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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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To the canon then. Did you set out to do the entire canon, or was it a point where you’re kind of going—and I was looking at the posters down there [in the lobby]—was it a point of going, “We’ve done Pericles but not King John and if we get Timon in, we’re there"?

Well, it was two years ago when I just went through the list of plays, and I thought, “Wow! There aren’t very many we haven’t done.” Then I counted them and there were four that we hadn’t done before I found out about Edward III. So then the question was, What do you want to do, Jeff? Do you want to do one a year for four years, which is, you know [long pause] timid [laughs], or do you just want to do them all in a single year? I decided I just want to get them all done in a year.

What four were they?

They were Coriolanus, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

You’d done King John?

We’ve done King John. We’ve done it twice. Good play.

A lot of people can’t get their head around King John, and it made perfect sense to us. Again, it comes down to the instructive nature of the histories, which is to demonstrate and show the Englishmen watching them what their job is as Englishmen. You have two things about King John that befuddle modern directors. Number one is you’ve got this great play going and the guy just dies. What’s that about, he just dies? They bring him out in a chair and he just dies, there’s no drama to it at all. What’s that about? Well, you’ve got to understand, it isn’t just a guy, it’s the f*****g king. The king! There’s only one king, God’s ordained, head of the top of the being, right there, and you’re watching his last breath. Hello! That’s a big deal. That would be like every night you’re doing a musical or something and some real pregnant woman walks across the stage and actually gives f*****g birth on the stage. Modern people would go nuts over that. So that’s a big deal.

The other thing is that you have a king who’s basically well-intentioned and of noble birth, but he is subject to the foibles of his own nature; and who upholds the honor of the nation is the bastard to the lowborn. So, what we’re showing here is even if you’re a bastard, even if you’re a lowborn, the weight and honor of the integrity of the entire nation and the success of who we are as a people depends on you. That’s a big message. Modern directors are entirely likely to completely miss that because, um, well because they’re modern directors and they haven’t done all the damn plays and they’re musing about doing, “Well, King John could be like W, he could be George Bush. That’s right, that’s right. And H.W. could be…” You know? They come up with all these kinds of approaches, and they get further and further away from what’s going on so you miss that thing in the play.

So, yes, we did King John and I loved the production so much I brought it back for a three-peat, which is a repertoire thing, just because I was showing off and I thought it’s good showing off. I did the same thing with Richard II and a couple of others where we probably could have made more money doing Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I stuck them in the repertoire.

So the four, you decided to get through those in one year.

Yeah, and I made that decision, and then somebody said, what about Edward III? And I said, “What?” And they handed me the Riverside. It’s in the new Riverside and has been since 1998, and I had it in my office but hadn’t bothered to read it. I started to read it and I thought, “S***, this is Shakespeare.” And I go back and read the introduction and they finally conclude it’s one person and it’s Shakespeare. I start reading it out loud and I go, “It’s Shakespeare. I have to do this.”

So I decided to put that into the rep as well. I did get a single sponsor who gave some serious money that I leveraged as a matching challenge, and I raised $100,000 to do this project over this past year. It hasn’t been enough, so I need to do some more fund-raising. But we got them all done in one year because that’s actually much more my nature as opposed to trying to slip one in, unbeknownst—“This is the play no one wants to see.”

The other thing is that the company is at a pivotal place. We’re strangling in our current facility because we don’t have the capacity to make more money. On the times we could sell more tickets, we could sell a lot more tickets, but I don’t have room to do that. I’ve done all kinds of things to do as many performances in that room as possible and we average about 250 performances a year in there, 51 weeks a year, 12–14 productions. We’ve done 11-show weeks where we’re doing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday matinees, and we’re doing Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday evenings, and we’re doing Friday and Sunday late nights. We’re doing all kinds of stuff in an effort to get more out of what we’ve got. But we can’t do it. So we’ve got to grow because I’ve got these people on health insurance, which keeps ratcheting up. Health insurance costs have gone up 41 percent in the last five years. It’s just rapacious and they don’t care what my tickets cost. They don’t care that I’m trying to keep it affordable. It’s pay it or don’t; pay it or die.

So I’ve got to have a bigger place and I knew we were going to get to the point where we’ll have to, to a greater degree, program to the money. In America, people will say, if you want to succeed, find out what your audience wants and give them that. I’m here to tell you that the largest audience wants Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christmas Carol, and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). For an adventurous thing you can throw in Taming of the Shrew, and that’s pretty much it. Every four years, you can do a Hamlet. And that’s it, because that’s what they think of as Shakespeare.

There is a very robust business plan to be made on the first-time ticket buyer, and those are the only titles that I need. And I don’t really need much of a company to keep that going. But that’s not who we are and that’s not what I want to be. We want to do the whole canon. We want to be more than that. So, we’ve got to expand, but I do know that we’re at a pivotal point with one theater space that we’re going to have to program more and more of that. So this last year, I really wanted to reach out to the übergeeks in my audience, and I really wanted to sound the horn to say, “We’re the company that does it all.” I wanted to solidify those relationships to those people who care the most about the whole rep.

And I will say this. [During] Coriolanus, one night I came in the back door, there were less than a hundred people in that house, but by the time I got to the lobby I had $4,700 in my pocket. People were slipping me checks saying, “Thank you for doing this work.” They’d gotten my e-mails and they knew that we needed to do that.

I’ve got no big money anywhere. I don’t have a Winton Blount, I don’t have a Melita Hayes, I don’t have anybody who’s doing that for us. But I do have a large group of people—not as big as it should be—but I only have about 1,200 to 1,400 geeks, and then there’s a bunch of other people who come a little bit and a mass of people who are happy to come the first time and bring grandmother for her birthday to see All’s Well That Ends Well. And it works because we’re very unpretentious about our presentation. And we’re consistent with what we deliver.

You answered my question about Edward III, which was, Why? There’s a whole apocrypha out there. Edmund Ironside was attributed to Shakespeare at one point.

Well, I’m happy to look at it. I’m not as well read as one might imagine; I don’t have time to go digging.

When they train people for the Federal Reserves to spot counterfeit bills, they lock them in a room six days a week for six weeks, and they only let them handle real money. They don’t show them any fakes. Graduation day, they put some fakes in there, and they can knock them off like that [snaps his fingers]. After spending all that time with the real money, they can spot the fake. That’s the way I feel we are. I’ve got these smarty-pants academics coming in here and I will say with some authority that Edward III is Shakespeare, and they’ll go, “Well, how do you know that?” And they look down their nose at it. And I’ll lead with, “Have you ever heard it spoken?” They normally haven’t. “Well, I have, actually, a number of times, a couple of dozen, because I produced it and I actually spoke the text, so take it from someone who's spoken more Shakespeare text live on stage for money than you’ve ever met in your life, this is the real deal.” So, if I encounter the real deal, I feel pretty good about jumping in on it.

Now, Double Falsehood, none of us, even on the first reading—we just said no. Not only the way it’s plotted but everything about it, the very coarse nature of it didn’t speak to us. And after they got into it—I wasn’t here for half of the rehearsal process because I was doing a tour in London—they started leading to this 18th century approach to theater, much more melodramatic, and that seemed to ring true, so we really went completely with that. We’ve made, I believe, an entertaining piece of theater. The RSC is doing Cardenio at the moment and they’re using part of the Double Falsehood script with some other stuff. I really wish I had seen that because they take themselves so seriously. It would have been interesting to see how they could make that thing work, although they may be able to because they are the RSC.

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