5 Questions with Sandy Boynton

I’ve known Sandy Boynton almost as long as I’ve been performing in the Capital Region. She is an actor, director, educator, costume designer and Shakespeare lover. Our paths have crossed often and happily. We’ve seen dozens of each other’s productions, collaborated together a few times, and have probably been in the same audience for another Capital Region show a hundred times. No one in the Capital Region commands more respect, loyalty, and love than Sandy Boynton.

Sandy Boynton

As the Artistic Director of Will Kempe’s Players, she will be touring with her group to different sites all summer long with two productions: “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” both of which she directed. Grab a cup of coffee and learn something.

PW: What are the challenges of staging and rehearsing shows that will eventually play in many different spaces?

SB: Surprisingly, there are fewer issues than you might think since Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote plays that could be staged (and restaged) in the London public theatres, the private theatres, the banqueting halls, the guild halls, at court during Christmas Revels, and even in town squares or public buildings while on tour. What we rehearse are the relationships between and among characters, and those remain unchanged throughout the various spaces.                 

What facilitates this work is that we almost always play in front of a pipe-and-drape background that features three entrances. And we always play directly to and with the audience. Before every performance, we have a speedy rehearsal—we call it “tops & tails”—to adjust the play to the new space. We re-time all the entrances and exits; we thoroughly rehearse and restage dances, confrontations, and especially fights for safety and effectiveness. And every space offers us opportunities as well as challenges—permanent platforms we can use to create levels, a raked stage that clarifies stage pictures automatically, exquisite natural vistas, sturdy trees to climb, a working trapdoor.

And frankly, Patrick, the challenges of this continual re-staging practice keep the plays fresh and active—every performance is, in effect, an opening and a closing

PW: Can you talk about “Original Practices”? What is it? Why does WKP choose to use it? What do you hope audiences will experience attending a production staged in this manner?

SB: Can I talk about “Original Practices”? Ad infinitum, my friend. “Original Practices” is an attempt to recreate—crudely and inadequately as our modern attempts might be—the creative and performance practices of the early modern theatre. Shakespeare’s plays were all written before the modern “picture-frame” became the default theatre plan, and so many of our modern theatrical assumptions just do not “work.” In Shakespeare’s day, there was little separation between the players and the audience; spectators engaged in word games with the actors; spectators might serve as “cast” members—the “friends, Romans, countrymen” in Julius Caesar, the English army exhorted by Henry V “once more unto the breach,” and spectators became the confidants of Viola, Hamlet, Iago to name only a few.

The typical early modern playhouse—purpose-built or ad hoc—had spectators on three “sides” of the performance, perhaps four. The performers and audience existed in the same light—daylight or candlelight. And as such, “darkness” had to be acted, not created by electronic effect; in fact, darkness was always ironic, since the audience could clearly see what the characters could not. Plays were performed in front of a neutral wall with two or three openings; the specifics of location—except for the occasional bench, table or tree—were evoked by the language. Sound effects and music were acoustic and live.

Perhaps the greatest differences, however, are the uses of the text. We use the texts as they were printed and published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and we avoid the modern tendency to conflate different early modern printings into a single edition– “the play that Shakespeare really wanted published.” Once we embrace the early modern text, we can then embrace the conventions of early modern punctuation, the vagaries and insights of early modern spelling, the use of (seemingly errant) Capitalization for Emphasis. We look for and observe the “embedded” stage directions, that is, indications of stage movement within the speeches, not necessarily noted by stage directions in italics. (In fact, italics in Shakespeare’s plays denote character names, speech prefixes, song lyrics, and text that is meant to be read, not memorized.) We recognize prose as the language of the mind—philosophy, jokes, lies,

schemes—and verse as the language of the heart—the truth as one believes it to be. And we use the iambic rhythm as the unifying time signature of the play, often juxtaposed with other rhythms for emphasis; ignoring Shakespeare’s rhythm is never a good option, relying on it leads insight after insight.

Oh, Patrick, I’ve gone on and on about original practices, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what we believe to have been the case. I’d like, however, to make three points before I wrap up this introduction:

  1. The early modern theatre artists were forging a practice, not following one.
  2. Shakespeare’s plays were not dialogue novels; they were written as character studies. Each actor was given what we call a “cue script,” his own lines in order, preceded by his “cue”—the words immediately preceding his line. No performer had a complete copy of the script; the actor’s job was to speak his line when he heard his cue. Obviously, the actor had to listen, listen, listen to understand and respond. The actor is allowed to be surprised, to learn as his character arc progresses. Shakespeare wrote parts for actors, not acts and scenes.
  3. As the theatre archaeology progresses in London and more original documents are unearthed elsewhere, more is learned about the early modern period every day. I am prepared that everything I think I know is wrong.

WKP uses OP because of the depth and breadth of insights we can garner from this work. We know and learn more and faster. A WKP production is not complete until the audience is in the room. The WKP performer speaks clearly and quickly, with a light emphasis on rhythm. We move the play along, always being attentive to the audience’s reaction and how that reaction can shape whatever will happen next. And a WKP performance takes advantage of moments with the audience. At the Prospect Park “Two Gentlemen of Verona” performance, a young gentleman was sitting up close and enjoying some cheese crackers. During the scene when Launce (Michael Sinkora) was discussing how his dog Crabbe (Murphy) had stolen some food at a banquet, Murphy sniffed out the crackers and moseyed his way over to the lad, wagging his tail in supplication. At the end of the monologue, Launce requested a few crackers, and he and Crabbe shared them. Truly funny and sweet and never to repeat. I hope that audiences can find themselves as a part of that process and let themselves into that liminal space between performer and spectator, between fiction and reality.

PW: What has been a favorite moment in the rehearsal room preparing these two plays?

SB: Patrick, the entire process has been the favorite moment. Let’s face it, both plays are very early Shakespeare; they present difficult love stories that challenge the 21st-century sensibility. And since I was directing them simultaneously, I did worry that they might be much too much alike. However, the plays shaped their own development and process. “The Taming of the Shrew” was grounded in physical comedy. Two Gentlemen of Verona found its center in work around intimacy and betrayal. Both plays and casts found ways to honor young and foolish lovers, to respect the past, and honor the present.

PW: You have a great deal of experience in the Capital region working professionally in the colleges and community theatres. What are your thoughts on the differences working among the various groups?

SB: You know, Patrick, this could be a loaded question, but I think it is not. Now, admittedly, I have controlled most of my college theatre experiences, and I have been selective in community theatre experiences. And when I worked for Proctors and Adirondack Studios, I worked on some pretty spiffy stuff. And much as I hate to say it, the common denominator is money or the lack thereof. Even college programs with strong majors are at risk of being defunded; college programs seek out scripts that are in the public domain to save the $100.00+/performance royalty fee; community theatres work on minuscule budgets. Everything, and I mean everything, is constrained by the financial possibilities. In contrast, when Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey wanted dragon banners to flutter to the ring there was money for silk and money to pay for hand dying and embroidery; that is the way of the professional show business.

I look around at the local live performance scenes and see so much talent, so much genuine insight, so much hard work. I hope that intrinsic rewards are enough.

And from the length of my experience, I also ponder the future of all live performances. I wonder how all the stories will get told. I wonder how all the cultures will be honored and uplifted. I wonder how the financial picture will shift to support all the work. I wonder how all the theatre makers will be supported financially and artistically. I wonder how we can tell the true story of the theatrical world without deferring to Hollywood, Broadway, and Disney tropes. I wonder how we will educate young theatre-makers in a world that seems to reject nuance. Most of all, I wonder how we will begin to honor the art and the artist, not just the price tag.

PW: What is a play that has changed your life, and how?

SB: Three plays shifted the course of my life. Pick whatever.

1. At 10, I saw my first “adult” play, a community theatre version of “Auntie Mame,” directed by a family friend who had “made it” in NYC and starring an Equity actress with local ties. I sat in the front row and was bowled over from start to finish. And when Mame crowed, “Live, live, live! Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-a-bitches are starving to death!”, I was hooked, hooked, hooked.

2. At 30, or thereabouts, I saw “A Chorus Line” in its original Broadway production. Again, I was blown away start to finish. But Cassie said, “I don’t want to wait on tables, and what I really don’t want to do is teach other people what I ought to be doing myself.” This time—before God and the theatre-going public—I screamed. Within 18 months, I left my teaching job and, for the next 11 years, navigated the muddy waters of theatrical gig work.

3. At 55 or thereabouts, I taught (yup, 11 years of spotty health care was enough) a London-based theatre experience course. The Shakespeare’s Globe education staff presented a workshop on the cue script and its uses in staging. In Act III, scene 3 of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare gives the same cue repeatedly, prompting characters to interrupt each other as they would in a natural argument. Yet a third time, I was breathless with an epiphany—Shakespeare’s texts used as Shakespeare conceived them were smart and transparent, and meaningful. Shakespeare’s texts, forced to conform to the standards of other times and places, became opaque to the point of meaninglessness.

From Mame to Cassie to Shylock, to OP Shakespeare study, and to Will Kempe’s Players—helluva ride.

Will Kempe’s Players will be touring “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” to Indian Ladder Farms 7/29 & 7/30, Sand Lake Center for the Arts 8/5 & 8/6, Lionheart on the Green 8/12, The Linda WAMC 8/13 and Music Haven 8/25 & 8/26. Details: www.willkempesplayers.com

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