I have been noodling over a mystery for the past couple of weeks, and I’m curious to hear other theater makers weigh in on it.

The audience response to Richard III at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare has been incredible. People are hissing and booing at Richard when he’s messing with Queen Elizabeth. High school kids at a matinee were verbally warning Lady Anne to get out while she still could. Several audiences spontaneously applauded at Richmond’s line, “The bloody dog is dead!”

Fight call
Scott Lange, Ashley Normand
Photo by Seraphina Zorn

What I want to know is why?

I’ve directed a lot of Shakespearean tragedies, and seen all of the tragedies in performance. I’ve never seen an audience respond like this. I want to know more about it because I want to learn how to help it happen when I want it to happen.

I don’t think that audience response is the single determiner of a high-quality production, not by a long shot. Vocal responses from the audience aren’t always what we want, either–I cherish the memory of the feeling at the end of my Antony and Cleopatra last summer, with this same company, where I could feel the audience holding their breath, almost, in the very end of the play, as if not wanting to break the spell or disrupt the holy space of it. The weight of the pause before the applause gave me the shivers.I think I’m getting pretty skilled at fostering that sort of feeling in the space; this louder, more “rough theater” response that we’re getting for Richard is new to me, though, and largely accidental. I hate when something this big in my work is an accident. I’m a very deliberate director, and that includes how I direct the audience. So I need to unwind this mystery.

“‘O thus,’ quoth Dighton, ‘lay the gentle babes.'”
Ethan Engeseth
Photo by Seraphina Zorn

A little background that might be relevant: Pigeon Creek Shakespeare is Michigan’s only year-round, professional, touring Shakespeare company. They use “original practices” performance styles, which in their interpretation includes: universal lighting, audience contact, neutral stage, lots of doubling, cross-gendered casting, focus on the text. Their audience often includes a lot of repeat customers and Shakespeare aficionados. This particular show also included two matinees for middle and high school students, some of whom would have read it in preparation. The spaces where it’s playing are mostly small and intimate, but not all of them. The actors sometimes enter through the audience and are often very close to them.

I’ve been talking about this with anyone who will listen, both people who were in or have seen the show, and those who didn’t and won’t get to. I have yet to light upon a theory that I think fully explains what is going on.

“Wear both of them, for both of them are thine.”
Scott Lange, Kimi Griggs
Photo by Seraphina Zorn

Theories that have been proposed, which I have rejected:

  1. Richard is just a super bad guy and audiences are responding to this text. I’ve seen at least 5 productions of this play, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
  2. Original Practices means that the audience is connecting to the play in a different way, they are part of the action. I don’t even know how many plays I’ve seen at other “original practices” style Shakespeare theaters, including some of the most prominent ones in the country. I’ve also seen (and directed!) lots of other OP productions myself, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
  3. #metoo and/or Trump changes how people see this show. The last time I saw a production of Richard III was in November. That’s well within the current political moment, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
  4. People–even “Shakespeare literate” people–are a bit less familiar with this play, and are responding to the surprising twists in the action. I guess? But I’ve seen plenty of performances of less well-known Shakespeare (including this text), many of which, I’m sure, surprised and shocked the audience, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
“Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes
Whom envy hath immured within your walls!”
Ashley Normand, Katherine Mayberry, Kat Hermes
Photo by Seraphina Zorn

Theories which have been proposed, and I think have some possibility of being accurate:

  1. This production really nails “the turn.” I kind of hope this one is true, because I worked really darn hard at getting that right. “The turn” means the moment when the play changes, and when I’m working on Shakespeare especially, it’s something I’m very interested in. In Romeo and Juliet, the turn is when Mercutio dies. We were in a rom-com and then suddenly, we are … not. In Richard III, I think it’s in Act IV, Scene 2, where Richard says, “I wish the bastards dead.” Scott and I talked a lot about how that scene should be a moment when everything changes. Richard goes too far in killing the little boys. It’s no longer fun to be on his team. He even rejects Buckingham, previously his BFF. I told Scott in rehearsal one night that he should use the line “I will converse with iron-witted fools / And unrespective boys: none are for me / That look into me with considerate eyes” to get rid of any audience members who might still be a little bit on “team Richard,” and he does this powerfully. But this is late in the play, and many of the responses I’m interested in happen earlier.
  2. Something different in the rehearsal process or language we used in the rehearsal room changed the actors’ process and thereby changed their relationship with the audience. I don’t know about this one, but…maybe? I hope it was something that we did in rehearsal, because if I could figure it out, I could do it again. We did do 75% of the rehearsals via Skype. Did the actors just get used to doing more in order to communicate to me across the vast distance, and is that translating into some kind of greater connection with the audience? I was reading The Lucid Body while I was working on this one, and Holly suggested that it might have influenced my process subtly, in a way that helped the actors create a gut-to-gut connection with the audience, something that circumvented their intellectual responses entirely.
  3. Scott Lange is just that good at being bad. Best theory so far, but unsatisfying. What do I do when I’m working on a show that doesn’t have him in it?
“I think there‚Äôs never a man in Christendom
Can lesser hide his love or hate than he”
Kate Bode, Amanda Grah, Kimi Griggs
Photo by Seraphina Zorn

I’m still wondering. If you are in the play, or saw it, or didn’t see it but have a theory, I really want to hear from you. My wheels are turning on this, and every time I set it down, I get a text message from a cast member that starts with, “You won’t believe what the audience did tonight!” I’d welcome any thoughts.

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