From its very beginnings, the realm of theatre has been filled with adaptations. Whether it’s the latest Broadway spectacle based on a hit film, the faithful staging of a classic play, or a production that puts a modern twist on an ancient text, the field is absolutely littered with reboots.
UofSC theatre professor Robert Richmond was perfectly suited to direct one such theatrical revival recently at Washington, DC’s prestigious Folger Theatre. Richmond, who has developed a national reputation for re-imagining the classics, was at the helm for The Folger’s production of a rarely-performed Restoration Era version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which ran for three weeks in September, 2018. Adapted by Sir William Davenant in 1664 (a generation after Shakespeare’s death), the play wasn’t just a restaging – it was in many ways a completely new invention. Right up Richmond’s alley.
“I’ve described Restoration Shakespeare as being the Cirque du Soleil of the 17th Century,” says Richmond. “The Puritans had closed the theatre for many, many years up that point, so it was coming back in a big way. There were suddenly lots of moving parts and things flying and cogs and wheels, not to mention women actually playing women’s roles, which was pretty mind- blowing for the time.”
Davenant, says Richmond, “was focused on spectacle over text, and would stuff as many things into his productions of Shakespeare as possible, including rewriting them.” This resulted in a Macbeth with completely new scenes, larger roles for once minor characters, and, perhaps most surprisingly, a full musical score.
Initially spearheaded by historian Richard Schoch and musicologist Amanda Winkler, the Folger production of Davenant’s 350-year-old adaptation is hoped to be the first in a series of Restoration-era theatre re-creations. “The Folger is the only place in the world that can do that -- bring world class scholars, excellent artists and a creative team, plus The Folger Consort, their early music ensemble, together under one roof and produce something like this production,” says Richmond.
Richmond wasn’t the only UofSC connected member of the creative team. Joining him
on the production were theatre alum John Floyd (BA, ’15) in the role of Donalbain, third-year MFA Acting students Kimberly Braun and Darrell Johnston as understudies, and third-year MFA Directing student Lindsay Rae Taylor assistant directing. Rounding out the Gamecock contingent was theatre alum Grace Ann Roberts (BA, ’15), who works at The Folger as Humanities Program Coordinator.
We have the opportunity to get students to DC to start their professional careers, and it’s a great city to start in right now.
It’s not a new thing to have so many students and alums working together at the esteemed theatre – Richmond has been opening doors like these for years.
“We have the opportunity to get students to DC to start their professional careers, and it’s a great city to start in right now,” he says. “There are something like 120 theatre companies, but you can work non-union there, so it can be a great place to build a resumé.”
For Taylor, getting to work with Richmond in a non-educational setting was eye-opening. “It was inspiring to see him in action, practicing what he preaches, all the while grabbing so many useful tools for myself that I will apply to my work,” she says.
Taylor began working with Richmond on the project months before the actual rehearsal period started, as he began finalizing the design and thematic concepts for the production. Once in the rehearsal room, one of her primary jobs was to get the actors in shape for the unique physicality of Restoration-style acting.
“My specific task was to collaborate closely with Robert on developing a physical language for [the production],” she says. “Gesture in performance was very prominent in Restoration acting, so the team of scholars working with us during the rehearsal process shared their research concerning gesture. Robert wanted to honor this element, but was looking for a way to include it while maintaining his conceptual vision... I worked with the actors daily to create a physical vocabulary through a series of exercises aimed to devise our own version of ‘gesture’.”
“We’re dealing with veteran actors who have their ‘bag of tricks’,” Richmond explains, “so bringing everybody to that same physical point of view was very much important to the process.”
In addition to the highly specific actor work, Taylor’s role as an assistant director included attending production meetings and helping to convey Robert’s ideas to the entire creative team.
“This is my fourth time assisting Robert on a show, so we have a shorthand that was a valuable tool in putting this project together,” says Taylor. “Sometimes he would just wave his hand a certain way, and I could translate his intent to the actor.”
“I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this professional step with my mentor. Knowing my boundaries and expectations as Robert’s AD allowed me to do my job without hesitation and contributed to my confidence as a director.”
One of the surprising aspects of the rehearsal process, Taylor says, was its immersive quality.
“[It] was very different compared to a university show. We worked from 10am - 6pm, six days a week, for five weeks. I lived in the actor housing, which meant that any time off was often spent in a common area discussing the play. It felt like we were at Macbeth camp! At a university, students are juggling part-time jobs, class work, family, friends, school trips... To be immersed in Macbeth without distraction was very special and unique.”
However, she adds that as fulfilling as the hyper-focused experience was, she found herself missing the educational environment.
“I love having the chance to teach when I direct, but in a room full of professional actors with intimidating resumes, there is no space or necessity for that. I found that I missed that component, which caught me my surprise.”
She says her career hope is to find a way to combine the professional and academic environments. “My dream scenario is that I secure a teaching position at a university that allows me to direct one or two shows a year. I have found that, for me, I love teaching just as much as I love directing. I am happiest when the two roles are intermingled— it is when I feel the most invigorated, gratified, and inspired.”
That’s a calling that Richmond, whose professional relationship with The Folger goes back over decades, has certainly mastered.
“It’s fabulous that I’m able to wear both hats, and that the University allows me to do that,” he says. “I’m able to bring new ideas to my teaching all the time because I’m out there being inspired by other great artists.”
“As I always say about working outside [the University], you’re not the person that knows the most in the room, so you really get to learn something yourself.”
Robert Richmond goes back to the Restoration era in his next directorial project at The Folger, Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale, which runs January 29 – March 10, 2019. At the University, he will direct The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, playing at Drayton Hall Theatre April 5-13, 2019.
Lindsay Rae Taylor will direct The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, running February 21 – March 2, 2019 at Longstreet Theatre. She will then direct a brand-new play, Aphra Behn: Wanton Woman of Wit! by Mariah Hale, which will run at Harbison Theatre and The Center for Performance Experiment at UofSC in April, 2019.