The actors stand on a bare stage and toss a big blue ball around. As the ball flies from one set of hands to another, they recite lines from the play’s final scene. It may not seem like your typical staging of Shakespeare, but director Gisela Cardenas explains that the exercise is one of many techniques the group is using to explore the scene through movement.
“You learn your text at home and in a particular way using your brains,” says Cardenas, “and what I need them [to do] is to have it in their bodies.”
Formed in 2011, PETE has workshopped pieces and given smaller performances, but they have yet to put on something as ambitious as this new production. R3 is a coming-out party for the company, one that they hope will not only mark the ensemble’s official entrance into the Portland artistic community, but will also introduce audiences to their unique approach to contemporary theater.
The five founding members of PETE share a similar background and philosophy of acting. They first came together around a desire to practice their craft as a group. “We all believe that training together is an extremely important part of being involved in making theater,” says PETE member Jacob Coleman, who plays Richard in the production, “like a musician would train whether or not they have a concert coming up.”
Initially, PETE held regular training sessions and workshops. They practiced techniques drawn from the Suzuki and Viewpoints methods, which emphasize the importance of the body in acting. Instead of finding inspiration primarily through the text, as in traditional acting methods, actors use movement and gesture to generate emotion.
Much of the work that the company creates starts with a theme or an idea for a story. Instead of working from a script and relying on a director to set the scenes and choreograph the movements, the actors work collaboratively, building the work from scratch.
“I like to call us theater makers,” says PETE member Amber Whitehall. “So we’re not only actors and we’re not only directors or writers, but we’re sort of all of those things. In this instance we’re working with Shakespeare’s Richard III, so we’re starting with a piece of text, but we’re building it in time and space together to make our new play.”
R3 got its start in workshops PETE held a year ago with the New York-based Cardenas, who brought a draft of the script for the group to work with. In those initial workshops, they started exploring the text, improvising scenes and trying out ideas.
“It’s sort of like we’re drawing in a notebook,” explains Whitehall. “Maybe we would make four or five sketches and Gisela [Cardenas] would choose the one she liked the best. Then we’d continue to fill in around that sketch, dig a little deeper and bring it more to life.”
“There is always a sense of nervousness in front of a new scene, at least for me,” adds Cardenas. “I feel like, ‘How are we going to do this … I have no idea.’ And then, all of a sudden, amazing ideas start to appear. That is the joy of working with a group, a group of people who are trained, that shares your vocabulary. So we can say that I direct, but I don’t make the play. We make it between all of us.”
Encouraged by the initial results, PETE invited Cardenas back in early December to help them develop R3 into a full production.
PETE’s version of Richard III reimagines Shakespeare’s story of the rise of a tyrant, bringing the roles of women to the foreground. Although the original language remains, they have made significant edits to the play, rearranging scenes, combining characters and making liberal cuts to the text.
“We have enhanced some storylines that have to do with these women,” says Cardenas, “these powerless subjects inside the play who are telling the story of Richard, and at the same time we are calling attention to what they did to create him.”
Using Shakespeare’s familiar play as a starting point for a production that Whitehall admits “might feel uncomfortable to theatergoers,” the company hopes that R3 will serve as a bridge between contemporary and traditional theater worlds.
“I’m interested in having a conversation with the theater community in Portland about how can we make this medium that we work in vital to contemporary audiences,” says Coleman. “I think that Portland and its citizens will be enriched by our voice in that conversation.”