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The Folger Spotlight

Louis Butelli: 4 Plays, 20 Days

Louis Butelli having some fun in the studio.

Louis Butelli having some fun in the studio.

Hello once again from your friend Louis Butelli.

As you may or may not know, here at Folger Theatre, we’re undertaking another big new experiment in performance and study of the works of William Shakespeare.

For three weeks this summer, a team of actors, producers, and engineers gathered at Omega Studios in Rockville, Maryland to record audio of the complete, un-cut text of four of Shakespeare’s greatest plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth.

Using the Folger Editions of the plays – edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, these are the gold standard in Shakespeare scholarship and performance. The team rehearsed each play for two days around a table, and then spent two days in the studio recording each play. A whirlwind, to be sure, but also an epic adventure.

With director Robert Richmond at the helm, producer Beth Emelson co-ordinating, script supervisor Kate Pitt keeping every single word accurate, and engineer Adam Stamper working audio magic, we came in on target and on time. The actors wrapped this Saturday, and now work has begun on editing the raw tape, removing any mistakes, selecting ideal takes, and layering in sound effects, music, and atmospherics.

Zach Appelman preparing to record at Omega Studios.

Zach Appelman preparing to record at Omega Studios.

All of this is to deliver to you a brand new mode of connection with the plays of William Shakespeare, and an opportunity to interact with the Folger Shakespeare Library in unprecedented new ways. Teaming with Simon and Schuster and Luminary Digital Media, these Folger Audio Recordings will comprise an entire 2.0 experience of the Bard. Imagine an app that opens on your favorite device. Inside the app, the full digital text of a given play will scroll by on a reader as the audio plays, highlighting each line of text as the actors speak it, with clickable pop-up options allowing you to hear alternate takes of selected scenes and soliloquies, and review commentary from scholars and actors alike. Truly, this is about as immersive an experience as is possible to have – it’s Shakespeare for the 21st century, right on your computer or smartphone.

I’ll take a second here to describe some of what the experience was like from the inside, and from the point of view of an actor.

Of the ensemble of actors that came together for these recordings, many of us have worked on productions of some – if not all – of these plays through the course of our careers. Still, my suspicion is that none of us have ever worked on the full, un-cut text in performance. Moreover, while some of us have done audio and voice-over work before, the challenge here was to create compelling, believable characters using nothing but our voices. I’ll talk a little bit about each of those.

Props for the audio recording of ROMEO AND JULIET.

Props for the audio recording of ROMEO AND JULIET.

First, I’ve written before about the character of Peter in Romeo and Juliet (click here to read) – primarily to mention that he and his few scenes are among the most frequently cut from productions of that play. Often, when a creative team is pulling together a stage show, there are elements to consider that reach beyond the text.

For instance, when one considers cutting down the text:  there are notions of running time, or how long you want to keep an audience sitting in their seats. There are ideas of directorial concept, or what it is a stage director hopes to communicate in staging a particular play of Shakespeare’s at a particular moment in time. There are thoughts about how to handle denser, more complex language – which often impacts on the clowns and fools who are frequently handed some of Shakespeare’s odder passages.

All of which is to say that working on the full, un-cut text was, in a sense, like experiencing familiar plays for the very first time. To stick with the example of Romeo and Juliet: in 2006-7, I performed in a production which played 65 American cities, toured Europe, and played the Edinburgh Festival. Having logged dozens and dozens of performances, I thought I knew the play inside and out. However…what I knew so intimately as “Romeo and Juliet” was actually only our edit of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Louis Butelli and Andrew Schwartz between takes.

Louis Butelli and Andrew Schwartz between takes.

Working on the full, un-cut version in the studio revealed to me a totally different play. Don’t get me wrong – all of the major characters live in both…all of the same events occur in both, thematically they are the same. Still, the full version confronted me with a different experience – in tone, in timing, in incidental scenes which, being restored, prove to be anything but incidental. I hope I don’t over-reach here, but:  in placing the star-crossed lovers into a more fully fleshed out world, where attention to the everyday lives of servants, musicians, and “sidekicks” push both Romeo and Juliet – the ostensible stars of the show – offstage for significant chunks of time, it actually makes the lovers’ demise that much more incomprehensible and, in my opinion, that much more tragic.

Secondly, I can’t begin to tell you what a thrill it was to watch this company of actors learn to navigate, not only the unfamiliar parts of the text, but the intricate ins-and-outs of studio work.

I can’t tell you emphatically enough exactly how sensitive the microphones are in the studio. This sounds like an obvious thing to say, but it was the largest concern in terms of the logistics of “acting” on this project. For example, one had to figure out how to have all of one’s pages laid out in front of them at once because rustling paper, on mic, is deafening, and completely ruins the illusion. Also, one had to be certain to have a big breakfast before recording. While coffee and a delicious plate of eggs and bacon certainly helps one to focus mentally, more to the point, if one came in hungry, the mic would pick up even the smallest rumbling of the stomach.

Further, because the actual text will be visible to listeners in the app, we had to be absolutely word-perfect and pronunciation-accurate. If one said “do it” or “thinkest” where Shakespeare had written “do’t” or “thinks’t,” we had to repeat the take.

And all of this before anything even resembling “acting” could take place!

The largest challenge here was the ability to connect with fellow actors. The studio itself was a forest of cables, mics and mic stands, music stands for text, prop tables and props we used to self-generate sound effects. Plus, if one didn’t keep one’s eyes on their papers, one could very easily botch a word or two, requiring another take. This meant that the only substantial way to connect with scene partners was aurally, via the large headphones we all wore.

othello-folger-editionOn the one hand, this flies in the face of all actor instinct – you want to look at your partner, read their face and their body language. On the other hand, it’s also incredibly freeing. The actor doesn’t ever have to appear visually, which meant that we were able to do things with our bodies, as we spoke, that we could never do onstage. As we got used to this, to a person, everybody in the studio gave themselves permission to contort themselves and move in odd ways – all of which a listener can actually “hear.” That sounds strange, but the difference between a take that had “life,” and a take that sounded “read” would almost always be down to the actor using their whole body to speak.

That said, we had an absolute blast working on these recordings. Many of the actors had previous relationships and had worked together before. Some of us were meeting and collaborating for the very first time. It was all fairly fast and furious, and we had a pretty tight deadline. What I found was that being under pressure, as always for us theater folks, old friendships were strengthened, and new ones were formed. With many of us living together in artist housing, a day in the studio was often followed by a night in the backyard discussing Shakespeare with the barbecue fired up and the wine flowing. In no small measure, I think this comradery helped to make the performances truly excellent. I think you’re really going to enjoy them.

I’d just like to thank a couple of people for allowing me to be a part of this wild journey.

Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library for his leadership and vision, Janet Griffin, David Polk, and Kate Pitt from Folger Theatre for making it all happen, Anthony Cochrane and Jessi Witchger for their evocative music, Adam Stamper and everyone at Omega Studios for their sheer excellence, and, perhaps most of all, director Robert Richmond for being the brains and soul of the project, and Beth Emelson, Folger Theatre’s Assistant Artistic Producer, for being its warm, beating heart.

To close, I’m honored to have worked with a truly stellar group of actors, and hope we’ll all find occasion to work together again sometime very soon.

Folger’s audio recording of Othello is already on sale – click here to check that out. Meanwhile, stay tuned for info on those that are yet to come.

Little Owen Peakes, "the company’s joy and light and mascot."

Little Owen Peakes, “the company’s joy and light and mascot.”

Your next four Folger Edition Audio Recordings feature the immense talents of:

Zach Appelman, Michael Brusasco, Katie DeBuys, Aubrey Deeker, Rick Foucheux, Chris Genebach, Tim Getman, Michael Goldsmith, Eric Hissom, Rachael Holmes, Naomi Jacobson, Cody Nickell, Ian Merrill Peakes, Karen Peakes, Andrew Schwartz, Todd Scofield, Tom Story, Emily Trask, Richard Sheridan Willis, and me, your pal Louis Butelli.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my friend Owen Peakes, the 5 year old son of Ian and Karen Peakes, who was the company’s joy and light and mascot. What a thrill to meet a young boy in whose life theater and Shakespeare already loom large.

And that’s that. Thanks for reading. Until next time!