Friday, 15 May 2015

Explorations of Faithfulness: Adjudication of Agnes of God at Theatre Ontario Festival 2015

by Brandon Moore, Communications Coordinator

Highlights of the detailed adjudication by Ron Cameron-Lewis of Gore Bay Theatre’s production of Agnes of God by John Pielmeier.
  • Livingstone’s black costume with a touch of red: Had they considered gray or brown? Black gave her balance and symmetry with Mother Superior, adding a hint of red gave a suggestion of blood. A distinctive colour would have given a sense of Livingstone living in the outside world.
  • Also, the use of black legs meant that Livingstone and Mother Superior disappeared into them.
  • Colours and moods of the lighting shifts were effective.
  • Livingstone’s opening direct address to the audience: Accomplished connection with audience through stillness and storytelling.
  • The prop powder cigarettes were not effective—the smoke did not read, we couldn’t see Livingstone blowing smoke into Mother Superior’s face. They chose not to use herbal cigarettes because of the scent sensitivity.
  • Livingstone’s first interrogation of Mother Superior: When blocking patterns are static, vocal dynamics and nuance are good tools. Ron again references his black room exercise, which one of the co-directors has used in the past (but not on this production.)
  • This is a text where the characters say things that really have impact on each other. Rehearsal exercise: When characters say a trigger word, the character repeats the trigger word as a question and then says their own line. This goes back-and-forth between the characters.
  • Text also has marked overlapping interruptions. As an exercise, trying doing more of the play that way—it increases the conflict, adds to the tension.
  • This is a play that is desperate for the releases in the author’s moment of humour. Some of Livingstone’s monologues are an opportunity to bring in theatricality, e.g. tell the story to two people over drinks.
  • Directors debated staging choices for monologues: Isolation in spots vs. movement.  Going with the isolation choice, lighting each monologue differently can be effective.
  • It is difficult for actors in nun costumes to express themselves with physicality. It was a wonderful choice for Agnes and Mother Superior’s scene about "love" for her face to be up and out.
  • Ron lead the entire group in a difficult-to-describe exercise to explore vocal ranges and find optimum pitches. People in other conference rooms would have wondered why they were hearing strange variations of Mary Had a Little Lamb.
  • Pathos was well-developed around the stigmata.
  • In moments of conflict, explore more blocking for Livingstone. Again, she is from the outside world and is not confined by the nun’s rules for subsuming passion.
  • Actors were given some physical exercise to engage their diaphragms and then played the “sending to prison/asylum sequence”. It makes the fights bigger. The strongest emotions come from our guts, but actors automatic tendency is to act from heads and chests. Agnes had done diaphragm work for her singing.
  • Livingstone’s French fiancé monologue—another opportunity for fun and humour.
  • Actors can get caught up in each other’s vocal tempos. One exercise is to force one character to “rev up” while the other character “revs down”. Each keeps their own rhythm by snapping their fingers.
  • Agnes’ emotional defense of her mother came quickly, as per the stage direction. Seemed to be a fast discovery for the character. Always difficulty to interpret stage directions in acting editions: Are they from the author, or stage manager notes from the first production?
  • Agnes sobbing: Tears have origin and duration. Audiences don’t need to see tears, they need to see physical wracking, hear labored breathing. We need to see the journey to the tears.
  • Livingstone: Can you check the date? Another sequence which was emotionally dynamic but physically static. This is a good scene to run as an exercise by taking away the characters' words so they must express the essence of the scene exclusively through body language.
  • Mother Superior effectively claimed status through vocal power.
  • Some tripping over lines. This was their 5th performance, two pre-QUONTA Festival in March, performance at QUONTA, and one more last Friday. Things happen. Don’t try to re-start the lines. Bluff your way through it.
  • Another opportunity for movement by Livingstone: the molestation revelation. Directors wanted to give Mother Superior a strong, grounded presence. They tried blocking it as a boxing match but they felt it was “stagey.” One exercise is to “play tag” while speaking the lines in the scene. You may have to pull back and 'mark' the physicality if the space is small. Ron has done it in tiny classrooms, comparable in size to the Gore Bay stage.
  • “Bullshit” earned a good laugh from the audience. It didn’t play that way in Gore Bay.
  • Livingstone’s loss of faith starting in childhood: this was good truthful storytelling.
  • The jokes about the saints smoking could have been revved up. The pace was off in this sequence during last night’s performance. An unusual accidental substitution of one of the lines also caused a problem.
  • We believed the hypnotism, but Agnes’ legs were a bit clenched for the delivery of the baby.  This is a difficult sequence to block depending on the physical location of the audience in relationship to the stage. If she is giving birth facing upstage, we don’t see her face. Last night, Agnes had audience members right in front of her.
  • Agnes screaming “bitch, whore, liar” about her mother took the actress (15 years old) significantly out of her comfort zone. (ED – This is a tricky one. My own thoughts and discovery as an actor in trying things outside of my own personal comfort zone is to think about how you’re giving voice to people to have had none. There will be people in audiences who had horrible, painful relationships with their mothers, and are unable to say these things. This is a gift that you as an actor are giving to them.)
  • Mother Superior’s confession scene. Her face was down and to the right, which is a natural human instinct to take personal, private moments to the floor. Resist that urge and play these moments up and out.
  • Livingstone’s final monologue needed more volume. In rehearsal, it definitely seemed okay.
  • The final lighting effect clearly illuminating the cross was an enjoyable effect. It also read differently depending on where you were sitting in the auditorium: The cross was made of cardboard (light and easy to transport) and then layered with paper, giving it different colours.  From Ron’s perspective, it looked like religious imagery.
  • Choice was made to perform the play with no intermission. According to the playwright, it has never been done without one. His concern was actor fatigue and audience fatigue.  One hour, forty-five minutes felt like the maximum. But if you let the audience out, how do you get that tension back? It accomplished the goal of sustaining momentum. It worked for Ron, but he recognized that it wouldn’t work for everyone in the audience. He cut back on his public adjudication to compensate.
  • Intermissions are challenging. Two of the four plays this week are three act plays; the first ran with only one intermission and we don’t yet know what we will see tonight.
  • We're fans of Ron's book Acting Skills for Life and many of its exercises.  It's now available as an e-book through Dundurn Press in Toronto.
(This is the final version of this post, edited post-Festival.)


  1. You definitely captured the tone of Ron's adjudication, especially the amount of emphasis on voice work and the number of useful techniques/exercises/
    approaches for expanding the vocal range of actors. Great takeaway lessons for all of us.

    1. Thanks so much Ken! The goal of these posts for me is to share the experience with an audience that cannot be "in the room" - and encouraging more people to take advantage of the opportunity. Nice to hear that they're working!