Knoxville theatre audiences will remember 70/30 from their excellent presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream last year, and I recently caught up with a few core members of that motley band to discuss their latest offering: As You Like It (May 11-13, 18-19). With three of Knoxville's hardest working theatre artists in the room, I couldn't resist asking about their process and what gets them excited about performing the classics for modern audiences. Tyler Gregory is the company's co-founder and the show's director. Emma Watson plays Rosalind, and Raine Palmer is Touchstone.
What's been the most fun part of working on this project?
EMMA: I’ve really enjoyed getting to work with my friends and working on scenes with people whom I’ve never partnered with before. Rosalind is fun because she interacts with almost every character at some point in the play. This is a diverse group; everyone’s characterization is vastly different. So it’s been a blast getting to know everyone and their character.
RAINE: Definitely getting the chance to work with everyone. Every new show is a chance to get to work with actors that you've never had the opportunity to work with before or to engage with those you've already had the pleasure of playing opposite. We have a lovely group of people, and just showing up and playing off of them is a delight.
Because they travel, 70/30 Creatives are usually very minimalist in their set design. As actors how does that affect your choices and decisions during the rehearsal process?
EMMA: I feel that the minimalist set design has its pros and cons. Of course, the downside of minimalism is that there are some people who really utilize the set as a way to enter the story. For me, as an imaginative person, I enjoy being able to use a stage cube as a chair or a bed or a rock. We also have a lot of freedom in the choices we make with our bodies. Since we have no furniture to take up the space, we must use our bodies to do so.
RAINE: Minimalist set designs are really kind of an opportunity. You can't rely on a set to tell your story. There's no furniture to indicate rooms or beautiful backdrops to show you that the setting has changed. During rehearsal and during productions, it encourages you to figure out your space in your own head. Its a world of all of the actors' collective imaginations, and you're here to share it with your audience with your actions and words. I mean, how interesting is it to present a bedroom without any actual beds?
Most people will know Tennessee Stage Company's Shakespeare On the Square, and many of you have performed in those shows, what makes 70/30's presentations different from TSC's?
RAINE: Our lack of a set playing space is a big difference. We're really in the thick of our audience, not raised up on a stage with something of a backstage, performing while people walk by literally three feet away, carrying on with their lives. It's literally pop-up theatre will all of us showing up, putting on a show, and then vanishing, leaving only memories of our performances behind.
TYLER: First of all everyone is volunteering their time and doing a tremendous amount of work on a language based piece. I love playing on the Square with the Tennessee Stage Company. They are paying actors to prepare a show to be seen by roughly 1000 people a weekend, with hundreds more passer-bys that may stay for a scene or two. We have folks working for free to prepare a show to be heard (audience as in “audio”) by, hopefully, a few hundred people. TSC has a tradition and an identity. I feel like we are still searching for and creating ours. We also don't have to deal with many of the same restraints that they have with regards to play length, which allows me to make less drastic cuts of the play and be totally comfortable with a show that may run two full hours. Each style and process has its advantages and disadvantages as well as supporters and detractors. I believe having played on the Square or in outdoor environment helps prepare a performer for our process, and similarly I believe that having gone through our workshopping tremendously helps one learn how to prepare text for a project like SotS.
In an cultural and artistic moment where there is so much focus on new voices and underrepresented voices, what do you see as the primary benefit of returning to the classic texts of the English cannon?
EMMA: Many classic texts are just as relevant today as they were when published. As You Like It addresses several issues regarding sex and gender - issues that very much still face us today. Rosalind is an early feminist, one who challenges typical gender roles and implores those around her to do the same.
RAINE: It doesn't always pay to forget our pasts as we move towards the future. One of the most fascinating parts of literature, theatre, and art in general is the commonality of themes and ideas. Stories of revenge, of love, of humor, of loss, of joy- these are all very human ideas that have carried on throughout the centuries. You can link a play written in 2018 to old classics in terms of basic character motivations, story structure, and conflicts. New stories can be at their heart old stories with different settings and contexts. Working the classics also gives you an opportunity to connect with a new, modern audience. The way you present characters or scenes that were normal back in Shakespeare's time and are problematic today lets you see as a society where we've been and who we are at this moment in time. Also, they're fun and people seem to like them. Can't beat having a good time at the theatre.
TYLER: To share with the world the universalism of this writer: to give roles in these plays to new and underrepresented voices. When this play was first performed every actor in it was a white male. Even Rosalind, the strongest and largest female part written by Shakespeare, existed for decades before she was first played by woman. I want our plays to address social issues. I attempt to do that in subtle, obvious ways like diverse casting. I've directed numerous full stage productions, short films, workshops and performance art pieces in the three years since we began Seventy Thirty: in every one of those you'll see people of color, people with disabilities, people from all walks of the LGBTQ spectrum, women in strong, traditionally male roles, and people empowering themselves to overcome conflicts and societal obstacles that are both universal amongst us all and unique to each one of us. What better vessel for such a mission than the Bard?
This play is usually regarded as one of the Bard's silliest and most lighthearted. Other than a good time, is there something that you'd like Knoxville audiences look for?
EMMA: Rosalind takes it upon herself to teach many lessons throughout the play. Through her eyes, everybody has something they can improve about themselves or something they can do to have a happier life. I hope that our Knoxville audiences may take a moment to ask themselves what lesson Rosalind would teach them were they to meet.
RAINE: Keep an eye out for the little moments our actors are creating. Take a glance at someone who isn't speaking to see how their character is reacting or engaging in the scene. Watch for the busy work actors engage in while saying their lines. There are some lovely, authentic moments in this show because we're constantly reaching for the idea that we're not onstage just to say lines and walk off but to play out moments in our characters' lives, silly or no.
TYLER: I think you'll see a different As You Like It than you're accustomed to. One where people feel want, taste grief and need friends (Thanks, Richard II). A play with some gravity and heaviness as well as silliness and romance. One that is based in reality and genuine human truth.
How has this rehearsal process differed from others you may have had?
EMMA: This rehearsal process has been very relaxed. 70/30 has approached this as a three-month Shakespeare workshop ending in a performance as opposed to the typical five week intensive rehearsal process. We did a ton of text and character work before we ever got on our feet. The lengthy process and deep character work has been extremely beneficial to me and to the other actors who may have less experience performing Shakespeare.
RAINE: I'd say our process was quite different from the norm. We had the chance to sit down and study the text for a long time before we put it on its feet, making sure that we really understood what our characters were saying and playing with the thoughts and emotions behind the words. We were also really encouraged to do the work on our own rather than at rehearsal. Usually when you're in a show, you're rehearsing at least three times a week, so there's a certain repetition that makes things a little easier. We didn't have that luxury, so actors had to really work their lines and motivations on their own, be ready to bring it into our rehearsals, and combine it with the work that the other actors had worked on individually.
TYLER: It's been challenging on many levels since we spent a large portion of the rehearsal process as vagabonds, as well as dealing with more than normal attrition which has made it the more rewarding. In our process we spend a long time laying a foundation with the language and text and it takes a while for many of the fruits of that labor to ripen. But as it's unfolded, I see an unlimited potential in this show. We still have almost 20% of our total rehearsals remaining, which is hard to wrap your brain around when you consider our first meeting was in February and the show is just a few days away. Lots of kinks to work out and discoveries to made yet. However, we appear to be peaking at just the right time. I'm excited to find out exactly what this process is going to yield.
How does working with Shakespeare's affect the way you approach more modern texts?
EMMA: When studying Shakespeare, the work on the text is extremely important as the words themselves can be quite heavy. I think that the work I’ve done on Shakespearean plays has really improved my ability to comprehend heightened text, to speak clearly and directly, and to identify some of the more subtle nuances of any play that I read or perform. All of these skills are super beneficial for actors to have when approaching any script, classic or modern.
RAINE: In my case, it inspires me to study the modern text even closer. Just because its modern doesn't mean that there's not nuances or little clues about characters and their motivations hidden in the text. After performing Shakespeare, I'm usually inspired to look a little closer at my modern characters and do a little more work with the text.
TYLER: I believe that the tools required to prepare Shakespeare's texts are absolutely essential to doing the same with any (good) contemporary work: Discovering who you are, what you're doing, why you're doing it through the words you have on the page. The ability to identify literary devices and wield your words as a weapon, tool or instrument. How to feel the weight and importance of each word. These are all great tools which must be especially sharpened when approaching this writer.
What's next for you?
EMMA: My next project is Til Death Do Us Part, an interactive murder mystery dinner show that will be playing at Blue Slip Winery in June. Check out Clever By Half Productions on Facebook for more information!
RAINE: Shakespeare on the Square. The Bard isn't done with me yet. I'll have the pleasure of playing Caius Lucius in Cymbeline and both Lady Percy and Prince John of Lancaster in Henry IV Part 1.
TYLER: Personally diving headfirst into preparation for Shakespeare on the Square where I'll be tackling Hotspur in Henry IV Part 1 and Guiderius in Cymbeline this summer. With Seventy Thirty, gearing up to start our “Bardolatry” podcast, and producing a play for commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day this fall.
As You Like It opens this weekend and plays at various Knoxville locations. You can get all the info here.
-- JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director for the Knoxville Theatre Club, the Technical Director for the Knoxville Children's Theatre, playwright, and local theatre critic.
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