Memories of The Brass Tacks Ensemble – Part 2

For the first part in this series, check out last month’s blog post!

That First Production:  King Lear, Summer 1999

We were accepted in the inaugural season of The Performance Network’s TreeTown Festival.  King Lear was the show.  Summer of 1999. At the old Network space on Washington (where the YMCA now stands).  Rehearsals to be at the Frieze Building (where North Quad now stands).  

Compared to most of the shows in the BTE production history, this first one seemed positively ungainly.  The cast was large–our largest ever, I believe, at 16 members–and the design and tech elements were comparable to most amateur productions (and a few professional ones).  Banners and gauzy material hanging from the ceiling, costume changes, lighting shifts, props….there was a busy-ness that is not generally associated with our shows.  

The script, too, was huge.  It was freakin’ King Lear.  It doesn’t get much bigger than that. I remember being asked at the time–I think by a newspaper reviewer (I told you this was a while ago)–why King Lear?  Why at the Network space (not the largest of venues)?  No one was asking why we were considering the play artistically, but why were we daring to overreach?  My only answer to the question was, “Why not? You never know when you’ll have another chance.” And the space is physically small, but it’s only inappropriately small if you don’t use that smallness to your advantage.  And we did. Heightening the idea of a shrinking world by having dead people remain onstage till the end whenever possible.  

I am reluctant to describe the “vision” or “concept” of the production mainly because I think I would be describing only how I was hoping the production would be perceived rather than how it was actually perceived. Also, I don’t want this to turn into a dissertation.  Also also, I’ve reached a point in my theatrical life where I think that plays should probably be allowed to speak for themselves–focusing on fundamentals (of acting, directing, writing) is a large enough task. 

Of course, as I discovered during the rehearsal process, I did overreach.  Up to that point, I had only a few directorial credits on the old resume, and while I was able to make certain scenes work, and while I think the broad outline of the show’s concept was there by the time we opened, there were times in the rehearsal process that I was flummoxed.  The “Mad Tom” scenes with Edgar, Kent, Lear, and the Fool were trying, Gloucester’s leap was difficult, and…well…one or two roles were miscast. There is a brand of chaos and uncertainty that is specific to the Brass Tacks process that works pretty well at times (more on that later), and this wasn’t it.  

There were scenes that worked, actors that shone, and moments that I will remember forever.  The blinding of Gloucester by the positively diabolical Scott Hoye (Cornwall) and Elif Wisecup (Regan) with bloody gelatin and a swordfight (with actual swords, for Pete’s sake).  Jeffrey Steiger (the only actor pre-cast) as the Fool, pulling up his pants and zipping himself when he states that he’s “sometimes whipped for holding my peace.” The heartbreaking performance of Marvin Nochman as Gloucester.  These and many more made up for my hubris-driven missteps.  

(And, of course, there were moments that make me laugh when I look back at them.  I remember buying a couple of bottles of Guinness to be used as props–early in the show a servant would present a bottle and a glass on a tray to the king.  The bottles were never meant to be opened (though perhaps they would be at the end of the run). During one rehearsal, though, I noticed that the liquid inside the bottles seemed to be clear–noticeable even from a distance through brown glass.  Turns out Scott had taken it upon himself to empty the contents and refill them with water.  

I also vaguely recall re-postering between the two weekends of our run and adding heavily ellipsis-ized quotes from our mixed Ann Arbor News review to the front of each poster.  The public could be forgiven if they thought we had a runaway hit on our hands.)

As I said, I don’t think we had fully found our aesthetic in that production, but I think we planted some of the seeds of our working process.  While actors did not deserve to be spoon-fed their performances by the director, they certainly had the right to ask questions about their roles and (especially) the director’s choices.  Everyone ought to be respected for their time, talent, and energy. Rehearsing and performing with our group was as much about learning as it was about entertaining–and both could be fun.  

And, perhaps most importantly, everyone should have at least one opportunity in life to get up and act or direct or stage-manage or design or write.  I have had actors write me personal notes over the years, thanking me for the opportunity to get onstage for the first time, or to get onstage again after a lengthy hiatus, or to experience Shakespeare in a healthy environment.  And, as I look back on it, King Lear, our first show, was my opportunity–not something I was owed, but something I was given by Rob and Anne and Jeffrey.  And Tom and Patrick and Elif and Scott. And Troy, Maggie, Claire, Marvin, Joe, Lisa, Tony (even Tony), Shauna, and Zehra.  And Katie, Meghan, Rita, and Marnie.  

-James Ingagiola, Founder

Come back in October to read the next part of this series!