From Tripple L to M4M: Stuart Bousel Talks About His Life With The Bard

In preparation for our next production, a scaled down version of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure opening on Tuesday, August 14th, director Stuart Bousel talks about his previous tangles with the world’s most famous dead white male.  

Like many directors, I have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare.

I love him in that he’s an amazing writer who has left us almost forty plays, many of which are masterpieces and all of which are eminently performable, and because these plays are the magical combination of incredibly universal and public domain, his work is a sort of lyrical playground for any director looking to put on a production where he or she can flaunt their innovative choices while still taking advantage of a several centuries long pedigree. Of course, there in lies the problem: these plays have been around for so long and are so well known that it’s somewhat impossible to just put them on as plays, and when you do so, inevitably, half your audience comes in with expectations that can have little to nothing to do with your production.

The first Shakespeare play I ever directed was his lesser-appreciated romantic comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, or as I like to call it, Tripple L, a play I adore, in part because it’s one of the rare, truly “original” plays Shakespeare wrote (most of them come from historical or mythological sources), and also because there’s something youthful and charming about it that makes me think it was, for Shakespeare, what SubUrbia was for Eric Bogosian or This Is Our Youth was for Kenneth Lonergan: that charming, quasi-autobiographical play you write about being good looking, reckless and having nothing to do but get wasted, flirt and act like you know everything about the world. Hence, when I directed my production in 2006, I re-set the show in a modern San Francisco nightclub, scored it with pop-music and costumed it with trendy clothes and an eye towards contemporary realism, making it about the people I knew. At the time, I figured this would be my one and only Shakespeare foray.

The trouble is, Shakespeare is sort of an addiction, and once you find your gateway play, it’s hard not to be tempted to do another one. And then another one. I did Hamlet next because, well, why the hell not, right? And that’s when I first figured out (as many people do on their first production of Hamlet) that there are some shows you do knowing virtually everyone who sees it is going to have “their version” in mind and that in their head it’s going to be superior to whatever you do. Which means you might as well go hog wild and that’s what I did, setting the show in modern times, once again, having actresses play the men and actors play the women and a terrifying seven foot tall ghost in what could best be described as Japanese horror flick drag. To date, it’s actually one of my favorite shows I’ve directed, being almost entirely wrapped in my own particular brand of experimentalism and cloaked in Bousel-ian touches: abrupt acts of violence, monochromatic color schemes, romantic suicides, homo-erotic undertones and surprise redemptions.

My next two Shakespeare productions were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, both for Atmostheatre’s Theater in The Woods, an annual summer production staged in a Redwood preserve near Woodside, California. Both shows were exercises in charm and period theater, the first staged as a Regency era bittersweet romantic comedy, the second a more experimental foray into tragicomedy set in the early 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of the two, I personally think Midsummer was the more successful (you really just can’t beat setting that play in an actual forest) but on some level it’s virtually impossible to mess up that show unless you really try (and that said, I’ve seen it happen) and the fact is I learned more from Twelfth Night, which was a reminder that directors should play with these classics but never lose site of the story they are telling and what that story’s emotional core is for them.

Which set me up for directing Merchant of Venice, a production that, as of this writing, is still playing at the Gough Street Playhouse (home of the Custom Made Theater Company), having just been extended for another two weeks. In some ways a return to form for me, my Merchant is a sprawling commentary about the world of modern business and how its various social dramas of status and exploitation are played out in nightclubs and bars, break rooms and boardrooms. There is a light motif of pop music, drug and alcohol abuse, and retro fashion, setting the play in the 1960’s, 1980’s and contemporary world all at the same time, while preserving many of the antiquities of the text and finding numerous sight gags in the use of current day technology. To me, it’s the best Shakespeare I’ve done yet, using narrative to study the contrasts and comparisons between a time and society we think of as so removed from our own- and yet with which I think we have a lot in common. A lot we probably aren’t terribly proud of.

For the Pub’s Measure for Measure, however, I may be foraying back into the realm of charming, albeit this time with more edge than previously, as Measure packs a dirtier, nastier punch than Midsummer or Twelfth Night. Last year I had the honor of adapting Henry IV and V into The Boar’s Head, in which I also had the honor of playing Ned Poins. Something I loved about the show, directed by Jessica Richards, was how we moved throughout the Bar, which was transformed, through the text alone, into the Boar’s Head tavern from the plays, with only two moments of stepping away from that infamous East cheap locale so that Henry IV could bemoan his vanishing son and later die of unknown causes on the pool table. This time around I knew we shouldn’t do another show set in a pub. There are only so many times that could happen, even in Shakespeare’s vast canon, and the sooner we set a precedent that there were no precedents, the better it would be in the long run if, as it seems we intend to, there was to be an annual Shakespeare play at the Pub. When Measure for Measure was first suggested it seemed like an excellent fit because it would, like all Shakespeare plays, defy expectations even as it created them. Plus, it was an unusual choice, a play not frequently done or particularly well known, and so liberating myself and the cast to do with it what we would. Ironically, it’s going to be the first Shakespeare play I have ever directed that will be costumed in 16th century clothes, but the traditional take ends there.

Something I have discovered while putting together an 80 minute version of this show (that I now affectionately refer to as M4M) is that I’d actually love to do a full production sometime. We cut a lot of material and characters to make this play flow as smoothly and slickly as possible in the bar, and some of that is stuff I’d really like a chance to play with. But I’m also now completely hooked and going through a love phase with Shakespeare, so it may be a while before I allow myself the luxury of directing a second production of any of the shows I’ve done so far, when there are so many left I’d like to sink my teeth into.

In the back of my head, I’ve been considering both King John and Henry VIII for quite some time, and recently it was put into my head by a producer friend of mine to consider Romeo and Juliet. The pre-production phase for a production of The Tempest has been going on for about three years now and some part of me is always fantasizing about Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline. I have no real desire to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona or Much Ado About Nothing and yet if offered the chance, I wouldn’t turn them down because I see how both could be lovely shows and I have ideas. Which is the problem. I have ideas for all the shows. So do most directors.

And once you open that door for us, it can be a really difficult one to close. 

Don’t miss Theater Pub’s Measure for Measure, playing four nights at the Cafe Royale (August 14, 20, 21, 27) and one night at the Plough And Stars (August 22), always at 8 PM, always for free. 

Creating The Boar’s Head

Stuart Bousel talks about boiling down and weaving together three plays by Shakespeare.

When one is taking three very long, epic Shakespeare plays and has to cut them down to a seventy-five minute drama, one goes through a real struggle to decide what to keep and what to cut. This is particularly true when one is working with Henry IV and Henry V, which when combined is roughly nine hours of material, at least six of which is really, really good, and feels like it’s thoroughly indispensable.

What has always drawn me to these plays is the broad view they offer of English life in the early 15th century. Because the central figure, Hal, is the Crown Prince of Wales, he offers a window into the courtly world of politics, arranged marriages, military campaigns and espionage, but unlike many of Shakespeare’s other royals, Hal moves amongst the common people, passing his time at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, an outer district of medieval London, consorting with all levels of the citizenry of his kingdom. Through Hal we get the rankless aristocrat Ned Poins, whose second brother status has reduced him to a workingman’s prospects, as well as the business-class Mistress Quickly, who may be one of the first examples in English literature of an unmarried, independent businesswoman. More unsavory types also abound- the petty thieves Bardolph and Pistol, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet. Hal, without ever disguising his true rank, mixes amongst these lesser folk with great familiarity: joking with them, drinking with them, and essentially becoming one of the family.

Most important, of course, is his relationship with John Falstaff, the jovial drunkard and penniless knight who acts not only as friend to Hal, but teacher, antagonist, tempter and surrogate father. Not that Hal lacks a father: Henry IV is a formidable presence in the play, looming in the background, always, symbolic of the heavy responsibilities that are an inevitable, inescapable part of Hal’s future. The tension between these two oppositional paternal forces, and the lifestyles they represent, is the source of much of the dramatic conflict in the Henry IV plays and, to me, was the principal arc to preserve when setting about an adaptation.

Because I was adapting these plays for a bar, I knew I wanted to keep the world of the bar as foregrounded as possible and hence the biggest cuts came with the court scenes and by proxy, those episodes which occurred on the battlefields, i.e. the bulk of Henry IV part 2 and Henry V‘s action. Not only did these scenes go, but some of the wars did too. There are three major military conflicts depicted over the course of the three plays, but in ours there is only one: Hal now goes to France as Prince Hal, not King Henry V, and he is crowned after he returns, victorious, to England. My reasons for this were entirely practical: 1) it made for a more easily identifiable enemy- France- and took the threat of war overseas; 2) it allowed me to appropriate the Chorus speeches from Henry V to better covey leaps of time and other narrative gaps. One unforseen bi-product was that it also allowed me to essentially create a new character: Alice.

Alice exists in Henry V as the handmaiden of Princess Katherine, Hal’s nominal love interest. I knew I wanted to keep the scenes involving Kate not just because it would provide us another female role (the women in these plays, though deftly drawn, are not particularly prominent or plentiful), but also because they contain some of the funniest and most charming material in this trilogy. When the decision came to make Kate a Frenchwoman living in England at the time of the war (and thus trapped there), along with it came the fashioning of Alice, first as Kate’s friend, then as a staff member of the Boar’s Head (“Alice!” has the same cadence as “Francis!”, the name of a waiter from the original text with whom Alice was combined), and finally as the narrator who would allow us to bring in the battles that make Prince Hal into King Henry, without having to bring in confusing sub-plots or numerous other characters like Hotspur, Douglas and the King of France. If along the way we suddenly had a female lead to boot, that didn’t hurt matters. A story about men, fathers and sons, kings and commoners, is perhaps even more interesting when told from a woman’s perspective.

With the reduction of the battles another interesting thing happened: Henry IV became, though a smaller role, a more approachable one, if you ask me. His significance as king, while still present, is now better balanced by his significance as a father. From the beginning I knew I wanted to bring him into the bar, at the very least at the end of the famous scene where Falstaff and Hal each take their turn at playing King. I’ve always thought it would be delicious to have Henry see not just what his subjects thought of him, but his son, while also witnessing the antics of the man who is, essentially, competing with him for his place as father. Having the King show up in the bar, unaccompanied, to confront his truant child is chilling in a way that wasn’t possible in the original play because there’s always been a distance between us and the King, and him and every other character in the play. Now, for this instant, in this version, he’s most or less just a man, standing in the room with us, reacting to what he’s seen, not just had reported to him, beyond the safety of his usual stomping ground, unguarded, in the thick of the moment.

The shaping of the text has gone fairly smoothly from there, with lines coming and going in rehearsal, a speech added or a scene moved here and there so that the story could focus and build around Hal’s journey from slumming rich boy to reluctant military hero to dutiful son and finally, responsible grown up able to shoulder the burdens of being king. Along the way I tried to give a moment to each of the supporting characters that flesh out Hal’s world, whether it was the bombast of Pistol, the alienation of Ned Poins, the vulgarity of Doll Tearsheet, or the charm and elegance of Katherine.

The result is something that feels quite modern, though the language still be Shakespeare’s, and though the story is an old one, the play almost feels new. Or perhaps not new, so much as freshly relevant. When Bennett Fisher, who plays Hal, and I first tossed around the idea of doing this I remember him saying, “In the end, it’s about how you can party all you want, but eventually the lights come on and you know you’re going to have to deal with tomorrow, hangover or no hangover” and I think that reading is essentially true, and an essential human experience as well.

We all, at some point or another, seek to escape our lot in life, evade our responsibilities, or just try to have fun without worrying about the repercussions. You don’t have to be a king to understand the weariness of Henry IV as he sits up nights wondering what his son is up to, just as you don’t have to be an errant prince to know what it’s like to disappoint your parents, indluge people you secretly think aren’t worth your time, or take on tasks you’d rather not be bothered with. The same is true of the supporting characters. Each is dealing with something all of us have dealt with: growing past a friend, or being the friend grown past; struggling with an attraction to someone we know we shouldn’t like; looking to get ahead, or get away with something, or just get our job done so we can go home at the end of the day. This is the stuff of life.

Thus, though many particulars of these familiar characters have changed to suit our Boar’s Head (the one exception being Falstaff, whose titanic presence is pretty unreducable even if you do cut half his lines) the spirit of the play remains quintessentially Shakespearean in its panoramic depiction of the humaness of all people regardless of their position in life or destiny. Which is why, as cliche as it is to say it, The Boar’s Head isn’t Henry’s story, or Falstaff’s, or even Hal’s, so much as everybody’s story.

It’s really just another night at the bar.

-Stuart Bousel

THE BOAR’S HEAD performs on May 16, 17, 23, 30 and 31 at 8pm each night in the Cafe Royale Bar (800 Post, at Leavenworth). Admission is free, but arrive early to ensure a seat.