Shakespeare and I – Ranking My Own Productions

Originally Published on Facebook Notes (August 17, 2017)

Updated to include the 2016 Hamlet production.

When I directed Measure for Measure (in a heavily adapted form) back in 1989, I had no idea I would continue directing so many of Shakespeare’s plays. It certainly wasn’t my intention. I’d first been involved with Shakespeare when 7th grade Gifted and Talented program attempted to stage a youth version of The Taming of the Shrew. I recall we seventh graders laughing uproariously at Hortensio’s line “That so I may, by this device, at least/Have leave and leisure to make love to her…” Man, seventh grade.

Sophomore year in college, I stage managed Professor Paul Kuritz’s Hamlet at Bates and I was sold on Shakespeare (thank you, Professor!). I should have paid much more attention to how Professor Kuritz edited the script (and, later, to how Terry Knapp edited his performance scripts) because I find myself too soft-hearted when it comes to editing even to this day.

Anyhow, I’ve directed a number of his plays since that time. As part of my continuing growth as a director, I want to take a moment to rank my Shakespeare productions “worst to first” with some (often minimal) justification as to why I’m ranking them that way.

Before I start, I want to stress that this list is a reflection of my perception of the work I did, not that the actors or designers did. Every single one of these productions featured some fine performance, design and technical work. Each one, alas, did not receive the same level of skill from me.

Honorable Mention – Comedy of Errors (MPI – 2004)

Comedy of Errors Cast Shot
Cast Shot – Mid-Pacific Comedy of Errors 2004

I’m putting this one in a different category because it was a high school production and was rather derivative of my first production of Comedy of Errors, but it was a very successful and funny. The show was performed in Commedia dell’arte style, though we kept Shakespeare’s language. Actors beat each other with pool noodles. We had a performer playing an audience member who kept getting a little too close to the action. I recall Di-an Tokars, Grace Chee and Bridget Rhee playing a trio of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes on bass violin, ocarina and drum. The students were great and I’m rather proud of this show.

14 – Measure for Measure (Bates – 1989)

(I have some decent photos of this show and someday I’ll dig them up)

I was 21 and insufferable. I could barely suffer myself. I’d wanted to do Charles Marowitz’s adaptation of Measure for Measure for my BA Thesis production but I wasn’t able to figure out the correct place to write to for the rights (this was pre-internet and I had two letters returned). I reduced it to two 35-45 minute acts, 8 characters, removed the bed trick (so Isabella ends up sleeping with Angelo) and had Claudio executed anyways. Also, the Duke disguised himself as a nun instead of a monk. I imposed too much on the script and honestly had no idea what the words meant half the time. I just decided they’d mean whatever I wanted them to mean. The production itself was reasonably successful, but many of my choices were more for flash or to show off how (insufferably) clever I was than for a reason. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about directing over the years its that the stuff you put in shows should be there for a reason.

Also, I stuck by my guns regarding a particularly blasphemous (and unnecessary) choice and lost an actor over it. Insufferable and stubborn.

I wanted badly to remount this production in Hawaii when I first moved out here, but I’ve been vaguely embarrassed about it since the mid-90’s.

13 – Henry IV, Part 1 (HSF at Paliku – 2003)

Henry IV - Part I
HSF Henry IV – Part 1 production (2003)

I feel like I owe the excellent cast of this show some profound apologies. Any quality that was present in this show was entirely due to their hard work and not especially due to any contribution of mine at all. As with Hamlet (coming up), I was totally overly ambitious with this production. Furthermore, I’d apparently forgotten (or had not learned?) that things should happen for reasons – so we had jingju style fighting, a ninja, bagpipes, and a mish-mosh of other stylistic elements for no good reason other than “hey, that sounds cool.” I didn’t allocate enough time for rehearsal nor did I spend enough time doing table work. I was unable to effectively support my cast and, as I mentioned, they were entirely responsible for the good work that did end up on stage.

Also, I had an actor who couldn’t articulate well in rehearsal but who insisted would turn it on for the production. He did not. Never forget.

12 – Hamlet (HSF at Paliku – 2002)

Hamlet Cast
Cast of Hamlet (2002) HSF

This is the last show on this list that I have deep, genuine regrets about. Every show after this I still feel really good about.

This was my offering during the first year of the festival and I made several enormous mistakes. In order:

I didn’t cut enough.
I didn’t allocate enough rehearsal time (6 weeks).
I used the rehearsal time badly – I had this idea of using stylized movement and voice that we worked for weeks and then I dropped.

There are some staging elements that I rather liked (I had the ghosts of the dead wander the set freely from time to time courtesy of choreographer Emily Brande) and there were some excellent performances, but this is the show I most want to take another swing at someday. I have this idea about a small cast, all-female version that I’m rolling around in my head.

Also, if not for assistant director John Wat, nobody would have had much support on their dialogue – he was the production’s saving grace.

11 – The Winter’s Tale (HSF at Kennedy Lab – 2005)

Winter's Tale Publicity Shot
Photo by Brad Goda – Publicity Shot, Winter’s Tale (2005)

Its hard to go wrong with Jonathan Sypert playing a bear.

I really liked this production. I went with this cold/warm thing to separate the two countries in the play. This was the first show where I decided I wanted to include some extensive dancing (which Hester Kamin really made delightful). Some lovely, lovely performances. I should have cut more and I didn’t handle the last minute venue change (from MPI’s Kawaiahao Recital Hall to Kennedy Lab) very well. The show felt like it was staged for a different venue because it was. Also, Alvin Chan – costume designer. Nice stuff, Alvin.

10 – Comedy of Errors (UHM Mainstage – 1996)

Comedy of Errors
Comedy of Errors backstage Shot 1996

This was kind of the zenith of my “let’s direct Shakespeare without knowing what the words actually mean” phase. It was hilariously funny, but it was so successful (maybe to this day the best attended Shakespeare production I’ve directed, if not the most seen) that it led me down some bad paths (“I don’t need to know what it means!”). Ah, success can be a burden.

The costumes/make-up by Sandra Finney (second or third show she and I worked on) were dynamite. Maybe my favorite show ever visually. We went with a cirque du soleil thing and featured a fake clown audience member who disrupted the show from time to time. Man, when Aaron Anderson went into the bit where he describes Nell as a globe, you’d have thought the audience was going to die of laughter.

Tony Pisculli AD’d this one and I think this was one of my first really successful collaborations with another director (though I’d co-directed a Ludlum play with Harry Wong a few years earlier that kicked ass, too). It took me a few more years to learn to delegate.

9 – The Tempest – (HSF at The Arts – 2011)

HSF Tempest Cast 2011
HSF Tempest Cast Shot – Photo by Cheyne Gallarde

I loved this production so much. Sandra Finney made these delightful puppets and the cast (largely under the direction of Morgan Lane Tanner) created a whole style of two puppeteers/one puppet operation (somewhat inspired by Bunraku). Terry Knapp said it was his favorite production of Tempest ever, and that’s a pretty high compliment. That this ranks “8” is a testament to how pleased I was with my work on the following productions and because…

Much of the directing of this show was beyond my skill set. I honestly could not have helmed this production without Morgan (who was amazing), Sandy (who is always amazing) and Tracy Okubo (who contributed music and was totally amazing). In my ideal world, when I watch one of my shows, I can no longer see what work I contributed to it. In the case of The Tempest, the cast and the aforementioned designers are the ones who made it magical. I just made sure everyone was facing forwards and audible.

8 – All’s Well That Ends Well (HSF at Paliku – 2004)

HSF All's Well That Ends Well
All’s Well That Ends Well production shot HSF 2004

For the first two seasons of HSF, I was floundering badly. I refound my footing while working on All’s Well That Ends Well, largely because I got to collaborate with Sandra Finney again. I spent a great deal of time working on language with the cast (something I’ve done on every show since then), wrote a bunch of original songs, collaborated with Aito Simpson Steele on making some wonderful multi-media slides, created the best pre-show music mix ever with Aito and Christy Hauptman, and generally had a great time. While I was bitterly disappointed with the critical reception, the audience reception was overwhelmingly positive. Fabulous work from all actors and wow-those-costumes.

7 – Troilus and Cressida (HSF at The Arts – 2013)

Troilus and Cressida
Troilus and Cressida HSF 2013 Photo by Cheyne Gallarde

I waited 12 years to direct this show – not quite as long as the Trojan War, but long enough. Another stellar Sandra Finney Costume job. Bringing in John Wat for text support on this one was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Great stage combat from Nicolas Logue. I loved a ton of things about this show (not the least of which was the stellar cast – I mean, seriously, look at the cast list if you can fine it – its nuts) but I think I loved the script a little too much and, thus, didn’t edit nearly as much as I should have. In retrospect, I should have shaved another 45 minutes off the show. Nobody’s fault but my own!

This show also gave birth to Othello (which – Spoiler! – you’ll see at #1) because this is when I asked Q and Shawn to pay Othello and Iago. Good choice.

Oh and the end of act 1 – Ajax played by Albert Ueligitone – exiting to “Kashmir” by Led Zepplin was one of my favorite moments ever.

6 – Hamlet (HSF touring production – 2016)

Hamlet 2016 HSF

Its really immensely satisfying to direct a touring show and see that students actually get it and enjoy it. Amanda Stone – who also worked with me on Othello – took the lead on the edit and again AD’d (via Skype). Three very strong actresses played all the characters (a casting plan that I’d wanted to do for several years), the show was edited down to about 55 minutes and we cut like a dozen characters. Every time I work on Hamlet (as director or stage manager or actor) I think “Oh, NOW I know how to direct this show – my next production is going to be killer.” I would rank this one higher but upon reflection, if I’m just gauging my own work, I’d give the lion’s share of credit for this production’s success to Amanda.

5 – Much Ado About Nothing (HSF at Kennedy Lab – 2006)

Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing – HSF 2006
Photo by Brad Goda

Sandra Finney’s costumes, Johanna Morris’ delightful set (maybe my favorite in the whole 14 years of the festival), Hester Kamin’s disco work and some of my favorite performances in any Shakespeare Festival made this show an absolute delight and a great high note on which to leave the festival forever. I came back two years later. I think I did just about everything right for a comedy in this production. I left feeling like I didn’t have anything left to prove in terms of Shakespeare and comedy. It was positively likened to a Shakespearean sitcom by one critic – a statement of some accuracy.

4 – Macbeth (UHM Kennedy Lab – 1995)

Macbeth 1995
KT Lab Macbeth – 1995

All three HSF founders worked on this one. Sandra Finney designed costumes (our first collaboration, I think). Taurie Kinoshita, who has of course become an excellent director in her own right and who has acted and directed for HSF several times, was one of the witches. This might not be the direct origin of the Festival but it was, perhaps, the festival’s crucible.

Tony Pisculli and Aaron Anderson did the stage combat – I’m not sure if this was their first show for that or not. We built this giant rolling garbage heap featuring a number of working TVs. They played some of the dialogue if I recall – the prophecies I think. The show was set in post-apocalypse Scotland. This was probably a cliche back then, too, but we didn’t know.

Some of my finest staging ever (though it fell apart a little in the second act). The witches set up all the scenes and at times I had the next scene frozen on stage for a while before the previous scene ended. I had this idea about doing literal museum theatre – all of the scenes were little statues that came to life. Lady Macbeth walked through a frozen gallery of everyone who’d died, I think.

I know several people who would argue this was my best production and even I think the staging was excellent. However, and this is important, I was still working with this “I don’t really understand the text and that’s ok” attitude. The actors who got the text already were able to shine, but I was little to no help to the actors who didn’t understand the text. Since this show was a huge success, it taught me a very bad habit that I didn’t get over until I hit the nadir of Henry IV Part 1. There’s something to all those words in these plays. Who’d have thought?

Anyhow, this list is about evaluating my own work, so this is #4.

3 – Pericles (HSF at The Arts – 2009)

Pericles

I took two seasons off from the festival after Much Ado and was planning on not returning. However, I came back in 2009 with a “expect everything to go wrong” attitude and had a splendid time. Sandra Finney designed costumes and puppets. Terence Knapp encouraged me to cut the entirety of the first two acts – and I did cut almost all of those acts. Ballsy, Terry, ballsy. Jonathan Sypert choreographed some terrific movement – both abstract and literal. AD Sharon Garcia Doyle focused on voice work (which started to become very important to me during this show) and text work. And Eden Lee Murray was just dynamite as Gower – one of the best casting choices I’ve ever made. I’m not giving myself credit for her performance, but I am patting myself on the back for recognizing that she would kick ass as Gower. Casting can be like 90% of a show’s success and this show had like a 85% success rate based on casting alone (again, the whole cast list is crazy good).

I’m not a huge fan of the script of Pericles but we turned it into a rollicking Monty Python-esque romp through the Mediterranean, complete with a big clear map of the area and little boats to track the progress of the characters. Holy cats, what a good time. This show was so much fun and so good that it made me interested in directing regularly again. Hurray Pericles.

2 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (HSF Touring – 2015)

A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream HSF 2015 Tour
Photo by Melany McAngus

This show is probably the most viewed show I’ve directed for the festival simply because it toured to schools all over Oahu in April. Four actors, a script heavily edited by Lacey Chu and some especially inventive staging on all of our parts made for a really fun, fast paced version of Dream. Working with Lacey as the editor/producer/stage manager/actress on this was one of the most satisfying professional experiences of my life. Also, for those of you who missed it, Moses Goods as Thisbe was the sort of thing you dream about for that role.

1 – Othello (HSF at The Arts – 2015)

Othello
Othello 2015 HSF
Photo by Brad Goda

I think I now finally get how tragedy is supposed to work. Remarkable cast, costumes, music and staging and other people did almost all of that. I delegated more and really held to my “it doesn’t matter whose idea it is so long as it makes this a better show” credo. In many ways, looking back, I feel like this is the show that finally has made me an actual director – the textual understanding, the vocal work, the staging and the contributions of everyone are just exactly right. Hurray! I’ll spend the rest of the week thanking everyone involved.