What I’ve Learned About Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilde

Paul Barnes, Producing Director – St. Louis

Saint Joan played its first preview performance last night. Our audience was estimated in the 350 – 400 range (very respectable for an initial preview at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, with snow flurries outside to boot!), and it was fascinating to watch a large group of people experiencing the production (and, perhaps, the play) for the first time as they leaned forward into the work, listened, and responded.

Tarah Flanagan as Joan. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

Saint Joan at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis: GRSF veteran Tarah Flanagan as Joan. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

Cards on the table? I’m a Shaw novice. This is my second production of one of his plays: last year, I directed Major Barbara at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. After years of campaigning for Shaw directing assignments (they’re usually reserved for Artistic Directors or directors who already specialize in his plays), I’ve gotten my toes wet. . . well, more accurately, I’ve been neck deep in the “Shaw waters,” as there’s no turning back once the immersion begins. . . Shaw takes no prisoners.

But everything I have learned from directing numerous productions of plays by Shakespeare over a long period of time has served me well with GBS. First, last, and always, it’s all about the words — and an inherent trust that if you don’t get in the way of the words, the words will engage and incite an audience’s imagination.

I don’t think we’re challenged by words in our everyday lives the way Shakespeare and Shaw’s plays challenge us; but the payoff for a director is watching and listening as audiences settle in, gain confidence, and track the playwright’s arguments and points of view.

GRSF veteran Christopher Gerson as Chaplain John de Stogumber. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

Saint Joan at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis: GRSF veteran Christopher Gerson as Chaplain John de Stogumber. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

Overlapping from one scene to the next — never letting the language drop for very long, if at all — has paid off, and keeping things simple, in that GRSF “platform for storytelling” kind of way, rather than distracting our ears by over-stimulating our eyes, are principles upon which I’ve come to rely.

Shaw himself claimed that he surpassed Shakespeare as a playwright, because in his mind, Shakespeare didn’t really deal with ideas or social issues. I would refute that claim by suggesting that they’re two different beasts, linked by virtuosic use of the English language and a commitment to shed light on the human experience. Shakespeare’s insights into the human heart and the human soul emerge in the brilliant array of characters he created in the body of his work; Shaw’s insights into the human condition emerge through the conflict of ideas he let spill onto his stages. (In Major Barbara, for instance, an arms manufacturer has created a utopian Socialist community for his employees. . . the fortune he has made producing weapons of mass destruction has been put to work insuring that the people working for him have nice homes in a peaceful, neatly manicured, benign community, and never have to worry about putting food on the table. It’s a provocative conundrum, to say the least.)

Both playwrights require cutting. . . their plays are long and challenge contemporary attention spans. With Shaw it’s especially tricky; you’re either deleting a stepping stone in the logical development of an argument, or eliminating the “zinger” that gives his plays their wit and provides audiences the opportunity to laugh at human foibles. With Shakespeare, if you eviscerate too much of a scene, the play is reduced to a sort of head-scratching experience in which an audience becomes an observer rather than an engaged participant. With both, the key is to make the language clear and specific so that what is a “long sit” by contemporary standards seems to go by in the blink of an eye. It’s a sort of linguistic magic trick.

I was lucky enough to assemble an accomplished group of actors to tackle Saint Joan. The production features three GRSF “vets”: Tarah Flanagan in the title role; Christopher Gerson plays the fanatical Chaplain John deStogumber, and Jonathan Gillard Daly portrays the Inquisitor, Brother John le Maitre, who represents the Vatican at Joan’s trial for heresy. It’s a large cast (another similarity to plays by Shakespeare), comprised of six students from the Webster University Theatre Conservatory, several local Equity actors from St. Louis, and a passel of actors based in New York City. Robert Mark Morgan (set designer, with whom I collaborated on a production of The Diary of Anne Frank at the Denver Center Theatre Company a year ago), Dottie Marshall (costume designer), and Peter Sargent (lighting designer), and Rusty Wandall (sound designer) have been a stellar team with which to bring the play to life.

My other “first” in the world of directing assignments this fall was the production of The Importance of Being Ernest that I directed at Nevada Conservatory Theatre, the professional theatre wing of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, immediately preceding my St. Louis Shaw experience. This seems to be a year of language plays: next up is Romeo and Juliet at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City; after that, it’s Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at my undergraduate alma mater, California State University-Fullerton in Orange County, and my GRSF assignment this summer is the language-surfeited Love’s Labour’s Lost. The success of my “maiden voyage” with Wilde’s well-known comedy, also involved helping the actors shape the language, keeping things simple, resisting the temptation to “farce things up,” trying to stay out of the way of the playwright, and letting the words — and therefore, the wit — shine. Ernest turned out to be an excellent “warm-up” for Joan.

I was a good English student as a child, blessed with excellent teachers who encouraged reading and writing throughout my elementary, junior high, and high school education in Wilton, Connecticut and Palo Alto, California. But it’s been a steady journey as a theatre director to trust that education. . . to believe in the power of words as the foundation of my work — and for me to trust my own intellectual and interpretive gifts to translate these master playwrights’ work from page to stage. Watching last night’s audience here in St. Louis lean forward and listening to their response as the story of the Maid of France unfolded over the 2 hours and 40 minute running time of the production (respectable for this play: GBS himself said it Saint Joan requires a three-and-a-half hour running time), was more than ample reward for the education, the training, and the experience gained through steady employment as a director — and reinforced in me the confidence that if you trust the words, people will listen. And not only will they listen, they’ll be entertained, inspired, challenged, and possibly, even a little changed.

For more information about Paul’s production of “Saint Joan” use this link to visit The Repertory Theater of St. Louis – Ed.


One response to “What I’ve Learned About Shakespeare, Shaw, and Wilde

  1. Thanks for the insight into your work and thought processes. I love to read more detailed insights into how you approach cutting such major works. Specifically re: Shakespeare, do you choose clarity and conciseness over poetic rhythm in cutting individual lines, or is it better to eliminate whole scenes and subplots in order to retain the poetry of what’s left?

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