Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Behind the scenes of Guthrie Theater’s repertory Shakespeare project

rehearse a scene in Henry V
(L-R) Actors Lanise Antoine Shelley, David Whelan, Erin Mackey, U. Jonathan Toppo, Bill McCallum, and Tracey Maloney rehearse a scene in Henry V during a rehearsal at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on Feb. 14.
Caroline Yang for MPR news

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is in production of an ambitious project. It’s producing three Shakespeare plays that tell a larger story, and it will be performed entirely by a core group of actors. Rehearsals began at the end of January, and the shows officially open in mid-April.

MPR News Arts Reporter Jacob Aloi has been in the rehearsal room. He joined MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer to share a behind-the-scenes look.

Reporting was made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is producing an ambitious project-- three Shakespeare plays that tell a larger story. And it will be performed entirely by a core group of actors. Our arts reporter Jacob Aloi has been in the rehearsal room and has been following the story for us. Hey, welcome back.

JACOB ALOI: Thank you so much, Cathy. Appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: So, rehearsals began at the end of January, and the show is officially open in mid-April. So, this is, what, the halfway point for the actors?

JACOB ALOI: Yeah, about. Yeah, it's about the seven weeks in or so.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my gosh. So what's been happening in the last seven weeks?

JACOB ALOI: Well, how these shows usually begin, like any show at the Guthrie or any major theater, is table work. And table work is the opportunity for the cast and company to sit down, read through the show, and work out some of the things before they get the show on its feet, right, going through all of the hard language that's in Richard II and Henry IV, and Henry V, the three shows that they're doing. It's also a place where the dramaturg, who's kind of the literary historian, who knows a lot about the plays and the language, sits in and they get to answer questions people may have at the table.

Now, of course, things change once it goes into blocking, things are on their feet, but director Joseph Haj has his reasons why it's important. And we'll hear a little example of table work as well.

JOSEPH HAJ: Sometimes, directors get nervous. They feel like, oh, I'm spending too long around the table. I got to get it up on its feet. We have to start doing it in space. But one way or another, all the questions have to be answered. And it's better to answer those questions while around the table. So we'll read it through clean, and then we'll go back. And we'll go line by line and make sure we all know exactly what we're doing across the play. So then when we get up on our feet, it can be productive.

CAST 1: Am I reading this the right way?

CAST 2: Oh, I thought we didn't know that he was here.

JACOB ALOI: And from there, the show moved into blocking rehearsals. And to note, the company was able to get the basic staging down for these three plays in about three weeks, so, about a week per show. And I think something that people may not know is how much every second matters for something onstage. Here's just a little clip of Joseph Haj in rehearsal with the actors.

JASMINE BRACEY: Good cousin, give me audience a while. Those same noble Scots that are your prisoners--

JOSEPH HAJ: Yeah, and I think here, take the cross to there and find them.

CREW: John, yeah, not so far. Yeah.

JOSEPH HAJ: And so come back and take that cross, John, please.

JOHN CATRON: By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap to dive into the bottom of the deep and pluck up drowned honor by the locks.

JASMINE BRACEY: Good cousin, give me audience a while.

JACOB ALOI: In that example, Haj is working out the right blocking for a very tense conspiratorial moment in Henry IV with actors John Catron and Jasmine Bracey.

CATHY WURZER: This just goes to show my ignorance. I did not know that there was so much hands-on-- you over here, you go over here. Interesting.

JACOB ALOI: Yes, very involved.

CATHY WURZER: OK, so the folks working on the props and the scenery and the costumes, right? So, what have they been doing?

JACOB ALOI: Yeah, so they've been working just as long as the actors, and in some cases, longer. For instance, Rebecca Jo Malmström works in the props shop. And when I spoke with her a few weeks ago, she was walking me through how much R&D goes into this research and development for props.

And one specific prop is a mirror that has to be broken live onstage every night in one of these particular shows. And obviously, real glass would pose a danger to audiences and actors, but she's a fan of cooking shows and saw isomalt on one of these cooking shows used in baking and cooking. And she thought it might actually be a good fit for her problem.

REBECCA JO MALMSTROM: It's made from beet sugar. And you can remelt it over and over again. That's the really cool thing about this. So this project is going to be sustainable. So this is a picture frame we just had downstairs. It's about the right size. It's not perfect. It's not exactly what we want, but it's good enough for R&D. It's good enough for prototyping. So I'm just going to carefully set it inside there so that I don't break my isomalt.

So the actor is going to have the mirror, and they're going to be talking in the mirror and holding it and stuff like that. And then they're going to smash it, like that. And so, the glass is going to look like it's smashed, but it won't be able to go anywhere. And we'll be able to redo this again by just recasting the glass.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, that's interesting. Say, do you have a sense of how everything's going?

JACOB ALOI: Yeah, well, one thing that I've been hearing, interviewing actors and being in the room, is that rotating repertory, the style of performing multiple shows on different nights, but with the same core group of actors, it's actually a really rewarding challenge for actors, but also for audiences. Melissa Maxwell is one of the actors in these shows. She plays a number of characters across these shows.

MELISSA MAXWELL: It's always fun the more you can switch it up and do different things. I love the challenge of it, how it stretches you, but I also think it's fun for audience members to come and see someone be three different things in three different nights.

JACOB ALOI: As for how rehearsals are running, director Joseph Haj pointed out to me one of the things about doing shows like these in rotating repertory is that it finds a longer runway for a company to develop connections to the text and really get to know each other. Many shows are rehearsed and put up in like five to four weeks, while these shows have nearly three months.

JOSEPH HAJ: The idea of being in a rehearsal process for some three months allows this company to really, really, really go deep and to trust one another and to feel that they're in good company and in good hands.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, fascinating, Jacob. Thank you so much for giving us this behind the scenes look.

JACOB ALOI: Thank you so much, Cathy. My pleasure.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to arts reporter Jacob Aloi with an update on his ongoing coverage of the behind the scenes process at the Guthrie Theater. By the way, his reporting was made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.