Buying furniture these days usually involves a certain amount of Do It Yourself activity with a hammer and screwdriver. If you usually end up with a surplus of Part Bs, 14 extra screws and a shelf that doesn't seem to fit anywhere, imagine building an entire theatre of bolted-together segments that have come from another country. That's what is happening at the Park Avenue Armory, a massive 55,000-square-foot space on Manhattan's East Side, where a combination of the Lincoln Center Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company (in association with The Ohio State University) and the Armory itself has embarked on a wonderfully loony project — the building, breaking down, transporting and rebuilding of Stratford-upon-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Theatre in New York.
"Every day is a new adventure," says Rebecca Robertson, president of the Armory. Built in 1877 as a military club, its wood-lined rooms designed by such luminaries as Stanford White and Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Armory has been turned by Robertson and her staff into an arts center where, she says, they "can do work that New Yorkers otherwise wouldn't be able to see. Nothing is too big or too difficult."
So when Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, and Michael Boyd, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wanted to bring five full-length plays by the RSC to New York this summer, the small matter of there being no suitable theatre was not going to stop them. They would, they decided, just bring one with them.
"When we recently rebuilt our theatre in Stratford," Boyd points out, "we knew we were going against the tide by building a deep thrust stage instead of the traditional proscenium arch. That's an issue wherever we work, because if we are to get seven plays up and running quickly in New York [that number includes shortened versions of Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors for schoolchildren] we need to be able to duplicate almost exactly the staging in Stratford. The best way is to use the experience of our own massively talented crew to build our theatre all over again. Once we've done it, we've got an amazing resource, a theatre we can use anywhere in the world." New Yorkers, it seems, can't get enough Shakespeare, especially in the summer. There's the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park series, Shakespeare in the theatres, even Shakespeare in the Parking Lot — but the Royal Shakespeare Company's New York residency is surely the most ambitious of them all. Not only are they building the physical structure — a replica of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre complete with its seating, lighting, backstage and technical areas — they are bringing nearly all the actors, stagehands, designers, wardrobe staff and personnel, too. Only when they step out onto Park Avenue will they be in New York. Tickets started flying out of the box office as soon as the season was announced, "[New York] audiences are avid to have the experience of being in an Elizabethan theatre," explains Robertson.
The five full-length productions — As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, King Lear, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet — have all been seen by audiences in Stratford and in London, where a former railyard-turned-arts center, the Roundhouse, was used instead of a theatre. And though the gigantic Armory dwarfs the Roundhouse, the theatre inside it returns the productions to the space where they were meant to be seen... just in another country, an ocean away. Boyd says, "We can see our theatre as a piece of sculpture within the vastness of the Armory."
For Redden, the project fits exactly into his vision of what the Lincoln Center Festival must do: "It should add something to the cultural life of the city, not just duplicate what is available elsewhere, and in this case the exciting part is the ensemble company. This is special because it allows New Yorkers the opportunity to see Shakespeare's plays as his audiences on Bankside must have seen them, with the same cast of  actors playing several roles in five different plays, a true ensemble."
New York theatregoers also have a chance to see Greg Hicks, one of Britain's leading classical actors, in three of the five plays: as Leontes in The Winter's Tale and in the title roles of both Julius Caesar and the towering King Lear. As Redden points out, "One of the wonderful things about New Yorkers is that they take their culture seriously, their curiosity is real, and there's an audience for everything as long as it's good."
It is as yet unclear what will happen to the portable theatre when the season (running July 5-Aug. 14) is over. If audiences are as enthusiastic as indications suggest, perhaps there will be more plays from the RSC in the future. Robertson is hopeful: "We would love to have a long-term relationship with the RSC."
"After we finished building our Stratford home," Boyd says cheerfully, "we needed another mad project. So we did this. Cheap — only cost a million! Perhaps someone will want to buy it. If they do, we'll just build another."
But for now, this Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage will be unscrewed and folded back into its flat-packs to be shipped to its next big adventure... along with a few extra Part Bs, 14 homeless screws and the shelf that doesn't seem to fit anywhere.