Friday, July 8, 2011

Cynthia Croot: Catalyst, observer, editor

Cynthia Croot is making her directorial debut at the Stonington Opera House with Much Ado About Nothing, which runs through July 16. Shake Stonington bloghead Alicia Anstead spent a few minutes with Croot on a break from rehearsal to talk about Stonington, directing and Shakespeare.

How has it been directing for theater in the remote setting of Stonington?
It's not Manhattan, which a lot of the actors are used to -- a very instant gratification landscape. Stonington is great for focusing energy and for walking with your work all the time. You go home, and you're still talking to the people you were just in a scene with. You have dinner, and act three comes up. It's a sense of retreat, where you can really concentrate on what you're doing. It's a wonderful space and it's astonishing what has been built here. When a group like this takes root and stays, it's almost like a maypole around which other activity can assemble itself. That's exciting to me to think about community and theater that way.

What interests you about the work at the Stonington Opera House?
You can do anything onstage -- you can read the phone book and it can be riveting. But the essential thing is the intent with which you do something and what you bring to it in terms of want and desire. You can do that on a larger scale with an organization. You can imbue everything that you do with a kind of humanist, democratic, deeply artistic position, committed to independent artists, committed to engaging work and engaging with community members. All of this is built into the foundaiton of the place and it's really inspiring to me.

Why are you director and not an actor or a designer?
I tried acting in college. I was actually pretty good at it. But I was working with student directors, and I thought I knew more than they did, and I wanted to see if I was right. I think I had a hard time taking direction, which is logical for the personality of a director. In a happy accident, my skills led to this. I'm naturally collaborative, naturally good at conflict resolution. I saw the theater as a place where I could build family that builds art.

What is the role of the director?
Primarily an inciter and an editor. You set something in motion based on what you see and observe. You have to be a really cagey observer. The catalyst, the observer and the editor.

What interests you about Shakespeare?
Shakespeare, because we still care about him, is mysterious and god-like to me. He seems to capture both this broad accessible space and the subtle nuances of the human heart in a deeply moving way. I fell in love with him during A Winter's Tale, which I did at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. It's so essential to his plays that to win something you much lose something. But it's not pat or simple. There's a sense of this is how life really is, but rendered in the most poetic way possible. In Much Ado, in particular, I love the idea of the soldiers coming home and they are no longer afraid for their lives any more, but love is a scary thing.

Is Much Ado one of the Shakespeare plays you really love?
It is now. There are a couple I love out of hand: Hamlet and Lear. But I fall in love with each one I do.

Can you work with a text like Much Ado and still make your own imprint, relay your own message?
Sure! What is the "much ado" about? The "much ado" is about love. The cross-gender casting puts us in a space where we ask the audience: Is it possible to consider love divorced from gender and divorced from sexuality -- to see people as people?

This is especially cogent given the changes in the gay marriage laws in New York. We're grappling with this as a country right now.
I didn't enter into this as an interrogation of gay union. But I'm sure that will be on people's minds as they watch.

PHOTO: Cynthia Croot by Alicia Anstead

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Much A-dude

By Linda Nelson
Executive Director of Opera House Arts

"Men should wear tights and tights only."

"It’s very masculine."

"It’s a very specific look."

These are comments overheard last Sunday afternoon during our first costume technical rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing, which opened June 30 at the Stonington Opera House, and continues through July 16.

For the first time in Opera House Arts' history, we've set our Shakespeare in Stonington production in Elizabethan times and style: which means an (almost) all male cast, with men playing the female roles as well as men playing men -- in tights. Or, to steal a phrase from a cast member: Much a-dude!

It turns out Much Ado, known widely as Shakespeare's most beloved comedy, IS a real dude show. It depicts a male fraternity of soldiers with a lot of male bonding and prank-making afoot but it also fixates on female purity, asking: Really, c'mon guys--what IS that all about?!

"Nothing" (pronounced "noting" in Elizabethan times) was Elizabethan slang for "vagina." Such language and plot devices move Much Ado from mere frothy rom-com into more complex and interesting territories of gender and power.

In Elizabethan times men wore their power, well, on their crotch. Soldiers, much like today's athletes, found tights to be the most effective costume in which to exert themselves. Instead of jock straps, they favored a codpiece: a padded device which (not unlike bum rolls or, more currently, bras) shapes and enhances (or masquerades as) male anatomy for optimal public display.

Thus the men are quite visibly dudes in Much Ado, prancing and dancing, and wearing their semblances of power front and center and looking darn good doing it (or perhaps it's just a welcome breath of fresh air to see male sexuality objectified the way female sexuality perpetually is). This wasn't an avant-garde costuming choice. It's merely historically accurate. And yet in the end all, even the resistant lothario Benedick, are happily married -- moved out of their frat house and into a broader and more inclusive vision of community, a wondrous vision thanks to the extreme acts of magic and trickery required to bring it to life. In this as in all of his comedies, Shakespeare's optimism is ultimately front and center. A hopefulness, perhaps, that we can move beyond war and other obvious displays of sexual and political power to something less polarized. As Friar Francis instructs in his final proclamation: "Let wonder seem familiar."

Or as Benedick concludes: "Man is a giddy thing."

PHOTOS by Linda Nelson, Opera House Arts:
ABOVE: Tim Eliot as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing
CENTER: Craid Baldwin as Ned/Beatrice and Thomas Piper as Edmund/Benedick in Elizabeth Rex, running in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing.