Arts & Entertainment

Putting Shakespeare On Stage, ‘Where He Belongs’

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This dedicated director of the theater has staged all 36 of Shakespeare’s original collection. Meet the man who spent 22 years chasing The Bard.

“Coriolanus,” 2009, with actors Christine Garner, Samantha Hein, Miranda Hamand, Christopher D. Brady and Rachel Bonacquisti. (Mike Webb photo)

When the Rock Valley College (RVC) Studio Theatre production of “Henry VIII” finished its run in October, director Mike Webb had accomplished a formidable goal. He had directed all 36 plays in Shakespeare’s original collection, called the First Folio, over the course of 22 years. In 1988, after directing “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” he started calling this little adventure the “Complete Works Project,” at least to himself.

Mike Webb

“I was afraid to say I was going to do them all, when I started the project, because that was too daunting of a task,” says Webb. “It started out in here and it’s ending up in here, in this little tiny postage stamp we call the Studio Theatre.”

The stage is just 20 feet wide and 16 feet deep, with a 10-foot high ceiling. Once used as a vending machine snack room, the theater feels a bit like the inside of a log cabin. A new Studio Theatre is being developed that will have real theater seats, a backstage and intermission space. It will break ground in 2012 and be completed by spring 2014.

Webb, who also directs Starlight Theatre, is proud of his First Folio feat, and a little amazed at how well it unfolded. He wasn’t always confident that the big Shakespearean plays, with all their action and many characters, would work on the tiny stage, in a 179-seat theater. In fact, his original plan was to produce there only the Shakespeare plays no one really cares about. But a funny thing happened along the way: The plays worked really well in the small space.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘It’ll be OK – just OK,’ but then I came away from every show going ‘That was a great experience,’” Webb recalls. Being within arm’s length of audience members helped bring out the actors’ best performances.

Tony Gapistone and Tracey Goethe as Romeo and Juliet, 1994.

“You sweat the details,” says Webb. “The audience is able to notice the tiniest flaws.” In all, 356 actors appeared in the First Folio plays. He recalls last year’s Studio Theatre production of “Hamlet,” which he also has staged in RVC’s large outdoor Starlight Theatre. “It was probably the most beautiful thing we’ve done – it was just stunning.”

In all, the Complete Works Project sold nearly 47,000 tickets and generated more than $213,000 in ticket revenue. And, he planted countless seeds for a love of Shakespeare.

The many action scenes demanded by Shakespearean plays are challenging to produce on any stage, but especially a tiny one. Webb laughingly recalls a mishap during the opening night of “King Lear,” during a scene in which one character gouges out the eyes of another.

“I promised him that he would have a bag of blood with eyeballs in it so he could sneak them out of the pouch and rub the eyes with this zesty mint blood, hold up his eyeballs and throw them. But on opening night, which was the first time he’d done it, he grabbed them and flung blood and it streaked the audience in the front row – and one woman was wearing a white linen suit.” To Webb, it was the funniest unintentional moment he’d seen on a stage. And yes, he paid to get everyone’s clothes cleaned.

Also etched into his memory is a scary incident that occurred during “Julius Caesar” in 1999.

Above: Erin Brady, Tom Hunter and Brian Gustafson in “Titus Andronicus,” 2000.

“I had an actor in the play who decided to bring a real weapon. I was playing Julius Caesar. That night was the preview and this actor had brought in a kitchen paring knife. He was about to plunge it into my chest, when one of the actors noticed it, grabbed his hand, and stopped him.” Webb promptly kicked the actor out of the play. The incident was even joked about on “The Tonight Show.”

Clearly, finding the right actors to fill roles is sometimes challenging, especially for lesser-known plays and those with large casts. In “Henry VIII,” for example, some actors played several characters. Webb often acts in the plays himself, given the shortage of actors and lack of space. But he prefers not to perform and direct at the same time.

A Rockford native, Webb has directed Starlight Theatre and Studio Theatre at RVC since April 1985. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at Michigan State University in 1981.

So why did he take on this unlikely Shakespeare adventure in the first place?

“I wanted to get Shakespeare out of the classroom and put him on the stage, where he belongs,” Webb explains. “Shakespeare contributed so much to the English language, and he’s seldom given credit for all that he did. We wouldn’t even have the word ‘bedroom’ without Shakespeare. And it’s the lesser plays that give him sort of a human stature, rather than superhuman, because he does make mistakes in them.” So, along with “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” he interspersed the more obscure plays.

men of Verona,” 1988, was the first play produced in Webb’s Complete Works Project. Pictured L-R are Charles Worboys, Michael S. Kelly, Todd Harris, Frederick Trotter, Michael Derry, Lori Martin and Chuck Lotta.

Webb made it his personal goal not only to teach people about Shakespeare, but also to help them to overcome their fears about understanding the great playwright. He believes that anyone can understand Shakespeare’s message, as illustrated by his own daughter, who was just 3 years old when she watched “The Tempest” for the first time.

“Afterward, she told me all about the stuff that was going on, and it was mindboggling to me,” Webb says. “I was thinking, ‘A 3-year-old can get this, and I’ve got college kids who think they can’t.’ The key is listening to the play with your eyes, and not fighting the vocabulary.

“Everybody thinks they talked funny back then, but nobody talked like they did in those plays,” says Webb. “The word order in Shakespeare’s plays is unique, because most of the time he’s writing it in iambic pentameter. The beat has to be right, so you have to look at it as kind of like rap.”
The themes in Shakespeare’s works are universal. Webb points to “Romeo and Juliet.” Most people can relate to it, he says, because they’ve been in love with someone that their parents didn’t approve of.

It was the production of the gruesome and unpopular play, “Titus Andronicus,” that surprised Webb most. Thought to be Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, it concerns a Roman general who’s in a bloody cycle of revenge with Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. “I never would have imagined that ‘Titus’ would have been that good, but it really does play well.”

Mike Webb as Julius Caesar, 1999

If he had a chance to do the project over again, Webb would present the plays in the order he believes they were written. Nonetheless, he’s gained respect for the small stage and an even deeper appreciation for Shakespeare than he had when he started.

Many of the plays Webb has produced have been staged twice already. In addition, he has staged “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” from Shakespeare’s Second Folio.

Webb enjoys writing plays and musicals and hopes to do more of it one day when he retires. But first, there are more goals to accomplish at RVC. He plans to redo some Shakespeare plays and to produce “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” an extant comedy the Bard of Avon wrote with playwright John Fletcher. He also would like to do the “lost” play called “Cardenio,” which has recently been “discovered” and was supposedly credited to Shakespeare.

He also has his eye on “Love’s Labour’s Won,” which has not as yet been “found.” Meanwhile, the non-Shakespearean line-up includes “Hoosier Lore: The Conroys Go South,” about finding the true spirit of Christmas, written by Webb and his friend, Thomas Zack. Next up, in February, is “Grey Gardens,” a dark and thrilling musical about an aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Agatha Christie mystery, “Go Back for Murder,” will run from the end of March through early April.

Webb believes Shakespeare is as relevant as ever to the modern audience.

“He’s addressing all the things in the human condition. You tell me a problem, and I can point to a play that addresses that problem. We haven’t changed that much in 400 years, really.”

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