BACK STAGE WEST
January 20, 2000
by Rob Kendt
Laird Williamson is a man with a vision, but that's not what sets him apart as a director. "There are lots of people with imagination," said Donovan Marley, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, where Williamson has worked on and off for 15 years. "What distinguishes Laird's imagination is that he has an ability to find ways to create imagery that is both theatrical and also [pertains] to the center, the core, of what the play is about. While his conceptions are often startlingly fresh and original, they are not laid on top of or in conflict with the central leanings of the text, which is true of a lot of conceptual work I see."
Fresh and original indeed: Williamson, who has been acting and directing nationally for more than 35 years (most of that time in the Western U.S.), receives a Garland award for directing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's peerless 1999 production of Pericles, Shakespeare's strange, fascinating Greco-Elizabethan fable. It was a production that shimmered with classical resonances from the Greeks to the Brothers Grimm, and played, as he (and the Bard) intended, as a sort of picaresque fairy tale for adults. Back Stage West isn't alone in lauding this exceptional Pericles: It was judged definitive enough to be videotaped for the Lincoln Center Library.
Libby Appel, Oregon Shakes' artistic director, said she'd been trying to get Williamson to work at her company "from the minute I got this job in '95. I asked him every year until I finally got him in 1999, and I'm gonna try never to let him go." Appel described Williamson's exceptional talent as "a special ability to create the world in which the play operates, a world that dazzles the audience and tells the story in a unique and imaginative way."
Appel and Williamson will work even more closely this spring. Returning to his roots as an actor--many of them planted at Oregon Shakes in the 1960s and '70s--Williamson will play Claudius in Appel's production of Hamlet, opening in June. But he'll be back behind the scenes for the 2001 season with a production of Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life Is a Dream--a show he staged with great success in Denver in 1998, and which would seem, from its exotic setting to its fanciful/tragical story, to be the ideal Laird Williamson vehicle.
"I love the magic of it, the wonderful odyssey of the whole thing," said Williamson in a recent phone interview from the midst of tech week for Denver's upcoming production of The Winter's Tale. He was referring to Pericles, but he might have been speaking about his approach to any number of works, from Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, which he helmed last year at American Conservatory Theater (he's cited for this work in critic Matthew Surrence's honorable mention list) to Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at Denver Center Theatre last February (cited in critic Dianne Zuckerman's honorable mentions).
His attraction to magic and wonder may be why Shakespeare's less frequently produced and even less frequently understood late romances have become a Williamson specialty. He staged Pericles in Denver in the 1980s, and said he remains "fascinated with it. It's like a legend passed down in different versions. It seems to reach back in our collective psyche."
One way Williamson's Pericles likewise "reached back" was by invoking the Greek theatre. In his version, the play's narrator, Gower, became a many-peopled Greek chorus, intoning speeches in a haunting recitative by composer Todd Barton. And one of Gower's lines further informed Williamson's approach: "In your imagination hold/This stage the ship, upon whose deck/The sea-tost Pericles appears to speak."
"My first image was of the chorus," he said. "It seemed to be emerging out of a bas-relief or a fresco." This is how he works, he said: "It takes me a long time to read a play, because as I'm reading, I'll just go off--I start to see the characters moving, begin to imagine what they're wearing, where it is, what the era is, what the feeling of the era is. Then I often have to go back and check the play, to make sure what I've imagined is valid."
Williamson attributes this hurtling imagination to a source that may give younger directors pause.
"I grew up listening to the radio, so when I read a play, I hear it, and when I hear it, I see it," he explained. Another salient childhood influence for this Chicago native gave him a specific medium for his flights of fancy: "I also grew up going to the Goodman Theatre, so the two kind of welded together for me." Now, he said, "It seems that Shakespeare leads me some place--it's hard to describe what the process is, except that it rings something inside me that prompts certain journeys."
The journeys are different with, say, Eugene O'Neill--"The intensity, the levels of the inner life, are much more predominant in the actual playing of it," he conceded--but Williamson stressed that even in contemporary plays he strives "to tune into the mythic level in some way. It can be subordinated, but it's something I try to express very clearly to the cast."
Indeed, at the first rehearsal Williamson shows the designers and actors a handmade collage that "expresses in an abstract way feelings and images of the play, so everybody's aware of this abstract thing." Of course, as an actor himself, he knows that an actor can't exactly play a metaphor, a myth, or an abstract collage.
"It's more an awareness--the ground on which the painting is done," he said. "Once it's there, it's almost forgotten--except sometimes in moments of stillness, it's there, whether the actors are aware of it or not. It adds another foundation to the play."
Williamson's work with actors is crucial to the success of his often wildly imagined theatrical worlds. Said Denver's Donovan Marley, "Laird works with ensembles better than any director I know. He finds a way to make each individual in an ensemble have ownership of the piece--they never feel like, as actors in the green room say, "meat puppets.' That is often not true of concept-based directors."
Agreed Back Stage West critic Dianne Zuckerman: "When he's on, which is more often than not, there's a magical quality to his work that really transports you, but he doesn't just attend to the trappings--he makes you care about the characters."
When he's casting, he said, he looks for actors who are "very bright. The clich is that actors don't have to be bright, but I've never met a good actor who could play a long run, do a lot of different things and really transform themselves, who's not a very intelligent person." Still, the gut is at work here, too: On Long Day's Journey, for instance, Williamson said, "We went through a long process. I had to feel with each actor that I could see somewhere in this person, this instrument, the possibility for what I believe is this character, and for all the places they have to go--even those that might not come easily to them."
After studying theatre at Northwestern and the University of Texas, Williamson headed west in the early 1960s amid promising times for the regional repertory theatre movement. West Coast theatres delivered on that rich promise for a good while, from the American Conservatory Theater in San Fransisco to PCPA Theaterfest in Santa Maria, from Oregon Shakes to the Old Globe.
"I don't know if I realized it then, but it was almost as if West Coast theatre was in its teenage years," Williamson recalled. "There was a very rich creative time at ACT, which spawned a lot of artists who did a lot of good work. And the PCPA Theaterfest--a lot of talent came out of there. We took a lot of bold chances and achieved some great things."
Williamson--who has since also directed at the Guthrie, Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music--still works with a lot of colleagues from those days, including Donovan Marley, and several artists in Denver, Oregon, and San Diego. And if Williamson misses those early days, it doesn't seem to slow him down.
"There's not as much money around as there was when the regional movement began--it doesn't have that kind of flush feeling that it once did," he admitted. "And unfortunately, some theatres are cutting corners by cutting rehearsal time, which I think is counterproductive; it drives down the quality of the product they're selling. But there are still theatres that make a point of doing Winter's Tale or Pericles, where you can have the vision and not feel as if it's being shortchanged."
We should be grateful not only that those theatres still exist, but that Laird Williamson is around to conjure his visions there.