Monday, March 5, 2012

Tell me, who is Helena?

The paper has arrived! Clara and I have been fortunate enough to receive of gift of good, sturdy fine art paper from which to build our pop-up book. Clara's father, who is an art professor, insisted that a project this artful should, indeed, be a work of art and therefore must be crafted out of quality materials--so he sent us a generous gift of beautiful, strong bristol board among other papers.

Serendipitously enough, the box the paper came in is the perfect size for crafting an overlarge pop-up book and Clara and I are already plotting ways to paint it white and make it the cover of our book. As Clara begins to construct prototypes of the four sets that will form the pop-up book (you will see the pictures scattered throughout this entry), I have begun to think about the ways in which the book and pop-ups and writing will feature in the production of the play itself.

In a meeting at the beginning of the semester, my thesis supervisor, Ralph Cohen, challenged me to make sure that the concept Clara and I had created for the design of the production was a part of the directing of the production as well. This was something I had already been considering--in the early stages of this process, Clara and I tossed around
various ideas: having characters quite literally be on book, reading their lines, characters performing the act of writing in significant moments in the play, and even--in a wild moment--burning the entire paper set as a statement about the ephemerality of theater (something we have reconsidered in the face of our tremendous hours of work and the quality of some of our materials).

As we have settled into our ideas somewhat, it has become the connection between gender identities and paper and writing that most interests me and will be at the center of what I do as the director of this production. We have been thinking of pop-ups as feminine--paper telling its own story--and written text as masculine--the phallic pen put to passive paper. And what originally drew me to this play was the way in which Helena both does
and does not write her own story. She has more soliloquies than most of Shakespeare's heroines--she is certainly trying to tell her own story in a way so few female characters get to. But at the same time, once she has married Bertram, she must play by his rules--she must fulfill the story he creates when he writes the letter.

So what we will be playing with as we begin rehearsals in a month, is this very idea. Who opens and closes the pop-up book? Who turns the pages? Who, in other words, is responsible for the development of the story? I have begun to think more and more about which characters might interact with the book--Helena, Bertram, the King--and how and when they might do so. I have also decided that Helena will, indeed, be literally on book for parts of the play. She will be reading her lines from a text that has been given to her, delivered in or with Bertram's letter. Part of what we will explore in rehearsal is when Helena is on book and when she is creating her own story.

One of the effects of this choice is that--as Ralph Cohen put it--the actress playing Helena, in this case, the lovely Amanda Noel Allen, must perform the act of reading. This offers a lot of potential--when is Helena surprised? Delighted? Disgusted? When does she laugh at what she says? When does she resist saying it? And, more intriguingly, who, then, is Helena? If she is not the words Shakespeare (and his editors) have given her, who is she? Is she Amanda herself? Me? Some sublime combination of the two of us? Or the three of us? Whose story do we end up telling? As we consider these questions, I leave you with an Oscar-winning animated short. It has a lot to say about the act of reading.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2011)

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