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On Devising Theatre: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets

“This is the very coinage of your brain: this bodiless creation ecstasy” - Hamlet: Act 3, Sc. 4

The greatest challenge that the artist can face is to create something out of nothing. Every new project puts you in this liminal place of fear and uncertainty. It is the inevitable confrontation with the unmarked script. It is intimidating in its uncertainty yet it is liberating in potentiality. The ultimate expression of freedom. The true gift inherent in working on devised theatre.

Within The Dark Lady of the Sonnets each actor was initially given three sonnets and a space in the play to insert an individual movement piece. A sonnet consists of three sets of fourteen lines, twelve of which are divided into three quatrains with four lines each in which a problem is presented by the author which is resolved in the final two lines, or the couplet.

Once each actor once assigned their particular sonnets, our task was to decide how to give the sonnets an objective that supported our individual characters larger journey throughout the play. We had the option of involving other characters as we wished. To begin, each actor read through their sonnets and found images which the poetry invoked for them personally, and shared and discussed those with other actors. Having a visual element helped provide an anchor to support the conceptual work.

Personally, sonnet 128 came the most naturally for me because several lines conjured up the image of a person physically playing the guitar: “music play’st upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds with thy sweet fingers”. Also, the actor playing my character's love interest, Shakespeare, coincidentally plays guitar throughout the show. So I determined that I wanted my blocking to involve our male actor playing guitar. The second layer was to flesh out the story. Overall, the tone of the sonnet struck me as eager, ecstatic, desirous, and admiring much like one feels upon first falling in love. I wanted to tell that story. I wanted the audience to see the Dark Lady falling in love with Shakespeare. One expression of love is to teach another. So I decided to have a point where Shakespeare sits the Dark Lady down and begins to teach her to play his guitar. I loved the simple intimacy of it. The exchange of power. The awe. Not to mention it worked quite well with the sonnet structure.

My second sonnet, number 101, gave me the most difficult time. It felt abstract to me and a bit all over the place. The notions of beauty and truth were consistently referenced and pitted against each other. It involves a demanding invocation of a muse. I felt a sense of brokenness from the author. So the natural story for me to tell in this one involved my character discovering that her sacred love had now been broken from a circle to a triangle. It is an acknowledgement of the other woman, and a confrontation to her love. To achieve this, I utilized the Queen Elizabeth character by taking her hand and leading her to step up on a pedestal and take the stance of a monument. I then circle about her physical form while speaking many lines to Shakespeare forcing him to confront the ways in which he has objectified these two women for the sake of appetite and art. Happily it ends on a positive note of admiration of the Queen, the one noble quality that the quarreling lovers still share in that moment, that particular season of their relationship.

My third sonnet, number 90, became an extension of my movement piece. The movement pieces were the portions where we truly were creating something from nothing. I started with my given circumstances i.e. the structures already in place for me. First off, my movement piece occurs after my character’s dialogue in the Shaw play, after the dark lady exits upon being humiliatingly disappointed by her lover and commanded to leave by her sovereign. One of her last few lines before she exits, and also the only bit of Shakespeare’s text that she speaks within the Shaw play, is “I am of all ladies most deject and wretched” - Ophelia in Hamlet Act 3, Sc. 1.

I wanted dive further into that nod to Ophelia and I decided that my movement piece would show the dark lady confronting her sorrow and choosing to throw herself into river, possibly taking her own life as Ophelia does. Metaphorically, as a dream symbol being submerged into a body of water represents being overwhelmed by emotions. Combine that with the intrigue of seeing Ophelia alone in her potentially last moments making a choice like that, and I was fixated.

Thus then, in brief, the process of creating the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, a rare and thrilling partially devised theater project with The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company!

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