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The Accidental Shakespearian


My apologies in advance, as this is some self-serving BS I’m about to serve:

Comedy, Tragedy, and Chainsaws…

I’ve often claimed two competing kinds of geekery – theater and horror. If I had to tell anyone which one started first or took a deeper hold, I really couldn’t. As long as I had a personality and will of my own to see and do things (which I will mark around age 12 or so), I’ve been drawn to both see and create entertainment projects in horror and theater. And on rare occasions, both at the same time. And I tend to yak about horror here, but right now (for reasons that will become obvious in a second) I have theater on the brain.

Keeping Busy

I’ve always bounced back and forth from film to theater even in my teens and twenties, and when I first moved to LA some 13 years ago I was told I’d be lucky to get to direct anything within 10 years. Six months later, I was directing at a small theater (if you want to call it that) called The Professional Actors’ Counsel (PAC). Run by a shady individual with no background in theater, charging “company” members a monthly fee for the privilege of auditioning for  his productions then repeatedly producing the same scripts that required no royalties (say what you will about the experience of those writers), using three dimmers purchased at Home Depot to fade the lights and a clunky-loud 5-CD changer for sound effects (and mind you this was before we could burn our own CD’s), it was a less-than-ideal way of doing things but it’s what I had to work with. So why do it?

Despite the quality attainable in this type of situation, I’ve always preferred to make a real extant thing to the best of my current abilities than to wait for the perfect moment to make the perfect theoretical thing. Because the perfect thing DOES NOT EXIST, but the PAC productions of “Golden Elliot” and “Cruel and Unusual” (plays which should be unfamiliar to you) which I directed in 1999-2000 actually did – and all the actors who appeared in both of them did everything in their power to raise the quality of the shows beyond what the theater itself promoted or encouraged.

Did I mention that the guy who ran the place was a total scumbag?

The Right Place at The Right Time

A few years later my friend Bob brought me to the Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood, and immediately I was hooked. Firstly, it reminded me deeply of the “Black Boxtheaters in which I’d cut my teeth back home. I’ve always loved theater when, as an audience member, I was close enough to see if the actors were sweating; close enough to feel their real emotion like I would while watching a movie as opposed to squinting to see their performance from the balcony of a large opera house. Live performance is always a direct conversation between the players and the audience, and knowing that the actors know I’m there amps that relationship up. For me anyway.

So I begged the producers of the late-night weekly comedy show “Crime Scene” to give me a shot and eventually they did. And since then, I’ve been lucky enough to call Sacred Fools my theatrical home. The company is ever-changing but many key artists and technicians have been there since its founding in 1997. And the company has a tendency to attract extremely talented writers, designers, and actors. Seriously, if you’re in the LA area at some point you should check out whatever they’re doing.

And now I’m getting ready to direct my second mainstage show there, “Richard III.”

Yes, that “Richard III.” “The winter of our discontent/my kingdom for a horse!” “Richard III.” And I’ve been hesitant to put my feeling about doing this show into words, lest any of my cast or crew read this and lose faith in me because I, like them (and like cruel/tragical Richard himself I suppose), am a creature wracked with insecurities and working as hard as I can to defeat them. And in this case, it’s by helming the most ambitious play I’ve ever directed.

Why?

Why Shakespeare in LA? Why theater in general?

I’ll answer in reverse:

LA is a film town, and most of the people I work with are film people. Weirdly, most film people have zero theater experience even if most theater people out here have done some film. But film people often have one of two reaction to talk of theater:

  1. ARE YOU HIGH? YOU’RE DOING HOW MUCH WORK FOR FREE?!
  2. Why not put all that effort into a film?

One film person once even asked me, incredulously, “How do all those actors think this will benefit their careers? They’re never going to get discovered in a theater…” Well, that’s a good-ish point if the aim of all creative endeavors is to be discovered and become the next whomeverthefuck. But for those of us for whom theater functions more as a creative laboratory than a pageant of our fully-formed genius, the practice and process of putting up a completed show is more important than a thousand high-stakes film meetings that might or might not lead to anything one day. So I believe in doing this work for free because its value is not financial but creative. If there were real money on the line, we’d be talking about it for months or years rather than doing it and that’s the real reward for those of us involved.

It’s a concept that a theater director first acquainted me with when I was his AD in 1995 – thinking in terms of PROCESS vs PRODUCT (something I also talked about here). In other words, in film, it’s generally all about creating a product. Money’s on the line – BIG money often. So we storyboard it, we talk about it A LOT, we get every little last thing approved, we show up, we know what we’re there to execute, we shoot it, we go home, we cry ourselves to sleep. Process thinking is more about letting the end product be the evolution of what happens to it while trying to make it happen. It’s about letting the end result to change, and allowing one’s self to change in the process. And in my opinion, learning to be a “process” thinker allows one to create better work under all circumstances, but “product” thinking often leads to creative rigidity and stale-feeling productions. And granted, there’s plenty of “product” thinking going into theater, but in this kind of theater exists the freedom for me to find my own balance.

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But why Shakespeare in LA?

The first thing I discovered in our auditions is that LA secretly houses a multitude of actors who can bring Shakespeare to life and make his heightened language sound both profound and natural at the same time… No easy feat.

I don’t know if Shakespeare is the single most challenging English-language material to master, but it certainly has been for me. In William Ball’s book (which I plugged here) “A Sense of Direction,” he identifies what he calls the five predominant elements of drama. They are: Plot, Theme, Character, Dialogue, and Spectacle. Ball says that most plays only have one predominant element, but the only writer who consistently got all five in a script was Shakespeare. And since I read that book in the early 1990’s, I’ve had that thought in my head and knew that one day I needed to direct Shakespeare.

But what I meant when I told myself that was really this: One day I want to have directed Shakespeare. Or more precisely – one day I want to be good enough to have directed Shakespeare. I figured at some point I’d go off to Yale Drama for a decade or two, immerse myself in the Bard’s writings, and break out of that cocoon a theater genius.

Unfortunately, I only have one life and therefore can’t dedicate myself to a pursuit that lofty. And producing this show was a tough decision for everyone on the production team to make – but once we were all onboard the fear turned into excitement and the “what have we gotten ourselves into?” crisis turned into an opportunity to jump into the deep end of process, to see how we make this happen.

I’ve been very open to everyone working on “Richard III” that this is the first time I’ve ever directed Shakespeare. And right now, we’re a little more than half-way through the rehearsal process and the show is in that point where it feels kind of bendable in any direction. But it’s there.

And it’s weird, but rather than feeling like I’m in hell, I’m finding that the discovery of the many layers of genius that Shakespeare wrote into his scripts is the reason why great actors are drawn to perform it and why audiences have been drawn to watch it. And as the director, at best I’m the midwife of that discovery or sometimes the guy-in-the-room who blurts out “holy shit, do you realize what this means?” But mostly it’s a privileged position where I (hopefully) help to figure out how to translate a 500-year-old text to a modern audience by simultaneously raising my awareness to the level of the script and actors while remembering what it felt like a few short months ago when I hadn’t meticulously dissected this script and hoping that I can make audiences meet in the middle.

So the short answer of why to mount a Shakespeare production is this – because it’s hard. Because, after Shakespeare, the rest of this stuff will look easy.

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2 comments on “The Accidental Shakespearian

  1. Bravo Bravo Bravo.
    As to the five elements, they are all Aristotle, but we will not quibble (he missed Aristotle’s music which is the 6th).
    Shakespeare was writing in the IMMEDIATE!
    Which is why his plays still carry that wonderful immediacy that film attemps to capture, but can never recreate.
    Both mediums are important. In my theatre classes I teach that film, tv, stage, hell even video games are all the same thing, just using different tools and different mediums to do one thing – COMMUNICATE.
    Allowing yourself to immerse and fall within the layers of Richard (which just three weeks ago a local theatre artist suggest should be one of the next works I do) is a journey towards Brook’s “Formless Hunch”. Love every second of that process dear sir.
    Loved reading this. Love the fact you are directing Richard. Love the work you do.
    johnd

    • I was pretty sure he lifted that idea from Aristotle, and probably says so in the book. I need to reread it – but the predominant element thing has weighed heavily on me on each project since I read the book originally.

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