Interview with Director Stephen J. O'Toole

Lyric Arts had the chance to sit down with As You Like It director Stephen J. O'Toole about his thoughts with his Shakespearean production. Read on to learn more! LA: Tell us a little bit about why this particular Shakespearean play interested you.

SO: As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s lighter, more buoyant works. Besides being about love’s magical allure, it also addresses meaning of life issues, country versus city “court” life styles and mores, and gender issues. The story also appeals to me because it is obvious how so many of the characters are affected by the events in the play. The members of the court are transformed by their exile in the Forest of Arden, and the natives of Arden are changed by their encounters with the people from the Court.

LA: What inspirations did you use when thinking about directing this play? Will we see any of them come to life on stage?

SO: My immediate impressions upon reading the play are images that are buoyant, effervescent, light-hearted. There are though some dark elements and brooding moments of anxiety, despair, and cruelty. But overall the play makes a pastel impression on me. I thought of setting it in a Monet painting with characters dressed in 1890’s costumes; but then upon subsequent readings, that idea evolved into setting it in a Maxfield Parrish painting...or at least using his palette  as the starting motif. Parrish’s characters suggest a universality of time: not quite Roman or Greek, a bit Egyptian, some Robin Hood types, and of course art deco 1920’s types. (Many of his paintings adorn buildings in NYC built at that time.) This led to choosing jazz music from that not readily recognizable or which lent itself to literal images of flappers and gangsters and the like.

LA: This is your second time directing with Lyric Arts, tell us about your experience and why you like directing here?

SO: I love the space. It is intimate and warm.  I appreciate that the theater has a significant place for the community of Anoka and surrounding suburbs. I also admire the many outreach programs they offer to families and children to introduce folks to the power and magic of theater. I am impressed with the level of talent of the folks who audition for the plays here at Lyric Arts.

LA: Some people feel that Shakespeare plays are too high brow or go over people’s heads. What would you suggest to help people understand Shakespeare better?

SO: Let go of the intimidation you may be feeling. If you can understand the broad strokes you are well on your way to being able to sit back and appreciate the poetry in the dialogue. But first try to get the basic story line. You may not understand everything a character says (we hope you get most of it, though!), but if you don’t, that’s okay.  Let it wash over opera!

LA: What do you feel are the "wow" elements of As You Like It?

SO: The characters’ sense of joy, delight, awe and wonder. Just about every character experiences such moments.  This is a reason why this play is buoyant for me.

LA: Comment on the talent level in the cast.

SO: I am privileged be working with these actors. They have brought a sense of passion and honesty to the process and have endured my intense directing style. (At least, I think they have ….)

Some have never been in a play, or haven’t be in one since they were in high school; others have appeared in many community theater productions throughout the Twin Cities and others have aspirations of being professional. Each has brought to the table a willingness to be guided and to play in the world that Shakespeare has so richly painted for us.

LA: Anything else you’d like to touch on that wasn’t mentioned our asked.

SO: Some essential bits of knowledge about Shakespeare’s time: all the actors were male.  So the female roles were played by young men or teenage boys. As You Like It plays on the gender bending  game of Rosalind disguising herself as Ganymede (a boy) to entice and toy with her potential lover, Orlando. In reality many of the jokes were inside jokes based on the fact that a boy was playing a woman playing a boy.

Also Shakespeare’s plays were accessible to the basic workers and lower classes. This was a main form of entertainment; so it was anything but high brow an elitist.

Finally, Shakespeare’s audiences were accustomed to a more heightened sense of listening-they were into oral traditions, and could sit or stand for long periods to hear songs, poems, and stories. We, on the other hand, are a visual audience and have short attention spans. We get restless if things don’t move or change fast enough. That I think is a significant difference between the two times, and our biggest shortcoming.