The Folger Shakespeare Library could have put on pumpkin pants nearly 25 years ago, using its 250-seat Elizabethan stage as a kind of museum to stage the Bard’s plays in an old-fashioned way. The starry Shakespeare Theatre Company, a hot ticket as Kelly McGillis and Stacy Keach headlined shows, had just moved out and rebooted in Penn Quarter.
It was obvious: The Folger’s new niche could be a bookish brand of theater history.
Instead, Janet Alexander Griffin gradually reached out to cheeky young directors — “People who said, ‘I have this crazy idea,’ ” says writer-director Aaron Posner. “Janet made D.C. a more interesting community because she didn’t make the safer choice.”
Posner’s Folger experiments have included a “Deadwood”-inspired “Taming of the Shrew,” a “Macbeth” with magic from Teller (of Penn and Teller) and a puppet-driven “Measure for Measure.” His newest venture is “District Merchants,” an adaptation Griffin commissioned from Posner of eternally controversial “The Merchant of Venice.” It’s being directed by Michael John Garces, an L.A.-based new-play specialist who’s more frequently seen here with the edgy troupe Woolly Mammoth.
The Folger is not “edgy.” It’s not in the new-play business; it’s where “Hamlet” and “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” are steadily, sturdily supplied at the rate of about three shows a season. When Posner, lately known for his Chekhov adaptations “Stupid F----ing Bird” and “Life Sucks,” asked if he could do a new riff on “Merchant” focusing on blacks and Jews in post-Civil War Washington, was it easy for Griffin to say yes?
“I thought about it,” Griffin laughs.
Yet gambits are not out of character for Griffin, the Folger’s reserved director of public programming and artistic producer. In an unexpected career move, Griffin, 63, has quietly been guiding the Folger’s theater programming since 1992. She came to the institution in 1977 straight out of grad school in Ireland; she was raised in Mississippi with a love for literature.
“There are a lot of storytellers down there,” the soft-spoken Griffin says of Mississippi. As a kid, she wasn’t exposed to much theater, though she did see Dame Judith Anderson on tour playing “Hamlet.” It was during her literary graduate studies, casually attending the great theaters of Dublin — the Abbey, the Gate — that she became seriously intrigued.
Her career goal was publishing, so she considered New York but chose D.C., where she had friends and which she figured was the more livable city. She latched on at the Folger and has been there ever since, at first working in public programs, handling the newsletter and publications, taking an interest as the musical Folger Consort got off the ground.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the theater company performed Shakespeare, but also new plays, and it was a popular enterprise: Griffin recalls squeezing in and sitting on the floor to catch a show. The theater was run by Louis Scheeder when she arrived, then by John Neville-Andrews and ultimately by Michael Kahn, who is still the artistic director of the STC (which now performs in two large Penn Quarter halls). Griffin was named director of public programs in 1982, so when Kahn moved the troupe out, it was her job to figure out what to put on stage next.
The answer wasn’t immediately clear. Early offerings tended to tie into exhibitions, and a major success came after Griffin reached out to Lynn Redgrave for a lecture connected to great acting families. Redgrave’s response eventually became the haunting solo show “Shakespeare for My Father.”
“It was more a performance-slash-lecture when she first did it,” Griffin says. “But those kind of things kept turning more into performances.”
By 1997, Griffin was ready to offer a theater subscription series. It featured a “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Joe Banno that would earn D.C. actress Holly Twyford her first Helen Hayes Award. The next season, Griffin green-lit Banno’s “Hamlet,” which split the Dane into four separate mind-sets played by four different actors, male and female. The company was on its flexible way.
“We’re not dogmatic about Shakespeare,” says Michael Witmore, director of the library since 2011. “But we do respond to the conditions and feelings of that room.” He credits Griffin with “the human touch,” shepherding productions of classics that click with modern audiences. “Janet knows how to get that right,” Witmore says.
The economics, Griffin says, “are not a slam-dunk.” Productions typically require 10 to 15 actors, and at 250 seats the theater is small. The shows run longer than at many local theaters, though, and families and school groups are natural constituencies; at above 90 percent capacity, attendance is strong. Two-thirds of the $3.5 million budget for public programs (of which theater is by far the largest part) comes from the box office, not contributions.
“That means we need to pick projects that can keep that up,” says Griffin, whose selections this season have included a Posner-directed “Midsummer” and a farcical gig from the Reduced Shakespeare Company. “But it gives us the latitude sometimes to add something that is less well known.”
Examples of that latitude: last fall’s contribution to the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival of premieres was the experimental “texts & beheadings/Elizabeth R” by adapter-director Karin Coonrod. Next season’s slate includes a rare production of “Timon of Athens.” It’s been 20 years since Griffin has given the prickly, stereotype-riddled “Merchant of Venice” a fresh spin, though. Dramaturg and scholar Ayanna Thompson told Posner of a study that said audiences internationally felt an increase in anti-Semitic feelings after seeing “Merchant,” which features the Jewish moneylender Shylock vengefully demanding his pound of flesh after he’s been treated badly by Venice’s Christians.
“Although it’s humanizing and complex,” Posner says, “finally you have a very Jewish character behaving in an unquestionably reprehensible way.” The new version will be in verse and in prose, with roots in the Renaissance and the Reconstruction and with an awareness of current culture. “I hope in a good way,” Posner says, “I’m all over the map.”
For Griffin, this seemed like a good project for risking some artistic capital during the 400th anniversary. She ticks off other events on her docket — Folger Consort performances. Readings under the PEN/Faulkner and O.B. Hardison Poetry banners. Screenings, talks and seminars. It’s a good job for a curious person with a literary bent, which seems to describe the unpretentious Griffin as she lightly peppers her conversations with the British-sounding “Do you know?” instead of “you know.”
So, by now, does she think of herself as theatrical producer?
“Yeah,” Griffin says immediately. “Oddly. Yes.”
District Merchants by Aaron Posner. May 31-July 3 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol Street SE. Tickets $35-$75. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.