By: Natalie Dewan
This is the second instalment of our “Director’s Cut” series, which features interviews with the four directors of Shakespearean productions at the Stratford Festival this season.
Our second director is Chris Abraham, director of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Mr Abraham has directed across Canada, including five previous productions for the Stratford Festival, and is the Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre in Toronto.
1) The director’s job requires you to make so many decisions and wear so many hats, what is the first thing you do when approaching a new Shakespearean production?
After reading the play the first time, I read the play again and write an exhaustive list of facts and questions in the margins of the text.
I try to write down obvious questions as well as not so obvious ones. For example, with “Taming of the Shrew,” my first question was “what is a Shrew?” These questions become research tasks, but they also are there to remind me what my early responses to the play were as I move into later stages of research for a play.
2) What are you most excited for audiences to see in this performance? Is there any specific audience that you would particularly like to reach?
I’m excited for them to see the versatility and intelligence of the acting company, as well as the complexity of the play. “Shrew” is a difficult play, but for me it is a strange kind of love story about mutual emancipation, role-playing and identity.
I’m interested in the audience noticing their own reactions to the play, but I’m also interested in an audience being open to the possibility that the while the play is situated in a world with problematic gender politics, it is also a portrait of a world in which gender roles, and the concept of marriage and love, are undergoing big changes. I believe the play reflects the tension of the times.
I also think there are genuinely progressive impulses in the play.
In terms of the audience, whenever I make a play, it is important to consider who will come to the show. I always think deeply about this, especially at Stratford. If there was an audience that interests me the most, it is the young people.
3) One potential challenge for all four of the Shakespearean productions on the Stratford playbill this year is their complicated and potentially controversial representations of women. As a male director, how did you approach this challenge?
I try to approach this subject of the play with sensitivity and ask lots of questions. I asked many friends, colleagues, other men and women for advice. I read a lot about the history of the play in performance and how it has been received at different times.
I rely on quite a bit of scholarship to help challenge my instinctive responses and help me see new things in the play.
I listen to my collaborators and engage them in the big questions of why we are doing to the play. I let myself be challenged by the other men and women in the room. I listen to the audience during previews and I try to understand what the play is really saying and sharpen this main idea as best I can.
In the end, I try to be brave and honour the representations of women in the play that Shakespeare intended, while providing a dramatic context in which their complexity can be revealed to an audience. This is what I try to do with every play.
4) There is a lot of interest in your approach to this somewhat infamous play after your success with Othello in 2013 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2014. Did you feel that additional pressure as you tackled another Shakespearean work this year?
Every play has its challenges, and I always feel pressure. This one was no different.
5)The Taming of the Shrew is all about give and take in a relationship (albeit to a rather unhealthy extent). What do you think working with a real-life couple (lead actors Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay) brought to the production?
They brought a great deal of history and knowledge of each other as performers. They were both tremendously patient with each other and with me.
We had great chats about the roles together and the play. We were able to wrestle with its challenges as friends, colleagues and we were able to talk about marriage, power and love on a personal level and weigh the ideas of the play against our own experiences.
The fact that they were a couple meant that they trusted each other a great deal, were willing to go anywhere the play was asking us to go. They also love acting with each other, which made this challenging play a delight to explore with the two of them.
6) As a director and a busy creative person, your days must be hectic and varied, especially coming up to the opening of a performance. What are some tasks or rituals in your life that remain a constant every day?
There isn’t a lot of constancy in my life these days, but I do sleep and eat everyday. When I can I like to run and go to the gym.
There aren’t a lot of regular rituals in my life besides email these days. I’m hoping to spend the rest of my summer re-discovering some of the pleasures I haven’t had time for in the last few months.
7) From Each Pair Below, Pick One:
a) Comedy or tragedy?
Tragedy, no comedy, no tragedy…. I can’t decide
b) Iago or Richard III?
Iago for sure.
c) Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” or Tim Blake Nelson’s “O”?
I’ve only seen R&J, which I liked when I saw it
d) William Shatner or Bruno Gerussi?
Click to read all the reviews of “The Taming of the Shrew”