I’m 13 years old, sitting on a folding beach chair on a grassy hillside on a summer evening in Massachusetts. At the bottom of the hill is a simple wooden platform stage surrounded by deep woods, waiting for an outdoor production of Henry IV to begin. I don’t know it, but the event I’m about to witness will stay with me for the next two decades.
To be honest, there are whole chunks of the production I can’t recall. It is, after all, a play I’ve seen maybe half a dozen times in the ensuing twenty years and as brilliant as many of those productions have been, some of the details have slipped and mixed together and gotten lost and confused in my memory.
What I do remember about that night on the hillside, what I doubt I’ll ever forget, was the dynamism, the immediacy and the palpable sense of magic imbuing the production. The sense of vast, mythic, larger than life forces moving beneath the play, and of an entire lost world of heroes, rogues, rebels and spirits lurking in the shadows beyond the lights of the stage.
It comes back to me in flashes – how it began just at sunset, with daylight gradually fading into stage lighting, drawing us deep into the world of the play, the otherworldly druidic chanting of Owen Glendower’s rebel followers electrifying the night air, light and shadows through the trees, the way Falstaff seemed to ask me personally “what’s in that word honor?” Sitting on that dark hillside, ignoring the humidity and mosquitoes, I was treated not only to an expansive and transporting vision of Shakespeare’s epic history, but also to the discovery of live theater’s unique power to conjure that ancient, spine-tingling feeling of stories told around a campfire.
This production has been much on my mind lately as I begin my journey as a Drama League Directing Fellow. For one thing, it is without a doubt one of the productions that helped forge my personal aesthetic of telling epic stories on a human scale. But more immediately, I’ve been thinking about it because in just over four weeks I will be on my way to the place where this magic happened.
You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but the Henry IV that so fired my imagination was created by Shakespeare & Company—where I will be assisting Drama League alum Daniela Varon this summer—and directed by the incomparable Tina Packer.
Things have changed at Shakes & Co since the year I sat on that hillside transfixed by Henry IV. These days they’ve moved the shows inside to two beautiful theaters they’ve built just up the road from their former outdoor stage. But from the few wonderful opportunities I’ve had so far to meet and speak with members of the company (including the actor who played Falstaff that night twenty years ago), it is clear that the spirit of the place remains intact, they are still in love with “poetry, physical prowess and the mysteries of the universe.”
The play I’ll be assisting on at Shakespeare and Company this summer is Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. It’s a wonderfully rich play. It’s a tough-minded and smartly troubling story about race and bigotry. It’s a play that uses a 19th century story to raise timely questions about whose stories we’re telling onstage (and who is permitted to tell those stories). It is also, in addition to all that, a love letter to theater and a celebration of the actor’s impulse to draw audiences forward in their seats into the delicious shared dream of a great story told with truth and dynamism and magic.
I’m not sure if I think this rare chance to return to the site of that magical Henry IV is destiny or coincidence or just luck. But I am confident in predicting that it will become yet another memory that will guide my work and my theatrical imagination for years to come.