January 26, 2016. Somewhere in the air over America: flying home to Denver from New York, where I was working with Amy Driesler on our long-term project Henry Four.
We've been working on this show for almost five years now. It was an idea that Amy had over pints of Steelhead at The Logger Bar in Blue Lake in the late spring of 2010, my last summer living there. Her suggestion was to do a production with her playing Prince Henry, and me playing Falstaff. Maybe do both Parts, 1 and 2, but just focus on the father-son relationship between this wayward prince and his even wayerward mentor. It was a great idea. I loved it.
We didn't actually get started on it until the fall of 2011, when I was living in Denver. She flew home to Louisville, and I drove there, and we goofed around a bit with our friends in town before we absconded to her mother's getaway house, across the river in rural Indiana. Amy somehow had a DVD copy of Chimes at Midnight, and we watched it. Very inspiring, to look at Falstaff as the star of his own play. And very inspiring to see such a great dramatic artist squeezing all of the Clown, and also all of the tragedy, out of his story.
Very heartening, too, to come to realize that Amy had either the confidence or the imagination to cast me in that role.
We started to cut the script. We had downloaded a free version of the plays from some internet site. It was an old edit—maybe Victorian?—with semicolons in damn near every line. Semicolons that make you hiccup when you're reading and take a break every sentence or two to breathe out. We got rid of all the politics, and a lot of Falstaff's buddy-slapstick with Master Shallow. We got rid of all those Archbishops (and tried to just ignore the semicolons.) What we had to preserve was Prince Hal's ascent to the throne and how Falstaff helped or hindered him on his way. Which meant that we had to preserve King Henry IV as well, especially as a contrasto to Falstaff. And Amy repeatedly flirted with the idea of playing Hotspur instead of Hal, because she just loved him so much, and she felt like she could relate to him: his temper, his wit, his doggeditude. I became fascinated with the King, myself, because unfortunately, he reminded me of myself: his control-freakishness, his self-imposed solitude, his insomnia...
And one of us (I honestly think it was me, but I don't really remember) had the idea that I should play both of the father figures, and Amy should play both the prince and his rival. And it was definitely my deluded idea to do shadow-puppetry to project backgrounds onto muslin screens, to keep the sets simple and fun, and to play into the thematic idea that these four men were all shadows or reflections of each other in important ways, ways that ultimately led Prince Hal to synthesize them all, against all odds, into the great King Henry V.
So we worked on it for a few days out there in the Indiana woods, and again for a long weekend in Denver in the winter of 2012. There was a reading or two over the next couple of years; we applied twice for the New York Fringe Festival and were rejected both times. In late 2013 we hired a prospective director, Laura Livingston, to work with us for a long weekend in Brooklyn because we felt that, at long last, it was time to get the damn thing up on its feet and start rehearsing. Laura has an extensive background in Keith Johnstone-style improv, and we all got along great. After being rejected by the Fringe in 2014, we decided that the only way to get this show done was to produce it ourselves. I made another trip to Brooklyn to work for a weekend, and this time we relied on Laura to find us some other cast members. She brought in Laura Valpey-Rodriguez and Jake Ottosen from her own improv company, and Jonathan Hicks from... I forget where she knew him from. But from the start it was a fun, cohesive ensemble.
We booked a theatre in Brooklyn for a simple 2-night run in April of 2015. It was all we could afford. It was really important to us to pay our artists, and we did: about half of what minimum wage would have been, and much less if you account for the actor's homework of memorizing lines and working on character. We paid much more for rehearsal and performance space. We rehearsed for three and a half weeks, teched for two days and performed for two nights. Jake, Valpey and Jonathan each played 6 or 7 roles. I barely knew my lines, but Amy was brilliant, and it was just what you think working in theatre is supposed to be: friends working diligently and happily on wonderful material. It was a blast, and then it was over.
I had wished, over and over since 2011, that this gigantic to-do was not on my gigantic to-do list. Most of the time for those years, it wasn't a thing. It didn't exist. It was just something that Amy and I were "working on," with no firm plans, no way to cast or staff it, and certainly no money to produce it with. I was struggling with keeping consistent-enough day work to just keep myself in groceries, much less consider myself a working artist. There were so many things I wanted to do more—a full hour-long show for Ferdinand, the need to raise the titanic wreckage of my Book of Jonah shadow show. This quixotic idea of playing both Falstaff and King Henry in a couple of actors' vanity project, having to travel thousands of miles and raise thousands of non-existent dollars to do it... I just wanted to quit. I wanted to just say it wasn't possible, or wasn't desirable or rewarding enough. I wanted to tell Amy that I couldn't do it.
And that last thought hurt way, way more than betting on a crowdfunding campaign or taking a month off from my day job. Because Amy is one of the best friends anyone could ever have.
I've known her since 1988, when we were summer boarders in Dowling Hall, a dorm of the College of St. Thomas, at the Young Playwrights' Summer Conference in St. Paul. She and I and a few other kids, a lumberjack stew of giddy teenagers who somehow thought they wanted to be playwrights, spent every waking moment together for three weeks on that campus, having an utterly transformative experience. And way back in 1988, when you had to write your friends letters or pay 25 cents per minute to talk to them, Amy and I managed to stay in touch through the following year. And then we did the conference again in 1989. And we held on to the correspondence, but it faded over those months, probably because I had graduated high school and was running around the seamier neighborhoods of a still-economically-recessed Denver trying to be cool. But on registration day in the fall of 1991, in the hallway where you get your student ID in the bowels of the Main Building at NYU, there was Amy Driesler, and she and I had not only ended up in college together, but in the same acting studio.
And it was largely Amy's friendship that got me through freshman year. I can admit it: I wasn't ready to be an acting major at NYU. I had shit in my life that the seamier neighborhoods of Denver couldn't scrape off in a year, and which actor training—you know, where you sit around bringing your emotions up to the surface—was only making worse. And it's a story for another time, but Amy probably saved my life that year. Because she was willing to drop everything, go get a bagel at Cozy Soup 'n Burger, and just listen.
She's the best friend someone could ever have, and I'm not the only one who says that. So just allowing Henry to slip away unproduced wasn't an option.
We did it. We took four weeks in the spring of 2015 and we did it. But it clearly wasn't enough.
I came away feeling like I had one of the best times of my life as an actor, but that it was incomplete. That what we had done wasn't a full production of what the show needed to be. We had proven that we could do it; we had proven it could work. But we had only really workshopped it.
So that is why I was in Brooklyn this last weekend, the weekend of the Blizzard of '16, sleeping on Amy and Sarah's futon and renting the cheapest, best, closest studio we could find, and dragging Laura back to Brooklyn to keep hashing this thing out.
It is a great luxury.
It is truly, maybe the single most wonderful thing about my life: I can occasionally fly to Brooklyn for a long weekend to just work on three fucking scenes from that Shakespeare thing I did last year. And just get together with two wonderful, wise artists and just play. We can have no idea when we'll produce the show again. We can have no idea if we'll ever get that cast and crew back together. But we can get together in spite of a blizzard, in spite of horrible day-job issues, and in the face of rising production costs, and a cast which is scattering across the continent. We can do it because we believe in the project, we believe in its quality, and we have faith that someday, it will have proven worthwhile to spend this time and this money and this effort. I now believe this production to be one of the major works of my life, and a continuation of an ensemble experiment that began late at night, on the 6th floor of Dowling Hall, in June of 1988. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
OK, to be a bit more prosaic now: the show needs work. If it's going to be anything other than a slapdash adaptation of Shakespeare, of which there are dozens produced in the tiniest theatres of New York every year, it needs work. If it's going to be a real investigation of the inner lives of four men, with the ostentatious goal of using those relationships to examine grandiose antiquated notions like Kingship and Nationhood and Good Government, it needs a fuck of a lot of work. It needs more than can be accomplished in four weeks under Equity Showcase Code. Perhaps above all, it needs actors who are not so preoccupied with their jobs as producers that they cannot deeply investigate their scenes (which I suppose is really a time-management problem). And apparently, it needs more puppets.
One of the recurring comments that we got from our tiny audience was that the puppetry—limited as it was—was just delightful. We elided the entire robbery sequence from Part 1 into about 30 seconds' worth of wannabe-wayang-kulit-slapstick that advanced the plot, provided a few laughs, and looked basically pretty cool. And we had a few other sequences, particularly in the battle, that were fun and helped tie the story together. The audience's experience of the fun and wonder of these plays is of paramount importance, and if the audience wants more puppets, well, who am I to complain? But as a designer, it's important to me that there be a coherent wholeness to the project: it can't just be acted scenes strung together with puppetry to fill the plot holes. We did manage to find a line in the text—"the shadow of succession"—to serve as a subtitle and hint at the thematic through-lines. But that line really is talking about the politics-and-government angle, which is maybe the most boring thing that we're dealing with in this show. I don't mean that government doesn't strike at the heart of Shakespeare's two plays, because it does, but we're more interested in the father-son stuff. The family stuff.
I really believe that the impulse that sparked our project was a desire for two actors to seize control of their careers and not wait around for some other producer to hand us these great roles. And that's great, but we have to make it mean something. Chimes at Midnight is perhaps a vanity project for a particular actor... but what an actor. What a project. If Henry Four is going to differentiate itself from all the other actor-y cuttings of Shakespeare, we have to make it gorgeous. And puppetry can help, but the puppets have to be coherent, and they have to help the live actors, not distract from them.
So, finally, this is why we got together this weekend to play. We wanted to physicalize the relationships between the four main guys as much as possible. We wanted to learn everything we can, ten months' removed from our workshop production, about who they are and what they mean to each other. We worked for about five hours total on three pages of text: the first tavern scene, where Falstaff wakes up and somehow, through the hangover, manages to banter with Hal about the nature of crime and the future King. And we discovered that (hey, Shakespeare's pretty good!) most of the future tensions between these two guys are all right here in this one scene. We tried most of all to find the game of the scene, and make it into action. We discovered that drink is a great physical motivator for Falstaff... We also worked on Hal's first meeting with his father, and on his eventual meeting with Hotspur. But the focus was to find the physicality in the relationships. Because somehow, and we don't really know how or when, these relationships have to translate at least partially into puppetry. And there are no Method-actor puppets! They're only physical!
There are some very nebulous ideas about what the puppets may eventually look like. And a lot of what they look like will be dependent on the room that we eventually rent to do the show in. Of course, we don't even know what time zone we'll produce in next.
But this weekend, this snowy, busy weekend, we got together and played.