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Stage managing Shakespeare
Ah, Shakespeare! It holds a special place in my heart. The first play I ever stage managed was Twelfth Night at UCI, a traditional production directed by RSC actor Brewster Mason and set in Shakespeare’s time.
Shakespeare’s plays reveal something new with each reading and production. I stage managed two more productions of Twelfth Night as well as many of Shakespeare's other plays, some multiple times. I especially love working on outdoor productions because his plays lend themselves to unit sets in outdoor settings, and because with so few stage directions and props they require few scene changes.
Outdoor Shakespeare has its challenges, however. I was lucky enough to stage manage three summer productions at The Old Globe, including Macbeth, directed by the lovely and talented Paul Mullins. The unit set, a wood deck with central turntable, could become quite slick from the moisture accumulating as the night fell and the air cooled after a hot day. The show culminated with a violent sword and axe fight between Macbeth and Macduff on the spinning turntable, and at an early preview, the axe-wielding Macbeth slipped on the slick turning turntable and caught the Macduff on the head with the dull, but real axe. No one knew until right before curtain call that the actor had actually been injured. Immediately after the call he was taken to the Emergency Room with a big lump on his head. He was fine, but the stage was treated with a gritty coating that still required us to come out during intermission and dry it with towels.
Above, Carolyn Stone, Melissa Condren, Leah Zhang and Tom Hammond as Macbeth in The Old Globe's Summer Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth, directed by Paul Mullins. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Memories of 'Othello'
Recently arrived from England, Donnla Hughes was an understudy on Outside Mullingar at the Geffen before landing the role of Juliet at A Noise Within's Romeo and Juliet (which continues through May 8). In the UK she worked at the National Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, the Druid Theatre Company, and at Shakespeare’s Globe in Twelfth Night. A graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, she received the Carlton Hobbs Award and has recorded more than 30 plays with BBC radio drama.
One of the most memorable productions I've seen of a Shakespeare play was of Othello, which played at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2007, directed by Michael Grandage. The production boasted a pretty stellar cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello and Ewan McGregor as Iago heading the line up. The performances right across the board were brilliant - the characters all so clear - from Othello's idealistic nobility to Iago's duplicity to Desdemona's loving spirit and vulnerability. It was the play itself, however, that really blew me away.
The simpleness of the production really allowed the story to take centre stage - from the opening scene on a Venice street the story seemed to gallop along, gathering more and more momentum with every new scene and twist of the story. Not until the willow scene between Desdemona and Emilia (played brilliantly by Michelle Fairley) did the pace let up. There was a moment in this scene where Emilia brushed Desdemona's hair in absolute silence and time seemed suddenly suspended - it was incredibly touching yet also tense and horribly foreboding as it was the first time we as an audience were given the breathing space to really accept what was about to happen in the story - it really was one of those moments where you could hear a pin drop! By the end of the production I don't think there was one person in the audience who wasn't sobbing. I remember thinking that this was exactly the type of story I'd like to tell as an actor - further proof that these stories Shakespeare has written really are timeless."
Above, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor in Michael Grandage's Donmar Warehouse production of Othello, and an inset photo of Hughes, by Daniel Reichert, for Romeo and Juliet pre-publicity.
Actually, I was always pretty much turned onto Shakespeare since studying him in high school and college. But it was mostly just study, with the occasional school production thrown in, playing a plebeian in Julius Caesar, or Francis (with all his lines cut) in Henry IV, Part 1 as a teenager, and then graduating to better roles in college, like Caesar in Julius Caesar (which I also staged, in the ruins of a Roman villa, with a real Roman road leading up to it, chariot ruts and all) and finally Falstaff in Henry IV, 1.
Falstaff was also my first semi-professional job—with the Marin Shakespeare Festival in Northern California. I had auditioned on a dare from a fellow high-school teacher. I wasn’t planning on being an actor at the time, just an English teacher. Well, it happened that another Shakespeare Festival in the South Bay was also doing 1 Henry IV that summer, and our reviews came out the same day on the same page in the San Francisco Chronicle. Ours was positive (I got my first rave); theirs was mixed to patronizing. They were a college festival, after all, out of Santa Clara University — not big time semi-pros like us.
I thought it would be a good idea (somewhat condescendingly, I now confess) for our cast to go down and see their show on one of our off days; so I managed to rent a bus, and we all made the hour and half trip one afternoon. There was, if I recall, some animated conversation on the bus about how we should all try to be supportive and positive to these "collegians." Who were, after all, trying to do their best.
We arrived at an unimposing double Quonset hut in the middle of a rather unattractive parking lot, and stepped out next to a stranded octagonal patch of green where some dancers and singers were performing a modest "green show" before the production. I noted that the madrigals were sung surprisingly well, accompanied by authentic instruments. I did not of course realize that among the singers was my future wife, but that’s another life-changing story.
We filed into a rather makeshift theater space. I later discovered it was called the Lifeboat, because the University’s original theater, "The Ship," had been torn down and never properly replaced. Years later I would in fact open their new campus theater in a production of A Man for All Seasons. The theater was oddly constructed, I noticed, with the stage shaped like the prow of a ship and running right down the center of two parallel facing bleachers. At the upstage end, however, was the typical Shakespearean "above" and curtained alcove below. The house was full. The lights went down and the show began, not with Henry IV’s first lines but with an induction narrated by an actor (who eventually played Bardolph) introducing the characters. He was particularly impressive – tall, big-voiced, confident, engaging, looking us right in the eye.
And then the Shakespeare proper began. Clearly these were not all students, though most were quite young. What they were was more than energetic, they were alive. They were vibrant, sexy, swaggering, bold, and unlike any Shakespeare I had ever seen or done. They were human beings locked in a life and death struggle with one another, mercurial, funny, vicious, unpredictable, spilling their guts, talking to one another as if their lives and fortunes depended on it. I sat there astonished and galvanized. The time flew by, I don’t even remember there being an intermission. I do remember it was the quietest bus ride home I could ever have imagined.
I had seen what American "blood and guts" Shakespeare – which is what they called it — could be like. My lifelong affair with Shakespeare on the stage began in earnest that afternoon. Those performers, some of whom have gone on to stellar careers in TV, film, and stage, eventually became my mentors, my colleagues, my lifelong friends. James Dunn, Roger Gross, David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith, the late Carolyn Reed, to name only a few. People who by their commitment to living, breathing Shakespeare turned my life upside down that season and for many seasons afterwards.
I owe them a debt I can never repay, though 50 years later and countless productions of Shakespeare later, I’m still trying.