Bard Bud – Raven Players’ Steven David Martin on Shakespeare, outdoor theatre, and the twist he’s brought to “Twelfth Night”

After bringing live theatre to Healdsburg’s Downtown Plaza recently with a successful run of Woody Guthrie’s American Song, the Raven Players return to the West Plaza Park with some ol’, reliable Shakespeare al fresco. They’ve been producing Shakespeare (or Shakespeare-ish) plays there for a few years now and have a production of Twelfth Night running in the park through August 6.

Steven David Martin

Steven David Martin has been the Artistic Director of the Raven Players for nine years now. He “cut his theatrical teeth” on Shakespeare with his first professional job at the California Shakespeare Festival.  Over the years, he’s worked as both an actor and director with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Monterey Shakespeare Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I took the opportunity of the opening of the Raven’s latest production to ask him his thoughts on Shakespeare, bringing the Bard to Healdsburg, the challenges and charm of doing outdoor theatre, the attraction of Twelfth Night and the “twist” he’s brought to it.

Thoughts on Shakespeare in general:

“One of the many things I love about Shakespeare is the universality of the plots and story lines, the amazing ability he had to tap into common human emotions that we can all identify with. Not many of us, I hope, have had their father murdered by their uncle who then married their mother, but most of us have felt isolated, abandoned, and betrayed at some point. One thing that sets him heads and shoulders above all other playwrights is his profound gift at expressing those emotions, conflicts, stories with such amazing, beautiful, inspired language. It’s one thing to say,” I think I might kill myself, but I’m not sure.” Quite another to say, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

On bringing Shakespeare to Healdsburg:

“Doing Shakespeare in Healdsburg really is not a lot different than doing it in Ashland, Montgomery, Monterey, Berkeley or anywhere. If you do it well, if you breathe life into the words, if you commit all your heart and soul to the work and do justice to the piece then the audience will get hooked. We are lucky in that we have a community that loves the arts and attends many theatrical productions locally and around the world, but we also have many people who are seeing Shakespeare for the first time, and I feel a responsibility to make that first experience a positive, energetic, engaging one.”

On working outdoors versus in a theatre:

“I love doing Shakespeare outdoors since that’s how it was done originally. Yes, an indoor theatre has many benefits ­– the temperature can be controlled, you have (mostly) comfy seats, and the acoustics are far better. Outside, you are at the mercy of the elements where it can be 90 degrees in the daytime, comfortable 70s in the early evening, then plummet to the low 50s after sunset with icy winds that can whip up at any second. There are a lot more things out of your control ­– people will wander by and heckle you (sometimes very creatively); a motorcycle will start doing loud donuts in the nearby parking lot, etc. You’ll also be sitting on a blanket or camp chair; however, you will also be under the stars on a Sonoma County evening, you’ll feel more of a community with your fellow audience members, you can enjoy a picnic and wine, and cuddle up when things get chilly. Best of all, you get to enjoy great stories by the greatest playwright ever in beautiful, natural surroundings.”

Dan Stryker, Troy Thomas Evans, and Hunter Scribner from “Twelfth Night (with a twist)

On casting challenges:

“We don’t have a lot of twins around who are good actors and can handle the Bard so we cast as close as we can, dress them alike and put our faith in willing suspension of disbelief. As for casting in general, I have a trusted handful of actors who do the Shakespeare after year, such as Matt Farrell, Troy Thomas Evans, and Bill Garcia, and I rely heavily on that group. To be honest, every year I fret that I will not be able to cast the rest of the roles. Then every year auditions come and, magically, fresh talented faces appear and somehow I always come up with a great cast.

There are a lot of theatrical opportunities in this county, so we are always competing for the talent, but I have been fortunate to consistently find the right actors for the right roles every summer and I am always thrilled when someone new joins us. This year I have more actors than usual who haven’t done Shakespeare with us, including Jeanette Seisdedos as Viola, Katie Watts-Whitaker as Olivia, Dan Stryker as Sir Toby Belch, Hunter Scribner as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Jim Marchbanks as Sebastian, Jonathan Graham as Malvolio, plus Grace Warden, Ashley Talbot, Sky Hernandez-Simard, Craig Peoples, and Lucas Soul Whitaker also making their Raven Players Shakespeare debuts.”

On the attraction of ‘Twelfth Night’ and the Raven “twist”:

To me, Twelfth Night may be Shakespeare’s most complete comedy but it’s always presented a challenge to me and my modern point of view. It is one of Shakespeare cross-dressing comedies, in which the female lead (for some reason) has to disguise herself as a male for most of the play. Inevitably an unsuspecting female falls in love with this woman dressed as a man but, in Act 5, drops the woman dressed like a man when the woman’s twin brother shows up. They look alike and are dressed alike and of course, he is a he not a she, so naturally she ends up with him because hey, heterosexual love is what it’s all about, right? Although they literally just met.

I don’t pretend to be cutting edge, but I’ve always wondered what would happen if instead of dumping the “she/he” for the brother, the woman realized that she fell in love with a person, not a costume, and maybe it doesn’t matter if that person is a man or a woman, it just matters that they are who they are.

So I stole some lines from other Shakespeare works and reimagined the ending. I know it will anger some, and that’s fine; this is not your grandfather’s Twelfth Night.  But we are making it very clear that this is Twelfth Night (with a twist). It’s like we took the play out for a spin and then customized it with some after-market accessories. Is it the same play Shakespeare wrote? Mostly. And I’d like to think he would admire our mild audacity.”

Twelfth Night (with a twist)’ runs through August 6 at West Plaza Park, 10 North St., Healdsburg. Thurs–Sat, 7:30 pm. Free. 707.433.6335  

Photos by Ray Mabry

This feature article appeared in an edited version in The Healdsburg Tribune.

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