Theater's journey man
Richard Nelson premieres his new play, 'How Shakespeare Won the West,' at the Huntington
By Megan Tench, Globe Staff September 5, 2008
Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson calls it his "darkish Valentine to theater."
"How Shakespeare Won the West," set in 1849 in the middle of the California Gold Rush, follows a group of New York actors who hear of a small town out west where people are so starved for theater that they throw bags of gold at actors' feet.
The New Yorkers form a troupe, pack Shakespeare in their bags, and harness their wagons for a yearlong journey across the country in search of fame and fortune. But along the way they find something else: murderous Indians, romance in shambles, and other catastrophes large and small standing between them and their dream.
A journey without intermission, "How Shakespeare Won the West" makes its world premiere with the Huntington Theatre Company in previews starting today.
"It is very close to my heart," says the soft-spoken playwright, 57, wearing a button-down shirt and slacks at the theater moments before a recent rehearsal. "It's a joy to watch in rehearsals. I am really enjoying the utter theatricality of the play and the humor of the play. There is a kind of joy that exists inside this play, which is very, very nice, since so many of my plays are so very dark."
It is also the first show of the season for the Huntington's new artistic director, Peter DuBois.
"This play is about the values I want to bring to the theater," DuBois says. "It's a play about ambition, it's incredibly exuberant, and it's about human potential. It really celebrates the art form of theater. . . . I thought this is the way to kick off the year."
Directed by Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, "How Shakespeare Won the West" stars Will LeBow as Thomas Jefferson Calhoun, the head of the pioneering acting company; Mary Beth Fisher as Alice, his wife; and Jeremiah Kissel as Edward Oldfield, who masquerades as a renowned British actor despite actually being from Albany, N.Y. During the course of the play, characters take turns narrating sometimes poignant moments of their lives as they travel, each connecting with the audience more intimately as time wears on.
For the prolific Nelson, who won the 2000 Tony for "James Joyce's The Dead" and has had a long and lucrative career as a playwright, "How Shakespeare Won the West" touches themes close to his heart.
"This play is unlike any that I have written in style," Nelson says. "I wanted to talk about how essential theater is, how ingrained it is in so many things, how much a part of this country it is, and in a way celebrate it. And not celebrate it in a sentimental way, but in a way that is honest and that probes the country a little bit."
The show, eight years in the making, is a companion piece to Nelson's "Two Shakespearean Actors," which played on Broadway in 1992 and was also set in the 19th century, telling the story of a deadly rivalry between two Shakespearean troupes.
"I don't quite know why I go back to the 19th century, but I keep going back there," Nelson says. He traces some of his interest in the period to a bookstore visit when he came across the diaries of William Charles McCready, a 19th-century London-born actor and theater manager. "I was so interested in it I kept it on my shelf for years," Nelson says. Later a tiny obituary in The New York Times about a North Carolina scholar caught his eye. One of her books was titled "How Shakespeare Won the West."
"That title was something," Nelson says, his eyes lighting up.
Since the 1970s, Nelson, a Chicago native, has seen some three dozen of his plays produced, including eight on Broadway and others off Broadway and at many of the nation's major regional theaters. At least 10 of his productions have been staged by England's Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was a resident playwright, traveling back and forth from London to New York.
In many ways, Nelson has been a journeying man. And throughout, it is his curiosity that has guided him most, especially his interest in exile and alienation, in different worlds and cultures and where they meet. His "Between East and West" (1983), for example, was about a Czech emigre couple at a loss in New York City; "Some Americans Abroad" (1990) focused on a group of American academics looking to England for their cultural heritage; and "Goodnight Children Everywhere" (1999) was about four siblings reunited in war-ravaged London after their parents were killed in 1945. That play earned Nelson an Olivier Award, Britain's highest honor.
Three years ago Nelson stunned his admirers by entering a world he'd largely ignored throughout his 30-year career: academia. He was made chairman of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, a coveted post - and another example for Nelson of different cultures meeting, not always easily. After finishing his three-year term, he was replaced by Paula Vogel earlier this year.
"I never taught before, so I taught the last three years," he says. "I learned I love teaching and I learned I loved the students, but I think teaching a professional training program in the theater and academia is a complicated mix. And that says it all."
While Nelson left Yale amicably, some in the blogosphere have speculated that his departure may have had to do with his strong feelings about the development of emerging playwrights.
"I believe strongly that the best way to learn to be a playwright is to see one's work produced," he says, "not have readings, not workshops, but actually a production. That's the way you grow, that's the way you learn."
Nelson says that new playwrights should not have to "jump through hoops" to get a play staged, and that the creation of a play is deeply personal: The playwright should be allowed to simply write.
"The greatest threats to new plays in American theater today are not people who are greedy or people who want to take advantage, it is people who say they want to help," Nelson says. " 'Help' meaning that something had evolved in the theater, an attitude, a perception, that a playwright . . . could not finish their own work. They needed, somehow, other people to help finish their work. That's a concept that has dangerous consequences in the theater."
Nelson is hoping for happy consequences with "How Shakespeare Won the West," his third play at the Huntington. "I love this space, I love this theater, and I love this audience," he says.
Director Moscone believes the audience will gain a new appreciation for great storytelling.
"There's an epic idea, but there's a very personal story," he says. "This is a 100 percent celebration of the essence of theater."