Episode 202: Shakespeare on a Shoestring
What does Shakespeare on a shoestring mean? It means no set, no elaborate costumes, all sound done onstage and life. Just like Shakespeare would have done in his day. If you’re looking for a doorway to Shakespeare, if you’re looking for a show to tour or take to a festival when you don’t have any tech at your disposal, then the shoestring philosophy will be right up your alley. Tune in to learn more!
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 202 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode202.
I am thrilled to have this conversation that I can present to you and we are going to share a great concept. Well, I’m not going to share it. Our guest is going to share it.
It’s all about Shakespeare on a Shoestring.
Michael Calderone is who I’m talking to, and we have actually just published his play – Shakespeare on a Shoestring – Cymbeline! – here at Theatrefolk.
So, we have the concept which turned into a play which turned into a published play, but we’re focusing on the concept – the concept about how we can do Shakespeare on a Shoestring and how you can do Shakespeare on a Shoestring.
I am always, always, always up for a way to make Shakespeare accessible to students and to open that door to his work. So, let’s get to it! I’m going to see you on the other side!
LINDSAY: Hello everybody! I am here with Mike Calderone!
MICHAEL: Hi there!
LINDSAY: So, I like to start off by asking for you to share where you are in the world right now.
MICHAEL: I am at the campus of Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut.
LINDSAY: Awesome. And what do you do at Hopkins School? What do you do?
MICHAEL: I am one of two drama teachers here. I direct. I teach acting classes, drama classes, and public speaking.
LINDSAY: Very awesome.
Let’s talk about theatre experience first. When did you start really connecting to theatre?
MICHAEL: I did not start connecting to theatre until freshman year of college. I was looking to go to a restaurant school for college, but didn’t have the money to do it, so I went to the local community college, found theatre, and from there I went to Rutgers University and became a Theatre Bachelor of Arts student.
LINDSAY: Aha! So, it was sort of happenstance that you fell into it.
MICHAEL: It really was.
LINDSAY: Why did you stay with it?
MICHAEL: Well, it was the love of the theatre. I guess I was always performing.
I didn’t do anything in high school at all and I think that’s one of the most ironic things about this – about my career. It’s that I never did it in high school. It was in college that I found it and fell in love with it.
Shortly thereafter, when I got into Rutgers, that’s when I fell in with the class that was the Shoestring Players which was an undergraduate performance company that spent a semester developing a show based on international folktales. I went to the audition, I got called back, and then I was not cast. But I went back as the percussionist which is basically the onstage live Foley artist punctuating the performance.
With that job, that’s where I went from we were the first company to go to the Edinburgh Festival way back in 1989 and then performed with them professionally, started teaching with them, started directing with them. From there, when I was looking for a job to pay the bills, I started teaching.
LINDSAY: Wow! You just segued right into our topic for today… brilliantly!
MICHAEL: I listened to your last podcast!
LINDSAY: I like a good segue, man! You know, it’s all about the ebb and flow. It’s all good. It’s all good!
Yes, we are going to talk about the whole notion of you call it the “Shoestring” style. Do you use it just specifically with Shakespeare? You started out doing it with international fairy tales but, before we get too deep down the rabbit hole in the style, are you just Shakespeare or are you using other stuff?
MICHAEL: It applies to any show that’s an ensemble-based show. A lot of it is about awareness, about being on the give and take of the actors. Whether you are the principal or if you are the supernumerary, everybody is important in the show.
Shakespeare is my other love. Ensemble and Shoestring is the first thing. And then, when I realized that I could do it with Shakespeare, I said, “This is the thing!” because, look at Shakespeare, look at the Globe Theatre itself. There’s no fancy sets. There’s no elaborate lighting. It’s all in the words. It’s all in the story itself and the ensemble that comes together to tell that story.
So, I felt it was the same thing as Shoestring and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream like this,” because it is literally a fairy tale. People appearing and disappearing, and images creating and disappearing. For Midsummer Night’s Dream, that was our pilot program.
We did Shakespeare on a Shoestring with Midsummer, doing it almost in the exact Shoestring style which is four separate stories that are somehow tied together. We did The Lovers’ Tale then we did the Rude Mechanicals Tale then we did the fairies – Oberon and Titania as the dark and serious piece. By that time, all the different storylines are coming together. And then, we ended it up with Pyramus and Thisbe.
LINDSAY: Oh, I like that. I like that!
We’re dancing around a little bit. Don’t worry. Just hang on. We’re going to get to it.
MICHAEL: We’ll get there!
LINDSAY: We’ll get there, but I hope you’re getting the idea that the Shoestring style is in that it is a storytelling style and, also, it’s a very lean style.
The reason I brought up Shakespeare initially is because, when you were telling me about this, the first thing I thought of is high school students who hate Shakespeare. Just how do we open those doors to get them performing? Because that is always, I think, the issue. It’s that, so often, they get plonked down in a chair with a book and said, “Good luck!” and I think you would agree that’s not what Shakespeare would have wanted. That’s not how his plays were originally ever performed. They weren’t analyzed. They were done!
MICHAEL: One hundred percent the way I approach theatre.
Actually, the class that I’m running to next is my eighth-grade drama class where we are doing scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Half the students are already reading that in their English class, and I said, “Listen, the English class is going to give it to you in that analytical way. Here, we’re looking at it the way Shakespeare’s actors would look at it. There were no directors back then. The actors came in, they picked up their cues from the script. Here are those cues. Find those and you’ll be able to at least get a passable scene going – you know, what the emotion is, maybe even a hint as to how close you stand to your scene partner, how far away you stand from your scene partner, which words to emphasize. That’s embedded in the script. So, find those and you’ll get by – and not only get by, but enjoy it.”
I think the kids forget that this is a comedy. When we get Helena and Hermia really going at each other, the kids are going…
LINDSAY: “Well, how low am I?”
MICHAEL: “Thou painted maypole!”
No, that’s exactly it. When we approached A Midsummer Night’s Dream the first time, the play, actually, the script, the adaptation that we wrote actually begins with the company together to rehearse a play, almost like the Mechanicals would.
And then, as soon as the lead actor says, “We’re going to be doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the company all but gets up and leaves the stage and says, “No, I’m not doing it! Too many storylines, too much going on! It’s too confusing!”
I go, “No, we’ll do it bit by bit and you’ll figure it out.” Eventually, they come across and say, “Oh, this is actually kind of fun,” and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what we want to get from them, and that’s why I think putting Shakespeare on a Shoestring – literally in a Shoestring sense – there’s no elaborate costumes. There’s no elaborate sets.
We pare down the script to the bare minimum. My current class, my current Shoestring ensemble class is doing an adaptation of Macbeth, and there are huge chunks that I know the English department would be very sad that I’m editing, but it doesn’t tell the story. Some of the scenes are three lines long.
“What’s over there?”
“That’s the castle.”
“Everybody cut down a branch and let’s go!”
That’s basically the scene!
LINDSAY: “Get your twig, come on!”
MICHAEL: “Get your twig, let’s go!”
LINDSAY: So, now we’re really diving in. Let’s just make sure that we’re hitting all the points – this whole Shoestring philosophy. Here, we’re talking about Shakespeare on a Shoestring and that is there are no sets per se.
LINDSAY: There’s no elaborate costumes.
LINDSAY: And the Shakespeare is pared down, down, down.
The thing that I wanted to point out, too, when you’re sharing this with me is that you keep Shakespeare as Shakespeare and then, if you’re going to add in anything, you’re not paraphrasing Shakespeare, but there is modern dialogue in there, too.
MICHAEL: The modern dialogue, for example, in the most recent production that we did of Cymbeline was, throughout the play, it’s almost like Shakespeare is doing his own commentary in those sections and we’ve got a bunch of guys who are hanging around in Italy saying, “Oh, what’s going on? Oh, I left my wife back in England and I want to make sure she’s not messing around.” There’s a recap. Shakespeare puts these recaps.
What we did is we’d stop the action and had the actors come out of character and say, “What’s actually going on here?” And then, we do our own recap and then jump right back into the script itself and back into the Shakespeare.
LINDSAY: And what was awfully funny is, when I was reading Cymbeline, I’d get to a point into Shakespeare and I’m like, “Ha! I’m confused!” and, right at that moment, you were right in there with there with the recap. It’s like, “Oh, my god, this is so scary!”
MICHAEL: But, you know, it’s funny, I was following Shakespeare’s lead on that. When he started to recap, I would recap. The whole point of the ghosts – what is the whole point of the ghosts of Posthumus’ dead family? All they do is they recap the story. We’ve never seen these characters before, but here they are!
LINDSAY: You know, if you think about it, it wasn’t just the rich people who went to see Shakespeare’s plays. Everybody went. If they weren’t entertaining, they would have got stuff thrown at them, right? They would have got run out of town. I think that we forget. We forget that Shakespeare is entertaining and that we spend all this time trying to get past the language and trying to figure out what a fardel is or whatever; and that we forget that, in all the plays that have sword fights, they had pig bladders underneath and there was blood all over the place; or that Helena and Hermia thing in Midsummer, that’s a girl fight, you know?
MICHAEL: Oh, my gosh!
LINDSAY: I just think that this idea of going back to basics and doing the Shoestring idea I just think is (a) perfect for high school and (b) I just think it’s a perfect doorway to Shakespeare.
MICHAEL: I have to tell you, one of my favorite theatrical experiences in the last decade was I took my cast of Cymbeline. Yale Rep did it about four months after we did it. I took the cast down the hill and made an evening of it and my kids were rolling in the aisles at all the funny parts. They knew the play inside and out.
They were even laughing at the arts that Yale was making very serious. I had to whisper to them. I said, “No, no, no, she’s crying. Don’t laugh at this part. I know it’s ridiculous. She’s crying over a headless body that she thinks is her husband, but they’re playing it serious, so just bite your tongue for now.”
LINDSAY: Ah, the headless body, you know.
Then, not only that, the other piece of this idea is that we know lots of folks who try to think of ideas of plays to tour – you know, to go to a theatre school or go somewhere else – and that’s exactly what you’ve done. You took Cymbeline to Edinburgh – and many others.
MICHAEL: No, we don’t travel too far. That was the only festival that we’d really done.
LINDSAY: My bad. All right.
So, you took Cymbeline to Edinburgh. How was that?
MICHAEL: It was amazing!
You know, for those who don’t know about Edinburgh, there are so many shows going on in so many venues, we had a 10 o’clock in the morning performance slot which included 20 minutes to load in and 20 minutes to get out with an hour to perform in-between because, right on our heels is the very next show, and right on their heels is the very next show. So, you need to have something that’s completely mobile. Like, you just pick up, plop down, do the show, and then get out.
The great thing about Shakespeare on a Shoestring is that it is that compact. I mean, I was just laughing with some of the kids who were on the trip because I gave them their backstage passes that would get them to the dressing rooms and to different parts of the theatre when we were over there. I gave them their passes on the last day. I just never thought about it because we never needed it.
We literally walked in, opened up the suitcases, put out the costume pieces – we have crowns and scarves and things like that that designates certain characters – and then we’d set up our percussion table. And then, when the show’s over, it all goes back in the suitcase and you’re gone.
It’s, really, we’re using the barebone minimum that you need in order to have a theatrical event which is your actors, your audience, and some space to do it in. Everything else really is extra and I think we forget that. I think we get caught up in the trappings of fancy lights and scenery and gobos and sound effects when, in fact, it’s really just the communication between the actors and the audience. Together, with your imagination, your imagination is going to fill in so much.
Shoestring leaves those spaces for you to fill in.
LINDSAY: And so, I’m assuming too then that you were literally just a “lights up, lights down” show.
MICHAEL: It’s the fewest amount of lights, cues that I have.
We actually had to invent light cues for Edinburgh just because we had them there and we said, “Well, you know, the bedroom scene takes place at night. Maybe we can just do a blue wash with a spotlight.” We threw in a couple, just for kicks and giggles. It doesn’t really enhance the show more than the story itself. It’s really just there because we had it.
LINDSAY: Well, let’s talk about the sound element.
There’s a very specific percussion piece to this style of show. Talk about that.
MICHAEL: It’s one of my favorite parts because it was my first job in the Shoestring company. Like I said, the onstage Foley artist. I did the sound effects and the punctuation for the pieces. Comedy a lot more than the serious pieces.
The serious pieces are more environmental and mood-setting. So, if you have a forest scene, we’ve got the shells on a string that kind of sound like leaves rustling in the wind.
But, for comedy, you get somebody who’s slapped in the face, you’ve got to have that slapstick. Or somebody gets punched in the stomach, you’ve got the bicycle horn. There’s also when somebody gets an idea, there’s the bellhop bell.
We just go through the Latin percussion catalog and see all the different instruments that they have there, and we were very lucky to have three of our students per show on the percussion squad. It’s almost like, if you watch a cartoon, but just listen to it and listen to all the different sounds effects that are going on in that cartoon that punctuate and highlight and frame the story. That’s what the percussionist does.
The director of Shoestring, Joe Hart, way back in the day would say, “You have your company of actors onstage in the empty space, but there’s the one extra actor who is the percussionist who’s basically the actor in the sound having the relationship with the rest of the ensemble, having the same relationship with the audience – only it’s not done through action and verbally. It’s done through the percussive sounds.”
LINDSAY: Well, absolutely.
Sound is a punctuation. It’s commentary. It’s another layer into this experience.
LINDSAY: It’s really interesting just talking about the portability of the show because we have lots of high schools who go to festivals and have the same limitations that you’re talking about in terms of time and space. You know, they have to come in, they have to set up, and they have maybe a minute or two to discuss some cues, and then they go.
Sometimes, they get so wrapped up in the perfection of a piece in all levels that it just can’t happen if you’re not practiced at it. If you’re not practiced at walking into a strange space and running someone else’s board, that’s going to be a recipe for disaster, and that can be learned.
But, if you’re talking about, “Hey, I have a new thespian troupe,” for example. “I have a new group. We want to go, but we’re scared because we don’t have a tech department. We don’t have any money.” This is the kind of show that can be put together and taken to a festival with limitations – pretty easily, I think.
MICHAEL: I think it’s also something that probably was the roots of theatre. If you think about the roots of commedia where the wagon pulled up into the square, the side dropped down, and – boom – you’re doing a show. You don’t need all of that extra. But we also have a large number of students who want to get involved and one of the first things that I did after directing and writing and performing with the Shoestring Players is that I was part of their outreach program.
In the outreach program, we would go to schools that didn’t have theatre departments and just show them how the style works so that they could come out there and create some of these images. Whatever scenery is needed for your folktale or your Shakespeare – you know, from folktales to Shakespeare – you can cover all of them.
Just in Cymbeline alone, we did a ship, we did cauldrons, forests, castles – you name it, we’ll do it. We did the giant eagle that Zeus comes flying down on made out of our actors. There’s that moment of recognition with the audience when they recognize what the image is that you’re creating. They get that rush, that joy, that connection. They go, “Wow! That was so creative!”
When we would do these workshops or do performances for elementary school kids way back in the day for Shoestring, we would get “thank you” letters from the kids and they wouldn’t draw pictures of our actors in these different images. They drew pictures of what the image was. They drew the forest. They drew the castle. They didn’t draw the actors in those positions because they’re filling in their imagination.
When we would go and do the workshops and maybe take a folktale that Shoestring had produced in the past and stage it with the elementary school kids, what’s great about it too is that it’s so flexible.
We had a company, the original company of Shoestring Players, the student company was ten actors and a percussionist. For the professional company, it was eight actors and a percussionist. But then, we would get into a classroom where there’s 30 kids and it’s so flexible that you could say, “All right, we’re going to do this story called Talk from Ghana. It’s about a farmer who digs up some yams and these yams start talking to him.” Well, the original company had 40 yams. If we did it for an elementary school, maybe we have 10 yams and they all speak chorally the different lines. Or we come up with new lines. Or we split up the lines in a different way.
It gives you an opportunity to remember you’re a creative person and you’re not just regurgitating the way theatre should be. I mean, we hear that with Shakespeare all the time. Shakespeare should be this way. It should be an Elizabethan garb and it should be spoken with these high British accents. But I think that removes us from the person experience of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, as I tell my eighth-graders, writes about humans and human relationships and the human condition which hasn’t changed in 400 years.
One of the first things that I do with my eighth-graders before I even tell them that we’re doing Shakespeare is that we improvise the scenarios. They don’t even know it’s the scenarios. I say, “Okay, you’re a father and a daughter, and you’re having a fight over who you should take to the prom.” Afterwards, I say, “You know, this is the same conversation that Egeus had with Hermia – only it was marriage and not prom.” The lightbulb goes on. “Wait, what are you talking about?”
“Was it easy or difficult to talk about, to act out that scene?” Then, they say, “Well, that happens. That happens today. Fathers and daughters still get in fights.” I was like, “Yes, as it was 400 years ago.”
So, make that connection. Make it personal. Don’t make it this hifalutin thing that’s a museum piece that only people who study Shakespeare can enjoy Shakespeare. No, like you said, everybody enjoys it. There’s something there for everybody.
I’ve said this a million times, and now it’s a million and one. “Romeo and Juliet” is not about Shakespeare and it is not about language. It’s about a boy and a girl, two teenagers, who fell in love when they weren’t supposed to. That’s it!
MICHAEL: Juliet, isn’t she three weeks away from her 13th birthday?
LINDSAY: Yeah, she’s almost a teenager. Let’s not talk about that!
MICHAEL: That’s when the jaws drop. That’s when they go, “Whoa! No, no, no, she’s like 21!” No, she’s not. She’s closer to your age than you think or want to think about.
LINDSAY: In many ways.
So, as we wrap up here, we’ve got folks who are listening, they’re high school teachers, they’re like, “Shakespeare on a Shoestring, yes, this is something I want to do!” So, what are the first couple of steps in taking a Shakespeare script – like, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example – and moving it into this process?
MICHAEL: There’s a couple things that are going on a little bit at the same time. You’ve got your ensemble who I’m working with so that they get to know each other just like any other cast. A lot of the exercises that I do have everything to do with awareness, your relationship with the group as a whole. I will tell the students in my ensemble class that you have one partner in this group and it’s not the person whose color matches your costume. Your partner is the group.
How do you relate to the group? How do you relate with that group in the space?
So, they’re getting used to each other, their awareness of the space, because, in a Shoestring show, whether it’s classic Shoestring or Shakespeare on a Shoestring, none of the actors ever leave the stage. If they are onstage, they are on and in the moment. Think about any show that you do. If your cast is onstage, they’re doing something. They need to be present in that moment.
Building an ensemble is the first part in terms of adapting a show. We’ve done four Shakespeare shows right now that we’ve adapted or we’re in the process of adapting our fourth one right now. But the idea is to go through the script and pick out what is the visual image that you see. We’re going through this at this moment with our production of Macbeth.
We just finished reading the script today with all the edits, but what we’ll do is we’ll go through and say, “What is the image? What do we see?” We see the witches. The witches appear in the forest and then they disappear. That’s image number one.
The next one is we’ve got the king is getting a report from the battlefield. What does the audience see? Well, we’ve got this one soldier who’s bleeding, telling us about Macbeth. Let’s see an image of what Macbeth is doing at that time. What does that battle look like? What does it mean to “unseam someone from the nave to th’ chops”? We’re going to show that battle scene while the soldier is recounting this.
We’re going to go through the script, scene by scene. What is the image by image? And then, the ensemble themselves are going to create that. Show me what it looks like when a forest dissolves into three witches and a cauldron. And then, they will get together. They’ll sit together in a circle. They’ll form their arms in a circle to create the cauldron. Some kids will be the trees.
One of my students threw his arms up and made branches today and said, “Oh, I’m a tree!” I said, “That’s one-third of what you’re doing. What kind of forest is it? Is it a spooky forest? Is it a friendly forest? Is it a dangerous forest?” You’re going to use everything that’s available to the actor which is your body, your face, and your voice. You put those three things together and then, with the ensemble, you are going to create that image. If you believe it, the audience believes it.
LINDSAY: Dang! We’re almost out of time!
MICHAEL: I know!
LINDSAY: I want to talk about trees with you. You know, you just said that whole thing about, “Well, are you a spooky tree or are you a friendly tree?” and I’m like, “Holy crow!” That’s that whole thing about people who say, “Well, I’m just in the ensemble.” It’s like, “No, no!”
And then, that whole notion too is that, as you’re talking about the visuals, the visuals have to be created with basically what you have with you on your body. Cauldrons are arms. Trees are arms and people and I just keep moving forward.
And then, I guess, at some point, the time issue just must have to be addressed, too. It’s like, “Look, this show has to be 45 minutes. What is not important to the story?”
Thank you so much for talking to me today, Mike!
LINDSAY: I know that any time we can share a process or share something that teachers can take into their classrooms and take into their own programs, I am happy to do. I’m happy to get people talking.
So, thank you so much!
MICHAEL: My pleasure!
LINDSAY: Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
So, the play we’ve been talking about in this episode, you can actually find on our website.
Shakespeare on a Shoestring – Cymbeline! is available through Theatrefolk at Theatrefolk.com or you can click the link in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode202.
Did you know that Cymbeline has all of Shakespeare’s most famous plot devices? It has fake death, mistaken identity, parental marital veto. But, wait, there’s more!
Join our players as they tackle the play in the Shoestring style which emphasizes ensemble, the physical space with all scenery created by living tableau and audience interaction. It is the perfect storm for your students to sink up their Shakespeare and turn up their technique.
Like that? Sink up? Turn up?
Again, you can find the play at Theatrefolk.com or in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode202.
There are some lovely photos from the show in the show notes page. When you click the link, you can read sample pages. Always a great way to find out if you and a play are a perfect fit.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you will see we are on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end.
Take care, my friends, take care.