In the months leading up to our 2011 Main Stage season, we’ll be profiling the creative minds behind the season’s productions—Titus Andronicus, The Verona Project, Candida, and The Taming of the Shrew—in our e-newsletters. For February’s installment, we’re featuring adapter and director Amanda Dehnert, who will helm The Verona Project, a world-premiere, music-filled adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. What follows is the full transcript of Cal Shakes’ email interview with Amanda. To sign up for our email newsletter, click here.
What projects are you working on right now? What have you done most recently?
Right now, I’m getting ready to head to Ashland to direct Julius Caesar. I’m also getting ready to direct a workshop of a new musical with Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, a production of Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris for the Two River Theater Company in NJ, and, of course, The Verona Project! While all that’s happening, I’m also teaching for Northwestern University in Chicago. Most recently, I directed my own adaptation of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan for Lookingglass.
You’ve made a name for yourself reimagining musicals such as The Fantasticks and My Fair Lady. How do you approach the reinvention of something so venerated as a Shakespeare play? How is infusing a nonmusical play with music different from reimagining a classic musical?
It’s funny—I do think I have a reputation for reimagining the musicals, but I also have a different reputation (depending on who you talk to) for reimagining Shakespeare. Ultimately, I really believe that theater is about telling a story, and telling it honestly and specifically. I like to work with great stories. I believe a great story is one that taps into the things that are most true about what it is to be a person, to live a life, to make mistakes, to search, to love, to lose, and to learn. The greatest musicals stand the test of time because they tell stories that connect to people in these ways; and the greatest classic plays stand up for the same reasons. So, for me, it’s all the same in a way. As long as you have a great story and you keep it honest, you can have a great evening in the theater. I also think that there is always music in Shakespeare, sometimes literally with songs, but always with the sensibility in the writing. A soliloquy is much like a solo song. To me, it’s easy to understand how any Shakespeare play can also hold music.
Can you share any early thoughts on The Verona Project?
I really love the characters Shakespeare created, and they have inspired me to dive deeper into the various natures of love, loss, and self-discovery. I believe that to love and to lose are inextricably tied together; loving something or someone is perhaps the riskiest and most rewarding thing we can do in the course of our lives, and it’s what can cause us the most pain. The characters in Verona are struggling with the experience of first love, which I think is something we can all connect to. They are also trying to figure out who they are as individuals and who they want to grow up to become. They are adventurous, wonderful, awful, funny, completely real people. This adaptation works like a modern once-upon-a-time, and it is simultaneously infused with both the youthful spirit of self-expression and discovery and the awareness that we always can get from fables—that this is something universal and timeless. I’m terribly excited about it and about our wonderful cast.
What’s the first piece of theater you ever saw? Alternately (or in addition), what was the first piece you saw that really made you think, “I want to be a part of this”?
The first piece I remember seeing was A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. I can remember being terrified of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—and I can also remember being so thrilled that I could simultaneously be sitting in a seat watching a story and feel like I was sitting in the room of my imagination, experiencing a real thing. I have always loved the power of stories, and always been incredibly amazed at how theater lets us all create worlds in our minds, and feel and experience things that we might not let ourselves take the time to think about in our everyday lives.
Who are your all-time favorite directors? Theater and film?
Gosh … I really believe I can take something away from absolutely everything, so it’s hard to have favorites. I’d say my personal heroes are Peter Brook, Federico Fellini, Tim Burton, Mary Zimmerman, Adrian Hall, Richard Jenkins, Des McAnuff, Joe Papp, Terry Gilliam, Bertolt Brecht, Pina Bausch, Simon McBurney/Complicite … I could go on. Anyone who pursues their craft and tells the story of the world the way they see it inspires me to be a better artist. I also have a particular liking for anyone who can find new ways to break the “rules”—because the most amazing thing about storytelling is that anything should be at your disposal!
Finally, if you could have directed any play in history, what (and/or where, and/or with whom) would it be?
This one is tricky! I do tend to be more excited about looking forwards than looking backwards…I would have liked to have been in the room when John Caird and Trevor Nunn were making the RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby; I would not have liked to have directed it, I just wish I could have been there to watch them do it! I feel that way about many productions. I think my dream would be to have time-traveling-fly-on-the-wall skills. Then I could watch everyone who ever made anything. That would be great!
Pictured above: Michael Stone Forrest as Hucklebee, Timothy Ware as Matt, Nate Dendy as The Mute, Sebastian La Cause as El Gallo, Addi McDaniel as Lusia and Jerome Lucas Harmann as Bellomy in Arena Stage’s production of The Fantasticks directed by Amanda Dehnert in the 2009-10 season; photo by Scott Suchman.