The director Alvin Epstein says to Metellus Cimber: “Do this whole greeting thing again. Keep it light. Give it only the weight it deserves.”
To Artemidorus the soothsayer he says, “I need to hear what you’re thinking.”
To Caesar he says: “You’re dropping down instead of keeping the urgency going. Your idea is ‘I am the One.’”
Then he comes to Brutus “‘Cicero is dead.’ You need to give that line a certain irony.”
“Right,” replies Brutus. “There’s a neat thing I do with the staging [of it].”
Brutus is played by Jim Andreassi—not just another actor in the production, but another director as well.
The play—Elm Shakespeare’s production of the alas always relevant political tragedy, Julius Caesar, opening a two-week run Thursday evening—has two directors, not just one.
That unusual situation, a director directing an actor who is also the co-director of the play, unfolded at a run-through of the play at Edgerton Park.
There, from Aug.15 through Sept. 1, Elm Shakespeare Company marks its 18th season of bringing the Bard to the park, for the first with the dual-director approach: The company’s founder and main man Jim Andreassi and Alvin Epstein, the iconic American stage actor among whose achievements include starring in the premiers of the first Beckett plays in the U.S. and being the fool to Orson Welles’ King Lear. (Click here for a previous article on the new production.)
On Tuesday, when persistent rain forced cancellation of an onstage pre-opening rehearsal, the Independent sat in the circle of the actors in the park’s commodious carriage house as the conspirators and their victims ran lines of the bloody play.
During the run-through, Epstein periodically interrupted each actor to provide “notes” (some of which are quoted above). These are observations to bring out clarity, understanding, the correct emphasis, and understanding from the actors.
It can be a tense situation if the actors feel they are being somehow corrected. On the other hand, it can be glorious for the individual actors and the ensemble if the notes are laser-accurate, as everyone agreed Epstein’s were.
The resulting interchanges and recalibration of delivery seemed to bring the company together in a group discovery of new depths of their theatrical enterprise on the eve of its being shared with you and me, the public.
There can also be hilarious moments of comic relief for the actors. Click on the play arrow to see Tracy Griswold, who plays Julius Caesar, find the humor in assassination.
Of special interest: how two strong directors, with different styles and personalities and of different generations, interact to drive the play in a single direction. After the actors broke for dinner, the Independent had a chance to talk with Andreassi and Epstein.
So, one director is not enough? the duo was asked. How did the two-director situation come about for Julius Caesar?
Epstein said he has done it before. Three times in fact. Two with the Yale Rep, in an Ionesco play, Macbett, and in Shakespeare’s Tempest, when he played Prospero. The third time was when Epstein, who starred in the U.S. premier of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, played Ham. “I felt it was possible to bring it off because Ham [one of the characters] is a kind of director [in the play],” Epstein said.
The conversation proceeded from there.
Independent: And for this production?
Epstein: Jim was to be Caesar when Brutus dropped out, so Jim took Brutus [a much bigger role in the play]. Playing Caesar, he had a role in the play, he wanted another eye out there to see. The same when I was playing Prospero, [you need] somebody else looking at me.
Independent: I noticed during this read-through that Alvin was doing all the notes for the actors and, Jim, when he commented on how you did the Cicero line, you acknowledged what he said about the lines but that you told Alvin you brought clarity to it through something you did in the staging. None of the other actors responded to Alvin’s notes in quite that way. Is it fair to say you’ve more or less divided the directorial responsibilities that way, with Alvin dealing with the text and you the physical aspect of the production?
Epstein: It’s not a perfect marriage. Jim staged the show [and built the set and got it all going before Epstein came aboard as he was acting in a show in New York]. There was one point of contention. I changed some staging. We disagreed, we immediately resolved it.
Andreassi: [Quoting lines from The Taming of the Shrew:] “Do as adversaries do. Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
Independent: It is fair to say that when the director gives a note to an actor who’s the director, that something more is going on, right?
Epstein: Yes, it’s more tense when I make a note to the co-director.
Andreassi: I’m not just acting, I’m co-directing, I’m producing. I’m the den mother. If I’m getting a note [no matter how great] and [at the same time] I’m thinking, it’s a quarter to four and I need to get to the end. Wearing so many hats can be tough. If there are any conflicts, we’re two different people, with two different rhythms, we try to moderate that too.
The Independent: I’m assuming you both have to agree on your vision or conception of the play, right?
Epstein: I don’t think we ever talked about it in those terms. The play is misnamed. It should be called The Tragedy of Brutus. [Andreassi nods in agreement]. He believes too much in mankind and being very honest himself, he thinks people are just going to come through [that is, do what they say, and Brutus is horrified when that doesn’t happen].
Andreassi: [Furthering his sense of Brutus:] “If you listen to me, you can’t possible disagree with me.
Epstein: “The assumption is we are capable of seeing the other’s point of view should it become an issue.”
There appeared to be none, or few, except the role of the weather in an outdoor production. Over that a director, even two directors, have absolutely no say.
Epstein went out to get a bite of dinner and Andreassi to check on the weather. Andreassi said that the bad weather had given the company a chance “for the maestro to pick it [the play] apart before we put it back together.”