Renaissance actors
An observation by Tom Knapp,
February 1995

Do you have what it takes to be an Elizabethan?

• You aren't bashful. You have a brash, aggressive desire to be the center of attention. Humility is a foreign concept.

• You have a knowledge of and an appreciation for Shakespeare. Your tongue doesn't stumble over British dialects.

• You aren't afraid to jump, scream or roll around on the floor. You thrive on doing things in public that turn most faces bright crimson.

If this sounds like you, then you might have a place at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire at Mount Hope.

But not this year -- the professional and semi-professional casts for 1995 were chosen this week after rigorous auditions designed to separate dramatic hopefuls from true thespians.

Close to 200 actors and actor wannabees auditioned for the right to step back in time and lay their fortunes at the feet of England's Virgin Queen. About 50 will be picked to people the shire, which this year will host Elizabeth and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

You'd expect people to recite Shakespeare at faire auditions, and indeed, the Bard made frequent appearances during prepared monologues. Then things get whacky. Actors writhe and gyrate, stretch and whirl through a variety of spontaneous characters as they demonstrate and hone improvisational skills.

"Pick people up, lay 'em down, roll around and have fun with them," Mark Sullivan, associate artistic director, told one group of actors. And they do, lifting each other's legs into unusual postures, twisting bodies around, making friends with the floor and, in the process, each other.

They are forced to tell stories with their faces and bodies, through gibberish and mime.

They learn how to act and react without time for thought or planning, how to play with each other and sacrifice their own ideas as other themes develop.

"You want to find people who are totally involved, physically and intellectually, in the scene," explained artistic director Gary Mazzu. "One key is the ability to listen," he said. "Far too frequently, actors aren't listening to their fellow actors on the stage. In improvisational situations, you have to listen. You have to react to what's going on around you."

Ranging in age from 10 to 58, the hopeful performers are asked to jump through some pretty unusual hoops.

For the first round of auditions, actors prepared two brief monologues and a snippet of song. This is their chance to spotlight their strengths.

A goateed young man pulls three oranges from a huge dufflebag. He tries to juggle a thick Cockney accent along with the fruit; it doesn't work, so he slips back into his normal voice with a sheepish grin. He keeps the oranges flying as he tells a panel of judges how his career as a street busker came to end for want of a permit. He asks if he can pitch a tent at Mount Hope during faire season.

Next, a young woman with long, wavy hair and elfin boots does a brief scene as Queen Catherine from Henry VIII, runs through a litany of blessings from The Ruling Class and ends with hands on hips for a bawdy English ditty. Except for a few serious moments from Shakespeare, she never stops grinning.

Another man, whose baby face and energy belie his age, ricochets around the room as one of Shakespeare's beleaguered servants.

Performers have only a minute and a small square of space to define character and scene, Mazzu explained later. The monologue is the first real test of their talents.

The cream of the crop is called back for a second look. It was a creamy harvest this year -- nearly 80 percent of the auditionees got that second shot. Some actors "knocked my socks off" with a monologue, Mazzu said, while others earned callbacks with impressive resumes. Experienced musicians and stage combatants, for instance, are likely candidates for the faire.

Sometimes, Mazzu said, it's purely intuitive. The judges "see something about them that they like and they want to see it again."

There's no way to prepare for a callback. Since performers have no idea what they'll be asked to do, callbacks give a good measure of their capacity to act and interact spontaneously.

They don't stand alone this time, however; actors are taken for callbacks in groups. As they await their turns in the hallway outside, they chat like old friends and assess each others' abilities.

"We're looking to see how focused they are, how they solve problems ... and how they react and work with others," Mazzu explained.

Six performers are asked to use repetitive sound and movement to become a single unit. There is no direction or collaboration; they are simply told to build on each other.

After a moment's hesitation, a petite actress begins twirling ballerina-like and intoning a low-high-low triplet. Another starts bowing and windmilling her arms as she hums. Soon, the whole pack is swaying, turning and droning. With coaching by Sullivan, their motion slows to a crawl, then quickens to a frenzy before collapsing in a heap.

It was good improv, Sullivan tells them, but they failed to interact. Each was doing his or her own thing in spite of each other. So they do it again, and this time the group meshes into a living machine. Don't ask what they're doing -- it's impossible to define and besides, Sullivan says, it really doesn't matter. What matters is that they worked together to expand on a theme.

The next challenge, an impromptu dialogue exercise, teaches performers two basic rules of improv: never say "no" and never ask questions. Both techniques, Mazzu explained, block scene development.

The resulting two- and four-line conversations don't always make sense, but it's a beginning.

"It's not easy," Mazzu admitted later. "Trying to really become strongly focused in that improv format - even pros find themselves slipping up now and then. It's why we try to make this a nurturing process."

As Mazzu and a handful of other judges scribble notes about each person's performance, Sullivan stands to one side and gently coaches the actors. "Don't ask questions," he reminds them. "You're blocking. Accept everything that is offered. Never say 'no.'"

Another group of actors slips more easily into improv. Perhaps, Mazzu said, they work better because they remember how to play. "They were enjoying themselves," he said. "They decided to relax and have fun."

Still, not all of the scenes develop naturally. One, a convenience store robbery, falls into place without visible effort and has audition judges howling. The next goes nowhere fast, somehow leaving actors involved in a Twister game on a carousel on or near a college campus.

Other challenges test the actors' ability to think fast and react to a spontaneous story. One requires four actors to stand in a row and make up a story, each adding one word as it progresses rapidly up and down the row.

In another, actors are molded into unusual poses, then told to justify their positions with a quick improv scene. In quick succession, they become cop and robber, dance instructor and pupil, lesbian lovers, massage therapist and patient, mother and potty-deprived child, and dog and master.

When the scenes are finally over and the actors are told they are through, they display a mixture of relief, anticipation and fatigue. In the back of their heads, each seems to be thinking: "Will I get the call?"

With hours of auditions and callbacks behind them, the creative staff at Mount Hope has the task of picking who gets to don Renaissance duds and make merry in the streets.

"We all sit down and discuss what we saw, who we liked and why," Mazzu said. Agreeing on casting decisions isn't hard. "We quite often agree," he said. "We all come from the same background, we all know what we're looking for."

The staff spent most of the past week discussing the merits and drawbacks of each contender. By the end of work today, Mazzu said, all decisions will be made and most actors notified.

[ by Tom Knapp ]