Friendship and Camaraderie through the “Act” of Violence

by Aaron Preusse (Stage Combat Choreographer for The Three Musketeers)

Aaron“All for One and One for All!” is an iconic line that brings to mind images of swashbuckling Musketeers banding together to beat impossible odds. This classic phrase and its ideal is also, what I believe to be, the foundation for stage combat.

Keeping someone safe while trying to kill them is a bit like rubbing your stomach while patting your head, it’s easy to do only after lots of practice. It’s this paradox of partnering safely while trying to commit acts of violence that I have come to call a “Contest of Generosity.” As a character, I might be trying to stab you through the heart but as the actor, I am doing everything I can to keep you safe and have it “appear” as though I am threatening your life. It’s this working together and abiding by the safety mechanisms, which allows the actors to explore their character’s intentions fully, while at the same time, delving into a relationship of trust and compassion with their scene partner quickly forming a tight bond with each other.

Some of my best friends have come from “crossing swords” with them and the relationship that is formed in that process. This connection is not unique to me, it is found any time you have two or more individuals collaborating together while giving everything they have to their partners. It is why theatre is such a wonderful art form. Theatre is the collaboration of actors, designers, directors, playwrights and the audience and the connection that ensues when telling and receiving the story. Stage combat has that same collaboration, you just happen to be doing it with weapons.

Lithograph print available for purchase at the Commonweal.

Lithograph print available for purchase at the Commonweal.

It’s an amazing thing that happens when you put a sword into someone’s hand, they instantly want to play, where they can be Zorro or Luke or…one of the Three Musketeers. There is a sense of power that comes from stage combat, not the power that you might think; instead it’s the power of connection, trust and generosity. This comes from a commitment to make your partner look good, to give them what they need and in turn receiving the same. It is through this play, commitment and camaraderie that you have a scene that is safe, believable and exciting. This reliance on each other cuts to the heart of what is needed and creates an honest visceral moment. In that connection you build trust in each other and in yourself and there forms the alliance. “All for One and One for All” becomes a contest of generosity. Not a bad way to live your life!

Teaching Someone to Sing—Poorly

Luther College professor emeritus David Judisch

Guest author—Souvenir musical director Dr. David Judisch, Luther College Emeritus Professor

“How do you teach someone to sing badly without causing harm to the singing voice?”  My involvement with this aspect of the play, Souvenir, is a first-time experience for me.  I had never really been confronted with this situation before. My main job in this play was to help the character, Florence Foster Jenkins, so ably portrayed by Stela Burdt, to sound as though she sang very badly.  Not only did we have to deal with that specific issue of Madame Flo sounding awful, but at the very end of the play she must sing in a beautiful, healthy, and artistically gorgeous way.  So after going through various kinds of vocal gymnastics which would potentially be harmful to her, Madame Florence must sing the final song as she would have imagined herself to sound. Sound challenging? Yes!

Souvenir (19)_resize

Stela Burdt as Florence Foster Jenkins

During my forty-seven years as a studio voice teacher I had never before been asked to try to accomplish anything like this. Luckily the woman chosen to perform the role of Florence was none other than the amazingly talented Stela Burdt, a former voice student of mine at Luther College. This was a distinct advantage because I felt I knew Stela’s vocal habits pretty well. Other than the usual requests from pop rock band singers who would sometimes ask for my help regarding their vocal fatigue while performing, or perhaps the Rabbis who came to me for assistance with their tired voices after singing in synagogue for hours, I had never really had to deal with this kind of vocal danger.  My training and experience has been with what is called a bel canto type of singing.  Bel canto literally means beautiful singing or beautiful song, and refers to training in a way which accommodates classical music, such as art song or opera.

When I was sent a copy of the script of the play along with the musical scores of the songs to be sung, I discovered to my surprise that the scores were the actual notations of the original music. There were no indications as to how to “mess” with the music so as to make the rendition of it sound quite awful. That particular task was up to us to decide. So now Stela and I had two tasks before us. First, how to “mess” with the music so she could sing badly or that her voice could sound awful, and second, how to maintain good vocal health so that she could sing the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria at the very end of the play.

Months before actual rehearsals began I had an interview with Alan Bailey, the stage director.  One of my first questions for him was to ask what Stela should have prepared before the cast gathered for rehearsals.  Should we have already made decisions as to how exactly those misappropriated notes should be, or should we allow some flexibility so the natural rehearsal process could work itself out?  We decided that we needn’t have every note, phrase, predetermined. This allowed Stela to make on-the-spot adjustments to suit the moment.

Florence_Foster_Jenkins_resizeStela and I began working together for a few months before play rehearsals started.  We met for an hour or so every two or three weeks. Even though this play dealt with the real live historical figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, it was never our intention to have Stela sound like the real Florence. Our rationale for doing so was to avoid predictability. Before messing with the music, we decided that she should learn to sing the real actual notes, and that she should be able to sing each aria/song in a healthy, beautiful way.

Then, we messed with it. We came up with a list including wrong intonation, anemic sounds, straight tone, fast/narrow vibrato, slow/wide vibrato, nasality, throatiness, incorrect rhythm, overall quality, wrong syllabic emphasis, register breaks, and breathlessness. Each segment of a song could have one or two of these ingredients.

Even though we worked as hard as we could, along with my cautioning Stela about healthy habits, there were bound to be times when she did step too close to the cliff’s edge. So long as we could avoid outright vocal abuse we could enable Stela to continue the entire run through the summer. As audiences have indicated thus far, we think we have met our goals.

Please go see this beautiful play!

Politics: Entertainment, Government, or Both?

Guest post by David Hennessey,
CWL Resident Ensemble Member

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”—former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, The New Republic, April 4, 1985


David Hennessey appears as Anders Lundestad in The League of Youth at the CWL.

Early in Ibsen’s political satire, The League of Youth, Chamberlain Brattsberg, an established and powerful civic leader, is quite taken with the recent charismatic speech of Stensgaard, a young politician. Brattsberg invites Stensgaard to the next room, eager to hear his supposedly innovative views on “by-pass restrictions and conservation variances.” When Mr. Hejre, the town cynic, is also invited to join the discussion, he replies in a near monotone, “I’m all a quiver.” As he knows well, the legal minutia of governing is just not as sexy as the thrill of a fiery speech.

This year’s presidential election is a perfect backdrop to Ibsen’s only comedy, a story about politics. Like actors, politicians also tell stories and we’ve heard many on the campaign trail, with varying degrees of effectiveness. There have been established candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush dishing out far more prose than poetry; a visionary like Bernie Sanders tapping into poetic, though surprisingly one-note, inspiration; the youthful son-of-immigrants narrative of Marco Rubio that never quite caught on; the I’m-an-outsider perspective of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina that failed to cut through the din; the traditional-values stance of Ted Cruz; and, of course, the Joan Rivers-like candidacy of Donald Drumpf.

“Comedienne Joan Rivers was obscene, vulgar, and cruel. No one escaped her vicious attacks. Not her friend Elizabeth Taylor, her family, or even the Queen of England. For this, we loved her.”—Stacia Friedman, Broad Street Review, September 5, 2014

sealI’ve often thought that some things that Drumpf says at rallies would be considered somewhat typical, though edgy, entertainment if uttered on Saturday Night Live. In that context, many people wouldn’t give them a second thought. But hearing them from someone running for the most powerful position in the world is a new phenomenon in my lifetime. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I don’t remember hearing such over-the-top insults—usually reserved for stand-up comedy—in a presidential campaign before. That’s probably why he’s generated so much passionate attention from both supporters and opponents alike.

Passionate attention is very much what actors and performers of any kind strive to create in their audience.  But in a theatre, the audience willingly suspends its disbelief to let actors sometimes say and do things we’d never dream of doing in real life.  And if we do our job right, audiences will think our characters are believable, but only in the context of that story.

“Back-and-forth banter with fans, as Drumpf calls them, is a staple of the act. ‘The misconception is that this is just stream of consciousness,’ said Corey Lewandowski, Drumpf’s campaign manager. ‘It’s not. It is thought out. It’s strategic. It is precise.’”—Michael Finnegan, LA Times, January 29, 2016

covers-2016-1-league-of-youth-draft01-page-001When watching a political campaign, though, I look for the candidate whose words and deeds I can trust the most. It’s a bit different than belief—I might believe a candidate’s promises just because I want to hear them, but can I trust them, too? If elected, his or her actions and words will have consequences in the real world, not just a storytelling world of suspended disbelief.
Take a break from stories of the election and listen to us tell Ibsen’s story, brilliantly adapted once again by Jeffrey Hatcher. To be sure, it will have echoes in the real world, but none of us is running for office, so the lines between story and reality won’t blur—as they do on much of reality TV and on this year’s campaign trail.

The opinions in this post are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonweal.