Bard Choices

Two Directors on Making Shakespeare Contemporary

Ah, Shakespeare. He stands at the apex of the theatre, recognized across the globe as the supreme dramatist for all time. It's a given now, 400 years after the Bard's birth, that his works transcend the ages, that they speak to audiences today as profoundly as they did to the ones in Elizabethan times. That's not to say there are no challenges to staging Shakespeare in contemporary America. His words are both densely poetic and plain dense. Teasing out their meanings and presenting them in a way that interests a crowd reared on maximum action/minimum talk movies is an arduous test for any director.

Even so, there is no shortage of directors willing to dive right into his collected works and wrestle them onto the stage. In August alone, two productions of Shakespeare's plays will open in Austin, both directed by women who have had a good time with Old Will so far. Bonnie Cullum is directing Romeo and Juliet for VORTEX Repertory Company, and Jemma Levy is whipping together Measure for Measure for Runamuck Theatre Company. Concepts and cuts in hand, these women are ready to face what the text has to throw at them. The Austin Chronicle talked with them about the particular perils of tackling the Bard.

Austin Chronicle: Starting with the basics: What is your training and what is your experience with Shakespeare?

Bonnie Cullum: I have a BA [University of Kansas] and an MFA [UT] in theatre, so I have some training in Shakespeare in an academic realm. I've performed -- I did Goneril in King Lear -- so I have some long-term connections with Shakespeare's work. I've also enjoyed many productions of his plays in the audience as a spectator. I feel like I'm not really a devoted scholar but that I have had a lot of training.

My directing experience doing this Romeo and Juliet is really kind of interesting because seven years ago, summer of `89, in the third week of August at Mexic-Arte, we opened Romeo and Juliet. This was my first cutting, my first directing experience with a full-length Shakespeare, and it was a huge hit. We had previously done a couple of small shows and had just small success, mainly with our friends from UT.

Then we had this huge hit. It really changed the course of VORTEX and sort of cemented our work. I think if we hadn't had a hit with that show, we might not have stuck around and continued doing theater. It really transformed the nature of the company.

Six months later, we got our space on Ben White, the old VORTEX Performance Cafe, and that first summer we did Romeo and Juliet again. This was a more trimmed-out version. I cut it a little more and adapted it more. I really tightened up my cutting. I learned a lot from that first production and I was very, very happy with the second production at the VORTEX. It was also tremendously successful. Then I directed King Lear, also at VORTEX.

This [Romeo and Juliet] will be my first time directing outside, in The Yard at Planet Theatre. We've got a big open stage, and it is not the same kind of intimacy as the interior space where I have been directing all of my shows. So it's really exciting to me. It's also a really old friend, in that I am using the 1990 cutting with very few changes.

Jemma Levy: I have a BA in theater from Amherst College. I actually never did theatre before college, but when I was seven, my parents started taking me to the Ashland, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I went there every year for 10 years, until I graduated from high school. I have seen almost every Shakespeare ever written and was exposed to it from a very early age. But I was always an audience member.

My senior year in college, I started directing. I was assisting in a Shakespeare class -- my directing professor talked to an English professor who was teaching a class on Shakespeare and said to him, "Jemma understands this language well enough to help." I was directing scenes of English students doing Shakespeare. So I had a little experience dealing with people who didn't understand Shakespeare or didn't understand acting or both.

Then I got to direct my first Shakespeare, which was Richard III. I directed that twice -- once at school and once last summer here. So I guess Measure for Measure is my third Shakespeare, even though my first two were the same play.

AC: How does this production of Romeo and Juliet contribute to the theatrical environment?

BC: Both Romeo and Juliet are women, and the illicit love situation is based on that fact. Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet, is the head of the household and has a lot of Lord Capulet's lines. Lord Capulet is the nurturing character who has a close relationship with his daughter, Juliet, and has a lot of Lady Capulet's lines. It's not a total switch, but it's close. The friar character is a spiritual mother. She has a boa constrictor and goes out and picks herbs, makes tinctures. She is Romeo's close confidante. The Montagues and the Prince are gone. It's cut -- each act is about an hour. It takes place in a fairly contemporary world but more of a mystical contemporary world, this sort of mythical Verona place that is not an Elizabethan Verona but is also not a 1996 America.

My focus is on the lovers and the choices they make. And the bad choices that the adults in the lovers' lives make. There are a lot of lightning-quick decisions that are made that ultimately end in a tragedy. By taking the politics out and really focusing on the lovers, it becomes very accessible to a contemporary audience. The family rivalry thing is okay, but most people today aren't, like, out doing the family rival thing. It becomes a bit more interesting when you look at the love affair which happens and which probably would have blown over if it had been left alone.

The story is so extreme and so intense. It is such a melodramatic love story. If done in contemporary form, it definitely would be a teenage drama movie of the week. But it happens to have the beautiful poetic language, most of which I've left intact. I've changed some gender words. That's the main thing.

AC: What's your approach to Measure for Measure?

JL: I'm setting it in a George Orwell's version of 1984. I've taken most of the religion out of it, if you can do that to Measure for Measure. It's a very difficult thing to do with something that is so swamped in sin.

The first time I ever read it -- I had seen it a number of times, but the first time I actually read the whole thing, what struck me about it was that it was all about laws and a justice system that didn't work. I've been trying to emphasize that.

The other thing that struck me about it was that I hated everybody in it. There was no single character that I found truly redeeming and wonderful, with the possible exception of Lucio. So I've been trying to find a way to make these characters interesting enough that an audience will stay with them through the whole thing but still make everybody kind of look at it and go, "You know, these people aren't quite right." That is a really fun process for me. I am enjoying that.

AC: Is that why you chose this play?

JL: Yep.

AC: Because you didn't like anybody in it?

JL: I love to do character work, and it was such a challenge to do character work with these characters who just drove me insane. I think Runamuck tries desperately to make Shakespeare appeal to a contemporary audience. We don't want to go, "Look, we did the classical Shakespeare." It sounds very similar to what VORTEX is doing. My reading just screams "contemporary" to me. This is something that everybody can associate themselves with because we do have this justice system that we think works that doesn't quite work. We think we are so free and yet we still have terrible things happening all the time. This play brought that out so clearly.

AC: Do you approach Shakespeare differently than other shows? Do you go through a different process?

JL: I kind of think not, mostly because I am a very language-oriented director no matter what play I choose. I have a tendency to choose plays where the language is almost as full, if not as full, as Shakespeare's. Battery, for instance, was all words.

Directing Shakespeare, a lot of the time you end up teaching Shakespeare to the actors rather than directing. So I suppose that is the main difference. And that differs with the amount of experience that actors have had with Shakespeare.

I think the people who have the most trouble with Shakespeare are the people who hold it as a precious thing that you can't touch, that is very sacred. People who simply go, "Look, it's just another play" tend to have an easier time.

BC: I would agree with the teaching part. I have worked with a lot of actors for whom this is their first time doing Shakespeare. I think that there is a sense of having to teach a little bit of the discipline of the language: understanding the meaning, knowing what they are saying, deciding where to breathe, pronouncing the words right. It sounds silly if you make it all sound like you were talking in a laundromat. I am not saying that it has to have a British accent, I'm just talking about a handling of the language that is diction oriented, of a finding of the poetry. Actors who are used to a more naturalistic way of talking don't necessarily have an understanding of the discipline involved in bringing it off. So there is a teaching element there. I think that is a more difficult and challenging process than picking up a script that was written this year in America, where you should be able to pick it up and just read it, understand it, or understand, at least, the words. Here you may have some obscure 400-year-old joke that you have to figure out is sexual humor. Once you get that it's a sex joke, it's like "Oh, okay. I get the joke, now." Before you get that, how can you play a sex joke if you don't know it's a sex joke?

I spend a lot more time on the text when I'm directing Shakespeare. It takes me more time in preparatory study -- research, looking at meaning, looking at multiple meanings, cross-referencing things, different editors' choices -- all the editors make little funky choices with punctuation. I think that I spend a lot more time with that kind of work doing Shakespeare than I do with a contemporary play.

AC: Do you have any advice for young directors who are thinking about doing Shakespeare?

BC: It is possible to do a low-cost production and have it be good. The production values don't have to be on the scale of a giant musical. You can do good work and have a really positive experience for the spectators and the actors. I do think it's important to have a firm concept.

JL: I think that one of the wonderful things about Shakespeare that we are both proof of is that you can fuck with it a lot. It's generally accepted now that you can set Shakespeare in times other than Elizabethan, and you can do cross-gender things. That's not a difficult or frustrating thing to do. People don't really think twice about it anymore.

It takes a lot more commitment as a director in terms of the research, dealing with the language, and having to teach the actors what they are talking about; it's not something you should roll into just because you think you should.

Unfortunately, it is wonderful when done well, but it is also very easy to do poorly. There's nothing worse than sitting through three hours of really bad Shakespeare. n Measure for Measure runs Aug 15-25 at the Auditorium on Waller Creek. Romeo and Juliet runs Aug 22-Sep 14 in The Yard at Planet Theatre.

Adrienne Martini writes about and reviews theatre regularly for the Chronicle.

"[Doing Shakespeare] is more difficult than picking up a script that was written this year in America. You may have some obscure 400-year-old joke that you have to figure out is sexual. How can you play a sex joke if you don't know it's a sex joke?

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