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April 1, 2011

Tossing Grenades At Shakespeare, and other lessons from Propeller Director Ed Hall

By Leslie Stainton

All week long I’ve been hearing people sing the praises of Propeller director Ed Hall. In rehearsals he’s decisive but incredibly open to ideas, firm but flexible, actors say. Company manager Nick Chesterfield told me Hall is “incredibly inclusive. Ed has a very loose way of working, in that he knows what he wants, but he doesn’t lay it on the show. I’ve never experienced a more generous environment.”

Having now seen Hall up close, in a riveting exchange Thursday morning with a dozen or so BFA directing students from the UM School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, I get what everyone means. Tidily dressed in a blue Oxford-cloth shirt and slacks—and looking more like a businessman on casual Friday than the director of one of Britain’s most explosive theater companies—Hall spent nearly two hours talking with students and members of the UM theater faculty and gamely fielding questions. He was affable and engaging, and the students clearly gleaned a lot from the exchange. As did I.

About the playwright with whom he’s most closely associated, Hall confessed, “If I go more than 18 months without directing Shakespeare, I go through withdrawal.”

About building a scene: “The opposite is always true. If you have a scene where two people love each other, you have to find out what obstacles they have to overcome in order to love one another.” Ditto with a scene in which two people profess to hate each other—find out what draws them together. “That’s the source of the tension, the drama.”

When directing Shakespeare, Hall often starts with the toughest scene. “If you want to do something big, get it in early.”

On directorial control: “Have a plan, but be critically prepared to let it go out the window. Give yourself up to the process of rehearsal. It’s like stepping off a cliff—if you don’t do it, the actors won’t do it. But they have to know you’re going to be there to catch them. It’s an enormous paradox—trying to control something you’re essentially letting go of.”

Much of what Hall said helped explain the great inventiveness I saw onstage in both Richard III and Comedy of Errors, whose wit and sheer physical brawn had Thursday night’s audience literally oohing and ahhing throughout the evening. Earlier in the day Hall told the UM student directors, “The more I retreat [as a director], the greater the party is onstage.” And oh, what a party.

Now in his mid-40s, Hall has directed 14 productions of Shakespeare. The first, Othello, defeated him. Hall said he tiptoed around the play, trying to do it “right,” and quickly learned his lesson. He now throws “as many grenades as possible against the notion of directing Shakespeare.” That’s not to say he’s not fiercely thoughtful about the texts—as evidenced by these razor-smart productions—but experience has taught him there’s not much to gain from reverence. Hall decries “sunset” acting—where performers look off into the distance with misty eyes while intoning the great lines (“Now is the winter …”). Says Hall: “As a director, you have a duty to cast off the burden of those lines.”

A few more observations that help illuminate the process behind the provocative shows now playing in A2:

“Shakespeare didn’t do scene changes. The moment you do a piece of design that requires the play to stop, you lose momentum.”

“The chorus is context. The context changes and evolves as you rehearse.”

“Acting Shakespeare, you have to be like a good lawyer—you have to be able to deliver rhetoric.”

“There’s no subtext in Shakespeare. The text is where the character is, and the subtext builds itself up from the text.”

“The rehearsal room is a temple for the people you’re working with. It’s a safe place. It’s a private place.”

“The more mistakes you make in rehearsal, and the faster you make them, the quicker you get to the truth. It’s all in the doing.”

And, for the audience, in the going. Go.


Leslie Stainton is the author of "Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts" (Penn State, 2014) and "Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999)." She'll read from "Staging Ground" at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 7 pm.