"Experience is the teacher of all things" - Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar said "experience is the teacher of all things."

If Caesar was right, then Jack Young has certainly earned his title as Master Teacher.

Jack Young
Jack Young

His experience abounds:

Young is the Head of the Professional Actor Training Program at The University of Houston where he is a Professor of Acting and Movement (and the recipient of the University of Houston Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award).  He is currently the Artistic Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival.  Prior to HSF, he served as Executive and Artistic Director for other successful theaters across the country, has worked with 10 different Shakespeare Festivals, is a Certified Teacher and Fight Director for the Society of American Fight Directors, has choreographed violence for over 100 productions, has Directed over 120 productions, and is a celebrated actor in his own right.

He is also happens to be the director of Titan Theatre Company's final production of the 2015/16 season, Julius Caesar.

With such a prolific professional resume, I was curious to talk to Jack Young about his personal thoughts on the theatre.  He graciously obliged.

Check out his interview below!

Theatre is where I can blend my love of history, art, music, people, language, logistics and transformation.
  • Let's start at the beginning: what lead you to a life in the theatre?

Southern upbringing blended with Irish gift of the gab--family gatherings were telling family stories--add in, as a kid, listening to comedy recordings, creating "haunted houses" in neighborhood garages to scare the younger kids, being lousy at sports in a neighborhood full of All-Stars (made me work harder in movement classes), playing piano competitions and flute in the school band, and working in a high school drama group that raised $ for our shows by serving as the tech/production team for a ballet company--theatre is where I can blend my love of history, art, music, people, language, logistics and transformation

  • So - what was your first experience with Shakespeare?

The first I can remember is my mom dragging my siblings and I in to watch the Bill Ball TAMING OF THE SHREW that was broadcast on PBS--none of us had any interest in coming indoors to watch some dumb play, but then the language and the physicality grabbed us all--

I didn't get to perform any until way late into graduate training--I spent much of my early time doing new plays (apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville) but working with living playwrights gave me insights into the crafting of dialogue, character and structure. I figure BillyBard must have brought the same attention and drive to his work.

Jack Young as Shylock

Jack Young as Shylock

  • Since then you have worked at over 10 Shakespeare Festivals, and directed and acted in so many of his plays – what is it that still draws you to Shakespeare's work?

Good plays attract good artists--the actors, directors, designers, voice/text, movement coaches who are ready to take on the challenge of a Shakespeare are fun to work with. The fun of working in a variety of places and companies is discovering how the plays bloom in different soil.

  • As a director, artistic director, actor, fight director and teacher you wear many hats.  Is it difficult to switch from one to another? Or do they inform each other?  

They feed each other--all in the process of Sharing the Truth.  As an artistic director, choosing the play is choosing which set of Big Truths the company is going to attempt to share.  As an actor or a fight director or director, it's contributing a different part of shaping the Truth.  As a teacher, I help hone my students' skills and challenge their courage to share Truths worth witnessing.  The vantage point of each helps give me a more nuanced sense of what may be going on in any given moment in the process.

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  • In regards to that -- the process of Sharing the Truth -- Why Julius Caesar? Why now?

An election year is always a good time to remind ourselves of the Power of Rhetoric to stir emotions and steer groups of people in ways that we might not if we took a moment to think on our own. Plenty of excitement about HOUSE OF CARDS- We live in Elizabethan times.

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  • What is your preparation process like as a director approaching a play?  What sources do you draw from?  Has anything particularly informed your approach to Titan’s production of Julius Caesar?

Hearing the text is just as important as reading it.  As much as can be found in making sure I know what the characters mean when they speak, there is just as much in sensing the Onomatopoeic  event that will fill the audience's ears when they hear it.

Going along with that is music--finding the pitch/volume/rhythm that is going to support and shape the play.  As a physical performer, I watch a lot of dance, martial arts, and sports to find iconic shapes and gestures that can populate the work.

In this production of Julius Caesar, given that the actors play major characters and Citizens of Rome, a lot of work has gone in to create a heightened physicality and vocal work to make them into a Crowd, a Mob, and an Army.

Then there's loud and ever present Media Feed of the current electoral process.  Every rehearsal there's a line in JULIUS CAESAR that could have been a headline in the paper.

  • You have worked with Titan Theatre Company before (Hamlet 2010).  From your experience, how has the company changed in the past six years?

The rehearsal space has given the company a good Kitchen to create in.  The company's rising profile has attracted Guest Artists with deep background and serious skills.  What hasn't changed is the drive, the energy and the smarts of the company--those are core parts of TITAN.

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  • Lenny Banovez, Laura Frye, and Michael Thatcher, who are all in the company of Julius Caesar, are all former students of yours.  What is it like working professionally with actors you have helped to train and develop?

First off, there is an efficiency in working with people who share a common language.  Adjustments and improvements can be implemented so much quicker.  The shared history also means I can draw on the strengths I know they have.  What's great now is that they've all matured in beautiful ways; they've worked with a great range of people since their training days, and are bringing even more experience and nuance to their work.

  • If you had one piece of advice for new actors approaching Shakespeare – what would it be?

See it.  Hear it.  Very few people sit down with a Mozart score and read it--you LISTEN to it.  As much as this may upset the English teachers, BillyBard didn't write these plays to be read--he wrote them to be HEARD (Hamlet asks if the royals will HEAR his play--not see it).  There is so much video out now--RSC, The National Theatre, film versions, youTube--see as many different versions as you can--none of them are perfect (well, with the possible exception of Adrian Lester's OTHELLO--it's mighty damn fine) but there's much to be gained in seeing the different ways different productions Share the Truth.

See it.  Hear it. ... there's much to be gained in seeing the different ways different productions Share the Truth.

YOU FIGHT LIKE A GIRL

Women are often spoken of as the “weaker sex.” Titan’s production of Othello would beg to differ.

Othello’s Fight Director and Resident Company Member, Johnathan Hicks, weighs in about what it’s like to stage violence for a cast of fighting females in one of Shakespeare’s most physically brutal tragedies.

“Who wants to see a bunch of chicks fight?" Fight Director, Johnathan Hicks, asks.

"EVERYBODY." he answers himself.  "I don’t need to get on a soapbox to let people know that women can get a negative rap for being the “weaker sex” – both in the world of stage combat and the world in general.  But by now, this idea should be obvious bull honky.  One of the best Fight Directors I know is a woman.” 

Bull honky, indeed.

Jonathan Hicks (Right) in rehearsal with Kate Gunter (Left).  

Jonathan Hicks (Right) in rehearsal with Kate Gunter (Left).  

In fact, in Titan's production of Othello, when given the choice between a simulated slap and an actual slap that would make contact with her face– Cassio (Abbey Siegworth) and Othello (Leah Dutchin) immediately decided that, due to the proximity of the Queen's Studio Theater space and the importance of the moment in the two character's relationship, Siegworth would simply take Dutchin’s slap to the face.  

Maybe not too terrible, if you have to do it just once but, unlike film, in the world of theatre repetition is key.   A stage combat move like this requires much repetition and precision to get the physical contact to a “safe" and repeatable place in the adrenalin of performance.  So Dutchin and Siegworth have to deliver and receive the slap over and over again in rehearsal and fight calls (fight calls are similar to a dance warm up, and they happen each time before the show is run), to ensure the actors are consistently making eye contact at the same moment (this is the unspoken, split-second, go-ahead to proceed with the violence), that Dutchin is striking Siegworth's cheek in the right spot (too high you make contact with cheek bone or eye socket- too low, the jaw takes the impact - both are potentially dangerous and more painful for both actors), making sure Dutchin's hand at the optimal level of tension and Siegworth's face is at the optimal angle and, lastly, that neither actor flinches or anticipates the strike - which, I needn't tell you, takes a greatly developed control of one's innate reflexes.

Yup. We're dealing with some pretty resilient and  bad ass ladies here.  So much so that, when Siegworth wasn’t present at rehearsal one day and Maggie Wetzel, Cassio’s understudy stepped in, she was given the option to “mark” the combat as the understudy.  Instead, Wetzel took it on the cheek as well, without batting an eye.

If you really want to talk strong characters in Shakespeare and Othello, look no further than Emelia and Desdemona. However, the wonderful and rare thing about this particular production is that we get to see the strong male characters embodied by women as well.
— Jonathan Hicks

When asked if he changed any of the combat choreography when he learned he would be working with all women, Hicks said No.  “There really hasn’t been much thought about what I need to change in order for women to be able to combat instead of men.

Hicks approaches the combat from the point of view of story - not gender.

This goes hand in hand with what Lenny Banovez, the Director of Othello and Titan's founder and Artistic Director said when asked about the "concept" of an All-Female Othello.

"We aren't doing an All-Female Othello.  We're doing Othello.  With a female cast." - 

When it comes to physical fighting in real life, there are some things that work in women's advantage as fighters:

  • The male center of gravity is in the shoulders. The female center of gravity is in their hips - which is closer to the ground.  Making them harder to knock over.
  • Women have a higher pain tolerance
  • Females, on average, have a larger Limbic system than males. This area of the brain is referred to as “the reptilian brain” because it houses instincts.  This area, which is home to the mothering instinct and innate primitive fighting instincts, is larger in women than men.  It has been observed that, when threatened, women actually display a primitive killer instinct far greater than the male. 

Just think Momma Bear.

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combat2

These things also aid them as stage fighters.  Because of these reasons, as well as artistic choices, Hicks and Banovez have decided to stick to a specific “fight vocabulary” for this Othello

“Our Othello is contemporary world.  What is cool about this is that it allows for more options as far as styles of violence.   This modern setting gives us a broader choice from any fighting style and any weapon - past or present.

So everyone should just have guns then right?  Ha!

We have used guns in Titan productions in the past and they immediately take the violence into the present [which is cool].  But guns are a tricky business for the theater. They are expensive. They must either be functional or be accompanied with some other technical element. They lead to questions: Does everyone have a gun? If not, who has one and why? 

For Othello, we have decided to use a combination of daggers and unarmed combat. Since the idea of the human as a martial instrument has been around since Cain met Abel, and since here at Titan we like to keep it simple and raw, it works for us. There is an inherent brutality to the play. Therefore, the up close and personal quality of these weapons help to highlight the gruesome, intimate nature of the violence in the world of Othello”

A world you are invited into at The Queen's Theatre this month.

OTHELLO

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

Good Madam, you shall more command with years

Than with your weapons. - Act 1, Scene ii

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First Rehearsal

The first day of TITAN Theatre Company's Othello is here!  

Everyone is eager to get into rehearsals and sink our collective teeth into this delicious, heartbreaking, mind-bending tragedy.  But, don't be fooled, the work has long since begun.  The cast and creative team have been preparing for this day for quite awhile.  And everyone readies themselves a little differently.  So we thought we'd get this blog rolling by asking some members of this fiercely female cast: How in the ot-hell-o do you get ready to tackle a play like Othello?

or - in other words

"How do you memorize all those lines!?!" - asked someone at every talkback ever.

Check out what the Bard's broads have to say in response.

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"If I have to memorize quickly, I record the lines and listen while strolling or jogging.  In this instance...

...I wound up across from Shakespeare's Globe."

Deanna Gibson - Emilia

"I like to memorize lines by recording my cues into my phone with little pauses where my lines are and then play the tape back and say my lines to it. I also like to do an activity, like cleaning the dishes or folding the laundry, because if you move while you memorize something you work both the left and right sides of your brain and the material sticks better."  

Erica Knight - Lodovico

"I memorize the lines in many different ways, but my one top method is to write the lines over and over again. I have notebooks filled with lines from every show I have been in."

Laura Frye - Iago  

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"In the warmth of sunny Austin, Texas, I've been reading the text, re-reading the text, looking up the roots of words, reading the text again, and scanning. Lots of focus on departures from the iambic pentameter and going into imagination-land for the potential reasoning for it. I've also been eating a lot of tacos while doing this, as seen in the picture. Ah my two loves: Shakespeare and breakfast tacos. :)"   Sierra Thothero - Desdemona u/s

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"When I memorize a script, I start at the beginning. I memorize and say out loud little chunks of text at a time, adding another line, paragraph, scene until I know it all. I like to spend this time in quieter places (talking to oneself in public can be a bit distracting to others I've found) like my home or a patch of grass at a park."

Leah Dutchin - Othello

"In terms of preparation for three characters, 'No Fear Shakespeare' and multicolor post-its are definitely my friends."  Molly Densmore - Montano

Osmosis. - Alyssa VanGorder- Gratiano 

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"Snow day! I've got Thai food on the way, I've got my complete works and my Othello script in hand, I've got coffee and the OED!"  - Kate Gunther – Bianca

OthelloTrask
OthelloTrask

"A good Folio.  A good Rye.  And a good study partner."

- Emily Trask - Desdemona

"I'm a huge nerd. I gather every book, read every article, look up every word. With our current cutting, I'm looking for information about what version of Cassio will most help propel my fellow actors, and therefore  the play, forward. They have harder journeys than mine; I'm seeking ways to make their jobs (as characters) harder, and their jobs (as actors) easier."

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Abbey Siegworth – Cassio

"