Monday, June 20, 2011

W.W.W.H.D? (What Would Will Have Done?)

Performing Shakespeare live, in a public park, has the feel of controlled anarchy to it. Despite the fact that the Portland Actor's Ensemble has a permit to stage The Tempest in Lovejoy Fountain Park Thursday-Saturday between now and mid-July, there is a vibe of being in a group of kids who have snuck into the area and begun acting out for the amusement of themselves and anyone else who happens by and wants to watch. Here's a picture of our theater, which also acts as a space for dog walkers, street punks and harmonica-playing vodka-swilling street people. More on that in a moment.

The spontaneous feel of bringing The Tempest to life is not in any way hindered by the fact that we rehearsed it for nearly two months before starting the run. The reason? We're dealing with elements that are beyond the control of the actors and our stage manager. Take opening night for example. A long-haired heavyset fellow sat, shirtless, drinking vodka from a bottle in a paper bag and playing riffs on his harmonica. The trilling was loud, random, and mostly non-musical. When we gathered in our warm-up circle to stretch, vocalize and otherwise get ourselves into the right frame-of-mind to perform, we found we'd added a cast member. The drunk had sauntered over and joined in. He also kept a running commentary going that was apropos of . . . well . . . nothing. My fellow cast members, being, basically, a mellow bunch just went about their business and tried to ignore him. This strategy worked fine until we actually began the play and he took a seat in the audience. Here's the first scene of the second act in which my character Gonzalo a loyal, optimistic and somewhat delusional advisor to the king is being harassed within an inch of his life by the King's brother and Prospero's usurper, who later plot to kill us both. 

Problem is, while they were harassing me, our friendly mouth-harp player and drooling drunk was laughing hysterically at non-existent punch lines, advising the actors on technique and muttering loudly. 

We played on. One of the board members of the Portland Actor's Ensemble sat down next to our problem drunk and managed to mellow him out for a time. Or perhaps he took a little Smirnoff fueled nap. We did encounter him backstage (behind the sculpture) early in the third act  where he seemed to be enraged that we were returning to the actor's area after finishing our scene. "Get the bleeeep back here." He commanded. "You're not done yet." Maybe he had access to pages of the script we'd never seen? After that he returned to the audience and continued his running commentary. We forged ahead and made it to the last ten minutes of the show, the dramatic climax, when he snapped to life and began blowing the mouth-harp in the middle of one of Prospero's speeches. 

Once again an arm-over-the-shoulder and a quiet word from the Actor's Ensemble's resident diplomat managed to bring him under control.

 After that, the next two nights of the show were a piece of cake. All we had to deal with was inclement weather, a collection of street punks and their barking dog backstage, people passing by carrying on loud cell phone conversations and a 3-year old who escaped the clutches of her father and ran onto the stage. Apparently she had some strong opinions about Caliban's plot to whack Prospero. 

So, I can see the question forming on your lips. Why on earth would anyone want to subject themselves to this kind of pandemonium and fear-based adrenaline? Here's what it boils down to for me. So much of life is predictable, repetitive and frankly, boring. We go about our day-to-day routines, act responsibly and meet our obligations. There's something life-affirming about putting yourself in a situation where anything can happen and probably will. Since The Tempest occurs on a desert isle, populated by strange-and-wonderful creatures, our talented and unflappable cast view Mr. Vodka Mouth-Harp man, the opinionated toddler, street kids, jets passing by drowning out the dialogue, sirens wailing and the loud hum of traffic as part of the adventure. These wacky and random encounters provide us with ammunition as we gather after the show at nearby Karaoke bars and pubs to commiserate, revel and toast each other for not panicking, staying in character and entertaining our "peeps." despite anything God or vodka could throw at us. Personally, I feel like I'm creating memories that I'll take to the grave with me. Some families you're born into. Others you acquire.

I'd like to think that Will Shakespeare would have laughed at our travails and totally understood how we felt. After all, his plays were performed in front of an audience of rabble who stood in the mud and talked, gambled and even fornicated while they tried to remember the Bard's words in their proper order. The nobles, who sat in the higher reaches of the theater, viewed the swirling, swearing, drunken crowd below as much a part of the show as Caliban doing a spit-take on Prospero. What would Shakespeare have done with our heckler? Hard to tell. But Will knew, as all of us do, that the play's the thing.

For performance times and directions to the park check out the web site for the Portland Actor's Ensemble.


  1. I can't help but think there were many performances in his own time, where just such things as the harmonica-playing drunk happened. I don't know how strict they were at their theaters, but I'll bet they did not have no-tolerance no cell phones/texting/talking rules. The pictures are great and I'm hoping there will be some good weather this week for you. :)

  2. I still think you need "a bit with a dog."

  3. WOW! I use to live in the apartments right next to that fountain!

  4. Bravissimo! Did the drunk deliver in iambic pentameter?

  5. Dorion: No, it was more like Iambic droolameter.