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What’s next for Propeller?

We were sitting in the Power Center late yesterday afternoon, watching the changeover from Richard III to Comedy of Errors, and Caro MacKay, executive producer of Propeller, was talking about the shift from Richard’s stark black/white and blood-red world to the trash-strewn, gaily lit, exuberant world of Comedy. “We’re putting some color in the set now,” she said, as stagehands hoisted a panel of graffiti-sprayed shingling onto the big rock ’n roll truss that frames both productions.

MacKay said the idea behind Propeller’s environment for Comedy is “what we call ‘British lager louts.’ A Costa del Sol vacation, where Brits wear silly hats and spend the day drinking lager and hanging around the beach.” She chuckled. “Costa del Ephesus!”

This afternoon was your last chance to visit—at least in Ann Arbor. (The company will do a six-week run at Boston University’s Huntington Theater later this spring.)

A few behind-the-scenes tidbits:
· It’s not a stretch to think of the chorus members as hooligans—soccer fans (witness the jerseys) whooping it up far from home.
· The setting itself is a piazza in the 1980s, a period “quite close to us and probably the height of all this silliness,” MacKay said.
· Designer Michael Pavelka came up with the design of the graffiti himself, then hired a crew of real graffiti artists to render it. But before they agreed to lift a spray can, they made Pavelka swear it was his own design—it’s part of their code of honor not to copy another graffiti artist’s work.

MacKay talked briefly about what’s ahead for Propeller after its international tour of Richard III and Comedy of Errors winds up in August. While here in A2, Propeller received the welcome news that it had received three years’ funding from the British Arts Council—“which means we’re good for four more years,” MacKay said. “We can breathe.” (The news was bittersweet, though, as it came coupled with the announcement that 206 other British arts organizations had received no funding. Many would be forced to close.)

Propeller will reconvene in September and start work on next year’s touring shows, still to be determined. “There’s always one play Ed wants to do,” MacKay said of director Edward Hall. “He struggles a bit to find the other.”

Once they’ve picked the shows, Hall and Pavelka will come up with a set that works for both and begin rehearsals. The 14 members of the current company will get first-refusal rights for the next troupe. It’s a key part of the way this most democratic of theater companies works.

Sometime in the future, Hall wants to do his own cycle of the Shakespeare history plays—the three Henry VIs, 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—which gave us the three Henry VIs and Richard III—may find this news as tantalizing as I do. UMS, are you listening?

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. In rehearsals he’s decisive but incredibly open to ideas, firm but flexible, actors say. Company manager Nick Chesterfield told me Hall is “incredibly inclusive. Ed has a very loose way of working, in that he knows what he wants, but he doesn’t lay it on the show. I’ve never experienced a more generous environment.”

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. Tidily dressed in a blue Oxford-cloth shirt and slacks—and looking more like a businessman on casual Friday than the director of one of Britain’s most explosive theater companies—Hall spent nearly two hours talking with students and members of the UM theater faculty and gamely fielding questions. He was affable and engaging, and the students clearly gleaned a lot from the exchange. As did I.

About the playwright with whom he’s most closely associated, Hall confessed, “If I go more than 18 months without directing Shakespeare, I go through withdrawal.”

About building a scene: “The opposite is always true. If you have a scene where two people love each other, you have to find out what obstacles they have to overcome in order to love one another.” Ditto with a scene in which two people profess to hate each other—find out what draws them together. “That’s the source of the tension, the drama.”

When directing Shakespeare, Hall often starts with the toughest scene. “If you want to do something big, get it in early.”

On directorial control: “Have a plan, but be critically prepared to let it go out the window. Give yourself up to the process of rehearsal. It’s like stepping off a cliff—if you don’t do it, the actors won’t do it. But they have to know you’re going to be there to catch them. It’s an enormous paradox—trying to control something you’re essentially letting go of.”

Much of what Hall said helped explain the great inventiveness I saw onstage in both Richard III and Comedy of Errors, whose wit and sheer physical brawn had Thursday night’s audience literally oohing and ahhing throughout the evening. Earlier in the day Hall told the UM student directors, “The more I retreat [as a director], the greater the party is onstage.” And oh, what a party.

Now in his mid-40s, Hall has directed 14 productions of Shakespeare. The first, Othello, defeated him. Hall said he tiptoed around the play, trying to do it “right,” and quickly learned his lesson. He now throws “as many grenades as possible against the notion of directing Shakespeare.” That’s not to say he’s not fiercely thoughtful about the texts—as evidenced by these razor-smart productions—but experience has taught him there’s not much to gain from reverence. Hall decries “sunset” acting—where performers look off into the distance with misty eyes while intoning the great lines (“Now is the winter …”). Says Hall: “As a director, you have a duty to cast off the burden of those lines.”

A few more observations that help illuminate the process behind the provocative shows now playing in A2:

“Shakespeare didn’t do scene changes. The moment you do a piece of design that requires the play to stop, you lose momentum.”

“The chorus is context. The context changes and evolves as you rehearse.”

“Acting Shakespeare, you have to be like a good lawyer—you have to be able to deliver rhetoric.”

“There’s no subtext in Shakespeare. The text is where the character is, and the subtext builds itself up from the text.”

“The rehearsal room is a temple for the people you’re working with. It’s a safe place. It’s a private place.”

“The more mistakes you make in rehearsal, and the faster you make them, the quicker you get to the truth. It’s all in the doing.”

And, for the audience, in the going. Go.

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