Journey to “Extreme” Cymbeline

 By Eric Hissom

I’ve been given the job of cutting the script for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s “Extreme” production of Cymbeline. For those new to the concept of “Extreme Shakespeare,” here’s the description from the PSF website: “Rehearsed akin to the way Shakespeare’s company would have: actors arrive with their lines memorized, rehearse on their own, wear what they can find, and open in a matter of days. No directors, no designers. Just great actors, a brilliant play, pure adrenaline, spontaneity, and creativity.”

 The play must be cut months in advance in order to cast it properly, and to give the actors plenty of time to memorize. Their lines must be down cold on day one of rehearsal. I understand the task put to these actors: I’ve performed in six “Extreme” productions at PSF, and have been cast as Cymbeline this year. Yes, I’m Cymbeline in Cymbeline. Not bad, huh? That’s the lead! Right?

 No, actually, it is not the lead. Sometimes, with Shakespeare’s plays, the title character is not the lead, but merely the ostensible authority figure, in this case: the Old King. Yes, my days of playing swashbuckling lovers or slapstick clowns are long gone, and I’m squarely in the Old King phase of my career. How did this happen? How did I become the guy cutting the script and playing the Old King? Well the answer, of course, is one day at a time. Or to put it in a theatrical context, one play at a time. As I worked on the cut of the script and contemplated its titular Old King, I mused on the path that led me to this place. 

My first Shakespearean role was Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, way back in the sepia-toned 1980s, when I was a sophomore at Miami University—in Oxford, Ohio. My Puck traveled via skateboard. This mode of transport was not my idea—it was my director’s— but since it was the best thing about my performance, I took credit for it whenever possible. The next year I played Romeo and, having no skateboard, nor any other clever gimmick, nor a director inclined to provide me with such a gimmick, I struggled. Though I’ve blocked most of it out, my memory of the critical response to my performance boils down to: “In the rare moments that Hissom’s Romeo is coherent he is shrill and off-putting.”

Fun fact: the standout performance in that production was by the fellow playing Mercutio, a young actor named Jim Helsinger. Yes, that Jim Helsinger: PSF stalwart and Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director. He had a knack for Shakespeare from the start. I have learned a lot from him, and count him among my favorite collaborators, and my dearest—and oldest—friends. Though, I’ll confess, the health of the friendship was touch-and-go for a few weeks in its infancy, when my envy at his mastery of Mercutio bordered on the homicidal. 

So, I graduated college thinking, okay, fine, maybe Shakespeare’s not for me. But, as I got into my career, the notoriously fickle gods of theatre kept thrusting me into Shakespeare plays. My understanding of how to tackle these texts and embody these roles had to grow, if only through trial and error, and osmosis. My love for the plays grew as well. And soon enough I had to accept the fact that I’d become a full-blown Shakespeare Nerd. 

Recently someone asked me how many Shakespeare productions I’d done in my career and I didn’t have a ready answer. So, I went home and counted them up, and the number is 53. Of course, I’ve done several of the plays multiple times. Six Tempests, for example, three of which were at PSF, including my very first show here, back in 1999. There are also a handful of the plays that I have yet to do. One of these plays (until now) was Cymbeline. Not only had I never done it, but I’d never seen it, and (oh the shame!) never even read it. I’d go so far as to say that, of all the plays in the ERIC HISSOM Cymbeline SCHUBERT THEATRE JULY 24 to AUGUST 4 10 • The Quill, Spring 2024 610.282.will canon, it was the one with which I was the least familiar. So, when Jason King Jones approached me about cutting the script, I was like, (gulp) “Sure?” 

Virtually every Shakespeare production— “Extreme” or otherwise— works from a cut script. This is standard practice. It is generally thought, in fact, that cutting the scripts was common even when Shakespeare was alive and acting in the plays himself. It seems to me that, to a large extent, the plays were written to be edited for performance. Let scholars pore over the complete texts; for performance I want them lean and mean, with strong forward momentum. 

There are several possible objectives when cutting a Shakespearean text, the main one being, of course, to shorten it. Many of his plays would run upwards of four hours if performed uncut. Cutting for clarity is common too. There are words, or whole chunks of text, that may be deemed too obscure for modern audiences. Another objective might be to eliminate or conflate some supporting characters, thereby cutting down on the cast size. Also, elements of the play—style, theme, the essence of a given character—can be recalibrated with artful cutting. 

The full text of Cymbeline is more than 29,000 words. My task was to get it down to around 18,000 words, meaning I had to slash over a third of the play. So, I gathered my lexicons and several hardcopy editions of the script, uploaded an editable digital version of the text, which would serve as a master for the cut, sat down with a tankard of coffee, and began reading Cymbeline for the very first time. 

I started off slowly and carefully, taking lots of notes, but was soon swept up in this wild adventure of a play. It’s generally included among Shakespeare’s “romances,” but this play defies genre. It has everything: comedy, tragedy, war, star-crossed lovers, political intrigue, multiple locations, multiple disguises, kidnappings, triple crossings, high stakes gambling, mistaken identities, misused elixirs, a wicked stepmother, and much more! Written late in his career, it’s as if Shakespeare wanted to write a play that was all plays in one.

How is one to go about cutting a play that is, as Valerie Wayne writes in the Arden edition, “so large in scope and packed with incident?” Well, the short answer is: very carefully. But how in the world will a company of actors bring this play to life with only four days of rehearsal and no director? It seems unlikely, but then it always does with these “Extreme” productions. I do think there is something about the adrenaline-fueled, collective-creativity of the “Extreme” process that may lend itself to this mixed-genre, extravaganza of a play. To find out how we do, you’ll have to come see it. I’ll be the old guy in the crown.