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Spotlight on Susan Schulman, Richard III

By • May 12th, 2008 • Category: Interviews

Listen to Mike talk with Susan Schulman about Tapestry Theatre Company’s final production of Richard III [MP3 15:51 7.3MB].

Mike: This is Mike Clark with ShowBizRadio. Today I am talking with Susan Schulman, the director of Tapestry Theatre Company‘s Richard III. Thank you for talking with me today, Susan.

Susan: Thank you for calling.

Mike: What is Richard III about?

Susan: If you ask the Richard the III Society which is a wonderful bunch of historians who say it is Tudor propaganda. They are trying to say that Richard III is a lying, scheming, murderous psychotic who was finally deposed by a noble upstanding lord who became King Henry VII. Because what it is is not the true story of Richard III, but rather a brilliant reworking of events of his time as the nest of a predator, of someone who rose up as a tyrant and took control and then had to be defeated to restore peace. It has seduction, stabbing, sword fighting. It has power struggles. It’s a lot of fun.

Mike: Is Richard III a good guy or a bad guy?

Susan: He is a bad guy from our point of view. You actually have to find the good in him to play him.

Mike: We saw part of a rehearsal last night and we both decided that he was a slime ball. We saw the first part of the show and we were like, “Oh, my gosh.”

Susan: He gets a little more sympathetic as the show goes on. I think he begins to see that it’s lonely at the top. Plus he actually achieves his ambition of being on the throne and things start to unravel for him. He starts to make misjudgments and people start to desert him. He is a lonely guy. I think by close to the end of the play he gets a little sympathy from the audience.

Mike: Is it a large cast?

Susan: It is a large cast, twenty actors on stage plus two actors who only appear in our videos which we will talk about in a minute. In the play as it is written there are over 40 named characters with lines and then another fifteen or twenty that do things silently. So what we have is twenty actors covering all that. What have have is fifteen actors covering all that because five actors never double into any other role. We have actors doubling and tripling. We have also cut the original text down and simplified a little bit. Cut out a few characters and cut down the time.

Mike: Do you know about how long the show is? I was reading in the Wikipedia and the show is really long.

Susan: With intermission it runs just under three hours. It’s like two hours and fifty-six minutes. That includes a fifteen minute intermission.

Mike: Have there been any challenges with that long of a show coordinated and set up?

Susan: You need a long rehearsal time. Working with volunteers you are asking them to come in four nights a week and give up their weekends. You are dealing with their day jobs and their kids. It’s a big sacrifice on their part. Maybe you rehearse something way back in March and then don’t touch it again until April. Then it’s like “Did we do this scene yet? I don’t remember.” I have to say that this cast has risen to the challenge completely. I don’t think I have ever worked with a group that was as ready to perform as they are right now at this stage in the production. We just need to get an audience in there to give it life on May 9.

Mike: You mentioned some kind of video that was going to be happening for some of the scenes?

Susan: What we are doing in the production is mostly what you see on stage looks like what is happening in 1483-1495 when Richard reigned, or as close as we can get to it, with costuming and the way people behaved and the swords they were wearing and fighting with and so on. Every now and then we drop in a video that is of another production that is happening somewhere in the 21st century. What would Richard be like today? You look around at governments today around the world perhaps including your own and maybe you will see media manipulation, government propaganda, coups, all of which are in the text of Richard III.

So we have, using Shakespeare’s words, staged some scenes as if it were happening today. What would the equivalent be? Of Richard being interviewed on Dateline. Being asked to please be our king which is in the text. But it is happening on television instead of on the stage. My hope is that it will intrigue the audience. That they will sit back and say, “Well, yeah, maybe this play was written 400 years ago. But it could happen today.” It’s a different work. I think the actors are having fun with it, too.

Mike: Do you think the video might be distracting?

Susan: That is a risk one takes. The video does not happen while anything else is happening on stage. Stage work happens and then the video happens. There is a huge projection screen that looks really good. If I have done my job correctly, the audience will be intrigued and come to an understanding of the approach. If I have not done my job well, it might be hugely distracting. That is the risk you take when you try to do an ambitious aesthetic decision.

Mike: Switching over to talk a little about you, have you directed Shakespeare before?

Susan: I’ve directed a few plays by Shakespeare. The last one I directed was As You Like It, which included sections in Spanish. So making videos was weird as you can imagine. I directed two bilingual productions, that and A Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream. In my last production I was very very pregnant with my last child. On closing night I was having so much false labor that someone in the cast followed me home just in case we had to pull off onto the side of the road and deliver the baby. Now he is almost five years old and it’s time for me to get back to work.

Mike: What is your theater background?

Susan: Well like a lot of people, I’ve done lots of different things. I started on stage as an actress, but since I was quite small, I had an ambition for directing plays and felt most at ease when I was in that role. I am very attracted to big scale productions like Richard III or Much Ado About Nothing or Anthony and Cleopatra. That was a wonderful show and that was where I met Andrew Greenleaf, who plays Richard, who played a number of smaller roles in the ensemble about 11 years ago. I’ve directed small one acts and the occasional modern piece that is really the exception for me.

Mike: So what should actors know about directing since you’ve done both?

Susan: The director’s always right. (laugh) I would say keep in communication with he director at all times. Don’t ever take anything as a personal criticism. It’s all about telling the story. The director’s job is to facilitate the telling of a very complex story that’s been told through the actors, through the word through the sets, through the costumes, through the sound effects, through the lights, through the video. They have a lot of plates spinning. So I would say keep those lines of communication open and keep asking for what you need until you get it.

Mike: Now, flipping that around, what should directors know that actors do? There are a lot of directors have never acted.

Susan: That’s true. I do think there is some advantage of me coming at it from an actor’s perspective. Recently I had the courtesy of having the disadvantage pointed out to me that I was a little too touchy feely that I was was asking them to do things rather than telling them to do things. Some people found that they were on too shaky of a ground, that they needed a more definite approach. It’s what I call the European Director approach.

If you are a director from Europe you come in and think that American actors are completely self indulgent. They want to know “why” they cross the stage. “I just told you to cross the stage. Why did I have to cross the stage?” American actors are much more used to what’s my motivation? I was asked to be more considered and more concrete in my direction. I appreciate them giving me the favor and telling me that. It has made me a better director.

Mike: What is your next show after this, if anything?

Susan: I actually do not have a show in the pipeline. I am not really well known in Northern Virginia. I am better known in the Maryland suburbs. Now with a child in the house and gas prices really high I said that I would not work in Maryland anymore. I came to work with Tapestry about five years ago acting in a small part. That then led to costumes. Another thing I do is costume design. I did not design this show. I worked at the Folger, Shakespeare Theater as wardrobe crew. That may possibly continue. I hope it will because I enjoy it. I’m hoping some other theaters come to see the show and say that they may consider asking Susan to submit a project. Let me put out my job wanted ad to you. I would like to keep directing and since unfortunately this is Tapestry’s last show I will not have that opportunity at Tapestry.

Mike: Is there a show that you would love to direct?

Susan: The first show that comes to mind is a show that I would not want to direct but that Peggy Jones, who is in our show, would love to direct is Cyrano DeBergerac. I told her I would costume it if she directed it. I would love to direct Anthony and Cleopatra again. I would love to direct Henry V. I would very much like to direct Twelfth Night in terms of Shakespeare. In terms of what else is out there. There are other writers. There are even living writers.

Mike: There are a few.

Susan: I would love to direct a play by Pearl Cleage, who wrote Flying West. I’d love to direct almost anything by August Wilson, especially The Piano Lesson. There is a lot of wonderful vibrant theater out there. There is some wonderful John Patrick Shanley, such as Doubt. David Mamet. There is modern stuff to take a crack at. And Noel Coward. I would really like to direct Noel Coward. I do think my strength is probably the big tragedies. I don’t seem to be much of a comedy director. I think I’m more into people’s suffering and those sorts of thing, you know?

Mike: That might not be a good recommendation….

Susan: Well, maybe I’m compensating for an extremely happy home life.

I would like to say for all those people who have participated in Tapestry productions in the past, this is a wonderful chance to have a reunion because quite a few of the people we’ve worked with are on stage in this show, whereas you may know them better backstage. Mark Edwards who has been the technical director for almost every show for the last several years. He is acting in a major role in this show. Peggy Jones, who has run the theater for many years and has directed and produced in many productions, has a leading role in this show. Lee McKenna is acting. Caroline Piccotti is playing the Dutchess of York. One of our board members is making her debut, Elizabeth Miller, in a non speaking role.

I do want to say one other thing about community theater in general. I’m really proud that sometimes people make their debut in my show and then go on to have a very healthy career in community theater managers and sometime onto professional acting. There are two people making their debuts. On of them was very bitten by the acting bug, and has a lot of talent and will continue to do great things in community theater. I really want to give somebody a good experience and for them to say I want to be doing that.

Mike: So tell us when and where the show is and how people can get tickets?

Susan: You do not need reservations generally for our shows because we have a very large auditorium and there is general seating. If you want to reserve a group of seats you can call 703-960-3398 and make a reservation. Or they can visit our website which is www.tapestrytheatre.com. There you will find all the information and the time and place. It is a 7:30 curtain on Fridays and Saturdays and that may throw a few people who expect a show to start at 8 o’clock. Because it is a long show and the city facility limits our time we have to start a little on the early side. It is a 7:30 curtain. We don’t want people to miss “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Which is the very first thing.

Mike: What time on Sundays?

Susan: On Sundays are at 2 pm. I know Sunday is Mother’s Day, but I mean, why not take your mom to a show about the worst son in history? The greatest disappointment to any mother ever. Then our second Sunday is on the 18th at 2 pm. There are two Sunday matinees if you don’t want to stay out as late. We close on Saturday May 24th and that will be the final curtain for Tapestry.

Mike: And there is a special event, I believe, after the show on that night isn’t there?

Susan: You know, I think you’re talking to the wrong person. Maybe a surprise for me.

Mike: I think they’re having a farewell cake.

Susan: Yes, I think so. There will be a farewell tribute video and lots of songs and weeping and crying. Then we will all go to Peggy’s house and have a great big party. Then on Tuesday we come back and tear the set down and move all our stuff out.

Mike: Well, thank you very much for talking with me today. I do appreciate it.

Susan: I appreciate your interest and getting the word out. It’s a really really good show and we’re hoping to get some people in the seats. Thank you.

Photo credit: Bob Morrison, Bonnie Briar Productions LLC

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started ShowBizRadio in August 2005 because they love live theater. They each have both performed in and worked behind the scenes in DC area productions, as well as earned a Career Studies Certificate in Theater from Northern Virginia Community College. Mike & Laura are each members of the American Theatre Critics Association, and Mike is a member of the Online News Association.

2 Responses »

  1. […] final show. They will be closing down after their final show at the end of this month. Mike did an interview with the show’s director, Susan Schulman. Mike also did an interview with the President of Tapestry Theatre Company, Peggy Jones which will […]

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