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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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So Richard II blew you away, what about the audience, was there any play that…

Timon of Athens was an extraordinary experience. We had the right actor in Maurice Ralston doing that. When I picked the director, I said I think Maurice needs to play this part, because he's the only person I'd want to hear complain to that degree. But that one in recent memory certainly was quite a revelation.

And actually a lot of people will tell you that this season has been a revelation because Two Noble Kinsmen was enormously popular and very successful, and people want to see that more and more, they want to see it in the repertoires. And again I had the two right actors for that.

Does this mean that the entire canon is going to be more of your repertoire as you go forward?

I want it to be. I really want it to be. I think the closer we get to Shakespeare’s own business model, the more successful we will be. And I think that the current mode of operations for modern theaters of rehearsing four to five weeks and doing the same play every day for four to five and six weeks is deadly. I think having a standing company that has a number of plays in the repertoire for very short runs is the way to not only keep it fresh but to find new depths and an extraordinary level of possibility in the performance of it. And I think that audiences would respond to that over time.

I’m really looking forward to the day that I have a Shakespeare Tavern app. When you want to know what’s playing at the Shakespeare Tavern, you tap the button on your phone and it will give you two or three options you have in a two- or three-day period. One of the problems nowadays with repertoire is people want their marketing in a bullet and it can’t be complicated. If you’re doing a different show on Thursday than you’re doing on Friday or Saturday, you’re screwed before you even start. They don’t care, they’re just going to move on and do something else. “Well, let’s go see Pirates of the Caribbean because we know it’s here at that time.” Social media holds out a fair amount of promise in that we don’t have to print large grids, and if we can get them all trained up, we’ll just get that Tavern app; you can just punch in the button and you’ll see what’s playing.

The other thing we do is we sell the brand of what we’re doing more so than just the play.

I was thinking that one advantage you’ve got is you could do four different plays a week and get return audiences because you do food.

Well, that’s part of it. The fact is there are not enough restaurants around here to support an organization this size, so we have to do the food. I don’t make anything on the food; I do make on the beverage sales. My food lady is a separate business, but we’re negotiating that for the future. Also, if you look at Ashland, if you look at the RSC, if you look at Alabama, the ability to have two or three plays in a three-day period is huge. We did have someone fly here from London to see The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III because that completed his canon, and we had them coming from all over the country to see these plays because they could complete their canon.
The reason I’m here.
Yeah, yeah. Sorry you missed Edward III.
I know.
A flawed play, but worth seeing once or twice.
If you do it again, I’ll get here.
We will do it again when we do the history evolution series, which would be the second year after we have our new theater space. We’d have to be very strong financially to do that.

We talked about the successes. Any of the plays that you were disappointed in? And not in the productions, but the plays when you saw them on stage.

[10-second pause] You know, the playwright has never let me down.

Other than Edward III.

Edward III I think is certainly worth watching once or twice, more out of just a curiosity aspect. It has a place. It’s a piece of art that requires context. It’s like that piece of modern art where you look at it and go “What?” and then you read about the context and you go “Oh, I get it. Oooh cool.” If you really put yourself in the idea of what it meant to be an Elizabethan and you understand who Edward the Black Prince was to your nation and you get to see him as a teenager earn his spurs, that’s a big deal. That’s like watching George Washington chop down the damn cherry tree, and the idea that you can experience that is a big deal. It’s also a very early part of your history, so in the context of the whole history cycle it’s actually very interesting. But as a play itself, visually it’s not particularly exciting, and structurally it lacks mastery. You can certainly tell it’s Shakespeare, there’s some really good stuff in it, but it doesn’t soar and you’ve got to want it to do it. The same director doing Double Falsehood did Edward III; with Double Falsehood the material wasn’t up to it, so he took it somewhere to make it an evening of entertainment, but he played Edward III straight as an arrow. I’m very proud of that production.

But the playwright has never let me down. We’ve had productions that were less successful than others over the many years we’ve done them. Actually, that was one of the big surprises. You asked what were the surprises. As we were doing these last plays, I kept expecting to get up to the clunker, to get to the one that really had nothing to offer and there’s a reason the play is never done, and I never found that. Henry VIII was satisfying in its own way. Timon of Athens was enormously satisfying. I actually [directed] Henry because I thought that was going to be the worst of the four. I [directed] Coriolanus because I thought it was the best of the four, and I had Two Noble Kinsmen—actually two or three people have been telling me to do that for years—and I took a big chance on giving that to Troy Willis because he’s not an experienced director but, like myself, he’s really big on allowing the play to become what it wants to be, not what he thinks it should be. And that play had a lot to offer, in particular with those two guys together. If I didn’t have those two actors, it might have been a stinker.

The playwright has never let me down, and that’s surprising in and of itself.

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