Theatre@First Artistic Director Elizabeth Hunter answers some questions about her current production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
How did you come to found Theatre@First?
Ten years ago, there was already a thriving arts community in Somerville, but very little in the way of performing arts. So many people living in the area have done theatre in high school or college and find that they miss it in the workaday world. A small group of us got together and thought it would be fun to do a show. We picked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead because my husband and I had each done it in college and wanted a chance to work on it together. A lot of other people got involved. By the end of that first show, everyone wanted to know what the next one would be. That enthusiasm has carried us through our first decade, and people are still excited to see what we do next.
Why did you decide to stage Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for a second time?
When we did it in 2004 as the first show of what would become Theatre@First, we had a great time, and the response from our community and audience was overwhelming. At that point, I had not directed in several years, and our whole team was new to each other, new to our space, new to Davis Square. So while I’m incredibly proud of what we were able to pull off, as the years have gone by I’ve become aware of how much we’ve learned -individually and as an organization – and how much better I think we can do now. Revisiting this amazing script for our 10th anniversary is a chance to see just how far we’ve come.
What’s different this time around?
The last time we did this show, we had no idea if enough people would show up at auditions, or if anyone would want to see the show if we did manage to do it. This time we had more than 60 people signed up in advance to audition and huge interest in the show. And we have much more of a sense of what we’re getting into and how best to entertain and engage our audience.
In terms of what you will see on stage, I think the biggest change is the great action that our fight choreographer, James Hester, is bringing to the scenes of violence. This is a much more vigorous and physical version of the show. We’ve also learned a great deal over the past decade about creating effective sets, costumes and make-up to support the actors’ performances and draw our audience into the world of the play.
Do you have the same cast and crew as you did in 2004?
No, no. Out of the 16 cast members, only two are returning. Mare Freed is reprising her role as one of the Tragedians and Jason Merrill, who was the Lead Player in 2004, is taking on the role of Rosencrantz. Of the remaining 14 actors, nine have worked with Theatre@First on other shows, while five are brand new to us for this production.
Off stage, we have a little more continuity: I’m directing again while my sister, Beckie Hunter, is our producer and Jo Guthrie is the technical director. That’s the same team that brought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to life back in 2004. Our original props coordinator, Michelle Goldberg, is also working on this production. And then we’ve added Assistant Director Brigid Battell and Fight Choreographer James Hester to the directing team and Assistant Technical Director Renee Johnson and a host of wonderful volunteers to our production staff.
Why do people love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?
It’s both universal and particular. It’s the story of these two average guys – not especially smart or clever or handsome, nothing to write home abou t- who suddenly find themselves in the midst of Shakespearean drama, with words put in their mouths as they are jerked about from scene to scene, completely confused by what’s happening around them. They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know why they’ve been picked, and while they have a strong sense of foreboding, they don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next. I think we can all sympathize with that feeling: the sensation that everyone around you understands the situation, while you’re just trying to stay afloat. And then there’s Stoppard’s language, so different from that of Shakespeare, and yet equally profound in its playfulness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a funny, funny play in which ridiculous lines like “You can’t not be on a boat” suddenly take on enormous significance and existential interrogation becomes a tennis match of words. Having the opportunity to spend a couple of hours – or a couple of months – inside this language is a huge treat.
What is your own favorite line in the play?
There are so many! Right now I’m enjoying the Lead Player’s line, “We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people.” I think it gets at the essential challenge of theatre: to try to expose the things that as human beings we work so hard to keep hidden.
There are several characters in the show who have no lines. What do they add to the play?
So much! The Tragedians, in particular, are the backbone of the show. In Stoppard’s hands, they move from being minor characters to the major engine of the plot. Whenever they come on stage, they rescue Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from limbo and give them clues to what is happening, as well as embodying the metatheatrical nature of the play. In this production, my assistant director, Brigid Battell, is working extensively with the Tragedians to develop a whole magical backstory from which they are building very detailed and specific characters that will be very exciting for the audience.
Why should people see this show?
Because it’s going to be an amazing night of theatre! This is one of the great plays of the 20th century, and like the Shakespearean play on which it is based, it never gets old. This is my third time working with the script and I’m still making new connections, finding new ways to understand the deceptively simple language. I think that Theatre@First produces some of the best theatre in Boston, and we’ve got a spectacular cast, from the leads to the non-speaking parts; every performance is worth watching. And the beauty of live theatre is that you never know quite what is going to happen. Each night is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss it!
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is playing at the Davis Square Theatre, April 4-12. For tickets and more information, visit www.theatreatfirst.org.