Titus Andronicus Ruined My Weekend, or why I love Quad City Theatre.

As I slowly get more adjusted to my big kid job, I have come to realize that weekends are quickly becoming something sacred. I still have a goodly amount of free time after work (and I suppose even before if I was feeling particularly wake-up-able) but the Saturdays and Sundays of doing nothing but things that I want to do on my own schedule are something I am starting to look forward to with great anticipation.

So this weekend, I decided to spend my sacred weekend time (and a goodly bit of money) travelling down to Orlando to see the (ahem)…Shmorlando Shmakespeare Shmeatre’s production of Shmitus Shmandronicus.

This weekend was a huge disappointment. Kind of. We’ll get to the good part.

I think by this point my regular readers (and everyone who has ever met me for longer than 4 seconds) knows that I’m something of a Shakespeare nerd. I am more than that, but at my core lies a deep, deep appreciation for Shakespeare. His work, much like the weekend, to me, is sacred.

And no, not in the stuffy old-fashioned “this can only be done in doublet and hose in false English accents” sort of way, I just mean that something about his work and his plays connects with me on a deep level and his stories and his words just…make sense in my brain. I love them for what they are printed and I love them more for the infinite possibilities inherent in producing the work. I am all for new interpretations and ideas and thinking– after LAST weekend, I would point anyone in the direction of The Hypocrites in Chicago– holy shit, there is a company who does new things with Shakespeare in brilliant, dynamic, interesting ways. I fell in love.

So, let’s talk about Titus.

I would go into minute detail about the show, but it’s really just not worth it. Suffice it to say that it was entertaining, comical and really, the opposite of everything that I believe makes Titus an interesting and worthwhile production to watch. Wackity Schmackity Doodle, we put people in pies, the emotional gauntlet and tragic revenge tale be damned, look at this bucket of blood!

Disappointing.

The crowd loved it though, and that was even more frustrating. I was happy they were there. I LOVED that they were there. A rowdy, laughing, yelling, sold- out crowd who were stoked to be there to see the show–any theatre person would be overjoyed to experience an audience like that–but about halfway through I realized– they weren’t there for the story. They were there for the blood– but the brilliant thing about this show is that there is an incredible bait-and-switch that you can pull. The audience comes for the blood– oh, it’s there,alright, in all of its majesty, but then, suddenly, there are characters you care about and understand and maybe hate and a story that pulls you in and you want to find out what happens and it’s wonderful and amazing and fantastic— but that never happened.

They came for the buckets of blood, and they got buckets of blood. They didn’t get a family. They didn’t get mothers and sons and a father and daughter.  They didn’t see a broken, scared man who struggles with everything he’s ever known being proven false. Or loyalty, or grief or worry or woe or care or anything but a slight annoyance at all of this talking getting in the way of our stabbbing.  aIt’s was just…people in pies and (poorly timed) winks at the audience.

Here. Let’s do it this way:

Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay! 
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent 
In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept; 
For all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed; 
For all the frosty nights that I have watch’d;
And for these bitter tears, which now you see 
Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks; 
Be pitiful to my condemned sons, 
Whose souls are not corrupted as ’tis thought. 
For two and twenty sons I never wept, 
Because they died in honour’s lofty bed. 
For these, these, tribunes, in the dust I write 
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears: 
Let my tears stanch the earth’s dry appetite; 
My sons’ sweet blood will make it shame and blush. 
O earth, I will befriend thee more with rain, 
That shall distil from these two ancient urns, 
Than youthful April shall with all his showers: 
In summer’s drought I’ll drop upon thee still; 
In winter with warm tears I’ll melt the snow 
And keep eternal spring-time on thy face, 
So thou refuse to drink my dear sons’ blood. 
O reverend tribunes! O gentle, aged men! 
Unbind my sons, reverse the doom of death; 
And let me say, that never wept before, 
My tears are now prevailing orators.

I dare you to not read that and not feel something. Here’s a soldier, who for forty goddamn years has given his life for the glory of the state– he’s lost 21 sons (well, 23 by this point) and is laying in the dirt as the Roman Tribunes ignore him begging in vain for the life of his sons.

And it didn’t count for anything in the production I saw. It didn’t matter. There was no heart, or soul or care. This took maybe 2 1/2 minutes to say. Most of it was said standing. Yelling. Succinctly.  Because it was getting in the way of 5.2 attrocities per act. There were people in pies to get to, damn it!

I get it. This was a directorial choice, just like our choice was to make the violence secondary. But what bothered me so much is that the choice was lazy. It was obvious and easy and, well, it felt cheap. In the immortal words of Complete Works– it didn’t do the show justice, it just…did it.

As I was sitting in my proudly obtained front row tickets listening to Titus flub his lines for the fourth time that night (sorry, actor friend, but banking on the audience not knowing if you’re not messing up is not going to work sometimes), I realized that this show– the one I was watching, here and now, in this professional theatre could be any show across the country– professional or not. There was nothing spectacular or even, if we’re being harsh, remotely creative about it (save for an INCREDIBLE performance by the guy who played Aaron. Good Goddamn) and the costumes, lighting, tech, acting and well, everything that made up the show would be just as feasibly possible in our community theatres as it would be in a storefront in Chicago or an off-off-off-broadway in New York.

What I’m saying is, this weekend, I think, is that  slapping a paycheck into your actors’ hands at the end of the week doesn’t make your theatre magically better or worse than theatres where actors get screwdrivers and paintbrushes slapped into their hands after rehearsal and they do it without so much as a “thank you”.

And then, after I was done ranting to anyone who’d listen, I realized what made me so angry.

I was angry that this company was selling out a month long run for a sub-par show. That this company is getting millions (literally) in grants and funding and donations, and we buy our costumes at Salvation Army. That their operating budget for each show is in the millions, and we don’t ever go over 2 grand.

I have a friend, who I know will read this blog, so I’m not going to make this too awkward, but he is, unquestionably, one of the best people I know. Recently, he told me that “If you want to make changes, you have to learn to see things with different eyes”. And me, being me, rolled my eyes at his advice and went about my day, because I’m not good at that.

But, on this occasion, I decided to take his advice. And when I did, begrudgingly, it wasn’t about the show, really. It was about me. And about my friends. And that I wasn’t angry about the show, I was angry for my friends.

 

Because while I was jealous of their budget and their overhead and their fancy light board, what upset me the most is knowing that I know a group of people who are just as talented (hell, I’ll say it –if not more talented) then the professional actors I saw this weekend. I want hundreds and hundreds of people to flock to see my friends. I want national news organizations to run stories about the shows around here, I want rich donors to fight to be the first to hand us checks, but then, I realized, that, while money and fame is nice, the wonderful thing is that around here, that’s not what’s important.

What’s important are the stories.

We put on shows that we are passionate about with people we care about. We decide our own fate, what stories are important and which deserve to be heard and there is always an incredibly driven and talented group of people to tell them and design them and direct them and make them their own.

And who knows. Maybe the actors I saw this weekend hated everything about the production and were furious at how they were told to stand and act and hurry through the good bits, I don’t know. So I don’t blame them, really. But I feel lucky.

I realized how lucky I am to work in an area where the actors have ownership of their shows, where friends work together to put on shows just because they want to, where actors are able to approach a director as a friend, not a boss, where actors have blessing to have opinions and questions and late night discussions over drinks, how lucky we are in this area to have people who will give up free time and family nights to do a show for no other reason than they love it. For 99% of us, there is no paycheck at the end (or, if there is one, it maybe covers gas to rehearsal), the only thing we get is a handshake from our audiences as they leave and maybe a review to remember the show by.

And for the amazing, talented people that I know, that I have the honor and privilege of working with every day, that is enough.

 

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