Folger converts to theater-in-the-round for ‘Richard III’


Robert Richmond, director of “Richard III” at Folger Theatre, came up with the idea to alter seating for the show. (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
December 31, 2013

Folger Theatre production manager Charles Flye knew he was in trouble when director Robert Richmond gave him that look. The two were very early in their planning discussions for “Richard III,” which opens Jan. 28. Shakespeare’s historical tragedy will be Richmond’s fifth show for the theater, and Flye recognized the director’s conniving expression. It was the same look he gave him before asking to string 1000 feet of rope around the theater for his 2011 “Othello,” and whether he could simulate an onstage shipwreck for his 2013 “Twelfth Night.”

“He just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ ” Flye recalled, and then Richmond proceeded to dictate his vision for tearing the Folger’s theater apart.

When patrons walk into the space, they may no longer recognize it as a scaled-down model of an Elizabethan courtyard. The seats have been unbolted from the floor and carted away to a storage warehouse in Takoma Park. In their place is a stage stretching nearly the length of the theater, and where the stage would normally be, there’s a temporary bank of chairs on risers.

Welcome to the Folger’s first-ever production of theater-in-the-round. “It’s a really big undertaking, but it will be well worth it,” Flye says. “Everyone at the theater is involved and on board, from the lighting designer to the box office to the marketing team.”

The work began in earnest two days before Christmas, when seven theater employees who might have otherwise hoped to get out of town carted out two truckloads full of seats. Rehearsals began Monday, as did construction on the stage and hidden warren of tunnels beneath it.

There are seven onstage murders in the play, as one-by-one Richard knocks off his rivals. To do the show in the round (and without a traditional exit ramp, known in theater-speak as a vomitorium) Flye had to help Richmond figure out what to do with all those bodies. Their solution was nine trap doors and a series of tunnels, some with ceilings as low as 15 inches. At auditions, Richmond asked actors to crawl under a bench, and made clear that this show was not for actors who were faint of heart, claustrophobic or of large stature. To haul bodies in and out, Flye and his crew are building a trolley track under the stage, which they expect will be up and running long before the H Street streetcar.

To quote “Hamlet,” there’s a method to Richmond’s “Richard III” madness, and it stems from the August 2012 exhumation of England’s last Plantagenet king from the foundation of a parking lot in Leicester, England. Richmond, who is Scottish, has paid close attention to subsequent analyses of Richard’s remains, including the curved “hunchback” spine and apparent lack of coffin.

“Graves became very important to the story,” Richmond said. “People are disappearing, and are clearly being buried without ceremony. There are no funerals.”

Neither will there be blood. Richmond’s plan is to display swords and various devices of torture onstage, but not splatter fake ooze on the theater patrons, who will be sitting much closer than usual.

“We can imply the pain, and we can imply the fear,” Richmond said. His goal is to stage a psychological thriller by probing the brain that was inside that cracked skull found under the parking lot. New historical evidence may indicate the king wasn’t the sniveling cripple Laurence Olivier made him out to be in 1955. “I am trying to open the door to relooking at who he was,” Richmond says.

So how twisted was Richard III, the paranoid monarch went so far as to murder his own school-age nephews? Richmond says he’s still “on the fence,” and he has four weeks of rehearsals to decide.

The gift of theater

If you’re a theater marketer, the best holiday gifts came in very flat packages, and it seems Studio Theatre was especially good at playing Secret Santa. The theater launched a holiday ad campaign and reported a solid uptick in gift ticket sales: Nearly 350 people bought its holiday package of three plays for $99, a substantial increase from last year. (The deal began on Black Friday and is available through February.)

TheatreWashington took to social media to promote its “TixCertificates,” which can be redeemed at many Washington area theaters. In December, the organization Tweeted promos up to three times a day. (“Buy TODAY w/expedited shipping 2 receive by Christmas!!”) Multiple missives also announced that if you bought five certificates, you got a free “Divas of DC” CD.

So how did sales go? TheatreWashington representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

A call for original work

Playwrights are more productive under pressure. That’s the underlying assumption now that Source Festival has given scribes less than a month to churn out entries for its annual 10-minute play contest. Just before the holidays, the festival announced the three full-length plays that will be staged at the 14th Street venue in June, and for the first time, submissions for the 10-minute plays need to orbit the same topical themes as the full-length shows. Those plays are:

●“A Bid to Save The World,” futuristic play about immortality by Erin Bregman

●“Dontrell, Who Kissed The Sea,” a coming-of-age fantasy by Nathan Alan Davis

●“The Thrush & The Woodpecker,” an ornithological mystery by Steve Yockey

The plays were chosen from 130 submissions by CulturalDC, the nonprofit group that owns Source, and a team of readers from around the country. None of the playwrights are local, but Jenny McConnell Frederick, the director of cultural programs, would like to see some locals submit 10-minute plays that correspond to the chosen three themes of revenge, immortality and bird-watching.

Kidding. Revenge, immortality and quests. The deadline is Jan. 10. See www.culturaldc.org for more information.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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