In a prior millennium, I had my only chance to direct a play by William Shakespeare. The play, As You Like It, was being performed at an outdoor venue I knew well. The Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre is located in the shell of an old blacksmith shop at the Annapolis city dock, in a building dating back almost to the colonial-era.
I had performed at the theater many times, mostly in musical theater, and I knew the difficulties ahead. The audiences were used to musicals in the space, not Shakespeare. The ambient noise of the downtown outdoor location would be a detriment, especially for an Elizabethan comedy. And the temperatures in summer often stayed high into the 90s even late in the evening. I eventually concluded that a full three-hour plus version of AYLI would be too challenging for many in the audience.
I am usually a Shakespearean originalist, strongly in favor of performing Shakespeare as it might have done in at the Globe theater in the 1600s. I don't care for modern settings or costumes; they usually just distract. My theory as a director of Shakespeare is that you should assume that everything in the play works as is; your job as the director is to figure out how. I especially dislike the usual way of cutting Shakespeare, snipping a bit here and a line there. This method too often disrupts the incomparable flow of the language, which in Shakespeare is unthinkable.
So what to do? How could I ensure that our audience would remain fully engaged while respecting as much as possible the genius of the text?
I decided on a two-track approach. AYLI is the most musical of Shakespeare's plays, and I took advantage of this by inserting music wherever I could. Since I enjoyed Renaissance madrigal music, I created a madrigal group within the play, and started the performance with several superb examples of English madrigals. I also asked talented composer/arranger Susan Nace to set the songs in the text to music in madrigal form. This immediately gave the audience a comfort level (and some marvelous musical performances) while maintaining the period spirit.
In terms of cuts, I took a bold if obvious approach. AYLI is a five-act play. Act one is set at court, and acts two-five are set in the forest of Arden. So I cut the entirety of Act I and began the play in Arden. Oddly, very little was required to make this change work. I added only a brief introduction in the program. And to carry forth the missing first act thematically, I create a set piece center stage that looked like a combination paddock/wrestling ring (since Rosalind and Orlando meet at wrestling match in Act I, and the image reverberates through the text). I also frequently used blocking reminiscent of wrestlers circling, advancing, and retreating, natural for a play about love, and filled with such memorable verbal sparring.
From my perspective, it all worked wonderfully well, thanks in no small part to a terrific cast and crew, and the audience response was enthusiastic. But what fascinated me nightly was the affect the change had on the play itself. Cutting the first act and setting the entire play in the Forest of Arden had a powerful unifying effect, tying everything together in a way that is mostly foreign to Shakespeare. Unity (at least in the form of the Classical Unities of time, place, and action) was something he never seemed to care much about, nor ever needed to. His cornucopic imagination in character and language was a match for any rambling architecture. But adding (by cutting) this conceptual unity to As You Like It concentrates and amplifies the joyfully cynical and cynically joyful viewpoint that pervades the play, a joy I experienced in watching every hot hot summer night.