'The Bard is only the beginning': Austin Shakespeare expands its horizons

Austin Shakespeare returns Feb. 17-March 5 to the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts with Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing."
Austin Shakespeare returns Feb. 17-March 5 to the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts with Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing."
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Twenty-one years after Austin Shakespeare was founded in 1984, the company staged its first non-Shakespeare play, "The Dog in the Manger," by 17th-century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

Led in recent years by artistic director Ann Ciccolella, the nonprofit group has increasingly branched out into classics from other eras.

In November, for instance, Ciccolella directed a well-received version of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." That success followed behind 2012's "Pride and Prejudice," the company's most popular show to date. Both Austen novels were adapted for the stage by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan.

Austin Shakespeare returns Feb. 17-March 5 to the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts with Tom Stoppard's witty take on fidelity and infidelity, "The Real Thing."

Last week, I asked Ciccolella about her adventures beyond the Bard.

Austin Shakespeare's staging of Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink" starred Jill Blackwood as a free-spirited poet  and Tamil Periasamy as an artist.
Austin Shakespeare's staging of Tom Stoppard's "Indian Ink" starred Jill Blackwood as a free-spirited poet and Tamil Periasamy as an artist.

American-Statesman: When did your company get serious about producing non-Shakespeare plays?

Ann Ciccolella: Before I became artistic director, I knew that Austin Shakespeare had produced Tennessee Williams’ "The Glass Menagerie" in 2007. That is an American classic written by a sensitive poet. Since the company had produced it, that made the artistic director job even more attractive to me.

Of course, I have loved Shakespeare and had directed Shakespeare throughout my career, but I loved 20th-century classics, too. I wanted to share plays that were written on a high level of poetry, and I wanted to celebrate the “theater of ideas” — where characters struggle with values and conflicts within themselves and between each other.

By the way, most professional Shakespeare companies in recent decades have begun to produce other playwrights to welcome new audiences to their seasons.

In the past, you’ve produced many modern classics from the American and European stage. Which are the most frequently staged playwrights?  

Shakespeare is the playwright we perform more than any other by far, particularly with our core program of free Shakespeare in Zilker Park. But Tom Stoppard is up there with our productions of "Arcadia," "The Invention of Love," "Indian Ink" and, coming this February and March, "The Real Thing."

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Stoppard is now tied with Tennessee Williams — "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."  Last season, we produced a staged reading at the Long Center’s Rollins Theatre of an all African American production of "The Glass Menagerie," with Marc Pouhé as Tom and Fran Dorn as Amanda.Why do you think Tom Stoppard seems to be a company favorite?  

Stoppard simply loves language and shares his wit, depth and truthfulness with the audience. Our company also values ... theater of ideas — for instance, George Bernard Shaw or Pinter. They, too, are fearless in getting characters to wrangle with conflicting points of view. Austin audiences are fabulous listeners; they are attentive to language and catch even complicated jokes. Our audiences are stimulated by “big picture” issues in personal life. Stoppard delivers that in each turn of story and in his compelling characters.You’ve also produced some musicals — I remember a particularly effective staging of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” What part do they play in the mix?  

Critics have called Stephen Sondheim “our Shakespeare,” so he fits perfectly in our vision. Sondheim is simply brilliant at capturing the exquisite emotion of a character in a musical moment blending music and lyrics. Music has been an effective tool for drawing new audiences into our theater.

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Few Austin actors are trained in a classical European — specifically British — acting style. Has that been a hindrance, or an opportunity to find new ways to stage the classics?  

We get excellent audition turnout, and usually one-third of our actors are new to Austin — often just finishing acting grad school and coming to Austin to gain more experience. In fact, half of our casts are usually new to Austin Shakespeare, and half are actors who have worked with the company before. We find that a delicious combo.

On occasion, we will feature a guest artist like Philip Goodwin, who played the older poet A.E. Housman in Stoppard’s "The Invention of Love."  For our current production of "The Real Thing," Chicago actor Grant Goodman reached out to us to audition for the lead role and became our guest artist as the playwright, Henry.

What should audiences expect to see onstage during "The Real Thing"?

Two couples are interlinked in "The Real Thing." I don’t want to give too much away, but as often happens in real life, an attraction has become an affair by the time the play begins. I find the relationships provocative. I do think we all enjoy the 1980s look of turtlenecks and jumpsuits and midcentury modern furniture, as well as many pop hits of the '60s from the Monkees to Procol Harum.  What should they expect to hear? Is there a key to Stoppard’s language?  

Stoppard never went to university; he is an autodidact — so we learn along with him. Every line counts in Stoppard. Our audiences have been quite good at taking the ride. Our actors are skilled at making the ideas and emotions clear even when they are complex. Plus, "The Real Thing" also takes a provocative look at politics that connect with romance, as we see a rebel revealed to be a boy infatuated when he meets his childhood favorite TV actress.

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Your company is probably best known for its free Shakespeare in the park and for its Young Shakespeare shows. And yet, you received considerable praise and full houses for Stoppard, Williams and others. Should these shows be considered part of your core identity? 

Shakespeare in the park is our most expensive show by far, and just gets donations from the audience by “passing the bucket.” We are seeking new sources of underwriting, so if anyone has suggestions, we are open.

We love doing a teen production of a Shakespeare play each summer at the Curtain Theatre and plan to do "The Comedy of Errors" with a circus theme this June.

I think audiences are happy to bring new friends and colleagues to see scripts from Friedrich Schiller to Hilary Mantel. Austin seems to enjoy our swirl.You also present public readings of plays — most recently, a South African masterpiece by Athol Fugard. How do they figure into your overall mission? 

Audiences have been pleasantly surprised over the years by how participatory and imaginative “staged readings” are. They see actors with script in hand, but the acting is compelling, and audiences quickly come along for the ride on these great stories. Our mission is to celebrate the best within us, and our motto is “The Bard is only the beginning.” We challenge ourselves, and Austin audiences have responded warmly.

Any chance that you’ll someday be known as Austin Classics rather than Austin Shakespeare? 

Oh, I don’t think so. I think we have the two best names “Austin” and “Shakespeare.”

Honestly, we find that “classics” is a term that has a limiting connotation. And we do want Shakespeare in our name — and to make him welcoming.

Remember that most professional Shakespeare companies these days are including family-friendly musicals in their summer programs — even the Shaw Festival.

We at Austin Shakespeare are striving to bring Central Texas the very best in world theater with gorgeous language and fresh ideas. We welcome first time theater-goers, especially students and theater aficionados.

If you go: 'The Real Thing'

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, 3 p.m. Sunday, from Feb. 17-March 5

Where: Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Tickets: $19-$47

Information: austinshakespeare.org, 512-474-5664

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: How to see Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing from Austin Shakespeare