Fort Worth — T.J. Walsh is the Founding Artistic Director of Trinity Shakespeare Festival and a Professor of Theatre at Texas Christian University. In each of the festival’s 10 years, he has directed one of the two shows. The shows he directed, in chronological order, are Twelfth Night (2009), Hamlet (2010), As You Like It (2011), The Merry Wives of Windsor (2012), The Taming of the Shrew (2013), The Tempest (2014), King Lear (2015), The Winter’s Tale (2016), Measure for Measure (2017), and this year’s Romeo and Juliet.
For the record, two other directors have directed one show each (Alexander Burns, Romeo and Juliet, 2009; and Blake Hackler, Twelfth Night, 2018); Joel Ferrell directed The Comedy of Errors in 2014 and Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2015; and Stephen Brown-Fried helmed the other six: Much Ado About Nothing (2010), Macbeth (2011), The Merchant of Venice (2012), Julius Caesar (2013), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016), and Richard III (2017).
Sadly, this is the last year for Trinity Shakespeare Festival, as the university has decided to explore other types of theater festivals. We’ve included a statement from the university in our updated report, with memories from people who have been involved over the years. You can read that here.
I have some firsthand experience, having performed with Trinity Shakespeare in the 2012 season (Merry Wives and Merchant of Venice). Still, I had questions.
TheaterJones chatted with T.J. Walsh about the festival, Shakespeare’s legacy, and what he’ll miss most about Trinity Shakespeare Festival.
TheaterJones: You founded Trinity Shakes. What was it that told you that Fort Worth was ready and in need of what Trinity Shakespeare has to offer?
T.J. Walsh: Fort Worth had lost its outdoor Shakespeare festival several years earlier [Shakespeare in the Park]. Shakespeare Dallas was doing a great job championing outdoor Shakespeare in the area. A very generous grant from TCU in 2009 allowed us to imagine an indoor professional Shakespeare festival that would also allow our undergraduate students to intern and work side by side with professionals. An indoor air-conditioned Shakespeare was something that the area didn’t have, and it would allow us to approach Shakespeare in more intimate way with our two 200-seat theatres at TCU.
One of the highlights (at least for me) of seeing a weekend of shows with Trinity Shakes is that the shows are cast in rep. What was the impetus for the decision to cast that way, and what sorts of opportunities and challenges has that decision brought up?
As a theatre historian I teach about the Elizabethan theatre’s use of repertory or a rotating series of titles. I teach about the challenges that brought to actors and designers and playwrights of the period. With our two intimate theatres at TCU we had an opportunity, on a small scale, to give actors and designers and technicians a chance to be tested by true repertory. The same actors doing Hamlet on Wednesday night and then Much Ado on Thursday. I found that without exception our Trinity actors loved the challenge and excitement of rehearsing a scene from Hamlet from 1 to 2 p.m. then running to another room to rehearse a scene from Much Ado from 2-3 p.m. then back to Hamlet.
The way I sold it to actors is that it was fast, frantic and fun. It is the type of challenge that actors typically haven’t faced, and it pushes their training, and patience and preparation. They are off book on day one of rehearsal and making strong choices. This is true for our professional union actors and our undergraduate student intern actors. As the Artistic Director it means hiring competent and talented artists to build the festival. I start hiring in September for the next summer. As any Artistic Director will tell you, hiring the right people is the first, second and third item on the list of building a business.
I think one of the marks of a company that people want to work for is that the same great cadre of actors make it their mission to return year after year. What does it say to you about the work you are doing that you have such heavy-hitters like Brent Alford, Blake Hackler, Kelsey Milbourn, and Richard Haratine coming back for seconds...and thirds and fourths and...?
Those actors in particular that you mentioned, and I would put David Coffee and Trisha Miller on that list, as well as others, all bring a similar aesthetic to performing Shakespeare that is directly in line with my own aesthetic in producing Shakespeare. I call it an Elizabethan aesthetic. They all bring a naturalism to their work which, as an historian, I believe the Elizabethans brought to performance. I’m not talking about realism but a naturalism that means creating a living human being on stage that the audience can believe in, care about, laugh and cry with.
The actors that I hire for Trinity (and this includes you) understand that duality of holding up the language while at the same time revealing a human being. That style is very Elizabethan and fits Shakespeare’s plays beautifully. In some training in Shakespeare there is a Restoration bent, a sort of performative, voice first, large gesture style. While I understand that style historically, in my opinion it just doesn’t fit Shakespeare. It makes it into something else. It is why often you can watch a Shakespearean production, watch a play you know well, and yet not understand a word you are hearing. It is just a stylistic wrong turn.
With these wonderful actors and directors at Trinity who understand our approach we get countless comments from audience members saying, “this is the first time I’ve understood every word” or often “ did you change the language to modern language.” Of course, we haven’t but what we’ve done is honor the historic aesthetic for which these plays were written. Of course, we don’t hit a home run every time, but we certainly come to the plate swinging hard with a strong point of attack. The actors at Trinity bring their humanity to the rehearsal room. And at times, watching them work, there is a power and truth in the room that is palpable. The chance to do that type of work, with actors of similar sensibility, I think, brings them back again and again (even though they are rehearsing two full Shakespeare productions in three weeks).
My biggest question (and it's a question I still have after being a part of the process) is how in the world do you manage to get everything staged, rehearsed, and ready to go in such a short time?
I think I’ve answered that partially above. Start preparation in September, hire like-minded, talented and generous artists. Have great support from TCU. Some designers and technicians, many from our TCU program, have been with us for all ten years. They have a loyalty to the festival and find a certain crazy joy in the process: Aaron DeClerk who designs our wonderful period costumes, Jeremy Bernardoni who builds those beautiful period gowns and suits you see, Tristan Decker and a Michael Skinner who divide lighting design for the two shows per year, Philip Zielke who is our TD and of course Harry Parker who is our Founding Managing Director and Lindsay Cowdin our Festival Manager. We’ve added Lloyd Cracknell from OU to design costumes and Brittny Mahan, a TCU alum, to run our costume studio and Sue Anne Cameron to run Marketing and Box Office. I name all these folks, and there are countless more, because it directly answers your question on how we do it in so short a time: great people.
Why are there festivals dedicated to Shakespeare, and why is still so commonly produced across the world?
I think what any director who works with Shakespeare would say: he is without a doubt the greatest playwright I’ve ever worked with. His insight into human behavior, love, friendship, loyalty and tragedy is unparalleled. I’ve directed Sophocles, Shaw, Goethe, Moliere, Shaw, O’Neill, Norman, I could go on. There is no one who understands the human condition as well, no one who comes at characters with a generosity for human frailty, no one who is as funny in his insights into human relationships, and no one who can write in a few lines the sum of what it means to experience life in all its passions. To try to capture these human beings written by Shakespeare, with a group of like-minded friends, for someone in the storytelling business, is the ultimate challenge and it is just plain fun.
We’ve just learned that this year is the last for Trinity Shakespeare Festival. This is a huge loss to DFW, not just because of the great work you do, but it is one of the Actor’s Equity Small Professional Theatres. Losing Trinity Shakes means DFW is down to 12 Equity theaters with a status of SPT (Small Professional Theatre) or higher. I know there are lots of answers to this question, but what will you miss most?
Of course it always goes back to people. As Artistic Director I’m proud to have given Stephen Brown-Fried a canvas upon which to create his truly remarkable productions. He is the finest young director of Shakespeare in the country. To give David Coffee a stage where he can play both Falstaff and Lear, and find the humanity in both. To give Trisha Miller, my favorite actress in the world, the opportunity to create Kate and Beatrice and Rosalind and Portia. To give my friend Brent Alford a playground to create spellbinding portraits of Shylock and Leontes and Prospero and Sir Toby (twice). I think Brent is the finest stage actor in Texas. There are so many other actors who have worked with us for many years including Richie Haratine, Blake Hackler and Kelsey Milbourn. They all know how much they mean to me and how much I respect their work. To be able to give Aaron DeClerk a studio where he can design and build with Jeremy Bernardino a beautiful visual world season after season with his costumes. Tristan Decker’s remarkable lighting designs and Brian Clinnin’s powerful set designs find a home on our stages. There really are, after 10 years, too many to name.
I’m proud of the growth as artists of countless student technicians and TCU student actors with Trinity. I remember fondly Susan Helvenston’s Viola, Kelsey Milbourn’s Juliet and Phoebe, Daniel Frederick’s Sir Andrew, Andrew Milbourn’s Hamlet and Mercutio, Alyssa Gardner’s Ophelia and Miranda, Bradley Gosnell’s Edgar and Ferdinand, Delaney Milbourn’s Cordelia, Amber Flores Davis’ Perdita and Anne Page. There are many more.
Personally I’ve loved my productions of Twelfth Night (year one), The Taming of the Shrew, Lear and The Winter’s Tale. Really, I have learned from and loved all 10 I’ve directed for Trinity.
I think in being an artistic director for a theatre you need to be a combination of Tim Gunn and John Wooden. I mean when you are mounting two complete separate productions of Shakespeare’s plays in three weeks, we’ll, you’ve just got to “make it work.” John Wooden, the late great basketball coach, said “never mistake activity for achievement.” Truer words were never said in relation to building plays or in building a theatre company. Both men I admire because they are teachers and both men, at their core, worked from kindness. John Wooden said “young people need models, not critics.” I try to live by that. And Tim Gunn says “I believe that treating people well is a lost art.”
Theatre is relationships. I will miss those relationships.
» TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry contributed to this interview.