Update! Here is the YouTube video of “Caesar and the Mannequin,” a short opera by Andrew Earle Simpson and Susan Galbraith, based on the painting “Shakespearean Equation, Julius Caesar” by Man Ray. Part of the Alliance for New Music Theatre’s “Short Gems” series, it’s only 29 minutes long.
Despite what I said in some recent Facebook posts, I’m afraid the film of the short opera in which I portrayed Julius Caesar is not due to be released very soon. The organizations involved are still working out the particulars, so I can’t give any details at this time. But I can say that it was a very rewarding experience to be involved in the creation of a new work almost from the beginning. Both librettist and composer collaborated with the cast throughout the process via Zoom meetings, and this was a special treat after so many months of no performing opportunities because of the pandemic. Before the filming dates, we had a recording session with all participants distanced and masked (when not singing or playing). We also had staging rehearsals, likewise following all safety protocols.
The process of filming the work “on location” (more about that when I can release details) was fascinating, as I had not done much film work previously. As the only male in the cast, I had the men’s room as my private dressing room, a novelty for me. Our Tech Director sent me a link to a YouTube video that I used to create the cracked statue effect for my make-up. I wasn’t trying for the exact effect as in the video, but it gave me great pointers. I made sure to get close-up pictures of how it looked for the first day of filming since I would have to recreate it myself as exactly as possible for the second day. Of course, it was largely covered up by the mask, except for the very beginning and end of the piece, when I was alone in the shots.
The most efficient/effective order for filming the short, 30-minute work meant we started with those scenes with the most participants, releasing actors when they were done, and finishing up with solo scenes. In our case, this meant filming the piece primarily from finish to start. That fact, coupled with the necessity of doing multiple takes of most sections of each number in the opera required a different type of discipline that was new to me, but one that I enjoyed learning to utilize. It’s challenging to remember when filming out-of-sequence what your character knows at a particular moment in the arc of the plot, and what has happened just before the scene. There’s also a question of physical focus, if that’s a term. We’ve all noticed in tv shows or movies when they switch cameras, say during an intimate conversation between two characters, and when they do, you immediately notice if one of the actors has a different tilt to their head or a slightly different expression on their face than they did the second before. And doing mulitple shots from different camera angles requires concentration from all the actors, even those who aren’t the primary focus of a particular shot. Even when you’re not in the frame, and your face is unseen, you need to provide the other actors the same energy you would in a live performance. I hope when I see the final cut, I’m not embarrassed by any mistakes of this sort.
We were masked during most of the opera, which made lip-synching less exacting an “art” than it would otherwise be. Even so, there were times during some of the more physically active scenes when I’d catch myself moving my masked mouth in sync with my recorded voice, but having to catch my breath due to the sensation of running out of air. Here’s hoping those ended up on the digital cutting room floor.
As with any new role–whether one new to me or from a brand-new work as in this case–once the performance or filming is complete, my mind sometimes wanders back over the just-completed project and thinks of specific things I might do differently given another shot. I don’t mean doing a 13th shot of a particular scene that we’ve already filmed from every conceivable angle. Rather, I mean going into a particular scene with your character having a different intention, a different “motivation” (“What’s my motivation in this scene?”) than before. Not necessarily better, just different. Performers make hundreds of choices in the moment while rehearsing or performing, and a big part of building confidence is learning how not to (or forcing yourself not to) make judgment calls about those choices while in the moment. Nothing takes an actor, and by extension, the audience, out of a shared dramatic moment more quickly.
What I really am hoping for here is an opportunity to perform this piece before a live audience, to make those choices in the same space as the audience!