It might seem contradictory that a theater director who is an aficionado of staging Shakespeare like the Elizabethans did turns to Skype to rehearse.
But Beth Burns sees nothing paradoxical about employing the Internet video phone service in pursuit of her goal.
How else could she afford to assemble a cast of classically trained actors to take on the epic five-and-a-half-hour challenge of "Rose Rage," a conflation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy? How else to bring British actors to Austin for an historically informed production?
"Collaboration has always been important to me. Not just locally, but globally," says Burns, chatting over coffee recently along with Laurence Pears and James Ball, actors in town from London. "But as a small organization, that's not always affordable."
Enter the Internet.
Burns cast "Rose Rage," which opened Thursday, with actors from both sides of the Atlantic. And that meant Pears and Ball began rehearsals with their Austin castmates virtually.
"I didn't find it strange at all," says the affable Pears.
Might that be because Pears, 24, and Ball, 23, are young enough to be in what perhaps could be called iGeneration, raised on email and weaned on social media?
They both shrug.
Ball trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts; Pears at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts — old school theater training programs by any measure.
"With the way (Beth) approaches Shakespeare — with the focus all on the text and the language — we're still just as focused on the text from the beginning of the rehearsal process as we would be otherwise," says Pears.
Virtual rehearsals began in May. And the time difference made scheduling unusual. Afternoon rehearsals in Austin meant evening times for London, and evening Austin rehearsal meant the wee hours across the pond.
Pears and Ball arrived in Austin in early July. And though the physical distance meant they hadn't met other casts members in person, the virtual time spent together created a brave new kind of familiarity for the cast.
"You can't so much as scratch your nose or yawn in rehearsal without everybody seeing it in detail," laughs Ball.
Pears and Ball Skyped from their homes, usually from their bedrooms. Hence, what could be seen in the background revealed odd personal details — concert posters, pet dogs, unmade beds — not typically evinced in conversation and certainly not a typical part of any usual rehearsal process. Sometimes, family members inadvertently wandered into the room mid-rehearsal, like when Ball's brother rambled in post-shower wearing only a bath towel.
"Everyone has to adjust when your home becomes a rehearsal hall," says Ball. "I had to explain to my mum's dinner party once what all the screaming was coming from my room."
For all the virtual rehearsing, Burns' "Rose Rage" adheres to what Shakespeare scholars call original practices.
The show is cast entirely with male actors (women did not take the stage in Shakespeare's time.) Props are minimal, costumes are Renaissance-inspired, and the production is free of any multi-media gimmicks. As she has in the past, Burns is staging the show in the historic York Rite Masonic Temple downtown, which abounds with 19th-century details.
Adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren, "Rose Rage" collapses the Bard's not-often-staged plays that chart the personalities and politics behind the 15th-century British dynastic conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses. That's because if the Henry VI plays boast plenty of fighting, history and action, they generally lack the best of Shakespeare's poetry. "Rose Rage" offers a texturally accurate but condensed version.
The Austin production is presented in two parts, each about two hours long. Each part is presented individually. But on Aug. 3-5 and on Aug. 11, both parts will be presented together with a dinner break.
However it's presented, the Henry VI tales are arguably Shakespeare's bloodiest. Everybody dies in the end. (Burns recommends the show for ages 13 and up.)
"Rose Rage" isn't Burns' first foray employing technology in the name of theater.
Last year, she literally staged an entire production via Skype.
Collaborating with London's Roundhouse Theatre, Burns conceived of a romantic comedy about a couple involved in a long-distance relationship, one conducted mostly via Skype. Audiences in Austin and London were invited to the show as if the play-goers were casual friends of the couple chiming in on the Internet chatter (Again, scheduling proved unusual: Shows were presented at 2 p.m. Austin time, which was 8 p.m. London time.)
Some of the "Rose Rage" shows will be live-streamed, an invitation for anyone, anywhere to see the production, says Burns.
"None of this takes away from the intimacy and immediacy of live theater," says Burns of the wired strategies. "We're just trying to go beyond geographic boundaries and other limitations. It's still Shakespeare. It's still theater."