What happens when your passion for language, poetry and theater meet your resolve to demystify Shakespeare? If you’re Greg Harris, you found the Madison Shakespeare Project.
Greg’s joyous playful approach to art and theater is captivating. A poet, actor, playwright and director, he has been acting since high school. His high school in Bloomington-Normal was a laboratory for the university. Instead of standard juvenile fare, he worked on avante garde theater with the likes of Lee Breuer. After high school, he left the theater, and the Midwest, to study poetry, and spent years teaching, editing, translating and writing.
And he has always loved Shakespeare. When he was a kid, the public library had one copy of the Collected Works, and he had it checked out for five years.The first play he directed, at age 17, was “Twelfth Night.”
Greg came to Madison to visit his boyfriend here. He thought that Madison was a perfect size town, and was attracted to how much theater was going on here. He decided not to get a theater job, because he says that it’s hard for art to survive in commercial theater, with many choices being driven by money. Wanting to do theater without that financial pressure is a big part of the idea behind the Madison Shakespeare Project, which Greg describes as “budget-less theater.”
Greg says that they’re doing something closer to actual Elizabethan theater than the costume epics most of us are accustomed to. Shakespeare’s theater was bare bones: bare stage, borrowed space, hand-me-down costumes, with almost no distance from the audience. Shakespeare festivals are typically outdoor, with the audience at least 30 feet from the actor at the closest. “That generates a certain kind of big acting. We’re going to be doing a very intimate 40-seat house, Shakespeare lends himself to intimacy.”
The Madison Shakespeare Project’s first production is “Troilus and Cressida.” Greg wanted to start with something that most people have never seen. He says, “I saw “Timon of Athens” at APT. The audience was on the edge of their seats, no one had ever seen it before. “Timon” was illustrative, because the audience wasn’t comparing it to five other productions that they’d seen. The other thing that resonates with “Troilus” is the clash between the ideals that people are espousing and the reality around them. There are gay characters, there’s Panderus.”
Greg has done a lot of cross gender casting. Kathy Sliter (co-founder of the Project) is playing Ulysses. “The play is about gender politics, which is probably part of why it hasn’t been done very much. Cressida betrays Troilus and doesn’t have to pay for it. It’s a pretty transgressive play with regard to sexuality, gender and war. He’s writing about the great heroes of Homer, and everyone is very recognizable and not heroic at all. The worst offense of all, it doesn’t have a happy ending, and it doesn’t have a tragic catharsis.”
“As a director, I don’t want people to have to do a lot of preparation. I want the audience to come in and not be able to move for two hours, and not know that Shakespeare could be this riveting, this racy, this much fun. And maybe have them walk out saying, ‘God our politicians piss me off.’ Four hundred years and nothing’s changed. We still treat women the same, we’re still waging wars the same.”
“There’s a danger with the play, since it’s so much about misogyny, that it will come across as misogynist. The cross-gender casting is making that self-conscious. When you have a woman playing a man who’s a misogynist, you see it as misogyny.”
For more information about the Madison Shakespeare Project, email: [email protected].