Memories of The Brass Tacks Ensemble – Part 3

By James Ingagiola

Coming Back to the TreeTown Festival: The Taming of Shakespeare’s Shrew, Summer 2000

Since we were still standing at the end of King Lear (after the curtain calls if not before), we apparently decided that there must be something to this theater production thing because we decided to do it all over again the following summer.  We would continue with Shakespeare because his plays are enjoyable, universal, and (perhaps most importantly) free. Thus The Taming of the Shrew.  Or, rather, The Taming of Shakespeare’s Shrew.  

If someone were to ask me to put our productions in order from most Tacksian to least, Shrew would be near the top of the list.  It may not have been our greatest show (it may have been, I don’t know), but it certainly would have given you a very good idea of what we are like as a company both in the process and in the finished product.  We were lucky and unlucky to have this production mounted early in BTE history. Lucky because it helped us establish our style very soon; unlucky because it set a benchmark that I’ve been trying to reach (with varying degrees of success) since.

When the BTE is at its best, there is an element of controlled chaos in the rehearsal process that is very polarizing:  Some people absolutely DESPISE it or find it to be some combination of frightening and confusing (and possibly unprofessional).  Other people LOVE it. And they come back. Mind you, this is when we’re “at our best.”  

But why?  Why such extreme reactions?

Most (though not all) theater productions, amateur and professional, are attempts to lock a show into a groove.  Let us find what “works” and repeat it till it can be performed with peak efficiency. Often (though, again, not always), there is no time for exploration, no time for questioning; sometimes, actors and directors balk at the exploration and the questioning for various reasons.  The desire seems to be to create a show that is predictably safe. Safe for the audience because they are getting the precise routines that the actors have been drilled in for the previous few weeks, safe for the actors because they don’t have to worry about things going wrong (“where am I going?” “how am I saying this line”).


All that truly matters is telling a coherent story.  And that includes character motivations, traits, et cetera, et cetera…because those drive the story.  If the actors can tell a story, then they can deal with mishaps and chaos. They can encounter detours in performance as long as they find their way back to the story.  

So, the BTE will explore the story and the characters even (gasp!) into production week, sometimes changing huge chunks of blocking, cutting moments (from original scripts), finding the essence of each story we choose to show.  And this leads to chaos–as seen by people who are not used to it. (“How is this not set yet?”) But the chaos has an added benefit: If you’re used to chaos and randomness, then you can manage it when things go to hell onstage.  If you’re set in a specific routine, then when (not if) things go wrong, you flounder. In front of an audience.

So….anyway…back to Shrew.

Shrew was about as chaotic as it could get.  We cast the show through a combination of auditions and calls to friends.  And as it turned out, it had to be that way because our rehearsal room had a revolving door.  If I recall correctly, we did not have our opening night cast till well into the rehearsal process.  Add to that that we had a director who was playing Petruchio and writing the script simultaneously, and it’s a wonder we ever made it to the first performance.  

“Writing the script”?  What on earth…? Didn’t the script already exist?  Well…yes. But if you’ve ever read or seen Shakespeare’s play, you know that it is problematic (to say the least).  Kate, the shrew of the title, spends most of the play railing against men and marriage and being controlled, then at the end, seems to submit to Petruchio.  Hmm. Aside from the obvious discomfort this evokes from a modern audience, it seems like an odd about-face, character-wise.  

So, I wrote a frame play that weaved in and out of the action.  We became a traveling troupe putting on a show in an abandoned theater (appropriate as the Network was moving to its new location on Huron in the fall).  And so actors were milling about in the lobby and onstage pre-show, yelling lines from a script (no time to memorize!) backstage between (and during) scenes, and saying goodbye to the audience at the end of the show in lieu of a curtain call.

(My favorite memory of this production–and there are a few–is the reaction of audiences to the lack of a curtain call.  Most accepted it, some stayed resolutely in their seats till we (courteously) kicked them out, some were confused, some bemused.  But during the last week, a couple of the actors (Anne and Amy Kullenberg) came to me and suggested that I should at least have curtain calls after the Sunday matinees because those audiences (generally older theatergoers) were “used to them.”  I disagreed because the lack of curtain call was a part of the show, but I later relented. Near the end of the run, Aral Gribble (our excellent Grumio) came to me and said that his mother had seen the show the first Sunday, and without being prompted, said the curtain call seemed inappropriate.  Sigh. Stick to your guns, kids.)

Within this play-within-a-play premise was a conflict among the actors revolving around how to (and why) perform this play. The actress playing Kate (the wonderful Claire Mannle) had to grapple with the sexism swirling around the play while most of the other actors were simply trying to put on a fun show.  It added (I hoped, at any rate) a layer of subtext to a show that is generally played largely for laughs (which we did, too).  

The show was under-rehearsed, as these things go, but I prefer an under-rehearsed show to an over-rehearsed one because then you leave the door open for discoveries during the performances.  There was a genial sloppiness to it that added to the show’s premise: There was a built-in safety net because any screw-up could be worked into the show–these were actors thrown into a place they had never performed before, performing a show that was problematic to begin with.  All they had to do was acknowledge the “mistakes” if they happened (when they happened). Something that people are not used to doing.

That seems to be a recurring theme in our productions.