3 Shakespeare Roles in BSC

By Ira Seidenstein

July 4, 2013

In the BSC 1992 season I played many minor characters in the three plays – Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III. We were 16 actors (including John Bell and his wife Anna Volska) touring in repertory all three plays. 5 of us also later did a season touring bits of Shakespeare in a schools’ program directed by John. BSC was going to do 2 schools programs that year, one as per above of bits directed by John. The other was to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my 50-minute adaptation in avant-garde/experimental physical theatre form. It was decided for budgetary reasons to do only John’s bits show.

1992 was the only year John was able to manifest one of his dreams of a full ensemble with a touring repertory of Shakespeare. He was able to do so because as intended I was his assistant. My official title was “Resident Teacher and Choreographer”. I was not ‘officially’ an actor though I acted in the three main stage productions and the fourth show – the schools show. Nor was I officially the assistant director for Richard III. However virtually all of the mise-en-scene, actual stage direction was my own. Richard III was John’s wonderful vision based on Kurosawa’s Ran. We had an exceptional designer who had only just graduated from NIDA’s excellent design course. Additionally, I surreptitiously coached the actors in text, character, performance, acting as I ‘choreographed’. The whole year with John, Anna and the company was an incredible year that consolidated my previous experience of nearly 20 years in theatre and aided me to transform into my method “Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare”.

There were several levels of ‘denial’ of what I actually did for BSC in 1992. First, the one article about the company written by the 1992 dramaturge Adrian Keirnander that was published in The Australian refers to me as “the Movement Coach”. Adrian was an excellent dramaturge on Richard III. However, as an academic, scholar, researcher of some renown, he erred by reducing my official role as “Resident Teacher & Choreographer” to “the Movement Coach”. An inaccurate slight. Not that I did not also coach movement. I did so in relation to my choreography, directing, and coaching the actors in character work and as required in text (voice, speech, performance). John and Anna are superb colleagues. Tops. Unbelievably supportive of actors. However even John when writing a Reference Letter for me to become Associate Director of LaBoite Theatre in 2002 referred to me not as past “Resident Teacher & Choreographer” etc but as “expert in comedy and asset to any company”. Not bad at all, but slightly inaccurate. I did not get that job. In fact, I am not sure that my application ever made it past the Laboite person I handed it to. About that very time I came coincidently into the Suzuki Actor Training Method and the rest is history. So I am mentioning Adrian and John’s inaccuracy which may well be even more so when the actors of 1992 reflect on what I actually did (or did not) do in 1992.

In our very first rehearsal, as a complete 16 member ensemble, Anna and I stood together on the floor watching John mark through his first scene with the whole troupe. He paced with the script (I believe it was actually an old book form circa 1950s) in his hand. Walking, reading, thinking. I was excited, nervous slightly. I asked Anna if this is how he usually starts. She said one never knows and that she too was somewhat nervous. For me it was her blessing not to worry. She was a pure, vital, and important colleague and an admirable veteran Shakespearean actress. A good, strong, clear, honest person. Attributes always mirrored in John’s equal qualities. Anna was gracious, supportive, caring and understanding the day I arrived by bus for my audition. Unfortunately the audition had to be changed from their house where I arrived without having received the new information, to Belvoir St Theatre where in spite of Anna’s assurances…. I ran to full out.

John called the ensemble “Could I have everyone on the floor please”. We 15 stood around in a rough circle. “We’re going to start with the Players’ Entrance that will involve the whole company.” John paced with his book, Hamlet. He glanced at me with a darkness inside his blue eyes. He walked about. He glanced at me again. Walked about some more and muttered something then he just turned to look at me. He stared and I understood. He was stuck. I asked gently “John would you like me to try something?”. He replied “Yes if you don’t mind”. I began. Simply I put everyone except myself into a group entrance and tried that a few times.  Then I pulled out Hamlet and Polonius. Step by step I worked up the beginning of the scene over 45 minutes non-stop. At one stage I asked the stage manager to step in where I placed myself. Finally the scene was complete all the way up to the Player King’s first full speech. When I was done I said “How’s that John?”. “That’s wonderful let’s take a short break.” In the season this scene, like all the others to come, stayed as I directed it. The moment we took the break the Polish actor Marion Dvorakovski congratulated me. I asked him if he would like me to coach him on his Player King. He said yes and was astounding in that role. He soon received his first review accolades in Australia for that role and thanked me when that happened. For me it was a deep honor and luxury to coach such a highly European trained actor. In the midst of that first 45 minutes, John asked me if I could juggle in the scene. I can’t remember what I used but as one of the players, I entered juggling and when I arrived to Hamlet I slid into the splits while juggling. By then he had the Player King’s cane and handed the end to me and pulled me in a reverse slide from the splits. I was going to have one actress standing on shoulders of a strong actor for their entrance but she was nervous about that so I had her just sit astride his shoulders. Hamlet was very finely portrayed by Chris Stollery. If John Bell is our “Lawrence Olivier” then Chris is like our “Kenneth Brannagh”. Chris and Kenneth have intimate grace with the language living in their cells. Grant Bowler of Brisbane was the strong shouldered lad and Carla Aquilla was the understandably nervous actress. Grant and Carla were wonderful actors and colleagues. Chris was a fantastic colleague and stage partner he also had an exceptional education and was kind enough on two occasions to assist me with de-Americanizing two pronunciations in text.

I coached John as The Ghost (Hamlet’s father) and Chris as Hamlet in the scene when they encounter one another. I hardly had to do anything. This and the player’s entrance were John’s only roles in this play. Though he also changed the set for one scene. One tour during Hamlet, that John directed, he mostly sat in his dressing room writing post card replies to each person who wrote to him. That is a lot of people. As The Ghost John, ‘simply’ circled Chris with a steadily building volume and vehemence as Chris became literally a receptive vessel and responded intuitively. John at his best as a director and actor allows each scene of Shakespeare to be a different style of acting and performance.

Hint, hint, hint – a word to the wise about how to direct and act a Shakespeare play – each scene is a different style.

One of my breakthroughs with an historically noted ‘problem scene’ of Shakespeare was with my interpretation of the Comic Murderer in Richard III. I acted with Chris as the other Murderer and John as Gloucester/Richard. They were great, fabulous, inspiring and supportive stage partners. more anon….

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