excited to be playing York in 1 Henry VI. That’s a part I wanted to play since the last time I did it, which is a long time ago now. I like his track over the arc of the 3 plays, so I wanted to play him all the way. Hopefully I’ll get to do that.
We’re doing 2 Henry VI in Ren Season 2010, and then 3 Henry VI in the 2011 Ren season, and Richard III the 2012 Ren season. And then in fall, we’re doing Richard II (2008), 1 Henry IV (2009), 2 Henry IV (2010), Henry V (2011).
One thing I like about the History plays is the chance they give you to track your character through the stories.
CP: Who are you in The Changeling?
RT: I play Alsemero—he is the one who Beatrice-Johanna wants to be married to. He’s one of the survivors. She kills herself because of the wrongs that she has done to him and [De Flores], that Ben [Benjamin Curns] plays, offs himself. They’ve been very bad people. He’s sort of the good guy in that play.
CP: We talked a little bit about textual clues. What textual clues for example, contribute to how you might stage Oberon, or Snug.
RT: Snug is a great example of choices that were made completely from what the text has to say about him, which is not a lot. He says that he is slow of study. In the performance of the play, the court comments on what a gentle beast he is, and how sweet it seems he is. He does this prologue that is very much about making sure that everyone’s all taken care of, and that nobody gets upset by his performance, so that information led to—Snug.
CP: If you were comparing Shakespeare to somebody else, who seems to have the more modern kinds of dialogue exchanges and that sort of thing?
RT: I know that everyone hates doing the Jonson plays in the Ren Season, historically, we’ve hated doing the Jonson plays. When we did Devil is an Ass, when we did Eastward Ho, those are plays, that, as an ensemble, we did not enjoy the writing of. I’m discovering now that, looking at 1 Henry VI, which we know is an early play—I can now see the ways 1 Henry VI is an early play after having worked on so many of Shakespeare’s plays. The writing is clumsy. I can even feel it a bit in Midsummer, in the places where the writing is clumsy, or where the writing is poetry for the sake of poetry instead of moving plot forward. Whereas, I just performed some of Shakespeare’s best writing with King Lear and Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, [all of] which are extraordinarily well-crafted plays, and [plays] where the actor always feels like he or she is speaking to something and heading for some kind of dramatic point. I can see now Shakespeare’s development as a writer.
CP: Do you have a specific example?
RT: In Midsummer, Oberon has 2 speeches that are extraordinarily poetic and beautiful, for instance: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine…”
That is a lot of description for a character to get to “Titania sleeps there and that’s where I’ll find her.” My experience is that there is a lot less of that in the later plays.
CP: Do you feel like you have to really try to make Shakespeare’s text understood? In that speech, do you have to try and make it make sense to the audience?
RT: I find…I do have to try harder in that instance, for example, to how I make it dramatically engaging, so that it is not waxing poetic, but is indeed purposeful. And I’m still trying to figure that out. I had an idea before we started rehearsals, and now that I’ve been working on it, I’ve had a hard time trying to make it come to fruition. So, I need to get a new idea, and I have been investigating, in performance, new ideas since the idea that I had doesn’t seem to be working in the way I hoped it would.
CP: If Shakespeare has some difficult vocabulary that might be hard for the audience, how do you handle that with your movement, or your vocals?
RT: As much as we swear to the contrary, there are times when the language is hard. It’s either word usage that is so archaic that no one could possibly figure that out four hundred years ago, let alone right now. There are times when I’ll have a passage of text that I feel like is just so unclear or so bizarrely worded that no amount of hoop jumping on my part is going to get a modern audience to understand what the hell I’m talking about. Because if I had to research—if it required 4 pages of research for me to understand—how, in two lines, am I going to make that clear to the audience? Sometimes I count on the context of what’s going on to explain it. There are times—I will say it, it’s even going to go on record, so I’m a little hesitant to say--when you just say…frak it, there are just going to have to be lines that some very clever people in audience are going to get, and everyone else, just hang on a second and we’ll get back to the part you understand in just a moment.
CP: Anything in Midsummer that falls in that category?
RT: Yes, I have a line to Titania: “Sound music and strike more dead than common sleep than all these five, the sense.” The phrases of that sentence are so reorganized that I think it’s hard to get through, so I just…plug along, and everyone gets the idea that I want more music.
CP: I know I sat there for a minute thinking. That syntax is hard to get around.
RT: The syntax is very confusing, and if you’re hearing it for first time, I think it flies right over your head. And there are times—I remember a teacher pointing out to me that when Shakespeare himself will give you more than one way to say something so that it is clear it is for multiple people. An example for that in Midsummer--there is a conversation in which Theseus is talking to Hippolyta about the lunatic and lover thing and he explains a bunch of stuff, and at the end of it he says, “Or, in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear.” Which is a lovely and succinct way of making clear the four lines he said previously that were less clear.
CP: How does the ensemble work on figuring out props and costumes? Do you go off on your own and hope for the best?
RT: It depends on what it’s for. Take Midsummer, for example. Alyssa [Wilmoth] and Ben [Curns] and I started conversation months ago about what we might look like to have some sort of cohesion among the fairy world. But, again, as I was saying earlier today, supply becomes the determining factor. I couldn’t find the wig that I wanted, Alyssa couldn’t find the costume that she wanted. Ben, because he was also cast as Starveling, couldn’t do the make-up that he wanted. And so, though we did have these conversations about great ideas on a production that would really look cool with a budget and a costume designer, when push came to shove in 2 days of rehearsals, those ideas became secondary to—what do we actually have in stock, and what fits, and what do you have time to put on and take off to make the changes for the other characters you have to play? Double /triple casting becomes a huge determining factor to decision making on that level in a way that becomes the costume designer’s problem in other shows that we do here—it’s Jenny [McNee] or Erin [M. West]'s job to figure out how on earth I’m going to get these people to make these quick changes but in the Ren season it becomes your problem, and no one else’s but your own. With Titania’s fairies, they all went to the fairy section of the costume shop and pulled something fairy-esque from it, and that created a unity of some sort. But when you look at the Mechanicals, Nolan and I are both wearing overalls, John dressed as some sort of pseudo-skater-punky-actor dude, Ben is wearing black and white with a vest, and Aaron’s got a suit jacket. There’s really no uniformity at all among that group of people. But the audience doesn’t’ seem baffled by this group of people who don’t look like they belong together. That’s such a misfit group of people that maybe that works.
CP: Do you have difficult quick changes in Midsummer?
RT: Mine are not super terrible because I don’t have the problem that Ben has. He’s been cast as two characters who both appear in the same scene, so that becomes a problem. Pretty much if you do Midsummer for this company [because most seasons employ 15 or fewer actors to do all of the roles for the plays in the Rep], you’re going to be changing back and forth a lot—you’re going to be involved somehow in the court scenes, you’re going to be involved somehow in the fairy scenes, and those scenes happen one after the other. My costume pieces are picked—I picked overalls because overalls are easy to get in and out of, and go on top of whatever else I was going to be wearing. It turned out I did have enough time but the decisions had already been made.
CP: How about audience interactions in ARS as compared to the summer/fall season—are they different?
RT: They happen the same way, in that if we have a guest director for a summer/fall resident season show and especially if it’s a guest director who has never worked here before, then they have no experience of audience contact really in the way that we do it here at the Blackfriars. You’re not getting directed for audience contact. There’re some things like asides that are obvious, and oftentimes other things you figure out in performance—oh, here’s a great line I can take to an audience member or here’s a part where I can include some other people. In some ways I think it’s essentially the same process in the Ren season as well, you don’t really figure those things out until you have people. The more I do plays here, there more I can identify things in advance--these are places where I know already that I can use an audience member for this. This remains true regardless whether it’s the Ren season or the summer/fall season.
CP: Had you spotted things in Midsummer ahead of time?
RT: To go back to that thing that we were talking about earlier—how to make Oberon’s lines more active, and less poetic. He has a speech where he talks about watching cupid trying to shoot a virgin, and not shooting that virgin, but the arrow landing on a flower—a lot to get to the point that there’s a flower that has Cupid’s power in it. I knew when I was working on it, that I could make an audience member the vestal, I could make an audience member the virgin, that would be something for Ben and I to do that could give an action to the language without overriding the language—basically acting out this story of Cupid and the virgin.
CP: Did you use it for humor—did you pick on somebody who obviously would not be a vestal virgin?
RT: I pick on whoever happens to be the female sitting on stage left. That is the thing about audience contact, is that oftentimes, especially if you need to pick out someone of a specific gender, everyone on stage has to be prepared to shift the staging accordingly, if [the gender you are looking for] is not on a given side of the stage. Then you have to adjust. I imagine will adjust as well when we have younger people in the audience. I haven’t quite thought that all the way through. When Ben and I did Romeo and Juliet, we were the servants at the beginning and it was the two of us onstage. We had a bit with a girl onstage, when those girls onstage were all ten, then we would adjust to find someone older, and I would use a teacher, even if the audience member was not on stage.
CP: You hope to work in the next couple of Ren seasons?
RT: We are still in a bit of the honeymoon period with this Ren season because I’ve only done one show in it, and it’s a show we hardly rehearsed at all. We’ll see if the things that have made me crazy about the Ren in the past continue to rear their heads when I get into rehearsals for following plays.
CP: I shouldn’t ask what those are…
RT: I can tell you, that would be good. Everyone talks about what’s great about the Ren season. I’m always more that willing to talk about things I hate about the Ren season. I actually like to have a director—I’m in the minority around here but I am a person that likes to have a competent director—competent director being the key there. It’s such a useful thing to have someone watching you work to push you in ways that on your own you would not go. I think better performances come out that way. I also am a bit anal retentive about organization at work, and the Ren season is not a place for that. There’s also this thing we’ve talked about before in the Ren season where people fall into these 2 groups, either follower or leader. If you’re a follower, you kind of coast your way through the Ren season because you’re just like, yes, whatever someone else wants to do, it’s great. If you’re the kind of personality who is a leader—which I am—then you end up doing a lot of other people’s work for them because they are content to sort of sit by and ride the wave. It can be really frustrating when you find yourself in the position of—really, I have to make the schedule today? You’ll notice that if you watch how our daily rehearsal schedule gets made—because, if Ben or I are in the room, our scenes will get rehearsed before everybody else’s scenes. I will not tolerate sitting around waiting for someone to come up with something to rehearse. We will spend time rehearsing my scenes. And Ben is very much the same way and a couple other people in the company. People who are content to sit back, when you get further on in the rehearsal process, and then somebody says--well, my scenes haven’t gotten rehearsed. I want to say “well, that’s your fault. You had ample opportunity for the last week to mention that we should rehearse the scenes that you are in, and you elected not to. And now you’re going to make it everyone else’s problem that you haven’t rehearsed your scenes.”
CP: And that’s happened?
RT: Yeah, that’s happened a lot in previous Ren seasons.
The model is a really good one, and in my world, if I could hand pick the group of actors to use this model, then that would be awesome. But since I cannot--not everyone is particularly well-suited to self-motivation.
CP: So the model would include people who are good at...
RT: …handling themselves, yes.
CP: And putting their needs forward.
RT: Yes. And there is a flip side of that—if you have—can you have a group of 14 leaders? If you’re going to rehearse a scene with five people in it, and all five of the people have strong ideas, and all five are strongly committed to their ideas, that creates a separate set of problems. But having never experienced that, I would at least like to see what it’s like.
CP: It hasn’t ever happened?
RT: In Ren seasons, as happens with a director on some level, it becomes about compromise, it becomes simply about who’s bossier, or who’s more outspoken, or who won’t back down. Sometimes it becomes simply about that. It depends on who the people are and what’s the scene is, and do you give into the person who has the bigger part? Does that become the determining factor for who has the final say, your part is bigger, so you get the final say? We have had multiple instances where the people with smaller parts don’t want to give into the person with the larger role, so then what decision gets made from there?
When we did Taming of the Shrew in the first Ren season, we were working on Kate’s speech in the final scene of the play. Sarah was playing Kate. And we had actors who wanted to be doing things during her final speech, things that she did not want to be happening, but things that they continued to do in the entire run of the show. Even after the entire company participated in this excruciating, painfully long conversation about who has the right to decide what happens here. The person doing the talking had to suffer through a run where other people were doing things while they were talking.
CP: That was kind of distracting. Isn’t it the rule that you give the floor to the one who is talking?
RT: Well that’s what you would think. That’s one of the things that can happen in the Ren season. I would say probably one of the most famous ren season disputes was the ending of Tis Pity She’s a Whore. We had two camps of people. We had a camp of people who were gunning for a tragic ending to the play, and we had a camp of people gunning for a more comedic ending to the play. Those were two separate groups of people, and all of them had lines in the scene. Who was going to be the arbitrator of how this was going to play out? And the who eventually became the artistic director--Jim finally had to step in and say, this is how it’s going to play out. We as a group were not capable of coming to that decision.
CP: Did you—or Jim [Warren, Artistic Director at ASC]—decide it would be tragic?
RT: Yes, but much to the unhappiness of the people who were gunning for a more silly end to the play, much to the great upset of those people. That sort of thing can happen in a Ren season in a way that it doesn’t happen—well, it happens in a summer/fall season, but because the director has the final say, you similarly can get stuck with things you do not agree with. But it’s an easier pill to swallow when you have a director because you know that that is how the system is set up. But in the Ren season it becomes about having to swallow that from peers, which is less easy to do.
We’re operating on a model—which we seem to want to do, except when it doesn’t fit someone’s agenda—we seem to want to operate on the model that the people with larger sides—we’ll at least consider those ideas first because they are most affected by it. Those people are prone to having more ideas, which is one of the reasons why they are playing those parts. But that falls apart if someone is not comfortable with, or not used to, spearheading a group. The group is left without a leader and things can fall apart in that way. I know that one of the—everybody will probably say this—one of the failings of our production of the Duchess of Malfi is that the two people with the 2 largest parts did not have a ton of ideas of how to put that together, so that left the entire production kind of on shaky feet.
Christine Parker recorded and transcribed this interview.
Sarah Enloe then followed these guidelines in editing it for the ASC website:
1. Maintain what the actor says in their own words but delete repetitions and incomplete digressions
2. Correct verb/noun disagreement
3. Organize words/phrases for clarity
4. Insert character names for non-specific pronouns for clarity
5. Insert explanations or connections in [brackets].
6. Note alterations with [brackets]
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Actors' Renaissance Season