The living, breathing art of original practices
To Kevin Rich, original practices isn’t about venerating history. It’s about rethinking theatre today.
Four centuries after his death, William Shakespeare’s still making front-page headlines.
Scholars have long believed the Bard’s complete canon contained just 37 plays. But just a few years ago, an English literature professor used plagiarism detection software to find out who wrote “Edward III,” a play that had been published in 1596 without attribution. According to the software, the hidden history play was the handiwork of two authors: Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, another important Elizabethan playwright.
Why would William Shakespeare, then 32 and already a successful solo playwright, feel the need to collaborate with someone else?
“Actually, plays written by a sole author were rare at that time,” says Kevin Rich. “Plays used to be written the way TV episodes are written now: on tight deadlines by a team of writers. Shakespeare collaborated a lot at the beginning and end of his career with the other wits of the day, like [John] Fletcher and maybe even [Christopher] Marlowe.”
Rich, who served as artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival before joining the theatre faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder, makes his CSF directing debut this summer with “Edward III.” The performance is one night only—Aug. 5—and uses theatre practices from Shakespeare’s era, including minimal rehearsal time, natural lighting, costumes pulled from an existing wardrobe, live music and an onstage prompter.
Scholars have never been able to decide whether Shakespeare had a hand in writing “Edward III.” It’s full of recycled phrases from his other writings: “come in person hither,” “author of my blood,” “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Was it good old plagiarism, they wondered, or was it the Bard himself? Today, it seems most likely that he wrote several early scenes and a little bit of the later acts.
“It’s really fun to watch the play trying to figure out which parts he wrote, listening for his voice,” Rich says. “This is one of the earlier plays he wrote, so you can hear him starting to formulate some ideas he fleshes out more fully as he matures.”
Rich is by no means new to Shakespeare performed with original practices in mind. Any time he directs a play, even when it’s not Shakespeare, he likes to throw original practices into the mix, putting musicians on stage or breaking the fourth wall to engage the audience.
“What Shakespeare and his company was doing—it was edgy, it was new, it was rowdy and popular,” Rich says. “He found a way to appeal to the groundlings and the people in the balcony. I think if we approach theatre the same way he did, whether it’s with a Shakespearean history play or with a brand-new history play like ‘Hamilton,’ theatre will always be entertaining.”
Ask five Shakespeare directors how they define “original practices” and you’ll probably get five very different answers. Some try to duplicate the exact look and feel of Elizabethan theatre, while others, like Rich, would rather apply Elizabethan traditions to modern theatre.
“Shakespeare’s actors were wearing their contemporary clothes—they weren’t dressing up as 10th-century Danes when they were doing ‘Hamlet.’ So what’s more ‘purist,’ dressing in our contemporary clothes to perform Shakespeare or using Elizabethan costumes and turning it into a museum piece?”
Just as the Bard’s troupe wore togas over their doublets, breeches and ruffs to perform “Julius Caesar,” CSF’s company today tends to pair the hats, jackets and gowns they find in the costume closet with their own leggings, T-shirts and ballet flats for original practices performances. And Rich thinks that’s part of what makes those plays so unique and electrifying.
“I was in the audience last summer [for ‘Henry VI, Part 3’], and it was such a charged, cool environment,” he says. “Being part of it will be—holy smokes—it’ll be fun. I can’t wait.”