Shakespeare is not just in the theater or the classroom anymore. In St. Louis at least, you can find performances of the Bard's work in Forest Park and in the streets of your own neighborhood, thanks to the efforts of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Bruce Longworth, the organization's associate artistic director, and Mike Donahue, the director of this year's Shakespeare in the Park performance, come together to talk about the Shakespeare Festival's many projects and to share their insights into this year's mainstage production: Antony and Cleopatra.
Rebecca King: Thanks for listening to Hold That Thought. I’m Rebecca King, and today we’re kicking off our summer series focused on the legendary playwright, William Shakespeare. For this first episode, I’m talking with two members of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, a local organization that works to bring Shakespeare’s plays to the public, including some amazing outdoor performances every summer in the beautiful Forest Park. This year’s Shakespeare in the Park main stage performance is Antony and Cleopatra, which opens May 22nd and runs through June 14th. I’m lucky enough to have the associate artistic director and the director of Antony and Cleopatra to talk about the play and performance.
Bruce Longworth: My name is Bruce Longworth. I’m the associate artistic director at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
Mike Donahue: Hi, I’m Mike Donahue. I’m the director of Antony and Cleopatra.
RK: Though the annual Shakespeare in the Park performance is always a huge draw for local crowds, Bruce explains the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis works year-round to celebrate the bard’s work in schools and the community.
BL: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is in the streets, in the park, and in the schools. We’ve got a number of programs that run nearly year-round. We take two touring productions to schools. That tour begins in January and goes through April. We tour through schools in St. Louis and pretty much throughout the state of Missouri. This year, we toured Two Gentlemen of Verona and Antony and Cleopatra. And we play for a variety of age groups: anything from kindergarten through 12th grade. We have reached 270,000 students in our history of working in the schools, and we are very proud of that. Shakespeare in the Streets began in 2010. It is a community-based Shakespeare project where we go into a neighborhood and we get to know the neighborhood over about 10 months. Based on what we glean about their interests and the sense of community, we have a playwright who adapts one of Shakespeare’s plays to suit the neighborhood. Then it’s put into production with a mixed cast of professionals, local non-professionals, and community members from that neighborhood. It typically runs three days in late September, and it is a tremendous, tremendous festival. We started in Cherokee Street. Then we went to the Groove. Last year we were in Clayton. This year we are in Old North. So, September I think 17, 18, and 19th look for us in Old North. This is also our 15th season in the park, and we are thrilled to be doing Antony and Cleopatra. And we’ve begun Shake38. Shake38 is a five-day festival in which all 38 plays are done in some fashion at 38 locations throughout St. Louis, so you can get just about as much Shakespeare as you could want.
RK: With performances of Shakespeare in the park opening in just a couple days, lets get to Antony and Cleopatra. What are they most excited about with this performance?
BL: It is the 15th anniversary. That’s kind of a milestone, and it is an iconic title. It’s a big play, and you can contradict me on “big play” because I think we mean two different things. It is a very well known title. I was attracted to that. Rick Dildein, who is our executive artistic producer, was attracted to that. It is not produced a great deal. That also was attractive, I think, to both of us. So I think it was a combination of the two. But I know you say really great things, Mike about it is a big title but it is a very personal rather intimate play.
MD: Yes, what I think we mean by big is that there are landmines about how the play is big. I mean, the play has more scenes than, I think, any other play in the canon, and there are hundreds of people in this play. Scene to scene to scene, they are travelling all over the globe. There are whole armies that come on stage. It is really easy to get lost in thinking this is an epic tale that takes place across oceans and contents, and hundreds of people are involved, and big navies come on stage, and we’ve all seen the Liz Taylor movie, and there’s a lot of pageantry in that. It is easy to think that the play is large in that way, but I think it is one of the most intimate, domestic plays. What is really exciting about this play is you see Antony and Cleopatra not as public figures performing in public; you see them as real people trying to navigate, actually navigate, what it means to have fallen in love with one another. When we meet them at the beginning of the play, Antony has just told her for the first time that he loves her, and she can’t even bring herself to be able to say that back to him yet. That’s how difficult for her to expose her vulnerability. And not only that, but he get’s called back to his home country because they are in the middle of what is a mounting crisis of a civil war. So now they are different continents navigating being together, being in love, when their countries end up starting to go to war. I think it is that: how two adults navigate a mature adult relationship when everything in the world seems to be conspiring against them being able to be together, and that’s huge.
RK: Antony and Cleopatra could pose some difficulties if one were to give into the pageantry of ancient Rome and ancient Egypt, but the director, Mike Donahue, sees the focus and opportunity of the play in its humanity.
MD: For me with this play, I think the danger is to try to make it really big and spectacular and get lost in all of the pageantry of that, because that is not what we do best in the theatre. That is what you do best in the movies. In the theatre, what we do really well is we tell intimate human stories about real people with an audience of people who are there in the moment that that story is being told and can connect to it and be present with it. That’s what is so thorny and interesting and difficult with this particular play. So with this, sort of the experiment of it is to see if we can tell this story in a clear and exciting way and make these people not these big, grand, epic, mythic people, but actually real people that we recognize and that we can recognize ourselves in. Is that actually enough to be spectacular and entertaining and to hold us for an evening? I think it is. I hope it is. We’ll see if it is. But we are not doing a big production with a lot of fireworks. We’re trying to get at the heart of who these people are and to tell that in the most ruthlessly simple and raw, dynamic, visceral way possible.
RK: Obviously, Antony and Cleopatra and their tumultuous relationship are at the heart of this play and particular performance. Mike explains why these doomed lovers are so magnetic to watch and why they cannot let each other do despite the grief they bring each other.
MD: I think one of the things that’s really exciting about this play is that it is a play in large part about a woman who is in power. And not just in power, but in immense power. She rules a whole section of the world, and she seems to be able to do so in a way that makes her beloved by all. She has a kind of a power and a charm and a charisma and a sophisticated integrity in how she rules that is unparalleled and makes so many of the men in the play either fall madly in love with her or feel totally threatened by her. And Antony is a guy who we are told is very popular with the ladies. He is incredibly charismatic—has had many women. He falls so fully for her, specifically because she is a strong and powerful woman who will not just let herself get walked by him but she actually takes him to task and holds him accountable for his actions and makes him be bigger than himself, and that’s actually why he likes her—because she expects him to be able to keep up with her. The two challenge each other in a way no one else is able to do. The way the scenes between the two of them are written—and there actually aren’t a lot of them—we meet them together at the beginning of the play, and they are together for maybe the first ten minutes of the play. And then they are not together on stage again until after intermission, but the play is still some how a love story between these two people who are never on stage together. A lot of their scenes are written in a way that looks like they’re just fighting, and that’s not actually what they are doing, but I think it takes really intelligent, skilled actors to understand the psychology of the scenes and what they’re doing is fighting to keep one another as opposed to fighting to push one another away. And I think we have those actors. I am very excited about them.
RK: And as Bruce points out, Antony and Cleopatra are not the only couple in Shakespeare’s canon who verbally spare to show their affection.
BL: I think Shakespeare, he understood the value and the interest in writing about couples who had to come together. Beatrice and Benedict. Kate and Petruchio. Antony and Cleopatra. They have got to get together. You are led to believe that there is no other person in the world for one or the other. It can lead to great comedy in certain plays. It can lead to great tragedy in other. But he understood that that is a compelling story to watch. You can’t take your eyes off of it.
RK: The story of Antony and Cleopatra is ancient history, and most viewers will come in with at least a very basic knowledge of the plot. But, Mike suspects that once the play opens, viewers will be surprised and moved by this story of two lovers.
MD: Something we’ve been talking a lot about in the first two days of rehearsal is it is a story most people know at least the bullet points of. There are these two people who fell in love, and it didn’t work out very well, and they both end up dead, and she kills herself with some snakes. Most people know the one-sentence conclusion of what happens, but nobody knows how this happens or who these people actually are. I think it is a wonderfully surprising roller-coaster that the play takes you on: who these people are, what decisions do they make, how they make those decisions, why the make them that will lead to what we all know is coming by the end of the play. I’m excited for people to discover what the ride is, and I think in moments it is surprisingly really funny, and in other moments it’s incredibly sexy and then it is heartbreaking and then it’s really thrilling in a political thriller kind of way. So I’m excited for people to hopefully be surprised by what’s in the play.
RK: Bruce says that even after 15 years, he’s still amazed at the magnetism and power of the outdoor theatre.
BL: This is something that happens every year during the tech process in the park that I really love. People will be walking through the area on their way somewhere—they’re jogging, they’re riding their bike, they’re doing something—and they see something is going on. They see there’s a show there. It’s during tech, so there’s not an audience; there’s 15 of us in the dark scattered through Shakespeare Glen. And these people stop. And they begin to watch. And they’ll spend 10 minutes to 2 hours just watching, which I find fascinating. When you go to the theatre, a typical theatre—and I love going to the theatre—but when you go to a typical theatre, everybody has chosen to go there. They all know why they are there, and of course, that is what happens during our shows in the park. But you get to see these glimpses of the power of theatre to surprise happen in a genuine way where people are just walking through, they stop, and they look and go “What’s going on?” Well there’s a show, and they say, “Can I watch?” You go, “Sure, knock yourself out.” And two hours later, they are still there. That I think is really, really cool.
RK: Many thanks to Bruce Longworth and Mike Donahue for taking the time to speak with me. And thanks to you, too, for tuning in. Join me next week for the next week of our Shakespeare series, and if you want to check out a performance of the Shakespeare Festival’s Antony and Cleopatra, well, I’ll let Bruce do the honors:
BL: Alright, Antony and Cleopatra opens on May 22nd. It previews on the 20th and 21st, opens on the 22nd, runs through June 14th in Shakespeare Glen. 8pm every night, except for Tuesdays. It is free. Come and enjoy free Shakespeare. We are hoping we have a great turnout. We have our fingers crossed for great weather. It’s going to be 72 degrees every night in the park with no rain. And that you should edit.
RK: You can find a link for more information about Shakespeare Festival in St. Louis on our site at holdthatthought.wustl.edu. That’s holdthatthought.wustl.edu.
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