Friday, March 7, 2014

Helming the Bard: Directors Tackle Shakespeare

By A.B. Lugo.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), shown at right, remains the world's most popularly produced and published playwright. Somewhere in the world at this moment someone is either reading, rehearsing or performing a work of his. His work has been translated in countless languages, not to mention has been adapted in various ways. At the same time, Shakespeare remains an intimidating task to tackle, be it to produce, direct or act.

HOLA spoke with three directors– Alberto Bonilla, José A. Esquea and Enmanuel García Villavicencio regarding their relationship with the playwright, poet, actor, director and producer often called the Bard of Avon.

What attracted you to the work of William Shakespeare?

Alberto Bonilla.
Alberto Bonilla: That's a very tough question to ask; I feel like he has always been around me. The first play of his I ever read was Macbeth and it was so dark and action-packed it felt like I was reading [J.R.R. Tolkien's] Lord of the Rings, only in iambic pentameter. When I was a teenager, the first really amazing stage versions I saw were in the United Kingdom at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw a hilarious Twelfth Night and a powerful and moving Henry V. I just don't remember a time when I didn't think he was amazing. Also as a Latino director and actor, he is one playwright who allows for colorblind casting or flexibility in interpretation.
José A. Esquea.
José A. EsqueaI was introduced to Shakespeare in high school the first two plays I read were Julius Caesar and Macbeth. I had never had a greater challenge understanding something and my teachers told me if I truly wanted to understand the language to read it over and over until it made sense and to read it with a dictionary. Once I started to figure out I love the stories and being transported by the language to another place and time. 

Enmanuel García 
Enmanuel García Villavicencio: I remember back in high school after reading so many different plays in Spanish (my main language), I joined the Drama Club and my first play in English was Macbeth. During that time my girlfriend, Xiu Min Li, gave me The Complete Book of Sonnets by William Shakespeare for Valentine's Day. I fell in love with everything that had to do with Shakespeare. I breathed Shakespeare all through high school and [do so] to this day.

What are some of the challenges as a director when tackling Shakespeare as opposed to a play from the 20th (or 21st) century? 

A scene from Richard III,
directed by Alberto Bonilla.
Bonilla: I think every play or project has its challenges that are unique. The most obvious one people always speak about is getting the heightened text to be communicated clearly to the audience. But I have seen several contemporary plays that are not poetic and I can't follow the play or the characters. I think the historical references in Shakespeare (that an audience of  his time would get) are the hardest. Especially when it is a comical moment. Like in all comedy, if a contemporary reference is used then a contemporary audience will find it hilarious while an audience of the future may not get the joke. So part of the challenge and fun is making it work. 
A scene from The Tempest,
directed by José A. Esquea.
Esquea: Other than production expenses at this point it is actually liberating.  The playwright is dead and the property is public domain so there are no limits! 
Bonilla: Another challenge is casting. Shakespeare demands command of voice, body and language. It also calls for plain and simple good acting-- someone who can live out the circumstances in a vivid way and not lose the text. Add to that the fact that you want them to also melt into your ideas and the rest of the cast so that everyone is in the same world. It is so important to have the right team on stage; it does half the job for you.
A scene from Macbeth,
directed by Enmanuel
García Villavicencio
García Villavicencio: As directors, we face challenges and I believe that is the main reason I do what I do. I particularly don't see much difference when directing William Shakespeare, Federico García Lorca, Abniel Marat, Dario Fo, etc. What I do is work with the energy of creation, the same energy that comes from God. I create as an artist. I see something that was masterfully done, I read it several times until I am able to tap into the fountain of creation that the writer used to create that masterpiece. I grasp the soul of the work and then begin to reshape it, bringing to life what I want to transmit through this play. As a director I don't believe I should do something just to do it, there has to be a meaning and a point of view that I want the audience to leave with. Some say that directing plays like Macbeth is difficult because they require large casts and complicated wardrobes, and while all of this needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a play, what's the fun of doing this work if we don't have challenges? On April 23, 2014 in honor of William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Reyes y Reyes will open-- a musical based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will. I won’t say much about the production other then I just wanted to honor "The Bard of Avon”.

How do you tackle the text with your actors? 
Rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet,
directed by José A. Esquea.
Esquea: We read, read, and then read again. The truth is that is not that complicated. You read, read, and read again. Then you recite, recite, and recite it again.
Bonilla: It is my belief that working on text with an actor is a two-way street. As a director, I try to respect all methods and ways of working. Off-Off Broadway presents a unique challenge when you're doing an AEA showcase contract in which you can only rehearse for five weeks and then you open. If you're in a show with a huge budget and your actors are not waiting tables and you can have them for eight hours a day and they are getting health insurance with six weeks of rehearsals and a week of previews then you approach it differently. You can sit at a table and take more time with table work. Those who are in the indie-theater world don't have that luxury. So I cast actors who can do all the other homework. Actors who can go off and look up words, figure out the scansion, memorize the lines quickly, etc.--  more technical responsibilities. My first priority is to get my cast all in the same world and to truly help them personalize the text so that when they speak they are speaking from their hearts, so the text has real meaning and not is not simply heightened and clever, yet empty. My biggest pet peeve is hearing Shakespeare that is
Rehearsal for Macbeth,
directed by Alberto Bonilla.
empty of humanity, of a personal connection or experience. I am lucky to have an amazing cast that worked so hard outside of rehearsals, even meeting outside of rehearsal time on their own to run scenes. They took initiative and met to run scenes so they could then bring me ideas. Actors need to take responsibility and have artistic integrity but also artistic character. Character is what you do when no one is watching. This cast has excellent character and so we can push the text and play and risk in the world because they are meeting me halfway.

Rehearsal for Los amantes del
Alto Manhattan
, based on
Romeo and Juliet,
adapted and directed by
Enmanuel García Villavicencio.
García Villavicencio: Well first of all [when I direct a version of the play in Spanish], I do the translation and adaptation of his work, so what my actors are working with is the adaptation. Shakespeare in Spanish is immediately different from the work done in the English language; but nevertheless, I respect his work and try to maintain the essence of his work. Once the scripts are given to the actors we begin the process of reading and understanding what we are working with. I try to make sure that the actor has a full understanding of his character, what the objective of the play is and what each character wants to accomplish. I have found that when directing Shakespeare part of my work is teaching-- it shouldn't be, but it is. The text in Shakespeare is everything. My actors need to understand that and so they do.

In what ways have you tried to make your production(s) seem new and fresh for a contemporary audience?
A scene from Macbeth
directed by Enmanuel 
García Villavicencio.
García Villavicencio: I transform his work to be as understandable and appealing to my audience as possible. Attempting to show that while the language, names, and clothing may be different the underlining issues are still as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago. I always want his work to be organic, pure, and raw, for the audience to love his work as much as I do. I believe that with Macbeth, the Romeo and Juliet adaptation I did, entitled Los amantes del Alto Manhattan, I accomplished just that. Reyes y Reyes, based on Twelfth Night, I think will show that a Shakespearean production can be both appealing to a contemporary audience while still maintaining the spirit, the message, and ideas that Shakespeare wanted to express in his work. Bottom line is if you understand the true essence of Shakespeare, then you realize that while there may be additional challenges associated with its production, its direction is not that difficult. 
A scene from Macbeth
directed by Alberto Bonilla.
Bonilla: The vision for my latest production, Richard III, sets our tale in London circa the 1980s in the punk music industry. Raw, primal punk rockers of the night used any means necessary to gain control over their empire. Richard (played by Richard Mazda) is an aging punk rocker who is trying to stop the inevitable change within the music industry. The audience will be transported back to a time and place of a real punk club known as the Roxy. A live punk band will be incorporating music from The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Ramones and many more punk bands of the era.
A scene from Macbeth,
directed by José A. Esquea.
Esquea: Initially I found it necessary to justify why we as people of color could exist in this universe.  Now I have come to accept that we have always existed and I do not need to justify why we are there I just need to tell a good story.  

About The Directors
Alberto Bonilla is a director, actor, writer, fight choreographer and teacher. His NYC directing credits include Boy Steals Train (78th Street Theatre Lab, Edinburgh Fringe Festival); Walking To America (also playwright, 78th Street Theatre Lab); Look Back in Anger, Three Points Over the Vig, Leaving Lilly, Servant of Two Masters, Raft of the Medusa, and Macbeth (all at the Secret Theatre). He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre from ASU and a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Rutgers University/Mason Gross School of the Arts. He also studied at the British Academy of Dramatic Art (BADA) in Oxford, England. He is Associate Artistic Director of The Queens Players at The Secret Theatre and the Head of Film and Television at Maggie Flanigan Studio. His play, Walking To America, was published in Plays and Playwrights 2005, an anthology of off- and off-off-Broadway plays (NY Theatre). Other written works include: Nonnie, Big Black Mexican Woman, #69, El Conejo and PS 357. Member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, HOLA, NALAC and NALIP. His next directing project is Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence at Urban Stages. The production of William Shakespeare's Richard III (which he directed) is currently running at the Secret Theatre. For more information, click here.

José A. Esquea has directed and produced the Shakespeare plays Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet (for which he won an HOLA Award) and The Tempest with TTO Entertainment/Soñadores Classical Theater Company, where he is the co-founder and  Executive Artistic Director. With the same company he produced a production of Shakespeare's King Lear. He was artistic director of Teatro LATEA from 2006-2013. During his tenure there, he was responsible with resurrecting the much beloved brand of Teatro LATEA to its audience base and expanding it to a much broader audience. Other directing credits include the plays Is There Room in Your Heart?, La LloronaAngels Without Wings/Ángeles sin alas, Jeannie Sol's Holiday CabaretGrowing Up Gonzales and Tango Fever. He is a graduate of Skidmore College with a double major in Business and Theatre. Essays on his approach to directing Shakespeare with multicultural casts have been published in the textbooks Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Culture (Palgrave MacMillan) and Shakespeare in America (Oxford Shakespeare Topics). In 2013, he was selected to be part of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation Broadway Observership program for emerging directors. He will direct a Shakespeare production in the fall of 2014. His proudest achievement to date is being a father to a son and daughter. For more information on TTO Entertainment, click here.

Enmanuel García Villavicencio is a communicator, writer, director, actor and producer. He is the founder of E3OUTLAWS PRODUCTIONS Co., Inc. and of the eARTh and Lorca Al Desnudo Theatre Festivals. A theater and communications graduate from LaGuardia Community College, he later studied at the Raúl Juliá Training Unit of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre and is constantly in search of learning new techniques and methods. His most recent directing credits include Federico García Lorca's La casa de Bernarda Alba and Bodas de sangre”; Abniel Marat's Binomio de violencia: El olor de los machos/El olor de las hembras and Tabú; Shakespeare's Macbeth and an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, titled Los amantes del Alto Manhattan; Dario Fo's No hay ladron que por bien no venga and The Virtuous Burglar; Deidania Peña's Between Hallways; Marilyn Cruz's Remembering Williamsbridge; Lee Partson's Waiting For You; Ariana Matos' My Mother's Brain; Michelle Rivera's Fall; and the solo shows La consulta, El regalo and You Are Confused!, among others. As an actor, he has worked in television, film and theater. He has written several plays and a feature film. He has received ATI Awards in 2010 and 2011 for direction and an ATI in 2014 for production; he has also received ACE Awards in 2010 and 2013 for direction. Reyes y Reyes, his musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will, will premiere April 23, 2014 at the Red Carpet Theater. For more information, click here or here.

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