Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 14, 2014

Make Your Berkshire Summer Complete

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 24, 2014

The following is an interview with Jonathan Croy, director of Shakespeare & Company's comedy, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Spotlight: What would you say about Complete Works to entice a non-Shakespeare lover to see this play? In particular, the title alone implies that the audience will spend hours upon hours sitting in a theatre, watching segments of all 37 plays -- the ones they were forced to read in high school and, worse yet, the ones they have never even heard of.

Croy: Well, although this is certainly a whimsical, over-the-top evening of comedy, I keep thinking of it as a “lovingly playful homage” to Shakespeare’s plays—we do touch upon (okay, at least, mention) them all, but most of the plays are presented through the lens of a skewed affection…I typically stress the “loving” and “affectionate” descriptors because as wacky as this play gets (and it certainly does go there), I believe that the guys who wrote this piece had a deep love of the plays.
I don’t think anyone needs to study up to see Complete Works…it’s a bit like The Muppet Show, in that there are multiple layers of jokes…there’s plenty for people with no familiarity with Shakespeare to enjoy, and then there are jokes for people with great familiarity with the plays.

Spotlight: How are you and the three actors possibly able to go through the rehearsal process without completely and constantly breaking up in hilarious laughter every minute? How does one maintain professionalism?

Croy: By redefining the term “professionalism." But seriously, our rehearsal room was a non-stop jamboree of laughter, as well it should be. That atmosphere is totally appropriate to a play like this— not only because of the sheer amount of silliness, but also because it’s a joyful comedy, and spending our days laughing together seemed like a good place from which to create that.

Spotlight: What is your directing style? Dictatorial? Laisez faire? Improv? How much input do you permit your actors, if any?

Photo by Kevin Sprague
Croy: I was first drawn to Shakespeare & Company by the openly collaborative spirit here. So not only do I permit the actors to have input, I demand that they be participants in the process of creating the show, especially for a play like Complete Works. These actors have serious game when it comes to comedy, and it would be criminally stupid of me to ignore that. This is a really funny script, with a broad comedic vocabulary, so in putting our production together, I’ve been looking to build the show from the moments, the ideas, the aspects of characters that these three actors find enjoyable, rather than walking into the room with a finished product in mind.

Spotlight: You have been onstage and are now backstage for this play. Do you see Complete Works in a new light now? Do you wish you were one of the actors having a hell of a good time, or "just" the director?

Croy: Interestingly, I do find that the societal context has an impact on this play—this was developed originally 20 to 25 years ago, and our attitudes have shifted and changed in so many way. We’re in the middle of our Preview performances now, and I’ve been fascinated by the differences in the audiences’ responses, as compared to 15 years ago when we first did this play. Some of the jokes have had to be updated, others have had to take a different tone. On some issues, our audiences seem to need a different point of view.
I also believe that comedy is an ever-expanding universe. When a television show like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report hits popular culture, it refines our taste in political commentary; when Seinfeld hits, it refines our taste in absurdism; when The Hangover comes along, it refines our taste in silliness… so one of the great challenges in approaching a script like this is in staying ahead of the curve.

Spotlight: I have seen two of the three actors perform together numerous times --  Ryan Winkles and Josh Aaron McCabe. Frankly, they need no script. Both could read the phone book aloud and the audience will be in stitches. I am sure that the third actor, Charls Sedgwick Hall is top notch as well. So, how do you enjoy working with these guys? Did you hand-pick them for this play?

Croy: Yes, I did… Ryan & Josh are certainly no strangers to this style of comedy, or the demands it makes on actors. Charlie and I worked together here back in 1984 & ’85 (!), and I’ve wanted to work with him again ever since. He’s a wonderful actor with a heart the size of Kansas.

Spotlight: Costumes and props are so important in this play. It seems to me, having seen Complete Works six times that the rule of thumb is...the cheaper and the cheesier the better. If I am correct, I believe there is a rubber chicken?

Croy: I get your point—I’ve seen this 6 - 8 times myself, plus the five versions that sprung from ours. I have to say, though, that the Costume Designer and I decided to go a bit more upscale on this one — we’re looking for a world in which the whimsy springs from a slightly more “complete” vision of each play.

Spotlight: And speaking of costumes, please describe the choreography of the talented backstage crew who help dress three actors in the roles of over 700 characters in just 2 hours. What is the secret to making this all happen in split second time?

Croy: Velcro, artful snaps & zippers and gravity and…I don’t even know what. We’re certainly blessed to have two compadres backstage—Jessie Chapman and Ben Hover—who are experts at this kind of thing…no joke at all, without them, this would not be possible.

Spotlight: How do you think Shakespeare would feel about Complete Works?  Would he approve? Is he turning in his grave? Or is he having a hoot on this, his 450th birthday?

Croy: I’d say he’d have a good time with this, given the level of low-brow comedy in many of his own comedies, I think he’d get the jokes.