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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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Before we get into the whole canon stuff, a brief history of you. I don’t know anything about you. You’re just this guy running this cool place here. Where did you come from?

That’s a good question.

I’m from Texas originally, and my father was a number of things, a small businessman and a photographer, and he was also a magician. He taught me magic when I was growing up. So when I got to college—actually, I found Shakespeare by the [Franco] Zeffirelli film [Romeo and Juliet]. That really turned my crank and I fell in love with that Olivia de Hussey gal. I couldn’t believe it. That red dress and jet-black hair and almond eyes, the décolletage. Oh, my God! that woman. I was only 13 at the time, so that pricked my interest, as it were, in a Shakespearean sense.

I was doing magic and got a theater degree because that’s where all the smart, interesting women were, although I didn’t realize at the time most of them were nuns—theater nuns, we came to call them. After college, I made a living as a magician. I was doing street magic. I did a stint in New York and then Chicago. That is a particular performance style that’s really important. My undergraduate degree [in theater] had no Shakespeare component; they taught me Greek, Roman, Medieval, and then Restoration.

They skipped Elizabethan.

Yeah. Thank God. Really, I am so grateful, because everybody else in my profession is given a matrix of the reconceptualization and repackaging of these old classics. So what you get is the mainstream American conceptual approach to Shakespeare, which never ever spoke to me personally. And I wasn’t trained in it. Having been trained in theater and then as a street performer, when I would come to these concept pieces, I’m going, “Obviously, there’s real power here somewhere, but that ain’t it.”

Also, the audiences for that kind of theater, they’re just dull. I remember doing magic in New York on the street, and I could have a phenomenal time in Washington Square with this multiethnic, multiclass audience, these people going nuts, loving everything I’m doing. They were so much fun to perform for, but I wouldn’t make any money. Then I could go down to the Wall Street district where you have all these button-down guys, and make a good amount of money. Just 20 minutes I could make 30 or 40 bucks, which was a lot of money back then, and I could eat, get the train back out, get one more meal and get back down. But they weren’t any fun to perform for.

I would say that this intelligentsia audience seems to respond to what I call American-concept Shakespeare. They’re not normal people. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just saying that they’re not normal people. If you come to my theater, for the most part you’re going to see a very diverse audience, and a lot of them are just normal people. And they’re responding directly to the work itself. They’re not responding to my idea of the work or my conceptualization of the work.

Anyway, as a street performer I learned that if you do a proper setup, you get a proper payoff. That’s the basis for all show business. You have to lay the exposition out, you’ve got to get your storyline in place, then you can bring it all together in act four and act five. So, much of modern Shakespeare, the way I’ve come to describe it, is modern visual artists creating visual simile and visual metaphor in counterpoint to Shakespeare’s poetry. So you have two things going on. You have Shakespeare’s play, and then you have a modern digression or a modern construct of visual poetry, which is ideal for the modern theater because the modern theater has turned into a very visual medium. And we’re a very visual society. You hear this all the time: [the Elizabethans] were aural, we’re visual. So modern theater technicians use Shakespeare as the opportunity to do that.

And it drives me crazy. What I crave is actors speaking to an audience in real time, wielding their text in a room with people who are acknowledged as being there, and having a real possibility of communion, if you will. That’s what we’re about.

For me, poetry by definition is already a distillation, and it is a distillation to something that is by definition complete. And if it is complete, woe betide the fool who wants to go out and put a bunch of other stuff on top of it. But that’s what they tend to do, and it costs a lot of money. I don’t have that kind of money, and it only speaks to a very small percentage of the population.

[One night at the Tavern], I was busing tables and there were these two older ladies sitting there and they had a teenager with them and I come over and say, “Is this your first time here?” The little girl goes. “Uh-huh,” and the two ladies look at each other and say, “Well, no, no we’ve been several times.” “Well, how long have you been coming?” “Oh, I don’t know, I guess it’s been two years.” So I said, “What have you seen?” And they start naming all these Shakespeare plays. And I said, “Oh, so you have an affinity for Shakespeare.” And they looked at each other and said, “No, we just love y’all.” [Laughs] I just thought, these are country people and they didn’t live in the city, they were driving in from somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere, they found us by accident somehow, and there they are, coming to see Shakespeare play after Shakespeare play after Shakespeare play because they “Love y’all.” They’re not here for the intellectual stimulation or the fun of seeing King Lear with a pink silk tie talking on a cell phone.

From my perspective, your production does not come home for that. But it’s amazing, I see it all the time. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company last month and they were doing the “Merchant of Vegas,” and I’m sure they must have considered using that title. It was set in Las Vegas. Patrick Stewart played Shylock. They had a game show with television monitors for the three [chests]. And this is something I’ve always really noticed is that the concept guys, they love the exposition, because every time a new element comes in, they can show you how “that’s like…” and then fill in the blank. But then what happens is as you get into Acts Four and Five, where the real theater is happening, it’s like you’ve found your exposition, you’ve found your setup, and then it becomes a burden. Where do you go with it? So when it got to the trial scene where you have the law of commerce as exemplified by the empire of Venice coming into conflict with the immutable law of the Israelites, and in the middle is all this racism. So you have these two huge forces coming together and you’ve got Christianity all tied up in the middle, and you go to Vegas. What is Vegas? Vegas is no consequences. No morality. It’s whatever you get away with, you get away with. So when it came time for the trial scene, everything about legal precedent rang hollow because the Doge of Venice was just a guy in a big trench coat who looked like a cigar-chomping mob boss. But he didn’t have the text to support that, so he’s out of whack. They threw a ton of money at it, and of course it was RSC so the diction was just immaculate.

And then my final conclusion with the RSC is, because they rehearsed seven to 12 weeks, every single decision about the text had been made before we arrived. So what we saw was a rehearsed conversation along agreed-upon lines. It was a theater of no possibility. And it was an expensive theater of no possibility. They’re the RSC and I’m just some schmuck from Georgia, but it didn’t do much for me, and the people in my tour group, they’d been ruined for Shakespeare because they come here all the time and they expect to be acknowledged, and if you don’t they get ticked off about it.

But there’s also the whole world of acting that believes what we’re trying to do is to create characters. What they completely miss is the meta-theatrical layer on top of it. You know how the Western mind separates the mind and the body, and how Eastern philosophy goes, “No, there is no separation”? That’s so hard for us to get our heads around. For the Elizabethans, this idea that history and story and actor are somehow separated and there’s the concept of the way it really was or the way people really talked, none of that made any difference. If you have an actor on stage saying he’s Henry V and he’s talking to you as though you’re there at the Battle of Agincourt and you’re moved as an Englishman and your heart beats faster, you’ve had an emotional experience. And that’s the definition of truth. It isn’t "what must it have really been like?"

When we did Henry VIII, which is a very thin play, or All Is True—boy, there’s a tongue in your cheek—what you have is a rewriting of recent history being performed for people who lived through that history, and they’re likely not to be taken in. You see a play of “good,” “wise” King Henry VIII and how smart he is, and you get to see his good queen Katherine and what a tragedy that she’s put aside for all the right reasons, and all this stuff is going on, but the characters don’t really hold much water. So, what I said to my company was, “This is a history play, so bear in mind, first and foremost, it is an instructional device. We’re here to instruct the audience how to feel about Archbishop Cranmer. We’re here to remind the audience of certain aspects of Henry VIII’s reign. So we are actors whose job it is to propagandize this way, by playing the actors whose motivation isn’t to get this tax raised or lowered but whose motivation is to change your thinking on what a fine and avuncular individual Archbishop Cranmer was—in fact, he probably presided over the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of your friends and relatives.”

I’ve got to say [that the actors] beat me up all the time because they want to do what they call their table work, where we sit around in a room and we discuss everything before we’ve learned the text. And I have no patience for this at all. The actors who work for me will tell you that they are the chief architects of their performance; I don’t tell them what to do. But what they have to do is make those choices with their text. I have no time or patience for sitting in a room full of imaginative individuals hypothesizing what something may or may not mean or what somebody’s brother may or may not have been or whether or not Lady McB had one or two children or whatever it is, based on their reading of the text. Until they can stand up and speak their text with authority on their feet, I just don’t care what they think. I don’t care at all. And don’t take my time to burden me with it. After you’ve learned your text, and we’re working it, if you’ve got something you want to share, like “what about…?” I can say, “Show me.” And then we can do it quickly and we can make that decision. I’m very open to that.

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