Aaron Posner is everywhere this season. With productions of Stupid Fucking Bird popping up in theatres all across America, and a few Helen Hayes and Barrymore Awards in both writing and directing categories, there’s a pun or two to be made about the playwright being a feather in the cap of the Washington theatre community.
This month’s world premiere of District Merchants, his irreverent spin on The Merchant of Venice, is the second production bringing him to the Folger Theatre this season, after having directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier in the season.
On the eve of opening night, DC Theatre Scene’s Jennifer Clements chatted with Posner about history, confidence, and how to breathe irreverence into well-known texts.
Jennifer Clements: Let’s start big picture. It’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the Folger is one of many institutions to mark this. What do you feel is the role of classic plays in today’s society?
Aaron Posner: Things aren’t classics unless they talk to all times. If they don’t have perpetual relevancy, or cyclical relevancy, they don’t become classics. Shakespeare is one of the true geniuses who does that in every possible way. There’s psychology and sociology and humanity in his plays. There are many issues that go so deep in the world of the plays that they’re not direct one-to-one equivalents anymore, but they still hold up in our time. The Merchant of Venice, even though some elements are outdated, still deals with religion, and prejudice, money, power, friendship, betrayal. The way we perceive some of those things has changed in the world, but the core concerns are the same. And that makes it exciting to me.
JC: And speaking of anniversaries, District Merchants brings you back to the Folger after a long history of involvement. When did you first start working with the company?
AP: I think right after the Folger started producing their own seasons, I saw Romeo and Juliet starring Holly Twyford, who’s a friend of mine. Shortly thereafter I met Janet Griffin and invited her to see a production I was doing in Pennsylvania. She did, and was eager to have me to do a production of As You Like It. That was in back 2000. It’s been a wonderful relationship ever since.
JC: So much of your work seems to be rooted in that space between what was and what is – easing audiences into the relevance of these works. Can you talk a little bit about why and how that happens?
AP: Every time I sit down with a play I’m thinking about, whether I’m reading it for the first time or asked to direct, the inquiry is always about what my relationship to it might be. It’s a friendship-based model of directing or writing. Getting to know the similarities and differences you have in common. What does this play have to tell me, and what from my experience do I have to engage with it?
With Shakespeare, a generic or “traditional” retelling is sort of a myth. You can’t. It’s like “impartial journalism,” it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a traditional production. Traditional to what? To when? People have been tinkering with these plays since forever. As I approach one of these plays, then, I look at whether there’s a way into it where I can add something new to the conversation, in a way that’s worthwhile. Occasionally, I’ve never found a way to engage with that play as it is – like Merchant of Venice – I just never wanted to direct it. It’s not something I wanted to say in the world. Some of the writing is spectacular. But I knew that the most helpful way for me to engage with this was to reimagine it.
JC: You’re moving the play to DC, for a start. In the 1800s. Do you look to time and place as other layers to superimpose or engage with the original text?
AP: Only as a jumping off point. If I were to be evaluated on accuracy, I would fail within the first five minutes. The language is modern but it offers a level of complexity. I always imagine two, three, four things going on at the same time. Juxtapositions are intriguing to me. The transportation of a play from one time to another doesn’t tend to be as interesting. It’s a theatrical landscape that includes America in the 1870s, today, me, my perspectives on the world, and many of my collaborators. So it’s lots of things at once.
JC: And from what I understand, you’ve left some pieces of the original text – like Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech – in the script.
AP: There’s about eight lines of Shakespeare. Two brief moments. A third of the play is written in verse. I’m not sure the audience knows that. Maybe they do. That’s not a question I’ve asked yet. It’s not very obvious, but it is part of the play.
JC: At what point did you feel you were done working on it?
AP: Well, I hand the script off for good on the last day of previews. And today is the last day of previews.
JC: How has the process of developing District Merchants been overall?
closes July 30, 2016
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AP: I was a continual part of the process as we continued to make major changes. The play was very much shifting and changing, making cuts, bringing new energies. The trial scene structure and dynamic and energy is completely different than it was a month ago. At one point, as a playwright, you know all the characters in this world better than anyone else. But the actors have a different insight into that world, as do the designers. It becomes something other than what’s on the page. You can resist that, or you can embrace that, or some combination of the two. I asked the production to come closer to me in some places, and in some places I went over to it. That’s a messy, engaging, challenging, fun process. I’m very grateful to all of the collaborators for their ongoing flexibility. The challenging thing about rehearsing a new play is that everything can change from one rehearsal to the next.
JC: Is it intimidating to approach these works?
AP: You mean, “How arrogant do you have to be to do this?”
JC: (Laughs) Well, that’s not how I would put it.
AP: All of my adaptations were very reverent for the first 20 years of my career. Only recently, since Stupid Fucking Bird, have I put myself further forward and inserted myself into the work. I had the idea for District Merchants somewhere around 10 years ago. Back then, I wanted to get Tony Kushner to write it for me. I do know as a fact that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have thought of doing it myself. I do believe, now, that if you care about these texts and they engage you, it’s worth taking this risk. And yes, I hope that each of these plays is ballsy, but I never look at it as claiming to improve on anything. It’s simply here’s where this story has taken me. That’s how I approached Stupid Fucking Bird: Here’s my way of looking at this world in a way that I find interesting. I wrote really for myself. And somehow it now has 30 or so productions all around the country, and others internationally.
JC: I loved Stupid Fucking Bird, I saw it both times it was produced at Woolly.
AP: Well thank you, I appreciate that.
It amazes me that it has been received so well. I thought I’d write it the way I want. Call it Stupid Fucking Bird, that way I don’t have to worry about anyone taking issue with objectionable language in the play itself. It was just me thinking, here’s a thing that I want to play with, and maybe some Fringe festival will produce it somewhere. It’s been a total delight to see how people engage with it.
District Merchants has been a much more complex process. In the past, my work has been simply personal. The Chekhov adaptations are a bit more personal to me. This one goes outside my personal experience with slavery and religion, and it’s been very interesting.