Category Archives: Her Majesty’s Will

Inside HER MAJESTY’S WILL Part Three: Chicago’s Shakespeare

Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.

By David Blixt

Her Majesty’s Will was born because I needed a good laugh.

In Spring 2009 I was in Washington DC, performing in the re-mount of the Goodman’s King Lear starring Stacy Keach, directed by Bob Falls. I’m proud of that show, and it’s deservedly famous. But it was pretty damn dark.

My writing world was pretty dark, too. I’d just finished a draft of a novel called Colossus about the Roman/Jewish wars of the first century. Now in DC, I was rooming with my old pal Steve Pickering, whom I was helping with an adaptation of the grisly sci-fi novella Diamond Dogs.

Man, I needed a laugh. So I thought I’d write one.

Now, all my stories are inspired by gaps. Negative space. Holes in stories we think we know. I started my first novel, The Master Of Verona, to explore the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud. Colossus was the space between the death of Christ and the birth of Christianity.

To me, one great unexplored gap was Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’, the eight years after he left Stratford but before he appeared as a playwright.

I’d read Stephen Greenblatt’s fantastic Will In The World. I’d also read Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. On a lark I picked up Elizabeth’s Spy Master, Robert Hutchinson’s biography of Sir Francis Walsingham. And all at once I had my story.

The inspiration went like this:
Marlowe was a spy. What if Shakespeare was a spy?
What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were spies together?
What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were spies together, and really bad at it?

Suddenly it was a Hope-Crosby Road Movie starring young Shakespeare and young Marlowe, brilliantly bumbling their way through a world of Elizabethan espionage. Only there was no need for a love interest, because Marlowe would be chasing Will the whole time! And Will? Well, read his body of work (especially his sonnets) and you get a sense that he was, shall we say, a lover of the world?

For the story I settled on The Babington Plot, the trap that sent Mary, Queen of Scots to the axe. Thanks to a chance meeting with a ‘dark lady’, our hero Will is dragged by the wily Kit into a ridiculous plot to save Queen Elizabeth that ends with them being hunted by Catholic rebels, Spanish agents, London scum, and Elizabeth’s own men!

As I wrote, I set myself a challenge – I was not allowed to contradict anything in the historical record. Everything I wrote had to fit the facts as we know them. More, my cast had to be real people – not the nobility, whom we see depicted all the time. No, I wanted the thieves, villains, and fools of London, the dregs of society. You know – theater people.

The first chapters wrote themselves, and Steve posted them on his Shanghai Low blog. Then Lear ended, I went home, and the project was shelved for a couple years. Which seems to be how I work – I’ll write the first third of a novel, then leave it to stew for years before coming back and finishing it in a rush.

In 2011, once more in need of a good laugh, I dusted off the manuscript and finished it in three delight-filled months. In addition to laughing, I found myself crafting a couple moments of heartfelt honesty. All an author can hope for.

That summer was my wife Janice’s second year as the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. She hired Robert Kauzlaric to direct the MSF’s production of Tartuffe, a decision that was equal parts shrewd business and fond nostalgia. We had first met Rob in a production of Tartuffe at City Lit, where Jan, Rob, Rob’s wife Elise, and I had shared the stage with Don Bender, as well as the late and sorely-missed Page Hearn and Will Schutz, all under the direction of Kevin Theis. It was one of ‘those’ shows, the ones where you delight both your audiences and yourselves. Jan and I discovered part of our Chicago theater family in that production. Years later Elise and I would both be in the Goodman’s Lear.

Rob, of course, was a longtime ensemble member and playwright at Lifeline Theatre. After a couple years at MSF, Jan made him an Artistic Associate there too. Each February they road trip to Detroit for auditions, and on the car ride they play Pinky and the Brain, plotting the takeover of the world. Or so I imagine.

Four years ago, out of thin air, Rob said, “I’d love to adapt one of David’s books, but they’re all so epic! I just don’t see doing them justice.”

Jan replied with a laugh. “Have you read Her Majesty’s Will?”

He hadn’t. He did. The moment he closed the cover he pitched it to his fellow ensemble members at Lifeline.

Which is how, eight years after my desire to laugh, Her Majesty’s Will is poised to bring a laugh to a world in desperate need of one. It feels like serendipity. Stacy Keach is once more in town to collaborate with Bob Falls. The audiobook of Colossus came out last fall, read by Brian Gill, who was also in that Lear. Just a few months ago the House produced Diamond Dogs, starring Christopher Hainsworth – the director of Her Majesty’s Will. Don Bender, who was in that long-ago Tartuffe, is playing Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Spy-Master.

And me? I was astonished when Lifeline asked me to direct the fights for the show. I immediately called Hainsworth and said, “Chris, you don’t really want me in the room, do you? The author?”

“No,” replied Hainsworth. “I want you the fight director. Because the author saddled us with a lot of fights.” He paused. “We’re keeping the bear-baiting.”

“I’m in.”

He wasn’t kidding about the number of fights in Her Majesty’s Will. Rob has kept every fight from the novel, which means there are nine distinct sections of combat, most involving four or more people. Each night before the show the actors have a fight call to prepare. Even for violence-heavy shows, most fight-calls last fifteen minutes. The fight call for HMW lasts forty.

Chris gave over the first whole week of rehearsal to choreographing the violence. Which meant I had to hit the ground running.

Being a fight director on a comedy is always an interesting challenge. Like every other aspect of a play, violence is best when it tells a specific story. In a drama or tragedy, that’s fairly straightforward. But in a comedy, it’s about finding the right balance of tone. As they say, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

One example – in Act One of HMW, there’s a nine-person tavern brawl. For the first iteration of the fight, I leaned hard into the comedy (one actor was making himself a sandwich while sword-fighting). After a week or so, Chris decided it wasn’t quite the right story – we had lost threat of the villains. So, with just a few adjustments, the fight became more desperate. There’s still humor, but the threat remains palpable. The fight maintains the tension, while the laughs burst in to briefly relieve it.

A lot of which is due to the actors more than me. Many excellent fight directors come in with all the moves mapped out in advance. I prefer to see what the actors bring to it. No two people move the same. Every actor has their own set of skills, and the best fights capitalize on them to tell the story.

Then there’s the fun of working on a new script. As Chris has watched the show take shape, he’s added or subtracted elements of the violence to better tell his story. Meanwhile Rob’s been altering the script, in some cases with major revisions, as the needs of this story become clearer. Often fights changed for the script, or for tech, or simple clarity. But every once in a while it went the other way, the fights birthing a few new lines, and even one running joke. It’s great having that much flexibility and collaborative spirit in the room, where every idea is valued. Until it comes time to murder your darlings.

Thus I’ve had the unique experience of being part of the process all the way along. Rob kept the script out of my hands for as long as he could – at the fight auditions the actors had read more of the play than I had – but I can say with honesty I’m delighted. Rob and Chris and the ensemble have crafted a fast-moving, hilarious romp through the ribald underbelly of Elizabethan theater, so like Chicago’s own.

And in between the laughs, there are a few moments of heartfelt honesty. All an author can ask for.

From page to stage

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

Caution: This blog post may contain spoilers if you are not familiar with the book Her Majesty’s Will by David Blixt.

In the blog post Inside Her Majesty’s Will Part One: Adapting the Novel Robert Kauzlaric started to address some of the challenges of adapting the novel for the stage, particularly the adding of a Chorus to help share Will’s inner thoughts with the audience. As is often the case with adapting a novel, this was only one of many changes that occurred between the page and stage. Many factors play into what stays and what gets left behind, but luckily author David Blixt was understanding and supportive of the process of bringing these characters and their story to the live theatre. Outlined below are a few such things to look out for if you are already familiar with Blixt’s version of the story – along with some historical tidbits as well.

Due to the practicalities and casting for this show, a few characters were cut before the script even made it to the rehearsal room. Many were minor characters that our young heroes come across in passing. For example, in the book Dick Tarlton is accompanied by his protégé, Robert Armin, who was in fact his successor both on the stage and in court, but he has been omitted from the play since he doesn’t significantly impact the story. Walter Williams, Walsingham’s “right hand man” in the book, was consolidated into the character of Phelippes in the play to avoid confusion among Walsingham’s minions and to create a more solidified character for a certain twist in the story. Although both were in Sir Francis’ employ, Phelippes is the more noted of the two as Walsingham’s cryptographer and forger and he played the larger part in the plot against Mary Stuart. The interaction with the local bumbling sheriff was also cut since it stalled the momentum of the play at a point where it needed to focus on other developments.

The two most notable absences in the play are of Thomas Watson and Shakespeare’s father. Watson was one of the famed “University Wits,” an informal group of university-educated dramatists in the 1580s that immediately preceded Shakespeare’s writing fame. They never referred to themselves by this name, but were given it as historians tried to identify some of the most important pre-Shakespearian influences. While Watson plays an important part in deciphering Kit’s coded message in the book, his presence is absent from the play (although many of his contributions toward moving the plot forward survive in the mouths of the other Wits). His name, however, is mentioned so as not to be forgotten as a contributor to this lively bunch of men. Shakespeare’s father is an influential, but complicated character in the book – one that drives much of Will’s actions, though he is only seen briefly near the end of the story. All the factors that drive Will from his home that are tied to his father – his father’s drinking, his decent into poverty, and family shame – are present in the stage version, but their complicated relationship is conveyed to the live audience by Will’s father’s intentional absence.

Condensing a novel to a stage production also means that time constraints make it necessary to pare the story down to its base elements, therefore quite a few fun and beloved plot points get glossed over as opening night of the production looms near. During this process there were structural changes that happened before rehearsals began, but there were also moments that the production team really did try to include in the stage performance, but alas ended up on the cutting room floor. This is particularly true for the two instances of betrayal that happen in Blixt’s book.

The first betrayal was between Kit and Will when Kit leverages his knowledge of Will’s background to Sir Francis Walsingham. The play moves at such a quick pace, covering only about a week (compared to multiple weeks in the book), that there wasn’t enough time to address the aftermath of such an event, nor to earn the subsequent reconciliation.

The second betrayal was by Em Ball. While it added complexity and an obstacle for our heroes to overcome in the book (and nodded to the historic Em’s reputation), it played against some of Kauzlaric’s hopes for the character on stage. He wanted Em to be an equal part of the troop that hangs out with the Kit at the White Hart, capable of holding her own with the educated men and full of her own valiant desire to save her queen. Aware of the limited representation that women have in this play, Kauzlaric felt it was important to show a brave, loyal, and proactive woman of the lower classes.

There were smaller bits that were lost along the way as well. For example, horse-stealing shenanigans were included in the play until rehearsals were moved into the playing space, as was the suggestion of a past relationship between Kit and Hank Evans. Scenes like the performance of The Spanish Tragedie, the Wits’ debate over England’s greatest king (or queen), and Kit and Will’s extensive travels have been cut significantly since the first draft. Also, while a working draft of the play at one time contained allusions to (nearly) all of Shakespeare’s plays, due to cuts and changes, many had to be lost along the way. There are still quite a few to be found for the attentive audience member.

Although these changes and omissions could be viewed as a loss to the story Blixt originally conceived, it is important to remember that literature and performance are very different mediums. While one structure and pace is better suited to the page, the essence and spirit of the tale is still alive and well in the staged version. We hope you bear this in mind as you “gently hear and kindly judge our play.”

Meeting the (historical) players

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

In the delightful world created by David Blixt in Her Majesty’s Will, from which Robert Kauzlaric’s play is adapted, the rich and colorful characters stand out among the descriptive writing. Perhaps the reason these characters feel so alive and fleshed out is because they were all based on real life nobles, playwrights, and rogues (with the exception of two smaller characters, Rookwood and Higgins). Although Blixt admits that he took certain liberties with historical accuracy and filled in many blanks with his own fancy, he sees this more as a “bending of the truth” rather than ever outright breaking it. True to the spirit in which the book was written, Kauzlaric’s play features and highlights many of the real life personalities Blixt introduced to us.

Here’s a run-down of the historic characters and what are known to be the facts of their lives. Let’s meet our players.

Kit Marlowe
Born just a few months before William Shakespeare, Marlowe’s flamboyant and unpredictable nature was legendary. His schooling at Cambridge was riddled with speculation and mysterious extended absences that led to the rumors that he was working for Sir Francis Walsingham as a spy. He was only allowed to receive his degree after the Privy Council sent a letter in his defense citing an unspecified service for Her Majesty, the queen. In London, he associated with contemporary writers, wrote plays, and was credited as the leader of what would eventually be called University Wits. He would go on to become one of the leading tragedians of his day and one of Shakespeare’s most important predecessors. His play, Tamburlaine, is among the first of English plays to be written in blank verse. It, along with The Spanish Tragedy, is considered the beginning of the mature phase of Elizabethan theatre. His plays are known for their overreaching protagonists and broadly heroic themes, but he also displayed dexterity with the ability to approach great tragedy from multiple, complex perspectives. His reputation as a playwright was undeniable, but his personal life was complicated. Later in life, Marlowe was formally accused of being a heretic and a sodomite, which were both punishable by death in Elizabethan England.

John Lyly
Lyly graduated from Oxford and became the private secretary to Edward de Vere, a significant patron of the arts. During this time he earned a reputation as a noted wit. Both of his novels, Euphues, or The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its sequel, Euphues and his England (1580), were immediately popular and for a while Lyly was one of the most fashionable and successful writers in England. He was known for his comedic prose, lively dialogue, and precise use of word placement. These traits of his writing are seen as a primary influence on Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Lyly later turned his attention to playwriting in an attempt to get appointed as the Master of Revels (who reviewed all the plays prior to performance in Elizabethan England).

Robert Greene
Greene was one of the earliest English writers to support himself at a time professional authorship was virtually unknown. A graduate of Cambridge and awarded and honorary degree from Oxford, Greene was an early adversary of Shakespeare due to his lack of formal education. (He actually called Shakespeare an “upstart cow” in one of his published works.) In his personal life, however, Greene associated with a slew of underground criminals, whom he often wrote about in his commercial pamphlets. Cutting Ball, a notorious cut-purse was a supposed close friend and his sister, Em Ball, was rumored to have been Green’s mistress and mother of his son. His writing displays a fantastic linguistic capability, grounded in the extensive knowledge of the classics combined with contemporary understanding of modern languages.

Helena of Snakenborg
Helena was a Swedish noblewoman who came to England on a state visit with Princess Cecilia. Queen Elizabeth and Helena developed a friendship despite their difference in age, and she appointed Helena as a Maid of Honor in her court and later as a gentlewoman in the privy chamber (an attendant to the queen in her private quarters). Helena became one of Queen Elizabeth’s most intimate and trusted aides, often controlling access to the queen. With her marriage and the subsequent death of her husband, Helena inherited the title of Marchioness, making her the fourth senior peeress in the country, behind the queen’s cousins. After her second marriage, Helena became the queen’s deputy, often attending baptisms of noble’s children and other lesser ceremonial events in the queen’s stead. She was also the chief mourner at the queen’s funeral procession.

Sir Francis Walsingham
Walsingham was born into a well-connected family of gentry and attended good schools. Along with hundreds of Protestants, he went into exile after the coronation of Mary I and lived abroad studying law in Italy and becoming fluent in Italian and French. After his return to England, Waslingham entered into the service of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s principle secretary, performing confidential tasks for the minister. He soon took over a small network of secret agents Cecil had established and was appointed to the Privy Council. He was made a principle secretary. As secretary, he handled all royal correspondence to foreign ambassadors and determined the agenda of council meetings. He wielded great influence in all matters of policy and in every field of government. Queen Elizabeth clearly valued his loyalty, dedication to her security, and unvarnished counsel. Notoriously sparing with her honors for public servants, Walsingham was one of the few exceptions and was knighted in 1577.

Walsingham is best known for his legacy as the creator of an extensive intelligence network. He employed double agents, informants, experts on codes and ciphers, experts in the art of lifting a wax seal so a letter could be opened undetected, and he promoted covert propaganda, disinformation, and agents provocateurs as he sought to gather and master as much information as possible concerning government administration, economics, and practical politics at home and abroad. He secured his informants through bribery, veiled threats, and subtle psychological gambits. He often paid for intelligence with his own money. His network of spies and informants that spanned France, Scotland, the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and even Turkey and North Africa. Walsingham was and continues to be seen as a pioneer in intelligence methods and as a seminal figure in the British secret service. His wide-ranging education and experience mixed with his psychological shrewdness were perfectly suited for this role. He would use this network to spend nearly 20 years trying to bring down Mary Stuart, whom he saw, along with the Spanish, as the biggest threat to the English crown.

John Savage
John Savage served in the Army of the Duke of Parma and was a courageous and zealous Roman Catholic. When he met a few conspirators of the Babington Plot, he volunteered his services, proving to be a valuable ally. He was one of the six nominated to assassinate Queen Elizabeth so that Mary could take the crown and he swore an oath to do so.

Sir Thomas Lucy
A knighted noble, Lucy sat two sessions of Parliament, was a justice of the queen’s peace, and an ardent hunter of recusants (Catholic dissenters). He became high sheriff of the Warwickshire in 1586. Shakespeare is said to have later satirized him in Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor with the character of Justice Shallow.

Thomas Phelippes
Phelippes was a linguist with a genius for deciphering letters, recruited by Walsingham. He could speak French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and German and attended Walsingham’s spy school that taught cipher and forgery among other things. Phelippes soon became Walsingham’s assistant and England’s first cryptanalyst. He also created forgeries and gathered secret correspondence. He is most remembered for his forgery of the “bloody postscript” that ensnared Mary Stuart in the end. Later in life Phelippes’ employment with the government was sporadic and he struggled with debt, but even in prison he was sometimes sent coded letters to decipher by William Cecil.

Gilbert Gifford
Gilbert was a Catholic double agent who played a significant role in the Babington Plot. He came from a well-known Catholic family in Staffordshire. He was admired in school for his intellectual abilities, but was perceived to have a deceitful character and was later expelled due to unknown circumstances. While abroad in France, he met John Savage, who was embroiled in the plot against Queen Elizabeth and who vowed to carry out her assassination. Shortly thereafter he returned to England, was arrested, and turned by Walsingham to serve as a double agent. Back in Paris, he got a letter of recommendation to place him in Mary Stuart’s household and to set the wheels in motion for her entrapment. Over the next few months he made many visits between Paris and England and became well acquainted with other Catholic co-conspirators. Before the plot came to fruition, he fled England and both sides suspected him of treachery, and his true loyalties were never quite certain.

Dick Tarlton
Richard Tarlton was an English actor, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite court jester, and the most popular comedic actor of his time. He is credited as the creator of the “stage yokel” and was known for his ability to improvise dialogue in and around a script. His jests were thought to have an aggressive and subversive wit about them, ready to take on authority figures, even the queen. He was known for being the first jester to study natural fools and simpletons to add to character performance. He was also an experienced fencer, a decent singer, and a dancer. During performances it was said that he only needed to poke his head out from behind the curtain in order to make the audience laugh. He also policed the hecklers and caught them with a cutting rhyme if he found them to be disruptive. After the shows, he performed bawdy song-and-dance extra-theatrical pieces and enjoyed staying to match wits with the crowd. On top of all this he was also an accomplished playwright for the Queen’s Men, although none of his plays survived. Tarlton was immensely popular with both the court and the lower classes during his lifetime and his was genius was undisputed. His performances were thought to be inspiration for Shakespeare’s Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the court jester Yorick in Hamlet.

Cutting Ball
Cutting Ball was a notorious cutpurse and thief of the Elizabethan age. He was the brother to Em Ball who was the mistress to Robert Greene. Greene was said to have employed Cutting Ball as a bodyguard at one time or another. Greene also wrote much about the London underworld, probably inspired by his time with Cutting Ball and Em. Cutting Ball was rumored to have been a friend of Shakespeare and Marlow as well.

Em Ball
Em Ball was a prostitute and most likely the sister of Cutting Ball. In history she is remembered as “a woman of a very bad reputation” and one of ill repute who is a footnote aside two famous men. Em Ball may have shared a home in Holywell Street in Shoreditch with Richard Tarlton at the end of his life (or he may have simply taken refuge with her when he fell ill) since that is where he died in 1588. She was also believed to be the mistress of Robert Greene and lived with him later in life. They are rumored to have a son named Fortunatus together.

Robert Dibdale
Dibdale was an English Catholic priest and eventually a martyr. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon to a Catholic family. He went to Rome and then to college in France before returning to England. Immediately on his entry into the country he was arrested and imprisoned. Once released, he returned to France for his ordination. Using an alias, he became a chaplain in a private manor in Buckinghampshire until he was arrested again. Given the 1585 Act making it a capital offence to be an ordained Catholic priest in England, he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. He and two other priests were beatified in 1987.

Henry Evans
Evans was a scrivener (clerk or scribe) and a theatrical producer. He was responsible for the Children of the Chapel and the Children of Paul’s at Blackfriars and then the head of the Earl of Oxford’s Boys at court. He is described by historians as “unsavory” and “devious”.

Huffing Kate
A real figure as far as accounts that appear in the published Tarlton’s Jests: And News Out of Purgatory, but there is little other evidence about her life at the time.

Blacke Davie
A real figure as far as accounts that appear in the published Tarlton’s Jests: And News Out of Purgatory, where he appears in a sword fight with the famous Tarlton, but there is little other evidence about his life at the time.

Inside HER MAJESTY’S WILL Part Two: Designing the Elizabethan Era for a Modern Audience

Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.

By Aly Renee Amidei

As a ‘repeat offender’ designer at Lifeline, my biggest costuming challenge is usually the same: Lifeline plays have tons of characters…obscene amounts of characters. A cast of ten actors might be playing one hundred different characters. So, so many characters. When we produce an ambitious play with a small cast, distinguishing between multiple characters becomes a team challenge for the costume designer and the actor. When the additional obstacles of budget, space, blocking, and time are factored in, sometimes the only indication between one character and the next comes down to a single garment or costume prop. Sometimes the character shift can be as simple as a cape or as silly as a peg leg. Often the humble eye patch is the most elegant solution to this peculiar problem. But you can only get away with one eye patch in a show unless pirates are involved. Yarrr. So what to do?

Costume designer Rosemary Ingham likens designers to “crime scene detectives” searching for clues about characters which become the basis for the costume designs. Factoring in demands from countless sources, a costume designer fashions the external ‘body’ of a character; something that requires an impressive understanding of costume history, literature, art history, theatre, clothing construction, anthropology, human psychology, and the finer points of glue gun operation. I read the script, identify the problems to solve, and then come up with a plan that satisfies both the artistic goals and the logistical challenges for the production.

My strategy for costuming Her Majesty’s Will employs several tactics I have found successful in previous shows. The majority of the cast begins in a neutral ‘base’ costume: a poofy shirt, black breeches, and tall boots. This is the Elizabethan equivalent of ‘jeans and a t-shirt’. Upon this base costume, the actor can add pieces to indicate each specific character that he plays. This allows me to both focus my construction time and limited budget on creating a few specialized costume pieces for characters which require a more complete look and then allowing a ‘gesture’ of a costume to clue the audience in when the actor is playing another character.


In progress costume by designer Aly Renee Amidei

Since the actors who play Will and Kit aren’t playing other characters, their costumes can be detailed and complete. The only actress in the show also has more complete shifts between her roles because the nature of those characters required more juxtaposition for clarity. The base costumes on the ensemble will also provide contrast to Will and Kit. You can see this same technique work wonderfully in Paul Tazewell’s designs for Hamilton (maybe you’ve heard of that one?). The all-purpose uniforms of the chorus in Hamilton enables them to function as a cohesive visual unit and then nimbly transform into new characters, British soldiers, or patriots with the addition of a coat or accent piece.

There are certainly instances when an actor playing multiple roles needs substantial and/or complete costume changes. There is no scientific way to measure what is ‘enough’ when it comes to differing between these characters for the actor and the audience. One gets into Goldilocks territory: you won’t know what is “just right” until you see it on stage in action. This is because so many variables external to the costume and the actor actually dictate costume changes: blocking (do the actors ever leave the stage), transitions between scenes, props, scene changes, fight choreography, backstage space, distance to the dressing room, mic packs, etc. All these factors impact flow and successful storytelling. This means that I have to do a lot of ‘punting’ during the first day of tech and figure out the costume for each character through trial and error in consultation with the actor.

Oh right… the actor is crucial. The actor has to wear all this goofy stuff and make it seem effortless. There is NOTHING effortless about the Elizabethan era unless you find being dressed like an upholstered chair comfy. This is a tricky period to wear. I also think it is tricky to relate to as an audience member and looks plain silly to the modern eye. So I address that by editing and simplifying the period to work for our show’s aesthetic, for the action of the piece, and to aid the actors. So if you are a costume historian…sorry. Go to a museum instead.

This show will be all wrong without a codpiece in sight. Codpieces are just plain weird (Unless you are the lead singer of Cameo). If you want to see a sexy fun romp, come see our work. My hope is that you will discover and love what we all love about these characters: Kit and Will were real dudes. They lived and laughed and loved and… yes, wore silly pooftacular shirts too.

Inside HER MAJESTY’S WILL Part One: Adapting the Novel

Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.

By Robert Kauzlaric

In brief, David Blixt’s novel, HER MAJESTY’S WILL, tells a story of William Shakespeare’s “Dark Years” – the period of time between his early days in Stratford and his later successes in London – when the legendary writer fell out of the history books and next to nothing is known of his goings-on. David takes some historical hints that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – playwright Christopher Marlowe – had been involved with espionage for the English government, mixes in details of a famous plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth that occurred during the period, grabs a whole host of tidbits about historical figures from the time, mixes them together and imagines young William Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe coming of age as wannabe spies in a comedic action-adventure romp, fighting against impossible odds to save the Queen’s life. And all along the way, David has Will encountering characters and situations that will later inspire details in his plays.

I fell in love with the characters in his novel the moment I started reading it. I adored the crazy plot and all the ridiculous shenanigans. I enjoyed engaging with all of the ideas he touches on throughout. And I knew at once that I wanted to take a stab at turning it into a piece of theater.

As I approached the possibility of adapting it for the stage, I had one main area (aside from all the usual who-to-cut/who-to-keep/what-plot-to-trim/what-ideas-to-pursue stuff) that I knew I would have to make a significant decision on: how to give the audience access to Will’s inner journey.

In his novel, David creates a Will that keeps a LOT of secrets. There’s all sorts of backstory about the circumstances that resulted in Will landing where he is at the start of his adventure that David doles out at neatly-spaced intervals, giving the reader just enough information to provide context for the larger story. But even though we (as readers) don’t know the whole story until the end, since the book is told from Will’s perspective and we have access to his inner thoughts, we’re kept keenly aware that there are more secrets to be revealed when the time is right. And there are also several key moments of decision that Will experiences purely internally.

Without access to Will’s thought process in these moments, the story of the play would not be as clear or rich as it could be.

But how to share that inner life with the audience?

Changing forms from a novel to a play almost always results in facing a structural decision like this. It’s frequently the adaptor’s job to figure out how to turn unspoken thoughts into dialogue (or action).

One possible family of structural choices is the creation of a style of direct address. This might involve a narrator, it might simply be about the characters being able to talk directly to the audience as though they were in the room, or it might be a convention that allows characters to speak their thoughts aloud under certain conditions.

This direction is not my preference unless there’s something inherent in the original novel that seems specifically (to me) to ask for that treatment. For example, when I adapted the Victorian epistolary novel THE MOONSTONE, it felt appropriate to mirror the structure of the novel – nearly a dozen separate people chronicling their piece of a mystery directly to the reader (often with conflicting reports) – in the structure of the play. The mystery itself is nearly unsolvable given the clues presented by the story, but the fun of the novel isn’t really the solving of the mystery, it’s the unfolding of tensions between conflicting accounts of the same story as told directly to the reader.

In the case of HER MAJESTY’S WILL, as I was contemplating the information that needed to be conveyed to the audience I knew I needed to do something to give voice to the unspoken. This got my brain turning on all the various conventions used by Shakespeare himself in his own writing and I thought it might be interesting to play around with my own version of some Shakespearean conventions – specifically, the Chorus and the soliloquy.

So I built for myself a Chorus character in the vein of what Shakespeare does in HENRY V or what he does with Time in THE WINTER’S TALE. This character speaks directly to the audience, establishes locations, moves some plot points ahead, and shares some ideas that Will doesn’t speak aloud.

And then, as the story progresses and the Will of the play starts to discover his own voice and unleash his own passions, he eventually supplants the Chorus as audience interlocutor and begins delivering soliloquies in the vein of so many characters from the plays he will eventually write – like, say, RICHARD III or HAMLET – walking the audience through a decision moment here, grappling with an idea there. It’s not something he can do continuously, but something that gets doled out in intervals.

It ended up being a convention that felt right for the play I was building, one very much nodding in a meta-theatrical way at what Will himself will eventually come to do in his own work, and one that I hope supports some of the larger thematic ideas we’re playing with: finding your voice, claiming your past, and staking out your own future.

Young Will’s inauspicious beginnings

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

Welcome to the inauspicious beginnings of our young hero and someday poet and playwright of great renown – William Shakespeare! Although very little is known about the specifics and inner-workings of William’s early life, for a young man of his social status, it is surprising that what is known about him has survived.

William was born to John and Mary Shakespeare in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. John, although of yeoman status, had somehow managed to marry above his station into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Stratford. Despite both families’ Catholic backgrounds, the Shakespeares were a respectable heritage with strong ambitions. John rose to become a valued civil servant in the community. In addition to being a glover, or glove-maker, John owned a shop that traded in wool and farm produce. He may also have dabbled in being a money-lender, a dubious enough position at the time. By the time William was born he already owned multiple properties in town and had held a couple of elected positions in the town including Ale-taster (Stratford had a prestigious reputation for its ale) and chamberlain (a position which had daily meetings, was responsible for clearing town streets, and heard local petitions). In 1565, John was elected as alderman, a position that would have come with free education for the children in the local grammar school. It is assumed that William learned to read and write in Latin, and that he would have studied the Greek and Latin playwrights and poets at the local King’s New School in Stratford. John’s ambitions continued to climb, and he was soon appointed as high bailiff (or mayor) in 1568, then to his highest held position of chief alderman in 1571. William would have been expected to follow in his father’s honorable (although restrictively local) footsteps. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, John applied for a coat-of-arms to formally give the family the credibility he had worked hard to achieve. The application, a costly endeavor for such a man, was denied, perhaps because of the family’s Catholic connections.


William Shakespeare’s believed birthplace

Unfortunately, John Shakespeare’s prosperity was not long-lived. The 1570s brought trouble for the Shakespeare family. By the end of the decade, John Shakespeare had fallen behind on his taxes, stopped paying the poor relief, and needed to mortgage Mary’s inherited estate. The boys were removed from school to help with the family businesses and so came the early end of William’s formal education. John was fined for missing court dates and church. There is no clear evidence as to what caused this sudden downward spiral from a promising career as a dedicated civil servant, although many scholars focus on an inability to manage finances.

Things got worse for the Shakespeares when 18-year-old William announced that 26-year-old Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant with his child. This news would have been devastating to the family name. A hasty marriage was arranged with special permission from the Bishop of Worchester and William and Anne were married on November 27, 1582. Susanna was born in May the following year. Two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. It is assumed that William helped his father’s business during this time, or possibly took up secondary work as a teacher or lawyer. William was rumored to have acted as a money-lender when he relocated to London, so perhaps it is during this time that he learned the specifics of that trade. Since there is no evidence that has survived to indicate what he may have been doing to support his young family, many theories have cropped up to fill in the blanks of William’s life. One thing does seem to be consistent, though. It seems pretty clear that Anne and William’s relationship was strained and distant, despite its scandalous beginnings. John’s and the family’s fortunes continued to flounder and by 1586, John was removed from the board of alderman due to a lack of attendance. By 1592, John was stripped of all his civic duties.


Anne Hathaway’s family cottage

The years between 1585 and 1592, and where our play Her Majesty’s Will finds the young William, have been known as “lost years” in Shakespeare’s history. There are no official records between when his children were baptized and his first writing credits in London, therefore it is a time of incredible speculation by scholars. How does a barely-educated poor, struggling man from Stratford-upon-Avon become one of the greatest writers of the English language? Scholars though the ages have tried to crack the mystery of how Shakespeare established a successful career when he arrived in London. Common theories include: a local legend about poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s property and a quick escape from his punishment (complete with a revenge ballad); that he headed to London to be a horse attendant at the theatres; or that he was working as a lawyer or soldier based on the knowledge he displays of these professions in his plays. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, however. The most plausible speculations, with a little (but still not a lot) of evidence are the following three theories: 1. That Shakespeare was a teacher during this time, either in a private household or as a schoolmaster (this story was recounted by the son of one of his fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) which would have allowed him time to study and work on his craft; 2. That Shakespeare was recruited by a travelling troupe of actors that came through Stratford (most likely the Queen’s Men who came to town short one actor in 1587); or 3. A recently-developed economic theory that suggests far from struggling, John Shakespeare’s business was tied into shady dealings, so William Shakespeare left Stratford to be his father’s agent of trade in the booming city of London (this would have been how Shakespeare could have supported himself with his artistic pursuits). In any case, it is reasonable to assume that whatever the reason Shakespeare left Stratford and his family behind, it must have been fairly compelling, since he gave up a fairly respectable lifestyle for one with the lowly rabble of the theatre profession.

By 1592, the first recorded indication that Shakespeare was in London writing plays appeared. Robert Greene made reference to him (and a dig or two) in his last written work, referring to Shakespeare as an “upstart cow” reaching above his rank by trying to match the university-educated men around this time. At the time there was the belief that a man could not change his own destiny, but that artistry needed to be fostered by a patron or developed through formal education. By 1594, however, Shakespeare’s plays were being produced regularly and exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company in which Shakespeare would later be a managing partner. The company would go on to become the King’s Men after Queen Elizabeth’s death.

As for his personal life, much examination and speculation has come from studying his sonnets and his plays – from what actually happened during those lost years to whether or not Shakespeare had a homosexual relationship and even whether or not Shakespeare penned all his own works. While many theories exist, little evidence supports one over the other. For example, while many scholars point to the sonnets and extensive cross-dressing themes in his plays as explicit proof of Shakespeare’s support for homoerotic relationships, others point out a different understanding of sexuality in the Elizabethan age in which the homosexual identity did not exist, separating act from identity in a way that is foreign to modern understanding. So, the best we can do to understand and interpret Shakespeare’s heart of hearts is to guess.

It seems almost silly to try to sum up the legacy of Shakespeare’s plays for he is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest writer of the English language. His total body of work consists of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and a few other verses. He produced most of his work over the 24 years between 1589 and 1613. Perhaps the greatest achievement in his parent’s eyes was that he was able to secure a coat-of-arms for his father before John passed away.

Shakespeare’s literary legacy changed the approach to Elizabethan theatre. He is credited with expanding the potential of characterization, plot, language and genre. He used the same devices that were popular in the age of Elizabethan theatre, not only to move the plot, but also to explore the complete range of emotions and conflict within his characters. He wrote plays that attempted to capture human emotion in a way that transcended his time and place. Shakespeare wrote within the conventional style of the day, but his innovative adaptations to language and flow changed the experience of the play, so much so, that critics have questioned how someone with such little education could revolutionize the genre. Without any evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of scholars do give him the appropriate credit. As his contemporary poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, put it, he “was not of an age, but for all time.” David Blixt points out early in his book that theatre breathes life again into the playwright and characters every time the play is picked up and performed. Because of this, William Shakespeare continues to live a very long and celebrated life.