In case you haven’t heard the exciting news…Richard III has been extended and will now run through March 16 at the Folger Theatre. Audiences and critics have been raving about the show – and there are now great seats available for that additional week. Last week, we posted an insightful interview with director Robert Richmond, discussing all things “Richard” and here, we bring you a Q&A with Folger’s resident dramaturg Michele Osherow, who worked closely on this production of Richard III. Ms. Osherow is currently an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and has worked on numerous productions at the Folger as dramaturg and actor. Here’s what she had to say about her work and Shakespeare’s epic history play:
FOLGER THEATRE: For those who may not know what a dramaturg does, can you tell us a bit about what your role is on any given theatrical production?
MICHELE: The work of a dramaturg really varies depending upon the specific project or the needs of a particular director, production team or cast. In a general sense, the dramaturg is thought of as “the scholar in the rehearsal room.” The scholarship I’ll bring to a Folger project can range from literary criticism to historical information (the period in which a play was written and/or the period in which a director has chosen to set his production). Any question is fair game. My dramaturgical work at the Folger usually begins by discussing text and concept with a director—thinking things through and challenging ideas in a way that makes our thinking about a play stronger. I’ll then work on editing the playscript with the director and contributing texts and critical work to aid the artists involved in the production.
Once rehearsals begin, I aim to be a resource for the actors and a critical eye for the director. I try to make sure the storytelling is clear. We always talk and think about the audience member for whom the story is brand-new. I also engage with the audience once a show is up and running—visiting classes to discuss the production, doing pre- or post-show talks as needed, or serving as moderator for talk-back sessions with the actors.
FOLGER THEATRE: Sounds like a lot to do. How do you go about assisting the actors during the rehearsal process?
MICHELE: I try and provide materials that I think might be helpful and interesting to actors as they make the choices necessary to perform their roles. As I mentioned, these materials might be historical in nature, or may explore the play in an interesting way. Any curiosity an actor has, I try to address. Actors have to make so many decisions in crafting their characters and sometimes scholarship is helpful in that work; I aim to assist them in any way I can. Sometimes assistance can be as simple as relaying the definition of a word that was in play 400 years ago, but is no longer current. Sometimes it’s bringing in a bit of history that complicates the human relationships in the play (and potentially heightens what’s at stake in a given scene). Mostly, I feel fortunate to be welcome in a rehearsal room and to observe the outstanding work that goes on there.
FOLGER THEATRE: What interesting notes/details stand out to you regarding your work on Richard III (compared to other plays you have worked on)?
MICHELE: Richard III is a favorite of mine, but I have never served as dramaturg on a production of it before. I was aware that Shakespeare plays fast and loose with the history in this play (and in others) but the more I researched the War of the Roses and Edward IV’s and Richard III’s reigns, the more a-historical the play appeared. Thinking about why such choices were made has been a great part of this process. I don’t refer merely to Tudor propaganda, but, for example, the choice to include Queen Margaret in the play (who died prior to Richard’s taking the throne).
The recent finding of Richard’s bones in Leicester has made this project particularly exciting—it’s as though we’re made to confront the great fiction of Richard III. He was not, science tells us, the deformed beast he’s been made out to be; chances are, the moral deformity assigned to him is as exaggerated as the physical. (We can thank Thomas More and others for that.) There’s been some splendid stuff written on the ways Richard III makes us aware of our tendencies to privilege fiction over fact, and what sort of truths can emerge from fiction. I like, too, how much the play itself interrogates history. I think all of the history plays do that to some extent: who writes history, who questions history, who keeps silent. There’s some insight on the subject from some unexpected sources in Richard III.
I’ve worked on other Shakespeare history plays and I didn’t feel as profoundly the vast difference between the story of the play and the story of history. And I didn’t think much about why those differences were in play (aside from the rise of dramatic action).
Richard III is over-the-top, even for Shakespeare, which is probably why it’s such fun to see. What I’ve noted throughout this process are the extremes the play presents to us. There are things we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Shakespeare and those elements appear in Richard III, but ‘to the nth degree’. For example, we see meta-theatrical elements in all of Shakespeare’s plays—there’s that attention to performance and to the stage. But in Richard III, the title character isn’t just performing, he’s a total genius at it.
FOLGER THEATRE: How different is it for you to work on one of Shakespeare’s history plays as opposed to say, one of his comedies?
MICHELE: Mastering the history is a large part of the work on a history play—it’s obvious, of course, but it’s more work than you might think (!). It’s not that audiences have to leave the theatre thinking they’ve been given a mini-seminar on English history, but the information needs to be available for the creative team. The knowledge needs to be present in the room in order to inform actors’ and production choices. Knowing the history can help identify when characters are being sly or deceptive—things that are potentially easy to miss if you’re unaware of relationships, or historical details. The comedies require some historical knowledge to be sure; mostly information about class and culture, accepted modes of behavior (especially for women)…it’s not so much dates and names of battles. Because the comedies are so much about breaking rules and then repairing what’s been broken (by way of marriage) it’s important to know when social norms are being resisted. You could argue that history plays, too, seek to repair what’s been broken, but you have the sense, especially in a play like Richard III, that things have been broken for a mighty long time. The ability to distinguish the broken from the sound is part of the challenge in the world of the play.
FOLGER THEATRE: What are the greatest challenges you face as a dramaturg on any given production?
MICHELE: Trying to figure out what would best serve the director and members of the creative team is the greatest and most important challenge I face. I know what I think is interesting about a play, and I know the scholarship that best speaks to my interests, but that’s not always “the ticket.” Listening carefully and being open-minded is very important. At the same time, it’s my job, I think, to ask a lot of questions about choices and concepts, to interrogate how they serve the play. When edits are made to cut characters and/or whole scenes, I point out what’s lost by such choices. Sacrifices are made all the time and it’s up to the director to decide what those are. (But that doesn’t mean I’m not a real nag about it.) I do my best to understand the director’s priorities and to assist in serving those. I have tremendous admiration and respect for the directors with whom I’ve worked here and I take real pride in the work the Folger presents. I always have a flash, though, once a play opens and the behind-the-scenes work is finished, of all the things I should have done and did not do. And then I start counting the days until the next production of that play.
We’d very much like to thank Michele Osherow for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. We hope this gave you a stronger grasp of what the role of a dramaturg actually is. Please feel free to comment or ask any questions you might have here.
RICHARD III runs at the Folger Theatre through March 16. To purchase tickets, you may call the box office (202.544.7077) or, simply click here.