Ask Philippa: “Comedy of Errors” Edition

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, invites your questions about The Comedy of Errors, which runs June 25–July 20. Tickets on sale now.

The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, is a beautiful, festive comic treat about losing yourself and then finding yourself again. The play is Shakespeare’s shortest, first staged at the Inns of Court as part of an evening’s entertainment. Two sets of identical twins, both lost—one pair (twin plus master) settled prosperously in the city of Ephesus, the other pair alighting on Epheus after seven years of wandering. Add to this a wife, a suitor, and a long-lost set of parents—and here, in all its perverse comic confusions, we have a comedy: one that would set a template for Shakespeare’s future capacity to enchant, entertain, and philosophically provoke.

Are you going to see our production of The Comedy of Errors?  Do you have questions or comments about the production’s cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

Headshot of Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo by Richard Friedman.

Dr Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Shakespeare’s Settings

Elizabethan Europe

By Tess Brumwell-Gaze

With only a modest Stratford upbringing, Shakespeare’s knowledge of foreign cultures is an intriguing aspect of his works. Plays ensue with backdrops of rural Italy and monarchical Denmark, but very rarely Shakespeare’s English home ground. Whether this was to spur Elizabethan imaginings of exotic landmarks, or to avoid political controversy, there is also the question of how Shakespeare managed to accurately portray his oversea settings.

Why overseas?

A first explanation for overseas settings is bound in the political climate of Shakespeare’s time. Directly portraying English politics in the Elizabethan era was a risk. Perhaps to avoid this controversy, Shakespeare could reflect his own monarchy without controversy by relocating and renaming them as foreign rulers. Macbeth exemplifies Shakespeare’s careful political balance—representing the Scottish monarch as a tyrant and the English as the righteous power.

Though a factor, this does not entirely explain why Shakespeare chose the settings that he did; stereotypes of foreign countries can to some extent explain this. For English Elizabethans, Italy was a country excelling in “the fields of art, music and literature, as well as banking, fencing and political science” explains Professoressa Laura Tosi, of Ca’Foscari University in Venice. In the same light, Italy’s culture was imagined as “the cradle of political, religious and sexual corruption.” On hearing that a play was set in Italy, audiences would expect certain characteristics. Most notable of these, Warren King discusses, are “heat, extreme emotion and violence.” What better setting for a desperate romance or bitter rivalry?

A similar account stands for Shakespeare’s Greek settings. Ancient Greece spurred associations of darkness, magic, and myth. This spiritual dimension was taken advantage of in The Comedy of Errors, as themes of witchery and immorality surface in the ancient city.

Less romantically, Shakespeare’s settings were often poached. Hamlet, for example, could hardly be taken from its original Denmark setting without being wildly reworked. This point is also especially poignant in Shakespeare’s classic plays.

A villa in Verona's countryside, close to the Capulets' imagined mansion.

 

How could Shakespeare articulate these settings?

Being from a modest background, the diverse history and language used in Shakespeare’s works suggests a much more fulfilled education. How did he educate himself on such specific times and places, especially if he would have been unable to visit?

Professoressa Tosi supposes that Shakespeare could have “read political treatises, novellas, tourist books, published traveler’s reports or unpublished ones in manuscript” as a way of informing his Italian works. Equally, oral sources could have aided the writer, with “Italian merchants living in London, scholars, musicians, and cultural mediators like John Florio.” Professore Valerio di Scarpis (Ca’Foscari University, Venice) added: “there were so many travel guides on Venice scattered around Northern Europe at that time, Shakespeare could have easily gathered all the necessary information from London.”  There is still a tiny possibility that he reached Italy—both aristocrats and companies of English players on tour moved across the continent at the time. His precise descriptions of Italian villas, locations and even plants are often cited as evidence that he must have toured the country.

Shakespeare’s grasp of language

Only fairly recently have historians supposed that Shakespeare had a fairly good grasp of Latin. This is most likely as a result of grammar school in Stratford. At this time, grammar institutions would demand pupils learn prominent texts by heart. Most prominently, Ovid’s Metamorphoses would have been mandatory, which Shakespeare references in his poem “Venus and Adonis.”

It is largely assumed that Shakespeare did not have an equivalent knowledge of Greek. Instead, works such as Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579, would have informed Shakespeare’s own work. An exception may be The Comedy of Errors, which it is thought Shakespeare would have directly based on the original Menaechmi by Plautus.

The Comedy of Errors also notably opens with Virgil’s words;

“A heavier task could not have been imposed
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable” (1,1.32-33)

Translations were a key source for a number of plays. Julius CaesarAnthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus were written with the aid of Sir Thomas North’s translations, though there are a number of further sources expanded his classical knowledge and use of language, as Professor Panos Karagiorgos discusses.

Shakespeare’s settings can be explained by a mix of political controversy, Elizabethan romanticism and education. The Bard’s reading shaped both his choices in setting and linguistic experimentation, formed by revised translations and a disciplined schooling.

Tess Brumwell-Gaze is based in the UK and writes for Italian Villa company, Tuscany Now. She is interested in all areas of Italian culture, though is especially fond of arts and literature.

Interested in seeing how director Aaron Posner depicts Ephesus, Greece? Buy your ticket for Cal Shakes’ The Comedy of Errors, opening June 25.

 

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Inside the Rehearsal Hall for “The Comedy of Errors”

“The play’s the thing.”

—Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Hello!

This is dramaturgy intern Aliya Charney blogging from inside the rehearsal room for Cal Shakes’ upcoming production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, directed by Aaron Posner. We started off running (and tumbling!) this past Wednesday at the Meet and Greet, where cast members, artistic staff, production crew, the entire Cal Shakes team, and donors had the opportunity to listen to Posner discuss his vision for the play, which centers around the idea of “play.”

The cast of The Comedy of Errors in rehearsal.

The various puns on the word “play” (a stage performance, an exercise of amusement, fun and jest, a game, to act the part of a character, and even another word for “pun” itself ) perfectly complement Shakespeare’s earliest comedy. The Comedy of Errors, which is filled with wordplay and jest, is a play about mistaken identity, mystery, doubling, farce, magic, confusion, and love.

The notion of play, which Posner will use to drive The Comedy of Errors forward, will manifest on stage not just through juggling, clowning, and acrobatic tricks performed by the actors, but through the sense of what Posner himself calls “invented Shakespeare”—a term he uses to describe the contemporizing of Shakespeare’s texts through the fluidity of the Bard’s own language. Meaning, Posner, the cast, and artistic staff will create a world that profits from Shakespeare’s enduring language, rather than interpreting the play through a specific historical lens.

Costume Designer Beaver Bauer draws inspiration for her looks from Buster Keaton, 1920s fashion, eastern European clowns, Steampunk, and much more. Her looks coincide with Posner’s vision of play and “invented Shakespeare” because they do not come from one specific place or time period, but rather, are drawn from themes and images that the text itself evokes. Nina Ball, scenic designer for the production, has created a multi-level, colorful, trapdoor-filled, “shutter-cluttered” open stage that provides a canvas for abundant physical humor, allowing the actors to fully embody the sense of play, while simultaneously harmonizing with the beautiful, natural backdrop of the Bruns.

Posner adds to the play’s themes of doubling and confusion with a cast of seven. Both sets of twins (four characters total): Antipholus of Ephesus/Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus/Dromio of Syracuse (played by Adrian Danzig and Danny Scheie, respectively) are performed by two actors, while other cast members play multiple personalities on stage as well. The actors, therefore, rely on quick changes (some of which take place on stage before the audience), accent shifts, and physical humor to tell the story of mistaken identity between two sets of brothers.

Less than one week into rehearsal, The Comedy of Errors is already promising to be a a fun-filled, hilarious, and loving production. Posner began the first rehearsal by requesting the cast to “find the love” in this dark comedy. Indeed, love of all forms flourishes on stage: from romantic love to love between brothers, sisters, and friends, and even unapologetic self-love, The Comedy of Errors balances Shakespeare’s oft-dark text with fruitful moments of tenderness guaranteed to make the audience fall in love with the production, and actors.

The Comedy of Errors begins previews on June 25th and opens on June 28th. With rehearsals now fully underway, I will be updating this blog periodically with production developments and insight into the rehearsal process.

Join in the madness! Buy your tickets for The Comedy of Errors here.

Aliya Charney is a dramaturgy intern for Cal Shakes. A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Aliya is a Shakespeare and cat enthusiast from Chicago. Her favorite line in The Comedy of Errors is: “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop.”

 

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Ron Campbell blogs about his own workshop–with video!

Recently, Nancy Carlin blogged about her fellow Cal Shakes Associate Artist Ron Campbell’s acting, clowning, and mask workshop here at the rehearsal hall. Late last week, Mr. King of the Kooza Clowns himself posted his own thoughts on the subject over at his blog, complete with new photos and three videos. Here’s an excerpt:

In accordance with the Fox Fellowship for Distinguished Achievement this was to be a sharing of my findings from the various trainings in Mask and physical theatre that I have received over the past two years in Greece, Japan, Scotland, Canada and the United States. It turned out to be so much more. Once again I was reminded that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it.

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The last of the Carlin-Campbell blogs: Jumping away from conclusion

Last week, Cal Shakes Associate Artist Ron Campbell who has spent the last few years appearing as The King of the Clowns in Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza gave a workshop on in our rehearsal hall as the culmination of his Fox Fellowship. The workshop covered mask, clowning, and other physical theater techniques, and was offered to Cal Shakes staff, teaching artists, and other members of our theater community. Nancy Carlin, a fellow Associate Artist, was one of Ron’s students, and has been blogging about the class. These are her last two entries; you can read the previous two here and here.

Ron Campbell and class; photo by Jay Yamada.

Sunday: Jump away from conclusion.

We did Buffoon Circles. Starting in neutral, you walk in a circle. You don’t

think, plan, contrive, just walk in a circle. Begin to notice something—a heavy foot, an imbalanced shoulder, a lopey gait, whatever—and as you continue around in this circle you let this gesture or attribute grow to its fullest, grotesque-est, extremest place. Voilà: your “buffoon” character. Wind them back halfway or more, and you could use this characteristic more “naturalistically”. At its most wound up, you’ve got a full-on extreme character. We then did two buffoon circles side-by-side. When each participant found their full buffoon, they

were then to see each other, circle each other observing carefully, and gradually take on the other’s characteristics—swapping buffoons. And all the while giving the audience their “arêtes”. Quite wonderful!

We then played on an emotional jungle gym. We imagined the floor of our playing space was divided into four quadrants: happy, sad, angry, and afraid. As we passed into that geographic area we instantly were in that emotion. The point being to be successive, not progressive. So often we assume in theater that we have to make this gradual logical evolution from one emotion to the other, when in fact, in life, we quickly switch our states of being. Another such exercise involved an actor, this time in a neutral mask, making her way from upstage to downstage, but on either side of the center line were territories belonging to a “devil” and an “angel”. So, as the character weaved in and out on her way down, she successively changed. Sharp!

The third of these spatial, territorial exercises (TWISTER for clowns), using random phrases of text from the newspaper. We imagined the rehearsal room’s space divided into three parts, successively, from left to right. Stage left was the “witness” box, or place for comment. In the center was the “speaker”, very clear and neutral. And on stage right was the “gesture”, the silent movement. So the player could go from box to box in any order, repeatedly or not, and simply read the text (without comment or movement) in the center, or display one or the of the attributes on either side. Really fun to see the effects of dividing all this out.

As with everything, economy of movement, business, what have you, is essential. To illustrate this, Ron had a great example: He took a blank piece of paper, put a pinpoint hole in the center, and held it up for us to see. We could all see this tiny speck quite clearly. H

e then took the paper and crumpled it up and held it up for us again. There was no hope in finding the pinprick now. Lost in the chaos.

Ron Campbell and class; photo by Jay Yamada.

The final night was our “show”. The first hour, we reviewed things and learned some new stuff, too (why not?), and at 8pm, our audience arrived. This was the night the Giants clinched the World Series; needless to say, our audience was small.

Suddenly, we motley bunch of adult-size children were a troupe! We all showed up our black clothes and went through many of the exercises we had learned. The last ten minutes were a free-flowing succession of various exercises wherein we’d jump in or sit out as felt right, and morph from event to event. Instant Twyla, and then some! We failed big, often, had a few moments of transcendence, and had the unique pleasure of being vulnerable to each otherof sharing humor and heart.

Ron offered to buy the first round at the Albatross. I felt really bad not being able to go out with the group, but I needed to get home right away to my teenage daughter and houseguests. Good thing, too, because the very second I walked in the door I was whisked into a room to work with my daughter on her impending audition for the high school production of The Vagina Monologues. (She got the part! When she works on her moans I’ll have to tell her to be sure to put in some arêtes.) (Now she’ll tell me I’m being “inappropriate”.)

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Saturday: From the tube to you.

This past week and weekend, Cal Shakes Associate Artist Ron Campbellwho has spent the last few years appearing as The King of the Clowns in Cirque du Soleil’s Koozagave a workshop on in our rehearsal hall as the culmination of his Fox Fellowship. The workshop covered mask, clowning, and other physical theater techniques, and was offered to Cal Shakes staff, teaching artists, and other members of our theater community. Nancy Carlin, a fellow Associate Artist, was one of Ron’s students, and will be blogging about the class over the next few days.

 A clown celebrates his failure.

We were encouraged to “fail big”. When I was a student at A.C.T. I remember Bill Ball telling us just that: Fail big. Making a big choice, even if it’s a big steaming pile of poo, is so much better than making no choice at all.

More games and some beginning work with masks. Four at a time, we went up with grocery bags over our heads. Standing in “neutral” to begin with, Ron would then call out images. “Be a question mark.” “A smile.” “An exclamation point.” “Okay,” he’d say, “that’s a question mark at a 2. Give me one at 10!”

There was a wonderful kind of freedom, having one’s face safely hidden. And so interesting to watch the exercise from the outside. The slightest incline of the bag-head, a strong but economic gesture, told such a big story. To see what the body emanates when you’re smiling, even though we can’t see a face. It confirms the power of image and imagination. If we can only keep our faces more “neutral” (like the bag), don’t “show” what we’re feeling, just strengthen the image, an inner smile or concern can be read so clearly by our audience, and can draw them in with intrigue, not push them away with the phony “masks” of expression we so often contrive.

Then paper plate masks. Flat white ovals with one pinpoint eye-hole. Myopic vision only. We were given simple directions: Enter, see a stone, pick it up, throw it. Or enter, walk to the edge of the pier and wave good-bye to a loved one. We quickly saw how the bold but economic choices worked best. Too much busy extraneous movement quickly dispersed the story. And as with all the exercises, Ron asked us to include an arrêté, the “ponte fixe”. It is the artist’s decision where to place it.

The best players are the most relaxed.

Some leading and following exercises. “Flocking”, where the front of the flock, or “bowling pins” leads a mirror type group movement, which quickly falls to whoever becomes the next lead bird or bowling pin, when the focus shifts to another direction. “Instant Twyla Tharp”, as Ron said.

Energy = glow.

We did some improvs using outside/in dichotomies. How much to hide, and what to leak out, reveal. Wise on the outside, an idiot inside. Sarcastic, grateful. Democrat, Republican. Holy, evil.

Energy = What you get out of it. Like Einstein’s theory. We exist in the “tube” that is the equal sign between energy on one side, and whatever is manifested to balance it out on the other. Ok, so it made sense when he said it…….?

From the tube to you.

Photos by Jay Yamada.
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Fingerprints and All: Submitting Yourself to the Unpredictable

This past week and weekend, Cal Shakes Associate Artist Ron Campbellwho has spent the last few years appearing as The King of the Clowns in Cirque du Soleil’s Koozagave a workshop on in our rehearsal hall as the culmination of his Fox Fellowship. The workshop covered mask, clowning, and other physical theater techniques, and was offered to Cal Shakes staff, teaching artists, and other members of our theater community. Nancy Carlin, a fellow Associate Artist, was one of Ron’s students, and will be blogging about the class over the next few days.

Ron Campbell and Nancy Carlin in class; photo by Jay Yamada.

 

Getting ready to head off to the first session of Ron Campbell’s workshop. He’s had such a wild and amazing couple of years going around the world to study masks and clowning with masters in Greece, Japan, and France and such, on his TCG Fox Fellowship, on top of touring with Cirque du Soleil. The guy’s gonna have stories to tell!

 …….

Fun tonight! First session always the most awkward, everyone getting comfortable with each other, etc. Hasn’t changed since first day of kindergarten. Nice big group of teaching artists and assorted clowns and Ron-devotees. Too bad the other Associate Artists couldn’t be there. It’s a tough time slot because anyone in a production wouldn’t be able to attend….

Ron is sporting a phenomenal beard that makes him look like some kind of magical billy-goat or elfin impresario. He started by offering us a wonderful W. H. Auden quote to this effect: that the difference between a craftsman and an artist is that a craftsman knows what the finished product will look like. In essence, we, as artists, should submit ourselves to the unpredictable. The two hours were filled with wise words, fun exercises, and show-and-tell. I experienced my first iPad PowerPointor Finger Point (Finger Drag?)as Ron showed us a slide show of masks and things from his travels. Fingerprints and all.

 

Random Wisdoms:

We carve the world around us.

How you do one thing, is how you do everything, i.e., how you park the car is how you make love.

Allow the mask to shape your body.

Economy of movement. Arrêtés (stops), moments of stillness. Takes.

Movement trumps sound. Arrêtés trump movement.

Get away from being a show-off.

Looking forward to tomorrow.

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Guess who ran off to join the circus?

Did you know that our beloved Associate Artist Ron Campbell has joined Cirque du Soleil? It’s true. Here’s a snippet from his fascinating blog, which you can access from our “Relevant Linkage” list (to the right, further down on this page):

“Among clown circles (rings?) the exacting process of ‘finding your clown’ is given a lot of lip service. It always struck me as a little touchy-feely but I was wrong.

The clown discipline:

(yes, it is a discipline. Just as much a discipline as the trapeze artists, hand to hand balancers and tumblers that I see every day here at Cirque headquarters practice.)

–requires one to find a nakedness and a naiveté that my traditional theatre work has only rarely asked of me. It is no longer my job to create a character and put him on like a suit of clothes. Indeed I must unlearn everything I know.”

Read more at www.roncampbelltempest.blogspot.com.

Pictured: Ron Campbell in Pericles (2008); photo by Jay Yamada.

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Ron Campbell Roams the World

Not even a week after departing the multiplicitous shores of Pericles, Cal Shakes Associate Artist Ron Campbell (left, as Antiochus and below as Cleon) embarked upon the globe-trotting travels afforded him by his Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship recognizing Distinguished Achievement–first to study Mask in Greece and Italy, then to learn physical techniques in Japan, and finally to study Voice in Sweden.

And, being Ron Campbell, he’s blogging about it with tremendous aplomb.

Below is just a sample of what you can expect to find on Ron’s blog:

“There is something about going on a journey with intent. This is to be a quixotic journey.

Quixotic; fittingly coming from Don Quixote, who inspired me so many years ago when manifested by Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. But the intent, the impossible dream in this case involves the human face. The universal mask. And as I walked the history drenched cobblestones of Dublin and now the whitewashed alleyways and bustling waterfronts of the Greek islands of Poros and Aegina prior to my arrival on Hydra where I will be training, I have begun to see every face, from the grizzled ferryboat worker I befriended to the harried waitress at the Electra Taverna as a mask.

There are two distinct looks I’ve begun to notice in the people of Greece. Just like the comic and tragic masks that were born here, the men and women seem to me to (through the forces of gravity or hardship or just the salt tinged air) settle into distinct categories. For the men there are two avenues: either they follow the Appian way into what can only be described as a kind of Zero Mostelish jowleyness, thick lipped and liquid eyed, perfect for arguing and debating, or they fold in on themselves in a Spencer Tracy-like gern, a perpetual squint and squeeze around glinty eyes that sparkle with mischief.”

We’ll continue excerpting Ron’s blog in this space from time to time, but we strongly recommend you bookmark (or subscribe to) it to get the whole story.

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The King of Comedy

This interview with Cal Shakes Associate Artist and Fox Fellowship recipient Ron Campbell was excerpted in an article of the same name that is running in our Pericles program. The complete interview text below is exclusive to the blog.

The interview was conducted by Artistic Learning Programs and Outreach Manager Emily Morrison and Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem.

 

Cal Shakes: So you taught seventh and eighth graders this past spring for the Art of Comedy. We were wondering how do you get kids at such a self-conscious age to break out of their bodies and take risks?

Ron Campbell: A lot of the exercises that I do to start the ball rolling with seventh and eighth graders are the same exercises I do with adults at Berkeley Rep. One of the things is that I tell them how interested I am in two things: One is failure. They will fail big and ugly and awfully and have wonderful failures. I celebrate failure as a weapon because failure is kind of a—it’s what we do most of the time. And the other thing is that I say is that I’m very interested in them from the chin down; how expressive they can be from the chin down. So believe it or not, what I do is put a shopping bag on their head.

CS: We saw that in the pictures.

RC: But if I tell them I want to see them express a question mark or an exclamation point or a comma, from the chin down, they start to have that kind of freedom, and they get celebrated for that. Even though they’re under a bag. I feel that a great part of the fodder for comedy is failure and things that go wrong. No one has a comedy routine—no stand-up guy has a routine about how great a day he had. Never. It’s all the bad stuff. Part of my introduction to that group was that they each state their name and the most embarrassing thing that they’ve had to do. It does take a little time to get them to know that failure is their friend, and that they’re going to get more laughs and get more built up the more they reveal the bad things that happen to them.

CS: Did your personal kind of physical comedy, your style of comedy work as a way to get kids to respond to you more easily?

RC: One of the things that I say at the very beginning is, “Welcome to my church.” I’m an actor. I don’t do this because I want to, but because if I don’t, I’ll die. It’s as important to me as breath. And so they see this grown man who’s willing to fail, look stupid, trip and fall. I give homework, and one of the assignments I gave this last group is to trip in public. Then I develop with them the technique of tripping effectively so it’s realistic; and then the response to that, noting other people’s response to your own tripping. So clumsiness is another weapon. We hate to be clumsy but that’s where the comedy lies.

CS: Do you think that gets the kids to connect to you more easily?

RC: They can tell I’m fully in it. I’m very into nervous fingers and calm eyes—when you make a combination of things. Shy chin plus bold eyes, that coy; there’s juxtaposition there and that to me is interesting. So I’ll be talking with my students about why we laugh there and all of a sudden they’re using my terminology: They’re saying “well, there was great juxtaposition, he had scared elbows but he had proud chest.” And those things have really affected how I have to believe what I’ve said. And now I have to apply what I’ve said to my own work. I get so much more out of teaching.

CS: What do they teach you?

RC: I used to teach “acting from the outside in.” And that’s kind of the direction that I play with. The other day, one of the students in the Art of Comedy class had to do an exercise where you show what you are on the inside and what you are on the outside. On the outside he was a real estate agent showing a house. And on the inside he was an evil killer of people. Again, juxtaposition—those two things going on at the same time. You see an actor engaged in the art of deciding which one wins. Does the psycho killer win or does the smooth real estate agent?

I also do a character exercise where there’s a large circle. In the center of the circle is one quality, say smart or democrat or whatever and on the outside is, somehow, its opposite. So, stupid or republican. And I want them to take a very specific route. So they know there’s a time when they’re fully the smart, total brain center, and then they walk a little farther out. Their IQ goes down. That place where they’re kind of both can be very interesting to me.

CS: So you’ve been teaching these kids The Art of Comedy for eight weeks; but in the summer you’ll be offering one-hour Master Classes to the kids in our Summer Theater Programs. How do you cull all that information down into an hour? How do pick what you’re going to do into such a short period of time?

RC: Well, if I haven’t worked with them before, I have some of my greatest hits. One exercise involves anger: You know your anger can go from one to 10 where 10 is the angriest you’ve ever been. Two is kind of irritated, pissed off and you have all the things in between, so let’s use that. You make them get specific, and they think it’s taking away their freedom as an artist, but actually it’s given them a cleaner scale.

We have all that power in our brain to do that, to use our experience to act. So that’s a weapon we all have—we learned it back when mom was shaking you and saying, “Come on, it’s time to go to school.” And you said, “I don’t feel good, I’m sick. I don’t want to go”

CS: Our marketing director says her three-and-a-half-year-old has already figured out that she can whine about school, act like she’s not feeling good because she wants to stay home and play. How old were you when you started acting?

RC: As the story goes, my grandmother Campbell started reading me stories very young, and she took me to see Man of La Mancha at the Old Vic theatre in London. Richard Kiley was Don Quixote. And he was dying in front of all these people and no one would do anything, and it was the most awful thing! My grandmother started pointing out things like that it wasn’t a castle, it was a flat. As my grandmother told the story at Thanksgivings, a kindly usher, seeing that I had gone berserk, took us backstage to meet Mr. Kiley with his makeup and everything. So I was about 8.

At my house we’d act out The Mayflower and my little brother would play Plymouth Rock. Little brothers have to do things like that

CS: Did you have a comedic mentor? Or an acting mentor?

RC: Before I was an Associate Artist at Cal Shakes, I was an Artistic Associate at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, where the great actor Tom Rosqui took me under his wing. He was great.

CS: When was this?

RC: This was before the (one-man) Buckminster Fuller show brought me to the Bay Area. I was about 22. I was very fortunate—I started as a founding member of The Actor’s Gang and went (Actor’s) Equity shortly thereafter.

CS: How do you act funny without becoming flip or cartoony? How do you get the laughs without forgetting the fundamentals of acting—finding the foundation of the character that makes them a real person and not just a goof?

RC: There’s a Japanese concept of Kokoro, which is sometimes referred to as “heart,” though it’s much more involved than that. It also refers to “giving your all” and “not saving anything for later” and “cherishing the present moment.” It’s kind of like commitment. We know some of those performers that are able to keep that sense of commitment on a balance with the same thing. Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey are in clown world and they trip over into absurdity, but they have commitment. The Cable Guy is a little scary because this guy actually exists.

I think maybe it’s down to something that has come up with my students a lot, and that is to erase the apology working in the back of their minds. A lot of actors work like that, not having an apology in the very corner of their minds. They should erase that. They feel some gum underneath the table and try it. Don’t apologize.

CS: What do you think the main difference is between clowning, like when you were the Chef at Teatro Zinzanni, and comedic acting?

RC: I don’t know if Teatro Zinzanni was clowning or something else. I think at the root of it the tools we need to be a great clown and the tools we need to play, for example, Charlie in (Larry Shue’s) The Foreigner, are the same. Clowns see the world as the jungle; comedic characters may not have that.

Ron Campbell and California Shakespeare Theater are participants in the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships, funded by William & Eva Fox Foundation administered by Theatre Communications Group.

 
 

 

 

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