Propeller: Was There a Doctor in the House?
You bet. In fact, there were no fewer than 35 of them at Friday night’s performance of Richard III—med students and house officers, all part of the UM Medical Arts Program, a joint UMS–UM Medical School initiative designed to enrich physician training through exposure to the arts and humanities. Funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, the program gives UM medical students and house officers (aka residents) an inside take on concerts, plays, art exhibitions, poetry readings, and so on—all in an effort to deepen their understanding of the human beings they’ll be caring for as physicians.
Joel Howell, professor of internal medicine at UM and co-director of the program, sent this report on the group’s involvement with Propeller:
Last Wednesday evening some 35 medical students and house officers gathered at A2’s Blue Nile Restaurant to enjoy food, drink, and a stimulating discussion of Richard III—the person and the play. Guided by two splendid Shakespeare experts—UM English Professor Barbara Hodgdon and Carol Rutter of the University of Warwick—the group used the play as the starting point to discuss everything from the roots of Richard III’s behavior, to his choice for future matrimony, to what it must be like to confront death. Along the way the discussion was enlivened by images and quotations from the play.
Two nights later the same group attended Richard. Three reactions:
The amazing thing is not so much the production’s obvious connection with a hospital setting, but the holistic way we should be looking at people. It’s very easy for people in medicine to separate themselves from patients. These events underline that we’re all the same.
It was also nice to see that hospital gowns had backs to them. —Sonali Palchaudhuri, third-year UM medical student
I’m doing a rotation in psychiatry now, and I was thinking about how difficult it would be to diagnose Richard, because he’s such a complex character. Any art is a sharp critique of the boundaries and categories we have in psychiatry. —Eunice Yu, third-year UM medical student
Richard III helps to draw into relief how many people outside the medical world see the hospital setting as creepy and scary. The use of masks [in the production] is in sync with that. I thought of how I have to garb when I go into the operating room or the ICU—how that separates us and makes both doctors and patients feel less human. —John Rhyner, house officer
WITH VIDEO: From the Bard to the Boardroom…
In all the talk about the mechanics of producing Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget that these plays are also about real issues—the kinds of things we grapple with in our own lives. Richard III, for example, asks about leadership. What does it take to be an effective leader? Strength? Decisiveness? Morality? A willingness to listen to others? (Look at the Middle East today to see how relevant these questions are.)
These same issues surfaced in Tuesday’s workshop, “From the Bard to the Boardroom,” with the Ross Leadership Initiative at UM’s Ross School of Business. Nearly 50 B-school students attended the session in a sunny sixth-floor room, and Carol Rutter, professor of English at the University of Warwick, put them through their paces. She started by having them take off their shoes and just walk around the room, then walk as if they were the most important person there—“as if you were Obama,” she said—and then as if they were the least significant person in the room. And so on. The idea was to understand status and how it shapes physical behavior.
From there it was on to a nonmusical version of musical chairs—an exercise designed to foster teamwork—and finally to a spoken dialogue plucked from Antony and Cleopatra (although the students didn’t at first know that):
A: Welcome to Rome.
B: Thank you.
B: Sit, sir.
A: Nay, then.
It was fascinating to see the variety of ways two students could interpret that simple exchange.
And of course it drove home the point that with Shakespeare (or any playwright, for that matter) acting is everything. There’s no fixed way to interpret dialogue. It’s a matter of context, status, personality, motives, etc. The B-school students got it right away. (Were they all actors in a former life, or what?!)
The last, and longest exercise in the 90-minute workshop had the students divide into groups and develop a “vision” or “theory” of leadership. Each group received a packet of materials—photos of actors playing Richard III, images of objects and people, passages of dialogue from the play—to help narrate their vision.
Rutter outlined the students’ “brief”: England Corp. has just emerged from a bloody, five-year takeover battle. The Yorks have taken power, the CEO has died, and a fight over his successor is brewing. There are three sons: the hapless, profligate, terminally ill Edward; the suave George; and the ruthless Richard. A fourth possibility lurks outside the “family firm”—Richmond, a Tudor (aka the Good Guy).
Who will run England Corp.? And what qualities did the B-School students think this new CEO should possess?
Rutter explained to me in an aside that her aim with the workshop—which she’s done previously with lawyers—is to cultivate leadership in the very process of trying to define it. Like real-life leaders, the students in the workshop have to examine, analyze, and sort materials they don’t recognize and then make decisions. “The exercise reproduces the process we want them to think about. Process is content.”
I found the outcomes relevant not only to Richard III, but to what’s happening throughout the Middle East, where the very question of succession is sending demonstrators to the barricades.
Some comments from the B-School workshop participants:
“Our ideal leader would have trusted advisors, be educated, and want people to be educated.”
“Good leadership begins with a vision of what leadership is.”
“A good leader should be able to make difficult decisions that people may not agree with.”
“A leader needs to be able to work within existing organizations—and not just be an outsider, a rebel.”
“Hitler was morally bankrupt, but he was a brilliant leader.”
“Leadership starts with integrity.”
On my way out of the workshop, I ran into a first-year MBA student, Nate Fernando, who’d taken part in the session. He told me he’d loved the experience, because fiction “helps you reflect on things in ways that real-life scenarios don’t. It makes you think about people’s motivation, for instance.”
He added, “You see these characters in your own life every day.”
That’s a chilling thought.
Daily Propeller Updates: Links to all the stories from our guest bloggers
Our guest bloggers, Leslie Stainton and Jen Leija, will be blogging all week long on the UMS Lobby. I’ll be compiling links here to each of their stories so that you can easily follow all their reporting from the week. Hope you enjoy! And, please, feel free to comment because Leslie and Jen would love to hear from you.
- Meet Our Guest Bloggers
We’ve asked two community members, Leslie Stainton and Jen Leija, to cover all the Propeller events and report about them here. Our bloggers will have behind-the-scenes access and will bring you recaps and reporting from all of Propeller’s performances and residency activities.
- People Are Talking: Richard III and The Comedy of Errors
Tell us what you thought! This is the place to comment on the performance, and hear what others are saying.
- In Closing, An Open Letter to Propeller
You are a company of talented, passionate, dedicated, vocally gifted, really good looking men who make Shakespeare into something brand new while somehow getting closer to the root and core of the text and than any production I’ve ever seen.
- What’s Next for Propeller?
Sometime in the future, Hall wants to do his own cycle of the Shakespeare history plays—the three “Henry VI”s, “Henry V,” and “Richard III.” The working title is “Blood Line.” MacKay says they’re not sure when they’ll do it, “but we’re working toward it.” A2 audiences who reveled in the RSC’s first residency here back in 2001 may find this news as tantalizing as I do. UMS, are you listening?
- Propeller: Was there a doctor in the house?
You bet. In fact, there were no fewer than 35 of them at Friday night’s performance of Richard III—med students and house officers, all part of the UM Medical Arts Program, a joint UMS–UM Medical School initiative designed to enrich physician training through exposure to the arts and humanities
- Propeller: In an Age of Tweets and txts, Musical Signposts
I suspect it’s the music as much as anything that makes me want to see—to hear—these plays more than once. I suspect that’s the part of Propeller’s work that will linger the longest with me after the company packs its bags and heads back to London tomorrow (may they return!).
- Richard III Recap: Taking Sides
Propeller gives us Shakespeare inside out – covered in blood and steeped in the realities of humanity, that begs us to question who we are. And why, however unwittingly, we side with the diabolical murderer after all.
- Tossing Grenades at Shakespeare—and Other Lessons from Propeller Director Ed Hall
All week long I’ve been hearing people sing the praises of Propeller director Ed Hall. Having now seen Hall up close, in a riveting exchange Thursday morning with a dozen or so BFA directing students from the UM School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, I get what everyone means.
- Sex, Blood, & Body Bags: Richard III Opens at Power Center
Last night, an appropriately powerful Richard III—full of blood and plenty of gore, but also, surprisingly and happily, quite a lot of laughs—opened at the Power Center.
- “The Boys” Are In Town
So I’ve basically been given everything I ever wanted from life: a group of British men, playing Shakespeare, just for me. That is to say that I got to sit in on Propeller’s cue-to-cue rehearsal Wednesday afternoon before attending the opening night of Richard III.
- From the Bard to the Boardroom..
It’s easy to forget that these plays are also about real issues—the kinds of things we grapple with in our own lives. Richard III, for example, asks about leadership. These issues surfaced in Tuesday’s workshop, “From the Bard to the Boardroom,” with the Ross Leadership Initiative at UM’s Ross School of Business.
- A new kind of Shakespeare?
Perhaps the most staggering moment of Monday night’s panel was Professor Rutter’s insistence that the breaking of the fourth wall is pivotal in Propeller’s productions. Simply, that men playing women is not the biggest leap of imagination we all take when we go to the theater, and that if we trust the actors, their craft and skill and dedication, to entertain us, then we will be glad to see actors acting rather than imagining them to be the characters they portray.
- Propeller: What would Brook think?
Peter Brook’s “The Empty Space” published in 1968, has long been a touchstone for anyone who cares about the theater. The book came up last night during Carol Rutter’s energetic talk at the UM Museum of Artabout the Propeller Theater Company and its uniquely “rough” style of performance.
- Propeller: Q&A with UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka
For years, Michael Kondziolka, UMS’s Programming Director, has been my go-to guy for all things cultural. If Michael says see it (as he does about Propeller), I move heaven and earth to heed the call. So I asked him how Propeller caught his eye…
- Caro MacKay, Producer for Propeller, Shows Some Love for Ann Arbor Audiences
Caro MacKay, executive producer of Propeller, will zip into Ann Arbor to see her company in action, but over the weekend she was at home in London, where I reached her by phone. The former Royal Shakespeare Company producer knows us well—she was here for both the first and second RSC Ann Arbor residencies, in 2001 and 2003.
A new kind of Shakespeare?
The very British, and very emphatic, Professor Carol Rutter of University of Warwick presided over Monday evening’s lecture festivities (“An Introduction to UK’s Propeller Company”) at UMMA. And I must be completely candid – my first thought was that I was definitely the youngest person in the room. In a crowd of 40 plus people, my 22 years old was a drastic change from a median age of 45. But it’s clear from the presentation that followed that UMS and indeed, Propeller, is a new rather than an old look at Shakespeare.
Looking at the presentation of photographs behind Rutter, I’m already entranced with the visual extremes to which Propeller seems to go. Blood splattered on the stage, half-masked faces, sparkling red heels on a devilishly smiling actor. An entire set in twenty small suitcases. I caught a few comments about the goal of Propellor as a company that “would build the set with people,” that had “the ability to travel light and tour anywhere.” But what stopped me entirely was Rutter’s statement about the type of theater I was about to see. She said it was playful, as I personally believe Shakespeare should always be. That it was demystifying, as I wish all Shakespeare lovers would believe it should be. And then she said that it was, “Frequently dangerous, always disruptive … and constantly provocative.”
And that, my dear friends, is just exactly what Shakespeare is.
Shakespeare is also the raucous run of an all-male stage – which Propeller embodies with the actors who call themselves ‘the Propeller boys’ and ‘The Pack’. Professor Rutter spoke about the somewhat controversial all-male make up of the company after which I asked a brief question about whether this persuasion seemed to alienate female theatergoers. The negative answer in itself was not as fascinating as her explanation: that men playing women allows the men to be brutal in ways they cannot be with female actors and that it frees a woman from being the paragon of theatrical beauty, talent, and grace, taking on the many abuses that Shakespearean women undergo. Perhaps the most staggering moment of this explanation was Professor Rutter’s insistence that the breaking of the fourth wall is pivotal in Propeller’s productions. Simply, that men playing women is not the biggest leap of imagination we all take when we go to the theater, and that if we trust the actors, their craft and skill and dedication, to entertain us, then we will be glad to see actors acting rather than imagining them to be the characters they portray.
Since the first question after the end of Professor Rutter’s presentation was about whether the company edits the original text or not, I can’t imagine everyone is excited to see the gritty, controversial, upcoming productions of Richard III and Comedy of Errors. But as an unconventional (read: young) lover of theater, the English language, and the incredible combination of the two in Shakespeare, I can unequivocally say that I am.
Propeller: What would Brook think?
Peter Brook’s The Empty Space published in 1968, has long been a touchstone for anyone who cares about the theater. The book came up last night during Carol Rutter’s energetic talk at the UM Museum of Art (UMMA) about the Propeller Theater Company and its uniquely “rough” style of performance. Rutter, a professor of English at the University of Warwick and UM grad, admits she stayed away from Propeller for more than a decade because she thought they’d be too “adolescent” for her tastes. She finally went two years ago, “and I thought, where has this been all my life? I’d finally grown up enough to find all the childlikeness and playfulness of the ensemble delightful.”
Rutter calls Propeller a perfect example of Brook’s idea of “rough” theater, which he describes as:
Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theater that’s not in a theater, the theater on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables, audiences joining in, answering back: theater in back rooms, upstairs rooms, barns; the one-night stands, the torn sheet pinned up across the hall, the battered screen to conceal the quick changes.
It’s the Elizabethan stage, Punch and Judy, plays in prisons and on streets. Risky theater that lives by its wits. Theater stripped to its essence—which is to say theater as acting.
Rutter says, “What I like best is to see actors at work. I don’t want the production to get between me and the actor.” Propeller “asks actors to be the material of their own production.” That’s to say they’re not only characters and chorus, but the scenery itself. Instead of a door, you get a pair of players holding a doorknob. You get the wonderful, whimsical apparatus of the theater: false noses, garish tights, tutus and wigs, buckets of blood. Presentational—not representational—theater.
Rutter: “You’re so close to the story.”
Pit this against what Brook calls “the deadly theater,” which we’ve all seen. Conventional, commercial, safe plays, staged in trite, often sentimental ways. Old jokes, predictable effects, creaky machinery, overproduced sets. “The Deadly Theater takes easily to Shakespeare,” Brook writes:
We see his plays done by good actors in what seems like the proper way—they look lively and colorful, there is music and everyone is all dressed up, just as they are supposed to be in the best of classical theaters. Yet secretly we find it excruciatingly boring—and in our hearts we either blame Shakespeare, or theater as such, or even ourselves.
Rutter talked last night about a recent RSC production of Lear, which had an ensemble of 23 actors, ten of them spear-carriers, “doing zilch. Like cabbages.” Great in its heyday, the RSC—and they’re not alone—has become brand-name theater, Rutter believes. Lavish, heavily subsidized, unable or unwilling to take risks.
Too big to fail.
“Which is why,” she says, “we who want Shakespeare to live forever will always need companies like Propeller.” Maverick companies with anarchic ideas, free to play and to fail. Rough theater.
“What does Shakespeare gain from this collaboration?” she asked toward the end of her talk. “Those are questions I leave to you.” Comments welcome…