After more than four decades in the theatre, veteran director Gerald Freedman should know his Shakespeare. He was, after all, a director with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival from 1960 to 1971. Further opportunities to stage the Bard came with his tenures at John Houseman's Acting Company (1974-77), as artistic director of the American Shakespeare Theatre (1978-79) and artistic director of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland (1985-97). Along the way he has directed 25 of Shakespeare's works, guiding Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner in Much Ado About Nothing, Stacy Keach in Hamlet and Hal Holbrook in King Lear. But, Freedman could not, perhaps, call himself the complete Shakespearean director until the year 2000; for this summer he became the first American to director at London's famed Globe Theatre. He spoke to Playbill On-Line about his precedent-setting experience.
Playbill On-Line: How did you come to be the first American to direct at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre?
Gerald Freedman: First of all, I have a background with the New York Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare in general in New York. I had been involved with the Globe project, not officially, but because of my connection with Joseph Papp. I had been asked to be on panels when Sam Wanamaker was raising money and the consciousness of the theatre communities in Chicago and New York for this project. When it began to be a reality -- they built it as they raised the money for it -- I came by and would visit and made my presence known. When they started production, I went often because I was interested. I had met Mark Rylance, the artistic director, during these visits. I made some observations, both positive and negative, and Mark thought I might add something. And I think they were anxious for an American connection of some sort. They've had American actors here from the start, but they hadn't had a director yet.
PBOL: Have you found any resistance from either audiences, artists or the press to having an American direct at the Globe?
GF: No. Well, from the press I can't tell you. [The show had not opened at the time of this interview.] From the actors, not at all. But there are differences. The way we go about organizationally doing theatre is often quite different. This is an actors' theatre. There's a great deal of collaboration that all the actors participate in. That's unusual in the States. But at the Globe, that's kind of their imprimatur.
PBOL: Who chose the work you're doing, Richard Brome's The Antipodes, or, The World Upside Down? It's a rather obscure play.
GF: [Laughs] It's a totally obscure play. Mark Rylance selected it. It came to his attention ten years ago. And he's fond of the play. At the Globe, they put Shakespeare in context, so each season they do one or two plays of the period, not necessarily Shakespeare. I did a lot of adapting of the property -- it is very little known -- but it turns out to be quite a delightful and dear play.
PBOL: The plot seems very complex. It's about Peregrine Joyless, a man who is obsessed with traveling the world and is taken to a sort of proto psychiatrist, who cures the man by pretending to take him to a mythical world, called "The Antipodes," where everything is backwards -- for instance, lawyers plead to not be paid.
GF: It is complex and that was part of the problem; how do you keep the narrative thread straight? The way the doctor cures him is by taking him deeper into his fantasy, which actually has some scientific currency. Running alongside this is the fact that his father and stepmother are a May-December marriage and the man is insanely jealous. Their problem is resolved, too, through the son's cure. PBOL: The productions at the Globe are fairly minimal.
GF: The setting, absolutely. It is the facade of the playhouse. There are, in this case, period costumes. Props are at a minimum, too. It's the only way this platform stage seems to work. In essence, this isn't a tourist attraction. It is an experimental theatre. They're trying to find out what about the theatre -- the acoustics, the shape of the theatre -- may give us insights into the creation of Shakespeare's plays.
PBOL: What's the main challenge in staging a play at the Globe?
GF: The two pillars [on the stage]. Always, some view is blocked to somebody. So, how do you keep the scene moving so that doesn't become a permanent obstruction?
PBOL: When Globe audience come to see Shakespeare, many of them are familiar with the story. Almost no one is going to be familiar with the story of The Antipodes. Have you had any difficulty holding the crowd's attention?
GF: We've had two previews. They have loved it. They absolutely follow the story. I've cut it to two hours. The reaction the first night was great. There were three bows planned and they demanded a fourth one.
PBOL: You've directed scores of plays. Would you count this among the most memorable experiences of your career?
GF: As far as directing at the Globe, yes. The first performance, I looked down at the yard and it was full. It was a sold-out house that night. And then the first actress came on stage and I said, "Gee, Gerry, you have a show at the Globe."
--By Robert Simonson