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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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You mentioned the ones that everybody wants to see, like Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream. But after you had done every play at least once, were there any real surprises for you, something you didn’t expect to work but did?

Do you mean was I surprised by the response or surprised by the play?

Either way. Both.

Well, the most shocking one for me, I think, was probably Richard II. I’d heard it was a great play, but every time I read it, all I got was all this unrelenting, irregularized verse structure. I’d done Henry IV, Part One, before I’d gotten to do Richard II. We did a Henry V before I’d gotten to do Richard II. Richard II seemed to be humorless. I’d also seen a production of it in France that was very moving but had huge concept elements to it and there was no humor in it. And I didn’t understand the nature of that play.

Then when it came time to actually do it, somehow there was a connection to a chord of what that period in English history meant to the Elizabethans. In many ways when they looked back to their history, [it was] the same as us looking at the Wild West, Marshal Dillon, and those kinds of mythic figures. So this is a mythic kind of a thing. Then the progression from the opening sequence of the banishment and the almost fight in that soaring language to the end where you had all those lords throwing their gauntlets down left and right and center, how funny and hilarious it was when we got to that. Then at the very end of it when Henry Bolingbroke keeps saying, “Good aunt, please stand up, stand up, stand up!” It was hysterical, they were rolling in the f*****g aisle. I had seen a production of that and it wasn’t funny at all. And it was like, clearly it’s funny. I mean this is funny.

So you start it in one place and then it was very, very funny and it made an amazing segue into the Henry IV plays. Jeff McKerley played Richard II, and he had done a lot of clowns for me, but I’d never seen his dramatic work to that degree, and it was probably the best Shakespeare performance, certainly one of the top one, two, or three that we’ve had here, and that I’ve ever seen anywhere. He just so clearly illustrated for me, and I guess it crystalized in every sense of the way, the entire chain of being that the Elizabethans believed in or lived by, where someone started at the absolute pinnacle of it and at the very end of the play, he was at the extreme bottom of society, that whole journey through there. So I guess the clarity and the power and the mastery of that play was a shock to me. And then how that set a standard going into the Henry IV plays, and then we were doing the entire Henriad, and we did all four of those plays in repertoire in about six weeks.

So that was the one that I had no inkling of the real power that was there until I actually saw it enacted.

Did you not direct that?

I directed it. But I read the play, and I don’t like to read them anymore, hardly. [Laughs] It’s good, we’ve done them all, so I don’t need to read them as much. I read the play and I give everybody the right part, and then the real fun begins just investigating how it all works.

Now I do have a pet theory, which is that the Folio act structure is also the rehearsal schedule. No academic would ever support me on this because I have no other basis except the fact that for 10 years I’ve been basing our rehearsal schedule off the Folio act schedule, the way the Folio acts break. I haven’t heard anybody give me a compelling reason for why they’re broken up the way they are in the Folio. But when I was doing Richard II, I’m looking at the pages, and there’s like three pages [for] Act IV, and it’s just the one scene, the gauntlet scene. And I go, “Well, there goes my theory. There’s no way in the world this is going to take 4 1/2 hours.” Well, it took 4 1/2 hours. It did and at the end of it, I just said, “Well, there it is." That validated it for me.

And I’ve noticed over the years there is never a battle and a party. There are certain kinds of scenes that even for Shakespeare ate up huge amounts of rehearsal time, and you never have two of them in a single act. He always put the act break in such ways that you only have to deal with one of them in there. And if you look at the way the acts are broken up and you get to a huge section and you’ll realize that it’ll be Orlando and Rosalind. Rosalind probably lived in Orlando’s household, and they could do that bit themselves, then bring that part in so that when they’re putting it together in the one day they didn’t have to do that.

Just think about what they had to do in the day: the sun comes up, you’ve got to wake up in the morning, you’ve got to milk your goats, milk your cow, got to stuff something in your face, got to kiss your wife, got to walk out the door, got to take care of some kind of business, show up at the theater and then you only have a certain amount of daylight before the show starts, and the show is going to take you almost to sundown and then you’re done. So your rehearsal schedule is going to be 4 1/2 to five hours max. And if it’s a show you know, you don’t have to rehearse before you perform that day so you can rehearse something else. Then I saw Shakespeare in Love and it just made perfect sense. He writes an act, they rehearse an act. I don’t know if he was doing it that way, but certainly having five rehearsals made sense of a brand-new play that nobody had ever done. Five rehearsals seem to me to be about the right amount.

Now, in my case, we do five rehearsals and then we do a work-through, and then we do a run-through, then we do the tech and the dress, then we open.

And you do your rehearsals based on the acts?

Yeah, that’s generally how I’ve done it in the past several years. We rehearse anywhere from 20 to 45 hours for a play. A play we’ve done before, less than 20 perhaps. A big play with combat stuff, maybe 65 or 70 hours. Other companies will rehearse 120, 200 hours. Mind-numbing.

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