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Interview With "Much Ado About Nothing" Director, Ross Williams

Q: How did you become interested in directing? What is your style of directing?
The first show I ever directed was in high school actually. I was the first student in my high school to appeal to the Theater teacher and say ‘I want to be in charge!’ I think that there was a sense of artistic control and storytelling that appealed to me. So I directed the Odd Couple, it was my first full length show. It went well and from there I made a decision to pick my undergraduate school based on its directing programs. Since then, up until 7 years ago when I founded the company, I’ve been splitting my focus between acting and directing. Then I changed my focus completely to directing and quit acting.

For my approach I’m very interested in ensemble storytelling and how the energy of the whole of the actors’ ensemble can reach the energy of the whole of the audience. In addition, my approach is about if actors are communicating in a deeper way than just through words, but instead through energies, their passion about a piece, and a communal sense of storytelling. Then, I think, the audience will experience that more powerfully. So I come to every show first and foremost with “what is the ensemble”, “how do we build the ensemble”?

For Shakespeare specifically, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the messages in the play relate to a contemporary audience. It’s not about updating the play, it’s about looking at the play through the lens of today’s culture. And that establishes where I want to begin with play.

Q: Your synopsis states that the story is "set in a world in which technology and virtual reality provide a fitting meta-context." In what way do you think the spreading of misinformation is similar and different in our world vs. Shakespeare's world?
Certainly in the world of Much Ado About Nothing misinformation is, for most part, looked at from a comedic standpoint and I think misinformation in today’s word is hardly laughable, so that’s a difference. Also Shakespeare was writing very specifically about being overheard incorrectly and people writing incorrect things. Much Ado About Noting is the translation or the original sense behind “nothing.”   

So, in the original play it is about listening. But as I looked at the play and especially in light of last year’s political events and today’s current suspicion of all things media, I started to think that today we don’t overhear each other’s fake news. That translates to the place of Facebook and social media where we perpetuate fake news without even knowing it sometimes. We jump and share something that makes us irate because the story is there even if it’s not true. I remember there was one about Donald Trump’s children out on safari doing big game hunting that people were sharing all over the place and it was patently false.

The virtual reality thing comes on a little bit more in the sense of images. First off, building a world in which mobile technology would exist brings me to look at the entire world of technology and what are user driven technologies that could be a part of this milieu. What is interesting about it though is that virtual reality is a mask of sorts and you can, if there are multiple people acting in a virtual reality world, convert your appearance to look like anything. You could be standing in virtual reality fantasy world having a conversation with Dolly Parton and have no idea that it’s some guy in North Dakota. It creates a more enhanced version of a mask, and certainly one based in our contemporary technology obsession.

Q: In the past you've only directed Shakespeare's tragedies. What drew you to Much Ado About Nothing, one of his more popular comedies? Did last year’s political climate and the ramifications that we’re seeing today, is that what drew you to this play, especially this one?
There were a couple of things. One was the fatigue of the content. I’ve been doing very dark content for several years and there’s fatigue for me as a director and fatigue, reasonably so from our audience because audiences like to have a chance to breath and laugh. All of Shakespeare’s plays have some kernel of darkness, message and humanity in them. And I think that’s what makes even his comedies so beautiful, it’s that even in comparison to his most successful contemporaries there’s more humanity in his text.

So as I looked at the comedies, knowing that I wanted to go in with a comedy, knowing that I wanted to go in with something a little more approachable especially since we’ll be touring the country with it for our Intersections program, I was looking for one that connected to our contemporary story and that didn’t shy away from the emotional, human moments. And Much Ado takes a dip in the middle of it toward a very dark place, so I get a little bit of both. I get some of the tragic in there but only for about twenty minutes. It’s nice. (He chuckles)

Q: What is the most challenging thing about directing Much Ado About Nothing?
For me specifically, in this process, the most challenging thing is creating a show that can translate to fully produced New York run and a pared down touring run. That has been logistically and artistically finding a way to tell that story in a more mutable frame.

I think also a challenge of this play is that it’s written almost completely in prose. The verse text of Shakespeare provides a lot of guidelines and structure; this play is lot more open-ended, there’s a lot more space to wiggle around in it and that has been fun but also challenge. I do find myself feeling incredibly grateful when it drops into its verse sections, which are – relative to his other plays – few and far between.

Q: What do you think is important about this story? What do you hope the audience walks away with at the end of the performance?
If I can get one person fewer person to walk down the street with their head buried in their phones and pay attention to the world around them, that’d be great. If I could get one more person to consider the veracity of piece of news before they share it that would be a win. Those are kind of tangibles within the world, the ultimate and intangible result is that I hope people leave the theater having gone through a journey and when they come through on the other side of it they are lighter and their world is more open to experience. And that they’ve have some kind of connection and some sort of release, catharsis if you will.

Q: What do you hope to get out of directing this piece?
A renewed faith in the comedies, in my experience, would be great and it’s already started happening. I’ve built so much of my career around dissecting the emotional plays and finding their existential core. This is much more straight forward production. It’s still set in a world of adaptation, but it’s simpler, it’s more direct and I hope that it will allow me to flex some different muscles and give me more faith in my work through comedy.

From an organizational standpoint every time we do a production the scope of it grows in some way. In this case we’re bringing on new actors who are going to expose us to new audiences, we’re working with new designers who are going to expose us to new audiences and new ways of thinking. And I hope we’re able to harness all of that growth and put it to use as we move forward. I would be nice to come back and say that production moved the ball forward.