10 acclaimed directors on Shakespeare and their work

Michael Kahn directs Henry VI at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Michael Kahn directs Henry VI at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Since we started producing Shakespeare Unlimited in 2014, we’ve gotten to chat with a lot of great directors. Here are a few of our favorite quotes from some of the directors we’ve had on the podcast.

Peter Brook, Episode 134

… on the inspiration for his iconic 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1970. Directed by Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Rear, left to right) Mary Rutherford as Hermia, Christopher Gable as Lysander, Frances de la Tour as Helena, Ben Kingsley as Demetrius. (Fore) Sara Kestelman as Titania and David Waller as Bottom. Photo: Reg Wilson © RSC.

“I would go every year whenever I could to America and I would go to New York. One time I went there and what had they brought for the first time what was called the Chinese Circus. And there, I saw young people doing amazing things. Just leaping and juggling, and at the same time a man holding a girl with his left hand and juggling with his right hand. It was something unbelievable. I came back to Stratford and I said, “What I would like to do with A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to have a workshop. A period of preparation, when we can prepare things based on the point that we’re trying to evoke spirits.” None of us have ever seen a spirit. All we can say is that a spirit is invisible. And to be invisible, the nearest we can get is in what I’d seen in these Chinese acrobats. Something so light that the body’s transparent.”

Peter Brook has won multiple Tony and Emmy Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, the Praemium Imperiale, and the Prix Italia. He is the founder of the International Centre for Theatrical Creation (CICT). His books include The Empty Space and Playing by Ear: Reflections on Sound and Music.

Gregory Doran, Episode 75

on staging the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of The Tempest, which used cutting-edge technology to project a digital avatar of Ariel into the playing space.

“But in the end, the play, the beating heart of the play, had to be the relationships—the text and the relationships between the actors, and, you know, the beating heart of it—and the magnificence of the technology could only enhance that if it was true at the center.”

Gregory Doran is the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Dominic Dromgoole, Episode 73

… on staging Hamlet in 197 countries around the globe:

“I think that experience to go around the world sort of electrified the play, and made it stingingly alive in lots of places. I think it changed my view of the play. I think I started out thinking the play was a journey towards calm and towards a sort of healing of a young man’s spirit, and I thought that was the effect it was supposed to have on an audience. And I ended up thinking that was wholly and utterly wrong. And actually it’s the opposite. It’s a play that’s there to make the world restless, and it’s there to think about dreaming a future, and it’s there to think about how you create a new modern that’s significantly different from the world that you’re in.”

Dominic Dromgoole was the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe from 2005 – 2016. He directed Shakespeare’s Globe’s 2014 – 2016 production of Hamlet, which toured 197 countries over two years, and is the author of Hamlet Globe to Globe, a book about the tour.

Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein with actors (from left) Krystel Lucas, Jason Maddy and Christopher Salazar. Photo: Doug Gates.

Barry Edelstein, Episode 82

on verbs:

“But actors take action. What we’re looking for is the active thing. What is this person doing in this situation? And Shakespeare is an astonishing writer of verbs. His verbs have so much muscle and expressivity, that we as interpreters of Shakespeare learn to lean on those verbs because that’s what gives the language its zing, if you will.”

Barry Edelstein is the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director of The Old Globe. He is the author of Thinking Shakespeare.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Barbara Gaines
Barbara Gaines

Barbara Gaines, Episode 71

on the urgency of Shakespeare:

“We had to bring in as many different people, as much as we could, because Shakespeare has the greatest range of human sympathy, of human empathy, of any writer who’s ever written… you look at the mess that the world is in, and you go, “This is a salve!” This inspires people. This shows people that you can make the world a better place, merely by being a better soul.”

Barbara Gaines is the Artistic Director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. She has directed nearly sixty productions at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater since founding the Theater in 1986.

Michael Kahn, Episode 120

… on a 2000 production of Timon of Athens set on Wall Street in the 1980s.

“When we were doing Timon of Athens… I got a letter with all of somebody’s subscriptions cut up. She wrote me saying that she was giving up her subscription because I was trying to change the national election. And I thought how wonderful that could be. But she said, ‘Because you’re making fun of Reaganomics.’ I thought, well, I hadn’t really thought about that, I was just doing a play about a society that’s had a boom and then a bust, and we were in the middle of having another boom, and I wanted people to remember that a bust usually follows a boom. But I wrote her back and said, ‘You know, I’m very sorry that you feel this way and are going to give up your subscription, but I have to tell you that when you write to me that a 450-year-old play can upset you this much, and mean so much to you politically, it gives me a good reason to get up in the morning and go to rehearse.'”

Michael Kahn was the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company from 1986 (when it was the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library) to 2019. From 1992 to 2006, he was the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School.

Iqbal Khan in rehearsal for “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

Iqbal Khan, Episode 128

… on “messy” Shakespeare:

“I’m always an advocate of messy Shakespeare because I think it’s more truthful to the plays…. By messy Shakespeare I mean human Shakespeare, and by human Shakespeare I mean I don’t think we’re consistent creatures…. I think so often what we do in the world is we try and remove contradictions from our experience. We see contradictions as making us vulnerable to challenge. We sort of isolate ourselves with simple truths that bind us in tribes. It feels to me that if, with the Shakespeare, we can thrill and tease an audience into embracing unknowing, that is one of the most important gifts that we can give to future audiences. That it’s okay not to know, because then you’re always engaged in discovering the new. Shakespeare’s plays, I think, celebrate that independence of voices, of types, that create a much richer whole, as it were.”

Iqbal Khan has directed at Shakespeare’s Globe, in the West End, and at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he staged Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra, Tartuffe, and Othello.

Kenny Leon, Episode 133

… on shorthand he uses when working with actors:

Danielle Brooks (Beatrice), Tiffany Denise Hobbs (Ursula), Margaret Odette (Hero), Olivia Washington (Margaret) in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing. Directed by Kenny Leon.
Much Ado About Nothing, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Directed by Kenny Leon. Featured: Danielle Brooks (Beatrice), Tiffany Denise Hobbs (Ursula), Margaret Odette (Hero), Olivia Washington (Margaret). Photo: Joseph Sinnott.

“I use this when I’m working on camera or on stage. My point is, if you’re close to being right, you’re in the pocket. It’s pretty good. But I say, ‘Add a little mayonnaise’ means, ‘Just a little bit more of yourself.’ Just a little bit of flavor is gonna make that go from a dry sandwich with just bread and tomato to a really moist sandwich that creates a great scene. So they understand when I say ‘mayonnaise,’ I mean, ‘You’re close.’… You want to add a little bit of smoothness to it. And if I say, ‘Add a little mustard,’ that means, like, you want to add a little spice to it. You know, it’s too generic.”

Kenny Leon is the founding artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company and Artistic Director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. In 2014, he won the Tony Award for Best Director for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington.

Phyllida Lloyd, Episode 76

… on how her all-female productions of Shakespeare’s plays tap into a much older Shakespearean tradition:

Harriet Walter as Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” at the Donmar Warehouse. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

“In Shakespeare’s time, they were watching a story about Henry IV, history from two hundred years before, performed in fundamentally Elizabethan costumes with some medieval ingredients. Or a Roman play performed in Elizabethan costume about something that’s happened… And of course, it feels like a very modern experience. But we had lost that in the U.K. since the turn of the twentieth century, when we started saying, ‘We’ll do Henry IV, so we’ll all dress medieval. Or do Julius Caesar, so we’ll all dress Roman.’ This is a new thing. And I think it hasn’t helped somehow release the universality of these plays, and I think the same in terms of gender, that actually by getting stuck with, ‘The men have to play the men and the women have to play the women’… they were never intended to be so slavishly attentive to the ‘literalness’ of the people. We were trying to take something where there’s a very received idea about how it should be presented, and just explode it.”

Between 2012 – 2016, Phyllida Lloyd directed a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions for the Donmar Warehouse. She has directed countless productions, among them the original stage production and the film adaptation of Mamma Mia! as well as the film The Iron Lady.

Peter Sellars. Photo: Ruth Walz.

Peter Sellars, Episode 106

on disrupting audiences’ expectations for a play:

“Classical culture, I mean, the nightmare of classical culture, whether it’s Mozart or Shakespeare, is there’s usually a privileged, educated audience that wants to be flattered by their own knowledge and their sense that they know. The implications of white supremacy are all written into ‘I know Shakespeare.’ And so, the sense that you’re disrupting that circuit, that Shakespeare is something you don’t know, or is contrary to the way you’ve always assumed, is so upsetting, because you’re touching something that goes way deeper than a literary criticism moment. You’re actually moving into a core of why somebody goes to the theater, which is to have themselves reaffirmed in a certain image. And what happens when you’re making a theater that’s affirming other people and other realities and other possibilities?”

Peter Sellars is an American theater and opera director.


We release a new episode of Shakespeare Unlimited every other Tuesday. Listen on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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