October 29, 2011

"Golden-Pointed Darts" Contest Winner

Caffeine Theatre is pleased to announce the winner of “Golden-Pointed Darts, Or, a Contest in Poesy to Honour the Incomparable Astraea and other Adventuresses, Spies, Writers, and Thespians.” Congratulations to Amanda Williams, who submitted the following three poems exemplifying the themes of theatricality, adventure, and eroticism which are hallmarks of Aphra Behn’s work.

Sometimes I Acted Backstage Too
In that cramped store room
amid a circus of props and costumes,
in the weak glow that creeps from the low-watt bulb
that we leave on during performances
you press me hard against a teetering shelf
and kiss whatever skin my glittering costume does not cover
(the tips of my fingers, my heaving breasts and neck)
between scene 3 and 4 of the first act.

I hear my cue approaching
and pry Nathan’s hands from Adelaide’s waist;
I brush off the stray blonde fibers
from my platinum wig
that cling to the lapel of your suit jacket,
and staunchly pull my garters back up
for the top of the next scene.

I reapply my lipstick, smooth my rumpled crinoline
as I wind my way through the darkness;
this is the third night you’ve almost made me late.
My heart thuds along with the snickering audience.

Beside the stage left curtain,
I catch a glimpse of your silhouette
in the prop room’s doorframe,
dust floating around you in the dim light
of that bulb, flickering.

Bavaria boasts miles of unspoilt natural countryside and picturesque landscapes ideal for walking, relaxing, and enjoying the the proverbially laid-back Bavarian attitude to life...

The smells of pig farm and wood smoke leak through the crack in my visor
and root me to a spot on a map of Southern Germany; we race
along a spiraling road between fields and petite villages, the leather of his jacket
sticky against my bare arms wrapped around his waist. Its 7pm, the heat from midday
is settling down into a summer evening. A low sun spills through the cracks
in the clouds. Another smell - the syrupy aroma rising
from the leafy, tangled strawberry fields. I am Marilyn Monroe
as my white cotton skirt billows up around my waist, pink lacy underwear
on the leather seat as we take the corners a little too sharp. When we pass through a village,
the old women shake crooked fingers at us, clearly mortified. I fog my visor
with exhilarated breaths, and set my fingers in the spaces between his ribs
for balance; when he leans into a turn, I lean, our bodies revving
and synching together. I feel the immense weight of the wind pressing on my head
as I turn to look out; the horizon is dotted with delicate church spires,
one distinct point or cross high above the tiles of terracotta – two white onion domes, Haindling.
Feeling less that pious, I grip him even tighter as I feel him shift his weight
backward, into me, and the adrenaline makes my thighs contract, my stomach
twist like a pretzel. As we near home, the setting sun is now the deep gold color
of Erl-Brau beer; I stare into it, feeling half drunk already. I’m sure when I take off
this heavy helmet, my hair will be a disheveled mess, like I just made love to Bavaria.


I have the urge to fawr-ni-cate. I want
to run to the barn, rich humidity
of August filling my skin so I swell
like a creek in Spring, the hot flush of desire
melting all my Christian values into oily streams
of sweat running down between my breasts.
I want the hay to stick to our naked bodies, pricking
just enough to confuse pleasure and pain. Lord,
lead us not into temptation, but deliver
us from evil – I am thrown over these bales,
this altar of love, where you worship me
like a passionate heathen, with ragged exultations
and groaning praises. I want an unholy storm
to kick up, to pound the tin roof with hammering drops,
to drown the sounds we make. Oh, pray for us sinners!
After that clap of perfect thunder, when the tongues of flame
have burst from our sweaty heads we’ll run bare-assed
to the creek to bathe in the dark water, but not to wash
the sin away; no backwoods baptism can cleanse us but,


as we look into each other’s sweaty, dirt-streaked faces,
we are born again.

October 22, 2011

Dramaturgical Reflections: Images from the English Restoration

Portraiture from the late seventeenth century makes an important contribution to the historical record of the period. At first glance, these images seem to give us a sense of how people looked and dressed. But they also reveal how painters and sitters used visual symbols in their construction of an individual self, an image that could be circulated far beyond the walls of the room where the portrait was hanging. Engravings after portraits appeared as part of the growing print industry in the late seventeenth century. According to Professor Joseph Roach, the "public intimacy" created in part through visual circulation signals the emergence of the modern concept of celebrity during this period.

These portraits, however, also reveal how we think of these individuals today. When and how we choose to display these images reflects our changing understanding of their historical importance and their relationship to our own lives. Roach analyzed the 2001 exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, "Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II." That exhibit, he argued, "restaged the impious relationship of public intimacy and mimetic desire in room after room, paramour after paramour" as it juxtaposed the idea of the Merry Monarch with images of his well-known mistresses ("Celebrity Erotics" 216). Yesterday, a new exhibit opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London: "The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons." Instead of displaying images of the first actresses alongside their known lovers or romantic rivals, this exhibit positions them alongside each other, drawing a professional timeline from Nell Gwyn in the seventeenth century to Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter today. Neither of the historical narratives presented by these exhibits is more or less "true" ... but we might consider why we tell the stories we do at certain points in history.

I invite you to explore some of these images, those currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and those appearing on stage in Chicago next weekend.


October 20, 2011

The Actors Escape from the Theatre (From the Rehearsal Notebooks of Johnny Downes)

Hello! Johnny here again. Sorry it's been a few days but I've had my hands full wrangling the actors (there's only three of them, but I swear it feels like there are at least twice that many...) and the time does fly when you're in rehearsal. We have been busy running the play and fine tuning it for tech, which starts in a dizzingly short four days.

My boss, the lovely Lady Davenant, who runs the Duke's Company, always says:

"You mustn't keep actors waiting around without the play they'll start to drink then it's quarrels and misbehaving behind the scenery and asking to go home early - utter utter chaos darling, never leave actors with nothing to do, remember that..."

But we gave the whole company Monday night off and invited all our friends to the bar to make all sorts of mischief before we had to buckle down for the last week leading up to tech, and the result was not quite utter chaos, but it was rather poetic and at moments racuous. Our gracious trustee Meghan Beals McCarthy serenaded us with a dramatic interpretation of the bedtime story "Go the *&#% to Sleep," and Caffeine Theatre's esteemed associate artistic director Dan Smith performed a rousing prose poem about the history of dramatic literature, and from there things really took off. Words don't do it justice, but I have a few etchings from the evening that show a bit of its flavor:

October 14, 2011

Dramaturgical Reflections: The English Restoration

What was the English Restoration?

The year 1660 marked the end of the English Commonwealth and the restoration of the English monarchy. Following the close of the English Civil War (1642-1648), Parliament tried and executed Charles I for treason (1649). His son and heir to the English throne, the eighteen-year-old Charles Stuart, was forced to flee England and spent more than a decade wandering among the courts of Europe. His attempts to reclaim the English throne were unsuccessful until the death of Oliver Cromwell (1658), then Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England. Disillusioned by the failed democratic experiment and desirous of greater social and political stability, royalist supporters of Charles II maneuvered his return to England in 1660 and his coronation in 1661. The Restoration was viewed by many as a time of hope, renewal, and reconciliation. It remained as yet unknown whether or not it would live up to its expectations.

Why is the Restoration an important point in English theatre history?

The English theatres had been closed in 1642 due to the turbulence of the burgeoning civil war. The performance of plays was banned during the Interregnum (the time between the execution of Charles I and the ascension of Charles II): a stark contrast to the active theatrical scene of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with their thriving public theatres and elaborate court masques. When Charles II returned to England in 1660, he issued theatrical patents to two men, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, who founded the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company (respectively). The existing corpus of plays was divided between them, and so began a theatrical patent system that would shape English theatre for more than a century.

The Restoration also marked several important changes to English theatrical practice, many of which continue to attract the research of historians and the creative imaginings of playwrights. The introduction of the professional English actress to the London stage occurred in the early years of the Restoration, followed shortly by the emergence of the first professional female playwright. Aphra Behn, though not the first woman to have a play published or produced in England, was the first woman to earn her living as a writer of plays, poems, and other prose.

October 11, 2011

Behn. Aphra Behn.

Who is Aphra Behn?

Variously she was known known as a libertine, a wit, and a female playwright, poet and novelist shocking and delighting audiences of Restoration England.

Once she might have been known as Aphra Johnson, or Amis, or Cooper. Little is known for certain about her life before she started publishing as a writer, and after that, she is largely remembered for titillating and scandalizing her peers with her frank treatments of sexuality and gender.

In between those times, she was also known as Astrea or Agent 160 in Surinam--the New World--and subsequently in Antwerp, Belgium where she was working as a spy for Charles II. In Antwerp she ran out of funds (as she possibly had in Surinam, prompting the theory that she married a Dutch merchant named Behn to bring her back to Europe), and she had a brief stint in debtors prison upon her return to England. She might have been known as Aphra Ben or Beane, but her widowed name and nom de plume was Mrs. Behn.

Although her espionage skills are suspect, her verbal acuity catapulted her to literary success, despite the reservations of those who didn't believe that a woman possessed the reason and rationality to write verse or write for the stage. She became apostrophized as "The Incomparable Astrea" and indeed she was: Virginia Woolf recognized her as the first middle class woman writer, who succeeded solely by her wit without the comfort of a country estate to retreat to in case her literary endeavors landed her in hot water--and Behn courted controversial topics like political events and homosexual love between women. Not for naught then was she known as Sappho.

Behn's distinctive poetic voice is characterized by her audacity in writing about contemporary events, frequently with topical references that, despite their allegorical maskings, were immediately recognizable to her sophisticated audience...Behn's poetry, therefore, was less public than her plays or her prose fiction, as it depended, in some cases, on the enlightened audience's recognition of her topics for full comprehension of both the expression and implications of her verse. Such poetic technique involved a skill and craft that earned her the compliments of her cohorts as one who, despite her female form, had a male intelligence and masculine powers of reason.
Behn, Aphra Behn: poetess, spy, lover, possible homosexual (or bisexual), and maker of martyrs:

A thousand martyrs I have made,

All sacrificed to my desire;

A thousand beauties have betrayed,

That languish in resistless fire.

The untamed heart to hand I brought,

And fixed the wild and wandering thought.

I never vowed nor sighed in vain

But both, though false, were well received.

The fair are pleased to give us pain,

And what they wish is soon believed.

And though I talked of wounds and smart,

Love’s pleasures only touched my heart.

Alone the glory and the spoil

I always laughing bore away;

The triumphs, without pain or toil,

Without the hell, the heav’n of joy.

And while I thus at random rove

Despise the fools that whine for love.

October 3, 2011

From the Rehearsal Notebooks of Johnny Downes, Script Prompter, 10/1/11

John Downes was the script prompter for the Duke's Company, where Aphra Behn's plays were originally produced. In addition to cueing the actors when they forgot their lines, his "historical review of the stage", Roscius Anglicanus is a seminal firsthand account of Restoration theatre. These are his recently discovered ruminations from a slightly later production of a pretty, witty play called OR, penned by the poetess Liz Duffy Adams in homage to the incomparable Astrea, as channelled and interpreted by Louise Edwards (dramaturg) and Kristin Idaszak (assistant director).

First Rehearsal Liz Duffy Adams's OR, directed by Catherine Weidner

In the first scene of OR, a disguised Charles II visits the former spy and aspiring playwright Aphra Behn (Agent Code Name Astrea) in debtors prison. Once his identity is revealed the two realize they have a lot in common, namely their exiles from London. And yet, Charles says, "I hardly knew how to be glad once I was here, longing itself became such a habit of mind."

That's how I feel about first rehearsals--each play is a very foreign country that I am privileged to enter into for a few weeks or months, to explore its shores and cities. But that exploration of this new world begins weeks before rehearsals themselves start, with design and production meetings, dramaturgical research and script meetings, so that by the time first rehearsal arrives, the longing itself has become such a habit of mind, indeed.

This rehearsal brimmed with excitement. OR, is a three-hander sex farce featuring Aphra Behn, Nell Gwyn, Charles II and a few inopportune visitors, and the script evokes the 1660s, the 1960s and today: "this our time of mingled hope and fear." Our scenic designer Stephen Carmody is manifesting that concept by creating a theatre within a theatre--the world of the play takes place in 1660, the actors are in the 1960s, rocking out to records of Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Kinks in their "backstage", and the audience traverses all three time periods.

The play is all about the "seeming opposites" we all embody, and how we variously mask and reveal our multifarious identities. Aphra observes that "it's a nasty little world of lies, subterfuge, backstabbing and betrayal," to which Nell replies, "Are you talking about spying or the theatre?"

We have just begun to ricochet between the many ors our playwright and her characters have set before us. Expect many more updates from the rehearsal room, dramaturgical teasers, and inside looks at the incomparable Astrea--or should we say Aphra--and her friends.

Johnny Downes, October 1, 2011