Hip to Hip started with about fifteen participants. This year there are forty-two.
By: Alix Cohen
June 22, 2023: Scenic Designer Robert Dutiel (an Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at Marymount) initially modified and reinforced some foam panels that looked like stone. Last summer, he built a few custom pieces, most notably an oversized coffin/trunk for The Adventures of Pericles. This served as (1) a banquet table for the king’s feast, (2) a coffin that the Queen is put to sea in (they think the Queen died in childbirth but she was just unconscious—a doctor finds the coffin floating in the ocean and revives her), and (3) a bed.“The added benefit of this piece is that it will now serve as a trunk for transporting equipment for future tours, “Jason tells me.
Lawryn LaCroix and Chaunice Chapman on the right in The Merchant of Venice
Plays are predominantly staged to look like the period in which they’re set, not as Elizabethan. “We tend to evoke a ‘feeling’ of historical authenticity rather than being true to any particular time. This is very important when working with two shows that share a set,” Dutiel notes. That being said, Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream have both appeared to be Regency- without changing script. Today, the company uses a basic structured set adding a skin or façade. There’s a balcony level with stairs up to scaffolding and two 10 x 10 tents for costume change and make-up application.
Actress/Designer Nancy Nichols joined in 2008, played Maria is Twelfth Night and has costumed the company every season since. “That first play was a fun ride and a challenge or two. The role was an electric volt for me -lots of movement and comedic dialogue. Costumes were simple. We had enough budget to rent matching doublets and hats for the twins, and something severe for Malvolio from TDF Costume Collection.”
Nancy Nichols in All’s Well That Ends Well
“I’m also indebted to the wonderful organization MATERIALS FOR THE ARTS, where I’ve been “shopping” since 1995. They provide free stuff for not-for-profit arts and school organizations, re-using and recycling in a valiant effort to keep us green. Back then, we operated out of a rented van, so not much room. With simple sets, it’s a given that clothes are the focus. I do my best to produce something that draws the eye. “
Nichols pinning a jacket on Joy as Portia in Merchant of Venice
“There are constraints — It’s hot! Most of the historic references I like to mimic were clothes built for the Little Ice Age, to be worn in homes without central heat or most of the comforts we take for granted. (No heat-tech layers) I try not to torture the cast. I use natural washable fabrics, as lightweight as possible, keeping layers to a minimum. If there’s fur on a garment it’s on a hem, not next to the face! I don’t use wigs (unless the actor wants one).”
Joel Leffert is responsible for staging battles, duels, suicides, wrestling, punches, pushing, anything that involves physical contact or the threat of physical contact, from the multiple stabbings of Caesar to Lady Anne’s spitting in the face of Richard III. “Fights are often the highlight of the show! We work hard to make them realistic and safe. I find more and more young actors have some fight training and are eager to dive in. We rehearse slowly and carefully so it makes sense as far as the story being told, involves no real physical risk yet looks like the real thing where lives are at stake. Hey, it’s fun to hear screams and gasps from the audience!”
Left: Hal and Hotspur- Henry IV; Right: Leffert as King Lear
Music is sometimes live, sometimes recorded. Hip to Hip refers to Shakespeare’s Songbook, a collection of music that scholars believe was used in original productions in the playwright’s time. For Comedy of Errors, Joy is researching Turkish folk music as the play is set in what’s present day Turkey (then Ephesus.)
Scripts are cut to about ninety minutes. Joy is currently at work on Richard II. She approaches the task like a director. “Take Bolingbroke (the main antagonist in Richard II),” Joy explains, “We decide whether he’s going to be sympathetic or poetic in contrast to Richard or to make him appear more ambiguous, an action person. One year we had a dramaturge do it. It timed out fine, then we got to rehearsal. I was playing Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Suddenly I realized she’d cut out the scene that sets everything up. It was put back in.” Focus overrides running time.
Right: Guy Ventoliere as the Dromios
Language implications are an issue these days. In The Comedy of Errors, Dromio is pursued by a kitchen wench who is “No longer from head to foot than from head to hip. She is spherical, like a globe.” Jason notes that to say someone is large, in fact, fat, not to mention having a five minute speech about it is now questionable. There’s apparently a big anti-racist movement around Shakespeare as well. The plays are full of “masters” and “slaves.” Though “slave” is often employed interchangeably with “knave, audiences wouldn’t understand it. The playwright used “whiteness” as a word or idea often to mean goodness. What does one do with the word “gay?!”
“Richard II is one of only four or five plays written entirely in verse. Comedy of Errors is 85% verse. “It’s fun for the audience. Wakes them up a little,” Joy tells me. It’s also more difficult to act without sounding unnatural. “We keep as much of the quick pace of the text as we can, believing in forward momentum,” Jason says. “Language should be spoken quickly and with clarity.” Accents are eschewed.
Right: Jason and Joy as Antony and Cleopatra
Hip to Hip performed Antony and Cleopatra with the Pandemic overshadowing. For safety’s sake as much as anything else, Jason and Joy cast themselves in the leads. They would be in the same “pod” on stage and off. Actors right out of school said Cleo should not be played by a white woman. The company has always believed in casting diversity and gender equality. (Joy is playing Richard II for which she may lower vocal register) That casting was a matter of practicality. A company meeting was held.
‘The time of life is short! / To spend that shortness basely were too long’ (Henry IV Part I)
Damon Kinard as Othello; Kevin Shimko as Iago
With one month of rehearsals, twelve for each show, professionalism is paramount. Not everyone is a veteran, but commitment is essential. Jason points out that original Shakespeare productions were not rehearsed. In fact, actors were given pages with only their cue and lines. “This is proof of the brilliance of the words. Stage directions are written in. You would know if you were going to shepherd someone off stage. It says ‘come’ right there in the script.”
“The whole point of a rep company is working with the group over and over in new and exciting situations. Different characters different nights as well as different spaces every show. You learn about your own strengths and limitations as well as your fellows. Being part of a theater company over many years builds trust. Those relationships are the foundation of Hip to Hip‘s success.” Joel Leffert
“In addition to the obvious involvement of the company’s founders, Joy and Jason, every year there are at least a couple of returning actors. It’s fun to see them play different roles from season to season. There are also returning audience members, which is enormously encouraging. Finally, we get many audience who are seeing Shakespeare for the first time. Hip to Hip provides a positive introduction to Shakespeare for them.” James Harter
“I’ve loved theater since I saw my first show as a 5-year old — Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. Working with Hip to Hip is a continuation of that little kid’s obsession — turning the everyday into magic and living in it. I feel if I can enrich the experience of the actors in this company, give them a gown or a doublet to wear that will photograph well, that’s my way of encouraging art to flourish. And as an older actor now, I enjoy the inspiration of working with the cast — I can see it’s all about the sharing of what you know, and learning from one another that makes our work so special and enduring.” Nancy Nichols
Jason and Joy Marr
The longevity and growth of this company is heartening at a time when arts programs are being indiscriminately cut or eliminated. Unlike European syllabuses, those here rarely include the bard until quite late and then as an option. Too many Americans assume the work is stuffy or incomprehensible. Jason and Joy Marr have a true calling, their infectious enthusiasm undiminished by obstacles. Go. Pack a picnic.
Good, my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time…Hamlet
All photos and art courtesy of Hip to Hip
Read Part 1 of Hip to Hip
Opening Title page of the 1623 first folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (Public Domain); Joy and Jason Marr in The Taming of the Shrew
The Comedy of Errors and The Tragedy of Richard II will be presented FREE in repertory at twelve parks from August 2-26. Schedule