Those who have come to see Antony and Cleopatra may have been welcomed to the theater by actor John Floyd. As Mardian, a member of Cleopatra’s entourage, he can be found chatting with audience members or passing around grapes at the beginning of the show. But did you know he is also the production’s movement director? Floyd took a vacation from Egypt to speak to the Spotlight about how he worked with the cast to create the production’s acclaimed choreography.
As Mardian, you are a part of Cleopatra’s entourage. How did you work on your relationships within that group?
Simoné [Elizabeth Bart, Charmian], Nicole [King, Iras], and I had a lot of conversations, both with Shirine [Babb, Cleopatra] and without, to figure out the hierarchy. My comparison is, if Cleopatra is the president, then Charmian is the chief of staff, Iras is the vice president, and Mardian is the press secretary: Charmian is probably the only person who actually gets to touch the queen without permission, whereas Iras needs to be invited in, and Mardian handles money, access, and the flow of information. Simoné and I decided we don’t think we make too many mistakes whereas Iras gets in a bit of trouble from time to time. Of course I screw up in the end which is my reason I don’t come back to the monument—I’m too afraid she will be mad and kill the messenger.
But you aren’t only an actor for this production, you’re also the movement director. Tell me about what it was like working on the dances for this piece.
From the reading of the script we knew there was one choreographed piece, the wedding dance. That was originally it. Since we didn’t have the music yet, Bailey [Nassetta, assistant director] and I found a stand-in on YouTube, I went home and listened to it over and over until I came up with two choreographed phrases. What you see now is mostly what I had then, with maybe one or two eight counts changed and a little more added because of the dialogue. The biggest thing that changed was the music. Adam [Stamper, sound designer] was so great because we gave him the piece that I had found, and he used it to compose something similar, but that fit with the soundscape he had already built.
Was the process different for choreographing the sea battle?
The sea battle developed through rehearsals. One day while stumbling through the phrase, the men and I figured out we could use the first phrase of the wedding dance, but add the swords. The phrase is repeated on the triangle, then again when Cleopatra enters the battle, and then once more in slow motion. I really love how it came out; it’s my favorite thing to watch.
Beyond these set pieces, there are a number of other instances of movement playing a part in telling the story. How did you work with the actors to achieve that?
Robert [Richmond, director] wanted to differentiate the way Rome looked and the way Egypt looked in our bodies: Rome should be stiff and Egypt should be “snake–like,” which we took to mean fluid and relaxed. I started with the women by putting on some music and having them walk from one end of a room to the other. I told Shirine, “It’s your room, do whatever you want to, walk as you please.” Then I told the girls to also walk around, and to keep their gazes out but to always be aware of what Shirine was doing and where she went: “If she stops, you stop. If she starts walking, you start walking.” And that’s how we built that movement. For the top of the show, with their entrance, it’s really just building on that movement. Every night they have a walking pattern to follow, but they improvise along that pattern.
And in Rome?
Rome was soldiers, very rigid, like stones. With the men, I had watched this piece by DV8 about exploring masculinity. The piece looks nothing like what we’ve got, because it’s a bar full of drunken men holding up pint glasses, but I liked where their center of gravity was, with their knees bent. So I started with that and combined it with some Suzuki training from college and did a walking exercise with the men, but with their fists on their chest and elbows out, chest up. Eventually I told them to make noise like little grunts here and there. We did that for about two days, and we played with it, with a leader in front that the rest of the group had to align themselves with.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
I often peek out to watch or just listen to Nigel Gore’s speech about Cleopatra, but I love watching everyone work. It’s an amazing cast.
Thanks so much to John for speaking with us! Come see him perform in Folger Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra, on stage now through November 19. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.