Blocking for The Tempest 2017 Part 2

After knowing some background, this next installment on blocking will focus on how, particularly in Shakespeare, there are clues to blocking in the dialogue and situations characters find themselves in. Some of what I discuss is drawn from an excellent study on this very subject, Action is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, by David Bevington. It is a clear and fascinating study on character, movements, spatial relationships, and ritual ideas ingrained in the Elizabethans. Certainly worth the read!

Mark Rylance, responding to a fellow director of Shakespeare, once said, “I must come and hear one of your plays.” Not see. Tone informs attitude, and attitude informs action. Tone, Rylance knew, is what informs the entire production. I would even go as far to say that if one were blindfolded, one should be able to “see” the action of the show simply by hearing the language. So, examining Shakespeare’s dialogue is about hearing possibilities, and imagining how those possibilities communicate story and character to the audience.

Let’s start with a favorite of mine, Macbeth Act I, Scene VII, just after Macbeth’s opening monologue where he contemplates assassination and recognizes his ambition has its shortcomings – he has no “spur to prick the sides” of his intent – but Lady Macbeth begins to prod:

Macbeth: We will go no further in this business:
He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions of all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

The Macbeths still have guests in the castle, and they find a private moment to discuss ambition and regicide in a wonderful, hushed domestic scene. Much of the language should be said quietly, maybe some through a stage whisper, but this language would feel inappropriate if shouted or said loudly. That is not to say that there aren’t outbursts where the characters catch themselves, and change tone and volume to fit their situation, but the dominant mood should be secrecy with the characters close together.

Although Macbeth’s mind is already primed for murder, he insists on “going no further” and gives a few reasons for not proceeding. What must be conveyed here is that his insistence is false, or at least capable of being swayed. His tone should be insistent, but with distinct pauses at the punctuation to break up the flow of the sentence. If we scan the lines (to look for where the stresses fall in this pentameter), we gain more clues to tone. In the following line I’ll highlight the words that are stressed: “He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought Golden opinions of all sorts of people.” Macbeth’s language isn’t confident, controlled iambic pentameter, but more of a loose string of words of someone searching for a way to convince himself. If we look at the words that receive more stress (honour’d, me, late, I, bought, gold, etc.) and those that are not stressed, we see the disparity: Macbeth truly is concerned about himself and his worth in the eyes of others, not with Duncan. Even if Macbeth’s tone is determined and insistent, his syntax betrays him.

Lady Macbeth, among other things, is an excellent listener, and she listens very closely to her husband. She hears Macbeth’s language better than he does, and is able to locate this disparity and exploit it. When Macbeth finishes his speech with “Not cast aside so soon,” Lady Macbeth is canny enough to finish the line of verse. At this moment we see a subtle shift in power registered in language. From this point forward, Lady Macbeth will have the upper hand, and she will use a variety of tones to make Macbeth squirm.

She begins with a barrage of rhetorical questions that all are said in snide accusation, also likely in a stage whisper:

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

Once can easily hear all those “s” sounds in stage whisper, and when she has more punchy words like “hope drunk,” and “green and pale” we can almost hear her voice slipping into normal register, only to return with renewed, whispered, anger on “At what it did so freely?” Lady Macbeth’s verse, at this moment, is much more controlled and is nearly perfect pentameter. The force of her thought chugs forward, gaining momentum with each sentence, but her tone softens a bit on the sentence that begins with, “Art thou afeard.” Instead of outright anger, she tries a new tactic: irony. This false sincerity is an exaggeration, which carries through the rest of the speech, and is another way to cajole and demean Macbeth. This new tactic shows how quickly she adapts, and how she may not be getting the reaction she wants out of Macbeth.

Though, when she accuses him of being a coward, she gets all the reaction she needs. Macbeth must do something on that line. Give her a look. Spin around. Shake his head. Something. How could he not? His honor and manhood are being attacked. This gives Lady Macbeth all the information she needs to manipulate her husband, which she does to stunning effect later in the scene. In this case, we see an example of how tone in one character’s speech actually affects the blocking of another character. This is done all throughout Shakespeare, oftentimes to great effect (like in Othello or Hamlet), but is easily overlooked when simply reading.

By careful manipulation of volume and tone, we understand how dynamic and palpable each character is, and understanding how they say their lines, gives us an array of options for gesture and movement. For Macbeth’s tones of false confidence and insistence, several hand gestures that would indicate “no” are plausible, and movements a few steps away from Lady Macbeth also seem fitting. Also, during Lady’s speech, Macbeth could be stationary, absorbing his wife’s words. Lady Macbeth has more range at this moment. Her varying tones of sarcasm, anger, insinuation, and accusation offer a world of gestures from finger pointing to throwing hands out in impatience. Her movements, though, would to be close to Macbeth, maybe turning him to look him in the eye, maybe talking in his ears from behind.

But those choices should be worked out with the actress and director, and that is where much of the creativity and liveliness of Shakespeare begins.


Blocking for The Tempest 2017 Part 1

By Matt Powers

In this multi-part post, I’d like to share some insider looks, tips, and ideas about blocking. “Blocking” is a term for movement on stage, and the term comes from the stage itself. If you were to take an aerial view of the stage, and draw lines to make nine equal blocks (as in the “rule of thirds”), you will have all the stage directions (upstage left, center, and right, and so on). So “blocking”, basically, referred to moving from one block to another. Now, though, it is a more encompassing term for movement, gestures, and stage business, and is greatly informed by cultural expectations and style of theater (like naturalism, realism, surrealism, etc.).

At its base, blocking is needed to tell story. Characters need locations to enter and exit, positions for disagreements, deep kisses, and rowdy brawls. Sometimes the audience needs to see characters split, so they need to exit in opposite directions. Sometimes the audience needs to see other characters spy on each other, as in Hamlet, so they need to be positioned in a way that makes that clear. Whatever the needs of the story are, blocking is needed to make it situations and conflicts clear to the audience.

Blocking provides a foundation from which to work. It provides the dominant lines for travel, speed, angle, arc, as well as a springboard for character. For instance, if a character is going to move diagonally across the stage from upstage right to downstage left, in a straight line, without stopping, and at a swift pace, that sets a clear trajectory and will shift not only the composition of the stage, but the dynamic between other characters and the audience. This character in the distance is suddenly thrust into prominence with bold movement. If our character needed to make an important speech, this blocking provides the architecture for other gestures, even volume and tone of speech.

Blocking is also tied to character. If it has just been revealed that our our character’s pants have fallen down, and is embarrassed, this movement is a clear exit strategy, and shows a need for the character to remove themselves from that part of the stage. Along the way, maybe the character looks back a few times nervously, or stops half way, tears in eyes, and then continues forward. So blocking must align, in some way, with a character’s internal or external motivation. Moving in a particular direction, at a particular time, in a particular way must make sense for the character, otherwise it will be very difficult to justify, or make believable, that movement.

There are thematic reasons for blocking too. In the first scene of Hamlet, guards are on patrol in the foggy evening. “Who’s there?” is the first line. This opening line and scene are the first inklings of the themes of suspicion, obfuscation, supernatural, and the difficulty in knowing exactly “who” is there. A director may choose to suggest these ideas through slow, careful movements, or even no movement at all. The guard could move around the stage in a circular fashion, or a “S” shape, both of which could suggest confusion. Or perhaps the guard is jumpy, and is so surprised that his movements are quick and jagged, waving his torch (or flashlight) wildly, and amplifying the suspicion angle. The possibilities are endless, and wonderful.

Ideological perspective is also a factor in blocking. If your play requires realism, like Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, then blocking must match the movements of real people closely. If your play is absurd, like Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, movements do not need to be grounded so much in reality. If you are Bertolt Brecht directing Mother Courage, stage movements are not intentionally beautiful and are to reveal the structure of human relationships. If you’re Elia Kazan, directing Death of Salesman or A Street Car Named Desire, blocking is made with the tension of competing forces in mind.

Or sometimes blocking is there just to have fun, or because it looks beautiful, or because the audience would really enjoy it. Generally, though, blocking should efficient, compact, and suggestive. And once we have a deep understanding of the whole story, we realize that each movement on stage, no matter how small, can be used to purposely to convey as many things simultaneously as possible.

Unlocking LiFT 4 – What Art Should Do

By Matt Powers

“Declan, please pick up the meeples all over the floor.”


“Declan, please pick up the meeples.”


Meeples. Not actually my floor though.

“Declan, I’m pretty sure you threw them. Please pick them up and put them back in the box.”

He wanders over to Logan to play, and ignores me.

“Declan, you have until the count of five. One. Two,” my irritation level increasing, “Three.”


“That’s it! Time out!”

So I plunk him in the chill out chair, and ask him to apologize for being rude. He does not comply.

“I’m going to tell Mommy that you are not being nice.”

“No!” There are tears.

I go upstairs and tell my wife what has transpired. We come back down together to resolve the issue. She kneels in front of Declan, and, in her softest voice, asks, “Were you rude to Daddy?”

He nods.

“Is it fun to be rude?”


She pauses, looks over at the meeples, then back to Declan.

“Declan, did you throw the meeples?”

“No, Logan did.”

We share a look.

“Logan, did you throw the meeples?”


And just like that I’m apologizing to Declan for not getting the whole story, for over reacting, and he apologized to me too for being rude. We hugged, and departed. I can’t speak for Declan, but I felt a distinct sense of connection and closeness after that debacle. It was nice.

When we talked about the incident later, I confessed I should’ve handled it differently, gotten the whole story first. Then my wife said, “Well, he has to learn that when he behaves a certain way long enough he creates an expectation, and when he breaks pattern, sometimes people aren’t going to believe him when he’s telling the truth.”

Besides being right, combined with the events described, my wife unknowingly made a profound connection about art. Let me explain: Great art should break with held patterns, unsettle us (even confuse and anger us), should provoke dialogue, and, once explained, should offer new perspective, and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and our relationships. I was fortunate to experience it in daily life, though the same experience can be had through engagement with art.

Matisse and the Fauvists were lambasted for their paintings, as was Picasso. Ulysses by James Joyce was banned in the United States for a time because it was considered obscene. Modernist poets like Eliot, Pound, H.D., Williams, Stevens, Moore, Bishop, and others all faced backlash (some more than others, I’m looking at you Pound). Bertolt Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Edward Albee, Paula Vogel, Eugene Ienesco, Samuel Beckett, Lynn Nottage, Ben Jonson, even Shakespeare (and this is by no means an exhaustive list), have all faced degrees controversy from their contemporaries for their work. Indeed part of the job of the artist is to find new ways to tell truth, particularly if its uncomfortable.

While much ink has been wasted in the name of “experimental” whatever (because some of it is drivel), the spirit of experimentation is crucial. We need artists to recognize patterns in their mediums, as well as society, and have the wit and wherewithal to break patterns to wake audiences out of their somnambulism. Like with Declan and I, he broke with his mischievous pattern for a moment, I misunderstood it, and a third party (my wife) was able to create dialogue and jostle me out of a lazy behavior. As a result Declan and I have a better relationship. Beyond that, I can rattle off a number of plays, films, poems, novels, and books that have changed me – I think we all can.

But we need it to happen more. There are so many things in our routine lives that dull our senses, that distract us from the beauty and challenge of truth. So many patterns that have become too common, tired, stereotypical, or cliche.  Some of these are artistic forms (like the sonnet), some are stories (who isn’t tired of the same boy meets girl narrative?), some are social, or economic, or religious, or a blend of all. But they need to be shaken up so we can be more present in life, to re-evaluate our life, and, hopefully, garner realizations about our life and how we live it.

But more art is only half an answer. We need to make our engagement with art stronger, more enriching. We need to be open to the ideas, and really be thoughtful about what it is we are taking in. If we don’t, we have zero chance of breaking with our own patterns and letting art change us.


Unlocking LiFT 3 – Ruby’s Reprise

By Matt Powers

Never would I have thought that LiFT would get involved with murder mystery theater. Not that I had a bias against it, it just never crossed my mind. I always envisioned a mix of new, original plays and Elizabethan theater for LiFT, because that’s how we started. As luck would have it, we’ve added to our repertoire.

So this all started when the owners of the Overlook Mansion approached LiFT with a couple of ideas. One was for a Dia de Los Muertos event (which was a load fun, but for another post), and something like a “whole house Clue” event. Being the geek I am, I loved Clue the board game, and adored the film, but didn’t want to rehash Clue or Live Action Clue (which is actually a thing with ton of rules). We wanted something different, that people hadn’t seen before. Hence, our creation of Immersive Murder Mystery. Our idea was to create a highly interactive experience, part theater, part game, where the audience needs to engage with all the characters to get all the clues.

Some audience members interacting with Ruby and Diane.

What resulted was Rubbed Out at Ruby’s, an original murder mystery created by local author, Cynthia Quackenbush. She has written a number of murder mysteries, mostly the dinner theater kind, has a neat blog, and is very involved in the local theater scene. It is a fun show that keeps the audience, and actors, guessing. To be honest, it is surprisingly fun. We played for over 100 people at the Overlook, and then we were contacted to perform at a party hosted by the Jay Groah Group.

This is wholly unexpected and wonderful and I certainly don’t want to stop, but what is surprising is how this turn of events keeps with values integral to LiFT. I think quite a bit about art, its usefulness, community building through theater, education, and so on, and I see LiFT as more than simply putting on theater. It is a way to actively make life better for our community. To accomplish that, I always remind myself of the following goals and values:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Open minds
  3. Create and strengthen community bonds
  4. Improve quality of life

And Rubbed Out at Ruby’s hits all of them. We have the good fortune of being able to travel and take our shows places. Whether it is woodsy Caroga, or the more urban Utica, we bring theater to people. Obviously Ruby’s did this, twice.

We’ve opened minds to a new possibilities. The preconception that murder mystery is strictly dinner theater is so pervasive, that our spin on it surprised people. Also, by getting them to see this interactive theater in a new way, we open their minds to new enjoyment and experience. Perchance they will be inspired, or at least tell their friends.

Creating community is integral part of this show. From the outset the audience is told they are all here to solve a murder.  That bit of information makes them a unique group, suddenly they all have something in common. Some chose to work together, to team up on the actors, others went solo, but, to my recollection, no audience members worked against each other. There were many times when I heard people discussing their guesses with others, using their own powers of deduction to arrive at their best guess. People shared information willingly. Freely. It was amazing. Some friendships may have be newly formed there, others were strengthened simply because of a positive, collaborative experience. In the bigger picture, a group of strangers came together, worked together for an evening, and no one was unhappy. To me, that counts for something.

JG party
A new community: the Ruby’s cast with the audience after the show.

Finally, improving quality of life. This is such a subjective idea. And, really, how can we really pinpoint how quality of life is improved? It’s difficult to quantify. But that’s ok. As a theater group, have honor to bring people joy, to lift them out of their ordinary lives, if even for a moment, to let them forget their troubles for a while, to provide a temporary reprieve from burdens, to expand their imaginations, and, hopefully, reach and change them emotionally. That’s a lofty, and worthy, goal, and Ruby’s touches upon some of those things (though being changed emotionally is a stretch). The more pragmatic reason is that simply by providing entertainment we make our community more attractive. We offer something to do. We offer the possibility of new interests. Maybe even hope. And that counts for something.

Unlocking LiFT 2 – To Edit or Not to Edit

How dare I touch a single word of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare is SHAKESPEARE. His renown is god-like, and I revered him. His work is perfect and should not be altered. To edit his work felt like desecrating a monument, or something to boost my vanity, or being cruel to a friend. Not a pleasant feeling.

But in the course of my studies, I came across prompt books for Shakespeare’s actors. Sometimes these were used in London, and often used on tour in the country side. Even the first folio and second folio show in inconsistencies. Shows were trimmed and reordered, sometimes ruthlessly, to fit a certain time frame and audience taste. For instance, it took Shakespeare about 4000 lines to give Hamlet full expression, but early performances needed to cut the length (about four hours) to about two hours. That meant cutting 1500 lines or more, and, in some cases, moving scenes for continuity. There was no official “director” or “editor” of the play for performance, and it seems most likely that the actors decided what to keep and cut, albeit the theater owner may have had a say, so these decisions were made as a group. Despite his genius, and brilliance of the work, Shakespeare must have known that his shows needed to be cut for time and audience.

All this has made me feel much better about editing.

So I take those two ideas as first principles, and have added a third: location. Since we perform Shakespeare outside, with no amplification, and often in areas not architecturally designed for the human voice, how language travels in those spaces is a primary concern.  True, an actor’s skill in projection and their volume matter, but language matters too. Single syllable words with strong, clear sounds, like “whips and scorns of time,” are more discernible to the ear and are more easily projected rather than polysyllabic words like “contumely,” or “consummation,” which are often more difficult to project because they are a mouthful, especially outdoors with little for the voice to bounce off.

Redundancies and trimming.

It is primarily these considerations I keep in mind when I edit a script. Many of my edits involve trimming speeches or cutting redundancies (as in the first example). When trimming Prospero’s first speech, I focused on what the audience needs to hear to follow the story, and felt the exclamation “that a brother should be so perfidious!” was enough to convey Prospero’s ire. The second speech is repeated after Miranda’s line, so the audience gets the same information, and, while these long speeches coupled with Miranda’s inattentiveness convey character and a relationship, the audience will be able to get it the  first time, and not need the repetition.

Or sometimes it helps to cut obscure jokes and references. This cuts run time, and removes things the majority of audiences won’t understand or find funny. In the second photo, I’ve marked a section to cut, but wanted to hear it with my actors and talk about it with them first, and come to a decision together. There are even short scenes I will ask the cast about to see if we can cut them.

Old humor that may get cut.

Or sometimes edits are made to suit an actor’s range.  There have been moments in rehearsals where an actor has difficulty with a line, or feels uncomfortable with it, or can’t quite make the line sing, and we take a step back, ask ourselves is the line necessary. If it is for story, or for character development, information on relationships, or is just a fun moment to play we work on it more. If it isn’t, sometimes the line is cut, though I wouldn’t say this happens frequently. We make every attempt to preserve lines before cutting them in rehearsals.

Or sometimes the script is edited for production reasons. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, we had an actress play Conrade and Margaret. Normally this was fine, except for one point in Act 3 where she was Conrade at the end of one scene, and Margaret at the beginning of the next. Not even the speediest quick change would help with this exit and entrance. So, we ended up rearranging the scenes to give her time, but only did so because it did not interfere with the story. If it were to interfere with the story we had two contingencies: stall with music, or, if all else failed, recast Margaret. Thankfully we had to do neither.

While story, time, and location should govern most editorial changes, I would advise against editing for personal bias, politcal purposes, or other ideological reasons because that is a sure fire way to ruin the integrity and complexity of Shakespeare’s work. For me, editing is not about cutting, it is about preserving as much of story, character, action, and ideas as possible, but trimming to suit our time needs. Give the audience what is absolutely necessary, don’t alter the play radically, and enjoy the ride.

Unlocking LiFT 1

Hello LiFTers and everyone else! Matt Powers here, and I’d like to take a moment to tell you about a series we’ve created at LiFT. We’ve dubbed it “Unlocking LiFT” and it will focus on the ins and outs of theater, commentary on plays and acting, ruminations on art, and give all of you an insider look at how LiFT does what it does. I’m shooting to post twice a month, but that may go up. So stay tuned for new posts! And feel free to ask questions or request topics!

With the Mad Hatter Tea and “Where’s the Script” in the rear view, it’s time to take a breather before Shakespeare season. Auditions are coming up, and, I don’t know about you, but auditions are not my favorite part of the theater making process. Necessary? Sure. Just not that much fun. Speaking as an actor, they are often stressful, but you have to hide the nerves and project your confidence. Though sometimes if you know the panel, or have an amiable panel, you can relax and actually have a bit of fun and perform your best.

Speaking as a director, the process is draining. During auditions I tend to take copious notes, listen very carefully, and stare somewhat uncomfortably because I’m solely focused on the performance. At the same time my inner monologue runs a series of questions about character, acting chops, rapport with me and others, movement, ideas I have for the show, and so on to capture and round out my impressions. Even if I know the actor well, each show is different and requires different things. Besides, no actor is the same actor year to year – because life.

To help with this process I’ve developed a series of informal questions I ask myself when auditioning actors:

  1. Are they nice?
  2. Can I (and the cast) work with this person?
  3. Can I help this person be a better actor?
  4. Might this person help me be a better director?
  5. What do they bring to the group?
  6.  Might they help others with their performances?
  7. Where would this person fit best?

And so on. This may sound a bit blasphemous, but, as I see it, the role of the director isn’t just to produce the best show possible, it is to foster a healthy, collaborative environment, where people can have fun, make mistakes, improve their acting, and add their voice to the show. It is the responsibility of the director to do their best to create an atmosphere conducive to creativity, and, personally, I never lose sight of that. I am a director, not a dictator. And I like to have fun. If making theater isn’t fun, then why do it?