The Town Crier: Backstage with the bard

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News

The audience watches actors perform "Henry V" at Burr Performing Arts Park in downtown Dalton as part of "Shakespeare in Burr Park" this month.

Did you go to Burr Performing Arts Park in downtown Dalton and catch the latest show? It was "Henry V" ("Henry the Fifth") and it was a hit. And has been for more than 400 years!

"Henry V" tells the story of King Henry of England and his fight with the French over ancestral lands that he still laid claim to on the other side of the Channel. The play builds to the historical Battle of Agincourt in France during The Hundred Years War. And what was the most exciting part of this famous, classical, popular play that has made it through the centuries? I was part of it!

No, I didn't play Henry. As a matter of fact, if you saw the play, you didn't see me at all. I worked backstage. But I was part of the magic. Which reminds me of an old showbiz story. A young actor gets cast in a Shakespeare play as a messenger who comes in and has one line: "Sire, the battle is won." He tells his friend about the part. The friend asks what the play is about. The actor is quick to reply "Well, it's about this messenger ..."

Showbiz people love nothing better than to sit around and tell funny stories. This show was no different. But of course what they love the most is presenting a successful show to an appreciative audience. As it was pointed out in the pre-curtain welcome to the audience, they are the other half of the play equation. If the performers play to an empty house (or park), it's only a rehearsal. This show worked for a lot of reasons and from my view backstage, where I couldn't see anything onstage, I got to see a lot of the reasons why.

A primer on 'Henry V'

Shakespeare's play "Henry V" is one of a series of historical plays he wrote about the English kings. The character of Henry V had already shown up as a younger person in the "Henry IV" plays. And there were carryover characters from the earlier plays who made it into "Henry V." There were a couple of published histories available at the time that would have given Shakespeare the overall plots and stories of his plays about the kings, but his genius as a playwright gave them the great lines to speak. His audiences would likely have seen the earlier plays and known the characters and stories and so there was a built-in understanding of the material that we are a little skinny on these days. It's like all those Marvel superhero movies where as you watch them they tie into the next one. If you think about it, the kings and queens in British history were the superheroes and super villains of their day.

Shakespeare wrote his plays in five acts with a variety of scenes for each act. The production at Burr Park was done with a reduced script that kept the highlights and main points of the story with all the classic scenes and memorable lines. This made it about a two-hour play with a 15-minute intermission. The full play back when would have been close to four hours with a lot of secondary characters and sideline stories. Audiences back then didn't have a lot of other things to do so hanging out at the theater all afternoon was a real treat.

It was the 1600s' equivalent of binge watching a hit series. "Henry V" was the climax of a four-part series of plays Shakespeare had written, the first three being "Richard II," "Henry IV, Part 1" and Henry IV, Part 2." For the audience members who went and saw all the plays as they came out, "Henry V" was the big finish.

In the condensed version we put on the play opens with Henry and his advisors pondering the French kings' claim on what had been English dukedoms in France. The son of the French king insults Henry intentionally with a gift of tennis balls. The French claim to have invented tennis so this would have gotten a big laugh or big jeers or both from the audiences back then. The scene shifts to the French court and the French king and his son receive the English ambassador who tells him Henry won't back down. Henry sails across the channel and takes the French town of Harfleur after blasting a hole in the fortress walls and cheering the men on with the cry of "Once more unto the breach ..." which has become a rallying cry through the years to inspire one more try.

As the rested French army confronts the tired English army near Agincourt further into France the scenes shift between the confident French army which outnumbers the English 5 to 1, with the English army preparing for the worst. Shakespeare follows Henry as, under cover of darkness the night before the battle, and, unrecognized by his men, he wanders through the camp talking to the men and seeking what their true feelings are. It's a brilliant scene and allows Shakespeare to explore both the potential glory and horrific dread of war. Then, at the opening of the battle another of Shakespeare's famous speeches is presented. Henry talks about "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" to describe the small army that was about to share in history. In the battle that follows, the English win a stunning victory over the French and Henry prepares to go home the proud victor. And all this on stage in Dalton!

Still performing after all these years

As somebody said at a rehearsal the other night, think about writing a play and 400 years later they're still performing it and it's still bringing in the crowds. If you know the musical "West Side Story," it was originally a Broadway play in 1957 and was made into a hit movie in 1961. Now, almost 60 years later Steven Spielberg is doing a remake that will come out in 2020. What's interesting is that "West Side Story" is inspired by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers. Shakespeare's stuff is so right on when it comes to human interaction and emotion that his plays lend themselves to update, variation and interpretation. While we're on movie variations of Shakespeare's work, don't forget the 1950s science fiction classic "Forbidden Planet" which is a futuristic take on the bard's "The Tempest. There's even a film version of "Macbeth" set at a fast food burger joint in Pennsylvania.

Backstage I had a handful of effects to handle including the booming of cannon, an explosion, a hanging of a thief and firing off a smoke machine during the battle scenes. From the audience there appeared to be a back wall to the set in the middle of a big arch, but this was part of the set and there was a passageway behind it for cast and crew to move from one side of the stage to the other behind the scenes. There were also walls, called flats in theater parlance, on the far sides to block the view of the goings-on backstage. These areas are crucial for allowing actors to get into position and stagehands like myself to set up the effects without distracting from what's going on onstage.

Secrets of special effects

Now, I'll let you in on the secrets of my special effects. For the cannon's boom we had one of those 55-gallon blue plastic barrels and we struck it with a mighty blow on the bottom with a baseball bat. I had originally wanted to fire a blank from a shotgun into the barrel for the boom but with us being downtown, there were reservations from higher ups and more cautious minds prevailed. For the audience, a big sudden boom offstage is a big sudden boom no matter how it's made.

For the explosion I fired a CO2 fire extinguisher. A blast of white "smoke" erupted from just behind one of the walls hiding me and with the actors feigning the shockwave it came off pretty realistic.

For the hanging we used a safety harness and a mountain climber's rope. With that kind of rig you can hang the same guy night after night, unlike the actual condemned men from history who only swung once. And for the battle scenes I had a Hollywood-style fog machine. On an outdoor stage like at Burr Park, my expertise came down to trying to ascertain which way the breeze was blowing and putting the fog machine in the right position. Some nights it worked great. Other nights the wind shifted.

Between those duties I had time to sit behind the set and take in the play. I couldn't see what was going on but Shakespeare's plays are primarily about the speech. It was like listening to a really well produced radio play. And backstage I could get a good idea of how the audience was taking things in, perhaps even better than the actors on stage who were in the midst of their performance and would have to wait for the bows at curtain call to gauge how the show was received. And being able to hear the play over several nights I got to know the scenes and lines in a familiarity that a one-night audience doesn't.

It's in that repetition of performance that I got to know the genius that is Shakespeare and see why they'll be doing his plays in another 400 years -- hopefully in Burr Park.

Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.

React to this story: