Fort Worth — TheaterJones snatched a few minutes with T.J. Walsh, co-founder and artistic director of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival, in the busy days just before opening night of the festival’s sixth season on the Texas Christian University campus. This year, Trinity heads to the outer limits of the Shakespeare timeline, presenting a very early work, The Comedy of Errors, and a very late one, The Tempest—thought to be the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own.
Walsh, an associate professor of theatre at TCU, directed last summer’s hot-ticket production of The Taming of the Shrew, which made Top Ten lists across the area—coming in at No. 2 on Mark Lowry’s “Year in Theater” list on TJ. Ticket sales for Shrew set a box office record for the festival. This year, Walsh is directing The Tempest, with Dallas Theater Center’s associate artistic director Joel Ferrell at the helm for The Comedy of Errors.
It’s TJ interviewing T.J., then, about Trinity Shakespeare and the Bard himself.
TheaterJones: This week marks the start of Trinity Shakespeare’s sixth year, so let’s give you a chance to brag a bit. What would you like to say about “then” and “now”—about the initial purpose and hopes, and how everything has played out?
T.J. Walsh: When we started, we knew we wanted to tell Shakespeare’s stories in an intimate way, and that our two theaters—one a thrust, one a proscenium—would allow us to do that, to bring it all “up close.” There are times when you see Shakespeare and just because of the nature of the setting you have a lot of actors yelling their lines at each other. People get it into their heads that this is what Shakespeare is—and it isn’t.
Shakespeare is about human beings. He’s incredibly insightful on aspects of love and human psychology—so going into the festival, the question was how to create work that lets audiences see Shakespeare in those terms and with that intimacy. We’ve always worked towards clarity, too, and from the first year on, we’ve had audiences telling us as they came out that this was the first time they’d understood every word, every moment of what was happening onstage.
From the start, we wanted to hire the best, professional Equity and non-Equity local actors in the area; we’ve done that, I think, and we continue to find more of them each year. It’s incredibly helpful to have actors with experience and sophistication, who embrace Shakespeare and aren’t intimidated. And we wanted to create fun or beautiful places where these plays can live. We don’t have big budgets, but we have very creative artists in our design teams, and in our tech and production areas. We wanted a place where Shakespeare could come alive, and that hasn’t changed.
What’s the art—or science—of choosing two Shakespeare plays that will pair well each summer?
We try to have a contrast—a tragedy with a comedy, or a comedy with a more serious work. Our audiences like it, and our actors love it. It’s a real rep[ertory schedule]: one day they’re rehearsing a tragedy, the next day the silliest of plays, and the actors are in both, in larger or smaller roles. This year we looked for a beginning and an end, so we picked Shakespeare’s first comedy—this very farcical, wonderful, silly play—and then his last play, which I’m directing. I’m a theater historian, and The Tempest seems to have so many elements of Shakespeare’s life in it, if you’re looking for them. It’s not blatant, but the play is so beautifully complex in that sense.
The Tempest has a really variable tone: there are comic elements, but quite a few dark moments as well.
It’s not the easiest play to produce. Some of Shakespeare’s funniest characters and scenes are in The Tempest—the butler, the clown—and there’s a lovely romance, too. But there’s a great depth to the story as well. Prospero is trying to set things right: he’s finding a husband for his daughter, setting Ariel free, letting go....The play is about forgiveness, about transformation and moving on. And there’s no doubt that you can really hear Shakespeare saying goodbye to the theater. It’s very intentional.
There are so many father-daughter pairs in late Shakespeare: Polonius and Ophelia in Hamlet, Lear and Cordelia, and so on. Doesn’t that feel like something from Shakespeare’s experience [of being extremely close to one daughter in particular]?
Yes, absolutely, it does. But there’s also a beautiful little scene in The Tempest with Ferdinand and his father, who each think the other was drowned in the shipwreck that begins the play. And at the very end, rather like the brother-sister reunion scene in Twelfth Night, they find each other and embrace. And I couldn’t help but think about Shakespeare and his son, who died when he was 11 years old—and about Shakespeare wishing he could find his boy again too. And then, of course, yes, Prospero is trying to find someone for Miranda, much as Shakespeare was for his own daughter. If you know nothing about Shakespeare, it plays beautifully, but if you do know his biography, you see so many echoes of his life, and of his previous plays, in this play—which I like very much, clearly.
It’s also a play about theater, isn’t it—all the magic and artifice of that world.
Yes, and that’s another challenging part of this play. How do we make all that effective for today’s audiences? The magic starts out with a shipwreck, and Prospero getting even with the enemies he will eventually forgive. So there’s a lot of light magic at the start, but it gets darker and darker, and we can’t just do David Copperfield-style magic—but need to find something that supports the tone of the play.
I was trying to think of similarities between the two plays for this year, and could only come up with one plot point: there are shipwrecks in both of them.
[Laughs] That’s right. But really, the thing that continually amazes is the versatility of Shakespeare. Yes, you’ll find the similarities, but you’ll work on The Tempest and then go over to rehearse The Comedy of Errors, or go from As You Like It to Macbeth, and your jaw drops to think that the same human being wrote both of these plays. The genius of Shakespeare is never more clear to actors, audiences or the director than when you do these plays in rep.
Joel Ferrell and you are each directing—do you develop an approach to each play separately, or do you try to have some kind of conversation going between them?
We’re not a “concept first” company, we’re a story first company. So clarity and storytelling come first in our approach, and that’s what I tell all our directors. But beyond that, The Comedy of Errors is absolutely and 100 percent Joel’s production, and as artistic director mine is completely a support role, making sure he has what he needs to make that play. And I just get to admire it.
In this Comedy of Errors, the two sets of twin brothers are being “doubled” by two actors—each one playing himself and his identical twin—and it’s a pretty frantic comedy to start with.
It’s a fascinating test, and the design and acting challenge turns completely around. Normally when you have four actors in the roles, the difficulty is convincing the audience that these two different actors are identical twin brothers. But this time the challenge is to make the twins different, though it’s the same actor playing both of them, and to help our audience know who’s onstage at what time.
And also, when you cast one actor as both twins, you suddenly have a role the size of Hamlet. In pure lines, it’s just enormous, so those guys [Richie Haratine and Jakie Cabe] have been working their butts off.
» The Tempest previews on Tuesday, June 10 and opens on Thursday, June 12; Comedy of Errors previews on Wednesday, June 11 and opens Friday, June 13. They run in rotating rep through June 29. In the final weekend, you can see both shows in one day.