"All the World's a Stage" for Barry Edelstein, Old Globe's Artistic Director and Shakespeare Aficionado

Special Features   "All the World's a Stage" for Barry Edelstein, Old Globe's Artistic Director and Shakespeare Aficionado
 
Old Globe Theatre's artistic director Barry Edelstein talks with Playbill.com about presenting works by William Shakespeare and bringing them to the West coast's Old Globe.

Barry Edelstein
Barry Edelstein Photo by Joseph Moran

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A second generation of the House of Edelstein is following what has become a family tradition of "thinking Shakespeare."

"My daughter, who is six and a half, has been running around quoting Shakespeare for a long time and I sometimes worry that I'm poisoning the well," reported Barry Edelstein, director, author and artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. "She's so funny. She has seen so much Shakespeare that she'll see something and say 'Daddy, that's not the kind of Shakespeare I like.' She's six and a half and there's a kind of Shakespeare that she does and doesn't like."

Edelstein himself, who is now considered one of the nation's leading interpreters of the works of Shakespeare, didn't start nearly this young. But having come to the Bard sometime around high school, acting in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at public high school in Fair Lawn, NJ, he has pursued the devotion throughout his professional career, most notably during posts as artistic director at Classic Stage Company and overseeing the Shakespeare initiative for Oskar Eustis at the Public Theatre.

Between those two gigs, Edelstein went Hollywood, relocating to Southern California to try to break into episodic TV. Although he picked up some teaching work at USC and did some private coaching, Edelstein refers to that SoCal stint as "my great period of unemployment." A theatre guy with a knack for the classics going to Tinseltown? The question drew a laugh from Edelstein.

"Why did I do that? That's a really good question. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time," said Edelstein. "It didn't last long. I think part of it was driven by financial considerations. After I had spent many years in nonprofit theatre, some good friends in Hollywood offered to do me a solid and introduce me to some people, and I thought, 'Well it's now or never.' I will say it was a very humbling time. I did not find what I went out there to get.

"I was living in L.A., directing at the Mark Taper Forum, teaching Shakespeare at USC and teaching Shakespearean acting to people in Hollywood who wanted to hone their skills," he continued, "and it just became clear to me that well this is a crazy thing to do because I'm a theatre guy and I've got to own that."

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The situation contains both a silver lining and a healthy dose of irony. During that time in L.A. when he wasn't becoming a successful screenwriter, Edelstein put fingers to keyboard and wrote ""Thinking Shakespeare: A How-to Guide for Student Actors, Directors, and Anyone Else Who Wants to Feel More Comfortable With the Bard."

Carrying the endorsements of academes and performers alike (Kevin Kline, Roger Rees and Gwyneth Paltrow have all contributed cover blurbs), "Thinking Shakespeare" has become a go-to textbook for Shakespeare students of all ages and abilities. Shortly after publishing it, Edelstein heard from the Public's Oscar Eustis, who invited him to return to New York to oversee all of the summer Shakespeare in the Park and related events.

And he was employed to be "thinking Shakespeare" all over again, directing Julius Caesar starring Jeffrey Wright, The Merchant of Venice with Ron Leibman and associate producing the Dan Sullivan-directed staging of Merchant on Broadway with Al Pacino playing Shylock.

Edelstein called the Public move "the best decision I ever made," and he also talks with equal pride about "Thinking Shakespeare" and its reception. An e-mail address at the book's conclusion, thinkshakes@yahoo.com, encourages readers to send their thoughts and comments.

"It's rarely a question," said Edelstein. "Every once in a while someone will say to me, 'I'm struggling with Edgar disguised as Poor Tom. Is there anything you can tell me about that?' Most of the time, it's people saying, 'Here's my experience. Here's how the book was useful to me.' I'm very grateful the book is helping people, and it seems to have gotten out around the entire country." The book has spawned a new incarnation, "Thinking Shakespeare Live," a 90-minute stage presentation performed by Edelstein and selected actors often as a benefit or a special event. A kind of mini master class, along the lines of the types of Shakespeare classes Edelstein taught at USC, Julliard and around the world, "Thinking Shakespeare Live" has proven popular as well. The event sold out the 600-seat Old Globe in summer 2013, and he'll stage another production of it May 3 at the Globe.

The work is a hit as much with actors as with audiences, reported Angel Desai, an Edelstein veteran who appeared in two productions of The Winter's Tale that Edelstein directed 11 years apart. In the summer of 2013, Desai was in San Diego working not on Shakespeare, but on a version of Double Indemnity when Edelstein tapped her for the "TS Live" one-off.

Edelstein leads "Thinking Shakespeare Live"
Photo by Doug Gates

"Whatever Barry wants me to do with Shakespeare, I'll do," said Desai. "He has a way of breaking the process and the text down into... I wouldn't say rules... tools. When you listen to him talk, it feels almost easy."

"I introduced my mother to him after the performance, and she has a degree in French literature," Desai continued. "She told him 'You make me want to go back to school and have you as a professor.'"

The local interest in "Thinking Shakespeare Live" confirms what Edelstein knew when he took the Globe gig: That the appetite for Shakespeare at San Diego's oldest regional theatre — a theatre built around the Bard — is as voracious as ever.

This is a good thing, since Edelstein is bound and determined to feed it. "When I got here, I thought 'Thinking Shakespeare Live' would be a fun way to introduce myself to the community and also a way to help prepare ourselves to be listening to Shakespeare in a different kind of way," he said. "Because we're doing more Shakespeare than the Globe has done in a while."

True enough. The 2013-14 season — the first programmed by Edelstein — included an Edelstein-directed production of The Winter's Tale, the first Shakespeare play presented on the Globe's indoor Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage and not outdoors on the Lowell Davies Festival Stage in more than a decade. The season also included "The Last Goodbye," an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet featuring the music of Jeff Buckley and the upcoming single night showings of "Thinking Shakespeare Live" and What You Will, (April 28) a solo evening of the works of Shakespeare performed by Roger Rees, who is in town working on the new musical Dog and Pony. With the warmer months comes the Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival on the Lowell Davies Festival Stage. The lineup includes a revival of Othello directed by Edelstein featuring Blair Underwood, Richard Thomas and Kristen Connolly, set during the 19th century and a traditionally-staged production of Two Gentlemen of Verona directed by Mark Lamos. There is talk of free screenings of Shakespeare films on the off nights during the summer. In the fall, the Globe will launch a touring Shakespeare program patterned after a similar initiative that Edelstein oversaw at the Public.

"We're trying to embrace the fact that, for 80 years, the Globe in Balboa Park has established a reputation as a major producer of Shakespeare, and the work the institution has done over those eight decades has built a really significant Shakespeare audience," Edelstein said. "I would be hard pressed to list more than five other places in the United States that have a Shakespeare audience like ours."

Built in 1935 as a presentation site for abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays as part of the as part of the California Pacific International Exposition, the Globe has been the site of what was originally called The San Diego National Shakespeare Festival since 1949. Its longtime leaders have included founding director Craig Noel and Jack O'Brien (1982-2007), both — like Edelstein — renowned directors of Shakespeare. Actors taking the stage to recite verse at the Globe have included John Goodman, Marsha Mason, Robert Foxworth, Patrick Page, Kelsey Grammer, Campbell Scott, Hal Holbrook, Neil Patrick Harris, Robert Sean Leonard, Victor Garber, Tovah Feldshuh, Brian Bedford and Richard Easton, working for such directors as Ellis Rabb, John Houseman, Gerald Freeman, John Hirsch, James Dunn, John Rando and Dan Sullivan.

In 2004, Darko Tresnjak brought back the organization' three-play summer repertory with three Bard offerings running on alternating nights. Former Royal Shakespeare Company leader Adrian Noble oversaw the summer Shakespeare festival for five years.

Edelstein arrived at the beginning of 2013 with the summer repertory — Noble's last — already programmed. Edelstein's first programmed season included the announcement that, starting this summer, the Globe would return to the non-rep program for the summer with separate casts and creative teams building two distinctive Shakespeare productions, the same format under which the festival had operated during O'Brien's tenure from 1988-2003.

That announcement has prompted "not a peep" from Globe-goers who, Edelstein said, tend to be vocal.

"There are some people who say 'I only really want it in the summertime' or 'I only really want it in period dress' or 'I only really want it with a famous actor' or the opposite," said Edelstein. "We have a big audience and they're not shy and they let me know what's on their minds."

Those same audiences also made Edelstein's modern-dress, conceptual production of The Winter's Tale the third highest grossing non-musical indoor show in the Globe's history.

"And that's for a rarely performed Shakespearean romance done in a highly metaphoric kind of artful production, and it was a box office success. Now what makes that happen?" said Edelstein. "What makes that happen is a community that likes that kind of work."

The enjoyment the audience is experiencing is matched by the enthusiasm of the actors. Edelstein lured Billy Campbell back to the live stage for the first time in a decade to play the jealous King Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Thomas was anxious both to make his Globe debut and to reunite with Edelstein after the two collaborated well in a production of Timon of Athens at the Public in 2011. All it took was a single word e-mail from Edelstein to Thomas: "Iago?" Thomas fired back with a single word expletive, to which Edelstein replied, "That's exactly the answer I was hoping for."

An Edelstein Bard production invariably begins with a bit of textual brush-up to make sure everyone is using the same vocabulary. Campbell calls it a condensed version of "Thinking Shakespeare." "He gives you a primer and then you're off to the races," said Campbell, whose last Globe appearance was in 2003 opposite Dana Delaney in Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe. "And he makes it so clear and just so bloody easy."

"He'll challenge the play in many ways in terms of his production," added Thomas. "It's great to be in the room with a director who really knows not only the play you're doing, but all of the plays and how they talk to each other thematically as well as in terms of language.

"Also he knows how to have fun," Thomas added. "If you're going to play one of these monsters, you've got to have fun."

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