Beware the Ides of March!

[Originally posted 19 April, 2021] On this Ides of March (for those who celebrate or observe the date), I am happy to share new information about Caesar and the Mannequin, a short music theatre piece by Andrew Earle Simpson and Susan Galbraith, based on the painting “Shakespearean Equation, Julius Caesar” by Man Ray. In early 2020, the piece was conceived as part of the Alliance for New Music Theatre’s “Short Gems” series, each of which was inspired by works at the Phillips Collection in NW Washington. The Man Ray painting was a recent gift to the Phillips.

As with so much else in 2020, plans for live performances of the “Short Gems” series had to be scrapped, and “Caesar” began life as part of a digitally-produced series presented online during the COVID-19 lockdown. The initial iteration of the piece is only 29 minutes long. Here is the YouTube video of that version: Caesar and the Mannequin.

Caesar Revisited/Reworked/Revived: September 2024!

Last year the Alliance re-examined the Short Gems to determine which of the works “had legs,” deciding that the story of Caesar, “a character who is determined to cling to power at whatever cost” seems “more dangerously relevant today than it was four years ago” (see website). An expanded version of the work will receive its world premiere from September 12-16 and 19-22, 2024, at the Atlas Theatre in Northeast DC. Look for more details as they become available.

Pandemic-era Digital Theatre

In the summer of 2020, librettist Susan Galbraith invited me to participate in the Short Gems, offering me the role of Julius Caesar. What actor could refuse such a role? While the pandemic raged on, librettist and composer collaborated with the cast throughout the process via Zoom meetings; this was a special treat after so many months of no performing opportunities because of the pandemic. We worked from digital copies of the music, both PDFs and mp3 files of the trumpet part that would be the only instrument other than voices.

Portraying the artist Man Ray–or Wo-Man-Ray in this case–is the talented mezzo-soprano Cara Schaefer.

Even masked, Cara’s eyes express much.
A rare unmasked moment for Wo-Man-Ray.

The role of the mannequin was performed by the wonderful–and fearless–soprano Kelly Curtin, who stepped in at the eleventh hour.

The Mannequin’s whirl-wind entrance.
The tears on the Mannequin mirror a famous photograph by Man-Ray.

The character of the Trumpeter, who is a sort of janitor with a striking resemblance to Harpo Marx, is taken by Susan Rider. This character not only provides the occasional fanfare required to stroke Caesar’s ego, but also a good bit of comic relief.

Susan shown here, doing what she’s known for…
…and other duties as assigned.

Socially-distanced recording and filming

Before the filming dates, we had a recording session at a church in Kensington, MD, with all participants distanced, and masked when not singing or playing. We also had staging rehearsals, likewise following all safety protocols. Recording engineer John Regan captured our best efforts in pristine digital audio.

Caesar takes a [music] stand.
It seems my brain shuts down after a couple of measures of melismas.

The process of filming the work at the closed-to-the-public Phillips Collection was fascinating, as I had not done much film work previously. Before we could get to work we had to have our temperature taken at the museum entrance. 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 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.

One of the objects in the Man Ray painting looks like the base of a sculpture that’s missing its head. This became part of the costume I would wear for part of the piece. This is the only picture I’ve got of me wearing the thing. It was a bit cumbersome, but certainly made a statement. And that’s the actual painting behind me.

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.

Video director/editor Patrick Hale somehow scheduled all of our comings and goings so that the two-day process flowed smoothly. In keeping with the eclectic styles of Man-Ray, you’ll notice different film styles recreated in the video, and in the screenshots above and below.

Somehow I had never visited the Phillips Collection, so when not required for a scene I was able to view some of the art work on display in rooms adjacent to where we were filming.

We were masked during most of the opera, which made lip-synching a less exacting art than it would otherwise have been. 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.

The full company.

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 opportunity. In a “normal” rehearsal and performance process, actors will often try a particular scene with their character having a different intention, a different “motivation” (“What’s my motivation in this scene?”) than before, to see how the scene plays out. Not necessarily better, just different. Performers make hundreds of choices in the moment while rehearsing or performing, sometimes at the request of a director, sometimes on their own initiative. 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.

I really am looking forward to the opportunity to perform this piece before live audiences this September, to make those choices in the same space as the audience!

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