Can we just be honest for a minute? Doing my first play back after the pandemic shut-down was terrifying.

I thought that my first show back would be a play I’ve been thinking about for a few years, at a company I have worked with a bunch, with actors I know and trust.

My actual first show back was the opposite of that, in nearly every way.

The Merry Wives of Windsor poster image, including Steve Halloway as John Falstaff, wearing a John Deere hat with antlers.

I had the normal pre-show jitters (“What if I forgot how to direct?”). Beyond that, the project was a total surprise. I didn’t pitch it; Quill Theatre Artistic Director James Ricks called me up one day and offered it to me, and we auditioned a few weeks later. I hadn’t worked with this company before. I hadn’t worked in Richmond before. I had barely thought about Merry Wives, ever. It’s a script I like, but it wasn’t on my wish list. When I cast the show, I only knew one actor.


James and I auditioned our shows together. That was a really fun process. I liked how he welcomed people, how he offered snippets of background when the person coming in was somebody he knew, and how our approaches were different enough that we didn’t fight over actors too much (he also was very gracious about giving me dibs).

Tired but happy after hashing out our callback lists.

Casting is the most important part. There’s this old saw in directing that if you cast well, your work is basically done. I think that’s more true than not. But as I sat with a pile of headshots and a number of tough decisions, I felt the magnitude of this piece of the process. It was overwhelming.

I finally decided to just create a list of all the people I wanted to work with for sure at some point, even if this play wasn’t the right play. I lit a candle, put on “Mother of Muses,” took five deep breaths, and wrote a list of names.

It was eleven names.

I had eleven slots.

They fit perfectly.

A handwritten list of actors and characters
Except for Joe, who ended up being unavailable, this exact list was in the program.

My intuition cast this play perfectly, and I knew that as soon as I counted the names.

Aili, wearing a yellow and purple shirt, taking a selfie on the couch. Cast headshots are spread out on the couch behind her.
Is this not what they mean by “casting couch”?

The danger of expertise

Another thing was different, and nerve-wracking. I have carved out a niche of expertise in two new-to-me areas.

During the pandemic, Toby Malone and I wrote Cutting Plays, which is about how to shorten plays for performance. I’ve also codified a set of principles for creating anti-traumatic spaces for theater workers, and taught workshops on this. Merry Wives was my first real test of both of these areas. During the read-thru, I stared at my watch, tracking every second. What if my first performance cut, after literally writing a book about how to do this, was way too short or too long or didn’t make any sense? For cutting, the first reading put my fears to rest. Having written out my framework for cutting plays, and spent over a year talking about it with Toby and other experts (including James Shapiro! Martine Kei Green-Rogers! Lui Douthit! SO MANY) made me a much better and more confident play-cutter.

But the work on safe and healthy spaces? I’ll never stop worrying about that. We all know people who are experts in things like intimacy direction or consent-based practices, who nevertheless cause a lot of harm without realizing it. The thing I’m the most scared of is the harm I perpetrate without awareness. Hanging out my shingle and claiming that I have anything to teach other people about this Raises The Stakes impossibly much.

The cast of Merry Wives, posing in costume
Closing night cast photo (I don’t know who took this one).

That said, doing my first show since I codified the hodgepodge of practices I’ve been developing for a decade into a system that I could use as a guide for my own process, was powerful. I can say without caveat that this ensemble trusted each other, and me, at a level I’ve never experienced before. When I do workshops, people always insist that what I’m describing is impossible or impractical. I can now say, with confidence, that it is absolutely doable. It makes the work easier. It speeds the process along, which isn’t the intention or the point, but a happy side effect. When people don’t waste energy asking to be seen, they do amazing work.

Robin, wearing Erica’s Santa Lucia crown for Anne Page’s wedding

The community is the star

I don’t usually work with a big “concept,” but I do come into a process with a lot of questions. I trust that I’ll figure out the answers in partnership with the actors and the design team. I had a lot of questions about why the characters do what they do. Why does Falstaff decide to trick these specific women? Why does Master Page want his daughter to marry the village idiot? Why does Falstaff keep falling for these pranks? Why is Master Ford so jealous? Who even is the Host of the Garter?

As we worked together, we teased out our own answers to these questions, and the theme that surfaced over and over is that this is a play about a community. The people in Windsor are constantly into each other’s business. Most of the play happens in public, either in the city streets or when half the town comes over to the Fords’ home and witnesses Ford’s jealous rages.

Master Ford is in a trash can, covered in laundry. His neighbors stand around looking perplexed, but supportive.
“There is no man here.” Photo by Dave Parrish Photography

In Shakespeare’s history plays, he’s always showing us how the king’s actions affect the peasants. In Merry Wives, he’s showing how even average citizens affect their community.

As we worked on this piece, I kept returning to the texture I wanted to create. I’m not sure I’ve thought of the work in quite this way before. I kept referring to those Bruegel paintings, with all the peasants, where everyone is doing something specific, and every time you look at them, you notice something new. In every scene, every character had some specific thing they were up to. Not distracting, not like lazzi, but just clarity about their own journey. One of my favorite bits of this came from someone asking, “When Master Page invites everyone to ‘go a-birding,’ does he mean shooting birds, or watching birds?” In Shakespeare’s time, that definitely would have meant shooting, but we used modern dress for our production, so it’s ambiguous. We decided that Master Page and Justice Shallow meant shooting, but Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh thought they were going bird watching. The next time we see this group, half of them are wearing blaze orange vests, and the others have binoculars and birding magazines.

We had another bit where every time the wives prank Falstaff, their celebratory drinks get larger: first a Bloody Mary in a regular glass, then a good-sized margarita, and lastly, a box of wine.

Donna Marie and Amber, on stage as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, toast each other with margaritas
To a successful gulling. Photo by Dave Parrish Photography

I was so happy when an audience member noticed that we had the colored lights on the back of the house change to match the setting. It was one of those subtle pieces of texture that the lighting designer and I put in, but without the expectation that anyone would pick up on it.

The house and stage from a distance, with pink lights on the exterior of the house.
The pink turned to blue for outdoor scenes, red for the Garter, etc.

One bit that was partially Shakespeare’s fault and partially my cut magnifying it, is that in the early part of the play, a number of characters swear revenge on various others, but not all of those revenges come to fruition (and I cut one of them). So I had the fairy dance at the end be the point where it all unwinds. There’s a lot going on in that dance; I don’t think it’s possible for every audience member to notice each of the plot threads tying up neatly in the midst of this chaos. I kind of like it that way. The crucial ones, related to the wives’ final prank on Falstaff and Anne’s marriage, were very clear, but I wanted the others to feel like a secret treasure. Like you’d be proud of yourself for noticing (and many people told me that this is exactly how they felt!).

Saying yes

The cast took care of a lot of what was going to be hard for me about this play. Robby and Bryan both had some fight experience, and although we didn’t have a ton of violence, I appreciated having someone to help construct the few grapples and feints that we did have.

The big movement pieces were all created by the cast, working from some guidelines I offered. The cast began and ended the play singing and dancing with each other, and I wanted these to feel unrehearsed, improvisational, and grounded in character. They were different every night, and had that feeling of joy and discovery that I was hoping for.

We selected the music together, working from a prompt I offered on the first day of rehearsal: “Please bring a song that reminds you of your character, or of the play overall.” Various talented individuals took on piecing together the songs, and we negotiated instruments, who was coming in when, where harmonies would happen.

Kellan and Mikaela playing guitar together, reading off of music on the floor
Mikaela and Kellan picking through “Dirty Imbecile”

One of my favorite evenings of rehearsal was when we were all struggling to figure out “Wannabe,” which was our closing number (“If you wanna be my lover, / You gotta get with my friends”). It turns out the Spice Girls have more complexity than you might think, on the surface. We had decided to do kazoo accompaniment, and pass the lyrics around to feature different people in the group. It turns out that kazoo is essentially the same as a capella, and getting fourteen people to sing without instrumental accompaniment is hard. We tried a lot of different things. People kept offering suggestions. What if the person who started it had a Bluetooth earbud and listened to the karaoke track on that? What if we managed to hide a pitch pipe? Did anyone have perfect pitch? Finally, someone (and I don’t remember who) said, “If only we had a melodica!” Amber had access to one, but couldn’t play it. Bryan said, “If you bring it and give me half an hour, I can learn it.”

Bryan strikes a pose, holding a blue melodica
Bryan, rocking that melodica!

There was another moment where we were trying to figure out what to do about movement, since I wanted everyone to have a featured moment and I was running low on ideas. Erica said, “Liam’s an amazing dancer, could he break dance here?” Liam had been playing Shallow, and his creaky old-man movement had become one of the running bits in the play. Having him come out of that into a break dance, Willy-Wonka-style, was pure genius.

The whole thing felt like all of us working as one big, complicated mind, pulling up ideas that we wouldn’t have been able to come up with in isolation.

The plague

COVID is not over, friends. We’re still in the thick of it. Every play you see has this threat looming over it. People are working under weird conditions, and there’s so much uncertainty. Lots of plays have had to move their opening dates.

We had a COVID outbreak the week before tech. In all, seven actors plus a stage manager got COVID. Every evening, for ten days at least, I went to rehearsal with kiiiiind of a plan, but often had to toss it and make up something else on the fly, because somebody had tested positive that afternoon. This inability to plan anything was really stressful. I also had left a lot of the big crowd scenes for this week, since we had a lot of conflicts earlier in the process, and then I had to put them together in a rush when everyone was healthy again.

Our stage management team was amazing, and they kept experimenting with alternate solutions to facilitate rehearsals in the midst of all of this. Some actors felt pretty well the whole time, but because they were positive, they couldn’t be in the space. So the SMs figured out how to set up a laptop and a Bluetooth speaker (it took some experimenting to find the right one), and we worked in a hybrid kind of way.

Bryan and Steve watch Robin performing. There's a phone and a speaker on the floor in front of her, which is where her scene partner should be.
Pandemic rehearsal: Bryan looks like he’s acting with Robin, but actually, she’s having a moment with Mikaela, who joined us by Zoom (see the speaker on the floor?)

Do I wish I had those ten days of rehearsal that I’d planned back? Yes. Were there things I wished I could have cleaned up? Definitely. But did COVID stop us? No.

Agecroft Hall and Gardens

Back in 1928, a Gilded Age Richmond millionaire bought a Tudor manor house from a British family that was going through some Downton Abbey, land-rich, cash-poor situations. He had it completely dismantled and shipped to Virginia, where it was reassembled, more or less. He died a year later, but he left a provision in his will that the house should become a museum.

The Richmond Shakespeare Festival performs in the gardens there. The setting is glorious. It does, of course, have all the weird inconveniences of working outdoors (bugs, weather), but it’s worth it.

While the actors were doing mic check and other business that I would just be in the way for, I walked around the gardens. What a calm and lovely experience, to rehearse surrounded by flowers and figure out how to be heard over the frogs and cicadas.

Audiences love coming to Agecroft. They bring picnics to set up on the lawn. They see the show multiple times. They have fun with it. I’m told that Merry Wives drew record-breaking crowds. People needed a comedy this summer.

My family and my host, Lisa, came to opening night, and I loved getting to watch the show with them.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

Photo by Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Let’s be honest here. I don’t think any of us went into this experience thinking that Merry Wives would be a game changer for us. It’s a ridiculous piece of text. I’m certain Shakespeare wrote it in a weekend. I told some friends, “This will be fun, they’re nice people, but it’s not going to be one of those shows that I mark as an inflection point in my career. I mean, it’s Merry Wives.”

Sometimes I am wrong about things.

Five actors standing and sitting onstage. Aili standing on the ground, talking to them.
Rare footage of me, doing the only thing I’m good at.

This text is a perfect example of the old saw, “Not even Shakespeare always wrote like Shakespeare.” Merry Wives is like if Shakespeare wrote a Jonson play. Or an episode of I Love Lucy. And yet… Jonson’s pretty good. And everyone loves I Love Lucy. Bryan said, “This play is like a kazoo. If you try to play it like a French horn, you’re going to get frustrated. But if you just kind of doot along, you’ll have a great time.” The kazoo became one of our symbols for this production. We all found ways to relax and enjoy the silliness and each other.

Robin and Nicole, clowning as Dr. Caius and the Host of the Garter

I would never have imagined that this play would be the one where I’d experience the ensemble I’ve been dreaming of since I was a teenager. Maybe it’s just that we were all so hungry to work in a room with people, living and breathing together, that nobody brought The Drama to the drama. Every time there was a struggle, someone stepped in to relieve it. I’d like to say this was something I built, but it was part of the process from the first day. After the initial read-thru, I said, “Okay, so we’re done. You’re dismissed.” And nobody stood up. Nobody packed up their bag. They all hung out joking and chatting for at least another half an hour. All I did was listen to my intuition when I figured out who should be in the room. The rest was magic.

Actors hanging around, talking, laughing, and waiting for mic check
Just enjoying each other

One of my favorite photos I took during this process is of Mikaela braiding Robin’s hair at Agecroft, before a dress rehearsal. It encapsulates everything that was right about this production. The actors cared for each other at an extraordinary level. Several of them told me that they trusted that, if they got lost in the show, everyone else was a net that would catch them and pull them back into it. I trusted it too.

I was so happy through this entire process. Even when COVID was taking out another person every day, I just felt so lucky to be able to do this work, with these people. I’m grateful the show was Merry Wives and not Hamlet. I’m glad we could just be joyful for this golden moment.

I had nearly one thousand nights between opening On the Verge and opening Merry Wives. In that time, I have reflected a lot on how I want my rehearsal spaces to feel, and how I can make that happen. I’ve talked with actors, directors, intimacy choreographers, licensed counselors, and anyone who would give me a half an hour on Zoom, trying to figure out what I can do to create healthier spaces. I’ve thought of this work as actor-centered. It wasn’t until Merry Wives that I realized what a safe and healthy environment it creates for me. The actors cared for me as much as I cared for them. It showed up in little things, like how I shared early on that I have issues with background noise, and any time the conversation in the green room got a little rowdy, before I could even mention it, somebody would close the door. It showed up in big things, like when I took a risk in rehearsal, and five people texted me afterward to thank me for being brave and encourage me to keep going. It also showed me what is possible. This was just the beginning.

Wearing my opening-night skirt for the first time in 953 days. Photo by Lisa Berman

Creative team

  • Artistic Director: James Ricks
  • Festival Manager: Tippi Hart
  • Festival Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi
  • Stage Manager: Jennipher Murphy-Whitcomb
  • Assistant Stage Managers: Jay Murray and Carissa Lanstra
  • John Falstaff: Steve Holloway
  • Master Ford: Robby Gotschall
  • Mistress Ford: Amber James
  • Master Page: Bryan Austin
  • Mistress Page: Donna Marie Miller
  • Anne Page/Dr Caius: Robin Vogel
  • Slender/Fenton/Nym: Kellan Oelkers
  • Sir Hugh/Pistol: Mikaela Hanrahan
  • Mistress Quickly: Erica Hughes
  • Bardolph/Shallow: Liam Storm
  • The Host: Nicole Morris-Anastasi
  • Servants: Jasmine Khatcheressian, Ellie Irwin, Kit Withers
  • Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski
  • Lighting Design: Andrew Bonniwell
  • Sound Design: Marcus Alimayu
  • Props Design: Emily Hicks

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