The Richmond Shakespeare Festival Enters its Third Act
Before we discuss the Bard, maybe you should tell the readers a bit about yourself and the festival.
I’m the producing artistic director of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival (June 9-26), and this is my first year on the job. I’m also the executive director of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, which is an international organization for producers of his plays. That group has over 150 members right now, and Richmond Shakespeare Festival is one of them. The Globe in London is a well-known member.
Why should someone living in Indianapolis drive an hour and a half to see a play?
This is a remarkable festival with remarkable talent. Richmond Shakespeare Festival started out three years ago as a community effort, and that element is still very much here, but this year we brought our King Lear in from New York. His name is Steven Patterson. He’s an excellent Lear. So the quality of the acting will be high. So will the production quality. We’re also in the old Star-Gennett building, which is a historically significant building, especially when it comes to the development of jazz. The park has just been redone as well. It’s beautiful down there. If you come to Richmond, you are really going to find world-class Shakespeare.
And what’s your pitch for even wanting to see world-class Shakespeare?
There are so many good answers I can’t narrow it down to just one. The thing about Shakespeare is that a lot of people mistakenly think it’s only for the high-brow, that it’s inaccessible to the average Joe. But I’ve been doing Shakespeare now for 30 years—first as an actor, then as a director, now as a producer. And there is just a remarkable universality in the themes that Shakespeare tackles. The characters presented in his time were going through the exact same emotions as we do today. Going to see a good play by a great writer allows us an affirmation of the things we go through in our own lives. He also uses direct address, which means he has written parts into his plays that are called “asides,” and they’re meant to be spoken directly to an audience member. That does a few things. It regains the audience’s attention, if they’re losing it, and it also provides an intimacy with the audience. It’s sort of like in The Office when one of the characters would turn to the camera and make a face to tell the audience exactly what they’re thinking. That’s exactly what an aside is.
Is it better for people to be introduced to Shakespeare through reading the plays or through seeing them performed?
Performances, no doubt. Reading the plays first are what ruin Shakespeare for many young people. There is often nothing in school curriculums that allow kids to see or hear what is on the page. In Shakespeare’s day, people would say they were “going to hear a play”—not, as we say now, “going to see a play.” It’s hard for me to verbalize exactly what that difference is, but it’s significant.
Comedy of Errors is a tough play to pull-off. You have two sets of twins, each set sharing the same name. It’s a slapstick-type comedy, too, which our society has perhaps lost an appetite for after the overproduction in the last half century.
Well, I think a good production of that play should still have that. I’m not the director of that one. I’m directing King Lear. The director for that is Lynne Perkins Socey, and she decided to set it in an Edwardian/Victorian period and it’s completely steam punk.
Do you think King Lear has a happy ending?
Steve Patterson, the guy playing King Lear, thinks it does. The play is definitely very sad in a way. If you listen to the lines, Lear thinks his daughter Cordelia, the one who was actually true to him and never turned on him, is dead. His last line, however, is “Look on her. Look, her lips. Look there.” So Steve thinks it’s a happy ending because she’s alive—and that Lear dies of happiness discovering this. It’s frequently interpreted the other way though.
What’s the moral of the play?
I don’t like to boil things down to their moral core. But the Fool is always holding a mirror up to King Lear: This is what you did and these are the consequences. The Fool really does not miss an opportunity to point out to Lear how foolish he has been by giving everything away to his daughters. With how often Shakespeare repeats this gesture, I think there’s something certainly to that.
Some recent critics have suggested that Shakespeare is just the archetypal Dead Old White Man, and that his plays are full of racism and sexism. In a weird way, it would seem Shakespeare plays—even more than religious texts—simply reflect the attitudes of the person reading them.
Part of that’s the archaic language. Shakespeare was experiencing all of those things, though—the conflicts over race, sex, war, and poverty—that are still with us today. Whether Shakespeare was “racist” or not, that question is up in the air. Was Shylock in Merchant of Venice meant to be an evil character or was Shylock meant to be a sympathetic character that evil people in the play saw as evil? Merchant of Venice was Hitler’s favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, which supports the former. But it is often performed today through the latter’s interpretive framework.
How does Shakespeare measure up to modern plays?
New plays often end up being about such a narrow topic. They’re so focused on one thing. I don’t want to come across like I hate new plays—I don’t, I love many new plays—but one of the reasons I like Shakespeare is because his work is so universal.
And what are your thoughts on modern reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s plays?
A lot of people get bent out of shape if you don’t perform Shakespeare in pumpkin pants and hoes. The interesting thing is the performers wore what they wore because that’s what people were wearing at the time. As long as you don’t bastardize the text, as long as you don’t try to squish the text or the story into your interpretation or glorification of the director, then you’re probably going to do alright.