Princeton, New Jersey, June 3, 2002.
by Mary Cochrane McIvor
On June 3, 2002, Bill Pullman gave a lecture at the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival Spring Social about his experiences doing free performances of Shakespeare plays outdoors with a group called Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.
Pullman found it exciting to come to Princeton, New Jersey for the first time that night. He was appearing in Edward Albee's "The Goat" on Broadway at the time and gave this lecture the day after "The Goat" won the 2002 Tony award for Best New Play.
Albee had been very vague about the setting for "The Goat" except that it was urban/suburban and the fact that going to the country is what gets Pullman's character Martin into trouble. The costumer for "The Goat" went to Princeton and took snapshots of ordinary people on the streets. Those pictures, used as a reference point to design costumes for "The Goat", were Pullman's first look at Princeton.
Although his talk would be about Shakespeare, Pullman said there would be no mention of quarto editions or the economics of 17th century London. He came to speak that night through working with Anne Reiss (Executive Producer of the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival) when he first came to New York to do "The Goat". Anne's enthusiasm for Shakespeare's plays made Pullman start to think about his own experiences doing free outdoor performances of Shakespeare in Montana.
In 1977 Pullman auditioned for Shakespeare in the Parks and was cast in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" as Proteus and in a Commedia dell'Arte play called "The Servant of Two Masters". (Picture below right: Pullman in red costume.)This company was founded in 1973 at Montana State University. The company has grown and is now in its 30th year. As a touring company, it has different challenges than the Princeton Rep. In its thirty years, Shakespeare in the Parks has played to over half a million people.
The experience of doing Shakespeare outdoors changed Pullman's direction in theater. He believes that people coming together outdoors as part of a community is an important, unique experience for the community. Sometimes the Shakespeare performance was the only event all year round where small ranch communities would come together. There was always a pot-luck dinner. In Princeton that would mean bringing your caterer.
The idea of free Shakespeare performances comes under constant attack in Montana because the people dislike the idea of not charging to make it pay for itself. Pullman said there must be challenges even in Princeton to get the financial support from individuals and corporate sponsors to provide free performances that allow people to come who might otherwise never see theater. He realizes that you have a unique cultural environment at a free performance of a Shakespeare play.
In Montana, Pullman performed in ranching communities and on Indian reservations. One place of special significance was Birney, Montana which is in the middle of the northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The community wanted their performance done on top of Poker Jim Butte, ten miles into a national forest in the middle of nowhere. In spite of the isolation, half an hour before the show, pick-ups started coming and before long there were ranch families, Indians and Hutterites waiting to see the performance.
Pullman described it like this: "It's a really strange and unique blend of people you get when you're in an outdoor Shakespeare situation. And there's nothing more magical than having the elements around you, that challenge of having wind, rain, traffic, and barking dogs. . . .On top of Poker Jim Butte, you can see sometimes as many as three or four weather fronts operating at the same time because you can see hundreds of miles from there. And so you have that kind of excitement of being outdoors and feeling there's some wind coming on and maybe we're gonna have to make some changes if the rain front comes. I don't know how you do it here, but the company manager is the traditionalist. They try to be poker-faced as long as possible, 'Come on. Keep going, keep going. It's not gonna rain.' You have your "shaman of denial" who does the same kind of dance. And then there's always that moment where they go, 'It's not gonna rain.' And then they go: 'OK. Rain speed.' Which to that company means: double-time. You've got to continue doing everything you've been doing physically, but verbally the play has to go now twice as fast so that you can beat the storm system." (Picture below right: Pullman in gold as Proteus in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona".)
Audiences in Montana are so used to sudden rain that they come to performances very well-protected and can wait for the rain to pass. In the worst case, the rain is heavy and doesn't stop, leaving the company to dismantle and stow the set in pouring rain. The company usually had 10-12 actors. That size results in doubling up roles and condensing the play--both traditional in Shakespeare. Pullman learned a lot from those practices and the challenge of being outside.
When Pullman read "The Goat" in October 2001 he was reminded of his time with Shakespeare in the Parks. He had spent fifteen years in the theater before doing movies. In his first meetings with Edward Albee and the director of "The Goat" Pullman realized that, while they wanted an actor known in film and television because "The Goat's" subject matter was so controversial, they were equally worried about whether a film actor could: "Project! which is more than just speaking loudly. It's how you make meaning tell the story . . .with your physical instrument in that kind of environment, when you've got people sometimes two hundred feet away, you've got to project to that back row. You've got to live large and have that kind of, whatever it is that allows you to be read. And, I realized, wow, they're worried about me doing it in this theater--the John Golden Theater. I wish they'd been on top of Poker Jim Butte. The acoustics are challenging there."
Albee and the director had wanted to go to a theater, sit in the last row and see if Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl could indeed project their characters. But they realized that insisting on a reading in those circumstances set the wrong tone when the play was being cast. The experience made Pullman think about the value of his experience doing outdoor theater and the great contribution to theater training such a program makes.
Pullman noted the strangeness of showing these slides from the past on the day after "The Goat's" Tony win. The remoteness of Montana kept productions there on a more basic level. When Pullman directed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" he wondered what the costumes and scenery would be like. He realized that quilting and soft sculpture were popular among the ladies who did the costumes for Shakespeare in the Parks and that the production's design would, and ultimately did, reflect their love of those crafts. (Picture below: Pullman as Peaseblossom in lime green).
Joel Jahnke, Artistic Director of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, provided the slides of the company's productions shown during Pullman's talk. The two men worked together in Shakespeare in the Parks and at Montana State University.
The company used scenery made in parallel flats designed to fit on railroad cars. This mode of transportation was used for touring companies in the United States. Parallels also fit on the U-Haul trailers used by the Montana company. Everything was so basic at the start that Pullman describes it as "working with two boards and a passion." The U-Haul trailer was used for costume changes.
Each community chose the site for their performance. Pullman recalled a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that took place in a forest of cottonwood trees. Cotton pod seeds were flying through the air throughout the performance. While Pullman found this an incredible place to do the play, performing Shakespeare with seeds flying into their mouths did prove very difficult for the actors. Pullman was glad this scenario never repeated itself. Montana's broad expanses of sky with several weather fronts visible at once made a very natural, exciting background for Shakespeare's myriad references to the Earth, England and the cosmos. This type of natural setting has a character unlike anything in a theater setting. Pullman showed a slide of himself wearing aviator sunglasses, getting made up using the rear-view mirror of a truck. (Picture below right) Showing a slide of himself as Proteus in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona", Pullman said that when the actors made an entrance they walked through a makeshift curtain. As the actors entered, the audience got a glimpse of the truck in the back, actors half in and half out of costumes, reading the paper etc.
When Pullman played Proteus, he had to wear tights. He swore he would never do a play again with tights, suede and all the Elizabethean costume stuff. In New York City, the first job as an actor for which he could get an Actors' Equity card involved playing Fear in a play for a children's theater company, and wearing tights. He wore the tights to get his Equity card, determined never to wear them again. In "Spaceballs", the second movie Pullman was cast in, his character wore tights and suede boots in his wedding scene. He feels cursed forever by tights. (See picture below: Pullman in tights as Proteus)
The traveling Shakespeare company encouraged the actors to have lots of skills like singing, sword-fighting and juggling. Sword-fighting was not one of Pullman's skills at the beginning but he came to enjoy it. Skills of this type are great discipline and are not always appreciated outside this type of theater experience. For the company's production of the Commedia play, "The Servant of Two Masters", the director presented the players as a traveling company who came out in a cart and asked the audience if they wanted comedy or tragedy. This allowed all the costumes, beards and hair to look really bad since they were clearly something artificial put on by traveling players. The cart the actors entered in proved itself a real headache for a traveling company. The first time they used the cart, it just collapsed. The director, a cast member, ad-libbed, "Run away, run away", started laughing, and ran backstage.
This type of theater experience helped Pullman learn about the use of physical gestures in acting and helped him realize that the use of the whole body is important in telling the story. Pullman showed a picture of himself being a one-man band with a tambourine played with his knees, a kazoo, and a drum on his back. Pullman also played the title part in Moliere's "The Miser". Shakespeare's comedies and Commedia plays lend themselves to a style of acting full of broad physical comic acting not often seen in modern drama. ( Picture below right: Pullman as the Miser.)
When Pullman directed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for this company, he also played the parts of Peter Quince and Peaseblossom. Pullman contrasted slides of the production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" he directed with a later production by this company done at night with lights and a more elaborate set and costumes.
The last slide shown that night was of Poker Jim Butte where Shakespeare plays are still being performed each summer by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.
Copyright 2002. All rights reserved. Mary Cochrane McIvor.
Pictures copyright 1977, 1978, 1998. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. All rights reserved.
Pictures and logo used with the permission of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks.
Pictures copyright 1977,1978, 1998, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. All rights reserved.
Picture Index b
1 The Two Gentlemen of Verona 1977 - Pullman in gold.
2 The Two Gentlemen of Verona " - Pullman as Proteus with Julia.
3 The Two Gentlemen of Verona " - Pullman entering as Proteus.
4 The Two Gentlemen of Verona " - Pullman as Proteus.
5 The Two Gentlemen of Verona " - Pullman as Proteus with rapier.
6 Bill Pullman - Putting make-up on using truck rear-view mirror.
7 The Two Gentlemen of Verona 1977 - Pullman as Proteus.
8 Bill Pullman - One man band.
9 The Servant of Two Masters 1977 - Pullman in red.
10 The Servant of Two Masters 1977 - Pullman in red.
11 The Servant of Two Masters 1977 - Bill Pullman, character shot.
12 The Miser 1978 - Pullman in white cap as the Miser.
13 The Miser 1978 - Pullman.
14 The Miser 1978 - Pullman.
15 The Miser 1978 - Pullman in white cap.
16 The Miser 1978 - Pullman in white cap.
17 The Miser 1978 - Pullman in white cap.
18 A Midsummer Night's Dream 1978 - Pullman in lime green as Peaseblossom.
19 A Midsummer Night's Dream 1998
20 Bill Pullman - Getting ready to play Peaseblossom.
21 Stage for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks
22 Poker Jim Butte, Birney, Montana