CHAUTAUQUA - This week, I have two complimentary purposes in writing the column.
First, I'd like to give you some background in the play which opens tonight on the stage of the Bratton Family Theater. Second, since I spent last week singing the praises of the gifted young singers who are part of the Chautauqua Opera Company, I'd like to tell you something about the talented young actors who are part of the Conservatory of the Chautauqua Theater Company (CTC).
William Shakespeare's popular comedy "As You Like It," had a preview performance last evening, and has its first official performance at 8 p.m. tonight. The CTC has traditionally concluded their seasons at Chautauqua with a work by Shakespeare, whose plays tend to have very large casts. This makes it possible for the entire 12 to 15 conservatory participants to all present a play as a group.
Actor Leicester Landon, center, plays Strong Brother Abel, in a production of 'The Giant Carrot,' for the students at the Chautauqua Children's School. Landon allowed this columnist to observe about half of one of his long days.
The production will be presented nearly every day through Friday of the coming week, including both a matinee and evening performance on several days. If you purchase tickets to one of those performances, I strongly urge you to make certain that you know when curtain time will be for that particular performance.
Let me tell you a bit about "As You Like It," and then I will share with you my adventures of spending six hours following one of the young actors around. The variety and complexity of those young artists' days is astonishing, to say the least.
"As You Like It" is one of the bard's more controversial creations. Even the play's title has literary critics grumping at one another. One woman wrote that clearly the play was written as a crowd pleaser, in which the author didn't invest a lot of pride. "He calls it 'As YOU Like It,' not 'As I Like It,"' she huffs.
The play is one of several by Shakespeare in which a rightful ruler is driven from his throne by his usurping brother. The plot unfolds in a duchy in France. Although it begins at the duke's court, the wronged duke and his loyal followers have to flee into the green world, in this case a dense forest, called the Forest of Arden.
Most of the critics I consulted reported that near Shakespeare's childhood home at Stratford, there is a Forest of Arden, and the writer's mother's maiden name was Arden. In recent years, a number of Roman Catholic English critics have tried to claim the bard as having filled his plays with coded messages, intended to encourage the English to oppose their royal family's protestant church. Those writers claim that the French city of Douai - where the Jesuits industriously translated the Bible into English in a manner which tended to support a Catholic, rather than a protestant approach to the scriptures - is located in the Forest of Ardennes. Clearly this is what Shakespeare meant, they opine.
Several critics suggested that "Arden" is just a modification of "Eden," and the play is about the need to return to innocence, and to flee sophistication. There is even a character named Adam.
Returning to the plot, Duke Senior, the rightful ruler, is overthrown by Duke Frederick, his brother, and driven out to live in a cave in the forest. Each brother is the father of a single daughter, and the two young women have become fast friends. Rosalind, the rightful duke's daughter, has been allowed to remain at court, because of her friendship with Celia, but the false duke sees the young woman as a reminder of his misdeeds, and plots to be rid of her. For safety in travel, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, calling herself Ganymede.
Rosalind decides to flee to her father, in the forest, and her loyal cousin chooses to go with her. The women take with them Touchstone, a wry-humored Jester from the court.
Before her exile, Rosalind has been courted by Orlando, the second son of a recently deceased nobleman. Orlando also has been wrongfully deprived of his inheritance from his father's will, by his own brother. He also flees to the forest.
Naturally, there is a randy shepherdess who falls madly in love with Ganymede, thinking him to be a man, Rosalind tricks Orlando who doesn't recognize her in her disguise into telling her what he would say to Rosalind, if she were only present, and there are other comic complications before all is resolved in the end, as is Shakespeare's custom.
Maybe you just want to enjoy the comedy and the fights and the slapstick humor, or you enjoy combing the play for deeper layers of meaning: Orlando's name is an anagram, save for one letter, of his father's name: Sir Rowland. Clearly he is the rightful heir of the father whose very name he bears.
There is music and dance and a good time is likely to be had by all.
SHADOWING AN ACTOR
Each year, the artistic director of the CTC chooses a number of talented young actors to study at Chautauqua and to perform in the company's productions. They get hundreds of applications each year and conduct auditions throughout the off-season, travelling to a number of sites around the country.
The number of actors chosen tends to be around 12 each year, depending on the roles available in the plays which have been selected for the coming season, and the budget of the company to provide scholarships, housing, and other needs of the young actors.
I've sat in the Bratton Theater and listened as fellow members of the audience explained the conservatory to friends and companions. Sadly, I have found that while Chautauqua audiences clearly respect and admire the young company, they often don't realize that these actors aren't college students. Virtually all of them are graduate students in some of our nation's finest schools of theatrical arts. Typically, they already have professional credits earned, and some have appeared in commercial films. Usually, they are in their late 20s or early 30s.
Each June, I sit down with the artistic directors of all the schools of art at Chautauqua and discuss what they would like us to provide them in terms of publicity for the coming season. While I can't do everything they want, we try our best to highlight the aspects which would benefit from readers' attention. Of course, they are professional, and understand that we tell you our true opinions, and if we think something is awry, we will say so.
This year, Vivienne Benesch expressed her desire that we make known to our readers the quality of the Shakespearean productions which have always ended the company's seasons, and that we help our readers to understand the quality of the actors in the conservatory program and the demanding schedules which they follow.
I met with Jay Lesenger to discuss coverage of the opera season, and he had similar interests, which resulted in last week's column on the young artists of Chautauqua Opera.
We agreed that when she had worked with the company for several weeks and knew her young actors personally, that she would select one of them, and I would follow his or her schedule for a day, so that I had at least some sense of the demands which are put on them.
Last week, I was sent a short biography of Leicester Landon, was told that he would be playing the role of Orlando in the coming production of "As You Like It," and we arranged that I would meet him and shadow him as he went about his day at Chautauqua. Since there isn't a typical day for these young people, obviously I wouldn't see many of the things he would be expected to accomplish, but at least I might get some grasp on the experience.
I'll admit, I had a few qualms about the assignment. Having taught both high school and college for more than 30 years, I am well aware that young people in our culture often don't wish to spend long periods of time in the company of someone twice their age, and many of them have a true gift for making that discomfort very obvious. Instead, I had a great time and all the young actors with whom I interacted, wonderfully well.
Before he drew his first breath, someone in heaven decided that Leicester Landon would be an actor.
First of all, there is his full, legal name. He was born Leicester Llwellhynn-Landon, III. That is a good Welsh name which links him to Emlyn Williams, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and all the many Welsh masters of the stage.
Second, he has the blond hair, broad shoulders, high cheekbones and strong, cleft chin which make him the epitome of the stage hero. Ironically, most of the actors I know look like the secretaries, business execs, farmers and other types whom they earn their living by portraying. But, if a director needed an actor to portray an actor, Leicester is exactly the type.
He is currently preparing to enter his final year in the MFA program at Brown University/Trinity Rep, in Providence, R.I. He has played Romeo in New York City, been in the cast of the National Lampoon film "Snatched," and played major roles in everything from international classics to contemporary New York theatrical production.
When I met him, early on a Thursday morning, he was already more than two hours into his day. "I got up, did my daily workout at the gym, took a shower, got my hair cut, checked my email, had some breakfast and looked over my lines," he said.
When I met him, he was headed to an apartment across Route 394 from the Chautauqua Grounds. The apartment belonged to Sarah Hartmann, who is an artistic associate of the CTC. Outside Chautauqua, she is working on her Ph.D. degree at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Among her duties is to prepare actors from the conservatory for performances which they give to take the program to people of all ages, beyond the Bratton Theaters stage.
The week before our meeting, he had played Strong Brother Abel in a play for young children, which he performed, along with four of his colleagues from the conservatory, at the Chautauqua Children's School. The play was called "The Giant Carrot."
On this day, he and I were headed to a rehearsal for one of the radio broadcasts, which members of the company have given throughout the season on Jamestown's Public Radio Station, WRFA. This week, the radio play was going to be an adaptation written by Ms. Harmann of Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula."
Landon was assigned the role of a newsreel-type announcer, alerting radio listeners to the background of the play. Ms. Hartmann played a recording of just such a newsreel, and he asked a number of questions about the accent and speaking style of his character. Then he began reciting his lines with the earnest urgency of the recorded announcer, copying the style of the recorded voice, right down to the subtle British pronunciations, although a moment before, his voice had born just a hint of the Louisiana twang from his home town of Baton Rouge.
One by one, five more of the conservatory actors arrived. Each time, he made a distinct point of introducing me to each of them, although I could have sat in the corner and happily stayed out of their way. I understood that his formal announcement that I was part of the activity with a right to be present was preventing a situation in which we could have seemed like "Leicester and his Puppy," and if that had happened, it would have made the experience unpleasant and awkward for me.
After more than two hours of rehearsal, in which all of the actors did and redid their lines as requested, never protesting nor even hinting that they didn't want to do it again.
Eventually, the rehearsal broke up, and we headed down the long walk to Bellinger Hall, where many of the students in all of Chautauqua's arts programs are housed.
As we walked, he discussed that the huge dorm complex isn't air conditioned, and with the heat and humidity of the recent summer, that made it hard to sleep. Despite the minor complaint, he said that the dorm was far and away superior to other programs, especially to other seasonal programs. We went for lunch in the dorm's cafeteria, which astonished me by the quality and diversity of food choices available. I remember well many dorm situations in which the meal selection was "take it, or leave it."
I gathered from the conversation with other actors at whose table we ate, that the conversation among them ran to the very practical. Only a few of the actors had cars, and they didn't have much free time to make friends among the visual artists, dancers, musicians and other students in the dorm, so the few drivers were in big demand. Isolated from medical services, drugstores, grocery stores and other services at Chautauqua left them all dependent upon the kindness of near-strangers.
They talked about how they would be going home, when the program ended, and who needed rides to airports, train stations, or to their ultimate destinations. They discussed how classes had gone and how performances had gone of the production which was then playing on the stage, and other such subjects. There was virtually no complaining, and astonishingly little verbal sparring, teasing, and other methods which some use to gain a feeling of superiority in a group of relative equals.
Hardly had we sat down than it was time to jump back up and hoof it to the Brawdy Building, the former hardware store just outside Chautauqua's grounds, where many of the company's classes and rehearsals take place.
The building was air conditioned, but as more than 20 actors, stage managers, designers, and other necessary people crowded in, the cooling device couldn't keep up with the strain, and soon perspiration stains were forming on people's clothing. Eyes were stinging. One problem was that if their character needed to wear or to perform with some costume or prop which might affect how they would move, the actors needed to don either the prop itself or some imitation, so they could learn their movements correctly.
Women who would be wearing long skirts donned crinolines over their rehearsal clothes which would force them to be conscious of the weight and movement of the cloth. Men who would be wearing over-the-knee boots, and people who needed to dash around while wearing glasses, for example, needed to rehearse in their costumes or props, because a sandal or a tennis shoe would give an unreal picture of how it would be to dance, and a hearty dance might causes glasses to fly off one's face, so some plan was necessary to keep them on the nose.
They were blocking the final scene of the play, again repeating, making small changes and then repeating again. No one didn't know his or her lines. No one complained. No one criticized another actor if something he did resulted in yet another repetition. There was virtually no talking not related to the play.It made me wonder why our schools, instead of investing millions in half-baked schemes in which students lie around in bean bags or receive pens with four different colors of ink to match their moods, might just try expecting students to be quiet and pay attention. That is possible.
After four more hours of this, I needed to leave to write another review. I felt a bit guilty, as though deserting the effort into an air conditioned auditorium, while they continued to work in the heat, bringing their days to more than 12 hours in length.
These people deserve so much respect for all they do. No wonder so many past participants have gone on to successful careers on Broadway, in television and films, and the like. And, when their work reaches its end, they will make it seem effortless and comfortable, skillfully hiding the effort and the inevitable injuries and everything else which went into the energetic and entertaining production we see on stage.
This season, Chautauqua has provided so much material for this column that I haven't been able to fit in some of the non-Chautauqua material which clamors for our attention.
Many readers have called or contacted us to ask about what they should see at the Shaw Festival. I'll write the Shaw column as soon as I can, but let me just take a short space here to suggest my first choice from the current season is the musical "Ragtime," based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Their production is one of the best I've ever seen in thousands of productions.
My second choice was "His Girl Friday," a blending by playwright John Guare of "The Front Page" by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and the film "His Girl Friday," which was adapted from the original play. The production values are sky high, the timing of the cast is brilliant, and the result is a stunning success.
I saw six plays a while back and will tell you all about them as soon as possible, but for those who have to make the trip before then, there are my suggestions.
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The art gallery at the James Prendergast Public Library is now playing host, through Sept. 7, to an exhibit of wall reliefs and sculptures in the round, by Erie, Pa., artist Jonathan Craig Chisholm. The artist will be present from 6-8 p.m. on Friday for an opportunity to meet and greet him. Refreshments will be provided.
The show turns the gallery into a wonderland of images and ideas. Admission is free. The gallery is open whenever the library is open, seven days per week. The library is located at 509 Cherry St., between Fifth and Sixth streets.