Richard III is one of the most classic examples of a fictional work that features a villain as its main character. In this guest blog entry, Smith Street Stage assistant Jeremy Harris explains the impact Shakespeare’s writing has had on modern villain protagonists like those in “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad,” and takes a look at how artistic ideas change and grow over time.
With performances just DAYS away for The Frankenstein Project, we took a few minutes to talk to the collaborators about their process.
Today we hear from Joe Jung and Jessi Blue Gormezano about their piece, “It Worked!”, which Jessi wrote and Joe is directing with actor Michael Irish.
Smith Street Stage: What section of the Frankenstein story are you using as your jumping off point?
Jessi Gormezano: The moment after Dr. Frankenstein achieves success and brings life into his creature.
SSS: Do you have a favorite line or image from that section?
JG: I love the moment when the creature’s eye opens for the first time.
Joe Jung: One eye opens and the whole world changes.
SSS: What about that particular line/chapter/scene inspired you?
JG: In the film that moment is HUGE!
Lighting and thunder and Dr. Frankenstein howling, “It’s alive!” I was really surprised by how small and intimate the arrival of the creature’s animation is in the book. In fact, I think that’s one of the moments that Beth Ann [Smith Street Stage Artistic Director, Beth Ann Hopkins] talked about when she first shared her idea for The Frankenstein Project. I guess it stuck with me!
JJ: Me too. The unexpected simplicity and fragility of Frankenstein’s mental state in this moment is extraordinarily human. Who hasn’t been filled with doubt at a moment of great achievement?
SSS: How did you approach the task of “re-imagining” or “adapting” a classic story like Frankenstein?
JG: Joe and I took that very small, yet pivotal moment of the Doctor witnessing life appear in the creature and imagined what might have been running through his head. It was also really striking to us that once life emerges in the creature, the Doctor doesn’t celebrate – he immediately runs in a closet and hides! That completely unexpected response – directly following a possibly grotesque or beautiful moment – was fun for us to explore.
JJ: I’m fascinated by Frankenstein’s internal world at this moment, the moment when he realizes that for months he had all the answers.
He knew how to give life, it was just a matter of time and effort. He struggles putting the body together but knows exactly what to do to succeed. Then the creature awakens and Frankenstein is flooded with self-doubt and questions. What does that do to a scientist? Where does his mind go?
SSS: What interests you most in creating new work?
JG: What you set out to write may end up being dramatically different then what you end up creating – I love that.
JJ: The notion that we as artists, along with the audience, get to experience this journey for the very first time.
Jessi Gormezano is a writer, producer, and casting director. She is the writer of an original commissioned work called Remarkably Normal, and has been the producer of OUR BAR since 2009, a monthly site-specific show created with Project: Theater. As a casting director she has worked recently with The Gallery Players and The Pearl Theater. She is the Associate Artistic Director of Project:Theater.
Joe Jung is an actor, director, and musician. He performed in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (The Public Theater/Broadway) and Unity:1918 (Gene Frankel Theatre). He has performed his music at Joe’s Pub among other venues. Joe is the Artistic Director of Project:Theater, where he directed Ken Ferrigni’s Mangella in 2011 and OCCUPATION in 2013.
Get your tickets to see “It Worked!” by Jessi Gormezano, directed by Joe Jung and featuring Michael Irish* as part of The Frankenstein Project by clicking here.
*Appearing courtesy of AEA
With less than a week left until performances of The Frankenstein Project, we took a few minutes of our artists’ time to ask them about their creative process!
Today we hear from Noel MacDuffie, a director and choreographer whose piece “Monster and Maker” will feature performers Courtney Salvage and Alexandra Slater in an exploration of text and movement.
Smith Street Stage: What section of the Frankenstein story are you using as your jumping off point? Do you have a favorite line or image from that section that started inspiring your work?
Noel MacDuffie: I am very interested in the monster’s story of how he tried many times to show the world his good intentions but is brutally rejected based on how he looks. Mary Shelly was inspired by her father’s idea that humans teach each other to be good. But her life leading up to writing Frankenstein had been hard, and she postulated that we humans also teach each other to be bad. This idea is illustrated in the monster’s experience.
As I had never read the book before, I was struck by how articulate the monster was and the poignancy of his story. I realized I had to explore this. I am actually starting with the scene when Frankenstein and his monster first speak and then progressing into the monster’s story.
One somewhat unlikely image stood to me from this scene. Frankenstein notes that his creation moves with incredible ease and possesses great strength. How unlike the movie versions of a awkward, clumping monster. I explore that ease and that strength in my section.
SSS: How did you approach the task of “reimagining” or “adapting” a classic story like Frankenstein?
NM: I started with the actual text – because while the language is heightened it is quite beautiful. I am not a writer, but I am a good editor, and I worked hard to get down to essential material.
Once that was accomplished, I wanted to be sure that the text was really heard. I felt that tilting the playing field was essential to help people experience the work without comparing it to what they already know (the films). So I messed with casting, I delved deep into movement, and I presented some material more then once. The goal was always to allow this lesser known part of the story to be experienced.
SSS: What interests you most in creating new work?
NM: I am driven to understand and explore human relationships. I want to know why and how we try to become better people, and why and how the definition of better can be so different for each of us.
I am interested in the balance between heart and head, emotion and intellect. I want theater to make me feel something, but also I want it to make me think.
Noel MacDuffie is a director and choreographer. He has choreographed and directed 3 full-length theatrical dance works (The Snow Queen – with aerialist Angela Jones, Soul Descending, and 3 am, 89°, no wind) as well as over 30 shorter works. He danced professionally with the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company and Nancy Hauser Dance Company among others.
Get your tickets to The Frankenstein Project here to see Noel’s work!
Smith Street Stage: What section of the Frankenstein story are you using as your jumping off point? Do you have a favorite line or image from that section?
Joby Earle and Charise Castro Smith:
We are responding to the section of the story where the creature tells the story of how he learned how to speak. We found it interesting how it seemed the creature was inherently good to begin with and learned hate, rejection, and bitterness from people. An image that has stuck with us is the moment when the blind man’s family comes back in during the creature’s conversation with him and, after taking one look at him, scream and try to attack him. It’s heartbreaking.
SSS: What about that particular line/chapter/scene inspired you?
JE & CCS: I don’t think we take enough time to consider how we learn things like language, communication, bias, and difference. We grow up like sponges and it isn’t until later that we can consider where these things came from and how they were created. The creature is different. He is in a position to be able to learn the building blocks of interaction, while also having an awareness of their larger ramifications and lessons. On top of that, right after he learns them, he is rejected by his teachers.
SSS: How did you approach the task of “re-imagining” or “adapting” a classic story like Frankenstein?
JE & CCS: In creating our piece, we focused on the situations that are happening in our world today that feel akin to themes in the book.
As the book progressed, I found myself thinking about the migrant crisis our world is facing (or not facing). By many metrics, it can be said that actions our country took over the last 20 years led to the creation of this problem, and now it seems like we can’t face it, in many respects don’t even want to admit that it is happening, especially in the size and scope in which it continues. We are spurning something we had a hand in creating. So we took that idea and began to imagine a woman waiting at a train station being shipped off somewhere out of sight.
SSS: What interests you most in creating new work?
JE & CCS: Creating new work forces you to look at what’s come before, what’s going on right now, and respond to it. It makes you figure out what your stance is, and then try to articulate that into what you hope to be an engaging piece of theater.
Joby Earle is an actor whose work has been seen on Broadway in War Horse, as well as in Familiar (Playwright’s Horizons), The Tempest (ART/South Coast Rep), and multiple productions at Yale Repertory Theater. He is also a member of the Artistic Board of Smith Street Stage.
Charise Castro Smith is a playwright, television writer and actor. As an actress she appeared in Antony and Cleopatra (RSC/The Public Theater) and on The Good Wife (CBS). Her plays have appeared at the Goodman Theater, Soho Rep, Ars Nova, The Actor’s Theater of Louisville, and Trinity Rep among others.
With rehearsals underway, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you.
Our final interview is with Michael Hanson, who returns to Smith Street Stage after playing the role of Orsino in Twelfth Night. This year, Michael is tackling the roles of Hotspur and Pistol for this year’s production.
How did you get into theatre and into acting?
In high school, I played a lot of sports. I played basketball and football and I got hurt a number of times. I kept dislocating my shoulder, and my doctor said I couldn’t play sports any more. I don’t really even remember how I sort of found theatre. I sort of stumbled into it and I just joined the school theatre. There were a lot of great people and it was fun and I never looked back. And when the time came to start looking at colleges, it wasn’t even really a choice. It was just like, yes, this is what I do now, and I just auditioned for acting schools.
This isn’t your first outing with Smith Street Stage – you were in Twelfth Night in 2012. What brought you back to the company this year?
I would love to work with them as many times as I can. I think they do great work, and I believe in the kind of theatre that they’re doing. And I consider them good friends as well. Any time you can work with friends that you also respect so much, it’s a wonderful experience.
How do you feel about performing outdoors?
Twelfth Night was my first full play ever performed outdoors. And it was like actor boot camp. You really have to fall back on your training in terms of your vocal performance. And physically, a lot of what you do in the room in rehearsal might change because of the outdoor space. We rehearse in a room in Stella Adler Studios, which are these acoustic acting studios. It’s so small, all the moments you have. As soon as you get outdoors, you have to fill the park, which has no walls. And this year of course we’re probably going to have more people than ever stretching back into the park, trying to hear. So it is a challenge, but a welcome challenge.
You’ve worked on both Shakespeare and many other plays. What do you think is particularly challenging or exciting about working on Shakespeare?
It’s all so well-written and it’s so much fun to get to play these characters who are speaking in this heightened language that we don’t have anymore, that we haven’t had for a long time. That to me is one of the most interesting aspects of acting Shakespeare. You’re speaking in these thirty-word sentences; today we have three-word sentences. And you have to sort of recalibrate your brain to extend the thought that you’re trying to communicate to your scene partner so that everyone else in the audience understands you. Going along a thirty-word sentence, that’s a great challenge, and it’s really beautiful.
Are there any actors or directors who have been a particular influence on your work?
So many! You know, when you have a great director, it stays with you, it really does. A director who can show you things and who can empower you as a young actor is a wonderful thing to have. I worked with a wonderful director in Michigan by the name of Jim Daniels and he was just very quotable. He was filled with all of these little gems that he would tell us in between our breaks. He said, “People come to the theatre and they say, ‘Show me what it means to be alive because I am dead inside.’” And he had a whole bag of those really inspirational quotes for actors, which I really believe to be true. I think that’s what art is, sort of overall, that’s what theatre is. People want to see people be alive and they want to see people grapple with issues and they want to see people think through things and that will never not be interesting.
With rehearsals underway, our marketing director sat down with each of our cast members and asked them to share a little about themselves, their history, and what they love about performing Shakespeare. We are thrilled to bring their stories to you. Today’s interview is with Executive Director Jonathan Hopkins, who is playing his dream role of Falstaff in Henry IV. —– How did you first get involved with theatre and acting? In high school, acting seemed like something that would be fun and that I would like doing, and so I did it and I really loved doing it. And I kept doing it in college and since college. So I guess it’s just something that started out as an extra-curricular activity that I really enjoyed and decided to stay with. Can you tell me a little more about how that turned into you and Beth Ann founding Smith Street Stage? We founded Smith Street Stage because we developed a small cast Romeo and Juliet for a theatre company we were working for in New Jersey. That theatre company was going to produce the play, which we had developed and worked on and presented a workshop for, but they had to cancel the show because of budget issues. Beth Ann particularly felt like she wasn’t through with the project, that she wanted more people to see it and wanted to work on it more. She said that she wanted to start a theatre company and start doing Shakespeare in Carroll Park and so our first production in 2010 was Romeo and Juliet with five actors. And the community was really responsive to it. We had good audiences, and they were very generous with donations after the show, which gave us a sense that maybe this was something with some staying power and something we should keep going with. And so we’ve done a show each summer since then, and we’ve grown every summer since then. And you’ve expanded beyond the summer Shakespeare productions as well – your last show was in Manhattan, right? Yeah, we did another show that Beth Ann developed. A radio play adaptation of A Christmas Carol. And we had done that the previous two years in the park house in Carroll Park, and last year the Pearl Theatre Company invited us to do a week with them. And so we did a week at the Pearl Theatre in late December, which was our first real Manhattan show, and our first Off-Broadway show. You’ve mostly worked on Shakespearean plays. Has that always been your primary interest? Since college, definitely. I took to it very much in college, performing scenes from the plays, working on the plays, and reading the plays. I really fell in love with Shakespeare. I went to London for a semester when I was in undergrad and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and saw a lot of Shakespeare there and just sort of immersed myself in it. I just always come back to it. It’s always the best stuff to read and the best stuff to see and the best stuff to act. Are there any particular Shakespearean plays you enjoyed working on, or favorite characters that you’ve played? I played Malvolio three years ago when we did Twelfth Night. That was a really fun thing to do. And the first year [doing Romeo and Juliet] we only had five actors, so I was Romeo and Lady Capulet, which was a great split, two very different things. And other than the high tragedies, Henry IV is my favorite Shakespeare play, and Falstaff is my favorite character. So I just feel really lucky that I get a chance to work on him because of Joby’s idea that actors would be cast against type. How do feel about the fact that you’re going to be playing against type? How are you planning to prepare for this? I guess I prepare as I would for any other part, which is try to start thinking about how the character is similar to me and how the character is different from me. And even though there is a physical difference and a difference in age, I hope to be able to find some similarities in looking at the part, just thinking about the kind of person that Falstaff is. Just like you would any other part: what does this person want, why does this person say the things they say, how does this person change within each scene and from scene to scene? And I’m just going to trust Joby as well as Maddie and Patrick [our assistant directors] a lot to have an outside eye and to guide us to make sure that what we’re doing looks ok, that the story is being transmitted to audiences who may not be familiar with Henry IV. So I guess I’ll just work really hard and trust my fellow actors and trust my directors. You’ve worked with Joby before, as actors, right? Yes. Joby was our Brutus, and I directed him in Julius Caesar two years ago. And in that five-actor Romeo and Juliet, Beth Ann and I were actors, and Joby was an actor as well. I’ve known Joby since we were both in college; I’ve known him since we were eighteen. So I’ve known Joby for fifteen years now and we’ve acted in stuff all through that time period. There is a lot of trust there, and I think the same things that I love about the Henry IV plays are the things that Joby loves about these plays. I have a lot of trust in him, not just to help me as an actor and help me give my best performance, but to show audiences what’s really, really special about these plays. And what is that? There’s no genre, because they’re histories, so it’s just a story. It’s not tragedy and it’s not comedy, although I think it’s funnier than most of the comedies and I think it’s immensely sad, incredibly sad, this story. So that’s one thing, that it lives outside the realm of what most people know Shakespeare to have written. Another thing is, I think it’s a great story about time and how time forces people to make difficult decisions and how time forces people to grow up and how time brings us into meetings and partings with one another. Which I think is immensely relatable, because everyone has been faced with inevitable change and inevitable loss. And there’s something about the Henry IV plays, especially Part Two, that has a sweet and sad quality. It’s like a song that’s written in a minor key. Imagine going to a place that you went to in your childhood, and it would make you feel wonder and it would make you feel a little bit of sadness and it would make your breath catch and it would make you think about how your life has changed since that time and the life you’ve lead and the person you were, all in a breath, all in an instant. And that to me is what Henry IV, Part Two is like. It’s like a dream of that childhood place. And it’s something that I don’t find exactly in any other Shakespeare play. Are there any actors or directors who have been a particular influence on you? I think there are lots. But I remember in college, going to the NYU library and watching Chimes at Midnight, which was Orson Welles’ adaptation of the two Henry IV plays that centers on Falstaff, and just being very, very moved by that. And still that movie is my favorite Shakespeare movie. Orson Welles directed it, too, as well as acting the part of Falstaff. The way he told the story, and the element of the story that he captured in his movie, I was really struck by. And it was something that I watched during a really impressionable time, because I was in college and acting a lot and reading Shakespeare a lot and so it was a good time to see a great actor, a great artist have a take on a great story.
by Carolyn Becker
The man may have written these plays hundreds of years ago but somehow he still manages to pop up in our lives everywhere, and sometimes in ways that are not as obvious as a nose on a man’s face. From stolen plot lines, to characters, to themes, to quotes Shakespeare’s plays constantly influence our favorite cultural staples without us even realizing it. But, truth will out!
I won’t leave you with bated breath, so without much ado here are my favorite films that referenced Henry IV without me realizing it!
1) Monty Python and The Holy Grail- The ultimate edition
In true Monty Python form, in their ultimate edition they have an option where you can watch the film “With Subtitles for people who don’t like the film”. Instead of actual lines from the movie being written, the subtitles are exclusively text from Henry IV Part 2.Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. The Shakespeare quotes chosen may appear random, but they are chosen specifically to try to tell the story.
2) The Queen
Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II quoting Henry IV? This is such stuff as dreams are made on!
3) The Departed
In Martin Scorsese’s film, he has Jack Nicholson’s character actually misquote the line, but that’s neither here nor there because the meaning and sentiment behind it are the same. Even though the character did not know it, Shakespeare influenced his life!
4) My Own Private Idaho
This film is a modern reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays. And, for goodness sake, it’s starring Keanu Reaves and River Phoenix!
Now, as good luck would have it, I have two more little treats for you. Neither one fell under the category of “surprising reference to Shakespeare” but they are both delightful and Henry IV themed and in my heart of hearts I couldn’t resist.
Orson Welles Film “Chimes at Midnight”
This movie was completely based off of Henry IV and it’s quite a treat. It is such a well-made film that very few people have seen. But, I won’t go on a rant about it, just check it out. Fun Fact: when Orson Welles played Falstaff, he had to go on a diet to play the notoriously portly man!
In an episode of Tina Fey’s brilliant show, it was revealed that Tracy Jordan once played Prince Hal in Shakespeare in the Park.
Based on this little clip we see of him, it was pretty unsuccessful. This clip will leave youin stitches!
Now I’ve shared my favorites, what are yours? This list certainly isn’t the be all and the end all! Let us know! And remember; to thine own self be true!
by Matthew S. Sciarappa
It’s no wonder why we hear King Henry conclude, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” in Act III, scene 1 of Henry IV part 2. Handling the monumental pressures of both running a nation and ensuring a lineage doesn’t exactly sound like pie. In Smith Street Stage’s upcoming production of Henry IV we will see King Henry grappling with his uneasiness and sporting that very heavy crown.
However, he was not the first man taxed with such a tremendous task. England has a rich and intricate history leading up to Henry IV that (let’s face it) can make us feel “uneasy” ourselves in figuring it out.
But let’s say that you’re auditioning for Henry IV sometime soon; or you’re at an intellectual cocktail party with friends; or you’re an impressive Shakespeare buff, but you don’t quite know what happens before the time of this play, when suddenly you’re asked, “How did Henry IV get to be Henry IV?”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, to help you answer this question I’ve compiled a brief history highlighting the key players and events that you should know.
- Edward II
Edward II began his rule in 1308. No one in England at the time really seemed to like him, as he played favorites with particular nobles in court and continuously failed in war against Scotland.
Eventually, Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, teamed up with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and launched a revolt against her husband. In said revolt, Edward II’s own forces abandoned him. Really, he was not a popular guy.
Edward II relinquished his crown to his fourteen-year-old son, Edward III, in 1327 and later was probably murdered—we don’t know that for a fact, but the dude rather quickly wound up dead.
- Edward III
Edward III was only a bit more popular than his dad, but he was pretty stoked to be the new king. So much so, that at age seventeen he decided to throw a coup against Roger Mortimer (previously mentioned) who was ruling de facto at the time.
Edward III continued the fight against Scotland, which was a major struggle, but he managed to gain a decent victory in the Battle of Halidon Hill.
Edward III soon had the brilliant idea that since his mommy Isabella was French, he could be the king of both France and England. France obviously said “heck no” (I may be paraphrasing) and this whole ordeal led to a little quarrel between the nations known as The Hundred Years’ War…smooth move Eddie…
Edward III had four sons, and we only really care about three of them because the last one was eventually beheaded for treason. The three sons we care about are as follows: Edward the Black Prince, Lionel Duke of Clarence, and John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster.
FUN FACT: the middle son, Lionel, will eventually produce a lineage leading to Richard III, but that’s a whole other story/Shakespeare play we can save for another time. We’re going to ignore Lionel right now. Nothing personal.
- Edward the Black Prince
Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, did not get to be king. After living a life of impressive military success, he took ill. His stubborn father, our Edward III, outlived him. When Edward III eventually died (illness as well in 1377) the crown was passed to his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II. Remember Richard II. We’ll come back to him in a moment.
- John of Gaunt
Edward III’s other son, John of Gaunt, had some unpopularity problems just like his dad (are we noticing a theme here?). John of Gaunt’s unpopularity stemmed from his lack of familial grounding. England wasn’t sold on his parentage; there were rumors at the time that he was a mere butcher’s son. This was in part because Edward III was not actually present for his birth.
However, John of Gaunt was a decently successful military commander, and for a while was essentially running England’s government. This was due to Edward III’s/Edward the Black Prince’s illnesses and deaths. John of Gaunt travelled to different countries, crusaded against enemies, and even buddied up with famous writer Geoffrey Chaucer.
John of Gaunt had two wives in his lifetime, Blanche of Lancaster and Catherine Swynford.
FUN FACT: Catherine Swynford came later, and also had something to do with the lineage leading up to Richard III, but we’ll again forgo traveling down that path.
- Blanche of Lancaster
There isn’t much recorded history about Blanche of Lancaster, but she and John of Gaunt seemed to have gotten along rather well. By all accounts, she was attractive, wealthy, and faithful to her husband. She and John of Gaunt had seven children, three of which survived infancy, and one of which was Henry of Bollingbroke (I repeat, HENRY of Bollingbroke… SPOILERS: He becomes our King HENRY IV).
OKAY! Let’s Check in
So here’s where we are now: it’s 1378, all the previously mentioned Edwards are dead, John of Gaunt is still alive/running England, ten-year-old Richard II (remember him?) is presently king, and ten-year-old Henry of Bollingbroke is his cousin.
- Richard II
Richard II, though starting out at age ten, didn’t do half bad as a king. He successfully suppressed the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 with help from advisors, and in 1389 he claimed full control of his position as king, leading to a relatively peaceful eight years in England.
- Thomas de Mowbray
One day in 1398, some gossipy duke we don’t like named Thomas de Mowbray decided that Richard II’s cousin, Henry of Bollingbroke, said something treasonous against the kingdom. Henry of Bollingbroke denied this, and suddenly their dispute became a big deal.
Neither Thomas de Mowbray nor Henry of Bollingbroke would surrender in their battle of hearsay, so Richard II decided that the two dukes should duke it out in a duel. On the day of said duel, Richard II was feeling temperamental, and instead of letting one of these men kill the other, he chose to banish Henry of Bollingbroke for a time, and exile Thomas de Mowbray for life.
- Henry of Bollingbroke
Henry of Bollingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, passed away one year after the banishment. Richard II got a little greedy and decided that since Henry of Bollingbroke was presently banished, he was not entitled to his inheritance.
Henry of Bollingbroke was not very happy about this, so in 1399, while Richard II was away in Ireland, he chose to invade England to reclaim his inheritance. He had such a large following, however, that it soon became clear: Henry of Bollingbroke could overthrow Richard II and become king of England. So obviously he did, and in the same year he crowned himself our very own King Henry IV.
And thus, ladies and gentlemen, we begin at Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind history lesson!
–Matthew Sciarappa, SSS Assistant