Auditioners fight for spots as a Shakespeare extra

Jay Winston, 48, of West Philadelphia, charges enemy lines during auditions for a spot in Shakespeare in Clark Park's "Henry IV" production.
Jay Winston, 48, of West Philadelphia, charges enemy lines during auditions for a spot in Shakespeare in Clark Park's "Henry IV" production. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 08, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Late-afternoon sun is streaming through the windows on the second floor of Christ Church's Neighborhood House, but Benjamin Camp is seeing none of it.

"The fog is rolling in," he intones. "It's a damp, sad, dark day."

Behind him, his soldiers ready themselves for what Camp has promised will be a battle of epic proportions.

The battle in question took place around 611 years ago, and the soldiers in formation are 15 Philadelphians with exactly no military experience.

But their enthusiasm to fight and die for king and country - if only on stage - is palpable.

The organizers of Shakespeare in Clark Park hope the group that showed up to audition at the Neighborhood House in Old City on Sunday will be part of a massive cast of extras that will recreate the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury in this summer's production of Henry IV.

The production, which will combine most of Henry IV, Part I with a scene from Henry IV, Part II, is something new for the company, which for eight summers has stuck mainly to Shakespeare's comedies. A 100-person battle in Clark Park is a departure for the group, and for the play itself - a typical Henry IV production portrays the battle in heavily stylized fashion, with just a few actors.

SCP organizers envisioned something grander - and something that involved more community members - and received a grant from the Knight Arts Challenge last year to do just that.

"[ Henry IV] centers around the idea that we're all wrestling with greatness," director Alex Torra said. "And in the battle, you can see everyday people being part of a grand movement, participating in a moment of national scale."

At Sunday's audition, Camp taught auditioners to stand in formation and to charge without incurring bodily harm (the key, he said, is to keep your elbows to yourself).

"Have any of you been in a marching band?" A few hands went up. "You'll be perfect," he said.

Some in the room had acting experience; others had never set foot on stage. All took easily to the soldiering life, yelling fearsomely on cue and sprinting across the room, arms raised, for about two hours.

"I thought they would ask us to shout and go on our way," said Cliff Schwinger, a 59-year-old structural engineer from Cheltenham. "It was completely different from what I expected. This is going to be so much fun."

There were no weapons and no costumes - those will come later - and everyone made the cut. Organizers hope for an army of 100 to 150 for the final production.

"100 people amplifying one moment - it's totally beautiful," Camp said.

The company will hold one more audition next month before rehearsals begin. In the meantime, Sunday's recruits said they looked forward to returning to the battlefield.

"It's Shakespeare," said Bryant Gaillard, a land surveyor from West Philadelphia. "How could you turn that down?"



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