One of my favorite conversations as part of the AD’s World series was the conversation I had with Curt Columbus about Trinity Rep’s 2017 – 2018 Season. Curt was nice enough to sit down with me again and discuss the 2018 – 2019 season, which has already kicked off with a record-breaking production of “Pride & Prejudice.”
Kevin Broccoli: Let’s talk about the season as a whole. I know the theme deals with monsters. Did that come about in a particular way? Did you arrive at the theme first or did the shows come first, and that was a commonality you found in all of them?
Curt Columbus: This question is always so hard to answer. The world is so outsized right now, and everywhere we look, everything seems to be happening on almost a mythic scale. And sometimes, mythic in a “Holy s***” kind of way. So we were really just thinking about the size of the stories we were telling. And we were thinking a lot about how human resilience was something we wanted to explore with the whole season. That when things seem to be at their worst, humans find a way to be resilient within that. That’s in every single one of the plays we’re doing this year. So I don’t know if we discovered that until they all started to sit next to each other. The world started asking us to tell certain stories.
KB: I went back and looked at the interview we did last year where we talked about the big three themes that were the focal points of the 2017 – 2018 season: labor, immigration, and women and war. One of the things that struck me about this season was that it seems like last season was all about people being crushed under this class structure, and when I looked at the shows for this year, it looks like people in that same class or that same predicament negotiating how to get out of it, whether by making supernatural deals or romantic deals, figuring out how to elevate themselves.
CC: That’s certainly true – -negotiating with power. Sometimes it’s negotiating with the power or powers that have control of things. Pride and Prejudice and Song of Summer both have that. Where this person finds that society is asking things of them that they not sure they want, and so how do they negotiate that?
KB: And there’s a speech in every show from one character to another where a character of a higher stature says to the lead character: “You are where you are and you’re not getting anywhere else.” I thought it was an interesting progression to go from a season of people who were at the mercy of their surroundings to now starting to see characters like Lizzie Bennett saying, “That’s not good enough for me.”
CC: That’s the hope, right? I think, in the zeitgeist, there’s this sense of “Wake up — and do! Participate. Involve. Activate.” So that is definitely thematic in what we’re doing this year.
KB: How did you decide what was going to open the season?
CC: I just really wanted to start with a play that was a contemporary adaptation of a class. We’ve been doing that for a number of years — Grapes of Wrath, Beowulf, All the King’s Men — we’ve often started our season with a classic story that has a really unique, contemporary point of view.
Kate Hamill — she’s an actor. She’s an actor/playwright, who understands that the play is a component in the final production. And it’s fascinating when you look at her script — that cast of characters page — it’s really clear that she’s saying gender is something that is not going to be a constant. So men are playing women, women are playing men — it’s all right there. So when I talked to her about the script, back at the very beginning, I said, “I feel like our production is going to complicate gender even more,” and she said, “Great. That’s what I want.”
KB: The other thing that jumped out at me is that almost all of the shows are in some way elaborate collaborations. There’s a musical, which of course has various moving parts, and Kate Hamill adapting Jane Austen, the conversation happening between An Iliad and Black Odyssey. It seems like there’s a lot of focus on the communal aspect of creating art.
CC: What I love about all the shows this season is that they’re all incredibly theatrical, which is to say, reading them as a text is only one component. So it’s not the experience of sitting in a library reading a book by yourself.
KB: It feels celebratory.
CC: An event. It’s a series of events. That’s really what we’re trying to do — an entire season of event theater.
KB: Disney says, “We’re only doing tentpoles.”
CC: In a lot of ways, that’s what we’re doing this season. Each production is an event unto itself.
KB: My favorite thing to ask — and you were open about this last year — was there anything you wanted to do that didn’t come together or had to be shelved?
CC: I can’t remember what my response was last year.
KB: You said Mamma Mia.
:: Kidding ::
CC: It’s funny, because we had a whole slate of plays — none of which survived. So in November, we were like, “We got it,” and then two of them fell out, and then everything changed. Suddenly the narrative of the whole season — at this point, I don’t remember what those things are.
KB: Is there a particular project that you can’t wait to see come together?
CC: I’m really excited about all of them for different reasons, but I’m personally excited to get to do the Scottish play, because it’s only the second time I’ve gotten to do Shakespeare since I got here. It’s the play that’s all over my office and I’m not going into rehearsal until January 1. It’s the play that I was in when I was 12-years-old that started my love for the theater. I’m reading a book that I highly recommend to everyone. It’s called “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics” and the author’s name is Stephen Greenblatt. He’s a Harvard professor and he’s basically writing about our political time, but saying, “What’s good governance and what’s bad governance, and the two examples he uses are Richard III and the Scottish play.” So I’m doing a play that’s really about — not our political process today, but people’s response to our political process.
KB: So how do you arrive at choosing a show for that slot?
CC: It’s going to sound so weird — I was watching Michael Cohen in the spring or early fall of last year. This is when he was still the good soldier, and being the good soldier, I thought of the beginning of Macbeth. And I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me — Macbeth isn’t Michael Cohen, but I was watching that play out and I thought, “Oh, this is the beginning of the good soldier fighting the good fight and taking all of the blows,” and it turns out — that doesn’t end well.
KB: It’s also a play where they’re all complicit in their own demise.
CC: The thing that I’m going to explore with my production is how if the Thane of Glamis were not the one to take up the sword against Duncan, any other person might have. Anyone in that court. I’m setting it in a nightclub. I have a live DJ. This idea of dark, slightly scary places that are also exciting — and the kinds of people that hang out in those places that might, in our common parlance, be called gangsters. I’m interested in that.
KB: When we talked last time, it was the beginning of last season, and I was so excited for Ragtime. Does having a success with something like that embolden you going forward?
CC: The thing about Ragtime that was so great is that it’s the culmination of several years of conversations that we’ve been having around equity diversity and inclusion here at the theater about the work broadly, and that’s not visible to anyone, right? No one in the public sees that. What they saw was a really good show that moves them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that it moved them. Great. That’s what we wanted it to do. But we’re having these larger conversations that are really starting to fund the work that we do on our stages in a really interesting way. I want it to embolden us generally and make us — it’s not even about risk, it’s about deepening engagement. Asking our community harder questions and they seem ready to do that. And I feel like it’s my job as a director to give the audience a really full, interesting, unexpected experience every time.