Ten months ago in August 2014, I received an email from Jeffrey Mosser asking me if I was available to participate in a reading of a work in progress "based on a Grimm fairy tale." The reading was to conclude Project: Project's week-long residency at Boston Playwrights' Theatre in which core company members would explore, among other things, the purpose of fairy tales both in origin and in their relevance to our adult lives in the modern world. As an added incentive, Jeff also extended an invitation to participate in two workshops the company was conducting the day before the reading. Truth be told, no incentives were needed. I replied immediately with the same response I give Jeff every time he invites me to play and my calendar is clear: "Sign me up."
I think all actors gravitate more toward certain aspects of our craft than others. Give me a chance me to learn a new dialect or analyze a dense text and I'm in my comfort zone. Ask me to communicate solely through movement or to tell a story through group improvisation and I get a little anxious. So when I arrived for the day of workshops on "physical vocabulary" and "theatre-making on our feet," I was perhaps a little sheepish, but eager to face my fears and learn something new. And learn I did.
The morning workshop, led by P:P core company member Alli Engelsma-Mosser, focused on elements of Laban Movement Analysis that allow actions to be classified by qualities of force/weight, timing, and direction. For example, a floating movement is characterized by light effort sustained over time and following an indirect path. A thrust, on the other hand is strong, sudden, and direct. For hours we explored this vocabulary and its potential to convey distinct emotions and characters. Though I'd been introduced to these concepts long ago in college, it was surprising how useful I still found it to strip away layers of process to isolate one fundamental layer of performance. (Note to self: Locate undergraduate syllabi and review everything you ever learned when you were 20-something.)
The afternoon workshop, led by Jeff, built upon the morning's activities to transform these basic efforts into living, breathing characters. Furthermore, we brought these characters together into an imaginary space to tell a story made cohesive and engaging by listening, responding, provoking, and ultimately agreeing with each other. By the end of the day, we had an actual ensemble that could create art out of seemingly nothing at all.
The following day we met for the reading of this new work-in-progress, provisionally titled Shiver!!! Shudder? A preparatory read though of the hot-off-the-copier script made it clear that several people developed this story. It was so rich in themes, images, and possibilities. It was also evident that the script was incredibly fresh, containing several stage directions that started with the word "maybe." We took what we had and presented it to a small, invited audience.
I was asked to read the role of Wilhelm Grimm, a man who I knew nothing about. I was also asked to read it in a German stage dialect, a dialect I've performed in, but was thoroughly unprepared to attempt. But again: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Most of the readers had participated in the previous day's workshops and the glow of ensemble cooperation was present in the room. It's a good thing that it was, because the audience responded to the script's exploration of bravery versus trepidation, action versus contemplation, and risking versus existing. Maybe it was because I am a person-of-a-certain-age who sometimes is "living too much in his notebook," but for my part, I felt a deep connection to one particular conflict: the instinct to tread carefully through a precious life versus the impulse to propel dauntlessly through it … knowing full well what happens at the end. A thoughtful discussion followed the reading and everyone in the room offered valuable suggestions for tightly weaving together the three worlds of the fairy tale, nineteenth century Germany, and twenty-first century academia. Unclear portions of the script were illuminated and creative means of storytelling were explored. I left knowing that wherever this project was headed, I would support its journey in any way I could.
Flash forward four months to December and another invitation from Jeff. The Shiver Project, as it was now designated, was to receive a closed reading of its second draft. This draft had been tightened considerably, excluding some extraneous portions of the rather lengthy tale and fusing some repetitive moments to allow each distinct element of the story to rise closer to the surface. Most of the participants were not in the first reading, save myself as Wilhelm and core P:P company member Louse Hamill as Charlotte, and these new minds brought a fresh perspective to the work. Of particular interest this time was how the character of Charlotte was developing. Compared to the first draft, she appeared less of a universal modern everyman and more of a relatable modern woman. Observers could still see their own fears, anxieties, and challenges through her eyes, but she now had tangible, namable, and assailable problems.
By the end of January, a full production was officially scheduled for June 2015 and I was delighted to be offered a chance to join the cast. By the time we began rehearsals began in May, the script had undergone three more revisions. The piece now bore the title Shiver: A Fairytale of Anxious Proportions.1 (Side note: Does anyone know how to format a footnoted play title on an acting resume?) There were still some areas that clearly would be rewritten -- there were actually two versions of scene two printed together in the fifth draft script! -- but it was clear, watching Cecilia Raker and Nina Louise Morrison rewrite during early rehearsals, that we had reached the endgame.
Right away, Alli led us through movement work using the same Laban vocabulary we'd explored before the first reading, giving shape to the variouc s characters the boy who can't feel fear encounters in his travels. Moreover, putting the story on its thrusting, slashing, floating, gliding feet gave us the opportunity to tell the story more evocatively than any reading could ever approach. The addition of shadow play and puppetry also gave shape to images we could never have been able to effectively create otherwise.
A considerably stimulating part of the rehearsal process has been the participation in a strong, harmonious ensemble cast. The cast is comprised of a mix of participants from either, both, or none of the two earlier readings. Lauren Foster's frilly princess, Caitlin Gjerdrum's brusque archival worker, Adam Thenhaus's mercurial innkeeper, Gabriel Graetz's pensive Jacob, Louise Hamill's strung out Charlotte, and Laurel Hill's inquisitive Boy are now as familiar to me as close friends. But perhaps the best friend I've made has been Wilhelm Grimm, a man who really knew how to bowl ninepins. And those who've seen the show will know what I mean by that.
1. A Phobic Folklorist Fugues the Fuck Out