Saturday, May 22, 2010

Alvina Krause: More A Midsummer-Night's Dream

For twenty years (1945-1964) Alvina Krause produced nine plays in ten weeks each summer with her Northwestern University student company at The Playhouse in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. Each Sunday after a production closed, Krause posted a hand-written critique.
Following is a critique of A Midsummer-Night's Dream from the 1962 season.

You achieved success--tremendous success. But at what a cost! And so unnecessary a cost! A cost due to the fact that you ignored--even fought--what you knew about Shakespeare. You brought your fuddy-duddy high school ideas; you were like stupid people who do not go to Shakespeare, or who go unwilling, because he may be Shakespeare, but he is stuffy. Thank God we sent them away as Elizabethan audiences must have left: laughing, chuckling, even punching each other in the ribs, still smiling at each other and at strangers, amazed, not quite believing; in love with the theatre and a new playwright. That's what Shakespeare will always do if you trust him, give him half a chance.
In future, avoid mistakes by remembering that:

Shakespeare is a master showman. As Rogers and Hammerstein, Kaufman and Hart, know what people like, so Shakespeare knows how to appeal to everyone from groundlings to Francis Bacon. And he has endured for 300 years--we don't know that our contemporaries can match that record in popular appeal. You may trust his sense of showmanship; he has something for all: that love of clowning, love of magic, that romanticism which pushes out the boundaries of the world in all directions to the limits of the imagination; in short, that love of real theatre innate whether you are eight or eighty. You achieved this eventually: who laughed loudest, children or their parents? Who were most enchanted, the eight year olds or the bankers, doctors, lawyers? Even the teenagers succumbed completely to this master showman, once you stripped him of the trappings of "idolatry" which Shaw rails against.
Wednesday night you were still shackled by ingrained conventions or fears or unbelief. Thank God you knocked them into a cocked hat and abandoned them forever--I hope! Begin your next production with the knowledge that Shakespeare is a showman. Trust him! Tragedy or comedy he writes for the theatre and for red-blooded people who love theatre whether they know it or not. What a pity our production of M.N.D. cannot tour the country!

Elements of Shakespeare's good showmanship to be embodied by actors:

Exuberance, love of living, vitality.
These can be expressed only by totality of body activity, by strong, free, follow-through movement.
Manuella developed great beauty of movement, complete follow-through, grace without affectation; a joy to watch.
Kate is full of Shakespearean love of life; she makes the curved line of movement realism springing from space and garments and inner spirit.
Barbara is on the way to this achievement: exits and entrances were beautiful; she has not yet made it integral enough to follow through continuously; still lets movement break at the waist line.
Vance did a nice job of sending us soaring into the sky, off the earth.
Kovara has a marvelously flexible body and uses it with imagination and wonderfully stimulating effect on the audience.
The empathic response of the audience is part of the total delight in Shakespeare: unconsciously they run, leap, dance, spin with the movement on stage--if that movement is right, free, spontaneous and vigorous. Frank has not yet quite achieved it; he has the idea, made progress, but it has not yet become integral, organic, total--in walking, he does not stride from the hips with a strong pull and a strong push off. Work on leaps that turn into a walk, walk that turns into leaps, turns. Work with Tom while you have the chance.
Titania and the fairies were delightful in movement; had style without being "stylized", freedom in form, amazing in variety of movement within a pattern, in individuality within a group. Nancy's frustrated Moth was particularly fascinating in its suspended reversals; Susan an excellent contrast in directness of attack, in certainty. Ellen's wind-tossed, gyrating Pease Blossom could fill a stage with movement all by herself. Costumes, movement, used with imagination filled the stage with enchantment and the auditorium too: it seemed they might float down from the fairy ring above the audience. The total movement of the production corroborated Tom's scenic idea and seemed to extend out and over the foot lights: amazing empathy.
Remember it always: Shakespeare has no boundaries, no proscenium limits, no ceiling; thoughts and feelings and music overflow the stage, bounded only by horizon and sky. You captured this admirably. Next time don't work so hard at it.

Another element of Shakespeare's showmanship is: something for all.
He reaches the groundlings in us, the aristocrats in us, the poets, the philosophers. Trust him: every sequence has its individual appeal and note that none excludes the others. Theseus has a Shakespeare mind in a huntsman's body. Frank was doing pretty well with the mental philosophy; his tongue needs more music: tongue and body more fluidity. Lovers, very romantic lovers, indulge in good vigorous name calling on an earthy level.
Among the dumb, inarticulate mechanics is Bottom: man with a dawning imagination; man growing to articulateness; man with creative impulses and instincts. Bob wasn't quite able to realize the fullness of Bottom's capacities. He came closest in rehearsal one day when he first realized the magnitude of Bottom's dream: the dawning of mind and creative impulses in dumb humanity; too big to be articulated, more boundless than Bob made it. The possibility was there, but Bob did not let it play through as he did that day in rehearsal when he himself felt chills at man's capacity to dream. His was a fine Bottom: believable, understandable; the actor in every human being responded totally to him. We laughed at him with great affection.
Now the artisans realize how stupid they were to make clowning so difficult; there is little to say about them. They became real clowns once they stopped being afraid to play the situation. Each became endowed with a single dominant character trait; armed with the right character prop, each responded to the realities of the situation.
Striglos' playing of the scroll Saturday night was masterly clowning: improvised yet within a framework. Keep focus on the main action and let the situation play is a sound rule. Marc has an especially alert mind ready to respond, and this is the basis for the improvisatory quality all comedy must have. Striglos would not trust his mind to respond, shut off responses when they came. All good comedians are quick on the trigger, they have no fears, they lay themselves wide open to stimuli, knowing that they can and will respond. Once Bill started doing this, he was excellent. Now he could play it for weeks and it would be fresh and stimulating.
Phil was slow getting the image of his role, although Shakespeare indicates it clearly: "-ling" means "little"--little tailor not quite all there. Phil's tendency is to turn his roles into himself--perhaps not consciously. The difficulty comes when pieces won't fit together, when Phil and the character are at war with each other. In the end, in this case, pieces dovetailed pretty well. Particularly in the final scenes, playing Moonshine, he was effective in his clowning in character. In early scenes, character could have been more solid.
Chris' best performance was Friday, I think. His well-planned business came off as improvisation, it seemed to happen spontaneously. Saturday night was still very good, but reactions were not so spontaneous, so alert as before. Chris did a good job of playing opposites; he found them early and put them in play, let them develop.
Chamont had difficulty in reaching the one level of concentration state. In the moments when he did, he did some good clowning. At other moments, an intelligence entered in, an amusement, which did not quite fit the stolid dumbness of Snug who is an opposite, absolute opposite, to Bottom who could even roar with imagination. Wiping fuzz out of his mouth was a nice imaginative piece of business. A little note of fastidiousness entered in, however, which made it less incongruous than it might have been.
All in all, the artisans wound up as a superlative group of clowns, playing logically and realistically and brilliantly. Don't make it so hard next time.

In the magic of words Shakespeare is a showman too.  He reaches every ear.
For those who love beautiful verse there are the Oberon passages: beautiful in sound and in imagery. Vance spoke them well. He is a little afraid of the rhymes--unnecessarily so; his transitions from the sustained note to the didactic command could sometimes be sharper--short sounds made more brittle and sharp, but Vance speaks to both ear and mind very well indeed.
It's in sharp distinction of long and short sounds that you all need work. You have begun to sustain full vowels pretty well, but your short vowels are not distinct enough: short a, u, e, o are muffled, not well articulated and consonants are not definite, do not divide syllables crisply.
This was Niki's trouble. She was beginning to achieve it. Titania is a spitfire; this quality is expressed vividly and most articulately in language. To add vocal effusions as dramatic outpourings adulterates the meaning. Always start with the words as written, speak them as they are written, they give you the key to character. Titania spits and hisses: consonants are crisp, vowels are short. Niki's histrionic gift took her away from the words for a long time. In the end she came to a vivid Titania, almost as Shakespeare created. But train your ear to hear sounds accurately and your tongue to articulate them swiftly, deftly and with brilliance.
Ellen needs the same sort of work. Her fairy was perfect in every way but vocal articulation.
This, too, is the one flaw in Kovara's Puck: clarity of short sounds and consonants in the swift passages; tip of the tongue articulation. In all other respects he created a Puck long to remember. Puck, the mischief maker, was brilliant comedy: alert mind functioning in an expressive body; the mystic elements were not quite so completely assimilated, but they were present and they touched us; we believed in Puck.
Kate has an excellent sense of language. She still needs to balance resonances when she goes into the upper register; her high tones get thin. Sing up the scale, speak up the scale, keeping tones supported as you go up. Kate's Shakespeare is excellent kinesthetically.
Barbara needs voice work. She has a splendid comic sense and brilliant grasp of content. Friday was her best performance because vocally the truest. She made the mistake of starting with effusive artificial tones--why, I don't know. Shakespeare uses such effects only for people he does not like--Le Beau of As You Like It. In all romantic characters, play against the effusive. As Barbara discovered, Helena uses concrete words for concrete images, and her mind is most logical and realistic. When Barbara began to play these aspects, comedy developed. She is still handicapped by an upper register which lacks support of open throat resonance; she needs to open her mouth two fingers in width in order that vowels may be full and open; work on short, distinct s sounds. Acquire speech that is adequate to express your real abilities, Barbara. Work with Judy--both of you will profit by it.
Judy's Hippolyta was stunning, and the low, full voice was most effective. It was not totally assimilated, not completely easy and "natural" but it is good progress. Keep that fullness in all registers now.
Reimold's bright tones are good to hear always; he needs to work for freer physical expression: it will relieve tensions. Mike makes a good Elizabethan, speaks the language with ease, plays with ease.

Work on your diction and trust Shakespeare. You are actors he would like.


  1. David,

    I'm just amazed at the notes that she took. A couple of questions...

    1. Are these notes that were delivered in person to the case as a group? They seems so detailed. Reminds me of friends who are golfers and can recall every detail of their golf round. What club they used on every stroke of every hole. How could she recount such detail?

    2. How did you come by these notes?

  2. After each production closed, Krause and Lucy went out on the lake in a small boat for the afternoon and Krause wrote her critiques and then posted them at The Playhouse--not sure exactly where. Perhaps someone who was actually an Eagles Mere company member could fill us in.

    While I was studying with her in Bloomsburg, Krause allowed us to photocopy the critiques. Most of them were in a typed version that someone had done from her original written ones. The handwritten versions of most of them no longer exist.

    The Northwestern University Archives has a copy of the critiques. Some years ago a former student of Krause, Roger Fisher, put the original copies of many of her notes into a collection at the Library of Congress, I think. And it's possible that the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble collection at Bloomsburg University may also have a copy of the Eagles Mere critiques.