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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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The birth of this institution here. How did that come about?

Dumb luck and I guess I had the wit to see it. There was a lady who had the Atlanta Shakespeare Association, which had done two or maybe three full productions when I met her. She was not big on the concept approach to Shakespeare either. She and I hit it off and she said that I could direct a Shakespeare play for her.

I had been a part of a Shakespeare cult in Chicago, which was an improv group. These people—who were really good actors, and I was not—their day job was Second City tour team. They were touring for Second City, and at night they were doing Paul Sills’ Story Theater—Paul Sills is the son of Viola Spolin, who wrote the seminal book Improvisation for the Theater. So they were busy actors. And then after that, at 11 o’clock, we would come together, and I got to work with these guys, and we would do Shakespeare with no rehearsal and no direction. They would teach us the basics of speaking verse, and the idea was you’d bring your own costume; if you carried a prop on, it was up to you to get it, and we would do these plays basically unrehearsed: we’d get one run-through and then we’d do it. A lot of it was awful, but there were whole sections of it that were just glorious, and it was usually the sections that these five improvisational actors were doing. So they had the precision of Shakespeare with the instincts of professional improvisators.

I worked with them for a long time, and that’s where I came up with the idea that the director or direction and rehearsal can actually be a detriment to the purity of the moment of performance and to the play itself. And then I had this opportunity to direct for this little company down here in Atlanta. But I couldn’t because I was going to go to Europe to see some great theater companies, and she was going to let me do it when I got back.

When I got back to Atlanta, she goes, “Well, I know I said you could direct a play, but I’m moving to New York, so, I’m sorry.” And I said, “You’re moving to New York? What about the play?” “What about it? I’m not here, there won’t be any company; that’s it." I said, “What about the company?” “You mean this rack of costumes?” I said, “Well you’ve been in existence for three years, you’ve got a grant history.” “Yeah, actually I even have a grant. We got a grant for a thousand dollars to do As You Like It.” And I said, “Well, I’ll do that.” She goes, “Well, I’m going to be gone.” “Well, what about the company?” And she said, “You can have it.” Then she said, “But it owes me $2,000.” [Laughs] “OK, so the company owes you $2,000, I’ve got a $1,000 grant coming in, but I can direct this play.” “Yes, sure.” “Let’s do that, Lisa.” So I bought me a typewriter to start with, and then she taught me how to write a report for the government because I had to rewrite the grant application, and then she was gone and I produced As You Like It at the back of Seven Stages Theater.

What I knew is that I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare—very little about it—and I knew that I didn’t want to impose anything. I wanted to do the play in such a way that the play could teach me what it wanted to do. I had a really good actor as Rosalind; it was kind of a mixed bag after that. Not very many people came to the back room of Seven Stages, but then we used to drink at Manual’s Tavern [a popular neighborhood bar owned by local politician Manuel Maloof], and I said, “This is where we ought to do Shakespeare. This is where the real people are. This is the right atmosphere.” Everybody laughed. I kept saying that for a week or two and finally somebody said, “Well, I can make that happen. I’m Manual Maloof’s campaign director and we need some entertainment for a fund-raiser he’s doing. You guys want to do your Shakespeare play for us?” I said, “Shakespeare in the back of Manual’s Tavern? Sure.” So we closed at Seven Stages and we set it up in the back room of Manual’s Tavern. We did four nights and got a little blurb in the Wall Street Journal because that’s where The Wall Street Journal’s stringer used to write. I thought that was cool.

After we closed it, I got a call from Entertainment Tonight and CNN and then Current Events, and then when CBS called and said, “Tell me about this play y’all are doing.” I said, “Well, it closed last night—but we’re doing it again next week, yes, we are!” [Laughs]. “Could I have your phone number?” Then I talked Maloof into letting me set it back up, and we did get covered by CNN and CBS and The New York Times. They let me do it every year.

When was this?

1985. We did five comedies, one a year up until 1990, and that’s when we moved into here. And I will say that in that environment—it only seated like 114 people—the audience was very, very close, we couldn’t ignore them and so we acknowledged them and we kind of fell into what I would call an Elizabethan aesthetic. But I also had caught the interest of Dr. Gretchen Schulz at Oxford College Emory University [a nationally known Shakespearean scholar, she ended up serving on the Atlanta Shakespeare Company board, published study guides for the plays and provided educational programs for teachers and students in the Atlanta area; she recently retired from her post at Emory]. She said, “Jeff, Jeff, this is exactly the way it was at the Globe.” So she started to explain to me that at the Globe, there was no fourth wall, at the Globe the actors and audience could see each other, at the Globe—I mean, it just went on and on.

I was also getting trashed in the press for being a huckster and a charlatan who was doing these plays without any real respect or training…
Like Shakespeare himself.
Yeah, really. So I started talking about the Elizabethan performance reality.

Little did I know—actually I didn’t make this connection until a few years back—that my training as a street performer was ideal for this. Because, fundamentally, as a street performer—and this is something I did learn early on—when you don’t do the setup properly, you don’t get the payoff. And if you’re performing for your living, what that means is you don’t get food. You don’t get food, you’re hungry. I mean, it’s really that simple.

From the beginning, we never really had any inspired support for us. I attracted, for the longest time, and still do, dysfunctional single people with advanced degrees who think we’re wonderful, but none of those rich financiers or political muscle who can really get something done. We’ve had to earn it every step of the way. So our contract, if you will, is with the audience, not with the funders, not with the critics, not with the intelligentsia. It’s people, regular, normal people. I come back to that time and time again because, for my money, great art will speak to everyone. A guy up the street at the other Shakespeare festival, he meant it as an insult but it didn’t come out that way to me, said, “At the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, anybody can enjoy that.” [Laughs]

Which is the idea.

Yeah, that’s what I’m going for.

I had my theories, too, of why the British do what they do and how the Americans are copying what the British are doing, and it doesn’t really have resonance with us, and it has led to an elitist theater. The worst part about it is the funders, the people who are charged with funding us, don’t care for [elitist theater]. I even heard one of them say, “I’ll give you the damn money, just don’t make me sit through that crap.” And really it shouldn’t be that way. Shakespeare can move anyone. And it’s a shame that so much…
“All that crap,” meaning Shakespeare in general?
I guess this is somebody who had sat through one too many productions where the digression from the original material was too extreme and it left that person feeling stupid.

Ever been to the Tate or Museum of Modern Art in New York?

Yeah.

OK, so a lot of times you can look at a piece of art and go, “What the hell is that? My God, that’s art?” Sometimes you can walk up to it and you can read the story about what the artist was thinking and then you can go, “Wow! Yeah! Now I get it.” Well, you know there are some jokes that are funny after they’re explained to you, [he leans in close] but a really great joke needs no explanation. And really great art needs no explanation. And you don’t have to conceptualize it.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to do that or anything bad about that. I’ve seen phenomenal conceptual Shakespeare in my time. That’s the exception rather than the rule. Very often I see theater created by theater people—dare I say it?—for other theater people. I’ll quote Dominic Dromgoole of the Globe, where he says that modern Shakespeare, modern theater has digressed to become a dialogue among the director and the design team and the critic to which the audience is privileged to be a witness.

That’s not what I’m about. And I’ve got the bad reviews to prove it. I tend to make a great first and second impression, and then after that it’s like, “What’s up, what’s new? Show me something innovative. What’s your take?” I don’t have a take.

Actually, when I started I meant to let the plays teach me enough so I could monkey with them, but I’ve never gotten past that. The plays keep talking to me. There’s more there, even to the point where I’ve done the play five or six times in some cases. I am not in the least bit interested setting it in the Wild West or on a spaceship or these other kinds of things.

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