TUCSON, Ariz – The long buffett table is loaded with Magpie’s pizza, salad and bottles of wine. A dessert table is covered with brownies, cookies and delicious cake pops. Chatter and laughter fill the house.
It is the Rogue Theatre’s traditional meal before the first read of a new play, in this case, The Winter’s Tale, which will open April 27. According to the show’s director, Cynthia Meier, it was cast last May, but this is the first gathering of all the actors and crew. Veteran Rogue actors greet one another with enthusiastic hugs, and new cast members get introduced.
“Time to eat! Time to eat!” Joe McGrath, the artistic director, announces but there is no mad rush for food. Conversations seem more engaging.
Relationships between actors are key, according to Meier, since they help character relationships on stage. This meal is the start of turning a cast of actors and actresses into a family. The practice began 3 years ago, after hearing of a similar even Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre.
“Since putting on a play is such an exciting adventure, we thought starting with a meal together would be a kind of celebration,” Meier said. “We also have a big potluck party at the end of the play.”
At length, after everyone has eaten, Meier makes a toast. She said that though the play was written nearly 400 years ago, there is still something fresh and exciting about becoming one of the many artists to interpret the work.
For casting, physical appearance wasn’t as important as an actor’s ability to convey an understanding of Shakespeare’s words. She said the company looked at how well an actor could make the poetry live.
There is a flurry of activity as food is cleaned up and chairs are rearranged for the read through.
The actors sit shoulder to shoulder, pressed tightly together on stage. The tables in front of them are covered with scripts, Shakespeare lexicon books, pens, pencils, highlighters and water bottles.
McGrath urges the actors to not feel intimidated by the un-traditional circumstances of this first-read environment. Normally these rehearsals aren’t attended by outside supporters – in this case, members of the Rogue Theatre Company board.
Meier takes her seat close to the stage. The lights dim. The stage manager, Leah Taylor, reads the stage directions. The play begins.
The cast seems at ease. The synchronized turning of pages is sometimes interrupted by laughter. Some make small hand gestures and lean across the long table to direct their dialogue. Pieces of the characters’ personalities come through and the distinct Shakespearean cadance can be heard.
Even in this early first read there is a sense of the differences between these two worlds. The events at the palace are serious while the scene with the shepard are light and amusing, elliciting laughs from everyone.
Another moment that gains a few chuckles is when one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions is read:
[Exit, pursued by a bear.]
Matt Cotten, a puppet designer who worked with the theatre in the past will design a giant puppet to be the bear. Backstage, some of Cotton’s previous work hang from the ceiling behind the large black stage curtains. Above Meier’s head, massive puppets loomed much larger and more threatening than one might expect.
To gain a better understanding of the play, Meier spoke with Professor Fred Kiefer, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Arizona. She read the text many times and even watched a few productions on video.
Meier plans on staying faithful to the original text. “Many productions tend to put a Shakespeare play somewhere different – put it on the moon.” She said. “We want to look at what’s in the text and the world Shakespeare created. We’re trying to render Shakespeare’s poetry as beautifully and faithfully as possible.”
Despite all of the reading, research, and thought, where the emphasis will fall on the play’s themes is still up in the air. “Nothing really happens until we get the cast in the room together.” Meier said. “Things emerge that I don’t even know were there.”
However, one important idea is that this play is the ultimate wish fulfillment. At the end of the play, Leontes’ wife comes back to life. “All of us that have lost a loved one can understand yearning for resurrection.” Meier said.
The Winter’s Tale isn’t a popular or widely performed Shakespeare play but there’s a richness to the text, a certain maturity that Shakespeare brings to one of his last plays that spurred The Rogue to choose this for production. They want to be thought provoking, to have material for discussion and the complexity of the plot and the interesting journey is one that invokes questions of who’s justified, who’s not, who’s the villain, who’s the hero.
“It’s not a clearcut comedy, tragedy, or history.” Meier said. “It’s a combination of all the elements and that separates it from other shows.”