Last night, I had the good fortune to be invited to a rehearsal for Sweet Tea Shakespeare‘s production of Antony & Cleopatra, opening January 5 at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, NC.
Beforehand, director Jeremy Fiebig warned that this rehearsal would be less of a full run and more of a chance to get into the nitty gritty of some last details and choices in various scenes. This sounded like a great opportunity to watch a bunch of creative people hone their craft, and perhaps derive some insight into how people tell stories in different media.
First, Fiebig eased the Company’s way into rehearsal by adding a small bit of choreography to one of the pre-show songs, then moved onto another song, a cover of The Great Divide by Humming House. Drawing in the ensemble, he and music director Jacob French worked to fine-tune the arrangement, ensuring that each note was where it was supposed to be.
This process reminded me a lot of my own approach to editing, or to re-entering a story to continue it when I’m writing. You need to rev the engines a little to warm them up before pulling out onto the highway. I think of it this way–if you’ve ever had to pull into traffic on I-95 with a manual transmission Jeep Wrangler, you derive a new appreciation for the acceleration lane. In the case of creative work, warm ups with low-hanging fruit, whether a song or a few edits on yesterday’s word count can get you up to speed and cruising along.
Also, it was fun to listen to.
Once the actors and crew had warmed up, the cast began a deep dive into Act II, Scene II. As they progressed through the scene, the process started to seem very familiar. The underlying question seemed to be, in two parts:
- What was the goal of this scene?
- What was the actual goal of this scene?
On the surface of it, this scene is a reconciliation between Caesar and Antony, consummated by the agreement of Antony to marry Caesar’s sister, Octavia. And yet … surely Caesar, that calculating intriguer, knows that this marriage would force Antony to continue to give service to the repair of their relationship while inserting a wedge through Antony’s true desire, Cleopatra. Thus, Antony would be weakened in his power plays, even as Egypt would be weakened in its regent’s desire for the Roman, and while there remained the risk of violence between the two Empires, it would ever be Caesar and his sister with whom the Roman populace sided against the luxurious barbarians and that traitor, Antony. And yet … how could Antony say no to this offer?
How devious! How delightful…
As writers, this is what we strive for–to present one set of conflicts/goals/resolutions, and yet have these aspects mask the deeper, hidden desires of the actors in the story. In sum, we must as writers and readers look beyond the obvious goal to find the actual goal.
One last insight before this blog post goes too long, or I just devolve into a monologue on how cool it is to watch STS behind the scenes (which it is, by the way…)
In one of the next scenes, the Messenger (William Collier) brings news of Antony’s pending nuptials to Cleopatra (Sharyn Beal), who takes it with all the grace and poise of an extremely petulant toddler. The Messenger escapes the room with his life, but is re-summoned by Charmian (Cerina Johnson), who gets him back in the room to give her all the deets.
The first time Charmian leads him in, she pushes him from behind. The second time the actors ran through the scene, Fiebig suggested a different approach. This time, Charmian–an attractive attendant on the Queen–coaxes him in with smiles until stepping aside and abandoning him in front of the still-seething Cleopatra.
What is interesting here is how this one small yet very deliberate choice COMPLETELY changed the energy of the scene. The small, comedic reprove heightened the frustrated tension of the rest of the action, ensuring that the energy didn’t remain the same throughout the scene, but rather ebbed and flowed in natural progression.
As writers, we have to be aware of these ebbs and flows, as well as the fact that everything that happens in a story is a deliberate choice. We shouldn’t be afraid of diving into the minutiae of presence and timing, and giving full attention to what might seem like minor moments. Are we pushing our audience into a scene? Or are we luring them in with promises made of smoke and mirrors?
In all, this evening was the perfect chance to watch a group of storytellers come together to bring a narrative to life, and to gain insight into the creative process. I’m looking forward to seeing the play when it opens January 5.
For tickets, contact Sweet Tea Shakespeare at (910) 420-4383. The show runs weekends through January 21.