Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Spotlight on the Cast and Crew of Vpstart Crow’s The Merchant of Venice

By • Oct 11th, 2007 • Category: Backstage, Interviews

Listen to the talkback session with the cast and crew of The Merchant of Venice at Vpstart Crow [MP3 24:18 11.1MB].

Jay Tilley: Good afternoon ladies and gentleman. My name is Jay Tilley. I play Shylock. I am also the publicity person for at VpStart Crow. Thank you for being here. It is a gorgeous day outside. But you chose to spend it with us and we’re eternally grateful. Why don’t we start out by letting everyone introduce themselves. I’ll start down her with Mr. Sexton.

Morgan Sexton: My name is Morgan Sexton. I am an Assistant Stage Manger.

Jordan Day: My name is Jordan Day. I am the Stage Manager.

Christie Swaney: My name is Christie Swaney. I am also an Assistant Stage Manager.

Melissa Jo York-Tilley: Melissa Jo York-Tilley, the Production Manager.

Jonathan Marget: Jonathan Marget. I play Solanio and Old Gobbo.

Paul Rubenstein: Paul Rubenstein. Salerio.

Pamela Sabella: Pamela Sabella. Nerissa.

Bob Smith: Bob Smith. Director.

Carl Brandt Long: Carl Brandt Long. Launcelot.

Colby Codding: Colby Codding. I play Gratiano.

George Kitchen: I’m George Kitchen. I play Antonio.

Christopher Holbert: Christopher Holbert and I play Bassanio.

Rachel Lee Poole: Rachel Lee Poole. I play Portia.

Laura Rocklyn: Laura Rocklyn. I play Jessica.

Santiago Melli-Huber: Santiago Melli-Huber. I play Leonardo, Prince of Arragon, and Gaoler.

William MacLeod as LorenzoWilliam MacLeod as Lorenzo William MacLeod: William MacLeod. Lorenzo.

Rich Scanlan: Rich Scanlan. I play the Prince of Moracco, 2 Servants, and a Duke of Venice.

Erin Gallalee: Erin Gallalee. I play Servant, Tubal, Balthasar and Stephana.

Jay Tilley: I’ll break the ice and ask the first question and then turn it over to you guys. We’ll start with Mr. Smith.

Question: Mr. Smith. Tell us about your vision for Merchant of Venice.

Bob Smith: I think as I said in my director’s notes, I thought this show was really important because so often it’s been performed as a very anti-Semitic piece. There are a lot of anti-Semitic things in it. A lot of times the character of Shylock is caricatured and really mocked. I’ve always thought it was kind of a tragedy because Shylock is a man who loses everything. He loses his goods, his daughter. I always thought the key for me was his daughter runs off and sells his piece of wedding jewelry to buy a monkey. That’s tragic and I wanted to really work with this piece and find the humanity of the characters. Find that nobility in each of them and find that petty evil that is in each of them as well.

Question: How did you pick the setting for this? It’s not in Shakespeare’s day.

Bob Smith: In choosing the scene for this. I set it in the Post World War I period because there was the point where it kind of had this kind of ennui we survived the war, but things are kind of worn out and we’re a little bit jaded. It’s a period in which that kind of roaring 20’s. We’re celebrating the fact that we lived, but the party just goes on and we’re kind of thoughtless. There is that sense where Antonia talks about being melancholy and worn out. Portia comes in and says wow, the world has gone by me and I don’t really care. I thought this was a place to set this where people can commit the petty evil because what else is there to do? We can destroy somebody’s life because it’s Friday night and there isn’t much else to do.

Question: Do you set all of the plays you guys perform outside the time period they were written in?

Melissa Jo York-Tilley: That’s an excellent question. Thanks for asking that. It’s actually up to the directors to choose what kind of time period they’re going to go in. It’s what vision they have when they read the script and set their proposal to the artistic director. We don’t have a long history of putting it in the correct time. We usually do mix it up a bit. That’s kind of what makes it upstartling.

Bob Smith: I think the last one we put in the straight time period was Romeo and Juliet.

Pamela Sabella: Anne of A Thousand Days.

Bob Smith: You’re right. And A Christmas Carol.

Colby Codding as GratianoColby Codding as Gratiano Colby Codding: Shakespeare’s company kind of did the same thing. They didn’t always set it in the correct time. A lot of times they used Elizabethan garb when they were doing shows at the Globe or the Rose Theatre. Sometimes you would be doing Julius Ceasar and they would be doing them in Elizabethan garb. You would have a play set in 50 BC or whatever, being written in the 1600 dress. Then 400 years later we’re doing it. It’s interesting that a lot of plays go through different filters with the set design and the costumes and sometimes even the acting style.

Question: Was this anybody’s first time with Shakespeare and if so, how did you break the code?

Rachel Lee Poole: I always liked it. I think a lot of us had training in Shakespeare. I guess the key to breaking the code is not looking at it as a code, but looking at it as beautiful language that expresses things that we’ve all experienced and dealt with. It’s completely human and normal and not something foreign.

Laura Rocklyn: I actually find Shakespeare a lot easier to perform than contemporary plays often times. They didn’t have a long rehearsal period in Shakespeare’s time. They would get the scripts and put the play up very quickly. So Shakespeare has all the stage direction he wants in the writing. Through iambic pentameter he can often give you directions about the emotions he wants you to have and how he wants you to deliver a part. Shakespeare sort of lines everything out for you in a way that more contemporary playwrights don’t do. This makes it a lot of fun and exciting as you say to get in there and crack the code and figure out how he wants it performed.

Santiago Melli-Huber: This isn’t my first time performing Shakespeare, but it is my first time in professional theater. It’s a huge difference from performing a high school piece. Everyone’s so much more devoted. It’s better energy. Less homework.

William MacLeod: I don’t think it’s a code. The funny thing about Shakespeare is that nowadays people think it’s all high and mighty and you have to be an intellectual to understand it. But he wrote it for everyone. Back in his time he was writing for every person. That’s why he became so famous. Everyone could go into the theater and have a great time watching a play. It wasn’t written for the upper class people. I think nowadays more people should get into the mind set that this is stuff that everyone can enjoy and you don’t have to be a four year college degree holder to love it. I don’t really think it’s a code, but that’s just my opinion.

Rich Scanlan: I guess I’d say that these days the way there are so many movies, so many resources on the internet. Books and everything else that it’s almost like it’s been that so many people try to make Shakespeare sound like natural speech especially in movies. If you don’t have good luck reading it you can watch them and listen to them. If you do it enough eventually it just starts to happen by itself. You read it and you can just feel what’s being said. When I was a kid I remember I couldn’t understand most of it because the word were just very strange. It was like that with Edgar Allen Poe, too. You start reading those things and later in life you realize you pick it up again and completely understand it. There are a lot of resources you can draw from if you have trouble reading it, but the code fades.

Colby Codding: This is the last thing I’ll say because I don’t want to be greeedy. This is really important. There are a lot of stuff that’s in the actual text itself that helps, a lot of rhetorical devices like alliteration, asonance, dissonance, onomatopoeia. There’s actually about 40 different rhetorical devices that are just right there. Some of them are still in use today. People write poetry and blank verse and scansion and all kinds of clues in the text. For the actor a lot of it is just doing your homework and looking at it using those rhetorical devices or scansions or whatever sort of as a guideline in case you get tripped up or something like that. You don’t have to follow it like it’s a specific thing. Like you have to do it. All rules were meant to be broken especially in Shakespeare.

Carl Brandt Long: It’s a horrible analogy, but it’s like chewing cud. Taking the words in and just playing around with them. Trying them in different ways. All that’s written in that last scene where I come running in is so la, so la, wohoha, so la, so la. For weeks I had no clue how to say that. I was just messing around with it in the back and decided to run in like I did and they laughed. Once you find it it’s like, “Oh, that’s what it is.” It’s really a matter of playing around and seeing where it can take you. Sometimes you fall flat on your face and sometimes you come up with these great discoveries. If you don’t have the freedom to play. This has been a great cast and a great experience. People are very open about experiementing with how to do things.

George Kitchen: The iambic pentameter that he uses, when you talk about the code sometimes you think of it as Englishmen trying to read it as poetry. For many many decades for our life you get intimidated if you try to do it as poetry. Shakespeare wrote it in a comfortable rhythm for himself and for his period. The people in his era could understand him fully. The way he set up the phrasings with the poetry is very comfortable. Americans have made breakthrough in the last few decades that we are not being intimidated by trying to do the code. By trying to sound English when we do it, but rather to get the meaning out of the characters. If we can get the characters right, if we can get the words right. His choice of words is second to none. The poetry is there, but the characters and the emotion are at the bottom. We play primarily and everyone getting them.

Paul Rubenstein: One thing that I’ve found is that even in the performances the show is evolving. I actually made a discovery or two today, believe it or not. In the scene that Solanio and Salerio are browbeating Shylock. I’m at the point after he walks away, I was ready to go over and kill him. Then all of a sudden the servant comes in and I realize that I’m in a public place and I’d better behave myself. I’ll get him later. It’s these kinds of things. It’s the language that still percolate within the mind, within the body. You make discoveries as you go along. These subtle things creep in. I think that’s also what makes it interesting for the cast is that we are constantly discovering new things and it’s OK because it still fits into the overall context of things and it just adds to what we’ve already done.

Jay Tilley: A gentleman here I forgot to point out. We have with us today Mr. Tom Hannon. Tom is responsible for our sets. Including the lovely fountain that makes that nice little noise throughout. (applause) Did you have anything you wanted to say about the set? You’re good. Thanks, Tom. Fantastic job.

I have a question specifically for Carl. Carl, how do you learn your lines?

Carl Brandt Long as LauncelotCarl Brandt Long as Launcelot Carl Brandt Long: For this show I never got a script. Bob gave me a couple bottles and said empty these and and go. I didn’t learn them. I just make them up and people seem to like it.

Jonathan Marget: I have found over the years that I just go over and over and over the lines. If I’ve got a speech that is really giving me a problem I write it out in long hand and that usually works.

Paul Rubenstein: The first set of lines that I have in that first scene were just the most confusing figures on a page that I have ever seen in my life. It was one of the most difficult sets of lines that I’ve ever had to learn. I just could not make sense of it until about a week before we opened. Then all of a sudden it clicked. If anybody in here is a teacher it’s like learning your classes’ names. I teach high school and I have 120 students. And one day I just know everybodys’ name. It just happens miraculously sometimes. It’s different for everybody.

Question: I’m asking the cast what research they did for their role.

Paul Rubenstein: That’s a very good question. I’m sensing a really weird pattern going on this time of the year. This is the second time I’ve played someone who doesn’t like Jews. That’s quite contrary because I am Jewish. I really just looked at the history of anti-Semitism and how can I reconcile my beliefs with that. When Jay threw the yarmulke down on the floor the first time my heart just leapt into my throat because that’s not something you do. It’s a matter of really getting into what it is you have to do. Looking at the role models. Figuring out what I can rely on to be able to convey this character. What do I have in my history that will allow me to do this. This is who I am on the stage and totally step out of myself and into someone else. A far as learning what’s going on in the background of the play. We said before, just do your homework.

Rachel Lee Poole: When I got the call to be Portia, I did all this work. Then I came and Bob said some things …

Bob Smith: I told her that Portia was the Paris Hilton of her day.

Rachel Lee Poole: … and all my work went out the window. I can put those books away. I think one of the most important things any actor can do with a Shakespeare text as Colby mentioned is do your homework and work with the text. I read lots of essays about conceptions of Portia. Is she a victim or is she a manipulator, what is she? What kind of woman is she? Ultimately it comes down to what the language does for you and how you find the character within yourself and yourself within the character and move forward from there. That’s the beauty of Shakespeare is that you can use the language as the research itself.

George Kitchen: I was Assistant Directing for this. I directed this as my high school production last Spring. I did all the research. Reading all the critics and different things. Different ways to approach it. Everyone has a fresh vision. Coming with Bob, I loved his vision. I agree with Rachel that ultimately once you’ve done all the homework you just keep reading the text. You take a line and you find a new way to say it. What is the verb? What is the adjective being used there? Suddenly the phrasing’s changed and it twists the entire speech. It twists an entire scene. I will use a word and suddenly some other character is listening very closely to my character and is using it also. From that you just keep going to the text. The research in the end is the actors going over the text again and again. That becomes the ultimate that we could just keep reading it forever and we’re still going to be finding new things.

Carl Brandt Long: Especially in a physical role like the one I did here. I like watching people. I like listening to people. Soccer players move very interestingly and I try to throw some of that into the way I was walking except a lot more drunk. More drunk than a soccer player. (laughter) When the six of us were loitering outside of the IHOP listening to Peter Cetera played over the speaker last night. We met a very nice gentleman named Tom who was very friendly and a little inebriated. It was interesting for me at least to see him move. He dropped a cigarette and went to pick it up. Just everything that he was doing there was part of me saying that was really cool, maybe I can try that. Having watched Sean Connery movies may have helped a little bit for this. There is a website called that was also quite helpful.

Question: I haven’t watched a lot of Shakespeare plays. When I came in here I read a little bit online about it and this show. I was curious about Carl’s role of being an alcoholic. I knew it seemed like you were part of the comic relief. Was it also with you touching of the money laundering. Was that anti-Semitic, too?

Bob Smith: I can answer part of that before Carl jumps in. I came up with the initial idea that he was drunk. Part of what I wanted to read against was that there are a number of lines in there that talk about how he was mistreated. I wanted to set him up as not being so much mistreated as he perceived himself mistreated. We have the lines about you can see every rib I’ve got. I had this conception one day of him sitting there with the wine bottles like the devil and the angel on the shoulder discussing it. One of them had to be empty and the other one full. That’s where it emerged and Carl did wonderful things with it so I’ll turn it over to him at this point.

Carl Brandt Long: The first thing I want to point out is that the character is an alcoholic. Just for the record. Part of the back story that I made up is, I personally don’t think that Launcelot was horribly mistreated. I think that he probably felt ashamed that he had to go work for a Jew. I think he is a very anti-Semitic character. I think this entire play is very anti-Semitic. I think the only way to kind of break through that is to make all of the characters evil in the way hopefully we did today. Even Shylock is not a nice guy. No one in this character leaves it angelic. Every character makes choices that hurts other people. I think Launcelot is ashamed to be working for Shyock, but it’s one of the jobs he can get. He’s OK, but I think he fears Shylock and ultimately Shylock fears him. I think Launcelot has made a copy of every key Shylock has and if he were extremely mistreated he would probably rob him for everything he owned. But I also think that Shylock in giving him over to Bassanio has also protected himself from Launcelot in terms of retribution. But I think that Launcelot would stoop to horrible horrible evil anti-Simitic and inhuman things.

Bob Smith: I can comment once again on one thing. Again on the characters. One of the things I told the cast when we started this was that the audience should generally like every character on the stage. My hope was that at some point in the course of the play they would kind of look at it and say, “Oh, why is that person I like doing that?” That’s what we worked toward.

Paul Rubenstein: I think one thing just to kind of extend on this in the scene just before intermission when Salerio, Lorenzo and Jessica come in and I gave that really biting speech towards Jessica. I think that that’s really where both the venom and the hurt come out. We didn’t really seize on that until just before we opened. It brought out some totally new layers for us to show just how bad of a chaarcter Shylock is. Up to that point maybe he has done some things and maybe he is going to go through with it? I think that’s the point where we see that yeah, he really is going to go through with it.

Question: How many bottles of wine did Launcelot hold throughout the play?

Carl Brandt Long: Hold or consume? I think the total is seven.

Jay Tilley: Any other questions? Going once? Going twice? OK ladies and gentleman thank you once again for joining us this afternoon and sticking around for the talk back. I find it’s always very informal for both sides of the curtain here. Please tell your friends, family, colleagues. Spread the word. This is a show that definitely deserves to be seen. Come again and bring more people with you. Thanks so much.

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One Response »

  1. Thanks Mike for attending the show Sunday and for recording our talkback with the audience after the matinee! I’ve always found the talkbacks to be very informative and a lot of fun for those on both sides of the curtain. Looking forward to listening to your review! 🙂

    Jay Tilley
    Public Relations Consultant
    Vpstart Crow Productions