Ok, so, because blogging intimidates me, I have waited a long time to post and now have so much to say I think I am going to have to parse it out over a series of posts. Ok, start from the beginning, Cat:
For the last few weeks I have been working on Richard III as part of the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit as assistant director. For those of you not familiar with the Unit, it is an old Joe Papp initiative that has recently been revived and is lovingly nurtured by the awesome Barry Edelstein. The Mobile Unit is designed to bring Shakespeare to populations that wouldn’t normally have access to it or be likely to attend a traditional show. The show tours to prisons, old age homes, homeless shelters, community shelters, etc before returning to the Public for a three week bare bones run in the LuEster. The show will not change between the tour and the Public, so both audiences will see an intimate, in-your-face, stripped down production with little design and no theatrical lighting. The idea is to get at the heart of the story and the language and rely on the power of those things to reach an audience.
Amanda Dehnert, the director of the production, is very at home with this kind of performance and, as someone who has had much less experience with (for lack of a better word) a more guerilla or street theater based approach, it has been both fascinating and extremely valuable to see how she works and think about how I can use the lessons of this production not just on similar shows, but in my work in general.
One of the things I am learning about directing Shakespeare is that much of the director’s vision and point of view is contained in their cut of the script. For this project, the goal was to have a 90 minute, intermission-less version of the play. In getting to that Amanda focused our play very specifically on Richard’s personal journey. Our play is about a man, versus about politics or morality or power. I mean, of course it is about all those things too, but the cut focuses the audience’s experience primarily on Richard’s emotional, intellectual, psychological and physical journey. This is similarly supported by the casting. Ron Cephas Jones plays Richard and only Richard. All other actors play a large variety of roles. And while our excellent actors have made strong specific choices for each character, it is clear from the cut that our primary interest in these people is based on how they fit into Richard’s machinations.
In addition to its focus and clarity, the other thing that struck me about Amanda’s cut was its boldness. In our play, whole characters are gone (not to mention scenes). Speeches are put into the mouths of characters they were not originally intended for. Lines cut from one scene appear in another. Original text sits next to Shakespeare’s (sometimes obviously, sometimes not). Yet, all of these changes are in service to the story and being faithful to its spirit and the clarity of its telling. I suppose this should not be a revelation for me. For my graduate thesis I adapted and directed The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Through that process I discovered that being faithful to the spirit of something often means being bold and ruthless with the literal text. My first draft, which stuck extremely closely to the structure and language of the novel didn’t feel like Atwood’s book at all, but my reworked and strongly edited version prompted people to tell me how effectively I put the book on stage. It should not be surprising that the same would be true of a Shakespeare cut. This is one of the huge lessons that I will take with me from this project. Before, I had felt tentative with Shakespeare. Who was I to mess with a genius’ work? I didn’t feel equipped or important enough or something. I was intimidated. In grad school, I was asked to do a cut of Lear and, not yet truly grasping the importance of a cut, I just excised sections that were clearly intended for an Elizabethan audience and would not be meaningful to a contemporary one. And I was frustrated when my work was not making the grade. Now, I realize that I was ducking the real assignment – to use the cut to elucidate point of view. Now I want another chance. I actually have a great idea for Lear and I may actually start working on the cut now in the hopes that, someday, I will have the chance to do it.
One last thing I forgot to mention – one of the things that makes Amanda’s cut really work is her deep understanding of both the full text of the play and also of the use of language and scansion. Amanda knows Richard III backwards and forwards and understands how the poetry of the language impacts the meaning and sensation of the play. Each edit is carefully considered and never interrupts the meter.
Stay tuned for my next posts – I will be talking about:
- Differences between a more traditional approach vs a more “street theater” one
- How the democratization of the process impacts the audience’s experience
- My observations of how different audiences have responded to the work