Aquila Theatre Company's current and extended Off-Broadway attraction, a rollicking 1960s version of Much Ado About Nothing, says everything you need to know about this unique and lauded theatre company's mission — a hybrid cast of British and American actors present a classic work in a physical, potent, imaginative way. The directorial conceit of director Robert Richmond's production sets the Shakespeare comedy in a world that suggests Cold-War spy games worthy of "The Avengers," James Bond movies and "Get Smart." Beatrice and Hero wear slinky patent leather jumpsuits and Benedick, Claudio and the men don stylish Beau Brummel suits and bowler hats. Founded in London as a company devoted to blowing the dust off classics (and occasionally presenting new works), the troupe also toured the U.K. and eventually settled in the U.S., when associate artistic director Richmond and producing artistic director-founder Peter Meineck, 34, landed teaching and theatre jobs in the states. Recently, Aquila has staged The Comedy of Errors, Julius Caesar, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Iliad: Book One and King Lear. Much Ado has been extended into the fall. Its run at Off-Broadway's 45 Bleecker ends Sept. 16 and the staging gets lifted to the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre space Sept. 26 for a multiweek run prior to the resident season there. Meineck, who is hoping for an open run for Much Ado through the season, talked to Playbill On-Line about the goals and challenges of the cross-cultural troupe.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: What is a "classic" to you?
Peter Meineck: I think the term "classic," is generally much maligned. When we think of classical theatre, people automatically think of classical music and think of something very rarefied and elitist. I think a classic is just a play that's very good that's survived and endured. I work a lot in Greek drama, and you could call the plays of Aristophanes "classic" plays. But if you actually read them in the original Greek, they are wondrously filthy and boisterous and politically incorrect and all those other things that make them endure. They certainly don't fulfill the ideals of "classical" in a sort of 19th-century way. I think a classic is a play that has some vibrancy that survives longer than 50 years.
PBOL: Will you do 20th-century works?
PM: We have. In London, we used to alternate between a classic play and new play and that was quite good for the company because it would invigorate us in different ways. We'd certainly like to get back to that again. There's no reason 20th-century works can't be classics. I think in coming to New York we wanted to establish and build an audience. It seemed the best way to do that was to stick with the Greeks and Shakespeare and what we'd got good at and build that up. I like to think the style of the company could be attached to any piece.
PBOL: Part of your mission is to infuse your productions with movement.
PM: It's a big part of what we do. I think it's something that we learned from working on Greek drama, where physicality is such an important part of making those shows work. I always tell people that theatre is a Greek word meaning "seeing place" — we go to see plays, not just to hear them. I think visuality is a big part of why an audience goes to the theatre. You teach them a physical language, which is why we often start our shows with opening sequences of physicality. Then you can use that physicality to sort of set mood and create scenery, if you like, and really underscore the text. I will admit I am not a great fan of realism in the theatre. I don't want to leave my sofa in my living room and sit in a theatre where what I encounter is another sofa in a living room. That's something that classical drama resists. Classical drama is incredibly surreal.
PBOL: And Aquila is ensemble driven or director driven?
PM: Very ensemble-driven. It's funny — sometimes you read your notices here and they pick up on the directorial aspect, and pick up on Robert as an "auteur." He encourages actors to bring ideas. We all contribute ideas for the shows, to the point where it's very difficult to say whose idea it was at the end of the day. It's a very collaborative process, which, again, can make a new actor to the company feel very uncomfortable. The first week or so of rehearsal, there's no text happening. People are exploring physicality and playing games and having adventures. We have to do that to form a group and form an ensemble. PBOL: Tell me about how Aquila began.
PM: Originally it began in London and I formed with a couple of friends from college. We had a group called the London Small Theatre Company. Those people have all gone on to do wonderful things and we're all still friends. Like a lot of those companies that grow out of college, after about three years it sort of self-destructs. It's very hard with friends to suddenly put it on the footing of becoming a not-for-profit and an Equity company and those things. I founded Aquila out of that. Artistically, I suppose, it was a one-man band, but I very quickly started to attract a group of actors I got to know — it's always been a collaborative process. Robert Richmond joined the company as an actor in 1993 and I started an artistic partnership with him. Tony Cochrane came on in 1995, so really the three of us form the artistic heart of the company.
PBOL: Did you tour?
PM: We founded in 1989-90, it was a really bad time in Britain. There was no arts money. It was the end of the Thatcher government, theatre was getting very elitist. The RSC and the National weren't the places then they used to be and it was really hard to break into the world of theatre in London, particularly classical theatre. We found that very, very hard. So we immediately started to tour Europe, America, Canada — we went where the work was, where we could earn money. I've always paid actors. I've never had people work for free. A lot of the artistic start in the company came out of being a road company. A lot of the artistic design behind the shows comes out of the fact that we have to pack it into three or four bags, get on a plane, and get to the next gig. We've always had that sort of energy behind the work that we do. Much Ado was out on the road for a year before it came into the city. The shows obviously change, develop and mutate [on the road]. The difficulty is, on the road we play 1,000-2,000-seat theatres and then we come into the city and we have to shrink the show down again. We do about 60 venues a year. For the actors that come into the company, it really knocks a company and a show into shape. I think touring has really been at the heart of what we do. I am a great theatre evangelist, I really believe in touring and taking the work out.
PBOL: You travel by bus?
PM: We do, and we fly as well.
PBOL: Do you travel with them?
PM: I used to. The first six years I did. Now I wait 'til they're in Florida or somewhere, and go visit. [Laughs.] Going out on the road was great, but there's a point where I have to live in next year and if you're on the road it's a very day-to-day existence.
PBOL: Were you an actor?
PM: No, I've never been an actor. I started out in technical theatre.
PBOL: You're a rare company in that you use American actors and British actors. How did that begin?
PM: We started off in London and we got a lot of work on the college circuit doing Greek plays. No one was doing really good contemporary Greek plays and taking them out on the road. That was our niche, initially. We would do new translations of them. So we started to build up contacts in America. That grew into getting into performing arts houses. It became so successful we would come over on English Equity contracts. And then American Equity — we came to their attention. They called us in and said, "Well, this is great but we'd really like to give it our blessing and have you guys start to work with Americans." So we put together a formula where we would start to use American actors. We were doing a lot of teaching, a lot of workshops, and we became intrigued with the idea of a mixed company. The more time we spent over here, Robert and I and Tony stated to have lives over here. We got to the point where we decided to move the company and base in America. [American] Equity were really quite forward-thinking in the idea that they knew there was always going to be two or three British companies doing the circuit, why not actually have their members have a piece of it? Which I thought was a great idea. Now we're in the situation where they say, "Well, we've let you do this for a while, now we'd like to see all-Americans do it." I can understand that. They've created a new American Equity company where there wasn't one before. It's a political hot potato and it tends to cause reactions whenever something else is in the news about British actors coming to America. Suddenly, everyone looks at us. We're proud of it. We think it's a really good thing and wish the arts in this country would, in general, have a more open and tolerant attitude to foreign arts coming into the country.
PBOL: Are you still getting pressure from Actors' Equity Association to make it all-American?
PM: I wouldn't say negative pressure. It was always part of the deal that we would gradually mutate into a full American company. We've been pleasantly surprised at how well people react to the mixed company on stage. I think it dispels a lot of the myths about British and American actors and their different qualities. Well, they do have different qualities but they can feed off each other.
PBOL: What are the myths about U.S. and British actors?
PM: The myths are that the British actors are more vocally-based and cerebral-based and that the American actors are more physical. There's the "Method" here and in England there's "Acting." We work at [New York University] and certainly the students go into a studio and latch onto a technique. I don't think it's that different from what's happening in England right now. The repertory system in England has pretty much been destroyed. We're now seeing, when we cast in England, actors who are only used to working in small theatres, actors who have been prepared for the camera. We end up having to train them just as much as we would train any American actor in terms of doing something that's larger and can be projected in a large space. Robert and Tony, when they left college, went straight into regional theatres where they would, within a year, have done 20 plays. That kind of experience just doesn't happen in this country. The company system is a very rare thing here. We do find that our Americans who join us are initially suspicious of it, and suspicious of the way we work. We have to win them over. You see them, after about two weeks, suddenly being won over. The cynical, hard-bitten, New York, jobbing actor is dropped and you see this person who buys into it. The one thing [about us] that's very European is the sense of "theatre company" and continuity. It would be very hard for us to just sort of cast our plays, rehearse them in three weeks, and sort of throw them out there. In a way, taking people on the road is what helps create the dynamic that makes Aquila work. These are very hard working actors. They're hardly ever off stage. They're very physical, they sweat a lot, they play several roles. We demand a lot of them.
PBOL: What does Aquila mean?
PM: It's Latin for "eagle." We wanted a sort of name that had connotations of artistic leadership but also was quite feminine and classical.
— By Kenneth Jones