Discovering William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Outdoor Stage
We recently spoke with director Brian B. Crowe and the cast of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) – Connor Carew, Jonathan Finnegan, and Ryan Woods. Written by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, this play features many of Shakespeare’s beloved characters colliding onstage – in this case, the outdoor Greek Theatre in Morris Township. The play runs through August 4, and tickets are free for anyone under 18! Read the full interview and find out what four veterans of live Shakespeare have to say about this irreverent and hilarious tribute to the Bard.
Jersey Arts: This is such a fun play. I was thinking we should provide a little bit of context. Let’s start by introducing the Reduced Shakespeare Company and the kind of theater that they create and produce.
Brian B. Crowe: The Reduced Shakespeare Company started in 1981. They started as a bunch of guys out of school that wanted to put together a fun time at the theater – which became the second act of their most famous play, The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (abridged). They have three guys that do all of the characters, rapid costume changes – a little wild, a little zany. Then they expanded it, and it was a huge hit and continues to be a huge hit for them. They have since gone on to create nine “reduced” plays, including The Complete History of America, The Bible, even The Complete World of Sports. They've got a great website, they have a lot of books out, they do a podcast, and they are always touring the world.
JA: So, with this new one - William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) – they’ve kind of come full circle back to Shakespeare almost 40 years after they started out with The Complete Works. You would think that after all this time they would’ve run out of Shakespeare material, but clearly not because now they're back with this big, new production. Could you compare the two: The Complete Works and Long Lost Play?
Connor Carew: I was in a production Complete Works a few years ago. I would say, for this one, the conceit is different in that, for Complete Works it's a little bit more of a structured overview of all of Shakespeare’s plays, but in this one, we're very much just throwing all of the plays and all of the characters together. You have Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ariel from The Tempest sparring with each other. All of Shakespeare’s creations are swirling around in the same stew. Unlike Complete Works, this is one, continuous story.
JA: So what’s the story? What is Shakespeare’s “Long Lost Play” about?
Ryan Woods: Basically, Puck and Ariel have had a falling out, and for whatever reason–
Jonathan Finnegan: You know what you did.
RW: Well, we kind of keep the audience guessing, but there's somewhat of a romantic relationship between them.
BC: Gone awry.
RW: Gone awry, for sure. You see this at the beginning and throughout the play – it's just them trying to one-up each other by messing with people's lives. And this is where all of the other characters start coming in – from Cleopatra to Richard II
JA: So, it's sort of like Shakespeare wrote this first play, and it contains everything – every character – and they all ended up populating the rest of his plays.
RW: Yep. It’s all in this long lost first play – that he wrote when he was a teenager.
JA: OK, can we just to do the numbers? How many characters do each of you play?
JF: The play touches on every single play in Shakespeare's canon, and I’m maybe undershooting here, but I think we each play about fifteen characters. There's 137 quick changes in the show. For three actors.
JA: Brian, you direct a lot of Shakespeare. What's the best thing about directing a show like this – that’s not straight Shakespeare, but is thoroughly immersed in his work and artistic legacy?
BC: First of all, playing with these three guys. They're hysterically funny, they're great, they feed off each other in the best way possible. I like this script better than Complete Works because it has a narrative – there's a story to follow. All of RSC’s productions are great, but I particularly like this one. It’s just so much fun. There are water pistols, there’s a van on the stage. The cast came into rehearsals every single day with new things to try out. We could do an entire other night of the things that did not make it into the show.
JA: Connor, Jonathan, and Ryan, the three of you have also done a lot of Shakespeare. As performers, what do you get out of doing a show like this when you’re so familiar with the source material?
RW: It’s a blast. And doing it on an outdoor stage, you get to be huge.
CC: Doing it outside in the middle of summer is amazing. People come and set up picnics – it's a less formal environment than a proscenium stage where you leave your drink outside and you sit quietly and respectfully. There's less of a membrane. We can see the audience for the first half of the show because the sun is still going down. Then we have a lot of audience participation when it gets dark and we bring the house lights up. It's a very connected experience with our audience.
JA: Why is doing Shakespeare outdoors such a popular thing?
BC: Shakespeare's original theater was the Globe Theater in London. Though it was enclosed, it was open above – no roof. So, it always had an outdoor feel to it. Just take the ceiling off of any theater and you have an arena-like set up, and that's kind of what it was. There is something powerful about engaging with the greater sense of the world and the universe that you just can't do when you're inside a confined theater. I mean, there's a lot of magic you can do inside, and I love working inside. But there is something much more powerful and dynamic when you're talking about how beautiful the sky is and it’s right above you. Or you say “Look at the beautiful moon tonight”, and it's there. I swear, every single night at the end of the first act, when we have a bunch of different characters starting storms, the wind picks up. For me, it’s that kind of connection with the elements, even in something as silly as this. I don't know what you guys think about it, but for me that's why I think Shakespeare is so popular outside.
RW: Yeah, when we summon storms and the wind kicks in, that’s really cool. For me, as a performer, I don't know if the audience is even noticing that, but I'm like "Oh, this is awesome, I wish we could do this all the time”.
JF: It’s a whole other factor of theater that makes it immediate and in the moment, which is what the art form is really all about. In last night's show for example, we had our huge tempest and then we had to hold for rain – like, real rain. The audience is so on your side when you come back; they're so engaged and they're so happy that the performance is continuing. It’s fantastic.
CC: They all had their umbrellas and were ready to wait it out.
JA: Speaking of working with the elements, what about the heat wave that interrupted your run this month?
BC: We actually had to cancel a few shows a couple weeks ago because it was too hot. It would've been potentially dangerous. But more recently, the weather's been perfect.
CC: Another good thing about the outdoor stage is that it is a gigantic space. There are some nights that we have about 400 people, and that just creates a lot of fun energy.
JA: So, what would Shakespeare himself think about this play?
BC: I think he would be into it. He was, among other things, a comedic genius. He was very proud of his work, but he was also self-aware and self-deprecating. So, I think he would've had a good time with this play. I think he would've enjoyed the roasting of his work, which is what this really is - a fun and funny kind of celebration of his work.