An Interview with Bill Brown
When did you first discover Shakespeare?
I was a music major in undergrad. While I was in college, there were a bunch of opera singers who wanted to be great actors, so I took as many acting classes as they’d let me. I took an improv class from a man named Patrick Murphy, who had an improv group at West Virginia University. Patrick ended up coming to Chicago. He was directing a production of King Lear with an actor from the Group Theatre, Morris Carnovsky, who came as a guest to play King Lear. And I said, “I’m going to be in that play.” I don’t know what made me think that, but I auditioned for Edgar, and I got it. And I was hooked. That’s a lie! That’s the first time I performed Shakespeare.
When I was in the fourth grade, my mother went back to college to get her degree. She took a Shakespearian Tragedy class and got all these plays on vinyl. She came home, and I listened to these records, and read along, and I really was smitten, I really was. That does not make me a prodigy, but in the fourth grade, I was exposed to Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. It was such a great way to learn Shakespeare, listening to someone speak it and reading along. That was my first real experience.
What do you find engaging and inspiring about Shakespeare’s work?
What got this ten-year-old kid excited about Lear? I was a musician. I started studying piano when I was five years old and was a boy soprano. My mother was a beautiful soprano; she sang for years. So, music was always around me. I think it was the music of Shakespeare that hooked me -- not that the text is sung, but there’s a kind of music to it (in the best sense of the word). I later discovered as a director that there’s a music to all plays -- the words, the meaning, the poetry, and then the great sweep of the stories. I don’t love all Shakespeare plays equally, but each one of them is its own world. Each one of them is its own, in the big sense of the word, story. Some plays I love coming back to over and over again -- Certainly All’s Well That Ends Well, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night. This Shakespeare guy, he has a scope, he has a bead on what it means to be a human in this world, and he broke the mold coming and going. When people ignore that, then they’re not doing what I think Shakespeare had in mind. I would hate to have to give that up.
Are there any faults with Shakespeare’s plays which you hope to address as a director?
Every time I go to correct Shakespeare, I make a fool of myself. Because the truth is, what I find awkward or think doesn’t really have to be there, it usually means I need to think again. After the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V, there’s this scene that goes on forever and I wanted to cut it. It was a fully-realized, professional production, and I thought ‘okay, let’s just take an afternoon to think about the cut.’ If I hadn’t stopped to really look at it, I wouldn't have appreciated what was funny about the scene. But I never do uncut Shakespeare! I don’t mind making cuts; I will make cuts in the interest of streamlining the story. But if something bothers me in the script, I now really spend some time with it.
What led you into directing?
I moved to New York to be an opera singer. I had a great teacher – she was a coach at the Met – and she took me into her parlor one day and said, ‘you have a beautiful voice but it’ll never be ‘big’ enough because opera is not amplified.’ (Sometimes you need to sing over a 90-piece orchestra.) It hurt and I walked home crying the whole time. But the last thing she said to me was, ‘you have poise.’ What the f--- am I gonna do with poise? But I remembered those acting roles I got at West Virginia University and how much I loved doing them. And I thought, ‘well, if I can’t be a classical singer, maybe I could be a classical actor.’ So I auditioned for American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, auditioned three times, gave up, and then they called me. So I studied there for two years for grad school and then came to Chicago, almost on a whim. It happened to be at the very start of the Theatre Boom. The Court Theatre had just built their new building and they wanted to put together a company of actors to do a whole season. I was part of two seasons. So I worked as an actor for most of the time after I got out of grad school!
But, when I was in a Big Show in Unnamed Big Theatre Downtown, I always loved tech. Whenever I wasn’t onstage, I’d come in the house to watch the rehearsal. Mind you, not once did I ever, ever, ever think of being a director, but when I sat in the house, I had an opinion about everything. And I guess that was my Damascene Moment: ‘Oh, maybe directing’s what I want to do.’ I had to go back to zero because theaters that hired me as an actor were not quick to hire me as a director. So, I had to go back into storefront and do some of that. I spent about half of my career as an actor, and the second half as a director. About two years ago, I went back into acting and did eighteen months of plays, and it was thrilling to be on the stage. I love them both.
How would you describe your directing style with classical works?
I have been very fortunate to have in my life at just the right moments people come who are world-class directors, actors, and teachers. One of them said to me, ‘style is what somebody else did in another production.’ I believe her 100%. You can look at what I’ve done and easily say they’re ‘plays of style.’ I think style is a dangerous and inaccurate word. What I’m gonna do with King Lear is not unlike what I’ll do in other plays, but each of those plays has its own specific needs. You can’t even say there's one specific way to do Shakespeare: I mean, ‘the play’s the thing.’ The play is there for us to unwrap, and we need to be open to that. It will have demands of us -- maybe that’s what people call ‘style’. All I know is that when I trust that, that’s the only way I know to honor the demands of any particular play.
Image: Bill Brown in rehearsal with the cast and crew of All's Well That Ends Well at Loyola University Chicago
How do you approach Shakespeare’s plays as a director?
I’ve done twenty-something plays, a lot of them Shakespeare, so I've had such great opportunities to do the canon. I’ve done more than half of it. A number of them I’ve done two or three times. Even the third time I do a play is like opening a present to me because the world is different, I’m different, the theatre is different. So I get to start again and see the things that maybe I didn’t use last time. I’m not the kind of director who wants to make a claim to the play or put my stamp on the play, so my only other option is to take what the play gives me. And I will spend hours, days, weeks, at the computer, just sitting back and thinking about that. It’s not just about words, it’s about how, with the skills of a great poet, Shakespeare can take our smallest and biggest dreams, fears, and apprehensions and make them live. And to do that, sitting on a couch with a computer, and go those places -- it’s something Shakespeare offers you more than any other playwright. A director needs to receive. Then, you need to go through the design meetings, sit around the table and talk to your designers and get where they’re coming from, and try to synthesize something out of that. And then in auditions, somebody is going to walk in and give me something different than what I thought the play was, and I will be thrilled. To go through a Shakespeare play from opening up to closing night is one of the richest experiences I can have.
What are some of the greatest challenges for young actors working with Shakespeare that you’ve observed?
That has sort of changed through the years. A lot of actors decide that Shakespeare is not for them, and that’s not unusual. I have done mostly classical plays, and they’re hard, but one thing I learned early on as an actor is that if you’re in a demanding play, whether it’s Shakespeare or Moliere, what you really need is Acting 101. Never lose sight of that, because Acting 101 is gonna pull you through. In summation, actors don’t see themselves in those plays. And, it’s been a great opportunity for me when I get to work with young actors who are at that moment when they want to know what Shakespeare is. It makes me sad that a lot of young actors don’t see where they fit in a lot of these great plays.
What interested you in working with Loyola University Chicago?
I love Loyola. Some of my best friends have taught here, including Sarah Gabel, Ross Lehman and Mark Lococo, and Susan Felder years ago. So many of my dearest friends graduated from there, like Nate Berger, Eliza Stoughton, and Elizabeth Ledo. In those years when I was auditioning a lot of young actors to do Shakespeare, I could tell where a young actor had gone to school. When a Loyola student came in, within a minute I’d go, “oh this is a literate actor,” and I say that as the highest compliment. Some of the most original actors I know graduated from this school, and original is one of the only words I can use. I’ve been brought in a lot for the audition classes, so I’ve been coming in for a number of years. Then, I taught Audition Seminar for a semester and loved it. I appreciate the fact that this is not a conservatory, the fact that people can try one discipline, go to the costume shop, and still actually go to classes. I think Loyola is a very, very good training program, and I love being a part of it, whatever form that takes.
Why All’s Well, now? What is most inspiring or exciting about the show, in your opinion?
I was in All’s Well once and I have directed two productions, so this will be my fourth production. But I love the idea of doing this play, which is largely about young people and the older people in their lives, with young people. And that’s what the people in this play are: none of the characters are fully formed, and the future is exciting and frightening, and the possibilities are laid out for them. I’m so excited about smart young actors, like Loyola has, having a go at this play.
What challenges and benefits do you anticipate will come from directing a Shakespeare show online?
Zoom is its own thing. We’re given these boxes that give us a medium range of distance to as close-up as we want. By and large, thoughts, ideas, and feelings are presented and magnified on Zoom. We don't have to project up to the second balcony or anywhere else, but talk as we feel. This play must be done very carefully -- with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer -- and Zoom will help us to do so. Zoom is all we have, and I love the challenge of that. I think it will serve this play well.
All’s Well That Ends Well will be performed live on Zoom from March 20th through 28th, 2021. Tickets are priced on a pay-what-you-can scale and are available for purchase here.