Angry, Angry Actors (and directors.)

Hello, and welcome to another installment of the Animal Fire Blog.  As I write this we’re in our 5th week of Hamlet rehearsals with just another 2 weeks until we open. I hope you’re all getting excited about our up-coming show, I know I am. The cast is doing a lot of terrific work, and I can’t wait until you all get to see their accomplishments. How about sometime around July 19th?

Okay, enough shameless plugging. Time to get down to business. Today I want to talk to you about getting angry.

Let’s face it, making art is tricky stuff. Art is ephemeral, complicated, and usually fairly indescribable. Creating good art usually means having to open yourself up and letting your emotions run close to the surface. Creating art is also very personal, and usually the people who make it are very passionate and opinionated about the process. Now, all of this would be good if impassioned-indescribable-emotional artists were isolated in special rooms, with thick walls, and told to not come out until they’ve got all of the art out of their systems. Except that’s not how it works. Art wants to collaborate, and the art of theater doubly so. So how do we collaborate in volatile situations? How do we throw ourselves into something with full force, but still have enough presence of mind to stay calm and controlled? How, in short, do we collaborate in an emotional environment without getting overly emotional?

Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers. If I did I would be a master of zen, or possibly a master of Prozac. I’ve been fortunate this year to have a wonderfully collaborative group in the cast of Hamlet, a rare group where everyone is respectful and keeps a level head. However, I also think that a little friction in collaboration is a good thing. If someone is advocating for an idea it means they care, and if they care, then they are invested in the work. I want to work with invested artists. I want to work with people who are passionate about what they do, but I also want to be able to work with them without forming a toxic environment. I’ve been in plays where emotions have become over-heated, and I would very much like to avoid plays like that. I think pretty much everyone would, and I want to look at a few ways that can help avoid those kinds of plays.

One of the foremost things I often need to remind myself of is to not take artistic disagreements personally. When collaboration happens often times two artists will have differing options about an artistic choice that has to be made. This is fine and is part of collaboration. The job of the artist is to argue their point and explain why they feel that moving in a particular direction is the best decision. This is exactly what rehearsals are all about. However, I think it’s good to keep in mind that when someone disagrees with your idea that is all they’re actually doing. They’re not attacking you, they’re just trying to make the best possible show they can. Separating your ideas from yourself can be very difficult. It is something I often struggle with it. However, getting upset about it is pointless. You’ll be angry, unfocused, and probably closed off to new ideas for the rest of the day. You also might miss the point where the other person explains their idea in a way that finally drives it home for you, and consequently create something that is less than what it had the potential to be.  I think it helps to remember that the other person ideally has the same goal as you: to make the show better. We all want to do the best work we can, right?

Another thing to keep in mind is that an argument should only be about one point at a time. Dragging up bad feelings about past disagreements doesn’t do any good for anybody. You are collaborating and you are going to have disagreements. This is part of the process, but you can’t hold grudges if you want to collaborate for any extended period of time. Now, collaboration can be very trying. It can feel like you have to defend every single idea you have, and it can sometimes make you tired, flustered, and edgy. And if one person disagrees with you multiple times in rapid succession it can be all too easy to just dismiss them as argumentative. But in doing so you might miss out on an opportunity to make something greater than it is. As soon as you dismiss someone without hearing their ideas you’ve taken away a whole person’s worth of potential away from it. You’ve set yourself up to make a worse show. Even if someone has a hundred bad ideas, and badgers you for ten minutes about each one of them, their one-hundred and first idea could be a gem. It could be the spark that propels the show to greatness. By cutting them off you have only hurt yourself. As difficult as it is, I believe that you have to be able to wipe the slate clean with people after every argument. Let’s assume you skipped my earlier paragraphs and it does get personal and hurtful, if you don’t always give someone the benefit of the doubt then you are not actually collaborating. Collaboration is the heart of theatre.

Now, I should take a moment and clarify something. What I’m talking about avoiding is a type of communication breakdown that happens when collaborative artists become too impassioned about what they’re working on. I think that if people are willing to make concessions and not hold grudges, most problems can be worked out in a professional manner. However, some people are just toxic. Occasionally you will have to work with someone that is just a mean, spiteful asshole. It’s a big world, and it happens. But if you want any success around this type of person you have got to take the higher road. Fighting with them will accomplish nothing but more fighting, and they will hold a grudge.

I’d like to conclude by saying that this is something I have to constantly work at, and it’s hard. But I think that it can bear wonderful fruit in the rehearsal room. If I can help foster a space where no one is afraid to speak their ideas, then the show will always be working with the best ideas in the room. Personally I don’t want to work on a show that does anything less.

Rough Magic.

Today I’m going to head off of the beaten path. I’m going to try to talk about things that are completely without substance.  The unseen, unknown, and the unmeasurable. I want to talk about the special energy that separates normal theatre from the theatre that is transcendent.

Everyone who has enjoyed theatre has a story about it. When the show just felt right. When it moved them. When it was powerful or electric or energizing. It is usually described as being beyond words. An experience felt as a connection between the stage and their own lives. But does that do us any good as theatre artists? Can we craft shows with that level of potential? What should we focus on in order to create theatre that has this unseen power?

That is what I would like to explore today. It is very murky territory, but I think that it is of the utmost importance to explore. I believe that somewhere in this territory lies the best of what live performance has to offer.So today I’m going to describe what it feels like when I see it, what qualities transcendent shows seem to share, and what happened the few times I stumbled into creating such a show. I don’t want to get too deep into creating this energy, that is a topic I think a person could spend a life time on. So I’ll just take the first step by attempting to describe what it is I’m talking about when I say transcendent, and why I think it is so important to seek this type of theatre out.   So first, let’s see if I can describe the un-describable.

When I try and describe what the experience feels like my first sense is that the air feels warmer. It’s a feeling of tension that begins building in the air. An important thing to point out here is that the play suddenly seems louder, like the volume dial has been turned up. This happens because an experience like this tends to affect the entire audience, not just a few individuals, so everyone becomes quieter as they actively focus in on the show.  As this tension builds the sights start to seem crisper, and there is compulsion to watch, absorb, and feel every moment that happens on stage.  There is a sense of communion and shared experience with what is happening on stage, and those emotions feel like they are dialed up to a 10. Sad is sadder, happy is happier, danger more dangerous, and connection is profound. I compare it to the heightened feelings I get during a powerful or important moment during my life, like a graduation, break-up, first kiss, or death of a loved one. During those moments everything seems to be heightened, and it feels like live performance can sometimes awaken that level of feeling within us.  In all the work I create I strive to make performances that can create this energy.

But those are just the feelings it invokes. On stage the characters seem to be living through the most important moments of their lives. Now I don’t want to confuse this with a particularly exiting portion of a play. It’s different than an entertaining sword fight, or a play’s powerful climax. This intensity can happen in the first scene, the quiet scene, and even the most boring of exposition scenes. Something else is happening beyond the script or the play that drives the action. Something the actors are creating onstage makes this quickening of the air. The best way I can describe it is that they seem to be living their lives at 100%. Every inch of them is bent to the task they are focused on, even if it’s as simple and relaxed as trying to make someone they just met smile. What I’m trying to explain is that there doesn’t seem to be an special story or structural formula to why a play becomes compelling, it is something that happens in the performance: Any moment can become transcendent if the performers give of themselves.

But even trying to say that it happens because the actors “give of themselves” is misleading because that is not something you can simply do, or tell someone else to do. So how do we craft with the unseen? Are there ways to create plays that tap into that kind of energy? I want to believe there are, and sometimes I think I’ve found ways to stumble into it, but it’s ephemeral. And it is hard to find: A theatrical snipe hunt.

We’re clearly talking about an extraordinary experience here. An experience that only happens in the most special of productions, and sometimes even on certain nights within a run of a production. How do we find it? I think if you want to have an extraordinary production, you need to have an extraordinary rehearsal period. There needs to be a shaking up of the body and mind. The times I’ve seen actors create this kind of experience during a rehearsal has always been under circumstances that pushed them towards their limits. They have to find a way to push themselves into living on stage in a way that is more heightened than their everyday lives. This is when they can begin to act with the special energy that creates the transcendent. There is a famous story about the Beatles that happened when they were recording the song “Helter Skelter.” According to the story they were having trouble getting their energy and intensity high enough to record the kind of loud, rash, and raucous song that Paul McCartney had in his head. During the final take, and the one that would end up being on the album, the band members were jumping around, shaking, shouting, and George Harrison is said to have lite a fire in an ash tray and run around the studio balancing it on his head. When the papers heard of this story, and asked the band about what they were trying to accomplish, Ringo Starr is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams.”

Now this is all well and good, and I believe that theatre needs to shake out its jams more often. But all the wild exercises in the world will still send you after the unmeasurable. And it twists my gut in knots thinking about how I’m using precious rehearsal time on something that may not pan out. Of course all rehearsal time is precious, and no idea is a sure thing, but this seems to be much more risky. Time spent working on a sword fight, discussing the text and circumstances, or simply giving actors time to try out the scenes and play with different choices will almost always yield positive results during the rehearsal. The fight will be polished, the story will be clearer, and actors will be able to craft more specific interactions. But, how can you justify giving time to the undefinable? Even when I believe that it will create a more compelling and moving performance I struggle with how much time I can afford to spend on it. There is also a delicate balance between the seen and unseen, because in my experience the seen has to be in a very comfortable position before the unseen is attainable. So, even if I wanted to sacrifice scene polish for this magic passion stuff I’m so keen on, I can’t because it won’t exist without a fully formed play to support it! Do you see how this ends up seeming like magic? I feel like I’m trying to explain to a child why Santa won’t come until they fall asleep.

For all my complaining I do believe in this magic. I can feel it when it happens. Others can too, so I can feel safe in not being alone in my delusion. But this is what I think the purpose of performance is. This stuff. This is what I’m trying to create. It’s an energy that pushes against an audience, pulls them in, and electrifies them.

This is important because we get so few moments like this in our lives. We are enervated by such thunderbolts only a scant few times in our lives, and if theatre can give us a few more, than it is something of the highest value. I also believe that you want relevance in theatre, if you want to give people a reason to turn out to shows, then nothing could be more relevant than the gift of an extra hour of pure life.  It’s also something that you cannot film, record, or create in any other form but live performance because part of the experience comes from sharing it with the audience members around you. If theatres could guarantee this kind of experience every time I think there would be much less complaining about $50 ticket prices, and many more theatres.

Alright, that’s enough for one day. I feel like I could discuss this topic for hundreds of pages, and still have more to say. But, I would just be working out ideas that I feel like I may never fully understand. What I want to know is what you all think. Have you felt theatre like this before? Did what I say match with experiences you’ve had? Have you ever found ways to create theatre with this kind of power? Is it repeatable, or is it just a lucky accident that happens with all of the stars align on a particular night?

If you know the answers, I would very much like you to share them.

-Austen A.

A Mirror Up To Nature.

Hello everyone and welcome to our third week of blogs, podcasts, and Shakespeare! We’ve so far been very broad in our discussions, but today I would like to start honing in onto some more nuts and bolts aspects of Shakespeare. One of the things I want to do with this blog is to highlight specific lines from the text of Hamlet that I find particularly fascinating. Often there is a disconnect between watching a production of Shakespeare and reading the text of Shakespeare. I hope that by taking a little time to delve into specific points of interest in the text you can walk away from the show having better enjoyed the performance, and understand a little bit more about why a good number of us have such a strong regard for Shakespeare’s works.

Today I want to talk to you about a small portion of a speech that Hamlet gives to a troupe of actors right before they put on a performance of a play. Hamlet has some words of advice for the actors, and tries to give a summary of why he thinks theatre is important:

“…Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this

special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For

anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both

at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up

to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,

and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Interesting? Moving? Gibberish? Depending on your familiarity with the play and the text it could strike you as any combination of the three.  I’d like to go through the text carefully, line by line, to help illuminate what I find so special about this passage of less than 100 words.

“..Suit the action to the word, the word to the action…”

This is one of the most famous lines in the entirety of Hamlet. In fact, this particular phrase has often been cited  as one of the best pieces of advice ever written for actors. I don’t want to get into trying to defend such huge statements, but I do want to clarify what I think it means and why I think it has value. If I were to summarize it into a more modern way of speaking I would say that when you are acting you should make sure that what you are saying is in line with what you are doing.  In my mind it means that you should make sure that the choices you make as an actor, the way you say your lines, interact with other characters, and choose your motivations, reflect the actions and words of the character you’re playing.  Here is a very simplified example: Let’s say you’ve been cast as Homer Simpson in a stage version of The Simpsons. As most of us know Homer loves doughnuts. He is constantly telling other characters how much he loves doughnuts. In the script there are stage directions that when ever Homer finally gets to eat a sweet, sweet doughnut he makes sounds of joy and ecstasy as he chews.  So, I think we can agree that it would be pretty unsettling if you choose to portray Homer Simpson as a man who actually doesn’t like doughnuts, and even more horrifying if you chose to make noises of disgust whenever he ate a doughnut. 

See where this is going?

Shakespeare’s advice is to simply take what the script gives you and run with it. There are tone of exceptions and nuances to this advice, but I think at its core it is reminding us not to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes everything you need is staring you right in the face.

“…with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.”

In this Shakespeare seems to be advocating a naturalistic style of acting. I think it’s pretty straightforward, asking that you take your cues from how to act from nature. It’s not the only method, and sometimes different forms of performance can call for different styles. I think this part is more important in how it sets up the next passage of text.

“…For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing…”

It’s important to note here that playing means acting or performing. What I gather from this is that he lists the ways he thinks good acting is carried out, make what your character says and does in line with your performance and take your cues for how your portray characters from real life, and then says that not doing those things misses out on the whole purpose of acting. which is…

“…whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up

to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,

and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Alright, now we’re in the meat of our subject. This is what Shakespeare thought the point of theatre was from it’s very beginnings right up until when he wrote it (“both at the first and now”).  Theatre’s purpose, he says, is to let us see a reflection of how life is, in order that we can have a better understanding of our own lives. We can see if our virtues are actually virtues, see if the things we scorn are worthy of that scorn, and take a hard look at the age and time we’re living in. This is powerful stuff, and I think that any play that tries to accomplish these goals would be well on their way to producing a very powerful piece of theatre. I also hope that we can all agree that the best theatre is the kind that gives us some insight into our own lives, and makes us think about ourselves in a new way.

Now I know that you can find a lot of what I just said in any of the thousands of books written about Shakespeare. If you want an easy to understand modernization of the text, you can look at’s No Fear Shakespeare. If you want an in-depth description of the history and context of the speech in relation to the time it was originally composed in, I would recommend the Hamlet section of Isaac Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare. Or, if you want a great scholarly and critical analysis of the value of Shakespeare’s words I have personally found a lot of joy in Harold Bloom’s The Invention Of The Human. What I’m trying to say is that I am of course not the first person to point out any of this, and am rehashing things that have been written about for over 400 years. So why do it?

Firstly I think that there is value in putting my own thoughts into words. Even if they’ve been said before, they haven’t been said in exactly the same way that I’m going to say them. Maybe my crude metaphor involving Homer Simpson is the final poke that pushes just the right button in someone’s brain that they set off on their journey to become the greatest actor the world has ever seen. I know that it would certainly stoke my ego to think so. Maybe my words can hit someone in a slightly different way from all of the others, and that is the way that helps them finally connect with the passage. Or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever read about this passage and I can at least get you interested enough in Shakespeare to turn you on to better writers than myself.

In a way, the whole thing strikes me as a metaphor for why we still continue to produce and perform Shakespeare after all these hundreds of years, especially in our modern era when there so many fine film productions of his plays. Why continue to do it? Why try to do something hundreds of others have done before, and probably done very well? I think the value in producing it are the same as the values I found in writing about it. The idea that hopefully some small difference in the way I see the story, or the way the actors portray the characters will strike a chord with the audience. No matter how many productions of Hamlet there have been, or ever will be, none of them will ever be like the one we’re doing right now. And if we can even find one moment that helps to hold a mirror up to someone’s nature, I think we will have been a success.

Airborne Weaponized Poetry

Well, here we are. I’ve made it through the first week of Hamlet rehearsals. I shouldn’t really say “made it through” like it was a trying trek through the jungle. The first week of rehearsal is usually one of the most enjoyable for a director, as I finally get to hear the team I’ve assembled start speaking the words that I have spent so much time in studying and preparing.

However, today I want to talk to you about what happens when those same words struck me as a surprise. When I heard them, and was completely unprepared for what they would do. Today I want to tell you about the day when I decided I had to direct Hamlet.

The story starts two years ago after I had just finished directing Macbeth in Priest Point Park. At the time I was feeling very down. The rehearsal process for Macbeth had been very trying, it was like a trek through the jungle, and I was at the point after a hard journey where I wasn’t sure what the next step was. It was at that time I received an e-mail from North Thurston High School English teacher Kirsten Bennett. Kirsten, who teaches Shakespeare at NTH to her Juniors and Seniors, had liked Macbeth, and wondered if I would be interested in coming in and working with them for a day. They were working on Macbeth, so it seemed like a pretty natural fit. I came in, fully expecting to have to spend 55 minutes talking to them about a play I was feeling pretty burned out about. I was not thrilled, but I was about to be surprised.

It turns out that Kirsten is not what I would have thought of as a normal English teacher. As soon as I got there she had her students on their feet performing scenes from the play. She asked me if I could coach them to help them better understand what they were saying. Coaching actors? Attempting to make Shakespeare active? Speaking over analyzing?

I realized that I had found a kindred spirit with Kirsten.

So, I rolled up my sleeves, washed away all of my mopey thoughts about the play, and dove in.  And I had a blast. We spent the whole day playing, trying out the text, and seeing if it could help the characters accomplish their goals. Pushing and poking other characters with 400-year-old words. At the end of it, I felt completely re-invigorated. All of a sudden, I loved Macbeth again.

So, what does all of this have to do with Hamlet?  A year later I was asked to come back, and this year she was teaching Hamlet.  We worked on the same things; we broke down the text, and tried to use it in the smallest digestible chunks we could. I remember spending 10 minutes with a student trying to make Hamlet’s line, “You are a fishmonger” into the meanest, nastiest insult man had ever come up with. We took small snippets and tried to give each line its due weight, and I marveled as these young, ambivalent towards Shakespeare high schoolers found an amazing level of activity within the text. In the course of 55 minutes they showed me how Hamlet could be snappy, biting, nurturing, forgiving, and mean. I loved the mean. I loved how across the span of hundreds of years, these students could still recognize when someone was being insulting. The play came alive, and I was an amazing thing to see.

I realized that this is why I love Shakespeare, and acting in general. I love when words are realized as tools. I love that symbols on a page can represent a struggle, and show conflict. I think when properly read Shakespeare can be compared to a play-by-play breakdown of a boxing match, just as easily as it is compared to great poetry. It just takes a little digging , but less than you think. The students had reminded me that each of these characters wanted something, and were using their words to get them. Hamlet has beautiful words. Words that move us, make us think, and are in fact so powerful and memorable that they have warped our very language around them. But it’s when they are weapons, when two actors are playing the game inherit in them, that I think they are at their most powerful. When we can see the human in the words, and recognize the struggle the speaker is going through, that’s when I get really excited.

So that’s when I decided to do Hamlet. I figure that if a group of seventeen-year-olds can create something as moving as what I saw in 55 minutes, then the sky is the limit for what a dedicated group might do with several weeks. We’ll see if I’m right.

-Austen A.

What blogs may come…

Welcome to the Animal Fire blog. I’ll start by answering the big question on your mind. What is the Animal Fire blog? The simple answer is that it’s an online diary of Animal Fire Theatre’s activity. However, I hope that I can show you that it’s much more than a simple blog.

For starters, the blog is just a cog in a bigger machine we’ll be building this summer. Three times a week we will deliver immersive content, not just about our current production of Hamlet, but insight into the thought process of theatre as artists, creators, and watchers. Not only will we show you an in depth look at how we put on Shakespeare in the park, we’ll also share our broad thoughts on why we do theatre. We want a chance to tell you what excites us about theatre, the methods of how it’s made, and through this process we hope to better understand why we do it ourselves.

Animal Fire blog will also provide you with a sounding board for what we’re doing and saying. We want to start a broad discussion with everyone who makes, watches, and enjoys theatre. We’ll have an online call and response where we can all bounce ideas off of each other. Do you make theatre? Tell us what you think about what we’re making. Do you watch theatre? Tell us what you think about what we’re showing you. Did you only find us because you thought Animal Fire sounded like the biggest natural rights violation since the gulf oil spill? Tell us all about it!

All right, that’s a pretty broad statement of purpose. Let’s get into the specifics of what we’re actually going to be doing, and how you can be a part of it.


You’re reading it right now, but this is just an introduction. Every Monday I’ll post a new article about what I’ve been thinking, or trying to understand in relation to the work I’ve been doing. Maybe it’s the break down of a struggle I’ve been having during a scene rehearsal.  Or it might be a harrowing tale about how difficult it is to find a decent wad of flash paper in this town. Or, possibly, it’ll be my thoughts on a particular line of Shakespeare that has been rattling around my brain all week. All I can promise is that I’ll try to tell give you an insight into the brain of the people who create the shows you see, and that I want to hear your thoughts on all of it. There may also be a few special guest articles as well. Keep your eyes out for those.


Every Wednesday we’ll post a new podcast featuring a mix of Animal Fire Theatre members, the cast of Hamlet, and other passionate theatrical types. Part roundtable discussion, part radio talk show, and part PR debacle, this show will be comprised of riffing on our thoughts about the work we do, and the work we wish we could be doing. If you haven’t heard a group of actors who are three beers in argue about what era to best-set King Lear in, you haven’t lived. We’ll also have a rotating door of special guests to keep things interesting. Ever wonder what keeps an Artistic director up late at night? How a fight choreographer puts together a fight? What stage managers really think about the people they manage? This is the place to find out, and we want to hear your thoughts and questions while we’re at it.


Finally, every Friday, we’ll be posting a set of images, showing you what we worked on the week before. These will include preliminary costume shots, before and after stage photos, and compromising pictures of actors eating poorly. We want to give you a broad insight into how we spend our adult summer vacations. To that, we’re going to add a good-sized helping of videos. We want to show you what an actorthinks right before she walks into her big scene, candid thoughts after an intensely physical exercise, or just how badly amateur carpenters can miss with a hammer. We also have some ideas involving a P.O.V. Video camera and sword fights that are not for the feint of heart.

So, why do all this? Am I just trying to rev an online campaign into overdrive in a bid to get more butts in seats? Well, admission to the show is free, so besides stoking my ego that doesn’t really accomplish much. And, incidentally, we don’t have seats. What I would rather do is create a deeper connection with the audience that comes to our shows, and to anyone interested in theatre. To find a way to open communication between the theatre watcher and the theatre doer in a way that is engaging, informative, and entertaining. I would rather have an audience of twenty excited and opinionated audience members than twenty thousand random passers-by who happened to see a poster for “Free Shakespeare in the Park.” I would also rather use this great big behemoth of an Internet we have to start getting our late night talks and inspirations out of the bars, and into the heads of people who are interested and passionate about the same things we are. In the end we do this because it makes us feel something special and we want to find people to share that with.

So, let me welcome you to our great theatre discussion experiment. We have a whole bag of surprises in store to keep you entertained this summer, and I truly hope you can all find ways to surprise us back.


Austen Anderson

Announcing Hamlet!

Animal Fire Theatre is thrilled to announce its summer production of Hamlet!


“Murder most foul, as in the best it is…”

A young prince loses his father, watches as his uncle usurps him by marrying his mother and taking the throne before him, and learns the secret of how all of this came to pass from a dead man’s lips. How will he find his revenge? What will it cost him?

There is also a very funny bit involving a gravedigger and a skull.

Of course you already knew all that because this is Shakespeare’s best known play, and possibly the most well-known piece of literature in the English language. It’s a meditation on death, a treatise on existence,  and an overwhelming symphony on what shapes our lives as human beings.  Join us in rediscovering why this story has been helping us understand what-it-all-means for over 400 years.

Shows run July 19-22, 26-30, and August 2-5 in Priest Point Park. All shows are at 7 P.M.