Monday, July 10, 2017

The Existential Malaise of Antonio

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; it wearies me, you say it wearies you; but how I caught it, found it, or came by it, I am to learn.”

We live in a sick society, divided by our wealths, politics, races. But we pretend we live in a healthy society where anyone can prosper with enough gumption, where bi-partisan politics will find the answers best suited to our nation as a whole, and where racism has been legislated out of existence.

Depression and hopelessness are on the rise, and suicides have increased by thirty percent over just the last seven years. When one cannot reconcile reality with the approved script, confusion, feelings of powerlessness, and depression result. Antonio, aka the merchant of Venice, is an example of this existential malaise.

The play opens with a discussion of the reasons Antonio is sad, but he has no explanation. He is wealthy, his business is robust, and he has friends who are concerned about him. He rejects the idea that he is sad because he suffers from unrequited love. In short, he says he doesn’t know why he is sad, he only knows that he is.

He is living in a place and time where Jews and Christians look upon each other the way Muslims and Christians do today. Some folks are more vocal about their feelings, but the culture at large is fraught with suspicion, fear, and hatred. Although his business is thriving, his ventures are vulnerable. And it is probable that he is a closeted homosexual.

His actions suggest that he desires deeply to have a positive impact on the world, to be a part of something larger than himself, and to contribute to the good. He does this by borrowing a large sum of money to stake one of his young friends toward his desired future. He borrows the money from a local Jewish money lender. After the deal is done, Antonio’s spirits rise a bit.

Unfortunately, Antonio has long been a ruthless competitor of the Jew from whom he borrows – a man who knows Antonio to be an anti-Semite. Antonio calls Shylock: the Jew, a dog, the devil, an evil soul, and a liar.

Once the deal is done, Antonio, the play’s title character, disappears for a long time. Shakespeare is dealing with the sub-plot, true, but the absence of Antonio in the action allows us to see the society in which he lives. Shylock and another of his Jewish friends are bullied by some local Christian toughs. A young Christian man named Lorenzo elopes with Shylock’s daughter and converts her to Christianity. Several wealthy suitors try for the hand of a woman “richly left,” causing us (and her) to wonder if they are interested more in her or in her wealth. The woman in question, Portia, has little control over her own destiny and is a kind of prisoner to her dead father’s will. A poor, ignorant servant boy happily applies for and takes a new position with slightly better wages. In short, the characters and society surrounding Antonio value wealth over love, Christianity as the correct religion, and male dominance over women. Everyone struggles to make sense of the world while ignoring the fundamental disconnect in their lives.

When Antonio returns to the story, he is being arrested because Shylock has brought a civil suit against him for breach of contract. A believer in the rule of law, Antonio goes willingly with the officer and is next seen in court where he protests very little about his fate. One wonders if Antonio is attempting suicide by breach of contract. The malaise has not lifted, and Antonio treads water in the same endless sea of confusion. He is ready to die.

When he is saved and order is restored (the Christians strip Shylock of his wealth, business, and religion and call it mercy), Antonio is returned to his mental state of the play’s beginning. He does not rejoice at being saved. He quietly accepts his fate and returns his focus to helping his young friend succeed.

Antonio is an example of what many people feel these days. His education does not save him. His wealth does not save him. His faith does not save him. His friends cannot save him from his depression even if they can save his life. In the end, he stands aside and watches the subplot characters fuck each other over in a Lucy-like prank, and I believe his despair deepens. I believe he looks upon the world in which he lives and weeps inwardly. As a racist himself, he is no better than anyone else in the play unless it might be said that the sadness of his soul lifts him above the common sway.

That’s what it’s like to live in a world gone crazy. Our production features a woman in the title role as Antonia.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Choose SETSCO?

Our Students are Artists 
The Southeastern Teen Shakespeare Company and First City Shakespeare offer a full range of classes in all aspects of performance. Under the artistic direction of Michelle Hancock, emphasis is placed on the development of the whole actor and focuses on what will be required of the student should he or she desire to pursue acting as a profession. The result is conservatory-type training, at the beginning level, which prepares students for professional training programs. At SETSCO, we do not expect all of our students to become professional actors, but we do treat all of our students like artists.

Professional-level Training 
Having attended conservatory training in New York before getting her MA in education, Ms. Hancock is thoroughly versed in a wide range of acting techniques and styles as well as the nuts and bolts of voice, speech, and movement. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Sonia Moore Studio of the Theatre, and with Peter Jensen’s workshop. She has studied improvisation with Eric Farone and Jeanmarie Collins, voice over with Susan Berkley, and voice with Carolyn Marcell. She has been acting and directing for over thirty years, has been teaching for sixteen years, and has worked professionally in film, commercials, and theatre. Additionally, Michelle has degrees in English literature and philosophy and is a published novelist.

Ms. Hancock brings a lifetime of experience and learning to Pensacola, a vision that includes anyone who wants to learn, and the ability to give students the confidence to become more themselves. She is a teaching artist who is dedicated to the integrity of the individual, the beauty of the theatre, and the truths that only art attempts to define. These goals can only be achieved by hard work and discipline, and SETSCO’s mission, which was written by Ms. Hancock, is to offer classes and performance opportunities that lead to students’ significant grown as artists, as community members, and as human beings.

A Well-rounded Curriculum 
Theatre artists need classes in a wide range of skills. They must train their voices, their bodies, their guts, and their brains. They must project without straining their voices; they must fight and fall without injury; they must cry on cue; they must understand how a play is written and how to serve the intent of the playwright. SETSCO’s aim is to give students a solid grounding in all of these skills so that when they enter college or professional conservatory training, they are already conversant with fundamental concepts and techniques. Involvement in a program like SETSCO’s gives students who plan to audition for BFA programs or conservatory schools an advantage over students who have only a general high school background. These programs are incredibly competitive, accepting only a handful of students each year.

Whether a student wants to be a professional actor or just wants a fun class, SETSCO’s policy is to include everyone. Our learning atmosphere is based on respect for all class members. There are no stars in SETSCO, no one student who always gets the lead, and no teacher’s pets. We believe that all people are capable of learning and growing, and we believe deeply in the concept of ensemble: that every actor is just as important as every other actor, regardless of the size of the role. As a result, our students feel safe and supported so that they are able to take risks. It is only through taking risks that students grow. Growth begins with inclusion.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Why Acting? Why Shakespeare?

How many different things must an actor study in order to be great? Actors need to study everything! Acting is physical, it’s emotional, it’s cooperative. Acting requires knowledge of history, politics, religion, science…. Acting uses the self in its entirety. And acting Shakespeare uses all these things to the max. But what, exactly, can you or your children get out of it?

Acting is Fun
Mrs. Doubtfire rocking out with the vacuum; Hermione punching Malfoy in the face; Jack teaching Rose how to fly. Ordinary mortals don’t get to do these things, but actors do! When you act, you charge up your imagination, see the world from a different perspective, behave in ways that you normally wouldn’t – in short, you play. You say, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” You say, “There’s no place like home.” You say, “My precious.” But if you want the opportunity to say these things, you have to start in an acting class. Great actors are trained actors.

Acting is Good Exercise
Indiana Jones is tossed onto a dessert cart and rammed head-first into the bandstand; he rises and dives to the floor, sliding on his chest toward a vial; he crawls on all fours and then staggers to his feet; after ducking flung knives, he fights his way through a confusion of ice and balloons until he is able to run to safety behind a huge gong and jump out a closed window. Exciting. Actors have incredibly physical demands placed on them both on film and on stage, so actors need to learn to use their bodies. They might be called upon to dance, to run (Forrest) run, to fall down or faint, to wield a sword or fight a giant. The great actor, director, and teacher Richard Boleslavsky said, “The education of an actor consists of three parts. The first is the education of his body, the whole physical apparatus.” He goes on to recommend, “an hour and a half daily on the following exercises: gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, classical and interpretive dancing, fencing, all kinds of breathing exercises, voice-placing exercises, diction, singing, pantomime, make-up.” No less than an hour and half, daily. When looking for an acting studio, you should seek one that offers training in these fundamentals in addition to acting classes. Your ability to inhabit a character physically is as important as your prowess in inhabiting a character psychologically and emotionally.

Acting Allows You to Express All That Stuff You Try to Keep Hidden
You can’t strangle your girlfriend, but Othello can. You can’t challenge your enemy to a duel, but Tybalt can. You can’t plot the murder of someone you’d rather see dead, but Lady Macbeth, Richard, Iago, and Regan can. In the course of all of this strangling, dueling, and violent death, the characters express deeply-felt levels of anger, jealousy, love, heartbreak, betrayal, confusion…in fact, every emotion it’s possible to feel can be found in Shakespeare. We very often see students who want to play a love scene because they are longing to express, completely, something that dwells deep within. Just as often, students want to play fights or arguments, seeking to experience the release of anger. In our American culture, we are encouraged to pen up any strong emotion in public and wait for privacy to express it; often, it is never expressed. But actors are not only allowed to pour out their hearts completely, they are required to. A painter uses a brush to express emotion, a musician a piano, guitar, or orchestra. The actor must become comfortable with using himself because acting is pretending, but great acting taps into a human being’s lifetime store of unexpressed experience.

Acting is Teamwork
Imagine Hamilton without Burr, without Eliza, without Lafayette, without King George, without Hercules Mulligan. Every actor on stage is a supporting actor, including Alexander Hamilton because it’s an actor’s job to support every moment in a play, sketch, or movie. In theatre, we call teamwork ensemble. The ensemble is not just the group upstage backing up the lead actor – the ensemble is everyone in the production. Without everyone, there is no story. Without the wicked queen, Snow White just lives out her days eating bon bons. Without the dwarves, she dies of exposure in the woods. The Group Theatre, founded by Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg, was the first American company to create theatre based on the idea of ensemble, and their work changed American theatre forever and for the better. In basketball, team members pass the ball back and forth with the goal of sinking a basket and scoring; in theatre, actors pass focus back and forth with the goal of transcending mere storytelling. Learning how to emote is important, but learning how to support what’s happening at every moment on stage is just as crucial. You can learn this through acting class and scene work, but one of the best ways to really understand what it means is to learn and practice improvisation. In improv, actors put their focus on making their partners look good, on building a scene together, and on relying on their partners to be there if they falter. The lesson of ensemble is that, in the theatre, truly, no one is alone.

Whether you want to be a professional actor, in which case all types of training are important, or whether you seek a new way to increase your self-confidence or find an outlet for your imagination, acting classes offer a fun and active way to make new friends while you explore the landscape of your own mind, body, and soul.